Tuesday, 26 April 2011

how i ended this summer (w&d aleksei popogrebsky)

Two men, stuck on an island in the Arctic Ocean off the North Coast of Russia. It's a recipe for trouble, evidently. Especially when we learn early on that there's an 'isotope' on the island. What is an isotope, you might be asking? Well, it's a biggish radioactive device that looks like a half-submerged bomb. It gives off a satisfyingly dramatic racket when a Geiger counter is placed in its vicinity. It can also keep you warm if you find yourself stuck out in the wilds. Dangerously warm.

Popogrebsky's film begins as a lyrical meditation on life in a cold climate, before morphing into a kind of pointless existential psycho-thriller. In post-Soviet Russia the hard-bitten Sergei finds himself foisted with the young studenty type called Pavel, who drifts around the island listening to his Yo La Tengo-style music and getting a hit from the stunning scenery. Things start to go pear shaped when Sergei goes fishing and Pavel receives the message from the radio that Sergei's family have been in 'an accident'. How he reacts to receiving this message determines their fate. In a sense this is The Dumb Waiter with a polar bear thrown in for the video games generation. (Pavel plays a rather neat shoot-em-up video game with a distressed mural of Marx and Lenin in the background.) The narrative becomes reductive, but then there seems to be limited scope for its development. It's not as though Sergei and Pavel are going to become lovers in the Arctic circle, although that might have introduced a more dangerous twist than the way the story actually unfolds.

The unacknowledged character in the film is the landscape itself, which is ably captured by Pavel Kostomarov, the DOP. There are several effective time-lapse sequences and the polar bear moment works well. However, in spite of all the things that work, the whole project feels a little too contrived and a little too abstract. It maintains a certain discipline, never succumbing to melodrama (in the style of Scorcese's latest, for example). But all the same, it feels a bit cold. Maybe if we'd learnt what an isotope actually does, or why this island has been used as a base through so much of Russia's history, we might have cared a bit more about what Pavel and Sergei get up to in their mannish games. But the script adopts the clean slate approach: the island holds no ghosts, just a relentless capacity for driving its inhabitants radioactive ga-ga.

shadow of the silk road [colin thubron]

Thubron's book is a curious journey. It's been several weeks in the reading. Crossing Asia from China to the Mediterranean. Following one strand of the Silk Road in a ramshackle, Westerly course through 300 plus tightly knit pages, full of dense, frequently poetic prose.

Anyone who's ever embarked on any kind of a journey knows that as well as the discoveries and the sights, there are also the longeurs and those moments where you wonder what the hell you're doing. Whilst Thubron obviously had more of a reason than some for his journey - he was on the way to writing another best-selling book - his account includes plenty of those longeurs and seemingly endless bus journeys.

The journey begins in China and, whilst still in possession of his full energy, this opening is perhaps the most engaging part of the book. Thubron gets to grips with the changing nature of China, retracing steps he's taken before. The fact he knew this land twenty years ago is to the book's benefit: the full extent of China's transformation in that time is ably conveyed. Subsequently, he continues to seek these parallels, looking at the way a place has evolved or declined. However, the route feels so haphazard that, as it unfolds, places bleed into one another. The Stans become something of a blur, and the final stint through Iran and Turkey is a breathless dash for the coast. Again, any traveller knows that there's a slight sense of diminishing returns the nearer you got to the journey's finish: you just want to get there, and the reaching of the end starts to become more important than the encounters along the way, but given that this is an account of the Silk Road itself, it seems as though the writer's weariness is in danger of short-changing the well-trodden path.

In part this is because the reader realises as the writer progresses that there is no real narrative at work here. This is travelling as a mass of observation. Some of it well done, some less so. When Thubron runs into 'ordinary' people, he describes them well. But too often the prose teeters on the brink of a heightened poeticism that runs the risk of seeming repetitive. (I lost count of the number of times he used the word 'faience' and I still have no idea what it means.) But what's going on beneath the surface? Why is the writer even embarking on this trip, unless he's just been commissioned? He seems to have no real stake in the journey, he's just a travelling notebook and pair of eyes. There's no real goal and no real story. Bizarrely, a note at the beginning of the book alerts the reader to the fact that the journey was interrupted for a year in the middle, due to the conflict in Afghanistan. But the book bumps along without reference to this; as though it has never happened. This acknowledged deception only provokes curiosity as to all the other unacknowledged deceptions.

Which is not to criticise the writer for these; the process of documenting a journey has to be a selective one. Just to suggest that his account might have had more purchase and been more satisfying if the writer had let us in behind the veil of his poeticisms a little more. Alluded not just to the journey of history, or silk, but also of the man himself.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

la casa muda (d. gustavo hernandez, w. oscar estevez)

Once again, a Uruguayan film on release in London. A Uruguayan film, no mas, starring Jerry, from Harold Pinter's Betrayal. Looking haggard and decadent and far too old to play Jerry, which Snr Alonso probably is. But his abilities as an actor helped him to overcome this issue on stage. And, let's be honest, his abilities as an actor aren't really tested here. Nor are the abilities of any of the other actors, of which there are approximately two. This film isn't about the acting. It's not about much really, at a slight 74 minutes. So, what you may ask, are it, and Jerry, doing here, in London town?

Casa Muda is a genre piece, made in a country that's making perhaps half a dozen films a year now. Casa Muda, a horror made with three actors, a house, a digital camera and a well-conceived sound design, would be among the cheapest of them. But somehow it's ended up getting a world wide distribution deal and selling itself for the already-in-production Hollywood remake. It's not the scariest horror movie ever made, it's not the goriest, but it might be one of the most intelligent.

The piece contains two key conceits. Firstly that it's filmed in a single take, apart from the significant coda. Whether this is true or not - the man on my right said there were lots of cuts and he found them distracting - doesn't matter too much. This is a selling point, and it's well enough done for it to have worked. The effect of this seemingly endless take is to create a piece of cinema that feels as much like a piece of classical music as a film. Hence the significance of the sound design. It has its longeurs - the opening is veering on the dull - it builds towards a finale, and within its progress it has sudden, violent crescendos. If you go with it, it's kind of hypnotic, and uses cinema in a shrewd, non-linguistic manner. The extended, real-time take heightens all of this and not only works on an aesthetic level, it's also a great selling point.

The second conceit is, to a certain extent, revealed by the title. A more precise translation than the working one of "The Silent House' would have been 'The Dumb House'. You can see why the distributors didn't go for that. However, the point about a dumb house is that it doesn't speak. Yet, this is a house that speaks all the time - it clanks and groans and makes scary noises. The title therefore gives away the twist, which isn't worth disclosing here. On one level its a ridiculous twist, as the Uruguayan paper, La Diaria, observed. On the other, it is a functioning twist. It seems to me the writers of the film were smart enough to know that in order to make something distinctive, they needed to come up with an effective functioning twist and they did so. The twist is more important than the viability of the twist. (Even if Bradshaw in The Guardian appeared beguiled by it.) Judged on the level of a horror film it may not be the greatest twist of all time, but it doesn't have to be. After all, it is just a horror movie. Or at least it will just be marketed as such. And this is key to the film's capacity for success. Which, on it's own terms, a little no-budget film made in the backwoods of San Jose, it has undoubtedly been.

Looking at Casa Muda from a perspective of Uruguayan cinema, I'd say, in spite of the fact it's not my cup of tea, that it marks an advance in an emerging industry. Anyone will tell you that the hardest nut to crack is genre. The way in which the film plays up to its limitations, doesn't try to be anything more than the canny piece of filmmaking it is, seems, again, intelligent. Its very simplicity will allow people to impose readings on it in years to come it doesn't seem to be seeking. It's also an object lesson in how to approach the David and Goliath world of the film business. Until you reach the top, your film is always going to be struggling to compete with the production values of films with bigger budgets and bigger stars. (Bigger than Snr Alonso, you might be saying, but yes, sadly, this too is true.) Given this, you can either become an auteur, and a great deal of developing world cinema is auteur lead, and all the richer for it; or you can take the industry on at its own game using the one tool money cannot buy - your intelligence. Hernandez and Estevez demonstrate plenty of this. Not so much in the quality of their product, more in the quality of their intercession with the industry, an intercession which would seem to have paid off handsomely.

Even if Gustavo only earned about $1000 for his grisly work. Nevertheless, the closing credits perhaps made it all worthwhile, no matter how meagre the fee.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

armadillo (d. janus metz pedersen)

It's interesting to learn that Metz's film has attracted criticism on the basis that it's too aesthetic. This, it has been noted, is a war documentary that looks like a feature film. The cinematography, the use of music and editing, all serve to heighten the viewer's experience. This attention to technical detail also raises the viewer's awareness of the silent hands at work behind the camera. There appears to be something of a paradox here, because, in spite of the fact they, (at the very least the director and Lars Skree, the cinematographer) are present at all times, in the midst of fire-fights and porn-watching sessions, this is not the kind of doc where the filmmakers become characters within their own movie. Metz and Skree try to absent themselves as far as possible and let the soldiers tell their own story.

Something which can't ever, quite, be done. Firstly, some of the conversations between the Helmand based soldiers, where they talk about what they think of the war they're waging, feel staged and even awkward. Secondly, the film includes several 'debriefings' including one key scene where a soldier appears to boast about his clinical execution of four Taliban, killed in a ditch during a firefight the viewer has already witnessed. Did the presence of the cameras, no matter how used the soldiers might be to them, have some kind of an impact? Were Rasmus and the others starting to take on roles within the as-yet uncompleted film? I don't think it's to the film's detriment that it raises questions about what the impact of having a camera trained on you as you go through meltdown in Afghanistan might be, but this issue does skew the notion of capturing 'reality'. Reality with a camera is not the same as reality without one. Not yet, anyhow.

As mentioned, Armadillo has been criticised as being dishonest. However, in some ways this means that when it does capture moments which feel inherently, indubitably 'truthful', these are all the more powerful. Such as when the bug-eyed wounded soldier sits by the side of a ditch, in a state of delayed terror, traces of which still seem present in his demeanour when the company visit him in the medical camp a few days later. Or, tellingly, the attitudes of the Afghans themselves. Their candour seems at odds with that of the Danes: they say it like it is. "You should go home. The Taliban are going to kill you all." Or: "My wife and child are dead." They don't look at the camera, which presumably, from their point of view, is wielded by another of the robocop aliens who have descended on their land and keep requesting them to put their lives on the line and co-operate. Armadillo's capturing of the problematic dynamic between the occupying forces of 'the West' and the locals themselves, often glimpsed as figures fleeing the latest skirmish to affect their village, is as potent as anything the film tells us about Danish army life.

The film's aesthetics do raise issues and imply a contradiction between the filmmakers desire to deliver a portrayal of the truth of war and their intention to create a well-crafted film. All the same, the very act of capturing war is perhaps, for now, an endeavour beyond the reach of filmmakers. At some point, an inherent dishonesty creeps in. It may be that videos filmed by soldiers on their mobile phones in Iraq or Libya etc are a truer account, but these tell only the most fractured of narratives, they confuse as much as they enlighten. The sequence when the Danes are attacked and fight back, provoking the potential human rights abuse, is baffling, as war must be: who's fighting whom? Are we shooting in the right direction? What the fuck is going on?

My take on the way Metz has gone about this is that he has recognised this inherent dishonesty in the bid to capture war on film, and has therefore embraced it. The very last scene shows the tough Rasmus, back in Denmark, in the shower in his home. This scene is clearly and unambiguously staged. As though the filmmakers are acknowledging the artifice behind their art. Whilst stating, as we have seen to be true, that this doesn't mean that the things that we have witnessed did not occur. Nor that a price has been paid which we, the viewer, even after watching the film, still cannot fathom.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

piano (jean echenoz)

The randomness of the reading process leads me via a Guardian recommendation to Echenoz, about whom I knew nothing, and having now read the brief Piano, am none the wiser. This slight book starts promisingly with its Paris-based description of a concert pianist who suffers from stage fright and has to be literally pushed on-stage by his curious, down-to-earth minder. Who are these people? What is their real connection? Why does Max, the pianist, live with his sister and dream every night of a woman he last saw thirty years ago? These and a succession of banal but potentially significant questions suggest that this is going to be an enigmatic, quirky read. The reader, enjoying the depiction of another side of Paris life, suspects that a layer of profundity is about to be revealed, or at the very least, hinted at. Especially when it is made clear that Max is going to die at some point. A treatise on death? A meditation on the life well lived? The critics' remarks on the front and back of the book claim this is so, but if that's the case it went over my head. Rarely has a reading experience felt more like literary wallpaper. Not an unpleasant wallpaper to find oneself perusing for the couple of hours it takes to read the book, quite soothing in fact, but wallpaper nonetheless.

I feel as though I ought to give Echenoz another go, and if all his books are this slight it might be possible to read the complete works in a weekend. It would seem he's a highly respected figure and the good folk on the comments section of the Guardian books page (no sign of Pelevin) seemed most enamoured of him. Which is not, when you think about it, necessarily something that should influence one's judgement. The book did, briefly, make me want to return to Paris at least one more time. But it didn't excite my curiosity about heaven or hell, which in the world according to Echenoz might be considerably closer than Paris. And whilst I'd normally be a sucker for a detour to Iquitos, in this case even I found the detour gratuitous and wondering whether the writer conceived the whole book as an excuse to visit the Amazon city? If so, hats off to him and I hope he got more out of it than this reader got out of Piano.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

the kindly ones (jonathan littell)

The books you don't know where to start with are either the ones about which there is nothing to say, or those where there is too much. And in their too-muchness, leave one floundering. The Kindly Ones exists within the latter category. Since starting it a surprising number of people have approached me to say that they've been told about this book. But I've met no-one who's actually read it.

It manages to pull off the feat of being both an easy read and not-an-easy read. It is easy to read because, in spite of its length, it tells its linear narrative with a fluent, conversational prose style. When Maximilien Aue, the book's narrator, occasionally breaks from his narrative, the recounting of his war, the second world war, as seen from his perspective, in order to pursue a diversion about the nature of linguistics with respect to the Caucusus, or the difference between the Jewish faith and the Nazi faith, this too is easy to follow. The narrator is in no way stupid, he is well-read and cultured, but his imagination knows its limits. It has to because, if he crosses those limits, follows up the time he perceived Hitler as a Rabbi during a speech, for example, it would mean the loss of his job, his livelihood and his life. Littell reveals the imaginative straightjacket of the totalitarian state and this, ironically, facilitates rather than hinders the book's narration.

Then again, it is not an easy read because - Well, because. Because of history. Or more specifically, the history that the book's protagonist, Aue, lives through. He is a senior officer in the SS. He travels the length and breath of the Nazi empire. From Paris to Stalingrad; Berlin to Kiev, Auschwitz to Antibes. He sees things and participates in actions which might be named genocide, or atrocities, or homicide, or evil or any other number of words we use to describe the things that we all know happened during that time. (Still happen?) And the reader sees and participates in these things with him.

This is the great conceit of the book. It is - in part thanks to its fluid prose style, in part because it takes its readers into a world they know much about but also know so little about, in part because it has a clear, historically documented over-arching narrative (The Nazis lose - ) - entertaining. Aue meets characters and we meet them with him, who are, for want of a better word, sympathetic. Even Aue is sympathetic. So we read on through the massacres and genocide and the evil. We are entertained by this story. The fate of the Jews and the gypsies and the mentally ill and all the soldiers who pass through the book might trouble us, but not to such an extent that we can do anything about it. Aue's readers are, it might be said, complicit in his narrative. His terrible narrative.

Which makes for a brilliant piece of novel-writing. I had reservations about the strand within the book, which comes to the fore in the final hundred or so pages, where the writer appears to want to consciously de-sympathise Aue. Who becomes rather more than a passive observer. In the penultimate section, Aue's embracing of a pathological, psychotic madness, it feels as though the author or the narrator has perhaps felt the need to inflict some kind of violence on the reader, to not let the reader get away with the comfortable reading experience so much of the book has been up to then. The Germanic order of Aue's mind gives way to a French delirium, with shades of Sade, Bataille, Genet. But the book and its writer have earned these moments, if they are deemed necessary. Perhaps it is just the exhaustion taking hold. The exhaustion of reader and writer; horror and war.

Just as I didn't know how to begin, I'm not sure how to end. There is much to say, as I have said, about this novel. More than I could begin to say. About the writer's ambitions and the innate critique of what it means to be human that the novel, with its curious title, would seem to present. What is the point of us lamely condemning things without either understanding these things or endeavouring to recognise how we might be guilty of similar complicity within our own way of life? The blurb within the book informs that Littell has worked for humanitarian agencies: in his re-imagining of the horrors of the Eastern front, there are often moments with echoes of our modern societal structures. As calculations are made about how much food a human can subsist on; what are the financial and regulatory costs of preserving or denying life; how these decisions are made within operating frameworks which allow the powerful not to view the weak as humans, but as statistics. There are echoes of Peter Singer; there are references to Kant and Hobbes; there is the acknowledgement that the Nazi infrastructure arose out of a socio-political-philosophical method of viewing the world which lived before Hitler and lives on after he and his Nazis fell.

And at the same time, in the words of Aue, a man without consonants, there are also moments of perverse beauty within what is, in the bravest, most transgressive sense of the thought, a perverse book. Such as the old man in the Caucusus, perhaps descended from angels, who denies the war's dominance by demanding his death, a death which has been foreseen, as are all deaths. Who orders Aue to dig a grave for him; to kill him; to commit the crime so that he might finally receive the death he has waited all his life to inherit.