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.