Saturday, 31 July 2010

bluebeard (w&d breillat)

This morning, in the Guardian, reading the obituary of Cecile Aubry, a little known French actress of the forties who married a Moroccan pasha and devised a TV show called Belle and Sebastian, I learn she "played Bluebeard's seventh wife as a sexy teenager, even performing a silhouetted striptease that left little to the imagination". This suggests that Bluebeard plays a larger role in French popular history than ours. In her film, Breillat employs a framing device of two young girls who find a copy of the fairy tale in a loft, and read it together, and perhaps generations of young girls have done the same in French attics, without the attendant dramatic consequences.

All of which implies that there may be levels to Breillat's interpretation of the fable which I am ignorant of. In her version, Bluebeard's wife is no ingenue, but a clear-headed young woman who knows exactly what she's up to. Breillat would also appear to be playing off her reputation, intimating the possibility of congress between beauty and the beast, something which the film then artfully steers away from. There's nothing in the film to frighten or disturb little girls, on the contrary, it's a highly empowering tale. Perhaps the abrupt conclusion of the secondary story is added to ensure a greater bite to the film. As it is, the most intriguing aspect of the beautifully filmed period narrative revolves around the dynamic of the two sisters, a dynamic which is interrupted by the younger's marriage to Bluebeard.

Having said which, there's still something remarkable about the way in which Breillat succeeds in creating a period drama which retains a naturalistic feel. This is not an artfully conceived world; the lack of CGI or big budgets helps to maintain a down-to-earthness which is completely convincing, and within this context the girls themselves feel modern, in spite of their period setting. This helps to make the film beguiling, and though slight, one can envisage it being viewed as something of a minor masterpiece. Nevertheless, it's hard not to hanker for the confrontational Breillat whose films stripped the veil of our modern day sexual mores; one hopes she's not in too much danger of mellowing.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

the informers [juan gabriel vasquez]

The Informers contains stories within stories. When the narrator writes a book about his father's German Jewish friend, Sara Guterman, who arrived in Colombia fleeing from the Nazis, his father reacts viciously, publishing a damning critique. After a heart by-pass operation, the father changes his tune, before the reconciliation is ended when his father's killed in a car accident. However, it transpires that his father had just come from visiting his old friend, Enrique, whose father he denounced forty years ago as a Nazi, and whose family was destroyed as a consequence.

In effect this is a tale of family intrigue and secrets, with the narrator's journey towards the truth assisting him in his mission to escape the shadow of his overpowering father. The book comes lauded with critical acclaim. It is a well constructed text, but suffers from the author's tendency to overwrite and embellish. Succinctly told it could have come in at 200 pages, but instead comes in at 350, and its whimsical asides diminish the potent father-son narrative. Furthermore, the books ends with a historical footnote, explaining the nature of the Colombian blacklists, upon which the book's mystery and drama is predicated. The need for the footnote seems to some extent to point out the book's failure to sufficiently convey their significance within the text itself. Additionally, whilst much play is made of the mystery surrounding the father's action, it still seems puzzling that his son, for all his fascination with the case, never seeks to investigate the causes of his father's seemingly random act of betrayal.

The Informers feels very much like a first novel, full of intriguing ideas, but lacking a certain clarity. It offers a frustratingly restricted insight into wartime Colombia's history, and the way in which it connects to its more recent, violent history. A book full of loose threads, it never quite seems to get to the bottom of the various mysteries it sets out to investigate.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

the spy who came in from the cold [le carré]

Reading this book is like taking a walk through one's childhood, even if it was published before I was born. For all it's ability in the first half to conjure up the strange world of post-war London, this isn't a great book. The second half becomes surprisingly bureaucratic for what was in its time a vast commercial success, as what turns out to be Leamas' trial is spun out over several chapters. Nevertheless, Le Carre has already succeeded in investing the text with all the mystique of that world which is now all but forgotten. The notion of the Communist threat, and the reality of the Cold War are things that would appear to have evaporated altogether. But for anyone born from the 40s through to the early 70s, this monolithic conflict dominated our fears, and our dreams.

Besides the way it captures the complexities of British attitudes to all this, attitudes determined by the joy of the game, as though a war had something to do with a crossword puzzle, perhaps the most telling aspect of the book is the positive light in which it presents two Communists. Firstly the ingenue, Liz, who the writing carefully depicts as someone who succeeds in seeing through both sides' game in order to discern human truths that lie behind it; and Fiedler, Leamas' interrogator, who becomes an increasingly sympathetic and tragic figure, one of the only ones operating within this world who actually has any real values. (Unless one grants Leamas this accolade, seeing his actions as a kind of heroism, rather than the alternative, the actions of a world-weary cynic.)

Looking at the writing of Zizek, whether we trust him or not, we see him critiquing materialism for its lack of idealism, something which ultimately undercuts our ability to achieve happiness, no matter how great our material comforts. Perhaps its overly speculative to view the supposedly fearsome Fiedler as a sacrificial lamb. Nevertheless, it seems curious that Le Carre, a man like Green concerned with the way the pattern of history shapes the ordinary man's dreams and happiness, should endow this initially fearsome figure with such subversive dignity.

The book is artful, and told at a brisk pace, and perhaps its hard to gauge the true impact its anti-heroic viewpoint might have had on a Britain still reluctant to believe that their noble wars had been replaced with such a tawdry one, where heroism was now, by and large, redundant.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

leaving (w&d catherine corsini, w. macé)

I"m seated in a garden in Ipswich, en famille. By English standards it's a warm day. It could be a scene from Accident, but it could equally be a scene from what Mr C might describe as a middle class French movie, in a derogatory tone. There does indeed seem to be an increasing inclination on the part of French filmmakers to make what might be called 'middle-class' movies, many of them featuring a range of the current remarkable generation of French actresses. Mr C says the only French film he likes is La Haine. Quite apart from the whole new wave phenomenon, I've enjoyed movies over the years by the likes of Rohmer, Mimouni, and probably a host of others whose work could be described, perhaps, as 'middle class'. In a way, given the sometimes predictable, patronising tendency of a middle-class British film industry to try and explore its own agendas through often contrived portrayal of 'working class' life, it seems perhaps more honest to turn the mirror on the class where the film industry emerges from. (Something Cooke noted when he took over the Royal Court, although I'm not sure if his well-intentioned mission to stop rich people delving into the lives of the marginalised/ proletarian in their corner of Sloane Square has quite come off.)

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that the reason Leaving is such a turkey has nothing to do with its socio-politics, and everything to do with its cliched, soft-centred premise and script. That Kirsten Scott Thomas should want to give up her bourgeois sensibilities in order to have fierce sex with Sergei Lopez does not seem altogether unlikely. However, that this will involve her plunging towards an abyss of criminalising impoverishment proves hard to take. With only love to sustain her as she works in a water melon packing factory, with her comically evil husband finding new, devious ways to gain revenge for his cuckolding at the hands of an ignorant ex-con, Scott Thomas sinks towards infamy, a modern day Lady Chatterley.

The film feels like it's been created as a vehicle for Scott Thomas. It's a role which, in theory, any actress would die for, the woman prepared to sacrifice all for love, but the sheer predictability of the template sadly only goes to confirm the prejudices of those who claim 'middle class' French cinema (by which they mean almost all French cinema) is self-indulgent and emotionally vacuous.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

inception (w&d nolan)

It's always interesting to read the critical reaction to films, particularly those that are ostentatiously clever. When that occurs, the tendency of the clever critic appears to be resist the attempts of the clever filmmaker to demonstrate his or her cleverness. The very word 'clever' becomes something of an insult. Hence, in the media I read, and the comments that are appended to that media, the better half is using words like 'pretentious', 'emperor's' 'new' 'clothes', and so on. As though there is some debate over the cinematic merits of the film, and its ambition. Christopher Nolan, you're no Stanley Kubrick, seems to be the jist of things.

So what? That's like telling Tendulkar he's no Bradman. The carpers create a mental logic which accords with a vision of the world they seek to project. Which would no doubt delight Nolan, who if he does anything in this film, demonstrates an ability to explore the concept of phenomenology. There are flaws a plenty in Inception. The snow-dream lacks the poetry it aspires to; the explosions go on for to long; some of the dialogue is unintentionally comical (although there are hints of humour in the film, something one doesn't normally associate with the director, and there may be a tongue in cheek aspect to some of its more grandiose lines); and finally, and perhaps most pertinently, there's a distinct lack of what some would call 'emotional depth.' This is not the Dardennes brothers neither, and it would be true to say the Gondry/ Kaufmann film covered similar terrain with more emotionally verve.

Do these problems matter? Is not every movie susceptible to the accusation that is in some way lacking? Of course they are. Casablanca lacks a good car chase. The Conversation lacks Ingrid Bergman. Performance lacks social realism. And so on. On the other hand, if one looks at Inception in terms of what it does...

There seems to me little doubt it's a film that will become embedded in people's dream of what cinema can achieve. It will provoke an absurd number of PhD theses. It will be talked about over chapatis or cream teas or masitas for years to come. Because what Nolan succeeds in doing is stimulate the mind. He pulls off a seemingly hyper-complex premise. (Incidentally, even if he has apparently been working on the script for a decade (which is not as long as it sounds, in dream time), I suspect he might also have been influenced by the equally bonkers but slightly less comprehensible Primer.) He makes his audience not only think, but enjoy thinking. By which he reminds us of the pleasures of the mind, something we are all to prone too forget.

As The Prestige showed, Nolan knows he's a showman, and it's all trickery. In reality he has less pretension than many seem to want to attribute to him. Like another master-spinner of tall tales, Borges, his work aims to seduce the mind rather than the heart. But his facility for achieving this reminds us, if this is not too pretentious, that the mind is an organ of the body, like the heart, one that craves stimulation and love, without the gift of which we are in danger of festering. Nolan does all that cinema is capable of: he wakes us up, and reminds that even if it's all a dream, we are, indeed, alive, waking dreamers, blessed by our capacity to perceive the world around us.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

pedro paramo [juan rulfo]

[An aside. Someone said the other day that the way to make this website more popular would be to unleash a more sardonic tone of voice (which can occasionally be found here) on a more regular basis. Instinctively, that felt wrong. Occasionally I describe myself as a critic, (the title page does so too), but that's not really the function of this site/ book. A critic implies someone who makes a judgement (I just tried to find its etymology, without success). Whilst a notion of judgement, or evaluation, is implicit in the giving of a reaction to a work of art/ literature, that's of only secondary importance. Especially given that I have no readers to influence. In which case, what is the function of this site? Firstly, it's a record. When I was a child, I kept a black notebook and wrote down the names of the books I read in it. Lots of Huxley, Hesse, Camus and their ilk. I maintained the record into my late 20's and then let it slide. There's something anal about this, of course, but it also seems to me that given the flood of information we are inundated with, is does no harm to have a place to refer to what has been, what has enrichened, or not. Secondly, and more importantly, this is the journal of an enthusiast. There's no space to go into any great detail of the role of art in our society, but if one holds it to have some value, as I suppose I do, then it feels in some way positive to create a space where access to that art can be offered. It's probably fair to say that this seems particularly the case within an introspective culture such as the one I inhabit, (no matter how broad it believes its remit to be). As such, should anyone stumble across this site, far from offering the satisfaction of seeing something knocked down, or criticised, I would hope that it might prompt curiosity for some of the rich worlds of writers, filmmakers and the like who I have been fortunate enough to discover over the course of recent years.]

Including, of late, Juan Rulfo. A name I'd heard talk of, but knew nothing about. Le Clezio's reference to him in the last book I reviewed prompted me to read him. Rulfo, so I've learnt, only published two books. Sontag writes an affectionate introduction, explaining something of his life. As such, he's a maverick, someone who belongs to Vila Matas' compendium of near-silent authors. Paramo is a simple/ complex fable, which operates on a host of different timelines, which whispers various stories, all inter-connected, all leading back to the eponymous anti-hero. It's a breathy, brief book, which feels like it could be re-read a hundred times and still contain secrets the reader hasn't gleaned. As Le Clezio notes, it feels like a tract from another world, with another way of seeing things. Of all the writers I've read of late, it's dreamscape most resembles the work of Couto, another writer whose work seems informed by a tradition with another vision of time, one that's not linear,but fractured, belonging to a world where death is not omnipotent. Where the dead live alongside the living, or perhaps the living live alongside the dead. It's also a story where the density of the narrative seems to belie the sheer number of pages: my version of the book contained 122 pages, and took no more than a couple of hours to read, but the number of threads that are spun from these words seem nearly unquantifiable.

Monday, 19 July 2010

white material (d. claire denis, w denis & marie n'diaye)

Denis and Huppert. A potentially explosive combination. Which, in this case, smoulders rather than combusts. Like the coffee factory which the troops burn, where Huppert's son dies, where she enacts an Apocalyptian Now moment at the end, felling a strangely Brando-esque lookalike (the underused Michel Subor). It appear that Denis deliberately keeps the lid on this somewhat Conradian tale of the redoubtable coffee plantation owner who believes she belongs to Africa, only to discover that Africa isn't convinced about the relationship.

Huppert is utterly convincing as the bedraggled, faintly elegant neo-colonialist, Maria Val. Because of course, this unnamed country is no longer a colony. It's now a failed state, with echoes of the Congo, or Rwanda. A place where children are the lords of misrule, as they were in another French film, Sauvaire's Johny Mad Dog. However, Denis brings her distinctive vision to bear. When two child soldiers infiltrate Maria's house, they leave dirty footprints in the bath. They nearly kill her son, but no-one seems to think much of it. In Maria's world view, these things are always on the brink of happening, and that's part of the reason she loves it. Her occasional references to France reveal something bordering on contempt for the privileged Europeans. At one moment she mutters in a rare voiceover her opinion that this country is too beautiful for Europeans, as though she believes herself completely assimilated, an African native. In spite of the fact that the leader of the rebels criticises the exploitative foreigners, which include her. Another artful scene shows her showing her hired hands their living quarters. The coffee pickers peer into a darkened shed, full of bunks. Their world remains divorced from the white people's living quarters, no matter how much Maria thinks they're all the same.

Maria's characterisation is rich and strange, part heroic, part idiocy, part condescending, part integrated. Denis seems inclined to let Huppert's acting do the work, using less music than usual, having her roving camera follow her like a spy. Although the film yet again posits an Africa which exists on the edge of anarchy, ruled by boys in dresses and mystic warlords, it draws strength from the complexity of its portrayal of the coffee grower, who doesn't even own the plantation she works on, which is now worthless. Her quixotic faith in the value of the land makes this is a film about belonging and our understanding of what that means. The way in which it is choice as much as a birthright. If White Material initially seems like an unlikely film for Denis, after 35 Rhums, perhaps it might be seen as its obverse. Where the latter dealt with African immigrants in Europe, this one deals with European immigrants in Africa. All of them seeking their identity in a mixed up muddled up shook up world.

the mexican dream [j. m. g. le clezio]

The subtitle of this book appears somewhat convoluted upon first reading. It's: "Or, The Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilisations.' Is this merely a poorly translated phrase, or is it just a piece of literary whimsy? The answer is neither, and by the time the reader reaches the end of this book, its meaning is clear.

Le Clezio's objective is to explore the fate and legacy (or lack of one) of those civilisations of the New World which the Old World cut off just as they were coming into their prime. Far from being a collection of savages, the Aztec and Mayan worlds were sophisticated urban societies, with their own notions of religion; philosophy and physics. In comparison, the barbarians were the Spanish, who melted down golden artefacts and destroyed their beautiful cities. The book documents this tragic meeting of two worlds, introducing the reader to a host of other forgotten cultures who lived on the edges of the Mexican world, including the Chichimeca; the Tarahumara; the Totonac and further North the tribes of North America. The author observes the connections between these doomed worlds, in the way they viewed nature, their span upon the earth, and their gods.

His reading of authors such as Sahagun and De Las Casas, as well as those few Mayan and Aztec texts which survived, allows him to establish a clear portrait of what was an evolving world view, contextualising the famous blood lust of the Aztecs, as well as divining the secret of their innate expectation of destruction, a prophesy which came to be fulfilled. At the same time, he stresses that these societies were still in the process of developing philosophies, philosophies which might, had they been allowed to flower, have evolved to rival or complement the complexity of Buddhism, or materialism. However, as observed, this never happened. The evolving thought processes were interrupted. This world where gods walked with men, and life was not part of a linear vision of time, but a circular one, was all but extinguished over the course of a single generation. And the loss to mankind as a whole, the author suggests, was greater than we shall ever be able to realise.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

tetro (d coppola)

These are the dog days of Summer. As can be gleaned by the amount of cultural activity being undertaken. It feels a bit like an inverted hibernation. Football, travel and the vagaries of life have taken over, as the sun toasts us all on a daily basis.

In between World Cup matches, I took up the offer of a trip to see Coppola's latest, supposedly low budget offering. It's over a fortnight now since I saw it. Although it's not his first, the idea of Coppola doing a low budget film seems something of a contradiction in terms. Clearly he thought so too, because, after managing to keep the lid on the budget in the first half, the second descends into hints of extravagance. Both budgetary and thematically, as the characters suddenly find themselves at a gaudy, not very Patagonian arts festival, where Vincent Gallo's terrible play is hailed as a masterpiece. Suddenly, an intriguing film is thrown off-kilter, as though the director lost patience with having to scrimp: two frugal acts are followed by a splurge of a desert, a would-be low budget knickerbocker glory added to the menu at the last moment.

It's a pity, because the premise and opening acts are engaging. No matter how limited his resources, Coppola still has friends in the right places, and the black and white photography of Buenos Aires is beguiling. The set up of a rich man's son (Gallo) who's run away to the South to escape his father's grip, has sufficient weight to keep the audience engaged. The use of Buenos Aires as a counterpoint to New York is also astute; BA being the other great city of destination for Italians fleeing poverty in the early 20th Century. The Argentine and US cast works together more effectively than has been the case in similar cross-cultural endeavours.

All in all there's enough to make the film work. Until the script founders on the notion that Gallo's scrawls actually hide a demonic literary genius; and then his novel becomes a play; and that play is performed at the ludicrously posh Ushaia literary festival, and Gallo isn't his brother's brother, and it all becomes Oedipal and relentlessly silly. Leading to the implication that, no matter how much he'd like to be, Coppola wasn't born to make low-budget movies. He doesn't possess the discipline, he needs the adrenaline of the potential of catastrophic failure in order to provoke him into producing work which doesn't drown in whimsy.