Saturday, 29 October 2011

diary of a bad year [j m coetzee]

This is an unusual, fractured narrative. There are two narrators and three writers on almost every page. An ageing writer has been commissioned to write a book of “opinions” about the modern world. Each page contains his apercus on the state of the modern world. His thoughts range from terrorism to globalisation to Blair to Pinter; the nature of love and sex in the modern world, and much more besides. The material is profound but dry. Counterpointed against this is the sub-narrative, as he meets and employs a shapely Filipino woman who acts as his secretary. She in turn is in a relationship with a financial whiz kid, who sees her relationship with the writer as a possible means to rip him off, by using the writer’s dormant but healthy bank account to his own advantage. She is given a voice at the bottom of the page to narrate the consequent fate of her relationship, outlining the way in which the writer has influenced her own life.

This makes for a somewhat structural novel, something the writer’s opinions later address, as he writes about the way in which writers become more formalistic as they get older; their texts tending towards the theoretical, becoming more and more disconnected from the human angle. It reads at times like a cri de coeur by Coetzee himself, railing against his own fate as both a man and an author. Of course, this is just one of the book’s conceits: with no knowledge of the man, this assumption could be entirely false. Even if it is, there are still times when the book feels like an intellectual exercise. In large part this is because the two (literally) sub-narratives remains somewhat fragile. The net effect is a book that’s somewhat sketched out. Which might be the writer’s commentary on the nature of reading in the digital age. When the writer’s opinions really bite is when he comments on the enduring power of the classics, in particular the works of Tolstoy and Dosteyevski. His writing about them appears to contain a lament for the diminishing power of the novel, with the novelist no longer capable of embracing and containing the great themes within the confines of their pages. We’re now reduced to fragmentary narratives which are so self-aware that they can no longer aspire to any kind of universality. It makes for a curious, fascinating, if unsatisfactory reading experience; and perhaps that’s the whole point. 

Monday, 24 October 2011

the future (w&d miranda july)

My response to this film was largely shaped by the polar reactions of two people I don't know. The first was an engaging man who we ran into outside the Coach and Horses in Soho. He looked a bit like Peter Jackson and evinced an almost pathological hatred of Miranda July and anything she touched. This was after having a measured conversation about Australia. The extent of the hatred was so pronounced that one couldn't help wondering if there were things about Ms July one just wasn't aware of. (She eats horses? She secretly voted Bush seven times? etc etc) I too found myself questioning everything about her: her aesthetics, her philosophy, her overall (faux?) kookiness. This was before the film. In the screening itself I was seated next to a young woman on my right who laughed so much at every little thing Ms July did, to the point of slapping her thigh in delight, that I found myself wondering if there wasn't something hysterically funny taking place on the screen which I was just plain missing. When the woman later started sobbing and wailing, distributing orgasmic gobs of grief as the narrative turned bleaker, it struck me that I was still some way from fully getting a handle on the whole Miranda July concept.

What is clear is that the filmmaker polarises opinion. Her first film, as far as I can recall, was a quirky, kookie, idiosyncratic offering. The Future is all of those things, but it is also bleak and perhaps personal. This is one of July's greatest conceits: like Allen or Amis, she's right there in her narratives. Is this story about a seemingly functional couple on the cusp of entering the end of the beginning of their love affair really about her? How can we separate July the character from July the filmmaker? Has she had dealings with men who wear chains?

As you can see, I emerge little the wiser. If anything I'd have to say I'm baffled by the July phenomenon. I'm still not sure if I enjoyed The Future, with its slightly annoying title, or of I hated it. I'm still not sure if it's funny or sad. Maybe the title's not actually annoying, it's really charming? Maybe this is a Borgesian twist on Los Angeles living? Maybe it's just gleefully self-indulgent nonsense? I can't make my mind up. Sometimes it's better that way.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

dark horse (w&d todd solondz)

The arch offender is back. Solondz's Happiness is lodged somewhere in the spinal cortex of everyone who saw it; the film that artfully offended everyone. It was peculiarly effective and enormously successful. Perhaps, above and beyond the qualities which carved a path for a whole generation of "gross out" Hollywood comedy, because of the way in which it took characters who are usually too marginalised to be allocated screentime and explored their secret desires.

Dark Horse starts in this vein. The opening shot is masterful: a bizarre, tribal, urban wedding dance being enacted by a host of taffetaed and tuxed up celebrants, which pans around the room until it reveals two characters sitting on their own, resolutely refusing to join in. One of them leans into the other and says he doesn't like dancing. We instantly know that these will be our Solondzian anti-heroes.

The opening scene is slightly odd in so far as it's clear that it cost quite a bit to film, something which the rest of the film doesn't appear to have done. As though much of the budget was blown on this scene, which sets out a marker the film struggles to live up to. Thereafter things settle down as we follow Abe, the ugly duckling son of Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken (that's quite some lineage). Abe goes about fulfilling his destiny of being a complete and total loser. In the course of which he attempts with mediocre success to woo the attractive but maniacally depressed Miranda, the woman he met at the wedding; argues with his father; and has strange visions involving his father's secretary. Much of this is quietly amusing, but seems to lack the edge of Solondz's earlier work. Abe is a sympathetic figure, perhaps a bit too sympathetic, and as his journey meanders towards its desultory end, the film also seems to run out of steam.

It feels as though there's something slightly under-developed about Dark Horse. The writer has identified his characters but failed to really nail them. The anti-heroes are out there, but the weirder parts of their minds remain untouched. Perhaps Solondz is attempting to create more of a whimsical, affectionate fable. However, he'll always be stalked by the wild horse which was Happiness. His characters will always prowl in the shadow of that film's characters. It's as though he's created a rod for his own back and there's no escaping its ferocity; so anything he does which doesn't match up to it seems pale, rather than dark, in comparison.

Friday, 14 October 2011

the tattoed soldier [hector tobar]

Walk into the heart of downtown Los Angeles, away from Beverly Hills or West Hollywood or Santa Monica and you find yourself immersed in a Hispanic city. Which is what Los Angeles was to begin with. There's an argument to be made for it being the Northernmost output of Latin America. In a Youtube interview to Dutch TV, Tobar makes the point that the city is the meeting point for Hispanic, Anglo and Oriental culture, perched on the Pacific, looking West. Los Angeles' geographical situation helps in every way to make it the dream factory that it has become. But it's almost as though the city's dreaming has succeeded in eradicating its daily realities. No one want to know about the Hispanic city which still occupies its centre, just like no one wants to know that Los Angeles still has a centre. It doesn't fit with the idea of a liminal, dreaming city.

Tobar is a native Los Angelino, descended from Guatemalan immigrants. His novel puts the city back on the map. It's set in the world of Latino immigrants and a multi-racial underclass. The story follows a mission of revenge by Antonio, a political exile, who discovers his wife's army-sponsored killer playing chess in Macarthur Park. The book is set against the backdrop of the Rodney King riots, which Tobar covered as a journalist. The riots provide the cover for Antonio to exact the revenge history demands. The novel is as much about Guatemala as it is about the US, but like any great city, LA contains the narratives of all those countries whose citizens its walls have provided some kind of shelter to.

The narrative is brisk, engaging and discursive. It's written with a smattering of Spanish and Spanglish. It walks the streets with its desperate characters, but the only time it gets near to Beverly Hills is when Antonio's Mexican friend shacks up with a housekeeper. People don't drive their own cars, they take buses. There's a reality lived by millions of Angelinos which the dream factory only touches on when it needs criminals or undesirables to populate its narratives. Tobar's novel brings this reality to life. It's a book which should be read by anyone who's ever visited LA, ever seen a film set in LA. It's all very well living in dreams, but sometimes, you have to return to the dirty business of reality. 

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

midnight in paris (w&d woody allen)

Everything about Allen's career over the course of the last few years has put me off. I haven't seen much, but I was unlucky enough to catch Match Point. It's felt as though this is a sad, slightly undignified twilight, the one time genius peddling his wares where he can and, from the evidence of Match Point, creating picture postcard movies with Harlem Globetrotter casts and dodgy accents which possessed neither the wit nor the depth of his earlier works.

Midnight in Paris doesn't begin auspiciously. A long sequence plays out with documentary style footage of the city. A group of not-particularly-likeable North Americans are staying in a rich person's hotel and seeing the sights. Then, like a ray of light, Owen Wilson, the would-be novelist, is given a line which is vituperatively funny and gratuitously rude about the Tea Party. Politics infiltrating the late, bland Woody Allen? It's a promising sign. Soon afterwards, the narrative conceit kicks in, the handbrake is off, and the film turns into a delirious late-Allen masterclass.

The conceit is a simple one. Which is that Wilson discovers that if he waits on the right corner at midnight, he'll be whisked back in time to the twenties. Where he gets to hang out with all the greats. Allen has already mined this vein with Zelig, but here he incorporates it into a subtler, sadder narrative. Wilson's character, Gil, dreams of living in this epoch, when the US met Europe, when art still seemed to have a value greater than mere commercialism. And all of a sudden his dreams come true.

The conceit allows Allen to get his funny bone back. The innately comic scenario of Gil knowing things about Scott, Ernest, Zelda, Pablo, Bunuel and their ilk is mined for all it's worth. Wilson deadpans like a better-looking, younger Allen. Part of Allen's problem is that his films have never seemed complete without his presence, and the leading man all too often offers a version of Allen-lite. But Wilson has enough goofiness and character to pull the role off.

A lot of the lines are classic Allen and the ambition of the narrative is a throwback to his halcyon days, taking a real risk which pays off. There's another level to Midnight in Paris which is more subversive still, speaking to the audience not so much about the past as the present. Back in the real world, whilst Gil dreams of living in Paris, his wife wants to move to Malibu. Her parents are rich and sour. They go and see US movies which they can't remember the next day and the main attraction of Paris is its capacity for supplying antiques to furnish their homes they can't find in the US. Gil, intoxicated by the city, is pitched in direct conflict with his new family, and the consequences ring true.

Meanwhile, the film playfully reveals to Gil that you can't live your life stuck in nostalgia. The sharp script allows itself to follow through the logic of its conceit, revealing that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, even when you've magically been transported there. The thwarted love affair between Wilson and Cotillard has echoes of Allen's great romances: love is a zero-sum game, where everyone's liable to end up being a loser.

You won't see another movie like Midnight in Paris, certainly not in the English language, because very few writer-directors are given the budget to indulge their whims and intellectual games in the way that Allen is given license to. He's written a script which is entertaining, effortlessly funny, wistful and subversive. Then he's filmed it with real vigour. Those who came to bury him, not to praise him, myself included, have egg on their faces. 

Sunday, 9 October 2011

tyrannosaur (w&d paddy considine)

There's a general rule of thumb which has been by and large honoured in this blog never to write about things which include or are created by friends of mine. There's a twin reason for this: the critic's perspective can be compromised when personal feelings are involved, and even if that's not necessarily true, there's also the risk of pissing people off. I don't know anyone who worked on Considine's film, but given the limited scale of the British film industry and the amount of players who have their fingers in this pie, you cannot help thinking that it might be impolitic to say what you really think about it. But anyway...

The acting is good, albeit good in that "grand acting" fashion which kind of declares as it goes though customs: 'actors at work'. Everything's slightly mannered; the quest for "truth" in the moment is so worn on the sleeve that there are times when the sleeve is all you can make out. But this is a film made by an actor which is all about the acting, and the actors deliver what's expected of them. Olivia Colman in particular succeeds in convincing in spite of the fact that her character is placed in a dramatic situation that's so wafer thin she's coaxing something out of a near empty tank.

Without wanting to give too much away, she's in an abusive marriage with a character whose name barely registers, played by Eddie Marsan. We know Marsan is not a nice man because he pisses on his wife when she's asleep. Not the most subtle of character notes. But one of the few we're given. Marsan is a borderline psychotic who practices his boxing skills on his wife, played by Colman. He's a really nasty man. Really nasty. Malevolent. A rapist. Who drives a red sports car. Who uses the word "wank". Who lives in a house with extremely bland furniture. He's, let's repeat this in case you, the audience, have missed it, a nasty piece of work.

At which point, you, the audience, might be inclined to ask some questions. Such as - why is Marsan so horrible? Why does his wife, Hannah, not go to someone for help? Why does no one take any notice of Hannah's repeated facial injuries (and has this just started or has it been going on since their marriage started)? If Marsan resembles any filmic character I can think of it's De Niro's in Cape Fear. Where Scorcese was deliberately playing with the idea of a B-Movie villain. But Marsan's character is not a B-Movie villain. Considine's film is in the tradition of British social realism. We're supposed to believe in these characters, this world, this desperate, caricatured grimness. When in fact all we're given are the tropes, the symbols, which, I would suggest, are themselves exploited in the name of 'art'. There's an argument that it's irresponsible to appropriate dramatic symbols (in this instance that of the abused wife, and the sheer quantity of stage make-up Colman has to bear almost becomes clownish) without making some attempt to address the actual origins of these dramatic symbols: ie Marsan's psychosis. It's using the semiotics of real suffering for dramatic ends; because there's nothing real about any of this. And with its emphasis on the 'authenticity' of the acting, the film is almost screaming at the audience that this is 'real'.

So there it is. Another British movie about how grim life is on the supposed hard edge of our society. So far as I'm concerned it wouldn't matter if every movie made in the UK dealt with his theme, if only it were done with a sense of truth and love. Gary Oldman is thanked in the credits. So many films have been made in the shadow of Nil By Mouth, and all of them, this film included, merely come across as pale imitations.

Friday, 7 October 2011

the palm wine drunkard [amos tutuola]

I had already come across Tutuola without realising it. In this book he refers to another book, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which he had, at the time of writing this book, not yet written. This is indicative of the way in which Tutuola's writing seems to take place in the fifth dimension, beyond the petty confines of time. (Which has implications for the idea of narrative.) In 1995, during a peripatetic phase of my career, I was given the job of looking after a group of Nigerian actors who were in London at the behest of the Royal Court, to perform a version of Tutuola's later novel. When I arrived to collect the company to drive them back to Heathrow, it turned out that almost half of them had absconded, vanished into another bush of ghosts. Which might suggest I had failed in my duties; at the same time I learnt more about being African from those weeks with the Nigerians than from any other source.

Tutuola's first novel is like a spotlight being shined on a way of using the language we never knew existed. Straightaway we are propelled into a land where Fear is both an emotion and a character, alongside Heaven and God. You will meet them along the way. The narrator's ostensible journey is to find his tapster who's vanished, gone to the land of the Deads. As a result his life, which up until that point had consisted of drinking palm wine and having parties, is rudely interrupted. The key point, perhaps, is that this is his life: just as in our world we might go to the office or till the fields, his life is to get up and drink. However, the disappearance of his tapster means he has to go on the road to find him.

This notion of a search, the original picaresque narrative, is repeatedly encountered in African literature. On the road you will see things that appear to be beyond belief. The story is bounded only by the imagination of the narrator, and Tutuola has no shortage of imagination. At the same time, as a Western reader, the lack of all those narrative elements we have come to expect in a novel make for a sometimes painstaking read. As though we are not yet ready to enter a realm of pure imagination, where the novel is made poetry and the reader has to engage with the previously unimagined on almost every page. Where is this going? What do we learn? We learn that there are things under the sun and moon (and witnessed by Sun or Moon) which we had never imagined. Which, because they have been imagined, possess the possibility of being real.

If I was to curate a literature course, this would be one of the first books I would put on the reading list. I would hazard a guess that Tutuola is writing under the influence of an oral storytelling tradition. A world where the story has no beginning or end, it is a restless continuation, which the audience can drop in or out of at any moment. Stories lurk within stories and every new stop along the road is a field of play, a space for the storyteller to dazzle you with the unfeasible; to bring the unimaginable to life. Our culture, trapped in the teleological narrative, is consumed by beginnings, endings and middles. Does life really work this way? Or do we shape the narratives of our lives to fit this model? Surely it's truer in some ways to see the world as a constant space of non-learning, a constant encounter with the remarkable, lurking around the corner, Superwomen and giants, famines and plenty. Tutuola's text often feels as though it lacks all direction, as though it's in danger of suffocating beneath the weight of its invention, but then you keep going, you round a corner, you discover something new...

Monday, 3 October 2011

drive (d nicolas refn, w hossein amini)

It's been almost a week since I saw Drive and the predominant memory is not the violence or Gosling's assured performance or the beautifully rendered love story or even the eurotrash score. It's the shocking pink font used for the titles and credits.

This pinkness lends a neon brashness to proceedings from the start. It has the feel of a directorial flourish. As though to suggest that nothing we see needs to be taken too seriously. It also has the feeling of a foreigner's take on LA: bright party colours and recklessness. There's a moment in the film when Albert Brooks' gangster says that he used to be in the film business years ago. He describes the films he made, films which sound suitably commercial for a gangster boss, and at the end he says: they used to call them European. It feels as though Refn's Drive is fulfilling that same brief: a Hollywood notion of what a European film might be, in their dreams. (Not the Europeans).

Refn, with his flair for mood and violence, feels like the kind of European who'd fit in well in Hollywood. Which isn't an insult. If Drive is essentially 'noir' it's easy to forget now that that style, later re-appropriated by the Europeans, was developed in the US by exiles, the likes of Fritz Lang, Wilder, Siodmak etc. The city is reduced to a grid wherein human passions are worked out with all their dramatic implications. LA, with its lack of recognisable landmarks, is the perfect laboratory. Gosling spends his time driving through anonymous streets. There's no hint of where he comes from. He's a perfectly alienated twenty first century being. The first thing that appears to give any meaning to his life is the appearance in it of the gamine Irene, another apparent drifter.

On many levels therefore, Drive might be seen as a cynical movie. The throwaway violence, the rootlessness, the pink font: it's as though the hyper-smart Refn is both showing off with his technical acumen and also suggesting that this is basically a Hollywood B-movie and we shouldn't take it too seriously. (I'd even include the way he directs Gosling in this, for all the plaudits the pair have received: to my mind it's almost a tongue-in-cheek performance, an homage rather than something rooted in any genuine feeling.) However, there's one aspect of the film which transcends everything else. Which is the love affair: not so much in that it happens, as it's a necessary plot requirement, but in the way in which it is portrayed. It's not often that you'll see a director pinpoint the mechanics of love as beautifully as Refn does in Drive. All of a sudden, his taciturn style pays dividends. Mulligan and Gosling barely speak to one another. Yet it's evident that each has transformed the other's life utterly. It's all in the not-said, even the not-done. There's one moment where she places her hand on his, and this tells you all you need to know.

So, underneath the cynicism, there lurks a romantic sensibility. I got the feeling throughout the film that Refn's directing was like watching a sportsman playing at half-pace. In his depiction of the love affair, it suddenly feels like he's moving up through the gears. The rest is functional and assured. You can't help wondering what kind of film Refn will make when he's really going for it; as well as wondering if he's so good at playing the system that he'll never really have to stretch himself.