Monday, 20 June 2011

the blind owl [sadeq hedayat]

I discovered this book in the Calder bookshop across the road from The Young Vic. The blurb referred to the writer as the Iranian Kafka. He's not. He's something else altogether.

The Blind Owl is a short, very dense text, of just over a hundred pages. It's narrated by a lunatic, a lunatic possessed by a cold thread of reason. The first forty pages of the book contain some of the most brilliant, hallucinatory writing I've ever come across. The last sixty aren't bad either. Hedayat employs horror, humour, repetition and acute powers of description to describe one man's madness as told by himself. You could say it emerges from a style of writing pioneered by Dostoyevski, specifically in works such as The Double, (so much in twentieth century literature seems to come from Dosteyevski) or, as mentioned in the forward, the French poets maudits, with their delirious introspection. From an Anglo-Saxon point of view, it feels like it might be the direct heir to Coleridge's Kubla Khan: this is what it's really like inside the pleasuredome, in a land where time drips off the walls and every bead of sweat contains a world refracted within.

What marks out Hedayat's text in particular is the remarkable use of repetition. Which serves as both a source of stability in a world where events seem to obey no temporal logic and also the source of a kind of comic damnation. It's all going to come around again, it's never going to change. Trapped as we are in the same old patterns (script after script; flaw after flaw; fight and flight, etc) the simplicity of Hedayat's device works to remind us that the narrator, for all his opium habits and exotic strangeness, is one of us, human, obedient to the inescapability of fate.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

point blank (d fred cavayé, w cavayé & lemans)

Someone somewhere must have known when allocating the English Language title of this film that it was thereby alluding to another film made in the late 60s by John Boorman. Perhaps it was a marketing exec, reasoning that this might drag in punters through association, subliminal or otherwise. If that is the case, one can only say, as ever, don't listen to the marketing men. Next they'll be calling any old remake 'The Italian Job', perpetrating the spurious notion that it's on a par with the original, etc etc.

It's a curious aspect of French cinematic culture that they love a corny old policier. It's a fierce strand that has run through the country's cinema over the course of fifty years, perhaps more. Godard played around with it, and before that Becker and Melville created their classics. Much of Chabrol's work is crime drama, and in recent years there's been the likes of Mesrine, various Audiard movies, Tavernier movies... The list goes on. Much of this is self-consciously inspired by or in reaction to US culture. It's almost as though there's a perceived need to provide a counterweight to the notion that the French are a bunch of arty, philosophical types, who make noodly films and refuse to invade Iraq.

Cavayé's film belongs to this tradition. Unfortunately, when the French ape the US, like almost all apeing of other cultures, it doesn't do anyone any favours. Cavayé appears in Point Blank to be attempting to make a rollicking, action adventure movie with twists and turns galore, a kind of on-speed version of 24, only with a mature 'adult' relationship at its core. The consequences are not hard to guess. This is like a steak-frites cooked by Macdonalds, with neither the horrific trashiness of the latter (something which at his best, Tarantino pulled off) or the quality control of the former.

Of course, the French crime dramas which work are those which are unafraid to drop in a dash of philosophy/ introspection. Le Samourai is a small masterpiece; The Prophet is perhaps a little self-consciously brilliant, but has its particular brand of brilliance none-the-less. The French can do crime drama; they just need to keep to their own titles and inject it with a French sensibility (whatever that means) rather than a heavy dose of ketchup.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

the tenant & the motive [cercas]

These are two novellas by Javier Cercas, brought together in one volume. They are primarily of interest in the way they show how far a writer is capable of profiting (in every sense) from the process of re-invention. The Tenant's setting, an American university campus, has something in common with The Speed of Light, but this aside Cercas' later work seems almost unrecognisable. In these early texts we get an idea of the writer's capacity for attention to detail encased in a relaxed prose style and a certain structural playfulness, (both stories containing a circular dimension), but its all done in a limited, slightly arch fashion: the novellas feel like exercises in writing, rather than the raw-blooded thing itself.

I have a feeling that in one of the later works that I've read, the author refers to these earlier texts, slightly dismissively. This is an aside, but in my early years in the capital, I went to a gathering at The Poetry Society, which was then in Earls Court, to listen to a clack of poets talk about their "juvenilia". It might be a false memory, but I have a feeling Motion was there, wearing a green suit, along with perhaps, Morrison and others. They read some of their youthful poetry and then dissected its awfulness; attempting to pinpoint the moment at which they acquired maturity as writers. I remember the evening feeling bizarrely self-congratulatory, and realised that anything I had written upto that point could only be seen by them as 'immature'. In a sense I suppose they were a pale equivalent of the figures in Cercas' friend Bolano's opening to The Savage Detectives. Whether time will recognise the distinctions being made by these poets between their immature work and their mature work will only be revealed in their remembering. Maybe I was just kicking against the pricks, as a would-be angry young man, frustrated by the green suits.

Because Cercas' experience shows that there is such a thing as development and there's no doubt that in the twelve years between the publication of these novellas and the publication of Soldiers of Salamis, he evolved, or rather, discovered another method of writing which was more appropriate for his skills. Having said that, there is then the danger that he will typecast himself as the clever writer who made texts out of historical faction. I'd like to think that there's no such thing as juvenalia (even if there is) nor is there such a thing as mastering the beast. The process is one of ongoing change, peaks, troughs. Keep trying, as Beckett put it, although he said it rather more eloquently.

Friday, 10 June 2011

beginners (w&d mike mills) & ballast (w&d lance hammer)

My week has been bookended by Brixtonians taking me to the movies. It began with Ballast, Hammer's seemingly low-budget, cinema verite investigation of low-rent lives in the modern Deep South, and concluded, (if the week is deemed a short one) with Mills' LA tale of loss and love. The contrast between the two films seems beguiling; both made by would-be indie US filmmakers, one seemingly outside the system (even though he has made his money out of doing artwork on the Batman franchise), the other seemingly within the system (even though his first film was an 'indie' hit.) The likelihood is that Mills and Hammer come from similar places and perhaps their movies have more in common than at first appears.

Ballast might well be termed moody. It's a sparse telling of the tale of a disfunctional family. The film opens when Lawrence, a lugubrious, large-boned black man, shoots himself after the suicide of his twin brother. Thereafter, he recovers, and his brother's son, James, enters his life. James' mother and father weren't talking and James has grown up thinking the worse of his absentee father, feelings he transfers to his uncle, whom he initially confronts with the gun he's stolen from Lawrence, the same gun Lawrence used to shoot himself. As the film unwinds, James, Lawrence and James's mother, Marlee, work out a way of living together. The piece is shrewdly edited, with the pieces of the puzzle slowly coming together as the audience comes to terms with the connections. It's also well shot by Lol Crawley, who lends an overcast pallor to proceedings. Under the influence of the Dardennes brothers, the film wears its earnestness on its sleeve. Still, it's not your standard US fare, and the film's real strength is its storytelling, as it weaves its story out of very little material into something that succeeds in holding the audience's attention. The intention seems to be to convey something approximating normality and make it watchable: to deliver the opposite of the Hollywood dream.

Beginners, on the other hand, is set in a lush-looking LA, with two fetching leading actors, whose lives seem by and large quite far removed from the normal. Oliver is mourning the loss of his father, who after the death of his wife came out and acquired a new life with a sparky Latino boyfriend. He then meets Anna, who occupies one of those infuriating non-parts: a French actress who lives between LA and NY, never seems to do anything, and has some problems with her dad, who phones her up and tells her he wants to kill himself. They run around LA and fall in and out of love and back again. It's all fairly vacuous, and once again would seem to have a strong European influence. This is post-Soderbergh, post-Godard, with McGregor and Laurent as Belmondo and Seberg. As with most imitations, its pallid. The film uses the image of its stars to convey its message: Ewan looks unhappy, therefore he must be; Melanie looks tortured, therefore she must be. There's nothing really going on, and once the love affair has been established, it has nowhere to go except to wait for Ewan's gay dad to pop his clogs, which of course he does, towards the end. Disappointingly for a director who has made his name making independent cinema, there doesn't seem to be any real ambition beyond presenting images for the eyes which seem to be alluring. There are plenty of them, and so there should be, but if you ever wanted proof that film has to be about more than just pretty pictures, Beginners will do it for you, largely because it seems to be trying so hard to convince its audience that it possesses a profundity it clearly doesn't actually own.

However, in keeping with Ballast, Beginners has made a virtue of its editing and its cinematography, as well as throwing in some cute animation for good measure. Clearly, Beginners can indulge all of this because that's all it aspires to be: well produced. Ballast on the other hand is trying to describe the reality of living in the US in a more 'authentic' way. It attempts to demystify the film process: longer takes, little fancy lighting (one scene which is over-lit, when Lawrence makes a pass at Marlee at the kitchen window, stands out like a sore thumb) and a concerted effort not to use the machinations of cinema to glamourise the images the film is capturing. Of course, it can't quite succeed: the opening shot, for example, of James sending a flock of birds into the sky has a dirty beauty Andrea Arnold would have been proud of.

The trouble with Hammer's approach is that only the cinema tragics went to see his film (which in spite of its low-budget vibe still cost $700 000 according to IMDB). The stars should guarantee Mills' effort some kind of audience, even if in commercial terms the issues of being gay and death might seem 'risky'. There doesn't seem to be much space in Anglo-Saxon culture for a cinema which seeks to use the medium as an agency of investigation or reflection of its society. Ballast makes a worthy effort, but Beginners shows up the shallowness of an industry which doesn't seem to know what it's there for, on anything other than a commercial basis.

Which is hardly a radical conclusion and suggests the whole premise of this joint review has revealed very little except for if you have a spare hour and a half and need to make the choice between the two films, choose Ballast. It's less fluffy, but it's got more body.

Friday, 3 June 2011

le quattro volte (w&d michelangelo frammartino)

It's a wonderful thing that cinema can do when you come to something in ignorance and leave in awe. Of course it cannot happen all the time, or else we'd never do anything else: it would be the best drug ever invented. (In a way perhaps the moving image, is just that). But when it does there are few things better than sitting in the black box and watching another vision of the world take shape before your very eyes.

Le Quattro Volte, and I almost say this between clenched teeth, is a small miracle of a film. Between clenched teeth because in some ways it might have been made to have been discussed and marvelled at over middle class dinner tables, and in singing its praises I might be seen as a middle class diner, or dining table. It is set in a picturesque village in rural Southern Italy (one of the few thoughts which disrupted my enjoyment of the film was the notion that, as in parts of France or Spain, it would not seem unlikely that swathes of the village might have been or will be bought up by those dining Brits), and it has nothing very threatening about it at all, excepting the odd goat. This is not a film that's presaging or even casting much of a nod at societal upheaval or global catastrophe. If you wanted to you could accuse it of being twee. However, no matter how twee it might be (and shots of a kid goat, stumbling lost through a wood, might be deemed very twee indeed), it is also brilliantly made.

I'm not sure exactly what the four in the title refers to as the film consists of three stories. One recounts the last days of a taciturn, gnarled goatherd. The second recounts the first days of a kid goat. The last recounts the last rites of a tree. All three are ingeniously connected, one story leading into another. All deal with the most profound of issues: birth, death, and what it means to live, as either animal, vegetable or human. Yet the film brings the lightest of touches to all this profundity. There's a barrel load of wit in the way it uses the camera as spy, or voyeur, on the three stories. Not least in a bravura sequence which precedes the goatherd's death, and manages to integrate Roman legionnaires, the passion of Christ, a demented dog and a flock of wayward goats. In the course of which it obliquely touches on the peculiar but vital life of the village itself.

The villagers remain bit part players in this sly documentary. (Is this a drama or a documentary? Both, or neither? This genre bending is another of its achievements.) When a villager turns, conscious of the camera, then tries to get out of the way, the deceit of the camera's anonymity is deliberately ruptured. At the same time, the host of cavorting villagers can be compared to a group of young cavorting goats, who likewise have their games and social structures, which the camera observes. There is a bizarre humanity latent in these goats, who will be born and get lost and ruminate and eventually die, just like we do. The interweaving of human and animal stories does more than any nature documentary ever could to illustrate how we are all mere creatures, with our curious practices, doing our best to get by under the big sky.

If Quattro Volte reminded me of anything it was perhaps some of Calvino's fables. The film shares his wry, ahistorical observation of rural existence and customs perpetrated since the time of the Romans and before. Things that go beyond language (this is a film without dialogue). If there's been any better exploration of what nature means and the way in which we, as humans, are part of it, no more nor less than a goat or a tree, I have yet to see it. Frammartino's film seems to have appeared out of nowhere like a natural phenomenon itself, laden with a wry wisdom and a pantheistic intelligence.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

the diving pool [yoko ogawa]

The Diving Pool is the second of Ogawa's books I've read in quick succession. This is a collection of three novelas. All three are told from the point of view of a female voice, each one on the point of alienation from her society. In The Diving Pool, a young woman lives with her religious parents who act as foster parents to a bunch of children; inspiring in the narrator complex passions of both lust and a muted sadism as she guiltlessly terrorises her younger foster sister. In Pregnancy Diary, the narrator is herself subjected to her pregnant sister's self-indulgent whims; in the final part a woman who is putting off moving to Sweden to join her husband who has a job there finds herself drawn into the menacing world of a nearly limbless caretaker.

There is more to Ogawa's writing than their featherweight narratives. She is what they might call a consummate stylist. There's that pleasure to be gleaned from reading her work of knowing that every sentence has been worked on, but not in an abrasive, ponderous manner. Rather they have been honed and polished, the rough wooden edges of words rendered now as smooth, yet unexpected, as a mirror. Ogawa succeeds in making the physical tangible: food has a curious presence in her prose, it's something alluring but also potentially revolting. Nature is Herzogian: as liable to sting as it is to caress. The depiction of the caretaker who has no arms and only one leg would appear to be something out of a horror movie, and the story feels as though it belongs to that genre, but the careful, cruel-comic descriptions of his method of making tea or opening a door gives the piece another dimension: maybe this man in not so much a figure from a horror story, more a self-sufficient hero? Ogawa's naive narrator opens up this space and the story is defined not just by what it tells, but also by what it might become; the writer playing with the reader's expectations in a delicate game of literary charades.

The interesting thing is that it's the featherweight nature of the narrative that allows the writing to get away with this level of suppressed potential: she leaves her audience wanting to know more. And we are happy to be teased like this on this scale; it never reaches the point of becoming grating. What we don't know is as important as what we're told. The unwritten text perfectly complementing the written text.