Saturday, 29 December 2012

a brief account of the destruction of the indies [bartolome de las casas]

Bartolome De Las Casas wrote this short, savage book in 1542. The urgency of the writing makes it feel as though it might have been written last week. With a disgusted brevity he moves around the continent of the Americas, from Florida to the River Plate, outlining the horrors that have followed in the wake of the white man’s wake relentless search for gold, the substance which, writes the author, is their true god.

Without going into the history, his account has retrospectively been questioned. He writes of the death of millions, the destruction of vast cities, whole regions being depopulated. This is the post-apocalypse made real, without the help of global warming, nuclear bombs or meteorites. No doubt there is some dramatic license in his depiction of events. Although he had extensive knowledge of the New World, much of what he writes about is second-hand, or hearsay. Yet his own experiences clearly established a benchmark, where the use of torture to extract information was normative, where subjugation was considered to be a violent imperative.

All of which makes one wonder what it must have been like, to have landed on these shores, as a man of god, sent from the civilised world to witness the savages, only to find the true savages are your own ‘civilised’ countrymen. De Las Casas talks of fifty cities in Mexico alone “more ample and more spacious than Seville”. Perhaps in his vituperative denunciation there is a hint of his own amazement, echoed in Garcilaso’s words, that these wonders could be so wantonly destroyed. It must have been impossible not to feel as though your system of values was inside out,  when confronted by the brute realities of history.

This bewilderment is captured in De La Casas’ outraged prose. A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies is as powerful a text as the Communist Manifesto. One of the first trumpets at the walls of Jericho, decrying the terrible truths that underpin the European invasion and its barbaric paradoxes. The book is still shocking and vital today, half a millennium later. 

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

the purple land [w h hudson]

On the face of it, as an Anglo who has spent more of his days in this country than anyone could have predicted 20 years ago, I should have read Hudson's tome long ago. 

It recounts the adventures of an Englishman in Uruguay during the mid c19. Richard, as the hero is called, leaves Montevideo in search of work on an estancia, gets caught up in a Blanco revolution, breaks the hearts of various Latin beauties, kills a man, works his way through a dozen horses and drinks a lot of rum. 

To be honest, I don't quite know what to make of the book. So many people have spoken to me about it that I expected it to encapsulate in its pages the ageless charms of a country which is not so very different now, in the "interior" at least, from what it was like 150 years ago. Perhaps it does, but the narrator keeps getting in the way. In this sense, the book is like travel literature the world over: impinged upon by the difficulties of the traveller in truly gaining a grip on the society he or she is describing.

Hudson, to be fair, seeks to make this point. His intention is to chart a gradual transformation on the part of the narrator as he comes to respect the unsophisticated ways of these noble, warlike young Americans. The penultimate chapter features a eulogy to the humble provincial Uruguayan: “may the blight of our superior civilisation never fall on your wild flowers, or the yoke of our progress be laid on your herdsman—careless, graceful, music-loving as the birds”. The contradictions inherent in the passage are obvious; on the one hand celebrating a prelapserian world, on the other redolent with a benign condescension.

When I first came back from Uruguay I was interviewed by a now eminent theatre director for a job as an assistant director. I was asked about Uruguay and I answered fulsomely, talking about culture and uses of time and such like. Somewhat sniffily he sought to puncture my enthusiasm with a remark about the country's impoverished economy. As though this was enough to consign the box marked Uruguay (and perhaps the one marked "Latin America" too) to the cupboard marked "Nice to visit but not that important". This attitude remains predominant in the UK, Spain, and much of Europe and the Anglophone world. For all his obvious affection for the country, this would also appear to be the attitude Hudson adopts. In the end, the narrator leaves, the world goes on, he will have other fish to fry.

This is the downside of the book. The upside is that it offers a colourful insight into a world of gauchos, revolutionaries and their molls. It's the stuff of a John Buchan novel, with larks aplenty and tall tales to be enjoyed. Most of the Uruguayans who have recommended the book have told me they came to know it as children, which makes sense. For an impression of what the c19th equivalent of backpacking might have been like, The Purple Land works a treat. For an insight into the growing pains of a young American nation, (the land is purple as a result of the blood spilt in the battles which rage on its soil), Hudson's novel leaves something to be desired. 

Monday, 24 December 2012

the incas (garcilaso de la vega)

Your mother was an Incan princess. Your father was a conquistador. You're bilingual. You grow up in the ruins of a civilisation that has been annihilated in the space of a generation. 

When you're 23 years old you leave your home country, never to return. You go to Spain and fight. For year after year. You're always going to be the black sheep. No matter what you achieve.

The more you fight in what the Spaniards call the old world, the more you value your own old world, which now has been subsumed by what the Spanish, of whom you are one, call the new world. 

The memories are stuck in your brain. Perhaps you have some of the details wrong but they're there. You're sitting in a tent in a dusty plain. About to fight the infidel yet again. And you realise what you have to do with the rest of your life. The only thing you can do. You have to write it all down.

Monday, 19 November 2012

swimming home [deborah levy]

There's a corner of a foreign field that will be forever England. According to Levy, this corner is constructed out of petty deceit, matrimonial disquiet and suicidal urges. Whilst there are echoes of McEwan's Atonement in the conceit, the work of art this most resembles is Joanna Hogg's Unrelated. The British idyll abroad upset by the appearance of a rogue element, in this case the unpredictable and clearly unhinged Kitty Finch, who is swimming in the pool of the French holiday villa hired by two bourgeois London families. Kitty Finch spells trouble and sure enough she brings it to the party, unhinging one and all.

Whilst this is a potent cocktail of a premise, the truth is that the book skates over the dramatic depths. Like an iced-over pool, we gain glimpses of things the novel might have explored but chose not to. Instead the writer favours a poeticised imagistic approach, full of metaphor and simile, one which lathers the cold, cruel eye of the poet over the novel's crust. If you get my drift. Cruel, the book certainly is: with the exception of a 14 year old girl, Nina (more shades of Atonement) all the various characters are people you'd rather not hang out with. It does feel slightly pretensious of the author to give them such portentous jobs, (a holocaust-escapee poet; a TV war correspondent; etc), the significance of which are never really investigated. Instead the book hinges on Kitty, the bastard daughter of Fitzgerald's Nicole, waiting for the nuthouse to claim her.

The book has been a success and has earned an introduction from Tom McCarthy, no small praise. In some ways it also reminiscent of Lerner's Atocha Station, but it lacks the humour of Lerner's anti-heroic text, forever taking itself as seriously as it possibly can, overloading its 150 pages with an implication of a depth it never gets round to revealing.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

russia in 1919 [arthur ransome]

Arthur Ransome became famous for his books about kids larking about on boats, books which I read as a child, as did generations of British children. The vividness of the childhood adventures these book captured are what made them work and perhaps it comes as no surprise to learn that Ransome’s own life was not short of an adventure or two.

This book recounts a visit to Moscow in the early Spring of 1919, following on from another visit he’d made in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. The book, which the author describes in his own introduction as “quite dull”, paints an insiders portrait of the way in which the Bolsheviks consolidated power as Moscow itself gradually got back to its feet. Russia is still hamstrung by the aggression of the allies. Somewhat frustratingly, Ransome manages to arrange a meeting with some British POWs, but never writes it up. Instead he goes into detail about the political scene at the time. In pre-Stalinist days, there was still considerable scope for independent political parties, albeit from the left. Before the purges all kinds of groups sought to shape the revolution in their own image, even if Ransome makes it clear that the Bolsheviks are likely to remain the dominant force. His accounts of his conversations with Lenin, a ‘happy’ revolutionary leader, are fascinating and insightful, revealing Lenin as a gnomic figure well aware of his position in history.

Elsewhere there are insights into life in that brave new dawn. One figure comments on the shortage of spoons as evidence that things are not getting any better. But the theatres of Moscow are full and Ransome creates a portrait of an impoverished but vibrant city, full of restless political activity, even though it is distressingly cold. He talks to people who have accepted their change in status with a surprising degree of equanimity, as people’s homes are co-opted and redistributed. The world has changed and people change with it.

Ransomse does all he can to remain even-handed. His scepticism regarding Lenin’s belief that the British revolution is imminent will prove astute. However, there appears to be a quiet admiration for the scale of the revolutionary project. As though the writer is conscious of his luck in being able to witness one of the most remarkable experiments in human political history.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

when father was away on business (d emir kusturica, w abdulah sidran)

Kusturica's second film is not well known in the UK, although most people I've met here seem to have seen it. I'd never heard of it. The director's reputation might be on the wane, but there was a point at the end of the 20th century when he felt like the freshest, most important new voice in cinema. A trio of films, Black Cat, White Cat; Time of the Gypsies and Underground were feted for their irreverence and flair. When Father Was Away on Business was his second film, using many of the same actors who appear in the later films and is a bravura piece of work which stands up beside the director's more celebrated offerings.

The film belongs to a strong Eastern European satirical tradition (going back to Schweyk, Brecht etc). Tito's Communist rule is pervasive and one misplaced remark can lead to exile. This is what happens to Malik's father Mehmet after his lover denounces him to his brother-in-law. Mehmet "goes away on business" and later the family will follow him. The satire is gentle but affecting, most of all because it presents events through the eyes of the child, for whom football and girls are just as important as politics. 

However, above and beyond its politics, this is a great film in so far as it captures a complete social environment. As well as being a satire, it's also like a work of 19th C realism. Here is Communist Sarajevo captured with all of its energy, beauty and flaws. The film runs at 2 hours and 15 minutes, with an array of storylines and twists in the plot, but it never feels over-elaborated or rambling. The director's hand is firmly on the tiller, guiding the screenplay through its various episodes, whilst revelling in this world which has gone and will never return. The frequent use of significant football matches, usually against the Russians, provides a framework based in history, a history which must seem all the more distant now in Bosnia, when the nation participating in the football matches no longer exists. In addition, the affectionate relations shared across the religious divide seem remarkable given the imminence of what was to come at the time this small masterpiece was made. 

Sunday, 28 October 2012

warriors of tibet: the story of aten and the khampas' fight for the freedom of their country [jamyang norbu]

What happens when exiled, bereaved, your family killed, your home purloined, your life is brought to a premature conclusion?

Jamyan Norbu’s account of the life of Aten, a native of Tibet displaced by the Chinese in the early sixties, does not provide us with the answer to that question, because it is at exactly that point that the book ends. Aten finally crosses the Himalayas, arriving in Dharamsala in India, his life as he knew it now no more than a memory. It is these memories that the book vividly conveys. Life on the high Tibetan plain. The day to day domestic problems. The importance of religion and pilgrimage. As well as the presence of the Chinese, whose occupation is cruel yet benign until Mao finally turns to the task of subjugating the ancient culture, beginning a process of destruction which continues to this day.

The book brings to mind Pinter’s Mountain Language. The Chinese are even attempting to destroy the words the Tibetans employ. At first Aten tries to work with the Chinese, his journey mirroring that of the Dalai Lama, spending a year in China being trained to become a figure they will use to govern the country. Here are fascinating insights into the way in which China’s seemingly sudden emergence as an economic superpower is actually part of a process and a way of thinking that has been in development for far longer than anyone realised. The subjugation of Tibet and other indigenous peoples within and on the edges of its borders marked the start of a process which continues apace. Aten notes the way in which the occupation became more and more savage, until it reaches the point where he has no option but to join the catastrophic resistance campaign, with devastating personal results.

This is a book written in memory about a lost world. The miracle is that the narrator, as conveyed by the author, seems to have retained through his affection for what he has lost, his sense of humour and humanity. Where one might expect fierce anger, the reader encounters equanimity. For anyone with an interest in the fate of Tibet, or displaced peoples anywhere in the world, this book represents a compelling read.  

Monday, 15 October 2012

marx in soho (w. howard zinn, d. juan tocchi)

Zinn's text is a curio. He wasn't primarily a playwright. He was a political historian. As such, what the audience watches when they see his play is the work of someone whose ambition is less to create drama than to convey to his audience a didactic understanding of a historical subject. In this case, Karl Marx. The result is a play which is part biography, part philosophical/ historical treatise and part, because the premise of the play is that Marx is far from dead, commentary on our contemporary existence.

It's perhaps this last aspect which is the most powerful. When the bearded Troncoso talks to the Verdi's audience of how, in spite of capitalism's gizmos, there are still people sleeping on the streets, the inference is crystal clear. Society might be a changing, but too many things remain the same. And, according to the writer's interpretation of Marx, shall continue to do so, so long as we inhabit a capitalist universe. There's so much Zizek in Zinn's Marx that it's almost as though he was conceived by this play, originally written in 1999. For a Londoner abroad, the text also offered a convincing description of that city in its mid nineteenth century guise, when notions of third world and first had yet to be developed.

The play is also an intriguing examination of the dramatic medium. Zinn's Marx tells us that his wife, Jenny, criticised him for not writing in a language the workers could necessarily understand. This past week I've discovered the cinema of the Bolivian filmmaker Sanjines. Who might describe himself as a Marxist, something which Marx in Soho has the philosopher reject as a concept. Sanjines' film, The Courage of The People employs a pared down narrative style, which some might accuse of being overly simplistic. However, he adopted this structure in order to ensure that the people about whom he was making cinema, (the miners and indigenous people of the Bolivian altiplano), felt included as spectators. Interestingly, his 1989 film, La Nacion Clandestina, made largely in Aymarac, employs a narrative structure which is so rooted in the Aymarac philosophy that it overlaps with the outer reaches of innovative modern narrative theory (time becomes non-linear; the past and the present co-exist). The screenplay might have been written by Nolan. At the same time the film still has a highly 'accessible' feel, as it takes the viewer into indigenous Bolivian culture in a way no other film I've seen even begins to.

Zinn's mission was to de-Marxify Marx, to shed him of the historical baggage which Marxism has appended to his work and his name. Whether Marx in Soho entirely succeeds in doing this depends to a large extent on how the play transcends its own origins in order to engage with the audience which Jenny championed, for example. With this in mind, it's a play which seems to come up against the buffers which insulate Western culture. Within the division between high and low culture which helps to consolidate the (capitalist) status quo, Marx in Soho quite clearly pertains to the high end of the spectrum. Quite how the dramatic artist/ writer breaks out of this straightjacket is hard to say, but perhaps the work of Sanjines offers some clues.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

ashes of the amazon [milton hatoum]

Hatoum’s novel falls between two stools. On the one hand it would appear to aspire towards the epic. The narrative is set primarily in Manaus, and the book charts the gradual transformation of the town through the latter part of the twentieth century from sleepy backwater towards tawdry metropolis. The more colourful waterfront barrios are torn down and replaced with anodyne housing estates. At the same time, the book’s anti-hero, Mundo, leaves Manaus, venturing first to Rio and then onto Berlin and finally, Brixton, in London.

However, alongside this overarching perspective, the writer seeks to create an intimate, off-key portrait of an artist. Mundo’s story is narrated by his friend, Lavo, to whom he might or might not be related. Born into wealth, Mundo is an innate rebel, who turns against his conservative father as he seeks to become an artist. (Intriguing the way in which the dissonant artist features so regularly as a figure in contemporary Latin American writing, Mundo taking his place alongside Alan Pauls’ maverick, amongst others.) Hatoum’s portrayal locates the roots of Mundo’s artistic urge in the desire to confront and reclaim something of the Amazon. His mother, Alicia, apparently emerged from the jungle alongside her mad sister, fully formed. His father has made his money from exploiting jute. Mundo aspires towards a connection with that which is being wiped out by modernity. His final demise occurs after he executes a piece of performance art in Rio, dressed as an Indian, carrying a canoe oar he’s kept hold of after being given it by an Indian boatman in the jungle, years before.

Mundo’s portrayal is intriguing, all the more so for being presented through the eyes of his poor friend who himself is gradually working his way up the social system by becoming a lawyer, a journey that will be the inverse of Mundo’s. However, the book’s intent to fulfil this duel role means that it sometimes feels that it’s neither fish nor foul. Mundo’s wanderings in Europe, for instance, are dealt with in a somewhat cursory fashion. In a way his story might be the obverse of Flyte’s in Brideshead. The wealthy heir who ends up slumming it in the first world, rather than the third. Perhaps because I might have known people like this, falling through the cracks in Europe, I hoped for more, but in spite of the book’s geographical detail (Atlantic Road/ Brixton Road etc), these passages feel skittish. Likewise the final post-dictatorship stages in the re-development of Manaus feel as though they are alluded to rather than fully conveyed. The book is much stronger at describing the world which has been lost, when Manaus still represented the hinge between the jungle and the immigrant.

Although this is perhaps ultimately a frustrating book, shining a light on a city which remains one of the great frontiers of modern man, as urbanity confronts the immemorial swathe of the Amazon, it still offers a fascinating insight into what Manaus used to be and what it has since become.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

velada metafísica de fernando gonzález (d. cristóbal peláez)

The Sala Verdi brings a season of Latin America theatre to Montevideo. First up is Teatro Matacandelas, from Medellin in Colombia. Theirs is a defiantly Brechtian theatre with a Victorian Gothic twinge. I can’t follow all of it. The story deals with a presumably fictional philosopher, Fernando Gonzalez. He stands for mayor and is rejected. He lives on the finca that will later belong to Pablo Escobar. He has a curious affair with a Frenchwoman when he spends time in Marseilles as a counsel.

Above and beyond the quixotic narrative, there’s a makeshift theatre practice at work. In much the same way as last night’s Henry 4/5 in the Solis, a chorus appears at the start urging the audience to use their imagination to convert the empty space into the valleys of Antioquia or a Mediterranean port. Harsh lights isolate spaces on the stage for the performers to inhabit. The acting has a heightened, declaratory hue. The philosopher barks out his thoughts, as do many of those he meets along the way. Scenes shift rapidly. Music starts to punctuate proceedings. About an hour in, things become more and more gothic. A version of the devil appears, bathed in red light, emanating a powdery glow. Later the whole of the Catholic church takes over. The theatre is bathed in incense and smoke. There’s so much smoke that the alarm goes off. But the philosopher’s oratory style drowns it out. There’s a deliberate sense of ramshackle chaos on stage. Jesus makes an appearance and you’ve got no idea what’s going to happen next. 

Teatro Matacandelas create a rough theatre out of nothing which appears to be influenced by Brecht, would be admired by Brook and yet also emanates out of the rhythms and customs of Medellin. It’s vibrant, non-naturalistic and full of the unexpected, even if to the non-native speaker there are moments which are plain baffling. The final words of Fernando González are read out by the whole cast in a hyped up final scene, books being ripped to pieces, like something out of a lost work by Blaise Cendras. 

Sunday, 30 September 2012

las malas intenciones (w&d rosario garcia-montero)

This is the third Latin American film of recent years I've seen which posits a child's coming of age story within the context of the political violence of late 20th c Latin America. One supposes that the extension of this theme would be that the countries themselves (Argentina in the case of Kamchatka and Chile in the case of Wood's Machuca) will have to go through their own right of passage before they emerge into the calmer waters of the twenty first century. It's a cute angle for any filmmaker seeking to take a tangential look at their country's recent history, offering a less didactic approach than a film such as Noche de Los Lapices, which had an urgency conditioned by the fact that the events were still raw and terrifying.

As such Garcia-Montero's film fits into the continental discourse about the way in which societies have moved on (something also present in recent theatre). We watch the young girl Cayetana's story wondering to what extent the paranoia of her upper middle class parents conditions her world view. Not to mention the Hammer and Sickle burning on the hillside or the dead dogs which hang from the lamposts. We see all these things through the child's eyes: all around her the world is in flux. Her mother is a valium addict. Her absentee father a waster. In the midst of this she struggles to find a clear moral path, (hence the bad intentions of the title), seeing her imminently born baby brother as a mortal threat and finding no reason not to steal from her parents. It is as though all feeling has to be dampened down under the country's state of emergency. One of the film's most powerful scenes is when her bourgeois family attempt to leave the beach in a rowing boat, only to be pestered by a host of indigenous children. Risk is all around and things will have to be sacrificed, in particular normal human emotions, something the film's very last scene, when Cayetana finally discovers what it means to feel, illustrates.

The film rides to a large extent on Fatima Buntix's performance as Cayetana. She carries the film remarkably well, even when it starts to feel as though it loses its direction in the final third. There's a whimsical strand relating to her ancestor who participated in a losing battle against the Spanish, which, whilst adding colour, seems to diminish to an extent the intensity of Cayetana's story. At times if feels as though the film pulls its punches: it might have benefitted from having slightly worse intentions itself. The dramatic tension ebbs in the final third, with Cayetana's friend's near-death experience again distracting from the core of her relationships with her mother, father and stepfather.

Nevertheless, this is a rangy, intriguing film which casts a clear, cold eye over Peru's recent history. In keeping perhaps with the process of being a child growing up it seems to surf from highlight to highlight, with life drifting along during the bits in between whilst portentous events occur just around the corner. 

Sunday, 23 September 2012

the guide [r.k.narayan]

Last year I went to see a fairly disastrous Messiah play at the National Theatre. The premise was that people are so desperate for salvation that they will willingly adopt anyone who they see as a prophet, whether he's real or not. The play ended up collapsing under the weight of its  own idea, because the danger of the false prophet narrative syndrome is that you never get under the skin of the prophet: the narrative is about his or her effect, rather than who they really are and how they came to inhabit the role that has been thrust upon them.

A writer such as Dostoyevsky instinctively understood this and Narayan follows in Dostoyevsky's footsteps with this precise novel about a man who unwittingly finds himself revered as a guru after being released from prison. The fact that we know he has come out of prison ensures that the mystery of his origins is present from the beginning. Narayan's narrative is then divided between the prophet's gradual acceptance of his role and the telling of his fascinating backstory. Raju was born the son of a poor shopkeeper and his fall from grace is as much a result of his intelligence as his foolishness. It's his intelligence that impels him not only to want something more from his life than his parents achieved, but also to obtain it. His downfall comes when, overwhelmed by a catastrophic fit of passion, he abandons his intelligence. This same intelligence would appear to be what the 'people' recognise in him when they adopt him as a swami, or a holy man, and in a way they might be right, even though he is convinced they are not. 

Narayan conveys his tale in a fluid, pacey prose. The book explores the fine line between initiative and corruption as well as the seemingly impossible task of rising through India's class system, or at least that of the fifties. The plot remains fresh and surprising, with no shortage of twists and turns. Like Onetti, Narayan captured his country through the prism of a fictional town, Malgudi, a fictional space which allows for all of India to be contained within its nutshell boundaries. 

Friday, 7 September 2012

love & information (w. caryl churchill, d. james macdonald)

Someone said: this is a play for the twitter generation.
The strangest thing was that this was not an insult.
It is. It is not.
Short works.
Short sharp shocks.
Precision. So that. Each word. Has its own weight.
Mathematics. Love. Sex. Death. Colour. Memory.
A box of treats.
Or perhaps.
A load of off-cuts.
Trimmed and pared and turned into a pot au feu. Or a guiso. Or a box of treats.
Borges. Pinter. Bishop Berkeley. And all the ones you've missed.
Ignorance is not bliss.
Where is the story arc?
Where is the character journey?
Thankfully, jettisoned. Or never even contemplated.
The pleasure of the text.
A bricolage.
A proper mash-up.
All the world contained. And all the other worlds too.
In which the play is also occurring.
And has been since before it was written.
Gracias. Merci. Arigato. etc
All mean the same thing.
We should be.
For small mercies.
And this is such a one.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

untouchable [mulk raj anand]

What was it really like to be an untouchable within the Indian caste system? Nowadays, in order to answer that equivalent question, someone  would probably make a documentary. But way back when, the chosen tool for social investigation was the novel. This can be seen in the work of a myriad of authors, from Dickens to Tolstoy. (Have just read, on a side note, that Stoppard's starting point on his adaptation of Karenina was to strip out all the politics and Russian social history.) In the twentieth century an emerging colonial literature emerged, with the novel offering a voice articulating the daily lives of those who society by and large chose to ignore.

Anand's novel belongs to this category. He shows us a day in the life of Bakha, a young untouchable, who job is to clean the loos and suffer the prejudices of the rest of society. In the course of the day he is abused, attacked, witnesses his sister be molested, plays hockey and finally sees Gandhi speak. The book offers a compressed portrait of marginal life. Just as in a documentary, it conveys the colours and textures of Bakha's existence. Perhaps the key difference between film and literature is that the novel allows Anand to probe Bakha's consciousness in greater depth (and in this way the book is also twinned with the emergence of modernism). It explores his attitudes towards the British, religion and caste in detail. The affection the reader garners towards Bakha intensifies as he confronts the slings and arrows of his environment and handles them with what might be described as a humane intelligence. Social realist literature embraces characters whose capacity to employ common sense allows them to see through the farcical diktats of society. Bakha is firmly of this camp as he spends the day questioning and confronting his unhappy birthright.

Untouchable's significance comes from the way in which it fits into the varying literary strands of the day, thereby locating the apparently lowest of the low within the 'narrative' of universal literary fiction. However, it's also significant because it's an artful, engaging read, which hurls the reader into the realities of a society whose codes and cruelties pre-dated the colonials who were squatting on its territory. It's a document which captures in vivid form what it was like to be an Untouchable, but also what it's like to be human. It is another one of those books which, ironically, has perhaps been neglected because, within the subsections or castes of the English language cultural network, it has been perceived as belonging to a lower caste. One thing the pre-colonial India and colonial-and-post-colonial Britain have in common is an obsession with the demeaning and dehumanising prejudices of class. 

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

berberian sound studio (w&d peter strickland)

There's a man who works for BBC films  who recurs in my life. He came to give a talk where I work, he was at EEFF within which we participated. He's a recognisable type, integral not just to the British film industry, but also British culture per se. A figure out of A Dance to the Music of Time, for example. He probably looks younger than he is, which gives him the air of a precocious child. He has a slightly distracted air, and spends a lot of time in public, from what I've seen, apologising for the shortcomings of his employers, and then apologising for apologising. As though he knows there's a bright rosy future out there, if only we knew how to access it. If only our socio-cultural mindset wasn't quite so trapped within the parameters of being British. I always get the impression that he's an intelligent soul and that we'd get on OK if we went for a drink. However, there's also a weary cynicism that hangs over him, which makes me sure that he'd soon tire of my Jesuitical neo-idealism. Which would not be an unreasonable response. I tire of it too.

It did not surprise me that he was in the Curzon Soho yesterday afternoon for a screening of the film and it didn't surprise me that he didn't seem overly beguiled by Strickland's effort, no matter what he says later, leaving in a hurry. What did surprise me was that if this is the case, we were in the same camp. Berberian is one of the few British films I had been looking forward to. The trailer held out the promise of something strange and wonderful. On first viewing, and I suspect that this film merits a second, it didn't quite work for me. The ending is very Lynchian (specifically Lost Highway), with its character inversion/ transformation, but it all felt somewhat mannered and arch; an idea more interesting in theory than in practice. The same goes for the film overall. I was possessed with a strong desire to enjoy it which was never quite fulfilled. Too often it felt like the work of an overly gifted child. Riddled with a presumptive brilliance but lacking the necessary human touch for an audience to do much more than go: Oh, isn't he clever!

Which is the sort of remark I might find myself making in a report for my sometime employers, who are also the employers of the man sitting in front of me. The sort of comment I don't enjoy making because it seems to sit within the confines of the establishment's notions of dramatic orthodoxy. To which I'm inclined to want to say to those who wish to rip up the rulebook: Go for it, do what you like, take the risk. Which is why I wanted Strickland's film to affect me in ways I cannot say it did. To discombobulate, or terrify, or unhinge. It did none of these things, rather it felt ultimately as though it was a theoretical study in how to do these things, like the charts the sound mixer analyses. The notes without the sound.

Having said this, I shall watch it again, probably in the Southern Hemisphere, and re-evaluate. Anything that employs the resources of this industry and attempts to explore rather than retrench deserves to be given a little slack. As I'm sure the man from the BBC would agree. 


As an addendum the following quote from the director seems informative and gives a strong indication of how to watch his film:

"For me, if you approach the film not as a narrative but as you would a piece of music, or a spell almost, something to be experienced, it’s just something sensory, it’s visceral, it’s just on that level, that is how I get off on the film." 

Saturday, 1 September 2012

shadow dancer (d james marsh, w tom bradby)

There's something strangely out of kilter about the opening of Marsh's first drama feature. Following a highly predictable opening sequence, we see a young woman getting on a tube, supposedly in the early nineties. However, the tube carriage seems far too modern. Then she gets out of the train, having chosen not to detonate the bomb she was carrying. The station is on the Eastern side of the District Line, (It looks like Mile End) but when she emerges, having conveniently located an unknown exit, she's clearly not in East London. If I were not cognizant with the city, perhaps these details would not have bothered me. But given that I am, it seemed weird that such a prestigious film should have been so sloppy. Particularly as Marsh comes from the world of the doc, where there is nothing except for naturalism. These glitches, and the insipid nature of the plot, meant the whole film steps off on the wrong foot.

Subsequently it seemed to pick up, although, as another critic observed, one wonders why the Riseborough character is so wedded to her red, 'Don't Look Now' coat. The acting is strong and a sense of tension develops over the course of the film as we want the sympathetic mother to escape the cleft stick she's stuck in. The prominent grade lends the film a washed out, despairing look. (I suppose the red coat is supposed to make her stand out for cinematographic reasons, rather than dramatic ones). However, underpinning its eventual competence, which only just overcomes a run-of-the-mill, TV-esque script, is the question of why this film has been made, both on commercial and auteur grounds.

IMDB reveals that Marsh was born in '63. As a result he will have lived through that lost time when the IRA was The Enemy. It all seems so long ago now and the TV footage of Major has a quaint, nostalgic feel. So from a personal point of view, one imagines the filmmaker wanted to connect in some way with that period of his own life and that therein lay the appeal of the project. However, there's a difference between Marsh and Herzog, say, as a documentary filmmaker. Whereas the work of Herzog or, this year, Guzman, is inflected by their personalities, Marsh's work has a more detached feel. This works brilliantly when he unpicks a complex, unlikely story. But if Shadow Dancer is in some ways closer to home, (and if not, why is it being made?) then the lack of a vested interest on the part of the director becomes apparent. The film lacks a visceral connection with the world it depicts. Everything ticks over, but nothing grabs you. These characters (the script/ the world) are insufficiently distinctive to make mere  observation of their actions all that intriguing. The film cries out for something unlikely, or Herzogian. The one slightly vacuous and under-developed twist, which might have helped to turn the story into a Coen Brothers movie, feels like a belated bid to take a radical dramatic direction, but it's all too little, too late. As for the commercial logic of making this movie, it seems sad that a filmmaker as clearly talented as Marsh has not been steered more adroitly towards a story that would have benefited his talents as well as allowing his skills to make more of a mark.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

searching for sugarman (w&d malik bendjelloul)

The latest in this Summer's offering of documentaries. There must be a reason why London cinemas are showing so many quality docs and so little quality dramas. Perhaps it's a failure of nerve on the part of the more adventurous distributors, or perhaps the world has run out of decent dramas. I suspect its the former. On the positive side, a lot of remarkable documentaries are getting extended outings. A friend went to see Nostalgia For The Light this week and said there was a good audience. What does it mean when our indigenous films can barely last a week in the cinemas but subtitled documentaries about subjects the drama commissioners would likely run a mile from have long, healthy outings? I'm not sure but it's indicative of something a little off-key about this British Summer with its excessive festivities and erratic climate.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, there's Malik Bendjelloul's remarkable film. A lot of films get called inspirational, but I'm not sure how many really are. It's a peculiarly moving tale about a dignified man who never got the breaks and then one day his karma turned and they came running. The greatest testimony to Rodriguez' decency comes from the words and attitudes of his daughters and colleagues. I remember back in the Vauxhall days coming across Shuggie Otis, I'm not sure how. A voice that had laid dormant for thirty years then somehow re-emerged, and the tale of Rodriguez is similar, albeit happier. For reasons you need to see the film to find out. The director constructs his tale with skill: if a drama had some of these twists you'd find them hard to credit. Underpinning the narrative is the notion that good will triumph in the end (with the word "good" used in its broadest sense); that there is another value set at work, running parallel with the one anyone inhabits, for better or for worse. I'd defy anyone not to come out of Searching for Sugarman feeling just a teeny bit uplifted and believing that maybe there's some kind of logic to it all after all.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

never sorry (d. alison klayman)

Amidst the spate of documentaries I have seen this Summer in London, Klayman's docu-portrait of the dissident artist Ai Weiwei is far from being the most challenging exploration of the genre,  but it may well end up being seen as the most significant. This is because the film offers a relatively unimpeded view of the man who is at the epicentre of China's ongoing revolution, which is in all likelihood the most significant political event of our generation. If by that one means, the thing that will have most influence in shaping the world we live in.

In the midst of China's revolution is a battle for what might termed 'democratic' values: freedom of speech, human rights etc. The bearlike Weiwei is at the centre of this battle and has personally gained and suffered from his actions. Although there is 'behind-the-scenes' footage of the artist with his family, this is by and large a portrait of the artist as agent-provocateur and public figure. Weiwei is someone who sees Twitter as the most important contemporary means of communication. At every given turn he confronts the state, making a nuisance of himself, challenging them to try and take him down. Which they seek to do, towards the end of the film. Something which sets the stage of Never Sorry 2, because in some ways it feels as though the full significance of his stand will only be revealed over the course of time. 

We don't get to know that much about Weiwei as an artist or as a man, but then these are no longer the most important aspects of his persona. There is an anecdotal sequence which talks about Weiwei's time in New York, where he lived for about a decade, including the time of Tiannamen. It's fascinating to speculate to what extent artists such as Koons and Warhol impacted on Weiwei's evolving understanding of the concept of 'the artist'. Like Hirst, Weiwei no longer makes his own work. Other people do it for him, in what might be seen as a parody of the Chinese system or an embrace of Warholian neo-capitalism. However, the glimpses we see of his NY time and his present working practices only serve to highlight all that the film doesn't get round to saying or leaves out. 

What we do get (with much of this footage culled from Weiwei's own films) is a vibrant insight into a society which, no matter how pervasive it's influence, is still one we know little about in 'the West'. Weiwei is revealed to be a lightning conductor, as are perhaps all the great artists, one whose art, life and politics are melded into a single, bearded whole. 

Friday, 10 August 2012

red april (santiago roncagliolo)

In the Andes, passing through on a bus, you'll see, every now and again, gatherings, colourful, particular, taking place in a carpark on a cold dusty plain or a field set back from a twisting road. You'll catch a glimpse of something you know you don't belong to and you would never belong to even if you lived in this place for hundreds of years. Which is pretty much the experience of the descendants of the Spanish as they co-exist with the descendants of the indigenous peoples they colonised, once upon a time. A people which continues to live alongside them, speaking a different language, wearing different clothes and, presumably, thinking different kinds of thoughts. The highlands of the Andes are as segregated as anywhere else in the world and still the retain the feel, perhaps, of an uneasy truce; an accommodation with history as much as an acceptance of it.

This world has been captured effectively in the films of Claudia Llosa: Madeinusa and La Teta Asustada. In Madeinusa, a stranger arrives in town and finds himself caught up in ancient traditions which overwhelm him. Red April’s hero, Felix Chacaltana finds himself similarly consumed in Roncagliolo’s literary take on the same theme. He is a prosecutor in the Andean town of Ayacucho, charged with solving a series of murders in a place where the guerilla campaign of Sendero Luminoso has never quite been extinguished. The book comes into its own when it starts to trace the ways in which the native cultural heritage has continued to thrive, even if this is under the guise of an adopted Catholicism. The indigenous attitudes towards death, explained by the priest, open the door to a completely different way of thinking which runs parallel to the Christianity adopted by the native population, part of the colonization process. This offers a fresh twist on the serial killer trope, as well as providing an insight into a culture which frequently seems closed and mysterious.

There is a debate to be had about whether the author is adopting an approach towards the native characters he employs which Said might have described as Orientalism. To a certain extent the book’s narrative twist confronts this. It is one of the problems literature continues to face in the twenty first century as writers attempt to come to terms with the crimes and misdemeanours committed by colonialism. How to create a space in the narrative for the “unspoken” perspective; and whether in so doing you effectively take advantage of that perspective as much as the colonisers did before you. Roncagliolo’s highly successful book seems conscious of these inherent contradictions, just as Llosa’s films are, but at times it felt as though it might have taken the reader further in its journey into the mindset of the other. 

Thursday, 2 August 2012

two years at sea (d ben rivers)

The act of experiencing cinema is an act of watching. It’s a passive action. Receptive. It’s so passive that at times it’s as though there’s no input from the viewer at all. In this it is similar to the action of enjoying art. In this day and age there are ways of experiencing art that involve going down slides or talking to strangers, but the predominant impulse in art is to look, to see, to watch, to receive.

Ben Rivers is well aware of this. Firstly, his film in an observational one. His camera observes a character, Jake, a man with a verdant beard and an energetic if solitary disposition. In some ways the film is like a nature documentary, studying the hermit in his environment. The camera is a spy of which Jake is presumably aware. The beauty and eccentricity of Jake’s surroundings are in themselves intriguing, but perhaps insufficient to warrant a 90 minute film. Instead it is something the director does with this material that makes it magical. What he does is he compels his audience to watch. We observe not just the ‘action’ of the film, but also the ‘process’ of the film, as the filmstock itself flickers and distorts, engrains and degrains. These frames are all unique (as of course every frame there has ever been is unique) but the filmmaker draws our attention to their uniqueness. The fuzz of the footage means each second has its own texture.

There are two sequences in particular that are so striking, from this point of view, (demanding from another), that, a little like the latest twist in a Bond film, the reviewer doesn’t want to speak about them, for fear of spoiling their potency. These are moments when the viewer is drawn into the image, almost as though staring at a Rembrandt. The only other sequence I’ve seen do this as effectively is the opening of Reygadas’ Silent Light. In these moments the passive nature of watching is revealed to be a myth: the film only comes alive because we make the active effort to participate. Without our eyes a film is nothing (except sound). This is as close to 3D as film can get (forget the specs). Blink and it’s gone. Which is always the case, but normally we take it for granted. Here, that indulgence is denied us, but what we gain more than compensates, as the viewer becomes the sentient actor in the face of a passive screen.

There’s nothing remotely commercial about Two Years at Sea and I came to it with a mild sense of dread. There’s no shortage of poorly made “art” films out there which sink under the weight of their own pretension. But Rivers’ film is one of the most disciplined, charming and beautiful pieces of cinema I’ve ever witnessed, taking the viewer to the heart of what it means to be a viewer, whilst maintaining an irreverence and an understated use of mystery. The questions that remain unanswered are as potent as the ones that are answered, ensuring that the unstated “narrative” ticks along beneath the wordless surface. It will barely make a ripple in the cinematic consciousness, but in another world, one of Borges’ parallel universes, it will be revered, a true blockbuster, a game-changer which will make superstars out of the quiet genius’ who created this work.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

the red desert (w&d antonioni, w guerra)

A film washed in a desaturated glow of genius. Almost impossible to say with any degree of certainty what this is about. Mental illness/ environmentalism/ marriage. Riddled with moments of brilliance. At its heart a performance which leapfrogs the extraordinary. Monica Vitti, given license  to be peculiar, febrile, feminine. A figure on the verge of a nervous breakdown. A landscape that glows with a meaning which is never revealed. Through a pall of fog. Industrial. Maritime. Psychological. Psychosexual. Make out. The film's longest sequence ... a strange dockside shack which the characters end up literally deconstructing. Ripping its red planks to pieces. Was this the desert? Who knows. Not even the author. Amoral bourgeoisie or outliers for the swinging sixties. The postwar hedonists we have all become. Scope for interpretation vast. Excessive. Text over-ripe with signifiers. Desolate industrial wasteland. The boy that couldn't walk. A woman seeking to determine what shade of paint to put on the walls of a shop with nothing in it. 

No-one created atmosphere in the movies like Antonioni. Walking into his various scenes is like walking into different rooms. Never knowing what to expect. Is it a good party? Is it a bad party? You can never be sure. His movies are balancing acts, constantly on the verge of teetering into the ridiculous, constantly resisting. I have nothing intelligent to say about this movie. It is sublime, but fails to fit into any normal cinematic discourse. It exists in a language of images. If words were still pictograms I might have stood a chance. Of making sense. Of making sense of it.

Friday, 27 July 2012

swandown (w&d andrew kotting)

Swandown is an unlikely triumph. It's a modern day reworking of Three Men in a Boat (a book recently repackaged as a TV show). The dangers of what might be called a 'TV' approach are shown during the only moments when the film seems to flag, as a few minor celebrities are drafted in to participate on the Swan's journey from Hastings to London. We see where the film might have gone as their attempts to be witty fall flat and the journey seems to stall. Thankfully, these moments are few and far between. The usual voyagers are Kotting himself and Iain Sinclair. Here, the tendency of the edit is to subvert and poke fun at the self-styled 'psycho-geographer' and the director, something they presumably agreed to. This is done with a fiercely dry, understated British humour, ensuring their personalities never overwhelm the journey. The chasm between TV docs and a more cinematic style is apparent, and Swandown is all the richer for seeking to retain a cinematic chutzpah.

This is evident in the cinematography but most of all in the sound design. The film documents moments when the sound recordist, Phillipe Ciompi, (who also did the mix) is out on the river, and rightly so. The mellifluous tones of the British waterways are beautifully captured and then mixed with selected readings and Kotting's acerbic asides. Kotting himself, fearless in the face of water, is a boldly absurd figure, never scared of ridicule. He embraces the absurdity of his mission with sang-froid, seeking out the moments when something will be revealed, not by design, but by accident.

The gentle tone of the film matches the pre-industrial rhythm of a waterbound journey. The journey reveals a hidden network, the arteries of the country which have existed since before time forgot. Southern England is a low-lying, verdant land and always has been. The Swan's journey traces a land which runs parallel to the motorways, one which is still inured from roadside burgers and takeaway cappuccinos. There's hints of Pynchon and William Carlos Williams in its celebration of the backways and the neglected corners, where modernity is kept at bay and something more primeval is allowed to persevere. 

As such Swandown offers a beautiful, instantly nostalgic vision. Marrying Anglo-Saxon eccentricity with the ineluctable beauty of the landscape. Its whimsy is worn on its sleeve, the absurdity of the film's mission noted by passing van drivers and the cameraman alike. The use of Herzog's Amazon voiceover (with the critic J Romney bravely stepping into the German master's voice) seems blissfully inappropriate. This is a nature and a landscape that lulls, rather than threatens; that bequeaths a drowsy numbness. 

The omnipresent director might have become a pain in the neck and, if this were a TV doc, would presumably have ended up dominating proceedings. As it is, he somehow takes a back seat; his presence as eccentric as his swan's. Where previous Kotting films seemed in danger of becoming overly arcane, here the gentle humour that holds sway keeps things  afloat, allowing the quotations and observations to resonate without seeming overly affected.

Furthermore it should be noted, on this day of all days, that Swandown contains one of the most engaging scenes of Olympic totalitarianism since the work of Ms Riefenstahl. 

Monday, 23 July 2012

the spectacular (keith ridgway)

This is not a novel. It’s barely a novella. I don’t know how long it is as I read it on a digital screen which only offers the reader the information of what percentage they are through the book. It’s the second book I’ve finished having read it digitally, (the first was Gissing’s New Grub Street), although I’ve dipped in to several (Foster Wallace; Boswell’s Life of Johnson etc) Anyway, I’m sure there’s already billions of essays or blogposts or crypto-diatribes on the difference between reading off a page and reading off a screen and I’m not about to join that conversation.

Nor is the reason I’m writing about The Spectacular its literary merit. It’s a kind of potted variation on The Secret Agent with a Borgesian twist, which for a novella set in contemporary London and written by a contemporary Londoner seems appropriate. It’s a pleasant read, not overly taxing but with sufficient literary dexterity to keep the reader honest. You can read it on the tube, as I did, or in the park, as I also did, and it will keep you company.

However, perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Spectacular is its marketing. This is not as depressing as it sounds. Books get to us, one way or another, via some kind of marketing. Even if that marketing is just the gravitational force of a literary canon. (And one continent/ language’s literary canon will be, hopefully, very different to another’s.) With the explosive possibilities of digital publishing, anyone can now get their work out there. So how does an unknown author get their head above the parapet. The Spectacular is sold by Amazon as a download for £0.99. No-one is going to quibble about spending a quid. Having spent the pound, I wanted to read it. I had invested in the book and that encouraged me to engage with it. I will also wager that many of those who buy Ridgway’s modest tale will be encouraged to go on and buy the subsequent novel, Hawthorn and Child, which is, it would appear, in part based on The Spectacular. (The novel’s eponymous protagonists make an appearance in the novella.)

It may be that loads of small-time publishers are already using this technique and I have only belatedly stumbled upon it. But it feels like the first time I’ve been encouraged to engage with the potential of the ebook phenomenon, not one I’m overly enamoured of, beyond downloading free versions of classics to dip in and out of. So good look to Mr Ridgway and his agent and co. I just hope the novel has slightly more depth than the novella. I guess I will find out. 

Sunday, 22 July 2012

nostalgia for the light (w&d patricio guzmán)

I was there on 911. When the Palace was  bombed and the President was killed. Or killed himself. Though no-one believes the official story because none of the official stories are credible. I did not fight in the trenches, because no-one did. I was not rounded up by the young men whose anger masked their confusion. I was not taken to the football stadium so I did not see Jara have his hands chopped off or the students shot or endure that strange time standing on the terraces as though waiting for the football match to start, knowing that when it started it only meant the end. Neither did I succeed in mythologizing my experiences when I fled, first to Mexico, then to Europe, then to the Stratosphere.

But I was there, one way or another. Or, rather, I have been there. I have even walked the Atacama desert, seen the stars like nowhere on earth, hunted for traces of lost civilisations as well as traces of the civilisation we have lost.

Because of this, Guzmán’s film, haunting though it is, did not tell me things I did not know. It is not a beautiful film and neither should it be. Neither is it a meditational film, as some say. It is an angry film, and that is at it should be. It has a quiet, hidden anger, with the energy of an exploding star, because Guzmán was on a star that exploded forty years ago and knows how it feels. Because anger is the offspring of pain which is the offspring of events which are what Guzmán lived through and felt and if you have seen his films then you too have lived through and felt these events and all that they then brought forth. Which is why I know I was there. Even if I wasn’t. Which is why his film tells me nothing new. Even though I am glad to have learnt nothing new.

Guzmán points his own telescope into the past. He points it at the desert floor. The light which hits the screen whilst we watch is light which was busy being born forty years ago, finally reaching our eyes.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

killer joe (d. william friedkin, w. tracey letts)

This curious movie feels like something of an anomaly. In part Hollywood star vehicle in part faithful homage to Letts' play; in part another comeback movie from a lost great of the 70s. Where does it sit in the canon?

I didn't know Letts' play, but it feels as though the adaptation is probably not unfaithful, all the more so given that the playwright is also credited as screenwriter. As a play it does what it might have said on the tin: deep South, Southern Trash, Trailer Trash, Southern Gothic, etc etc. Not a million miles away from the work of Martin McDonagh, a world where little people have to make big but hopeless decisions. As such it has a cynical sheen and requires some grandstand acting. 

The latter is supplied in spades by McConaughey, whose performance drives the film. He seems to be having fun and Friedkin gives him license to go as big as he can. In many ways this contributes to the impression that this is an "anti-film". Where we're encouraged by the Michael Caine school of acting to believe less is more, McConaghy et all rip up the rulebook and hope that the camera keeps up. Similarly, this feels like anti-film because, no matter how well done the adaptation, it retains the resolute feel of a stage play, where dialogue is king and the narrative can be as overblown as it wants to be.

The strange thing about all this is that it kind of works. There's a verve and an energy to Killer Joe which means it rides the obstacles in its way and like a limo with a healthy suspension comes bouncing back on the other side. It doesn't feel like a great film or great filmmaking; it doesn't come across as a great play; but as a package it's more interesting than your run-of-the-mill Hollywood fare, perhaps because it's not afraid of being a bit rough around the edges.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

the hunter (d. daniel nettheim, w. alice addison, wain fimeri)

This is a tragic movie. It's tragic because the lovely heroine gets fried and no-one seems to care. It's tragic because the last living Tasmanian Tiger is killed off. It's also tragic because a great actor, Willem Dafoe, stomps around the movie in a pale imitation of his role in Antichrist, looking as though he's just about past it. Like sportsmen and ballet dancers, one suspects there must come a moment in the actor's life when he realises he's past the prime of manhood and his dignity would be better served by an appreciation of this. One thinks of Dick Diver cocking up his Cote D'Azur water-skiing stunt in Tender is the Night. A great man humbled is a tragic thing to see, and Dafoe ends up looking faintly ridiculous as he runs around to no great effect, still rugged, but bearing the first hints of the geriatric he will one day become, as must we all. (It's another example of Eastwood's innate sassiness that he recognised the need to pastiche his image, thereby subverting the ridicule which might have come his way as he aged.) 

Does The Hunter warrant Defoe's exertions? No doubt he had fun learning how to skin a possum and clumping around in the wonderful Tasmanian wilderness, but there must have been a nagging doubt in his mind as he saw which way the script was going. There's some neat ideas which are never developed in any detail (His relationship with the children; the missing Tiger itself.) But too much of the film is spent with Dafoe, the hunter, driving back and forth in his four by four, always one step behind just about everyone. The plot, with its loggers and eco-warriors, gets lost in the peat bogs, and there's plenty of cute detail which doesn't seem to serve any real purpose (Speakers in trees, Dafoe's love of opera, the kid's drawings etc). In the end, there are too many ingredients. The script feels as though it's been recycled so many times it doesn't know if it's one green bottle or a pair of pyjamas. 

Having said all this, if you like sweeping nature shots and Tasmanian devils, then this film is for you.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

polisse (w&d maïwenn)

It's all about the narrative structure. It was interesting to read reviews of this film by Anglo Saxon critics after having watched it. There was no shortage of criticism of the narrative and character development. The suggestion was that these stories lacked closure. The audience was parachuted into a hotchpotch of stories containing insufficient degrees of beginnings, middles and ends. Then I read an interview with the director stating that this is exactly how the CPU police officers whose lives we follow for a year experience their work. They don't know if the endings are happy or sad. They are cogs in a machine just as much as anyone else. If the filmmaker compromises this truth, they invalidate the broader truth of the film's mission.

This is a self-consciously assembled text, a bricolage. The story is conveyed through fragments. Both the cases the police work on and the lives of the CPU team it, the film, follows. Towards the end of the film the director allows herself an indulgence as, from her balcony window, she spots a succession of characters we have come across in the course of her film. It's both a holistic moment and a nod to the limits of her docu-drama formula. No matter how much you try to get under the skin, there will always be artifice.

The film strikes the occasional unconvincing note as it traces the lives of its protagonists. Sometimes the (presumably improvised) responses of the actors seem forced. The integration of the director's character herself, a photographer assigned to document the police group, has a touch of whimsy to it. But at other moments this is a film which displays a gripping cinematic flair. Not least because the less obviously structured narrative means the audience never quite knows what is coming next.  Why do stories, in particular for cinema, need to be conceived and told in a neat, dots-joined-up format? Much of the beauty of being a spectator of cinema (or any narrative drama) is the pleasure to be had from flexing our intelligences as we make the connections for ourselves. Maïwenn's loose tapestry boldly resists the impulse to 'use' a particular story to convey the traumatic lives of the men and women who engage in the state's battle against child abuse. In contrast, it immerses us in the far messier story of their chaotic daily lives, and the toll that their job takes on these lives. Lives which ultimately seem almost as fragile as the lives of those they seek to protect.

Monday, 4 June 2012

the turin horse (w&d bela tarr)

Amidst the raft of new films about to appear under discussion in the small corner of the BBC where I once again find myself working, The Turin Horse has not featured. Not once has its name been mentioned. Bela Tarr belongs to that parallel cinematic world, the one that makes no money but is adored by the festivals. Someone whose work never has been and never will be 'commercial'; but who has made film after film nevertheless. He reflects the peculiar taxonomy of the film world.  It would be interesting to see a proper Jeremey Deller style Venn Diagram, mapping the vagaries of cinema, from Transformers to Tarr. 

Tarr himself comes across in his interviews as lugubrious, armed with a self-effacing sense of humour and a didactic if understated belief in the value of what he's doing. Something which is reflected in his films. These have an economy all their own. Turin Horse is two hours twenty long. It takes place on a single location which looks a bit like the set of a Martin Mcdonagh play. The dialogue is sparse. There are essentially two characters and a horse. It ends as it begins, in darkness. My sister, with whom I went to see it, came out declaring it was bleak, and there are what can only be called Beckettian echoes, but in spite of its austerity, it seemed to me a film steeped in a shrewd, unpretentious humour. To my eyes this was neither a long film nor a heavy one; it was eminently enjoyable. In another parallel universe, one where Bresson is the norm, it might even be considered overly 'commercial'. 

Not that this is going to be acknowledged. The director will be tarred with the usual clichés and banished to the 'difficult' salon. People will continue to prefer their US TV box-sets as a way of filling up rainy afternoons. It's the way of the world and there would appear to be no escaping it, but if you're thinking of going to see The Turin Horse, go with an open mind and  your sense of humour switched on. Just because it's long and in black and white doesn't mean it's not full of enjoyable detail nor that it doesn't contain several comical moments. And if you're a fan of the potato there's even more to get your teeth into.

Friday, 25 May 2012

the suit (d peter brook)

A lull. A lull which goes with the process of creation as well as the fact that whilst the play is on I tend to find myself going to the cinema less. In truth I missed writing about Cold Souls, which I saw in Cinemateca and quite enjoyed, but I was up to my neck in Harper and somehow didn't have the headspace.

London offers more headspace. In large part because it's less creative. For me, obviously. Anyway. Back in town scarcely 48 hours, I saw that it was possible to get a £10 ticket for the Brook. I sort of feel that there's an obligation to go and see the Brook. Because I have missed so many previous opportunities. Yet, as with the last play of his I saw, whilst The Suit is charming and astutely directed, it feels like this is late Brook, Brook-lite. The play is a fable from the townships of Apartheid South Africa. There is a sprinkling of politics, but not enough to either offend or engage, some lovely songs, a certain amount of ingenious if unspectacular stagecraft and some pleasant, relaxed acting. There is nothing to dislike, but nothing to get too excited about. There seems very little sense of risk. Perhaps Brook was always a more conservative director than his sense of formal innovation suggested. Marat/ Sade and US were as much a reflection of their time (and perhaps Marowitz, who knows) as his own sensibility. What he brought was the elegance and, at the time, visionary stagecraft. This might sound off, given that The Suit is set in one of the most overtly political environments of Brook's and indeed my own lifetime. There are references to the abuses of the school system and the poverty. But in the end this seems incidental. The director's mission is to charm, to woo international houses, as no doubt the play will do. The South African context feels like colour (as, say, a white box is colour); in spite of the supposedly tragic end to the fable, the audience leaves in a feelgood mode.

I enjoyed The Suit, but I feel I enjoyed it more than I needed to. I would have liked to have enjoyed it less, and felt more. 

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

flacas vacas (d. santiago svirsky, w. verónica perrotta)

Flacas Vacas takes a formula and applies it to a local environment. The formula is three women in their thirties going away on a disastrous holiday. The environment is the Uruguayan coast. The movie is clearly billed as a comedy and features classic comedy elements such as a squashed pet turtle and the gradual destruction of the holiday cottage. The relationships between the three women evolve, if not in quite the saccharine Hollywood manner the formula might have suggested. There's a handsome stranger (played by Dario, a man I met the other night who dedicates three sessions a week to studying the theatrics of Mnouchkine. Whose work he saw once in Santiago.) The Dario character is perhaps the least interesting of the lot, doing what men do - taking cocaine and shagging the slightly prettier woman after suggesting he was going to shag the slightly less pretty woman. But the female characters are all convincing and believable. One of them is played by the writer, Veronica Perrota, whose sassy script keeps the film honest. The cinematography is astute: every time there's a wide, the film looks a bit iffy. Suggesting the camera was not top of the range. But sensibly the DOP has gone for close-ups and carefully framed shots, giving the piece a slightly clumsy artfulness which keeps the focus on the actresses and helps to recount what is essentially the story of three women's lost weekend.

The fact that the movie has been made and released is telling. This is a post-dictatorship, nascent middle class movie. The politics are kept under the table. The characters don't seem in any way 'third world': they're slightly confused women whose problems relate to relationships and men. And getting on with each other. As such, Flacas Vacas offers a convincing portrait of a new Latin American demographic. It's not the most profound of films, but like the US model it perhaps echoes, it's not trying to be. Personally, I'd have liked the film to have explored in slightly more detail the darker edges of its characters' lives, but this is a comedy first and a drama second. As such, it's an effective, intelligent piece of movie making which is fluffy enough to please its target audience without ever being gratingly fluffy; retaining the necessary hint of psychological veracity to ensure that it doesn't get lost in pursuit of a happy-ever-after conclusion.

Monday, 19 March 2012

chef [jaspreet singh]

Kashmir seems a long way away from Montevideo, but Singh's novel brought it back to life. The novel (as often seems to be the case in Indian literature) is a first person account of the trials and tribulations of a sympathetic but hapless chef in the Indian army. The twist in Singh's take on Kashmir is that he presents the conflict from the point of view of a soldier-chef, Kip Singh, a Sikh from Delhi. Who is seduced by the charms of the Himalayan province, losing his faith in the army and the Indian state in the process.

As well as offering this insight into the conflict, Chef is also a novel which explores the loss of innocence.   In fact, Kip's failure to lose his innocence and sleep with a woman becomes a tragic loss of innocence in itself. The innocence of believing that all will turn out OK, that the world is designed to bring happiness. In his frustration and his struggles to come to terms with his fate, Kip's life echoes the struggles of the place he falls in love with. The tone of the book remains dry and wistful throughout. Kip's eye remains as dispassionate as his tastebuds, which have been coached by his mentor, the older, tragic chef, to absorb and enjoy contrasting influences. There's a great deal of wonderful writing about food and its possibilities. The older chef, for example, loves Brie, and bemoans the paucity of Indian cheeses. The willingness to reach out and delight in another culture and its cuisine not only broadens the palate, it also broadens the imagination. With all the trouble that can cause, as Kip discovers when he starts to fall for a suspected female Pakistani terrorist.

Chef is an assured novel. The writer skips willingly between timelines. In Kip he has created a character who feels like he could have walked out of the pages of a novel from the 19th century: a genuinely decent, likeable hero, whose courage is revealed in the little things he does, not in grand gestures. It's sometimes said that your lead character should be riven with conflict and will not be dramatically interesting if he or she is too sympathetic. Chef shows this not to be the case, revealing a figure whose gradual understanding of the conflict he has become unwittingly caught up in makes for an unlikely but  noble hero. 

Sunday, 26 February 2012

cerro bayo (w&d victoria galardi)

Cerro Bayo is an affectionate fable from Patagonia. It's a character driven piece which examines a family's coming to terms with the attempted suicide of the grandmother, a suicide attempt which is never fully explained. Instead, the film examines the differing reactions of her two daughters and the way in which various members of the family seek to get to hold of the grandmother's legacy.

The drama is less significant than the gently comic portrayal of these people's way of life. Despite the fact they live with a certain degree of affluence, there's a pining for the big city. One of the daughters live in Buenos Aires, where things are clearly not working out for her all that well. Both the grandchildren have plans to get away. When Ines (played by Ines Efron, the remarkable star of XXY) fails to win the local beauty pageant competition, she is devastated. The fact that she's far from the being the likeliest candidate for the prize never seems to have crossed her mind. Her skateboarding brother feels similarly trapped, but thinks he's found an escape route only to have it snatched away.

At one point the film uses a track by Beirut, an effectively jarring moment, which helps to position it as a comedy of manners which could have played out in any small, isolated community. Fittingly, the film refrains from showing almost anything of the festivities which mark the first snowfall on the mountain. This is a chamber piece which refrains from big dramatic statements as its carefully honed script focuses in on the little dramas which make up the everyday lives of people from three generations.