Wednesday, 30 January 2013

the tempest (d. declan donnellan)

Donnellan & Ormerod’s Tempest is an assured, convincing piece of stagecraft. Using a simple three door stage and occasional projections, they recount Shakespeare’s last play with fluency. There’s many details to savour. The five male Ariels (only 5?) torment the shipwrecked visitors with watering cans. Rather than carrying logs, Ferdinand carries an Ariel. When Alonso, Sebastian and Antonio are accused by Ariel, the projection turns the stage into a Soviet show trial. And the marriage ceremony becomes a paean to kitsch Soviet art, as sickle-wielding farmers line-dance across the stage.

However, in a sense the final two images hint at this production’s Achilles Heel. Cheek by Jowl is working with their sister Russian theatre company. Hence the director and designer’s decision to include various signifiers in their staging which announce a Russian influence, as above. We also get Stefano and Trinculo as materialist oligarchs, hellbent on shopping to oblivion. But the overall impact of these allusions is bitty. It’s unclear what exactly Donnellan is seeking to say about Russian society, or why he is matching this “Russianness” onto The Tempest. (One wonders what Pelevin would have to say.) Is there a deeper theme? Or is it just skilful appropriation of local imagery which goes hand-in-glove with working with a Russian company?

This question felt all the more curious watching the show in Latin America. The role of The Tempest in Latin American culture is well-documented. You’ll meet plenty of people called Ariel here (including the man who watches the cars on our street for pennies). There’s no reason for Donnellan’s staging to refer to this, (it only happens to be on tour here), but what’s apparent watching the play is the extent to which the writer was aware of and infiltrating his text with the geo-political developments of his day. On one level The Tempest can be seen a magical fairytale. But on another it’s a play which is addressing concrete, tangible issues. Donnellan’s use of ‘Russian’ imagery suggests an awareness of the way that the play maps onto a more discursive reading, but ultimately, to this observer at least, that interpretation failed to come through with any clarity.

Instead, the primacy of the magical fairy tale wins through. With regard to this, the director’s handling is deft. The advantages of having worked with Shakespeare’s texts all your working life, and the confidence this gives, is evident. Donnellan teases his audience like a sixth spritely Ariel, interrupting the action, setting up the denoument, in control at every moment. It makes for an enjoyable evening and a notable demonstration of the theatrical benefits of a director and their designer (Nick Ormerod) working as a unit, as they have done for thirty years.



This is the third Cheek by Jowl Shakespeare I’ve seen (also one Webster). The first, Othello, was I believe, their first ever production, which toured to my school and I watched in the “drama barn” as a teenager. Ten years later, mas o menos, I saw Measure for Measure in the Sala Anglo, and went out for drinks with the cast in the Lobizon afterwards. It’s also worth noting that that Cheek By Jowl have had a unlikely but profound impact on my life, not for artistic reasons, but because a friend of mine once worked for them in their Kennington office. Where, one day, a fax arrived asking if the company knew of any young directors who might be interested in coming to work for a year in a place called Montevideo.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

skyfall (d. mendes, w. neal purvis, john logan, robert wade)

Roland Barthes liked Bond narratives. He wrote a long and engaging essay about their structural form. He also liked Carry On movies, so we shouldn’t get carried away, but Barthes’ appreciation is a pointer to the fact that Bond could be seen as the closest thing to an existential hero (or anti-hero) British popular culture has ever produced. Bond inhabits his own moral universe, where society’s rules do not apply. In part this is because he works for the British secret service, with its dubious ethics, but it also has to do with his perception of the world. A perception that might be said to originate in a jaundiced perspective engendered by having to be oneself in spite of the British class system, something that drives him towards his default loner condition. (It might be worth noting that Fleming’s background has plenty in common with those of Philby, Maclean and Le Carre.) In order to escape the torpid Whitehall world, he effectively goes rogue, even if that’s something which the system seeks to integrate to its advantage. Bond’s tragic flaw is not that he is a defender of the British faith (ie that he is a servant to the notion of ‘duty’ even if that proves to be to his detriment); but that no matter how much he indulges and exerts his individuality (in the role of the outsider) his talents and his soul, what remains of it, will always be appropriated by the state he works for.

All of which explains why Bond is such a fascinating fictional creation: a brilliant expression of the tension between individuality and the demands of society/ the state. Bond cannot escape his Britishness, but he will go as far as he can in order not to be tied down by the rules decreed by his nationality. Hence his pervasive and engaging cynicism.

Skyfall’s lachrymose denial of all of the above is an indicator of how conservative British society (and filmmaking) has become over recent decades. It’s a far cry from the character Connery once made his own. Skyfall seems to do everything to locate Bond within a narrative of renascent colonial glory. The depiction of Dench-as-M-as-quasi-Queen (reinforced by the now-famous Olympics stunt) to whom Bond is devoted, and who has become a maternal figure in his life, distorts his whole relationship with the state. The new Bond is a loyal and devoted soldier whose acquiescence to authority negates his anarchistic streak. (Shown to be destructive and narcissistic as he downs scorpion-laced shots in the tropics.) M herself is viewed in a turgid shot, reminiscent of the most depressing Hollywood cinema-as-propaganda, in front of coffins draped in Union Jacks. M is then given the job of defending her agency’s role in modern global politics, embellishing the notion of the importance of Britain retaining a telling military presence in the new global game. This argument and these images reflect Britain’s recent and continued role as military adventures, something much of the new world finds hard to swallow, as though we still lived in the post-war global matrix that Fleming himself inhabited, when European wars determined the planet’s fate.

Does any of this matter? If Mendes and co want to turn Bond into an apologist for British foreign policy, where’s the aesthetic problem? The trouble is, in terms of creating an effective Bond movie, it matters a lot. This is an emasculated Bond, whose beauty is purloined along with his cynicism. Rather than defining himself in existential struggle against a ferocious opponent, the yin to his yan, he’s defined by his patriotism and servility. This is not what we want need or want from Bond and ultimately leads to an increasingly dull and over-extrapolated narrative. After the impressive opening sequence, the movie flatlines, when it is not rescued by Deakins’ cinematographic flair. We are presented with an asexual, ascetic Bond who finds no real pleasure in life. The closest we get is a muted homoerotic hint in a relationship with Bardem which is more flirtatious than threatening. Where the villain should be Bond’s alter-ego, the evidence of anarchic power untrammelled, here his relationship with Bardem is muted and fraternal. They are two sons of Empire, only the one with the Spanish accent really didn’t fit in. The portrayal of Bardem’s character feels desperately contrived and the assault on Whitehall so mundanely implausible, and cheap, that it makes us realise the worth of real implausibility in the Bond narratives, where villains have powers beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

Both Bardem and Bond have been betrayed by Empire, and whereas one is happy to take his medicine, the other  has become slightly peeved and even more Oedipal. This converts M into the central character, as though someone handed the scriptwriters the section from the bible marked “jeopardy” and they have valiantly tried to crowbar it into a narrative that doesn’t require it. With the effect of turning Skyfall into cheap melodrama, when M’s maternal role is emphasised by the decision to return to his parents’ home for one of the least spectacular dénouements in the Bond franchise. This is the froth that comes from trying to devise a narrative with an emasculated hero (in much the same way as happened in Quantam of Solace). The close-cropped Craig is a shorn Samson: in a conservative society, there’s no room for mavericks. The Bonds of this dull world have to learn to fill in their forms, curtsey to their superiors, tug their forelocks and iron out their anarchic muscles.



Here are some of the things we don’t need to know about Bond:

We don’t need to know about his parents or his upbringing.
We don’t need to know he has an Oedipal relationship with M.
We don’t need to know that he’s capable of emotion.
We don’t need to know that he has a matey relationship with his parents’ former gillie.
We don’t need to know about his politics or those of the organisation he works for.
We don’t need to know that he’s capable of nostalgia.
We definitely don’t need to know that he’s a patriot.

Here are some of the things we require from a Bond film:

A charismatic villain with an outrageous if potentially convincing motivation for their villainy.
Exotic locations.
Imaginative use of dramatic action sequences.
An ahistorical perspective (history being the playground within which Bond frolicks).
A clearly demonstrated lack of respect for authority, towards both his superiors and his enemies.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

complices (d. frédéric mermoud, w. mermoud & pascal arnold)

The subject of child abuse and sex rings has been prevalent in the European media over recent months. (Even though this film predates this). Without in any way denying the requirement of society to defend its most innocent and vulnerable citizens, it’s also apparent that the media fascination goes with a  certain prurience. There’s a voyeuristic element to the furore. The pseudo-Foucaultian sex-power matrix generating a neo-pornographic response. No doubt that shrewd reader of the sexual politic, Foucault himself, would have offered an incisive commentary on the contrasting Macalpine and Saville cases.

Mermoud’s film bellyflops into this arena. It tells the story of the murder of Vincent, a 19 year old prostitute who pretends to be underage in order to fulfil the fantasies of his wealthy clients. His life becomes confused when he acquires a girlfriend, Rebecca, with whom he falls in love. Her reaction when he comes clean about his real job (having earlier made the unlikely claim to be working for an estate agents) sets off a chain of events which will end in tragedy.

We know it will end in tragedy because the film opens with Vincent’s body being fished out of the river. The other half of the film follows the investigation of the police into his murder. The mixed-sex police team, Hervé and Karine, enjoy a mildly flirtatious, world-weary relationship which looks like it should go somewhere but never does.

All of the above is all well and good, and the first half hour of the film, with its use of flashback and a brisk editing style, rolls along effectively enough. We assume a narrative connection will evolve between the stories of the police and the young couple. We assume that at a certain point the narrative will take an unexpected turn. We also assume that the scenes of Vincent and Rebecca having sex with unpleasant, seedy men, are there for a reason which is more than merely mundane narrative-filler. The adopted premise implies an examination of the true meaning of corruption, the worm in the apple, the other side of the capitalist tapestry. The film’s insinuating title suggests there must be something more to it than the equivalent of a glossy TV drama episode.

But there isn’t. There’s nothing there. It comes as no surprise to learn that the director has worked mostly in TV. What does come as a surprise is that a script as banal and cynical as this has been feted and given a global release. One suspects the reason is that it is cashing in on a global prurience which would make Michel smile. Complices is the twenty first century equivalent of the Victorian flash of ankle on an expensively printed dirty postcard. 

Monday, 21 January 2013

the eel (d. shôhei imamura, w. imamura, daisuke tengan, motofumi tomikawa)

Imamura’s film is an exuberant, eccentric fairy tale. Yamashita kills his wife in a fit of jealous passion and then adopts an eel whilst in prison as an ersatz substitute. His passions have rendered him incapable of having real relationships with humans. An eel is safer.

The film then gradually traces the return of his humanity. He finds a sleeping princess, Keiko, (she’s actually taken an overdose) who he rescues. She falls for him and comes to work in his barber’s shop. Gradually Keiko helps him overcome his sense of alienation and when her own problems come back to haunt her, Yamashita finally begins to face up to his true feelings.

As the plot outlines, this is an ultimately sentimental tale, even its starting point is an act of murder. At times it feels as though the director runs the risk of being overly whimsical, with the secondary characters who help to make up Yamashita’s world all having their particular eccentricities (creating a UFO landing ground or displaying a passion for flamenco). Sometimes these feel like gimmicks, in contrast to Yamashita’s more nuanced relationship with his eel. In another way it could be said that they give the film something of the feel of a US indie movie: there’s a hint of Imamura’s idiosyncrasy in the work of Wes Anderson, for example. 

Saturday, 19 January 2013

the legend of suram fortress (d. parajanov, dodo abashidze, w. vaja gigashvili, daniel chonqadze)

This is a wonderfully chaotic film, a beautiful collection of images, stories, characters, thoughts, dreams. Like stumbling across the notebook of an unknown genius in a language that you can’t read, but whose very form is enough to tell you all you need to know. In a way perhaps cinema at its purest is a return to the pictogram, sign and meaning unified to reveal all in the image of a frame. If this were really so, Parajanov is one of those few poets who offers hints of what a wonderful world it could be.

Legend of Suram Fortress is ‘about’ a fortress which has been destroyed and cannot be rebuilt. Until, the soothsayer, whose circuitous story we have already learnt, reveals what’s required and a valiant young warrior agrees to entomb himself in the castle walls. However, most of this emerges in the film’s final ten minutes. In the preceding seventy, we travel the length and breath of Georgia, meeting too many characters to keep count of. Pomegranates are abused, bagpipes are blown and camels wend their way towards the coast. In one dazzling scene, medieval warriors pace the waterfront with supertankers lurking in the sea behind them.

There must be a whole host of ways of interpreting The Legend, with subtexts relating to national myths; the filmmaker’s own relationship to the USSR; and who knows what else. These aspects for now pass me by. What remains is the declaration of a filmmaker who’s willing to challenge his audience into re-evaluating what the experience of watching cinema can be. Not the act of following the thread of a narrative, but leaping from star to star. As such he almost seems to be challenging the whole notion of the Western narrative tradition, which had been waiting for cinema to be invented and Parajanov to arrive and show that stories don’t need beginnings, middles and ends. They need visions.  

Sunday, 13 January 2013

blood of requited love [manuel puig]

The film version of Puig's Kiss of the Spiderwoman was one of those breakthrough movies, all those years ago. We watched it dazzled by Hurt's transvestite turn. Images of people being bundled into Ford Falcons in the streets of Buenos Aires barely resonated. The world still felt like a vast entity, full of hidden corners, of which only occasional glimpses rose to the surface. Kiss of the Spiderwoman was one of these glimpses and one suspects, like Dorfman's Death and the Maiden, that the writer succeeded in connecting his country's recent political history with another, more elemental, ahistorical sense of terror which audiences around the world could grasp without having any real knowledge of the localised conflict they emerged from.

As such, it might be said, Puig's work was my first, pre-emptive entry into a world which has subsequently become almost as much my own as that of my homeland. Which made Blood of Requited Love, to use the clumsy English translation of the title, all the more disappointing. It's an intricate, quasi-poetic text, which tells the story of the young Brazilian, Josemar's, love affair with an even younger girl, along with ample descriptions of his other love affairs with other young girls. Puig's writing is tortuous and voyeuristic, leaving an uncomfortable taste. Which is presumably done on purpose, either to revile the reader, or to titillate. The circular machinations of the story, whereby its becomes increasingly unclear who Josemar's lover really is, feels artfully contrived, a kind of post-modern Robbe-Grilletian game. The glaring absence of any discernible historical or political context feels like the choice of a writer seeking to move away from the template his greatest success engendered. 

The whole of Latin America has apparently moved on, wars been have won and lost, and what's left is a range of questions which a new generation of Latin American writers are addressing with an urgency Puig once showed. 

Sunday, 6 January 2013

moscow does not believe in tears (w& d vladimir menshov, w. valentin chernykh)

Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears won the best foreign film Oscar in 1981. I'd never heard of it. If you had, hats off to you. It struck me watching this well-crafted film quite how much the Soviets lost the propaganda war. Those of us who grew up in latter years of the Cold War knew almost nothing about how ordinary people lived in the USSR. And almost everything about how they lived in the USA. How was anyone supposed to identify with the dark Communist empire if we knew nothing about the lives of those who inhabited it? 

Menshov's film takes us into the heart of everyday Moscow. It's a big, ambitious melodrama. It opens in 1958, focusing on the lives of three young women who live in a pension. One already has a fiancée. Another, the flighty Lyudmila, wants to find a respectable husband. When the third, Katerina, flatsits for her scientist relative, Lyudmila uses this as an opportunity to invite eligible bachelors around. She falls for an ice hockey star, whilst Katerina is seduced by a callow TV man, who dumps her on discovering her true social status in spite of the fact she's now pregnant. (The treatment of class in the film is fascinating, with the clear message that it was just as important in the fifties' USSR as it was in Macmillan's Britain.) The action then skips forwards 16 years to the mid seventies. Katerina is a successful career woman, but still single. She meets the maverick individualist, Gosha, and the second part of the film focuses on their late-blooming romance.

As the brief synopsis shows, this is unremarkable, even humdrum narrative material. Almost a USSR Sex and the City. But in its own way, as opposed to the films of Tarkovsky, for example, this is what makes the film so intriguing. Far from leading the dour, dull lives  that the citizens of the Soviet empire were portrayed as having, these are characters whose issues are close-to-home. Their lives don't feel constrained by the Communist system anymore than ours are constrained by capitalism. Menshov even manages to make the new-build estates on the edge of Moscow where the older Katerina lives look attractive. Whilst Menshov was clearly working within the Soviet system (as are those who make the Hollywood romcoms) it's intriguing to note the normality of the world depicted, one where individuals are free to express themselves as they please, to make mistakes and to spend the rest of their lives trying to make sense of these mistakes. 

Menshov's film doesn't appear to have pretensions to being 'great art', (with none of Kalatazov's dizzying camerawork, for example), but it has moments of magic and the relationships and acting are always engaging. We warm readily to these flawed characters and root for things to work out. In spite of the fact that Katerina ends up being a senior party official, we see here as a woman desperately trying to hold her life together and deal with her middle-aged loneliness. But, even if it won an Oscar, the Soviets never seemed to grasp the value of projecting their vision of society beyond their frontiers. As much as any other, the cultural war was won by the US. Governments may treat culture as a marginal sector in their budgets and their thinking, but its significance should never be undervalued.  

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

the romantics [pankaj mishra]

This book has an unlikely history. I'm talking about this particular book, not Mishra's book, although this is obviously a sentence which could provoke a Platonic debate. It was purchased via Amazon in London and brought to Monvtevideo in August 2010. (i don't know its history before it reached me, it may be that that too was unlikely.) In Montevideo it was, initially, not read. Rather it became a star of the stage. In the version of Pinter's Betrayal I was working on, the character Emma reads a book whilst she's in Venice through the course of the scene wherein her husband, Jerry, confronts her with the revelation that he knows about her infidelity with his best friend. The book selected was this edition of Mishra's The Romantics. Not because of its content or its title. Rather, because as a solid, red-clothed hardback, it had a suitable anonymous weight. It had sufficient presence to signal Emma's attempt to remain engaged with its pages in spite of where she suspects the conversation is headed and at the same time was suitably anonymous not to draw the spectator's attention away from the actors or the action. In this day and age, of course. she would have been more likely to have been reading a Kindle. When the run of the show came to an end the book was reclaimed and went to live on the Costa de Oro for a while, before finally returning to the Barrio Sur in Montevideo in 2012. Where I am now living, and where the book has been, at long last, read.


One of the downsides of being well-connected is that it means you are able to get that first novel, which should probably have remained in a drawer, published. Pankaj Mishra is an intelligent and informed non-fiction writer. He has ascended to one of those pan-global lives only enjoyed by sports stars, celebrity chefs or DJs or high powered cultural commentators, flitting between India, New York and London. He has, according to Wiki, been described as the next Edward Said. And good luck to him. But in a week where the conflicts latent with the 'new' India have come to the fore, (and one has little doubt that he has written on the issue), this is a tome from the past. Dealing with vapid Westerners mingling with innocent, Flaubert-addicted natives, breaking their hearts and corrupting their world views. In theory a book that drifts between Varanasi, Dharamsala and Pondicherry should have plenty to offer, but in practice there's something tired and uninspired about this maudlin tale, which lives up to its slightly preposterous (late Bertolucci) title. Had Mr Mishra not managed to make himself so well connected, with the clear backing of a powerful UK publisher, there's little doubt the novel would never have seen the light of day, and no-one would have been any the wiser. As it is, in spite of the fact that he has intimated in interviews that he would like to write another novel, one suspects that the author would be best off sticking to his undoubted strengths.