Wednesday, 28 September 2011

tinker tailor soldier spy (d tomas alfredson, w. bridget o'connor, peter straughan, le carré)

According to someone who works for the producers of this film, it had a lot of trouble getting financing. Which seems surprising. Because if this isn't a gold plated UK film concept then what is? It looks and feels like high quality Oscar bait. Which is both its strength and its weakness.

From an early shot of jet planes swooping over Budapest, pulling back to reveal schoolchildren in a bell tower cheering, it's clear that the director intends to pull out all the stops in order to beef up le Carré's famous text. It takes the folk-memory of a grey seventies London and makes it hyper-grey. The frames drip with what one assumes to be a meticulously graded lack of colour. With its Alpha role call of British male stars, the film comes at the viewer relentlessly, bludgeoning him or her into accepting that, yes, this is film-making at the top of its game.

Alfredson's breakthrough film was also set in the seventies, not that many noticed. HIs measured Scandanavian technique should be perfect for the convoluted, repressed world of British spies. And yet, in spite of its reasonable pacing and careful use of flashback, there's something slightly pedestrian about Tinker Tailor. One could say: that's the whole point, but le Carré's narrative seems to suggest it isn't. Where the British act as though they are insouciant functionaries, seeking to out-functionary their Soviet opponents, the reality is that their Christmas parties are a hotbed of seething passions and intimate tensions. When Firth's Bill Haydon tells Oldman's Smiley at the end that his seduction of Smiley's wife was "nothing personal", you can't help feeling that this could be yet another lie, another false move in the chess game these players have chosen to get caught up in.

All of which hints at the film's major weakness: we don't really know who these people are. With the exception of Smiley's passion for Anne and Ricki Tarr's tempestuous love affair, we learn nothing about their secret motivations and desires. So, when the house of cards comes down, and the denizens of the circus meet their fate, it's hard to care. (Idly I wonder what someone like Welles, with his flair for fleshing out minor characters, might have made of le Carré's book.)

Given this, and given the way in which Alfredson so brilliantly made us care about his vampires in Let The Right One In, one suspects he has been hamstrung by an efficient but prosaic script. Sensibly it puts much of the dramatic tension on Cumerbatch's shoulders as Guillam, but the brief scene where he appears to be cutting his ties with his lover offers a glimpse into the real deceptions and betrayals at work, underneath the more obvious games. The moment Strong's well acted Jim Prideaux catches Firth's eye at the Christmas party offers another hint.

Indeed, the Christmas party scenes, albeit filmed in a studiously observational style, are when the film really seems to come alive. The spooks playing their complex games are suddenly made human. The seventies setting rings entirely true; the shadow of the war fomenting both camaraderie and gloom, with the West far less better off in comparison to the East than it so earnestly believed. In these scenes those of us who were still in our childhood back in those days might catch a glimpse of the country we grew up in, one which is now unmourned and by and large forgotten. For all its slightly strident quality, it's hard not to wish that Tinker Tailor hadn't done more to take us into this world (a la Lives of Others), to make us understand the battles that had been fought that underpinned the battles which these men continued to fight through the Cold War, battles of both a political but also a personal nature.

Monday, 26 September 2011

post mortem (w&d pablo larraín)

For some of us, and clearly from its undistinguished London screening, we are few, Post Mortem was one of the most eagerly anticipated film releases of the year. A film that warranted red carpets, gala screenings, celebrities telling you how much they loved it. Instead, Larraín's film was playing on the ICA's tiny second screen, in a grainy projection that did it no favours. Before the film started the audience were informed that there was a problem with the tape. They played five minutes of Silvio Rodriguez, which was at least appropriate, before fixing it. The whole thing was something of a verguenza, and one wonders how the film's marketing people, sitting on the work of one of the cinema's most exciting directors, have let this happen.

The pivotal scene in Post Mortem occurs two thirds of the way through the film. Its lead character, Mario Cornejo, (in some ways a prefiguration of Alfredo Castro's character in Tony Manero), is seconded into participating in the autopsy of Salvador Allende. This is the story of a little man caught in history's headlights. The scene itself is swathed in the blackest of humour, with Mario struggling to use an unfamiliar typewriter as his boss dictates his notes. In the film's credits, there's a thanks to Mario Cornejo himself. Larraín has taken this real, unknown man who found himself on the stage of history and fictionalised him, imagining how he got there and, more importantly, the impact his being there had on his already vulnerable psyche.

As a result the film neatly splits into two sections, pre-coup and post-coup. Mario is an apolitical figure. There's clearly turmoil in the streets, but he's more interested in his neighbour, a dancer in a seedy cabaret, who lives with her politically active family. Mario patrols the streets of Santiago in his red bubble car. It's a sullen city, pregnant with disaster, but Mario seems oblivious. Then the coup happens and the film shifts register. It embraces a kind of deadpan baroque, as bodies mount up at the morgue where Mario works, and he and his colleagues struggle to stay sane in the face of horror; not a slasher horror (though it's fascinating the way in which a scene such as the one where Mario drags a gurney stacked with bodies behind him feels like it could have come out of a horror film), but a real, historically documented horror.

As such, the filmmmaker is attempting to do something supremely ambitious: to convey to a modern day audience what those days were like. To recreate history. Not in a documentary fashion, but in a sensory fashion. We start to feel the sense of nihilism that arrived with the coup (and the aftermath of which Tony Manero explores in more depth). Whilst it's a bleak space, its also a strangely comic one; there are no rules, death is flat, matter-of-fact, on the edge of being farcical. Dead people are shot and they are neither more dead nor less so. Mario walks through this landscape like Buster Keaton, po-faced and desensitised. The ending, when it comes, is brutal and revelatory, savagely violent without even a hint of blood being spilt; a ghoulish work of performance art.

Chile remains a society where political divisions between left and right are heartfelt and integrated into the day-to-day. Larraín belongs to one of Chile's most political families: his uncle is part of the right-wing government which has been subject to violent recent student protests that lasted for months. To make a film about the most significant moment in its recent history is therefore a bold step in the first place. To do it in a way which is both oblique and horrifyingly direct is yet more of an achievement. As the immediate influence of the dictatorships recedes in Latin America, its artists begin the process of trying to make sense of the legacy they've inherited. The closing scene of Post Mortem summons up a society that is on the point of shutting itself up for the next thirty years. It's a devastating ending for a film which pulls off the trick of recounting an unlikely narrative about issues of enormous weight within its society whilst developing its own dry, idiosyncratic aesthetic.

Friday, 16 September 2011

monsieur pain [roberto bolaño]

Bolaño's literary history means that he's going to spend a long time dying. Having written extensively for twenty years before he was first published, there's a substantial back catalogue to be worked through. The reason he had to wait so long for success was more to do with the fact he was a maverick than anything else, scrabbling around on the margins. All of which means that, in death, he's more prolific than most living writers. This book is one that helped to get him recognised, and is the subject of one of his more famous stories in Last Evenings on Earth. As such it almost as interesting for its role within the Bolaño myth as it is for its literary qualities.

Monsieur Pain is a slight if beguiling book, set in Paris before the second world war, when the eponymous hero, a mesmerist, is drafted in to consult on the case of a man who is dying, apparently, of hiccoughs. However, a rival party doesn't want the man, Snr Vallejo, cured, paying Monsieur Pain a sizeable bribe in order to get him not to take the case. That's about it with regard to the narrative. The pearls are to be found in the writer's love of arcane detail. He meets a pair of twins who design ghoulish scenes in fishtanks, (a kind of cross between Mr Hirst and the Chapman Brothers?); Pain is plagued by random characters who pursue him across Paris. His former best friend has become a fascist luminary in the Spanish Civil War. There is an air of Poeian menace (the book includes a quotation from Poe at the front).

Monsieur Pain is neither a great book nor a terrible one. At times it feels like an exercise in style, at others it includes writing that is bona fide Bolaño. As ever, a little research brings intriguing results. Bolaño was always a fervent advocate of neglected Latin American poets. It turns out that Vallejo is not a fictional but a real figure, who died in Paris in 1938. One whose work is held up to be among the most eccentrically brilliant in the Spanish language. Vallejo's qualities don't really come through in the book: he is a man who cannot speak and is dying of hiccoughs. However, it might not be too spurious to suggest that Bolaño sees something of himself in the figure of the Peruvian, a Latin American poet dying in exile. Which would make Monsieur Pain something of a prophetic text, as though the writer sensed a tragic destiny underpinning his development, something that tallies with his instinct to auto-mythologise, blending fact and fiction, as though his life was a book he was constantly writing, fragments of which would be captured on paper and described as his novels.

Given this, the following lines from a Vallejo poem (Black Stone on top of a White Stone) would appear to have their part to play in the story and Bolaño's reasons for writing this book:

I shall die in Paris, in a rainstorm,
On a day I already remember.
I shall die in Paris-- it does not bother me--
Doubtless on a Thursday, like today, in autumn.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

the golden dragon (w roland schimmelpfennig, d ramin gray)

I had a spare hour to kill in Debden in early Summer and found myself picking up a copy of Schimmelpfennig's The Woman Before. It was sunny and I sat on the front porch as people out of an Andrea Arnold movie walked past talking loudly. In theory I was working but in practice I was just reading again. The play was a lazy read, but it didn't do much for me. It felt like there was something that wasn't coming across off the page. It felt a little shallow. It felt like maybe I was missing something, or maybe there was nothing to miss and I was just being tricked into thinking I was maybe missing something.

That's the context for going to see The Golden Dragon. After which I suspect that it was me who was missing something. Because The Golden Dragon is a beautifully written play about globalisation, teeth, society, asian food, and a whole host of other things. Its narrative somehow distils seemingly random stories about ants and crickets; a boy's toothache and a girl's sexual abuse; a couple's distress at having a baby and two air stewardesses getting over an 18 hour flight; blending these stories into an arcane, unlikely, culinary triumph.

The play is punctuated by the naming of oriental dishes and the listing of their parts. Perhaps this is what appeals to Schimmelpfennig about this cuisine: the way in which it takes seemingly un-cooperative ingredients and uses them to create dishes which everyone, all over the known world, wants to eat.

However, without going into the subtler and indeed more tragic themes which the writer addresses in The Golden Dragon, I'm going to offer an excuse for my slightly dismissive reading of his earlier play in Debden on a sunny day in what felt like an Andrea Arnold film. (Except that the film being made was actually about a woman falling in love with a serial killer on death row.) Which is that Schimmelpfennig's work requires something which is not that common in British theatre. It requires an understanding that a theatre is not a television, or even a cinema. And it also requires direction. All too often our attitude towards a difficult text is to attempt to make it simpler, more digestible. Rather than embracing the complexity and seeing it as a challenge. It's a director's job to take something which seems hard or even impossible to convey to the audience on the page and realise the author's intention on the stage. Gray's staging of The Golden Dragon, jumping from room to room, scenario to scenario, on what is essentially an empty stage, might be termed Brechtian or Brookian. Whatever the label, Schimmelpfennig's text demands more than slavish re-presentation, it demands direction, something which has clearly been supplied. The actors and designers have responded with imagination, vigour and wit. The show embraces the writer's seemingly arcane conceits and brings them to life. In the process the audience at the Arcola is reminded of what theatre is/ can be - a process which engages with our imaginations, which wakes the dormant child within us, which takes us by surprise.

Of course, in order to do this, you also need writers who are capable of creating texts which allow directors room to really do their job. Something which, (as noted by Simon Stephens in his German lecture earlier this year), British theatre isn't all that comfortable with. The Golden Dragon offers a glimpse of another theatre which flourishes on other shores but withers here. Schimmelpfennig's play is a playful (profound) delight, but the production as a whole is a vivid reminder of what theatre can achieve when it puts its mind to cooking up a feast.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

days of heaven (w&d terrence malick)

Just because a film is pretty to look at doesn't make it a masterpiece. It needs a bit more than sweeping vistas and chiselled jaws. Fortunately Malick's now seminal film is more than just a pretty face. 

All the Malick tropes are here in action. The voiceover, the imminence of death, the poeticism of the everyday. This was just his second film and it was as though he emerged fully formed, a filmmaking monster who acted with complete assurance whilst everyone else was scrabbling around learning the rules. The real danger which Days of Heaven faces as a work of art is that it is too perfect. Something the filmmaker appeared aware of, deliberately throwing away his ending as though to throw the audience off track. It comes as no surprise that he followed the young girl Linda down the railway line at the end of the movie, heading off into the unknown, not to make another film for over a decade.

It's Linda who narrates. Her deadpan tone and offbeat perception keeps the film grounded in the face of the epic menage a trois love story that drives the narrative. The child's eye sees things in a different light; it has more in common with the philosopher than the adults, caught up in their emotional ties. The things that Malick really seems to delight in are the offcuts, the shards, the scraps of life around the edges. A tap dancer; a locust; the shape of the wind. As a result the most affecting aspect of the film's narrative has nothing to do with the drama of its central characters. It's the way in which it somehow captures the impermanence of the life these people lived and the value which this impermanance bestowed on the ordinary, small aspects of being human.

Days of Heaven is, in its way, a Western. If a Western is a movie that captures what it meant to live at the edge of the known world. The precariousness, the sense that you could fall off at any moment. Meaning you had to savour what there was to be savoured; something Malick's vision and Almendros' cinematography do with a vengeance.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

harbor [lorraine adams]

The physical harbor referred to in the title is near Boston. It's where the Algerians, many of whom come from the same small seaside town, Arzew, arrive after they jump off the tankers they have stowed away on into the icy Atlantic and swim the last leg of their journey to the relative safety of the USA. The Algerians are fleeing from the brutal and under-reported conflict that has ravaged their country. The book follows the journey of Aziz, a former soldier, from the tanker up to his arrest on charges of terrorism.

The last word signals the secondary, ghost narrative of the book. Who are the bogeyman figures who populate our media and our consciousness? What does the shape of the "evil which threatens our civilisation" as Blair, Bush and Amis might say, take? In Harbor, Adams sets out to demystify what will come to be known as a terrorist cell.

The book is apparently based on testimonies that Adams curated during her time working as an investigative journalist. Her style is clipped, with fast edits between short chapters. The influence of Elroy appears to be significant, as she hops, skips and jumps through the years of the Algerians' illegal stay, constantly moving the narrative along. The effect is sometimes opaque: the reader can feel as lost as the novel's characters as they head into a new continent without much of a clue. Logical, "transparent" readings of their lives, the book seems to be suggesting, are impossible to construct. They inhabit an almost invisible hinterland of petty crime, credit card theft, black labour, nightclubs, religion, alcohol and ultimately, at the edge of the spectrum, fundamentalism.  Bit-by-bit, the narrative accrues, and our understanding of Aziz grows, shaped in large part by the terrifying events he experienced in Algeria and from which he will always be fleeing.

There's an acerbic, journalistic flintiness to Adams' prose. Like Elroy, she doesn't want her style or even our natural tendency to sympathise for a hero, to get in the way of the account she's giving. This makes for a compelling, ultimately tragic novel. What is revealed is that it is not so much the perceived threat that is a danger to our society, but our ignorance with regard to what this perceived threat really consists of.

Friday, 9 September 2011

curfewed night [basharat peer]

For all the fiction that I read, and it seems sometimes unlimited in its requirement for consumption, I'm a fictional gas guzzler, I can't help thinking that you sometimes learn more about narrative from reading non-fiction. I don't care what my post-post-moderns say, there's no such thing as a text without a story, or at least the implication of a story. I dimly remember Nietzsche saying something about how even his laundry lists or his shopping lists were part of an oeuvre (or was it someone saying that of him? It's all so long ago now, all that); and now, in an age when they can deduce or plan your life history from your supermarket receipts, isn't this even more evident? Likewise, the manual for assembling the thing-you-don't-quite-know-what-it's-supposed-to-be from Ikea, if you are unfortunate enough to live in a world with Ikeas, contains a story: the parts that should become a whole, the dream that is within your grasp, waiting to be realised. Not to mention, when it comes to it, all the literary detritus of our lives, the unloved emails; text messages; tweets and sundry which contain the gory details of the lives we lead.

So clearly a non-fiction book will also contain its narrative. In a work of fiction, that narrative is worn on the sleeve. (Even if the writer seeks to avoid wearing it on their sleeve). In a work of non-fiction, the apparent demands of beginning, middle, end; development; deconstruction; wholeness; the angst of perfection; these all seem apparently more remote. The objective is to account or theorise, and accounts and theories can take any shape or size. However, having read of late a few works of non-fiction, the importance of narrative to the book's success in meeting its objectives seems patent; and the the failure of the author to manage the demands of narrative remind the reader strongly of both the necessity and the glory of a consciously managed narrative.

Peer's book treads similar territory to Waheed's Collaborator, detailing the conflict in Kashmir from the perspective of a young man who has had to live though it. Similarly to Waheed, Peer's book opens with an evocative description of Kashmiri village life in the days before the conflict really took wing. However, Peer is a journalist, and his account is non-fictional. It is a loose, anecdotal ramble though his life and relationship with the land he came from. Peer left Kashmir to go to university in Delhi. He eventually gives up the job so he can return to Kashmir in the second part of the book and research the stories which will go into the writing of Curfewed Night. The author talks of the need to capture and document a conflict that the world has ignored. He skips from chapter to chapter, moving from town to village, trying to catch up the ghosts of his past and find out what has happened to them, revealing at the same time the way in which Kashmir has been altered and damaged over the course of the last twenty years.

However, this is a hotch-potch voyage. Peer doesn't seem to have a clear idea of what he's trying to say. Perhaps because, in spite of his protestations, he seems to have adapted to mainstream Indian culture so successfully, where so many of those he grew up with haven't. The book feels as though it might be fuelled by survivor's guilt; a kind of therapeutic journey which the author lacks the perspective to really describe. What exactly Peer's story is remains nebulous; and so, therefore, does his account of the Kashmiri conflict. Where anger suffused Waheed's book, Peer's seems predicated by a failed search to locate that anger. Had he been more conscious of this, this might have lent his narrative a clearer shape. Or something else might have informed it. As it stands, Curfewed Night does its job; but it seems to me the author's literary duty remains unfulfilled; in the margins of this book there lies another, waiting to be told, the one that squares the exile's life with the struggle he cannot help but leave behind.

kill list (d ben wheatley, w. wheatley & amy jump)

Kill List has received a fair amount of hype for a low budget brit-flick. There have been suggestions that this is the film to rescue UK cinema from its creative mediocrity. At one point, when our two heroes visit their employers looking to get out of their ill-fated contract, they ask what the job is really about. Someone tells them, that it's about "reconstruction". The word is carefully chosen, and would appear to suggest an echo of the British missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Jay and Gal were together in Iraq. Is this film a veiled political critique? What is its real agenda?

The film opens strongly. Jay is trying to adjust to life in suburbia with his wife and child. His best mate, Gal (a homage to Sexy Beast?) comes round for supper with his new girlfriend, the disarming Fiona. Wheatley's camera does a good job of capturing the dynamics of a long, boozy night. The evening is allowed to play itself out, with Jay losing his cool and then coming round, Gal comforting Jay's kid and wife and Fiona unphased by anything she sees. By the end of the night we know these characters inside out. We understand the off-beat but believable dynamics of their relationships. The film's restless editing style and floating camera keep the pace moving and lend the film a slightly documentary feel. (The scene reminded me a little of the opening to Trapero's Born and Bred.)

This doesn't feel like a film whose title is Kill List: it feels more subtle, more intricate and more ambitious. But this is the high water mark of the movie. The next stage moves towards more standard UK fare as Jay and Gal take on a new job. They're hitmen and they've been given a list of people: a priest, a librarian, an MP. The film mutates into McDonagh's In Bruges. Gal and Jay enjoy some lively repartee as they go about their violent and increasingly unhinged business. It's all a bit strange and slightly creepy, but with Jay's family out of the picture the dramatic tension diminishes. Then comes the last of the three movies within a movie. The denouement suddenly goes all Wicker Man. There's a lot of running around in tunnels. The people who've hired our heroes turn out to be leaders of a cult. Who do exactly what you'd expect from cult leaders: they make their followers wear funny art-designed straw masks and walk around in the nude in the middle of the night, as well as carrying out random executions for their and our entertainment. It's not going to end well for Jay, and whilst the filmmakers might have thought that the final reveal would be a shock, it feels about as surprising as the fact that Tony Blair turns out to be Murdoch's child's godfather.

In a way, Kill List seems to contain the good, the bad and the ugly of British cinema. Like so much of the cinema we make, it ultimately feels as though it's aspiring to cult status, rather than trying to tell a truthful story. This inevitably means that the film starts to feel like a video game, which is exactly what happens in the last 15 minutes. Somewhere along the line it seems as though someone lost their nerve. Perhaps the filmmakers, perhaps the financiers. The opening of Kill List suggests a film that might have the capacity to be genuinely unsettling. But it can't sustain this. Instead, it ends up trying too hard and resorting to too many clichés. There is considerable skill in the editing, the sound design, and the dialogue (some of which is credited to the actors themselves). It may even be that Kill List garners the cult following it so desperately seeks. But in the end it feels like it's seeking points for effort and ticking boxes. There may be a filmmaker of real vision at work there somewhere, but this isn't the film that proves his case.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

truth and reconciliation (w&d debbie tucker green)

The upstairs space in the Court has been transformed into a large theatre in the round. The chairs are wooden and plain. Several have signs on them advising they are delegated for family members. On stage are more chairs, lots of them, some laid out in neat rows, others scattered randomly. The show starts when a South African family walk on stage, a mother, her mother, and her two children. The mother refuses to sit down. The rest of the family tell her to, but she refuses. A Zimbabwean couple join them on stage. They are bickering. We don't really understand why. A Rwandan family appears. They too are arguing. Later, two men and two women from both Bosnia and Northern Ireland will appear. All these actors are participating in a process of truth and reconciliation.

Gradually the situations of the individual groups become clearer. But the process remains opaque. On occasions it's hard to tell who's done what to whom. Everything is messy and complicated. Every aspect of the process assumes a significance. Who sits where. Who talks to whom. Who looks at whom. These are not situations that require any ramping up of the dramatic stakes. The drama, conflict, call it will you will, is there, tangible in every instant of the play's brief 65 minutes. The writing doesn't try and capture the full horror of what has gone before in these countries, although it offers hints. It doesn't pretend to be all-encompassing. And is all the stronger for it. This is about the aftermath of conflict. The awkward, fiddly, painful process of trying to find the words with which to speak to the enemy.

Green's language is as precise as her staging. Sometimes the dialogue is machine-gun; sometimes hesitant. Every word has a weight. The characters try to resist becoming photofit images of victims. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail. A Rwandan widow betrays herself through her breathing; the South African mother continues to refuse to sit down. At the end the ghosts come out to play.

This is neither a "well worked play" nor an experimental piece. It is simply hypnotic writing which offers the viewer an insight into how history works. Debbie Tucker Green captures the speech patterns of five nations; she also captures the speech patterns of grief, anger and obstinacy. At a time when plays which try to look at the "big picture" seem to be back in vogue, her precision makes every moment seem to count tenfold, packing more into an hour than most do in three. Kudos as well to the Court for letting her direct her own work: writing this good needs a director who understands the value of every word.

Monday, 5 September 2011

attenberg (w&d athina rachel tsangari)

Until about a year ago references to Greece would conjure up images of beaches, sunsets and ruins. It's a long time since Byron went to fight for its freedom. Of course it has been touched by various wars, had its coup d'etats, military rule and revolutions, but by and large Greece has been synonymous with ageless beauty, olives and the good life. For now, however, that image has been displaced. Greece is now a front line on the global economic battleground. Middle class people riot and sleep in the streets. Politicians and financiers regularly speculate about its demise. Economic journalists head there to reveal the shape of a dystopian European future.

In retrospect, Dogtooth, Lanthimos' brilliant movie, seems to have been giving out warning signs. Within a walled garden, all was not what it seemed. Something was going horribly wrong in the Greek state and the chickens were coming home to roost. Tsangari, who has spent a good deal of time in the States, is credited as associate producer on Dogtooth. Attenberg is being marketed in Dogtooth's slipstream and it too bucks against the previous bucolic images of the country.

The film is set in a coastal resort, but it's a coastal resort in Winter. As Morrissey observed, coastal resorts in Winter can be depressing. Even more so when your father is dying of cancer, as is the case with the film's virginal heroine, Marina, played by the impressive Ariane Labed, who somewhat curiously happens to be French, not that you'd notice.  Marina has issues. She’s 23 and she’s never had sex. She practices kissing with her on-off friend, Bella. She imagines her father naked. Together they watch David Attenborough shows (hence the film’s curious title) and sometimes act out as gorillas. When she finally goes to bed with a man, she talks so much it puts him off. This makes for one of the funniest sex scenes ever filmed. It’s almost as though Marina is inhabiting the flip side of the Greek Summer idyll. Her father is an architect who would appear to have helped develop the resort. But the view from the apartments is always grey and unwelcoming.

There’s a hint of the dysfunctional US indie drama here, with a strong female twist. Death is coming and Marina is going to have to cope with her grief. However, in contrast to a North American sensibility, there’s no bittersweet pay-off. Once her father’s ashes have been scattered, the film switches to a long static shot, of little apparent relevance, in what looks like a cement factory. There’s a feeling that the ending is less moving than we would want it to be; but that is also exactly right. In an echo of Dogtooth’s harsh edges, Tsangari flirts with the themes of sentimentality but then resists them, reluctant to give the audience what it wants.

Which is not to say that the film is not warm and sensitively told. Perhaps the one adjective it resists from that compendium of adjectives which describe films which deal with death and sex, is “human”. One gets the impression that Tsangari would prefer the adjective “animal”. Not in a nasty sense, but in the sense that our assumed notions of evolution and progress aren’t quite as valid as we like to think. We manage to make the simple things in life, like sex and dying, incredibly complicated. Which means that the supposed virtues of ‘civilization’ are not as impressive as its marketing.

There are occasional longeurs in Tsangari’s film. But its so full of unlikely and brilliant moments that they don’t matter. Whether the Greek new wave is showing us the future of the European dream or not is open to debate. But it is producing some remarkable cinema.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

the faber book of new south american cinema (demetriou matheou)

The first half of Matheou's book has more of the feel of a publisher's vision than the writer's. Matheou is a film critic who's clearly good buddies with Walter Salles. Salles is connected, for reasons the book explains, with a host of Brazilian film-makers. Therefore, Matheou has had privileged access to them. An access which takes the form of a series of interviews, which are brought together in this collection. In a 400 page book, the first 220 are dedicated to Brazil, and most of this is taken up with these interviews which offer a somewhat uncritical perspective on the Brazilian new wave which has evolved over the course of the past twenty years, known as the 'retomada'.

Whilst this offers a host of fascinating insights, the emphasis on the filmmakers' personal accounts of their achievements means this is no Raging Bulls, Easy Riders. Rather, it feels like a sanitised account. The conflict between Lund and Meirelles over the authorship of City of God is alluded to, but only to such an extent that one is lead to suspect there might be a more intriguing story there that hasn't been told. Matheou is reverential in his approach to Salles' work, and those (including many South Americans I know) who feel the Motorcycle Diaries was something of a lightweight, sentimental treatment of the Guevara myth, later surprisingly eclipsed by the Hollywood doyen, Soderbergh, might be disappointed by the author's refusal to even suggest that it was anything other than a masterpiece. The writing doesn't address the issue of how Brazilian cinema is dominated by the perspective of a relatively affluent class. Again, reading between the lines, one of the most intriguing strands is the way in which Salles, Meirelles & co are seeking to overcome their own ignorance through the process of their filmmaking; leading them to explore aspects of the country which remained hidden below the surface of their somewhat sheltered lives. The overall impression of the Brazilian half of the book is of a somewhat cosy relationship between the critic and his subjects, which leads to some fascinating insights, but a sometimes frustratingly worthy account of Brazilian cinema.

What seems apparent is that the writer is less well connected when it comes to the other countries he chooses to focus on, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Peru. This takes up the second half of the book. Matheou writes in less detail about the cinema of these countries and one gets the feeling that he has had to work harder to gain his insights. This communicates itself through his writing. The book becomes less of a showcase for the director's voices and more of a genuine investigation of the causes and subsequent themes of the respective national cinemas. Perhaps it also helps that most of the filmmakers from these countries on the whole come from a younger generation than the Brazilians, with a more restless approach to their work. The device of using interviews continues, but given that the films the directors are discussing are by and large less well known, Demetriou works hard to fill in the gaps for his audience and in so doing provides a strong resume of Southern Cone and Peruvian cinema over the course of the past decade.

In addition, he's particularly good on the issue of funding, marketing and distribution of films. Again, the contrast between Brazil's more established industry and the evolving industries in the other countries is fascinating. There's no doubt that any European filmmaker ought to be inspired by the tales of the likes of Trapero, Martel, Alonso, Scherson, Larrain etc, as they recount the way in which they overcame the financial obstacles to get their films made.

Matheou's book is a useful if frustrating guide to Latin American Cinema. He's seen the films and he brings a whole host of names to the reader's attention, even if his remit feels less ambitious than it might have been.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

the skin i live in (w&d pedro almodóvar)

The credits of a film are a sure fire way to assess its production values, as well as to gain some kind of an inkling of the director's attention to detail. The credits for Almodóvar's latest last about a quarter of an hour, suggesting no expense was spared. Towards the very end, after the caterers and the music and the acknowledgments and the artwork and Gaultier and so on, there comes a list of the books featured in the film. This list consists of half a dozen or so books. I'd been trying to spot their titles during the film but the shots were always too quick or opaque. So here they were. Included in the list were Alice Munro and, at the top, Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. I've read neither but I appreciate that the director probably has. The books aren't quoted from, so I presume they don't need to be listed in the credits, but they are. This is both attention to detail and a director mapping out the wider cultural context within which the film has been made.

That attention to detail is apparent in every aspect of the film. From the casting (Banderas surprisingly watchable) to the art design (Ledgard's home-operating theatre feels just medical enough to be convincing and sufficiently beautiful to adorn rather than blemish the film). As well as the script. In the Anglo-Saxon world there's a lot of talk about the rules of scriptwriting, the do's and the don'ts. Almodóvar drives a train through all of it. The film evolves into an hour-long flashback. A flashback which is repeated and dissected. Cut up in much the same way Banderas' plastic surgeon restructures bodies. It spins a two hour supertanker narrative out of the most absurd of stories, a narrative which has its own logic and obeys its own rules, coming to a grinding halt not with a bang but a whisper.

This is intelligent movie-making on a grand, theatrical scale, the sort of thing Hollywood used to do, once upon a time, but struggles to get away with today. When you boil down the ingredients what's left at the bottom of the petri dish are absurd, even vulgar notions that should make for a preposterous fiasco. (Gender/ mothers/ men dressed as tigers etc.) But the old masters know what they're doing. Film is a kind of sleight-of-hand. Images are slotted together to build up a universe. Stirred with music and editing. The opening fifteen minutes or so of La Piel Que Habito somehow makes you believe that Banderas is a plastic surgeon who has concocted a hyper-resistant human skin out of pigflesh. And is now using these bizarre skills to go about the Frankenstein process of re-animating his dead wife. Step outside the world which is being conjured for no more than a moment and you'd find yourself shouting: It's balderdash!, or other appropriate expressions. But the skill of the film-making keeps you hooked.

When Almodóvar is on top of his game it's a bit like reading a novel by Huysmans or Blaise Cendras or Edgar Allen Poe. He seduces you into entering a parallel world which seems to occupy its own reality, a reality that you, the audience, can participate in. The novelist has the advantage that  he or she does not have to make you see the world they have concocted. The filmmaker truly has to become a conjurer, brainwashing the audience into accepting everything that's put before their eyes. This doesn't have to mean that the brain ceases to work: in the most skilful application of the craft a filmmaker provokes a kind of conscious brainwashing. It's a fine art, and in La Piel Que Habito, the maestro pulls it off.