Saturday, 30 July 2011

tibet, tibet [patrick french]

As the title suggests, this book is of primary interest to Tibetophiles. Those intrigued by a mysterious land which sits in the sky and seems to effortlessly generate myths. French addresses this issue from the off, referring to the line from an obscure and second rate British poet called Henry Newbolt, who, in 1904, wrote a poem which coined the phrase: "the mind's Tibet". Writing as someone who's had a fascination with Tibet all his life, he explores the way in which the myths the country generates contribute to our failure to understand the current political realities of Tibet.

The book is framed around a journey which French took at the start of the twenty first century into Tibet. With a raft of contacts and a grasp of the necessary languages, he succeeds in travelling alone through the country, escaping the usual attentions of the Chinese state guides. In his travels he meets peasant horsemen, former political leaders, prostitutes, lorry drivers, state apparatchiks and the Dalai Lama. The book is full of French's encyclopaedic knowledge of Tibet history, myths and customs, but it comes alive when he meets real people who are searching for a way to live under the cement umbrella of Chinese rule. In so doing he obtains an accurate picture of events which lead up to the Chinese invasion and the brutal repression which followed it through the sixties and seventies, a repression intricately connected with China's own history.

The book skirts over much of this history, as well as British and US involvement in the country. What French's book ends up presenting is a paradox. On the one hand there's a Tibet whose history and people have been systematically attacked by the Chinese over the course of the last fifty years. On the other is a country which remains indelibly Tibetan; a place which the march of history might scratch but will, it seems, never be able to break. Although given this book was published almost a decade ago, perhaps this is an optimistic point of view.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

bal (w,&d. kaplanoglu; w. köksal)

Bal, which translates as Honey, won a significant prize at the last Berlin film festival. It was interesting to note the amount of Germans who worked on this film, presumably in part due to the German finance deals which got it made. The film itself tells the relatively straightforward story of a young, unconfident boy, Yusuf, whose father one day vanishes when off on a long trip in search of honey. There's an ecological aspect to his fate: the reason he's been forced to search further afield is that the bees are vanishing from his usual stamping grounds. The suspense element is generated by the question of whether Yusuf's dad is going to come back or not, something the opening sequence rather gives away.

Bal is beautifully observed and filmed; Yusuf's rural world is at the very margins of Europe, a place where mobile phones and the internet have yet to make an appearance. It's a rural community, but one which does not seem to be particularly poor: the family are seen to be eating well and live in a spacious house on the edge of their village. The reasons for Yusuf's reticence at school, where he aspires but fails to be one of the better readers, overcome by a stutter whenever the moment comes, are never really explored: he's just the way he is. At one point, when looking for his father, he's taken by his mother to a fair, where people have arrived in their cars to dance and trade: for a second the audience is given a glimpse of the wider world to which Yusuf is connected, with traditions and commercial possibilities his parents' straightforward life never normally touches.

The advantages of their life seem obvious: their home would make for a hippy dream house, tucking away in steep wooded hills. The disadvantages are, however, also clear: if something happens to you and you're a long way from home, no-one's going to come and help. Whether there's a more subtle commentary on Turkish life at work I couldn't really tell. Bal may be a beautiful film, but it's also so inoffensive it makes you wonder what the filmmakers, financiers et al were trying to achieve.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

tree of life (w&d malick)

Seated in the most comfortable cinema seat I've ever encountered, something so lush and leathery its comfort was as much of a distraction as a comfort, I had a Borgesian thought. Which is that cinema is aspiring to attain the perfection of the trailer. Wherein every moment is lush, pregnant with the incipient meaning of the film it represents, condensed with signifiers. And that cinema is in danger of aspiring to create cinema not as narrative, but as trailer. Ultimately films will all be trailers for a film which will never be made. Each moment in its 2 hours plus running time a signifier for a narrative it might one day have told, if films ran to days or weeks.

It's not entirely by chance that this thought should have occurred whilst watching Malick's oeuvre about the growing pains of a teenage boy in the American fifties. Lets be honest: the narrative here is entirely secondary to the sensory experience. Which is why it gets away with some Gaspar Noe style images of volcanos and what I took to be eggs being fertilised and even some ropey dinosaur CGI. The kid and his brother's story is told in images, with the usual bathetic Malickian voiceover, once again pregnant with suppressed meaning (in the same way as the voiceover in a trailer). And there were moments as I sat in that uber-comfortable seat when the whole thing hovered on the point of working; when I almost brought myself to invest in this child's life and fate, in Malick's restless pursuit of a utopic domestic harmony.

Then he goes and has them wandering around the south of Chile like something out of those old British Airways adverts, the whole family and all their non-friends, dressed in white. And the film felt oncemore like an advertisement for itself. Which might be the dasein as opposed to the opposite of dasein or it might be something else, but in the end felt oddly de-sensitised, Riefenstahlian, like the product of a society which has allowed technology to separate story from feeling, which is in danger of retreating into pure image.

But maybe that was just the seat's fault. I have a feeling I'll enjoy The Tree of Life more the next time I see it. See the unceasing roving of the camera as questing rather than the indication of a neurosis; see the acting as brechtian rather than wooden. There was some discussion of Malick versus Kubrick in the pub afterwards. I'd say the film which eclipses Malick's as an exploration of the perils and joys of childhood is actually Erdem's Times and Winds. But perhaps discussion of its merits is irrelevant, because Tree of Life is just a trailer for a film which has yet to be released.

Friday, 15 July 2011

allah is not obliged [ahmadou kourouma]

Child soldiers and depravity. The paradox of the image of the beguiling kid toting a machine gun or in the words of Birahima, the book's narrator, a 'kalash', is one that forms part of the iconography of post-colonial Africa. Birahima is one of them, and Kourouma's novel gives the image a voice.

It's a voice, steeped in slang, which is sparky, wilful and provocative. Never depressed or even world-weary, Birahima cheerfully recounts the things he's seen. In a world of never-ending savagery, the only perspective to take is one of grim irony, and, where necessary, avoidance. As Birahima wanders West Africa, from Liberia to the Ivory Coast to Sierra Leone, he confronts death on a regular basis. To offer some kind of testament to the child soldiers whose lives have been dispensed with so lightly, he offers up a sequence of 'funeral orations'. In a few paragraphs he outlines how they came to end up dying in the manner they did. But there are moments where he's clear about where to draw the line: what the reader gets is not the full horror, for there are many things that Birahima knows but refuses to disclose. What we do learn is bad enough, even if it's leavened by his Birahima's relentless optimism.

To what extent the book really captures the thoughts of a child soldier is hard to tell. Kourouma's book is also an acerbic attack on the warlords and corrupt politicians who squabble over the lands and the riches of West Africa. Doe, Taylor, Abache, among others, all make appearances, and chapter five is given over to a potted history of events in Kourouma's home country of Sierra Leone. it makes for a scathing introduction to the venal mess created in that part of the world, a writer's counterblast to the machinations of people with power. The book's narrative is episodic, as Birahima wanders around the killing fields in the company of the grigriman, Yacouba, moving from the band of one warlord to another as he searches for his aunt. It may be that it's impossible to convey the reality of the child's mind, and at times the book's central character becomes secondary to the writer's desire to let the reader know about the politics; but somehow the connections stack up and Allah is Not Obliged, in spite of or because of its haphazard narrative, is a powerful reminder of the way in which literature or art alone can offer a voice to the voiceless; can counterpoint the brutal realities of politics with the actuality of what it means to live beneath the yoke of politics.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

a separation (w&d asghar farhadi)

My friend Mr Westaway does a great impersonation of Hitchcock talking about the banality of the kitchen sink drama. I could not do it justice in the flesh, let alone in print, but suffice to say that the old master wasn't enamoured of the genre, if that's what it is. From my point of view, UK culture is still overly rooted in a movement that could be said to have emerged from the Court in the fifties, and has persisted in the work of Loach, Andrea Arnold and countless TV dramas which seek to strip back the veil of artifice and expose the 'reality' of contemporary life.

Part of the reason for being resistant to a movement that finds its ultimate expression in the melodrama of the soap opera, is that the film and television industries are mediated by the middle classes, or even upper middle classes, in the UK. No matter how 'real' a kitchen sink drama seeks to be, it will be facilitated by the same people who are facilitating the likes of Cranford, Lark Rise to Candleford and the latest Jane Austen adaptation. The kitchen sinks on show are more likely to come from Habitat than Wickes.

However, that shouldn't be a reason for dismissing the genre out of hand. The small domestic dramas, as Austen was aware, offer an insight into a society's daily lives that grander or more poetic drama cannot. And cinema is an ideal medium for the kitchen sink drama, which is relatively cheap to film and, if done well, depends on the effectiveness of the acting as much as anything else. Which brings us to A Separation, a film where a key aspect of the plot hinges on whether the central character hears what the home help said to his daughter's tutor whilst they were literally standing beside the kitchen sink.

As the title suggests, this is a domestic drama about ordinary people struggling to get by. The premise of the film is that, without any real antagonism, Simin and Nader are splitting up. Their daughter doesn't want them to, but Nader feels he has to look after his Alzheimers afflicted father and this means the family cannot move as Simin wants. As a consequence, Nader has to hire someone to look after his father whilst he's at work. Simin finds someone, a religious woman from a poor background, who happens to be pregnant, not that you can tell. One day Nader comes home and finds his father on the floor with the woman absent. When she gets back he dismisses her, pushing her out of his flat. She loses the baby, and before Nader knows it he's up for murder.

These are the bare bones of a beautifully observed story, which hinges on a moment the viewer's already seen and hence is in a position to make their own judgement. It's very clever storytelling, mostly set within what appears to be a relatively middle class apartment. As the full consequences of Nader's actions begin to be felt, the viewer learns what it means to live in this society, one stifled by poverty and religion, as well as its curious, seemingly ad hoc legal system. However, more than just offering a vivid picture of contemporary Tehran, Farhadi also unswervingly charts the lines that exist in so many cultures between third and second worlds, and the intense pressure ordinary people all over the world feel exerted on them as they try to get by within these faultlines. Simin and Nader have a seemingly pleasant flat, she drives a decent car, their daughter goes to a good school, but all the same its as though society has restricted their potential for happiness, something latent in their situation from the beginning of the film.

Farhadi's film has been seen as a move away from the more cerebral cinematic essays of the Iranian tradition. In contrast to Kastiorami's work its narrative is straightforward. Yet the film is constructed with such delicacy, both in its screenwriting and its acting, that it never feels as though it's in danger of slipping into melodrama. A Separation is an understated and affecting film which appears to get to the heart of what it's like to live in contemporary Iran: it is as a result of its reluctance to shock or sensationalise that the film remains so watchable. I'm not suggesting Hitchcock would have liked it, but A Separation undoubtedly goes some way towards helping to redeem the kitchen sink drama, in part because it is not afraid to show the reality of a middle class kitchen sink; not just the working class ones.

Monday, 4 July 2011

lunar caustic [malcolm lowry]

A few months ago I decided to join Twitter. Fittingly for the purposes of this review the decision was taken within the middle of a sleepless night. I came across a quotation from someone called Malcolm Lowry and using small childlike steps of the ingenue, I 'favourited' it. This is the quotation:

When they smashed into the hurricane the jaguars moaned in terror like frightened children.

A few days later I discovered that Malcolm Lowry was 'following' me.

This was both somehow flattering, but also disconcerting. Because, to the best of my knowledge, Malcolm Lowry has been dead since before I was born. I decided to 'follow' Mr Lowry, and it seems he is alive and well and tweeting. Which can only be a good thing.

Because Lowry must be one of the most under-appreciated British writers of the twentieth century. There's a tendency to gloss over his existence. You can sort of see why. He never, to the best of my knowledge, wrote about stately homes. Or even class. There's a quasi-autobiographical streak to his writing which (until Amis fils came along) was considered a bit bad taste, or French. He writes about life at the global margins and never puts in any neatly intellectual perspective as a sop to his British audience. Lunar Caustic, a novella which describes life in a New York mental hospital, feels like the work of someone who's got down and dirty with the margins of society. I found myself thinking about the endlessly venerated Orwell, whose work seems twee and contrived in comparison (like the sweet cottage he lived in at the top of Portobello Road). Lowry, it seems, listened to the stories of a marginal world, wrote them down, and then found out his country didn't want to hear them.

Lunar Caustic is a brisk, brilliant 90 pages long. It's an observational, slyly humorous account of a British drunk, suffering from hallucinations, who somehow finds himself assigned to this New York madhouse, which overlooks the river. It's probably now prime real estate, but the book conjures up a New York where poverty is still a keynote in the city, a city which belongs to sailors and madmen as much as bankers and artists. The book's protagonist casts his jaundiced eye over a world he's found himself briefly trapped in, observing the human instinct for storytelling and the way in which (pace Foucault) definitions of madness have always had a socio-economic basis. The book's failing is that it is too short; we want to know more about Plantagenet, his drinking, his piano playing and his ex. Nevertheless the prose is always fluent; Lowry's anti-heroic voice singing out from this hidden corner of the world.

In an earlier life, Plantagenet has been a sailor. One of his journeys involved, (with a neat symmetry from my reading point of view), transporting wild animals through a typhoon off the Bay of Bengal. At which point the writer informs us, and I think it bears repeating:

When they smashed into the hurricane the jaguars moaned in terror like frightened children.

Friday, 1 July 2011

the hungry tide [amitav ghosh]

This is one of those books that arrived at a time of need. When you don't really know what you're doing yourself and you can't understand why things are happening as they are and you can't think about reading anything but then you do and the voice of the author anchors you. This is the world. Not the things that happen. But the things that are written. Which exist like a permanent rainbow overhead, a pot of gold which is constantly within reach.

In the end, oddly, Ghosh's book left me feeling disappointed. But in the beginning, it was a revelation. To say this reveals that reading this writer is to embark on a journey. Fittingly, the book's two principle characters, Piya, the US cetologist and Kanai, an Indian translator, meet on a train as they are about to begin a journey to the Sundarbans, a series of mangrove swamp islands in the Bay of Benghal, not all that far from Calcutta. Piya is hoping to study river dolphins; Kanai is returning to visit his aunt, whose late husband's notebook has been discovered and bequeathed to Kanai, for reasons he doesn't entirely understand.

Immediately the reader is thrown into rich novelistic territory. What will Kanai discover in the journal? Will Piya find the dolphins and what will happen if she does? How are these two seemingly disconnected persons due to become connected? Ghosh's book is so well formed, it's foundations laid with the cunning and art of a mason, that it's an immediate delight to feel oneself, as a reader, caught up in his tide, rolling down the river with his effortless narrative. In addition to all this, the book feels as though it's hard-wired into the land he's talking about: the people's myths; the presence of nature, above all in the shape of the mercurial, murderous tigers; the influence of the British; and finally, the force of the weather, which shapes the land as well as the stories of those who inhabit this land. Including all the characters we will meet. At one point, the narrative even finds a way to inform the reader of how the birth of the continent, so far away and yet so present, the island that was India colliding with Asia, forming the Himalayas and its rivers, helped to shape this land, and its people.

At times this is bravura writing, the novelist providing the perspective for his characters' stories (and our own) which day-to-day life has no time for. Ghosh achieves this without imposing his voice upon this audience: the information he conveys resides within the dreams, folklore and learning of the people he writes about. You come out of the book feeling as though you too have visited the Sundarbans and walked in the shadow of the tiger. The moment Fokir, the local fisherman, explains to Piya, distraught at the killing of a tiger, why the tiger has allowed itself to be killed, is a remarkable one, the inherited knowledge of the land trumping everything our liberal Western sensibilities have taught us (with our inherited knowledge) to feel.

Perhaps strangely, it felt to me as though the book's denouement was its least convincing aspect. As though the mechanics of the story are in danger of taking hold. There are moments in this book when you can see the gears moving. Perhaps because he had done such a job of luring me into his trap, it's closing felt like an anti-climax. Nevertheless, the job had been done. I had been taken out of my world, a world without sense, and escorted through another one. The act of separation helping to lend perspective to my own. Reading being the opposite of escapism; instead a space for contemplation, the novelist's acute presentation of the parameters of his described world allowing one to spy the parameters of one's own.