Thursday, 29 December 2011

dreams of a life (d. carol morley)

This is a Christmas film. A woman has finished packing some presents. She sits down to watch the TV. She dies. The TV stays on. Three years later, her remains are discovered. The presents are still there.

Or maybe it’s an anti-Christmas film. The real miracle of the movie is that, in spite of its premise, (and this is a documentary, telling a true story), it somehow manages to be in some way not depressing. The weirdness of Dreams of a Life is that we learn that far from being unloved, a victim of our heartless society, Joyce Vincent, the woman in question, was held in deep affection by the people whose lives she had passed through. If this is a mystery movie, it’s one that leaves its puzzle unresolved. The causes of her death, both physical and psychological, remain speculative.

In a way, Dreams of a Life is the biography of the London I have lived in these past 25 years. The modern city is a peripatetic land, full of magic doors and ratholes. You never quite know which one you’re going to pass through next. Vincent, we are told, enjoyed the city. It brought her within touching distance of realising her dream of being a singer. It brought her relationships with people from a variety of races, cultures and different classes. It allowed to be invisible when she wanted, but also to participate in the things which constitute city life: the events, the bars, the streets. Someone describes Vincent as a chameleon. All true city-dwellers are chameleons, capable of switching from one ambience to another; their personalities as much a negative of the world they live in as a positive of themselves.

The director took the bold move of casting an actress to recreate scenes from Vincent’s life. The actress sings and walks and is given one line. At first I thought that this was a mistake, that the audience’s mental picture of the film’s subject would be distorted by the actress Zawe Ashton’s features, but in the end it worked. Another aspect of Vincent’s life is that she grew up in the pre-digital era. Ours will be the last generation whose memories are captured within minds, not on hard drives. There are few photos of Vincent: she remains a blank slate upon which we can draw our own picture. Ashton remains an approximation of the woman who vanished; her mystery all the stronger for the lack of documentary material to reflect the accounts of her given by friends and lovers.

It seems likely that we have all of us who have lived in this city over the past twenty years known our own version of Joyce Vincent. Perhaps for some she is what we became: someone who vanished from their lives, who mattered for a while and then moved on. This is where Morley’s sympathetic approach reveals another truth, less tragic, more mundane. The city is a place almost designed for transience. The people Morley tracked down to tell us about Joyce come across as good-hearted and caring. It’s not such a bad society we inhabit, even if it has cracks. And whilst this is but a partial story of its subject’s life, with the crueller aspects under-explored, the film still succeeds in being somehow celebratory. All the lonely people are perhaps not quite as lonely as they seem. The closing image need not be the one by which they are remembered. Morley seems to restore Joyce Vincent’s self-respect, counteracting the obvious, tragic figure of the newspaper headlines. As such, Dreams of a Life pulls off the odd trick of being both affirmation and condemnation of our culture at the same time. By choosing to tell the unheralded story of one of the city’s unknown warriors it succeeds in being one of the most telling documentaries about London I have ever seen .

Friday, 9 December 2011

las acacias (d. pablo giorgelli; w. giorgelli & salvador roselli)

Las Acacias is in an almost perfect work of art. Within the confines it sets out for itself it seems flawless. The only problem is the limitations it places on its ambition. 

The film is a road movie and anyone who’s ever been on a long bus journey, in South America or elsewhere, will quickly find themselves identifying with its languorous pace. Ruben, an Argentine truck driver, is taking Jacinta, a Paraguayan mother and her cute baby, Anahi from the border to Buenos Aires. Ruben is crotchety and lonely. He hasn’t seen his only son in many years. Gradually, as they make their way South, the mother and her charismatic baby melt his heart. Nothing remotely unpredictable happens. The movie resists any temptation to melodrama. On a couple of occasions there’s a hint that something bad might happen to Anahi, who gives one of the finest baby performances you’ll ever see. These moments throw out occasional flickers of dramatic tension, but the narrative quickly steers away from danger, gets back in the truck, and keeps on moving.

Everything is meticulously observed. Las Acacias is beautifully acted, understated and filmed with no little skill. Only in its very closing sequence does the thinness of the material really protrude, as the film aims for an unnecessarily upbeat ending. The movie has received considerable praise and featured on the lists of several of Sight and Sounds critics’ best films of the year.

However, it might perhaps be reasonable to ask whether being extremely skilful in the use of such a limited palette is really furthering the cause of Latin American filmmaking. For example: Jacinta is an economic migrant, presumably subject to some kind of stress which is making her take on this journey across the continent with her infant child. But the issues of Paraguayan society remain firmly ensconced in the back story. When she’s asked about Anahi’s father, she says the child doesn’t have one. Where do Ruben and Jacinta’s stories sit within the wider political framework of the continent? (And who, barring cinephiles is going to want to know?) In the end Las Acacias, in spite of its apparent down-to-earthness, almost has the feel of a Faberge Egg. Beautifully crafted but of marginal artistic or social relevance.  

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

haunted child (w. joe penhall, d. jeremy herrin)

Somewhere in this production is a really fine play trying to get out. I saw it in the preview week, with the actors still clearly finding their feet. No doubt they will get there. The key issue regarding its success relates to how this carefully calibrated tale is directed: exactly what is the correct pitch for what is essentially a two-hander about marriage and mental illness, with the title something of a red herring.

The play’s premise, established in the opening scene, is that Douglas has walked out on his family and his wife. Julie and their son, Thomas, have no idea where he is or when he’s coming back. In contrast to the set design’s rigorous (and predictable) naturalism, the play retains an almost absurdist opaqueness. We’re never told exactly how long Douglas has been missing. When he does re-appear, the details of his time away are revealed gradually, piece by piece. Is the marginal world he claims to have joined real? Or is it just an invention of his troubled (haunted) mind?

Penhall’s most famous play, Blue/Orange dealt astutely with mental illness. As Haunted Child unfolds, the degree of Douglas’s un-hingedness becomes ever clearer. The writing handles this beautifully; the layers are peeled away over the course of a couple of days. Douglas hovers on the brink of normality, the normality of marriage and fatherhood. In a Europe where despair seems to be nagging at the heels of whole swathes of society, having a good job and a nice home is no longer sufficient to ward off the demons, and Penhall’s portrayal of Douglas feels frighteningly prescient.

It’s the exploration of this tension within Douglas, between the lure of a kind of asocial madness and the comforts of societal norms, which should elevate the play beyond being merely an enjoyable, entertaining piece of storytelling. However, at times it feels as though the direction is working against the play’s subtler instincts. Whilst there’s a great deal of humour in the text, it felt as though there was a tendency to overplay the laughs, thereby dissipating the play’s tension and undercutting its power. Like his son, the audience needs to be genuinely spooked by the transformation in this strange, sad man. He’s Banquo’s ghost writ large, the spectre in our never-ending festival of consumer delights, the man who would renounce the world and all its ersatz, earthly pleasures.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

all the king’s horses [michèle bernstein]

Who were we? What were we doing? Stumbling round the city like flat-footed dancers. Drinking and driving. Ducking and diving. Were we ever young? Did we ever feel young? What does it mean to be young? Is there a curse? Is it contagious? What was the plan? What wasn’t the plan? Did the city belong to us or did we belong to the city? Was any of it real? Did it even happen?

Somewhere in another universe people knew that they were cursed with more than just knowingness; they were cursed with the wand of knowing that they would never have to lift a finger, that the things people fought for and cried about would barely touch them because it was all too easy. So even if they did find themselves crying or fighting it wasn’t really real, not in the naïve way of those who really cry or fight. For whom the moment is all-consuming, a be-all or end-all. They laughed and/ or cried with the desperation of people who wanted to know what it would really be like to laugh or cry, to be hurt, not to have to hurt, to be heartbroken, not the other way round. The more glamorous it all seemed the more they wanted to curl up in a corner and start again somewhere else, start again as children. Who would perhaps retain the shard of naivety you need to love, not just be loved: that most disposable, objective of pleasures which bears almost no connection with the subjective glee of the suffering of the lover, as Barthes might have said, just to let them know what they were missing out on. Of course they couldn’t be born again, they couldn’t be re-christened, so instead they strolled around the city in all their shiny but inevitable cynicism, (a cynicism they couldn’t help, which they hated), doing what they did, and one day, because there was no reason not to, one of them wrote a book about it.

It wasn’t a great book and it wasn’t a terrible book. It was, if anything, a curious book, which was greater than it aspired to be but not as great as it might have been had life not been the way it was. It was a kink in the slipstream of literature, one that laughed at itself, just like the writer found herself laughing at herself, and him, because if you didn’t laugh at yourself, and all your wasted talents, what else could you do? You couldn’t cry and you couldn’t fight so all that was left was to laugh. And the book said nothing really, because the idea that books can say things is one of the great myths of literature, which is almost a myth in itself. But it did do one thing. It captured a time and a moment and the way they lived, these strange, happy, unhappy people. Their names were Guy and Michèle and they lived in Paris; but they also lived in London and New York and sometimes they lived in a parallel universe, the one you inhabit, the one whose air you breathe, little knowing that they’re watching you, envying you, laughing at you, wondering what it’s like to live inside another kind of brain.

Friday, 2 December 2011

the deep blue sea (d terence davies; w. terence rattigan, adapted by davies)

In an interview with the director, Davies says that Hester, the tragic wife who leaves her husband for the dashing former RAF pilot, is a woman who’s discovered sex late in life and that this then shapes the whole way she sees the world. Which kinds of takes us to the nub of why, for all its worthiness, the film adaptation of Rattigan’s brooding post-war drama doesn’t really  convince. After one baroque camera movement in the opening five minutes, there’s no sex at all and precious little sexual tension. For all the fact that Hiddlestone and Weisz look the part, there’s something completely unconvincing in the theory that she’s going to throw her life away for him, and that when she does so he’s going to behave like such a twat.

This isn’t to knock their acting. It’s their performances and that of Russell Beale as the wronged husband that keep the film on some kind of an even keel. Rather, there’s something stately, or perhaps turgid, in the direction and the screenplay, which fails to complement a steamy drama of late-released passion, albeit passion with a stiff upper lip. Davies’ signature moments are the rather beautiful tracking shots of stoic Londoners singing in the underground during the Blitz, or in the post-war pubs. These add a sense of style to proceedings. But they also feel like they rob the rest of the film of any energy. During these scenes and the melodramatic, suicide-watch opening shot, the camera is given license to roam. But through the rest of the film it’s a case of static shots of talking heads as Rattigan’s words are faithfully reproduced. This is all well and good, but it doesn’t take us any deeper into the world than the play does. The advantage of cinema over theatre in story-telling terms is that it can reveal detail which theatre cannot. How the lovers co-exist, in bed and out. What the inside of Hester’s mind looks like, as she contemplates suicide. Davies’ version of the play doesn’t engage with any of this.

Instead we are offered a curiously sexless story full of melodramatic moments. A few years ago I saw a version of The Winslow Boy at Salisbury. I’d never seen the attraction of Rattigan, but the effortlessly staged production helped me to understand what all the fuss is about. He’s an author who really understands stagecraft, and under the crust of their English skins are real people responding to real situations. Based on this, it seems a pity that Davies’ film fails to de-fifty-fy or de-Anglicise these tragic characters. The other film it brings to mind is Brief Encounter. The world has moved on since that film was made, so that now it and its characters’ sensibilities have the feel of a museum piece; but this fails to take into account that the reason for its effectiveness is that in their day, Howard and Johnson were contemporary figures in a modern world. The truth of the situation their characters are living through shines through and the film has become a classic. Davies seems keen to suggest that the emotional truths of Hester’s despair are real, but his reverential approach to Rattigan’s text sucks the life out of her story and leaves the audience perhaps impressed, but ultimately unmoved. 

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

hugo (d. martin scorsese, w. john logan, brian selznick)

The watching of Hugo was not so much about the film, more about the event. And I suspect that was true for just about everyone in the cinema. The event being the night of the Royal Film Premiere, something that has happened every year since 1946.

As Leicester Square is being currently turned into dust, the red carpet was a somewhat obscure affair, which took one round the houses, past several pubs, full of people with pints in their hands wandering what the fuss was about. As well they might. In spite of some well-tooled paparazzi, there was a shortage of luminaries. Damian Lewis, whose wife is in the film, seemed to be getting more attention than perhaps he’s used to, largely because the next most famous personages not in the cast were the latest graduates of X Factor. The security was desultory. As I took my place I speculated about how easy it would have been to have followed in the footsteps of Andrei Bely or Conrad’s anti-heroes. Which is perhaps reassuring. Once in the auditorium the entertainment consisted of watching a screen which showed live footage of nothing happening outside. The comedy was supplied when the hired compere’s rehearsal of her lines (something about David Niven) was mistakenly picked up by her live mike, to the audience’s delight. It wasn’t quite up there with Gordon Brown’s “bigoted woman” or Reagan’s plan to nuke the USSR, but it helped to pass the time. A few buglers took the stage, looking lost. They did some bugling which seemed to make them feel better. The highpoint was when the cinema’s Wurlitzer was used for the national anthem, giving it a kind of Blackpool-pier variety flavour.

As for the film, Scorsese’s latest… It has to be said that he uses 3-D more effectively than Herzog and, so I was told, Tim Burton. At its heart, Hugo is a paean to the art of cinema, with the narrative revolving around a young boy’s re-discovery of  the forgotten George Méliès, played by Ben Kingsley. At the end of the film there was the strangest use of 3-D I’ve encountered yet as the fictional, cinematic Kingsley made a speech in almost exactly the same spot the actual flesh-and-blood Kingsley had made a speech introducing the film earlier. Life imitating art imitating…

There’s some lovely use of Méliès’ films, the discreet nod of a veteran director to cinema’s capacity for delight and improvisation. All of which makes this a meritable project for Scorsese’s first use of 3-D. The pity is that the magic is all in the technology: apart from Sacha Baron Cohen’s droll turn as a vindictive station master, there was a shortage of the sort of charm that Jeunet might have brought to it, in his heyday (or even Billy Wilder). Everything works, but in a strictly functional manner that’s ultimately un-involving: the most memorable moments are provided by Méliès and Harold Lloyd.

Still, the night was not really about the film, it was all about the occasion. One wondered if its low-key tone was reflective of the British indifference to the art of cinema: pitch up, watch something made by a North American which stops you thinking for a couple of hours, and then escape by any means possible. In our case this involved being ushered out through a dangerously-packed fire escape, men in black tie shouting into their mobile phones, glamour at a premium. To be thrown out into the Soho night just in time to catch last orders.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

the housekeeper and the professor [yoko ogawa]

When Christopher Nolan’s film Memento appeared, it contained a device which seemed breathtaking in its simplicity and full of an unquantifiable dramatic potential. The device is that of a man whose memory is reduced to a very brief span of just a few minutes. He writes notes which he uses to remind himself of the things he will need to try and remember when he “wakes up” again with his memories once again eradicated. The one problem with Nolan’s idea (developed with his brother) is that it is so dazzlingly original that it cannot really be repeated, as everyone will just say – they already did that in Memento.

Which leads to the question of how successful that film was in Japan and whether Ogawa likes the cinema. Because her novel, published long after Memento was released, employs exactly the same device. Given that this is a novel and its timespan has greater scope that that of a movie, the maths Professor who suffers from the disease has an 80 minute memory span, allowing him to develop quite a profound relationship with his housekeeper, the narrator, and her son, who is known as Root, because his haircut reminds the Professor of the sign for Square Root.

In contrast to the Nolan, Ogawa uses the device to develop a gentle, sad but affecting tale of the way in which the human instinct towards kindness and affection can succeed in transcending even the annihalatory process of time. In spite of his illness, the Housekeeper succeeds in developing a rich relationship with the Professor, which changes both her and her son’s life. The idiot savants of this world know far more than us ordinary mortals will ever be able to forget. Underpinning this is the Professor’s belief that mathematics, the art of which he studies, precedes and will postdate humanity. The mathematical laws offer a transcendent vision to those who learn to study them. The Professor communicates through maths and as the Housekeeper gets to grips with the science, along with Root, their relationship flourishes.

So, now it can be said, if anyone were to use this narrative device again: you can’t use it because Nolan and Ogawa have already used it. It is perhaps worth noting the way in which two separate cultures have chosen to use the same trick. Ogawa’s version is less viscerally dramatic, perhaps, but in her hands it shows the way in which the ability of humans to connect can transcend even the most extreme of obstacles. Whereas Nolan’s use of the device was rather more nihilistic.

Monday, 21 November 2011

the beach beneath the street [mckenize wark]

McKenzie Wark’s book narrates the history, theory and practice of the Situationists, an apparently marginal movement in twentieth century cultural history. It couldn’t be much more timely. The likes of Paul Mason have recently been labelling the nascent “Occupy” movement as a kind of Situationist protest. Highly visible, non-confrontational, this movement converts town centres into a kind of playground/ camping site. In keeping with the reclaim the streets movement, it’s aim is both to reappropriate public space and to flag up the potential for alternative modes of living within the heart of the capitalist domain.

Exploring alternative methods of living is all part of the Situationist project. Attempting to find cracks in the system which would allow people to engage with their humanity and creativity in a post-capitalist, even post-Marxist fashion. In a strange way, from Wark’s account of Debord, Jorn et al’s thinking, in some ways modern capitalism seems to have embraced some aspects of the project. In an Apple-shaped world, we are all potential filmmakers, writers, musicians creatives. I-men and i-women are expected to incorporate these qualities into their everyday existence. It’s almost a crime not to. On the other hand, capitalism’s dependence on individualism means that this activity tends to occur in a fractured, isolated context. Society as a whole still prioritises the individual’s economic production as the index of their worth. The situationist dream of a restructured society, liberated from the tyranny of wage labour, seems as far away as ever.

Wark’s prescient book steers the reader through this evolving and frequently complex history, ranging from the theory of Debord to the seemingly dilettante antics of the likes of Isou in the fifties. There’s something about Situationism which appears on some levels to be Romantic and insubstantial. In part this is because it’s a movement that never proselytised, content to remain a club one was invited to join (or was thrown out of) rather than a party seeking members. Wark does a strong job of rectifying this, examining the texts and the more rigorous philosophical writings of the movement’s key members. This is a detailed introductory handbook to a way of thinking that might just be on the point of coming into its own, fifty years after its heyday. It also makes one wonder who are the contemporary intellectual architects of the current political movement, labouring away in obscurity, their work filtering through into the mainstream, their names as yet unheralded.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

contagion (d. steven soderbergh, w. scott z burns)

The classic modern text dealing with issues of pestilence is Camus' The Plague. Contagion is basically The Plague reworked and distilled, on a global scale. Just not as good. It feels like something everyone - writer, stars, director - has done for the cash. Indicative of another plague which has always haunted society: the plague of mediocrity.

Soderbergh usually creates films which have some element of surprise. He might be the closest Hollywood mainstream gets to having a maverick, with his unusual career pattern and portmanteau projects. But in learning to play the Hollywood game, he has taken on the Coppola, Scorcese tactic of Quid Pro Quo: I'll do something for you if you do something for me. Contagion seems like one of the ones he's done for them, to put some credit in his fantasy box.

It's a pity because the ingredients are there for a compelling drama. The bio-political state is an under-reported one, as someone must have said. The politics of contagion are there to be explored and are backed up by that great movie trope, the Doomsday scenario. Initially, the film nimbly traces the disease's exponential kill pattern, moving from Hong Kong to the US to Switzerland. The script seems to be positing a globalised movie, Camus's wartime town morphing into the whole of the 21st C planet.

Then it runs out of steam and gets stuck in the US. A succession of bizarre cameos, not least from Jude Law, fail to interconnect with one another. We get the decline and fall of Western Civilisation in the space of about 20 minutes, followed by its sudden recovery (to the refrain of a U2 track; this time the world reincarnates with a whimper). As though the film's ambition outstrips its capacity. The globalised vision is shrunk to a few streets in San Francisco and the Midwest. Perhaps there's another subtler allegory here? The globalised dream, the world as cyber-village, destined to collapse in on itself under the weight of the sheer detail it cannot bear. In the end there's no room in Soderbergh's movie for Asia, Africa, Latin America or even Europe. In another misconceived cameo (in a misconceived film), Marion Cottilard spends the whole of the epidemic holed up in a village in rural China after being kidnapped. When she's freed, after a dodgy deal, she chooses to run back to the village. Better to live in humane seclusion than our bastardised techno-commercial world, slaves to the bio-capitalists.

Contagion is ripe for Zizekian interpretation. However, this has nothing to do with its quality and all to do with the territory it has tried and failed to assimilate. In an echo of Camus' great novel, the film attempts to link the vagaries of fate with the exigencies of morality, investigating whether the two are connected: is the good man/ woman more like to survive than the morally neutral? Unlike Camus' book, having set up this territory, the film seems to duck all the issues it has raised, and everyone, apart from Winslett's saintly health officer, survives, be they good, bad or somewhere in the middle. (This being a film made for North Americans about North Americans, they are on the whole unfailingly and tediously 'good'.)

Incidentally, since seeing the movie on Wednesday night, I've picked up a cynical, malevolent toothache. Let's hope this isn't the harbinger for a global outbreak. I can't really face the prospect of Contagion 2: The Killer Toothache.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

muriel (d alain resnais, w jean cayrol)

Somewhere in my head Muriel had acquired iconic status. I'm not quite sure why. There's a book of Truffaut's reviews I was given at the age of 17 which probably talked about it. (It's boxed up somewhere so I cannot check.) Maybe it's just the simplicity of the title. Maybe it's Resnais himself, the mysterious maestro of detached emotion who ended up being a devotee of Ayckbourn. A grand survivor from the heyday of Nouvelle Vague, still doing his idiosyncratic thing. You wonder if they still talk to one another, the survivors, him and Godard and Varda and a few others. Do they head to Cineworld to check out the latest Soderburgh and then have a few pints afterwards in a quiet bar, where maybe someone half-recognises them and comes over in a drunken haze, mistaking one for Truffaut or the other for Giscard D'Estaing?

I kind of hope so. Maybe, if they do, they spend the odd twenty minutes trying to work out what Muriel is really all about. I've rarely seen a film edited in a more unusual fashion. The first 45 minutes is given over entirely to a slightly stagey evening meeting between four people, including the worldly-wise Helene, played by Delphine Seyrig. Then the movie rattles through a whole dollop of plot with a string of three- second edits, which seemingly move everything forward to a new starting point. Which is the cue for the next wordy scene, before another fast forward. As though Resnais had discovered the art of the music video twenty years earlier, dispensed with the music and slotted these sequences into what at times does indeed feel like an Ayckbourn play.

The film's most arresting moment comes when it includes a five minute documentary-style passage, seemingly out of keeping with the remainder of its aesthetic, about the Algerian war. In fact this war haunts the film, with one character still affected by the abuses he witnessed there, and another falsely claiming to have served there. These strong, political themes are mixed with dry humour and melodrama. The whole concoction makes for a film which is frequently baffling and constantly wrong-foots the viewer. We never quite know what type of movie we're watching. It challenges our patience; which is not such a bad thing, but in a somewhat peculiar twist it does so through it's banality. Perhaps in the end it's what you would get if you were to blend Sartre's seaside tale, Nausea, with a dash of Ayckbourn and a soupcon of Battle of Algiers. One awaits the remake.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

days of eclipse (d. aleksandr sokurov; w. pyotr kadochnikov, yuri arabov)

Has a film ever had a better opening? The camera falls to earth. Yuri Khanin’s astonishing score plays out over images of the Turkmeni community. Faces stare out at us. We listen and we watch.

Which is the fundamental praxis of receiving cinema. Listening and watching. Only, usually, there is so much information to be processed that we almost forget this is what we’re doing. Sokurov follows in the footsteps of Tarkovsky, who sought to make his art of cinema into an experience to rival that of the great masters; which is also to say to rival or equate to a religious experience. Perhaps the key to this experience is to become aware of our existence through the act or art of engagement. This demands something most of our cinema rejects: self-consciousness as a part of the process; rather than the eradication of the self (also known as escapism) so much of cinema has sought to bring about.

Days of Eclipse lasts for over two hours but it reached a point where as far as I was concerned it might have lasted for six. The film depicts a Russian doctor who is living in Turkmenistan at the fag end of the Soviet empire. He is young, good looking and listless. The world is draped in the torpor of heat. It’s as though it’s under glass. A friend of his dies and there’s no explanation of why. Another friend of his has a weird, animalistic stain growing out of his wall. The doctor crosses a road and gets involved in a fight. He’s told his work is potentially seditious, so he decides to burn it, but then, the papers already alight, he has second thoughts and puts the fire out. Strange beasts crop up in his life: lizards, snakes, lobsters. Finally he escorts his friend as he leaves, heading for the sea.

What does it all mean? There are undoubtedly narratives at work here, about the demise of an Empire, about the search for significance in a world where the quest for Utopia has stalled and ground to a halt. However, perhaps as an aspect of these themes, or perhaps as part of the director’s own investigations into the real nature of and potential of cinema, the film also comes across as a dialogue between viewer and screen: an exploration of how the act of viewing oscillates between the passive and the active. Sometimes Sokurov’s images and use of sound overwhelm us, demanding nothing but reception. But at others the film asks its audience to make an effort, to engage, to find the humour and the pathos without these things being spelled out.

Sokurov has achieved belated fame beyond his country’s borders. I recently saw his feted Russian Ark on DVD. Where that seemed showy, slightly ponderous, with occasional flashes of brilliance, this earlier work felt swathed in a viscous genius, which seeped through the colour distorted print, frame after frame.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

the moon and sledgehammer (d phillip trevelyan)

Once upon a time in a land far, far away, called England, there lived a teller of tall tales, who took tea with kangaroos and got tired on his way to the moon. His name was Mister Page and he lived in a nook in the woods with his four children who were all grown up. Together they drove steam engines and played the organ and cast spells in the coals of the fire. They climbed trees and drizzled oil all over the world. They were the inheritors of Falstaff and the progenitors of Rooster Byron. The world belonged to them and they had all the time in the world to make it theirs. It was nature and machine and human rolled into one. The steam engines played with the doves and the bugs. They made telescopes and submarines and televisions that killed you if you got too close. Before televisions existed. They'd been to the moon and seen the volcanos. Sometimes they didn't like living there, because sometimes we don't, but most of the time they were as happy as Larry.

And if you think this is could be one of Mister Page's tall tales, think again and get hold of a copy of Trevelyan's film. The old man, the filmmaker who captured this gentle madness, a madness lost in time but one which will always exist so long as we have groves and nooks within this land, seemed sad at the passing of time. He sat on the stage at Rough Trade records in the most advanced corner of London's hipsterdom and answered questions about his film with what the Hispanics would call nostalgia, as he talked about the Alice-in-Wonderland world he'd stumbled upon back in 1971. With the aim not of exposing or poking fun at its inhabitants, but paying homage to them by capturing their rhythms and their quirks. His film is a mellifluous amble through their lives. It represents one of the great documents of a rural culture (or counter-culture) which has persevered in this country in spite of everything the 19th and 20th centuries had to throw at it.  As well as an example of why documentaries work best when they find their own way; when their narratives and pacing reflect the worlds they're observing, rather than the demands of a market.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

ides of march (d. gerorge clooney, w. clooney, grant heslov, beau willimon)

It's that time of year in the twentieth century's greatest empirical force, when the farrago of selecting the next leader gets under way in earnest. It is, as Cheney might have said, a duck shoot. Candidates line themselves up waiting to be shot down; if they somehow survive, who knows, the title of the most powerful man on the planet could be waiting for them. At the moment, a man called Herman Cain is the surprise leader in the Republican polls, but already his campaign has started to falter amid innuendo and rumour. Who knows: in ten years time he could be a household name (given his political & economic strategy one is inclined to hope not) or he could be mired in obscurity, the answer to a pub quiz question.

It's this curious selection process that the Ides of March focuses on, looking at the course of rival Democratic campaigns as they reach Wintery Ohio, with the knockout blow waiting to be dealt. Who will be the last duck standing: the charismatic but morally compromised Clooney or his anodyne rival whose name is Pullman but who isn't played by Bill Pullman. (Perhaps some kind of in-joke?) This is the backdrop for the story of Stephen Meyers, played by Ryan Gosling, a naif, ambitious, would-be political strategist-guru, who is about to learn the real dirty realities of politics.

Gosling's journey is at the heart of the film and it's his performance that redeems a sometimes verbose script (adapted from Willimon's play). The opening scenes are self-consciously laden with "great" dialogue: ie the kind of dialogue where you can almost see the written words on the page. It's heavy handed and not helped by the uninspiring cinematography. Gosling sleeps with an intern who's in all kinds of trouble before she kills herself. For a moment, as he resorts to speaking on public payphones and the camerawork becomes edgier, it feels as though we're about to enter political thriller territory. But gradually Gosling begins to flex his acting muscles and the latter half of the film is all about his journey towards political anti-karma. Tellingly, it's Gosling's silence which is the most effective thing about the film; the morally compromised outsider, like Iago, who says more saying nothing than he would if he spoke. In contrast to the falseness of the words that the campaigns are made of. Gosling ditches any idealism he might have had, accepts the compromise and joins the bandwagon, which would appear to be rolling all the way to the White House.

There's something rather clunky about Ides of March. It's like a slightly undercooked Three Days of the Condor without the thrills. The polish and the resources and the cleverness have such a sheen that they can't help but feel tawdry. It would be nice to think that this is all part of a bid to authentically capture the vaudeville aspects of the campaign trail, but one suspects that in actuality it's all part of the film's own bid to pick up votes at Oscar time and in the multiplexes. Which is reasonable: that's what Hollywood films are designed to do. It's just that, given the scope of the film's political critique, it feels as though a little bit more cinematic ambition might have been warranted. What redeems Ides of March is Gosling's performance, his increasingly blank face as the film progresses encapsulating the glassy hollowness of all he is caught up in.

Friday, 4 November 2011

the she-devil in the mirror [horacio castellanos moya]

Moya's book is a jaunty read, told from the perspective of a young woman immersed in the baroque world of El Salvadorean high society. When a friend of hers is murdered she takes it upon herself to try and discover the real killer, having no confidence in the police chief. The fact that her friend was involved in a series of vapid affairs with a selection of San Salvador's movers and shakers means that the list of potential killers is a long one. It also means that the more Laura, the narrator, mouths off about it, the more danger she places herself in. The fact that she is too blasé and privileged to realise this adds to the sense of impending doom.

The book consists of several breathy chapters, each of them a monologue by Laura to her supposed friend. One can't help suspecting that a great deal of nuance is lost in translation, as she intersperses her theories with observations about society: the malls she meets her friend in; the church; the press, etc. There's nothing sympathetic about Laura and it's clear we're not supposed to like her much. Rather the author is setting out to skewer an elite, to hoist them on their own petard. The book, published in 2000, looks at the way El Salvador, even post-dictatorship, continues to be run by a wealthy, corrupt section of society. There's a quote from Bolano on the front cover of my edition saying Mora is the only writer of his generation who "knows how to narrate the horror, the secret Vietnam that Latin America was for a long time." I'm not sure She-Devil in the Mirror quite lives up to that billing, maybe his other books do, but nevertheless it's an enjoyable, satirical, eminently readable take on a country which had a long way to go before recovering from the crimes of the late twentieth century.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

diary of a bad year [j m coetzee]

This is an unusual, fractured narrative. There are two narrators and three writers on almost every page. An ageing writer has been commissioned to write a book of “opinions” about the modern world. Each page contains his apercus on the state of the modern world. His thoughts range from terrorism to globalisation to Blair to Pinter; the nature of love and sex in the modern world, and much more besides. The material is profound but dry. Counterpointed against this is the sub-narrative, as he meets and employs a shapely Filipino woman who acts as his secretary. She in turn is in a relationship with a financial whiz kid, who sees her relationship with the writer as a possible means to rip him off, by using the writer’s dormant but healthy bank account to his own advantage. She is given a voice at the bottom of the page to narrate the consequent fate of her relationship, outlining the way in which the writer has influenced her own life.

This makes for a somewhat structural novel, something the writer’s opinions later address, as he writes about the way in which writers become more formalistic as they get older; their texts tending towards the theoretical, becoming more and more disconnected from the human angle. It reads at times like a cri de coeur by Coetzee himself, railing against his own fate as both a man and an author. Of course, this is just one of the book’s conceits: with no knowledge of the man, this assumption could be entirely false. Even if it is, there are still times when the book feels like an intellectual exercise. In large part this is because the two (literally) sub-narratives remains somewhat fragile. The net effect is a book that’s somewhat sketched out. Which might be the writer’s commentary on the nature of reading in the digital age. When the writer’s opinions really bite is when he comments on the enduring power of the classics, in particular the works of Tolstoy and Dosteyevski. His writing about them appears to contain a lament for the diminishing power of the novel, with the novelist no longer capable of embracing and containing the great themes within the confines of their pages. We’re now reduced to fragmentary narratives which are so self-aware that they can no longer aspire to any kind of universality. It makes for a curious, fascinating, if unsatisfactory reading experience; and perhaps that’s the whole point. 

Monday, 24 October 2011

the future (w&d miranda july)

My response to this film was largely shaped by the polar reactions of two people I don't know. The first was an engaging man who we ran into outside the Coach and Horses in Soho. He looked a bit like Peter Jackson and evinced an almost pathological hatred of Miranda July and anything she touched. This was after having a measured conversation about Australia. The extent of the hatred was so pronounced that one couldn't help wondering if there were things about Ms July one just wasn't aware of. (She eats horses? She secretly voted Bush seven times? etc etc) I too found myself questioning everything about her: her aesthetics, her philosophy, her overall (faux?) kookiness. This was before the film. In the screening itself I was seated next to a young woman on my right who laughed so much at every little thing Ms July did, to the point of slapping her thigh in delight, that I found myself wondering if there wasn't something hysterically funny taking place on the screen which I was just plain missing. When the woman later started sobbing and wailing, distributing orgasmic gobs of grief as the narrative turned bleaker, it struck me that I was still some way from fully getting a handle on the whole Miranda July concept.

What is clear is that the filmmaker polarises opinion. Her first film, as far as I can recall, was a quirky, kookie, idiosyncratic offering. The Future is all of those things, but it is also bleak and perhaps personal. This is one of July's greatest conceits: like Allen or Amis, she's right there in her narratives. Is this story about a seemingly functional couple on the cusp of entering the end of the beginning of their love affair really about her? How can we separate July the character from July the filmmaker? Has she had dealings with men who wear chains?

As you can see, I emerge little the wiser. If anything I'd have to say I'm baffled by the July phenomenon. I'm still not sure if I enjoyed The Future, with its slightly annoying title, or of I hated it. I'm still not sure if it's funny or sad. Maybe the title's not actually annoying, it's really charming? Maybe this is a Borgesian twist on Los Angeles living? Maybe it's just gleefully self-indulgent nonsense? I can't make my mind up. Sometimes it's better that way.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

dark horse (w&d todd solondz)

The arch offender is back. Solondz's Happiness is lodged somewhere in the spinal cortex of everyone who saw it; the film that artfully offended everyone. It was peculiarly effective and enormously successful. Perhaps, above and beyond the qualities which carved a path for a whole generation of "gross out" Hollywood comedy, because of the way in which it took characters who are usually too marginalised to be allocated screentime and explored their secret desires.

Dark Horse starts in this vein. The opening shot is masterful: a bizarre, tribal, urban wedding dance being enacted by a host of taffetaed and tuxed up celebrants, which pans around the room until it reveals two characters sitting on their own, resolutely refusing to join in. One of them leans into the other and says he doesn't like dancing. We instantly know that these will be our Solondzian anti-heroes.

The opening scene is slightly odd in so far as it's clear that it cost quite a bit to film, something which the rest of the film doesn't appear to have done. As though much of the budget was blown on this scene, which sets out a marker the film struggles to live up to. Thereafter things settle down as we follow Abe, the ugly duckling son of Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken (that's quite some lineage). Abe goes about fulfilling his destiny of being a complete and total loser. In the course of which he attempts with mediocre success to woo the attractive but maniacally depressed Miranda, the woman he met at the wedding; argues with his father; and has strange visions involving his father's secretary. Much of this is quietly amusing, but seems to lack the edge of Solondz's earlier work. Abe is a sympathetic figure, perhaps a bit too sympathetic, and as his journey meanders towards its desultory end, the film also seems to run out of steam.

It feels as though there's something slightly under-developed about Dark Horse. The writer has identified his characters but failed to really nail them. The anti-heroes are out there, but the weirder parts of their minds remain untouched. Perhaps Solondz is attempting to create more of a whimsical, affectionate fable. However, he'll always be stalked by the wild horse which was Happiness. His characters will always prowl in the shadow of that film's characters. It's as though he's created a rod for his own back and there's no escaping its ferocity; so anything he does which doesn't match up to it seems pale, rather than dark, in comparison.

Friday, 14 October 2011

the tattoed soldier [hector tobar]

Walk into the heart of downtown Los Angeles, away from Beverly Hills or West Hollywood or Santa Monica and you find yourself immersed in a Hispanic city. Which is what Los Angeles was to begin with. There's an argument to be made for it being the Northernmost output of Latin America. In a Youtube interview to Dutch TV, Tobar makes the point that the city is the meeting point for Hispanic, Anglo and Oriental culture, perched on the Pacific, looking West. Los Angeles' geographical situation helps in every way to make it the dream factory that it has become. But it's almost as though the city's dreaming has succeeded in eradicating its daily realities. No one want to know about the Hispanic city which still occupies its centre, just like no one wants to know that Los Angeles still has a centre. It doesn't fit with the idea of a liminal, dreaming city.

Tobar is a native Los Angelino, descended from Guatemalan immigrants. His novel puts the city back on the map. It's set in the world of Latino immigrants and a multi-racial underclass. The story follows a mission of revenge by Antonio, a political exile, who discovers his wife's army-sponsored killer playing chess in Macarthur Park. The book is set against the backdrop of the Rodney King riots, which Tobar covered as a journalist. The riots provide the cover for Antonio to exact the revenge history demands. The novel is as much about Guatemala as it is about the US, but like any great city, LA contains the narratives of all those countries whose citizens its walls have provided some kind of shelter to.

The narrative is brisk, engaging and discursive. It's written with a smattering of Spanish and Spanglish. It walks the streets with its desperate characters, but the only time it gets near to Beverly Hills is when Antonio's Mexican friend shacks up with a housekeeper. People don't drive their own cars, they take buses. There's a reality lived by millions of Angelinos which the dream factory only touches on when it needs criminals or undesirables to populate its narratives. Tobar's novel brings this reality to life. It's a book which should be read by anyone who's ever visited LA, ever seen a film set in LA. It's all very well living in dreams, but sometimes, you have to return to the dirty business of reality. 

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

midnight in paris (w&d woody allen)

Everything about Allen's career over the course of the last few years has put me off. I haven't seen much, but I was unlucky enough to catch Match Point. It's felt as though this is a sad, slightly undignified twilight, the one time genius peddling his wares where he can and, from the evidence of Match Point, creating picture postcard movies with Harlem Globetrotter casts and dodgy accents which possessed neither the wit nor the depth of his earlier works.

Midnight in Paris doesn't begin auspiciously. A long sequence plays out with documentary style footage of the city. A group of not-particularly-likeable North Americans are staying in a rich person's hotel and seeing the sights. Then, like a ray of light, Owen Wilson, the would-be novelist, is given a line which is vituperatively funny and gratuitously rude about the Tea Party. Politics infiltrating the late, bland Woody Allen? It's a promising sign. Soon afterwards, the narrative conceit kicks in, the handbrake is off, and the film turns into a delirious late-Allen masterclass.

The conceit is a simple one. Which is that Wilson discovers that if he waits on the right corner at midnight, he'll be whisked back in time to the twenties. Where he gets to hang out with all the greats. Allen has already mined this vein with Zelig, but here he incorporates it into a subtler, sadder narrative. Wilson's character, Gil, dreams of living in this epoch, when the US met Europe, when art still seemed to have a value greater than mere commercialism. And all of a sudden his dreams come true.

The conceit allows Allen to get his funny bone back. The innately comic scenario of Gil knowing things about Scott, Ernest, Zelda, Pablo, Bunuel and their ilk is mined for all it's worth. Wilson deadpans like a better-looking, younger Allen. Part of Allen's problem is that his films have never seemed complete without his presence, and the leading man all too often offers a version of Allen-lite. But Wilson has enough goofiness and character to pull the role off.

A lot of the lines are classic Allen and the ambition of the narrative is a throwback to his halcyon days, taking a real risk which pays off. There's another level to Midnight in Paris which is more subversive still, speaking to the audience not so much about the past as the present. Back in the real world, whilst Gil dreams of living in Paris, his wife wants to move to Malibu. Her parents are rich and sour. They go and see US movies which they can't remember the next day and the main attraction of Paris is its capacity for supplying antiques to furnish their homes they can't find in the US. Gil, intoxicated by the city, is pitched in direct conflict with his new family, and the consequences ring true.

Meanwhile, the film playfully reveals to Gil that you can't live your life stuck in nostalgia. The sharp script allows itself to follow through the logic of its conceit, revealing that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, even when you've magically been transported there. The thwarted love affair between Wilson and Cotillard has echoes of Allen's great romances: love is a zero-sum game, where everyone's liable to end up being a loser.

You won't see another movie like Midnight in Paris, certainly not in the English language, because very few writer-directors are given the budget to indulge their whims and intellectual games in the way that Allen is given license to. He's written a script which is entertaining, effortlessly funny, wistful and subversive. Then he's filmed it with real vigour. Those who came to bury him, not to praise him, myself included, have egg on their faces. 

Sunday, 9 October 2011

tyrannosaur (w&d paddy considine)

There's a general rule of thumb which has been by and large honoured in this blog never to write about things which include or are created by friends of mine. There's a twin reason for this: the critic's perspective can be compromised when personal feelings are involved, and even if that's not necessarily true, there's also the risk of pissing people off. I don't know anyone who worked on Considine's film, but given the limited scale of the British film industry and the amount of players who have their fingers in this pie, you cannot help thinking that it might be impolitic to say what you really think about it. But anyway...

The acting is good, albeit good in that "grand acting" fashion which kind of declares as it goes though customs: 'actors at work'. Everything's slightly mannered; the quest for "truth" in the moment is so worn on the sleeve that there are times when the sleeve is all you can make out. But this is a film made by an actor which is all about the acting, and the actors deliver what's expected of them. Olivia Colman in particular succeeds in convincing in spite of the fact that her character is placed in a dramatic situation that's so wafer thin she's coaxing something out of a near empty tank.

Without wanting to give too much away, she's in an abusive marriage with a character whose name barely registers, played by Eddie Marsan. We know Marsan is not a nice man because he pisses on his wife when she's asleep. Not the most subtle of character notes. But one of the few we're given. Marsan is a borderline psychotic who practices his boxing skills on his wife, played by Colman. He's a really nasty man. Really nasty. Malevolent. A rapist. Who drives a red sports car. Who uses the word "wank". Who lives in a house with extremely bland furniture. He's, let's repeat this in case you, the audience, have missed it, a nasty piece of work.

At which point, you, the audience, might be inclined to ask some questions. Such as - why is Marsan so horrible? Why does his wife, Hannah, not go to someone for help? Why does no one take any notice of Hannah's repeated facial injuries (and has this just started or has it been going on since their marriage started)? If Marsan resembles any filmic character I can think of it's De Niro's in Cape Fear. Where Scorcese was deliberately playing with the idea of a B-Movie villain. But Marsan's character is not a B-Movie villain. Considine's film is in the tradition of British social realism. We're supposed to believe in these characters, this world, this desperate, caricatured grimness. When in fact all we're given are the tropes, the symbols, which, I would suggest, are themselves exploited in the name of 'art'. There's an argument that it's irresponsible to appropriate dramatic symbols (in this instance that of the abused wife, and the sheer quantity of stage make-up Colman has to bear almost becomes clownish) without making some attempt to address the actual origins of these dramatic symbols: ie Marsan's psychosis. It's using the semiotics of real suffering for dramatic ends; because there's nothing real about any of this. And with its emphasis on the 'authenticity' of the acting, the film is almost screaming at the audience that this is 'real'.

So there it is. Another British movie about how grim life is on the supposed hard edge of our society. So far as I'm concerned it wouldn't matter if every movie made in the UK dealt with his theme, if only it were done with a sense of truth and love. Gary Oldman is thanked in the credits. So many films have been made in the shadow of Nil By Mouth, and all of them, this film included, merely come across as pale imitations.

Friday, 7 October 2011

the palm wine drunkard [amos tutuola]

I had already come across Tutuola without realising it. In this book he refers to another book, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which he had, at the time of writing this book, not yet written. This is indicative of the way in which Tutuola's writing seems to take place in the fifth dimension, beyond the petty confines of time. (Which has implications for the idea of narrative.) In 1995, during a peripatetic phase of my career, I was given the job of looking after a group of Nigerian actors who were in London at the behest of the Royal Court, to perform a version of Tutuola's later novel. When I arrived to collect the company to drive them back to Heathrow, it turned out that almost half of them had absconded, vanished into another bush of ghosts. Which might suggest I had failed in my duties; at the same time I learnt more about being African from those weeks with the Nigerians than from any other source.

Tutuola's first novel is like a spotlight being shined on a way of using the language we never knew existed. Straightaway we are propelled into a land where Fear is both an emotion and a character, alongside Heaven and God. You will meet them along the way. The narrator's ostensible journey is to find his tapster who's vanished, gone to the land of the Deads. As a result his life, which up until that point had consisted of drinking palm wine and having parties, is rudely interrupted. The key point, perhaps, is that this is his life: just as in our world we might go to the office or till the fields, his life is to get up and drink. However, the disappearance of his tapster means he has to go on the road to find him.

This notion of a search, the original picaresque narrative, is repeatedly encountered in African literature. On the road you will see things that appear to be beyond belief. The story is bounded only by the imagination of the narrator, and Tutuola has no shortage of imagination. At the same time, as a Western reader, the lack of all those narrative elements we have come to expect in a novel make for a sometimes painstaking read. As though we are not yet ready to enter a realm of pure imagination, where the novel is made poetry and the reader has to engage with the previously unimagined on almost every page. Where is this going? What do we learn? We learn that there are things under the sun and moon (and witnessed by Sun or Moon) which we had never imagined. Which, because they have been imagined, possess the possibility of being real.

If I was to curate a literature course, this would be one of the first books I would put on the reading list. I would hazard a guess that Tutuola is writing under the influence of an oral storytelling tradition. A world where the story has no beginning or end, it is a restless continuation, which the audience can drop in or out of at any moment. Stories lurk within stories and every new stop along the road is a field of play, a space for the storyteller to dazzle you with the unfeasible; to bring the unimaginable to life. Our culture, trapped in the teleological narrative, is consumed by beginnings, endings and middles. Does life really work this way? Or do we shape the narratives of our lives to fit this model? Surely it's truer in some ways to see the world as a constant space of non-learning, a constant encounter with the remarkable, lurking around the corner, Superwomen and giants, famines and plenty. Tutuola's text often feels as though it lacks all direction, as though it's in danger of suffocating beneath the weight of its invention, but then you keep going, you round a corner, you discover something new...

Monday, 3 October 2011

drive (d nicolas refn, w hossein amini)

It's been almost a week since I saw Drive and the predominant memory is not the violence or Gosling's assured performance or the beautifully rendered love story or even the eurotrash score. It's the shocking pink font used for the titles and credits.

This pinkness lends a neon brashness to proceedings from the start. It has the feel of a directorial flourish. As though to suggest that nothing we see needs to be taken too seriously. It also has the feeling of a foreigner's take on LA: bright party colours and recklessness. There's a moment in the film when Albert Brooks' gangster says that he used to be in the film business years ago. He describes the films he made, films which sound suitably commercial for a gangster boss, and at the end he says: they used to call them European. It feels as though Refn's Drive is fulfilling that same brief: a Hollywood notion of what a European film might be, in their dreams. (Not the Europeans).

Refn, with his flair for mood and violence, feels like the kind of European who'd fit in well in Hollywood. Which isn't an insult. If Drive is essentially 'noir' it's easy to forget now that that style, later re-appropriated by the Europeans, was developed in the US by exiles, the likes of Fritz Lang, Wilder, Siodmak etc. The city is reduced to a grid wherein human passions are worked out with all their dramatic implications. LA, with its lack of recognisable landmarks, is the perfect laboratory. Gosling spends his time driving through anonymous streets. There's no hint of where he comes from. He's a perfectly alienated twenty first century being. The first thing that appears to give any meaning to his life is the appearance in it of the gamine Irene, another apparent drifter.

On many levels therefore, Drive might be seen as a cynical movie. The throwaway violence, the rootlessness, the pink font: it's as though the hyper-smart Refn is both showing off with his technical acumen and also suggesting that this is basically a Hollywood B-movie and we shouldn't take it too seriously. (I'd even include the way he directs Gosling in this, for all the plaudits the pair have received: to my mind it's almost a tongue-in-cheek performance, an homage rather than something rooted in any genuine feeling.) However, there's one aspect of the film which transcends everything else. Which is the love affair: not so much in that it happens, as it's a necessary plot requirement, but in the way in which it is portrayed. It's not often that you'll see a director pinpoint the mechanics of love as beautifully as Refn does in Drive. All of a sudden, his taciturn style pays dividends. Mulligan and Gosling barely speak to one another. Yet it's evident that each has transformed the other's life utterly. It's all in the not-said, even the not-done. There's one moment where she places her hand on his, and this tells you all you need to know.

So, underneath the cynicism, there lurks a romantic sensibility. I got the feeling throughout the film that Refn's directing was like watching a sportsman playing at half-pace. In his depiction of the love affair, it suddenly feels like he's moving up through the gears. The rest is functional and assured. You can't help wondering what kind of film Refn will make when he's really going for it; as well as wondering if he's so good at playing the system that he'll never really have to stretch himself.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

tinker tailor soldier spy (d tomas alfredson, w. bridget o'connor, peter straughan, le carré)

According to someone who works for the producers of this film, it had a lot of trouble getting financing. Which seems surprising. Because if this isn't a gold plated UK film concept then what is? It looks and feels like high quality Oscar bait. Which is both its strength and its weakness.

From an early shot of jet planes swooping over Budapest, pulling back to reveal schoolchildren in a bell tower cheering, it's clear that the director intends to pull out all the stops in order to beef up le Carré's famous text. It takes the folk-memory of a grey seventies London and makes it hyper-grey. The frames drip with what one assumes to be a meticulously graded lack of colour. With its Alpha role call of British male stars, the film comes at the viewer relentlessly, bludgeoning him or her into accepting that, yes, this is film-making at the top of its game.

Alfredson's breakthrough film was also set in the seventies, not that many noticed. HIs measured Scandanavian technique should be perfect for the convoluted, repressed world of British spies. And yet, in spite of its reasonable pacing and careful use of flashback, there's something slightly pedestrian about Tinker Tailor. One could say: that's the whole point, but le Carré's narrative seems to suggest it isn't. Where the British act as though they are insouciant functionaries, seeking to out-functionary their Soviet opponents, the reality is that their Christmas parties are a hotbed of seething passions and intimate tensions. When Firth's Bill Haydon tells Oldman's Smiley at the end that his seduction of Smiley's wife was "nothing personal", you can't help feeling that this could be yet another lie, another false move in the chess game these players have chosen to get caught up in.

All of which hints at the film's major weakness: we don't really know who these people are. With the exception of Smiley's passion for Anne and Ricki Tarr's tempestuous love affair, we learn nothing about their secret motivations and desires. So, when the house of cards comes down, and the denizens of the circus meet their fate, it's hard to care. (Idly I wonder what someone like Welles, with his flair for fleshing out minor characters, might have made of le Carré's book.)

Given this, and given the way in which Alfredson so brilliantly made us care about his vampires in Let The Right One In, one suspects he has been hamstrung by an efficient but prosaic script. Sensibly it puts much of the dramatic tension on Cumerbatch's shoulders as Guillam, but the brief scene where he appears to be cutting his ties with his lover offers a glimpse into the real deceptions and betrayals at work, underneath the more obvious games. The moment Strong's well acted Jim Prideaux catches Firth's eye at the Christmas party offers another hint.

Indeed, the Christmas party scenes, albeit filmed in a studiously observational style, are when the film really seems to come alive. The spooks playing their complex games are suddenly made human. The seventies setting rings entirely true; the shadow of the war fomenting both camaraderie and gloom, with the West far less better off in comparison to the East than it so earnestly believed. In these scenes those of us who were still in our childhood back in those days might catch a glimpse of the country we grew up in, one which is now unmourned and by and large forgotten. For all its slightly strident quality, it's hard not to wish that Tinker Tailor hadn't done more to take us into this world (a la Lives of Others), to make us understand the battles that had been fought that underpinned the battles which these men continued to fight through the Cold War, battles of both a political but also a personal nature.

Monday, 26 September 2011

post mortem (w&d pablo larraín)

For some of us, and clearly from its undistinguished London screening, we are few, Post Mortem was one of the most eagerly anticipated film releases of the year. A film that warranted red carpets, gala screenings, celebrities telling you how much they loved it. Instead, Larraín's film was playing on the ICA's tiny second screen, in a grainy projection that did it no favours. Before the film started the audience were informed that there was a problem with the tape. They played five minutes of Silvio Rodriguez, which was at least appropriate, before fixing it. The whole thing was something of a verguenza, and one wonders how the film's marketing people, sitting on the work of one of the cinema's most exciting directors, have let this happen.

The pivotal scene in Post Mortem occurs two thirds of the way through the film. Its lead character, Mario Cornejo, (in some ways a prefiguration of Alfredo Castro's character in Tony Manero), is seconded into participating in the autopsy of Salvador Allende. This is the story of a little man caught in history's headlights. The scene itself is swathed in the blackest of humour, with Mario struggling to use an unfamiliar typewriter as his boss dictates his notes. In the film's credits, there's a thanks to Mario Cornejo himself. Larraín has taken this real, unknown man who found himself on the stage of history and fictionalised him, imagining how he got there and, more importantly, the impact his being there had on his already vulnerable psyche.

As a result the film neatly splits into two sections, pre-coup and post-coup. Mario is an apolitical figure. There's clearly turmoil in the streets, but he's more interested in his neighbour, a dancer in a seedy cabaret, who lives with her politically active family. Mario patrols the streets of Santiago in his red bubble car. It's a sullen city, pregnant with disaster, but Mario seems oblivious. Then the coup happens and the film shifts register. It embraces a kind of deadpan baroque, as bodies mount up at the morgue where Mario works, and he and his colleagues struggle to stay sane in the face of horror; not a slasher horror (though it's fascinating the way in which a scene such as the one where Mario drags a gurney stacked with bodies behind him feels like it could have come out of a horror film), but a real, historically documented horror.

As such, the filmmmaker is attempting to do something supremely ambitious: to convey to a modern day audience what those days were like. To recreate history. Not in a documentary fashion, but in a sensory fashion. We start to feel the sense of nihilism that arrived with the coup (and the aftermath of which Tony Manero explores in more depth). Whilst it's a bleak space, its also a strangely comic one; there are no rules, death is flat, matter-of-fact, on the edge of being farcical. Dead people are shot and they are neither more dead nor less so. Mario walks through this landscape like Buster Keaton, po-faced and desensitised. The ending, when it comes, is brutal and revelatory, savagely violent without even a hint of blood being spilt; a ghoulish work of performance art.

Chile remains a society where political divisions between left and right are heartfelt and integrated into the day-to-day. Larraín belongs to one of Chile's most political families: his uncle is part of the right-wing government which has been subject to violent recent student protests that lasted for months. To make a film about the most significant moment in its recent history is therefore a bold step in the first place. To do it in a way which is both oblique and horrifyingly direct is yet more of an achievement. As the immediate influence of the dictatorships recedes in Latin America, its artists begin the process of trying to make sense of the legacy they've inherited. The closing scene of Post Mortem summons up a society that is on the point of shutting itself up for the next thirty years. It's a devastating ending for a film which pulls off the trick of recounting an unlikely narrative about issues of enormous weight within its society whilst developing its own dry, idiosyncratic aesthetic.

Friday, 16 September 2011

monsieur pain [roberto bolaño]

Bolaño's literary history means that he's going to spend a long time dying. Having written extensively for twenty years before he was first published, there's a substantial back catalogue to be worked through. The reason he had to wait so long for success was more to do with the fact he was a maverick than anything else, scrabbling around on the margins. All of which means that, in death, he's more prolific than most living writers. This book is one that helped to get him recognised, and is the subject of one of his more famous stories in Last Evenings on Earth. As such it almost as interesting for its role within the Bolaño myth as it is for its literary qualities.

Monsieur Pain is a slight if beguiling book, set in Paris before the second world war, when the eponymous hero, a mesmerist, is drafted in to consult on the case of a man who is dying, apparently, of hiccoughs. However, a rival party doesn't want the man, Snr Vallejo, cured, paying Monsieur Pain a sizeable bribe in order to get him not to take the case. That's about it with regard to the narrative. The pearls are to be found in the writer's love of arcane detail. He meets a pair of twins who design ghoulish scenes in fishtanks, (a kind of cross between Mr Hirst and the Chapman Brothers?); Pain is plagued by random characters who pursue him across Paris. His former best friend has become a fascist luminary in the Spanish Civil War. There is an air of Poeian menace (the book includes a quotation from Poe at the front).

Monsieur Pain is neither a great book nor a terrible one. At times it feels like an exercise in style, at others it includes writing that is bona fide Bolaño. As ever, a little research brings intriguing results. Bolaño was always a fervent advocate of neglected Latin American poets. It turns out that Vallejo is not a fictional but a real figure, who died in Paris in 1938. One whose work is held up to be among the most eccentrically brilliant in the Spanish language. Vallejo's qualities don't really come through in the book: he is a man who cannot speak and is dying of hiccoughs. However, it might not be too spurious to suggest that Bolaño sees something of himself in the figure of the Peruvian, a Latin American poet dying in exile. Which would make Monsieur Pain something of a prophetic text, as though the writer sensed a tragic destiny underpinning his development, something that tallies with his instinct to auto-mythologise, blending fact and fiction, as though his life was a book he was constantly writing, fragments of which would be captured on paper and described as his novels.

Given this, the following lines from a Vallejo poem (Black Stone on top of a White Stone) would appear to have their part to play in the story and Bolaño's reasons for writing this book:

I shall die in Paris, in a rainstorm,
On a day I already remember.
I shall die in Paris-- it does not bother me--
Doubtless on a Thursday, like today, in autumn.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

the golden dragon (w roland schimmelpfennig, d ramin gray)

I had a spare hour to kill in Debden in early Summer and found myself picking up a copy of Schimmelpfennig's The Woman Before. It was sunny and I sat on the front porch as people out of an Andrea Arnold movie walked past talking loudly. In theory I was working but in practice I was just reading again. The play was a lazy read, but it didn't do much for me. It felt like there was something that wasn't coming across off the page. It felt a little shallow. It felt like maybe I was missing something, or maybe there was nothing to miss and I was just being tricked into thinking I was maybe missing something.

That's the context for going to see The Golden Dragon. After which I suspect that it was me who was missing something. Because The Golden Dragon is a beautifully written play about globalisation, teeth, society, asian food, and a whole host of other things. Its narrative somehow distils seemingly random stories about ants and crickets; a boy's toothache and a girl's sexual abuse; a couple's distress at having a baby and two air stewardesses getting over an 18 hour flight; blending these stories into an arcane, unlikely, culinary triumph.

The play is punctuated by the naming of oriental dishes and the listing of their parts. Perhaps this is what appeals to Schimmelpfennig about this cuisine: the way in which it takes seemingly un-cooperative ingredients and uses them to create dishes which everyone, all over the known world, wants to eat.

However, without going into the subtler and indeed more tragic themes which the writer addresses in The Golden Dragon, I'm going to offer an excuse for my slightly dismissive reading of his earlier play in Debden on a sunny day in what felt like an Andrea Arnold film. (Except that the film being made was actually about a woman falling in love with a serial killer on death row.) Which is that Schimmelpfennig's work requires something which is not that common in British theatre. It requires an understanding that a theatre is not a television, or even a cinema. And it also requires direction. All too often our attitude towards a difficult text is to attempt to make it simpler, more digestible. Rather than embracing the complexity and seeing it as a challenge. It's a director's job to take something which seems hard or even impossible to convey to the audience on the page and realise the author's intention on the stage. Gray's staging of The Golden Dragon, jumping from room to room, scenario to scenario, on what is essentially an empty stage, might be termed Brechtian or Brookian. Whatever the label, Schimmelpfennig's text demands more than slavish re-presentation, it demands direction, something which has clearly been supplied. The actors and designers have responded with imagination, vigour and wit. The show embraces the writer's seemingly arcane conceits and brings them to life. In the process the audience at the Arcola is reminded of what theatre is/ can be - a process which engages with our imaginations, which wakes the dormant child within us, which takes us by surprise.

Of course, in order to do this, you also need writers who are capable of creating texts which allow directors room to really do their job. Something which, (as noted by Simon Stephens in his German lecture earlier this year), British theatre isn't all that comfortable with. The Golden Dragon offers a glimpse of another theatre which flourishes on other shores but withers here. Schimmelpfennig's play is a playful (profound) delight, but the production as a whole is a vivid reminder of what theatre can achieve when it puts its mind to cooking up a feast.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

days of heaven (w&d terrence malick)

Just because a film is pretty to look at doesn't make it a masterpiece. It needs a bit more than sweeping vistas and chiselled jaws. Fortunately Malick's now seminal film is more than just a pretty face. 

All the Malick tropes are here in action. The voiceover, the imminence of death, the poeticism of the everyday. This was just his second film and it was as though he emerged fully formed, a filmmaking monster who acted with complete assurance whilst everyone else was scrabbling around learning the rules. The real danger which Days of Heaven faces as a work of art is that it is too perfect. Something the filmmaker appeared aware of, deliberately throwing away his ending as though to throw the audience off track. It comes as no surprise that he followed the young girl Linda down the railway line at the end of the movie, heading off into the unknown, not to make another film for over a decade.

It's Linda who narrates. Her deadpan tone and offbeat perception keeps the film grounded in the face of the epic menage a trois love story that drives the narrative. The child's eye sees things in a different light; it has more in common with the philosopher than the adults, caught up in their emotional ties. The things that Malick really seems to delight in are the offcuts, the shards, the scraps of life around the edges. A tap dancer; a locust; the shape of the wind. As a result the most affecting aspect of the film's narrative has nothing to do with the drama of its central characters. It's the way in which it somehow captures the impermanence of the life these people lived and the value which this impermanance bestowed on the ordinary, small aspects of being human.

Days of Heaven is, in its way, a Western. If a Western is a movie that captures what it meant to live at the edge of the known world. The precariousness, the sense that you could fall off at any moment. Meaning you had to savour what there was to be savoured; something Malick's vision and Almendros' cinematography do with a vengeance.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

harbor [lorraine adams]

The physical harbor referred to in the title is near Boston. It's where the Algerians, many of whom come from the same small seaside town, Arzew, arrive after they jump off the tankers they have stowed away on into the icy Atlantic and swim the last leg of their journey to the relative safety of the USA. The Algerians are fleeing from the brutal and under-reported conflict that has ravaged their country. The book follows the journey of Aziz, a former soldier, from the tanker up to his arrest on charges of terrorism.

The last word signals the secondary, ghost narrative of the book. Who are the bogeyman figures who populate our media and our consciousness? What does the shape of the "evil which threatens our civilisation" as Blair, Bush and Amis might say, take? In Harbor, Adams sets out to demystify what will come to be known as a terrorist cell.

The book is apparently based on testimonies that Adams curated during her time working as an investigative journalist. Her style is clipped, with fast edits between short chapters. The influence of Elroy appears to be significant, as she hops, skips and jumps through the years of the Algerians' illegal stay, constantly moving the narrative along. The effect is sometimes opaque: the reader can feel as lost as the novel's characters as they head into a new continent without much of a clue. Logical, "transparent" readings of their lives, the book seems to be suggesting, are impossible to construct. They inhabit an almost invisible hinterland of petty crime, credit card theft, black labour, nightclubs, religion, alcohol and ultimately, at the edge of the spectrum, fundamentalism.  Bit-by-bit, the narrative accrues, and our understanding of Aziz grows, shaped in large part by the terrifying events he experienced in Algeria and from which he will always be fleeing.

There's an acerbic, journalistic flintiness to Adams' prose. Like Elroy, she doesn't want her style or even our natural tendency to sympathise for a hero, to get in the way of the account she's giving. This makes for a compelling, ultimately tragic novel. What is revealed is that it is not so much the perceived threat that is a danger to our society, but our ignorance with regard to what this perceived threat really consists of.

Friday, 9 September 2011

curfewed night [basharat peer]

For all the fiction that I read, and it seems sometimes unlimited in its requirement for consumption, I'm a fictional gas guzzler, I can't help thinking that you sometimes learn more about narrative from reading non-fiction. I don't care what my post-post-moderns say, there's no such thing as a text without a story, or at least the implication of a story. I dimly remember Nietzsche saying something about how even his laundry lists or his shopping lists were part of an oeuvre (or was it someone saying that of him? It's all so long ago now, all that); and now, in an age when they can deduce or plan your life history from your supermarket receipts, isn't this even more evident? Likewise, the manual for assembling the thing-you-don't-quite-know-what-it's-supposed-to-be from Ikea, if you are unfortunate enough to live in a world with Ikeas, contains a story: the parts that should become a whole, the dream that is within your grasp, waiting to be realised. Not to mention, when it comes to it, all the literary detritus of our lives, the unloved emails; text messages; tweets and sundry which contain the gory details of the lives we lead.

So clearly a non-fiction book will also contain its narrative. In a work of fiction, that narrative is worn on the sleeve. (Even if the writer seeks to avoid wearing it on their sleeve). In a work of non-fiction, the apparent demands of beginning, middle, end; development; deconstruction; wholeness; the angst of perfection; these all seem apparently more remote. The objective is to account or theorise, and accounts and theories can take any shape or size. However, having read of late a few works of non-fiction, the importance of narrative to the book's success in meeting its objectives seems patent; and the the failure of the author to manage the demands of narrative remind the reader strongly of both the necessity and the glory of a consciously managed narrative.

Peer's book treads similar territory to Waheed's Collaborator, detailing the conflict in Kashmir from the perspective of a young man who has had to live though it. Similarly to Waheed, Peer's book opens with an evocative description of Kashmiri village life in the days before the conflict really took wing. However, Peer is a journalist, and his account is non-fictional. It is a loose, anecdotal ramble though his life and relationship with the land he came from. Peer left Kashmir to go to university in Delhi. He eventually gives up the job so he can return to Kashmir in the second part of the book and research the stories which will go into the writing of Curfewed Night. The author talks of the need to capture and document a conflict that the world has ignored. He skips from chapter to chapter, moving from town to village, trying to catch up the ghosts of his past and find out what has happened to them, revealing at the same time the way in which Kashmir has been altered and damaged over the course of the last twenty years.

However, this is a hotch-potch voyage. Peer doesn't seem to have a clear idea of what he's trying to say. Perhaps because, in spite of his protestations, he seems to have adapted to mainstream Indian culture so successfully, where so many of those he grew up with haven't. The book feels as though it might be fuelled by survivor's guilt; a kind of therapeutic journey which the author lacks the perspective to really describe. What exactly Peer's story is remains nebulous; and so, therefore, does his account of the Kashmiri conflict. Where anger suffused Waheed's book, Peer's seems predicated by a failed search to locate that anger. Had he been more conscious of this, this might have lent his narrative a clearer shape. Or something else might have informed it. As it stands, Curfewed Night does its job; but it seems to me the author's literary duty remains unfulfilled; in the margins of this book there lies another, waiting to be told, the one that squares the exile's life with the struggle he cannot help but leave behind.

kill list (d ben wheatley, w. wheatley & amy jump)

Kill List has received a fair amount of hype for a low budget brit-flick. There have been suggestions that this is the film to rescue UK cinema from its creative mediocrity. At one point, when our two heroes visit their employers looking to get out of their ill-fated contract, they ask what the job is really about. Someone tells them, that it's about "reconstruction". The word is carefully chosen, and would appear to suggest an echo of the British missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Jay and Gal were together in Iraq. Is this film a veiled political critique? What is its real agenda?

The film opens strongly. Jay is trying to adjust to life in suburbia with his wife and child. His best mate, Gal (a homage to Sexy Beast?) comes round for supper with his new girlfriend, the disarming Fiona. Wheatley's camera does a good job of capturing the dynamics of a long, boozy night. The evening is allowed to play itself out, with Jay losing his cool and then coming round, Gal comforting Jay's kid and wife and Fiona unphased by anything she sees. By the end of the night we know these characters inside out. We understand the off-beat but believable dynamics of their relationships. The film's restless editing style and floating camera keep the pace moving and lend the film a slightly documentary feel. (The scene reminded me a little of the opening to Trapero's Born and Bred.)

This doesn't feel like a film whose title is Kill List: it feels more subtle, more intricate and more ambitious. But this is the high water mark of the movie. The next stage moves towards more standard UK fare as Jay and Gal take on a new job. They're hitmen and they've been given a list of people: a priest, a librarian, an MP. The film mutates into McDonagh's In Bruges. Gal and Jay enjoy some lively repartee as they go about their violent and increasingly unhinged business. It's all a bit strange and slightly creepy, but with Jay's family out of the picture the dramatic tension diminishes. Then comes the last of the three movies within a movie. The denouement suddenly goes all Wicker Man. There's a lot of running around in tunnels. The people who've hired our heroes turn out to be leaders of a cult. Who do exactly what you'd expect from cult leaders: they make their followers wear funny art-designed straw masks and walk around in the nude in the middle of the night, as well as carrying out random executions for their and our entertainment. It's not going to end well for Jay, and whilst the filmmakers might have thought that the final reveal would be a shock, it feels about as surprising as the fact that Tony Blair turns out to be Murdoch's child's godfather.

In a way, Kill List seems to contain the good, the bad and the ugly of British cinema. Like so much of the cinema we make, it ultimately feels as though it's aspiring to cult status, rather than trying to tell a truthful story. This inevitably means that the film starts to feel like a video game, which is exactly what happens in the last 15 minutes. Somewhere along the line it seems as though someone lost their nerve. Perhaps the filmmakers, perhaps the financiers. The opening of Kill List suggests a film that might have the capacity to be genuinely unsettling. But it can't sustain this. Instead, it ends up trying too hard and resorting to too many clichés. There is considerable skill in the editing, the sound design, and the dialogue (some of which is credited to the actors themselves). It may even be that Kill List garners the cult following it so desperately seeks. But in the end it feels like it's seeking points for effort and ticking boxes. There may be a filmmaker of real vision at work there somewhere, but this isn't the film that proves his case.