Sunday, 28 August 2011

kind hearts and coronets (w&d robert hamer)

I went to see this with my sister. She said she couldn't remember the last time she'd seen it. Then, upon leaving the cinema, she commented that she wasn't sure she'd actually ever seen it in its entirety. Kind Hearts is one of those films which my generation by and large feels as though it has seen, even if it hasn't. It occupies its own, obscure place in the national psyche. In its way, it is as British as Loach or Hancock. The audience at the NFT revelled in the screening; it isn't every time you go there that an audience seems to bask so contentedly in the shade of its screen. There is a peculiar moment, however, towards the end of the film, when Price and Greenwood, both making acting look effortless, have an exchange which included that phrase 'ten little niggers'. For a split second, the glow was punctured, the gap between the eras rent asunder. On one level Kind Hearts encapsulates a kind of ageless quality of Britishness. On another, it belongs to another era altogether.

What is this ageless quality? It is distilled in the performances of the film's leading actors. The first is that of Dennis Price, the would-be Baronet and serial killer. Price invests the part with an insouciance which is almost Gallic. He is descended from the ranks of Sidney Carlton, Oscar Wilde and Hamlet. The absurdity of existence always flirting with its actuality. However, unlike the French, the Bristish never succumb to or indulge that absurdity. Rather it is incorporated. Into our customs, our sexuality and our disdain for the serious. So many of the greatest British characters succeed in capturing this disdain, upto and including Bond. The rules are paid lip-service, and then broken. Greenwood, that most under-rated of actresses, enters into this game with gusto. It justifies both her affair and her complete lack of scruples at the end. In contrast to these two, there is the famouly Titanic performance of Guiness, playing eight different characters. There is something heroically ridiculous about Guiness' performance, a bit like our empire and our delusions of grandeur. That Price should exercise that other aspect of Britishness to bring down the Guiness set seems entirely appropriate. As though our devilish good nature is triumphing over our pompous banality.

These traits persist in our psyche today. If I was being mischevious I might call it the battle between Pinter annd Hare. Hamer pinpoints this conflict with glee. In addition to this, there is a faultlessness about the film's tempo and execution which lends it the quality of a classic. As with any work of art, it is of its time, a time that has long since elapsed. But Kind Hearts manages to transcend its time and remain one of the most British, and beautifully British, films ever made.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

project nim (d james marsh)

If the first rule of film-making is to select a story that is captivating, the director Marsh has clearly mastered it. Project Nim recounts the history of a chimpanzee raised by humans as part of an experiment to establish the chimp's capacity for language. It has heroes - Nim himself and his defenders, as well as a clear villain, in the shape of the unlikely Lothario who ran the program and seemed to give up on Nim as soon as the going got tough, sending him to live in a hellish cage and then onto a medical research program which used chimps as quasi-human guinea pigs.

Following on from Man on Wire, Marsh has unearthed a remarkable story which more than deserves the telling, a kind of real-life Battle of the Apes. Nim's anthropomorphic qualities are astonishing, with several of the people who knew him commenting on his ability to read the mood of a room and its occupants, as well as his instinct towards a masculine domination of his territory that appeared to function across the species barrier. Several women talk about Nim in near doting terms: he was more than a chimp, he was a friend, and one that was betrayed by the human race.

However, in contrast to Man on Wire, Project Nim feels like a slightly more serviceable documentary, which does the job without a great deal of magic. There's a lot of talking heads, as the film unearths Nim's former associates, who appear in the chronological order in which they appeared in his life, departing with the aid of a slightly mannered camera move which slowly draws away from the interviewee before the story moves onto the next one. There is a good deal of archive footage and some fairly lacklustre recreations, but it feels a little bit like Marsh is coasting at times. Both the poetic and scientific aspects of Nim's ability for communication felt as though they needed to be explored in greater depth. Locked within Nim's story there appears to be a profound commentary on the limits of being human, both in terms of our capacity to empathise (with hints here of Rilke) and our obsession with notions of progress, a progress which only succeeds in removing us further from our origins. But Project Nim seems reluctant to grapple with the full implications of the fascinating story it tells.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

the reluctant fundamentalist [moshin hamid]

Hamid's book is the kind of text you can read in a single sitting. I read it in two. The narrative is compelling, the style flows easily, and the book's remit appears to be bold and topical. I came across it via an article discussing why there's been no truly successful novel about the fall of the twin towers. One of the article's conclusions was that the event itself was experienced so profoundly by the world's public that fiction finds it hard to live up to the real thing. Hamid's novel, as the title suggests, at least offers a fresh perspective on the theme by adopting a narrator who's Pakistani, living in Lahore, talking to an American spook. The implication is that the narrator is the reluctant fundamentalist of the title and that his personal experience of 9/11 contributed to his radical politics.

The book follows the narrator's fortunes working for a Morgan Stanley/ McKinsey style organisation called Underwood Samson. His job is to value companies, presumably facilitating asset stripping or hostile takeover. He has secured his post in spite of his third world pedigree, and in order to ensure this does not handicap him he works harder than his peers and looks set for a golden future. The novel's description of the conflicts felt by the narrator as he seeks to realise the Western dream of affluence and power is acute. No matter how hard he tries he will always be an outsider. When he watches the towers go down from a Philippines hotel he cheers in spite of himself. Later on a trip to Valparaiso in Chile he crumbles, unable to participate in the deconstruction of a venerable publishing company. He quits and returns to Lahore.

As the novel restlessly trespasses over four continents in the course of its 200 pages it feels for a moment as if Hamid is the writer who will be capable of relating the East/ West; North/ South; Third/First world divide. His premise is perfect and his observations are meticulous. However, sad to say, the book kind of fizzles out. Firstly, the narrator's transformation into a cult political teacher in Pakistan (the fundamentalist of the title) is dealt with in the space of a few paragraphs, so cursory that they fail to investigate this essential stage in his development in any depth. Secondly, the conceit around which the tale is spun of the narrator talking to a US spook in a Lahore marketplace goes nowhere.

All of which leaves the reader with the impression that they've only really read half a novel. A strong, promising half a novel, but also, ultimately, a lazy one. Underneath the book's supposed examination of what might lead a man to become a fundamentalist (or even a terrorist), one cannot help thinking that this ends up being another contribution to the Orientalism debate. Hamid's book with its ferociously simple prose style and lack of any considered denouement seems tailor made for consumption by a 'Western' audience. There's no real subversion in the narrator's destiny; he doesn't shock or upset or alienate us. If there have to be "fundamentalists" in this world, (and the shortcuts the book takes as it addresses the narrator's transformation don't leave us much the wiser as to what this word really means), 'we' would probably want them to be just like him.