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. 

Friday, 17 February 2012

selkirk (w&d walter tournier)

Selkirk is a curio: an animated account of the life of the man who was the model for Robinson Crusoe. Made in Uruguay. The opening sequences, set in a Scottish port, are so full of charm that it has you rooting for it straight away. Selkirk produces the maps that will guide a ship round the treacherous Cape Horn and on to the gold of the East Asian islands. Once on board ship he succeeds in getting the entire crew in hock to him. So when they get a chance to leave him behind on a desert island, they don't take much persuading.

Clearly made for kids, it appears to have all the ingredients to become a kind of cult hit. Apart from the fact that it all becomes rather predictable. Not because we already know the story, but because Selkirk never acquires any real depth as a character. It may be sticking resolutely to the original story, but the end effect is to make the viewer feel that Defoe probably knew what he was doing when he embroidered the reality.

You have to admire the stop motion animation and the geniality of the project. However, in spite of the fact that the kids munching popcorn all around me seemed to remain engaged, it's hard not to think that there's something missing, some sense of depth to the narrative which would lend Selkirk's achievement of survival a more heroic slant.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

vaho (w&d alejandro gerber bicecci)

Vaho follows in the traditions of Mexican cinema narrative, threading together the stories of three young men, whose childhood friendship was abruptly cut short when one of them was inadvertently responsible for the lynching of the school caretaker, killed when the neighbourhood wrongly believed him to have molested Abigail, the young school beauty. In reality Abigail, trapped in the school, looking for her lost backpack, was in fine fettle, but fear stalked the community and tragedy ensued.

This whole sequence is told in flashback, with the opening forty five minutes of the film describing the humdrum, slightly desperate lives of the three former friends. The flashback sequence then places into perspective everything we have seen up to then, revealing the reasons for their disassociation from society. Perhaps the most intriguing strand is that of the young plumber's son, whose father was instrumental in the killing and has later turned to drink. His son's way of dealing with all this is to immerse himself in a group which celebrates the old Aztec traditions. He dons the feathers and the footshakers to dance at the markets, picking up a few pennies. The presence and lack of respect for the ancient culture seems emblematic of the holes in Mexican society that the movie shows up.

These holes have in large part been filled by Christianity. The movie's strongest sequence takes place during the Calvary festivities of the town, when men drag huge crosses to a new Golgotha, with Roman centurions charging by on horseback. There's an energy and daring to these scenes which feel like cinema verite. Overall the film struggles to contain the various strands it introduces. The bold narrative device of the flashback helps to anchor it, but at times gives it the feel of two separate movies squeezed into one.

Friday, 10 February 2012

for bread alone (mohamed choukri)

This book is mentioned in Teju Cole's Open City, when the young Moroccan his narrator meets in Brussels recommends him rather than Ben Jelloun. Choukri's book is told in the first person and from the notes supplied by Paul Bowles, who translated it, it's largely autobiographical. Given this, it may well not be representative of his wider work.

The underlying narrative of For Bread Alone is Mohamed's journey towards the light of literature. Born in desperate poverty, his father a vicious bully who kills Mohamed's younger brother, his mother constantly pregnant with children who may or may not survive infancy, the book recounts his teenage years as he learns to fend for himself, taking in the pleasures of sex, alcohol and opiates along the way. It's a bawdy, energetic read, which glories in the narrator's discoveries of the pleasures of life as he does all he can just to survive. It may not be great literature but at the same time, in a message the book is consciously making as it closes with Mohamed's discovery of literacy, it's a testament to the power of literature. How it can honour the uncharted life, destroy obscurity, grant a voice to the voiceless. As such, you can see why Cole's Moroccan valued this book, (and why Harbor by Adams feels like such a prescient modern text). Choukri articulates a life which was destined to go, like the stories of so many others, unfeted, unknown.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

leaving atocha station [ben lerner]

It might be hard to explain how much pleasure this book has given me during the course of various frenetic, pre-departure days, punctuated by alcohol, hospitals and multiple viewings of The Tempest.  

Lerner's mendacious anti-hero poet is something of a blood brother to Alan Pauls' anti-hero in The Past. Both are addicts, both are unhinged. Lerner's narrator is perhaps funnier. His self awareness is lacerating. He lies with all the panache of a dromedary, if indeed dromedaries lie.

Amongst its many brilliances, this is a brilliant book about the pleasures and pains of inhabiting a second language. The way in which a foreign language acts as a cloak, behind which the stranger can allow him or herself to be reinvented as an enigmatic, fascinating character. Even though the enigma represents nothing more than ignorance and insecurity. 

The counterpoint to all this is that Lerner's narrator, feckless though he is, is also given by the author language which reveals a mind of unfettered brilliance. Out of the soup of words, he conjures those phrases which great writing nails, the ones that make you go: Exactly! That's exactly right!

This is of course Lerner's brilliance on show, rather than his narrator's. It is Lerner who instructs the reader in how to read John Ashbery, how to misread a woman's words, or even your own, how to meditate on the relationship between politics and poetry. It's quite a skill. You don't have to have been to Atocha station with its unmentioned jungle to appreciate all this. Or even Madrid. If you have, it's an added bonus.

Friday, 3 February 2012

open city [teju cole]

Open City is an idiosyncratic novel which plays a crafty game with its readership. Ostensibly a roman a clef, it tells the story of Julius, a Nigerian doctor who has come to work in New York. We don't know all that much about Teju Cole, but we do know he's a Nigerian who's come to live in New York. To what extent does Julius represent Teju? Is this an autobiographical novel?

Julius is the flaneur of New York City, and Brussels, documenting his chance encounters and observations. At times it feels as though he's going nowhere, just round in circles. Chance encounters where he defines himself as a visitor and an African, but also a citizen of the metropolis. Whether Julius' views are identical to Teju's is the novel's chief conceit and whenever we feel as though we're getting comfortable, something comes along to disrupt the reader's assumptions.

The section of the book which feels the tightest is when Julius leaves New York and travels to Brussels. Out of his comfort zone, in a dreary, Wintry European town, haunted by his long lost German grandmother, Julius' observations seem even more acute. He has a casual sexual encounter. He meets up with some North Africans and finds himself walking the line between the Third and First, Muslim and Christian, Black and White worlds. These characters, like figures out of Lorraine Adams' Harbor, occupy the hinterland on the edge of the Western World, where he, the Nigerian exile, might also belong, but so clearly doesn't.

At times, Open City is dazzling. At others, it feels mundane. It articulates the voice of a dispassionate observer, something echoed in Cole's laconic tweets. If you go to Flickr you can see the author's remarkable photographs. Cole has the eye of an artist, adrift in the wide world, unsure of his place, as are so many in our transient society. Don't go to him looking for clear storylines or concrete beginnings, middles and ends. Rather, join him on his peripatetic walk through the crumbling edifice of our civilisation. His approach, for all his love of Flemish painting and 19th century classical music, has all the hallmarks of the itinerant African narrative, relocated to another place, tone and sensibility.