Thursday, 31 March 2011

cave of forgotten dreams (herzog)

The La's come to mind. There she goes, there she goes again. He's back. Only, Werner is unmistakably masculine, grizzled. An idealist/cynical bear emerging out of the Neolithic underworld, come to charm and provoke and remind us that progress is a modern invention which doesn't mean as much as it thinks it does.

Which is why his latest film, dealing with a recently discovered cave in the Auvergne, decorated with painting up to 32,000 years old, offers fruitful territory for the old irascible. At one point he observes how a horse has been painted with Meyerhold-like legs, suggesting it is really running, and claims it, as he would, as the progenitor of cinema. Werner face to face with his roots, as man, as artist, as cineaste.

In truth, The Cave, in spite of its 3-D fireworks, feels a little Werner-lite. Here's a man who's successfully carved out his own niche, documenting whichever esoteric story takes his fancy, knowing the world will take an interest. Perhaps, in the face of the remarkable, quasi-religious discovery of the cave, Herzog cannot help adopting a reverential gaze. His usual quirkiness is muted; the would be Neolithic flute-player warbling the Star Spangled Banner being one of the few occasions the filmmaker lets his guard down and offers some bona fide Herzog humour. Perhaps it was in recognition of this that he added the curious postscript about the mutant alligators, offering a sly link with his Bad Lieutenant.

It might also be that there's another intriguing cog in Werner's wheel. One of his hallmarks has been the way in which nature, far from being an idyll, is a shadowy, antagonistic force. This idea reappears throughout his work. Given his art is founded to such an extent on technology, perhaps we should not see it as surprising. Cinema is still the most modern of the arts, and in adopting it, Herzog has explored the frontier that exists between what man can achieve and what nature resists. So, when the engaging circus artist turned archeologist tells him how he dreamt of lions for days after he emerged from having spent time in the cave, it's no surprise Werner asks him if he had been scared in his dreams. To which the man replied that he hadn't been. When, at the film's conclusion, we finally see the cavepainters' lions, it's true that they look far from frightening. Their expressions seem mournful or noble, sleek heads on sleek bodies, with no hint of aggression.

It's easy to romanticise these painters and their connection with nature, which appears from their paintings to have been less fraught, more integrated with the wild creatures that surrounded them, than our own. This could be a misreading of the images. The point is that Herzog doesn't seem interested in presenting his more habitual counterpoint. There are no warning from Werner about the negative power of nature in this film. Instead, the filmmaker seems unable to do anything but adopt the most warm-hearted approach towards the painters of the Chauvet cave and the world they depicted. He is seduced and the fear is kept at bay.

Friday, 25 March 2011

route irish (d loach, w laverty)

So Route Irish is the most dangerous road in the world. Roger? Where better for a commercial black op team to pull a black op? Check. And confirm the intrinsic evilness of the UK-US military industrial enterprise. Which is now being privatised. Check. Iraq is just dust now. Roger. They could sort out Dafur in a matter of weeks. They could rule the world by Christmas. He Has to DO Something about it -
Like what?
Well, he could take up waterboarding.
But that doesn't work.
Yes, but it's dramatically effective?
Here's the scene. Good guy, our man, realises the error of his ways. Goes rogue. Captures bad guy gone rogue. In his 4 Wheel drive. Makes a quip about golf.
Then waterboards him. Only it doesn't work.
Nice. Who are you thinking of casting? Pitt? Damon? Chuck Norris?
This is a Ken Loach film.
Oh. Ewan McGregor? Also - will the audience understand all this? I mean, what is Route Irish anyway?
It's the most dangerous road in the world. We'll tell them. We'll make it crystal clear. We'll tell them repeatedly. We'll bomb them with information. This is a counter-intel info war. There will be no let-up. EVERYTHING WILL BE EXPLAINED> SEVERAL TIMES> AND THEN ONCE FOR LUCK>>>
How does it end?
Good. What about the Iraqis?
You know, the Ir-
This is about the war of the industrial-military complex against the whole world! It's more than just the Iraqis! This is about Liverpool!
We'll put in some Iraqis. If we have to.
Dead Iraqis or living Iraqis?
Lots of dead and suffering Iraqis. In grainy 'authentic' footage.
Great. Any, you know - Iraqi - characters?
I told you this is about the military-industrial -
In Liverpool. I know. But isn't Route Irish in -
OK. We'll have an Iraqi.
Good. Otherwise - you know - it won't feel - authentic.
We'll make him a sensitive musician.
So that the audience root for him.
So. How much do you need?
How long is Route Irish?
I don't know. I've never been there.
Don't worry. We're filming in Jordan.
Great. I heard Jordan has great cuisine.
This is a Ken Loach film! It's not about fucking cuisine!
Iraqi cuisine?
OK. OK. He can play some music.
The Iraqi musician.
Cultural references.
Great. I love Loach. He's so -

Sunday, 20 March 2011

seconds out (martin kohan)

Seconds Out is a playful novel, reminiscent of the work of Cercas, which explores the nature of time, among other things. It's based around the 17 seconds that occurred between Jack Dempsey being knocked down and returning to the ring during a 1923 heavyweight boxing title fight by the Argentine challenger Luis Firpo. Even those with no interest in boxing will be aware that 17 seconds doesn't sound right. Standard procedure, which was not applied in this instance, is a count of ten seconds. Dempsey gets off the hook, returns to the fight and wins. This twist and the way in which the news is reported in Argentina has catastrophic effects. The book has a chapter for each of the 17 seconds, examining the incident from the perspective of Dempsey himself, a photographer and the referee. Extending the investigation of the moment, the book is framed by the device of two Patagonian journalists on a local paper who have to write an article fifty years afterwards on an event from 1923. Verani is writing about the fight whilst Ledesma, his colleague, writes about the simultaneous visit of Strauss' Viennese orchestra and their playing of a Mahler symphony.

Using disparate ingredients, Kohan stitches together a loose tapestry of information, bringing Mahler's biography and early 20th Century Argentine history together. It makes for a strange, breezy read. The presence of a mysterious narrator, who's trying to get to the bottom of a suicide which occurred at the time of the fight and used to be a junior to the two journalists, adds to the sense of a narrative which is always on the point of revealing a great secret. In truth, the revelations which do occur seem somehow underwhelming. There's something of a flawed conjuring trick about the book: it grips the attention with the anticipation of the trick to come; but the trick itself is less impressive than the set-up. However, it may be that that's part of the point. It's an anti-narrative. From the point of view of an Argentine, the wrong man wins and history forsakes the challenger. Argentina becomes a place where the likes of Strauss never visit. The clock runs backwards. Seventeen seconds that changed the perspective of a nation, Kohan might be suggesting.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

norwegian wood (d. anh hang trun)

My erstwhile friend Mr C, at a point in his life where he was internet dating, used to say that there were two things which every woman he met put at a premium. One was lazy Sunday mornings. The other was Murakami. Personally, I resisted getting caught up in the craze for the Japanese writer that seemed to sweep London. It's to the credit of Mr Trun that his film version of the successful book leads me to think my snobbery was, as usual, misplaced.

On one level, there's something scarily melodramatic about the story. Girl's boyfriend kills himself, boyfriend's best friend falls in love with girl, who can't get over her ex. Then someone else falls for best friend who can't get over girl. Who kills herself and thereby cuts Gordian knot. There's an extended anguish scene as Watanabe suffers beside a suddenly even more portentous sea after Naoko's demise which in another film would be teeth-pullingly indulgent. But somehow, Trun gets away with it. Just like he gets away with the slight vaguaries of the script as it attempts to squash the novelist's narrative into cinematic form. There's some intriguing but redundant social protest scenes in the opening act, and the exact purpose of Wanatabe's decadent friend Nagaswa remains unclear. Nevertheless, the film, which is over two hours long, gradually seems to find its groove. Wanatabe's tragic compromise becomes more and more understandable. The tortured architectonics of love, something that has to be endured as much as savoured, slowly make some kind of sense.

The scale of the film allows the director to investigate an idea of romantic love, its longeurs, its wayward course, its sometime futility, in a way that a 'tighter' narrative might struggle to achieve. This is territory which the novel usually deals with more convincingly than cinema, because the novelist has dispensation to let the story wander where it will. Had the screenplay police got hold of this film, they would have squeezed the heart out of it. Young lovers do tend to spend a lot of time wandering around aimlessly, trying to find their way, and Trun's depiction of Wanatabe's puzzling journey captures this acutely.

Well, anyway, it convinced me. Maybe it's down to the lush cinematography and the winsome Japanese actors. Maybe I'm seduced by the exoticism. But to me it feels like, fifteen years after he made Cyclo, Trun's almost lazy style was made for Murakami's romantic tale. To be watched on a Sunday afternoon. After spending the morning being lazy yourself.

Monday, 14 March 2011

the collaborator (mirza waheed)

I heard someone talking on the radio the other day - world service, now rediscovered as the finest the BBC has to offer - talking about the traditions of Middle Eastern literature. And how it was hard for the West to understand to what extent literature from that region is of necessity a literature of protest. He was editing a collection, which I would buy if I could remember it's name, so it felt like he knew what he was talking about. I think the point was something along the lines of the fact that the mere act of writing fiction within the context of an autocratic regime meant to potentially commit an act of transgression.

Waheed's book comes from the furthest reaches of the Middle East, the land where the Mongols built their palaces and dreamed of going to die. A land famed for its beauty, divided in two, perched in the Himalayas. The land known as Kashmir. This is also a book of protest. It tells the simple story of a young man who grows up in his Kashmiri village with his friends, near the Line of Control, only to find that his friends all leave for Pakistan in order to train to become fighters in the liberation movement, whilst he is left behind. And then how the village is taken over by the Indian army and, in the space of a few months, destroyed. A couple of acts of savage barbarism are enough to force all of the village to flee, save for the young man and his parents. The youth is coerced into working for the Indian army ad dreams of killing Captain Kadian, the man who sends him on his missions to survey the remote killing fields. It is the grimmest of rites of passage as well as a lifting of the veil on the atrocities performed on a regular basis.

When we were there, in 2009, we stayed on a houseboat on Dal Lake. The man who looked after us was one of the saddest men I'd ever met. His name, he said, was Jimmy. He was short, he shivered all the time, when he talked it left you feeling suicidal. Yet it was clear that whatever misfortune had afflicted Jimmy, he was a good man who wanted the best for you, the strangers passing through his world. Jimmy came from a village several miles from Srinigar. He talked a bit about it. He told us how it used to have electricity but now it didn't. He hinted at army brutality and tragedy. If you asked him more, he shook his head and looked away. The trauma he had lived through didn't appear to be something you could 'get over'. Jimmy was scarred for good.

Reading The Collaborator offers more of an insight into the unnamed things that Jimmy's village, in keeping with villages all over Kashmir, have suffered. The book offers what is a fictionalised account of what really happened, as seen through the eyes of a Kashmiri writer. It's not an account that the Indian government would accept or wish to see propagated. At a time when people are rebelling against repressive regimes across the Middle East and beyond, Waheed offers some insight into what they're up against and what it is like to be pushed to the point where you would rather die in the cause of freedom than soldier on under the yoke. Under these circumstances, it becomes the task of the writer to lead the way and speak out. The very act of writing becomes an act of protest.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

archipelago (w&d joanna hogg)

Joanna Hogg is back and she's not taking any prisoners. Archipelago contains perhaps even fewer moments of drama than Unrelated. The takes are even longer. Less things happen. She's pushing you to the limit of your endurance. Single-handedly, Joanna Hogg is creating the new Anglo-Saxon anti-Hollywood, and she's doing it a cinema near you, now!

That last part might be a case of distortion. Nevertheless, the Renoir was doing good business of a Friday evening. There might be a market for the middle-class Ozu homage after all. Or is it just Mike Leigh for the middle classes without the sentimentalism?

Funnily enough, I went to see it with my sister. Archipelago is a film about British families, and, as noted, specifically the more affluent British, the type who can afford to rent a nice house in the Scilly Isles for a fortnight, with comely domestic help thrown in. With her acute observational style, Hogg successfully skewers the gauche British approach to our emotional lives. Edward, about to go away for a year as a volunteer Aids worker in Africa, is not allowed to bring his girlfriend. His sister, Cynthia, is a minor hysteric and their mother is clearly in the throes of breaking up with their father, who never appears. The arguments all happen off-screen. On screen, the most anyone's prepared to do is allude to a problem, never address it. All of which seemed entirely accurate, and, as I say, seated next to my sister, knowing as we do something of this kind of world, it should perhaps have felt a little close to the bone. But I can't really say it did.

Archipelago follows a similar model to Unrelated. A family on holiday, their dynamics explored, with an outsider present acting as a kind of measure of the family's humanity. The shots are also measured, and the cinematography captures a slightly joyless, sub-Tropical beauty of the Autumnal Scilly Islands, presenting a washed-out, colourless palate similar to the range of the family's emotional register. In a way, this is a faultless film, but it's faultless because its parameters are so clearly defined. In one of the more affecting moments of the film, the posh artist friend of the family talks to Edward about finding your course and sticking to it, learning how to be strong in order to be able to do the thing you want to do, in his case art. It's one of the few moments when it feels as though the screenplay is going beyond gently poking fun at its listless characters.

Perhaps he speaks a little of Hogg's own efforts to make the films she wants to make. Which is admirable, and it's hard to criticise someone with a such a unique vision. Nevertheless, I can't help feeling that perhaps I should have felt a little more uncomfortable, given the circumstances under which I was viewing the film. Also, that this accomplished director might perhaps gain from veering off-course, rather than sticking to her guns, in her next re-imagining of British cinema.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

submarine (w&d richard ayoade)

The opening shot is of a teenager in his Welsh home, plastered with carefully selected posters and an unsubtle image of a submarine. The teenager's voiceover kicks in. It all seems dangerously familiar. A British coming-of-age comedy drama. The student audience is laughing within seconds. I get that sinking feeling.

Then, within minutes, it goes. Don't judge a book by the cover, the saying goes, and in spite of the fact that from the cover it looks like this is going to be gauche, in spite of the fact it has a cameo by Considine as a wacky neighbour, in spite of the fear that this will be Gavin and Stacey, the movie - in spite of all this, the film confounds the sceptic and something beautiful emerges from this potential mush.

Flair is a rare beast amongst British directors, and flair with a hint of heart is even rarer. With Submarine, Ayoade, however, demonstrates that he's in possession of this rare combination. The film is beautifully shot. The nouvelle vague homage doesn't feel forced. And the teenage protagonists, odd couple Oliver and Jordana, not only convince, they actually have you rooting for them. Because, of course, of their flaws, their horribleness, their awkwardness, their teenage selfishness. At one point, the film captures a conversation between them where they're not speaking. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, think back perhaps to those endless late adolescent hiatuses of love, when neither party can find the words to move on, when all avenues seem blocked, when it seems like this moment will just never end. Well, it resonated with me anyway.

After the show, the DOP, Erik Wilson gave a long talk to the alumni of his ex-film school, where the screening took place. He explained that Ayoade handed him over 120 films to watch for his prep. (He admitted he hadn't watched all of them.) Somehow, Ayoade has pulled off the trick of transforming his influences into something original. Just as each and every one of us has to live our own personal coming-of-age narrative, Submarine succeeds in convincing that Oliver's coming-of-age story is like none that has ever come before. Which is no small feat. Largely because at heart it's so French, this felt like one of the most bracingly intelligent movies to have come out of the UK in a long while, all the more so because it dresses up its intelligence in a sheen of underwhelming teenage angst.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

villa [guillermo calderon]

The upstairs theatre at the Royal Court was more or less full for the reading of the first of Calderon's double bill, the penultimate event in the theatre's Latin American season. Which means about a hundred people witnessed what is likely to be one of the finest piece's of playwriting to be seen in a London theatre this, or any other year.

Three women sit on the stage, scripts in hand, and vote. We don't know what they're voting for. We don't know who they are. We don't have a clue what this is all about. Gradually it becomes apparent that the play, Villa, takes its title from the debate conducted by the women about what kind of memorial should be created to mark the spot within Santiago where Pinochet's torturers conducted some of the most heinous crimes. Each one has her own idea, which she promotes. They vote again. Democracy seems flawed. They can't decide. A spoilt vote has as much value as an 'actual' vote.

On Saturday, at a seminar about Latin America, Calderon stated that for him, theatre had to be prepared to be a reminder of the bad things within society, something which in a supposedly booming post-dictatorship Chile is all the more important. The job of theatre, whether it likes it or not, is to be both the bearer of bad tidings as well as a medium that ensures the past is not forgotten.

Whilst this sounds like a grim remit, what Calderon's own words did not reveal, but his play does, is that the bringing of bad tidings is also an act of seduction. There's no point alienating people if you want them to engage. Villa, somehow, almost mysteriously, succeeds in infiltrating the full horror not only of what has gone before, but of our society's desperate attempts to find a flawed reconciliation with what has gone before, into a text which is funny, charming and has you on the edge of your seat. To such an extent that, in a play which examines the contradictions of using art to commemorate acts of political violence, the viewer doesn't know if they should not feel some latent guilt in the pleasure to be derived from the playwright's brilliance, as the text lays bare the full extent of the Pinochet regime's inhumanity.

This is a diversion, but it seems to me that the really great dramatists are those who understand the curious semiotic of the English word for a work of theatre. We call it a play. When you are lucky enough to come across a writer who really knows what they're doing, the play feels like an act of play, and the theatre feels like a place of play. This is not to say that serious issues are belittled. It means to say that the writer allows his or her audience to re-connect with their capacity to engage with the world on a level removed from the everyday, to re-form it. So that it can be seen anew. Calderon's work has elements of Beckett, Pinter and Pirandello. It re-opens old wounds but does so with a surgeon's precision and brilliance, so much so that it's only when the wound is gaping and the blood is flowing that we, the audience, realise quite what we've got ourselves into. Or what he, the playwright, has got us into.

Calderon himself directed the play and the impeccable work of his three actresses seems like a testament to the director's mastery of his own text. At the end of the play, in amongst all the other questions the play provokes, including whether I should really be typing this on a Mac, and to what extent is architecture fascist, or rather to what extent does modernity tip-toe in the shoes of our fascist past, or, to what extent are the tools we supposedly use to engage with society's ills actually tools which inure us against society's ills or - Well, let's be honest there's so many questions coming out of this play we, the audience are like kids in a sweet shop -

In amongst these questions two more banal ones crossed my mind. What kind of experience will Discurso, Villa's companion piece, which is staged tomorrow, offer? And secondly, why, given their support of this remarkable writer, has the Court not gone further and offered London a full production of the play, rather than just a reading?