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.