Tuesday, 17 August 2010

five easy pieces (d. rafelson, w. rafelson & eastman)

As mentioned I've now made the oceanic leap, but before doing so I was thankfully coerced into seeing Rafelson's small scale masterpiece, Five Easy Pieces. Killing time in Garulhos this morning, I tried to concoct a theory connecting the old world with the new, mapping it onto Nicholson's conflict as he tries to escape the (European) legacy of his family's classical music burden by whooping it up in a new (American) fashion in California's ahistorical playground.

I like the theory, largely because I was working on it having freshly arrived after a sleepless night on the wide American continent. However, in some ways it seems a bit European to pontificate thus, and I might as well listen to the American inside me, (there's an American inside us all, that's their secret, those darned Americans (Norte y Sur)), and merely laud it for its brilliance, its wit, its charm, its ability to be a film which is both recklessly entertaining and worthy of the most outlandish theories; a movie made for adults, not kids, and unashamedly so, from its dialogue to its cinematography to its unerringly acute sense of humour. And for Jack, giving one of those performances that succeeds in reminding us that there is such a thing as genius in acting. Although it requires a director who appreciates it in order to flower.

(Incidentally a brief look at Rafelson's directing career on IMDB makes it clear that his was one of the great lost Hollywood careers. Whether this is do with his own hedonistic failings, or a system that even as he was hitting his stride was running out of space for the kind of films he was capable of making is one of those debatable questions. But rarely does a director put so many feet right as Rafelson does in this strangely moving tale.)

antwerp [bolaño]

Last year, on my trip to South America, I read Bolaño. However, Antwerp is a very different kind of beast to 2666. The last was his final book, more or less, this was his first, written in 1980.

It's a dense, poetic tract, of little more than 70 pages. There's no more than hints of a narrative in a text made, like a Hanecke movie, from 56 fragments. If it's reminiscent of anyone, it might be Lautreamont, the prince of the depraved, whose great text makes little sense but still manages to sear itself on the reader's retina. It's perhaps another glimpse of the poet Bolaño claimed he wanted to be before he settled into become the novelist he truly was. The claim on the back of the book that Antwerp is "the only novel that doesn't embarrass me", seems disingenuous, and written from a position of strength. It is, as he mentions in his introduction, not the kind of book that gets published these days; the kind of book that in the late 19th century had a vast readership but in this day and age would have precious few. And those that do, would be aficionados. In a way its a book of the damned, one of those texts written by a writer with no ambitions, just the need to thread words together on a string of consciousness.

Nevertheless, I suspect that if you work it harder, if you read it carefully, repeatedly, looking for the links, not on a plane to Montevideo surrounded by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, the connections it contains will gradually make themselves clearer; the artistry emerging in a fashion he later learnt to make more latent.

Monday, 9 August 2010

this blinding absence of light [tahar ben jelloun]

This is a book about a soldier who found himself involved in an abortive attempt to assassinate the King of Morocco, and as a result was incarcerated in a space without light, without room to stand up, with a meagre diet, watching his companions die one by one, for almost twenty years.

The soldier is the narrator. As much as the book is about his suffering, it is more about the techniques he developed for survival. Shutting himself from his past, and any notion of hope, he finds himself using mysticism to aid him in his struggle. This takes the form of out of body experiences, allowing him the ability to occasionally spy his corporeal self as it battles against the cruelties faced. However, whilst the body suffers, the mind retains its freedom, in large part through the narrator's refusal to fall into the trap of despair which the authorities have concocted.

As such, it's one of those books which document an experience beyond the true grasp of our understanding. An experience which can only be accessed through grave misfortune, or a sense of religious or spiritual vocation the like of which cannot exist within a day-to-day context, and is therefore never to be met. This is not to say that the book is any sense other-wordly: the ability of the narrator to find his spirituality within the context of death, disease and co-existence with his fellow inmates means that he remains an engaging voice.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Ben Jelloun's book is that it is not a work of non-fiction, but a novel. The author's capacity to enter into the voice of the actual prisoner is uncanny. This is a novel on the very borders of fact; the articulation of a voice from the underworld, which has miraculously surfaced and found its way back into the world.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

frontier blues (w&d babak jalali)

Jalali's film is a deceptively smart piece of filmmaking set in Gorgan, the filmmaker's hometown, on the Iranian-Turkmeni border.

Gorgan a kind of nowhere-ville. The film focuses on three characters. One wants to get married to an Iranian woman he never speaks to (one of only two women in the film, the other being her mother). A second, who later joins the first working in a chicken factory, is inseparable from his donkey, and pines for the mother who left him for his youth to go to Paris. The last, perhaps most adroit of the three, is a Turkmeni minstrel who is taking an Iranian photographer around. His contempt for the photographer is made clear, with the photographer constantly seeking out 'authentic Turkmeni' shots, which have no authenticity at all. On one level this leads to hilarious results, such as the staged wrestling match; on another it generates a poignancy, with the photographer constantly asking the minstrel to take him to a wedding or a funeral, only to be told that these things don't happen anymore. No one dies and no one gets married. At one point a character is asked where he wants a lift to. He replies 'nowhere', and his told to hop in, they'll take him there. Slyly, the film critiques our need to view exotic locations as romantic: with its muted cinematography, Jalali seems to be suggesting there's nothing exotic about his location at all. Instead, the carefully composed shots capture the banality and hopelessness of life in this dead-end town, only it does so with a dry, comedic tone.

Perhaps its because of its refusal to romanticise its locale in any way, (in contrast to Strickland, for example), that Frontier Blues has been slated by many British critics. As far as I'm concerned, that's an indictment of our criticism rather than the film. Frontier Blues is a slow watch, but it's peppered with moments of guile and humour which only a tired soul could fail to enjoy. Furthermore, it manages to achieve a poignancy in its depiction of the dead-end lives of its protagonists. From the shopkeeper trying to sell an oversized jumper to a boy to a man learning English so that he can communicate with people in Baku, the film is riddled with humane detail which helps to bring this obscure part of the world to life. Jalali clearly knows his world, and his portrait of it blends affection with honesty.

bus 174 (w&d josé padilha; co-directed felipe lacerda)

Subsequent to this film, Padilha moved into drama, making the slightly bombastic Elite Squad. Elite Squad was a success on many levels, and bombast and cinema make for comfortable commercial bedfellows. Nevertheless, Bus 174, a documentary, displays a rather more surgical directorial sensibility, one which skewers some of the more grotesque aspects of Brazilian (and specifically Rio) society with unyielding intent.

The film opens with a panoramic helicopter shot, homing in on the primeval beauty of Rio as it seems to erupt out of the Atlantic ocean, the city named for the month it's river was discovered, a city which more than most succeeds in maintaining an affinity with the land it's made from. Jungle lurks at the city's edges and hides away on hilltops within its boundaries. Almost as though declaring that this is a city which contains environments which cannot be known, forever at odds with the urban ideal of transparency or accessibility. The directorial counterpoint to the gleaming opening shot are the scenes filmed in a prison, which are given the heading - any prison in Rio. This, even more than the favelas, is the manifestation of jungle, contained within the city, a place where men live crammed together, without room to lie down, or suspended above each other in hammocks, with shared possessions hung from ropes. The camera captures faces in negative making them appear dehumanised, vague, their pleas for attention or justice or decency coming through as sound recordings from the underworld. It's a mesmerising passage of footage which brings home the film's contention that there are parts of Brazilian society that suffer from extreme neglect and de-humanisation. When these elements appear within society, it should come as no surprise that conflict comes with them, something Sandro's story eloquently conveys.

These directorial touches help to ensure that Bus 174 pushes the boundaries of the documentary format. As well as the talking heads of those involved in the Bus siege, the directors make the most of what is a documentary goldmine, the hours of TV tape which traced the abortive bus hijacking by Sandro do Nascimento, a renegade figure whose agenda, the film gradually reveals, was more complex than anyone could imagine. Tracing Sandro's journey in conjunction with the progress of the siege itself, the film assembles a portrait of a complex, abused figure, who created his own meta-drama in order to finally, it is suggested, make himself visible within a society that does not want to know about people like him. (As such the film's resonance reaches far beyond Brazil).

Bus 174 is a taut, masterly piece of documentary making. In contrast with Elite Squad, it benefits from having a clear focus on one dramatic situation, which is played out to its tragic, farcical conclusion. It's high-octane fiim-making, which shakes up a format which so often manages to reduce the dramatic into something staid.

Friday, 6 August 2010

white [marie darrieussecq]

Although I cannot remember the details of Medem's Lovers of the Arctic Circle, I'm sure it had a fair amount in common with White. Even if White is set in the Antarctic, it's still a tale of pre-determined love coming to pass under the influence of snow and ice. Darriussecq's novel is short and filled with intimate detail: the loos which incinerate shit, the effects of the cold on human perception, the depth of the ice and the height of the ice-cap over the Antarctic soil. The two imminent lovers, Edmee and Peter, both make their own way to the ice-station, their back stories elliptically filled in, little hints of fractured histories and suggestions of lost trauma. All of which is overseen by a chorus of ghosts. Whose ghosts remains unclear: whilst details of Scott and Admundsen's missions are frequently referred to, their destiny has no impact of the protagonists, who bide their time on the base waiting for the union which the ghosts know is coming to pass.

White is poetic, romantic, pretentious in the finest of French traditions, and somewhat slight. It discloses what might be termed 'a voice': of the books I have read of late it perhaps has something in common with Pelevin's Omon Ra. It's an exploration of human behaviour under extreme conditions, and succeeds in doing this convincingly, even if the futuristic narrative already feels faintly absurd. As such, with its holophones and voyage to Mars, it might one day belong to that tradition of books which postulate a future which never came to pass.

Monday, 2 August 2010

temptations of the west [pankaj mishra]

Last Autumn, in Kashmir, we sat and listened to Jimmy, who looked after us on the houseboat, as he talked about the suffering endured by local Kashmiris, and the people of his village in particular. In spite of the vast military presence, and a sense of melancholia that seemed to hang over the (always male) residents of Srinigar we met, the full extent of this suffering remained concealed. There was a sense of the need to move on, to convince the Western tourists that things were improving, that there was nothing to worry about.

Of course, as a visitor, the reality of a society is hard to grasp. This is part of the reason we need journalists, who can delve deeper and reveal what's really going on within a society. To do this, the journalist needs to get out there and talk to people on the ground. Even then, his or her impressions will be nothing more than partial, but at least they can begin to help the layman to understand the things the eyes cannot immediately see.

Mishra's book does just this. As such, it seems like an almost mandatory read for anyone visiting India, Kashmir, Afghanistan or Pakistan. (The sections on Nepal and Tibet are more discursive, and lack the detail of the other chapters.) Mishra is driven by a curiosity to find out about what's going on in his part of the world, but also to trace the way in which a society he thought he knew as a child was more complex than it seemed, and how it has evolved as a result. His writing on the often frightening changes to Indian culture, after speaking to film stars and politicians, visiting Hindu strongholds and Muslim havens, constantly explores the frayed edges of a new India, where tolerance and pacifism are in increasingly short supply. When he writes about the bombastic Bollywood film LOC Kargil, the whole caboodle of religious divide, Hindu nationalism, the mythic role of Kashmir and Bollywood are brought together.

Because so many people visit India, and because the colonial heritage with regard to India and Pakistan is still so great, there tends to be an assumption that we in the UK know something about that part of the world. Mishra's astute observations help to plug the vast gaps in our knowledge, skewering the way in which these societies are struggling to come to terms with modern materialism whilst maintaining a conviction in the importance of the four great religions that dominate South Asia. In the process he helps to show how Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, as well as explaining why the Kashmiri crisis might well be one without end.

In the last two months, things have taken a turn for the worse in Kashmir, and one wonders how the people we met, Jimmy, Shaquil and co are getting on. I wish I'd read Mishra's book before I visited. The tourist's ignorance, marvelling at an exotic beauty, is all very well, but in the end, if we want to be more than mere than just economic, part-time colonialists, there remains some kind of imperative to make the attempt to be conscious of those places we choose to explore when we find ourselves taking time out from our endlessly busy lives.