Friday, 31 May 2013

caché (w&d haneke)

Don’t trust what your eyes are telling you. Look beneath the surface. The title tells us this. The opening sequence spells it out. And the closing sequence repeats the message with a dose of painstaking subtlety.

Auteuil’s Georges and Binoche’s Anne inhabit a strange, attractive Parisian property. Most of their life seems to take place in the sitting room/ diner downstairs. This contains hundreds of books, a mighty television set, the desk at which Auteuil works and some comfy sofas. This is the vortex of the family home, although the family rarely congregate here. Instead, it becomes the space of anxiety where Georges and Anne watch the mysterious videos which document their lives. Then there’s upstairs, the bedrooms. Their son’s bedroom is normal. Posters for Eminem. A computer with a games console attached. But his parent’s bedroom is like a cave. Dark, bare, sparse. It’s a space dedicated to sleep. No hint of pleasure. The seeming normality of their lives is not sustained in the bedroom. Instead, the room reveals the emptiness of their marriage.

When Caché came out the world and his wife revelled in the film’s blend of Hitchcockian mystery and rigorous austerity. Overlooking the way the filmmaker offers moments where he foregoes subtlety in favour of a broader satirical tone. As Georges edits his TV discussion about Rimbaud, he urges the editor to skip the conceptual stuff and get to the bit about his homosexuality. His colleagues are congenial media types who tell outlandish stories and exude a breezy self-confidence. These are the taste-makers, the very people who are no doubt lauding Haneke’s work to the skies, praising his rarefied critique of modern morals. At the same time, the TV shows Italian troops in Iraq, as though to emphasise the way in which the real barbarities of Western ‘Civilisation’ continue to occur under our noses. Will history judge the intervention in Iraq any differently from the French misadventures in Algeria? The ironies lurk beneath the surface in a world where the comfort of those-who-have shrouds the suffering of those-who-do-not.

Watching the film a second time, nearly ten years later, the shock effect of Majid’s suicide is no longer present. Instead, perhaps, it becomes easier to dwell on the curious intimacy of his relationship with Georges. A friendship formed at the age of 5 retains more power than any created in adulthood. The two men have already learnt almost all the lessons that life will have to teach them when still in childhood. The cliff that divides people from different social and political backgrounds as well as, one assumes, the pain of loss. Perhaps it’s because he’s sought to repress so much of his childhood that Georges cannot relate to his own child. Georges emerges as a pathetic figure, metropolitan man stripped bare. For all his intelligence he has no idea how to cope when the going gets tough, he’s soon out of his league. Which puts him in the same category as the father in Funny Games and the other in Time of the Wolf, whose good natured intentions are blown away before he can even start the negotiations. There’s something Nietzchean about Haneke’s critique of modern masculinity (which recurs again with the White Ribbon’s narrator). Apart from its commentary on the value he places on life, Majid’s suicide is the kind of carnal act of which Georges would be incapable. Modern Europeans might wear black but beneath the pseudo-existential veneer there’s pastel-coloured underwear. They don’t know how to kill goats and their primary response to any kind of threat is to get stressed out and discuss it with their partners.

The irony in all this is that Haneke is a man who makes intellectually provocative films. He values the intellect as a weapon with which he seeks to skewer the society he inhabits. And he does so successfully. The neurotic chattering classes lap up their medicine. March against the war or the dictaduras. Meanwhile, the men and women of action launch wars and dismiss art as a symptom of weakness. They would walk out of Caché before they had had the time to realise the director was subverting the artform with his opening shot. Which is why Haneke’s cinema is one of the the most definitive examplars of the crisis of Western society, intellectual or otherwise. Post-existentialism, we don’t know whether we should be reading Zizek, watching football, speculating on the stock exchange or the property market, or fighting for a cause we don’t believe in. Going to the cinema and watching a film by Haneke allows us to both indulge our Western decadence and suffer barbed criticisms for our indulgences at the same time. It’s a modern church, where our souls are allowed to engage in the struggle for meaning for a couple of hours before we head back towards our humdrum, DIY normality. Where risk is something that occurs on television, in a land far removed from our own.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

the lute and the scars [daniel kis]

So then. A Serbian writer whose father died in Auschwitz, who lived in exile in Paris, who namechecks Calvino, Cortazar and Koestler among a host of other little known Central European writers, who is an admirer of Borges and who, to this reader’s mind, is the missing link between the Argentine and Bolano.

Bolano again. He recurs with nagging regularity. Bolano’s short stories, the ones that helped garner him attention, blend the cotidian, the personal, the everyday, with the global. They are also obliquely autobiographical. Lo and behold, here is the avowed Serbian Borghesian who, somewhat before Bolano’s time, is writing in exactly the same vein. With the same off-the-cuff, anecdotal brilliance. Converting the world and his life into a compendium of stories, with all the rag-tag connections of history interwoven.

There are only seven stories in this collection. But that’s enough. Two at least are minor masterpieces. The title-piece effortlessly manages to encompass fifty years of Soviet tragedy in a few, seemingly throwaway pages. Jurij Golec is a more Borghesian meditation on death, framed within a Bolano-esque context. The Stateless One tells the life of Von Horvarth in 26 brief chapters. The other brief tales conjure the life of post-War Europe, the frontiers collapsing and retrenching, Russia, Serbia and France all over-lapping. Kis’ genius lies in his capacity to make something transcendental out of a seeming nothing, to turn water into wine.

The joy of reading is to stumble across a voice which comes out of nowhere and somehow speaks across time and geography. There’s no time for theory in the world anymore, at least not the kind of theory that makes any sense, but if there were I’d try and pin down the secret donation of late 20th C literature: as the scale of the global seemed to become evermore immense, all-encompassing, overwhelming, the writers realised that it was only by using the micro of their own experiences as a prism that the world of the macro (the death camps, the wars, the torture chambers) could begin to be discussed. That these subjects might be removed from the discursive terrain of political rhetoric and re-positioned within a context where their real effects could begin to be grasped. Real being defined as something that can be phenomenologically experienced, as opposed to being intellectually contemplated. This, more than Borges, is what binds Kis with Bolano, and their fellows. In essence, they are writers who seek to reclaim history through the existence of the everyday, which is after all, all that history is. Reclaiming it from the preachers and the politicians and the theoreticians who have annexed language in a bid to sever the common Brechtian from his or her own experiences.

There’s no time for theory. Which might be just as well. On an overcast Montevidean morning. There is time for that failsafe of modernity, a google search (Kis Bolano) which reveals that I am not the only one to have made the association. Three others, in fact, including Vila-Matas, who lists Kis alongside his friend Bolano, Koetzee, Pynchon, Antunes and Perec in order to refute Vargas Llosa’s argument that literature has become too “leve, ligera, fácil”. Which puts Daniel Kis in some fine company and also suggests that there is indeed a possibility that the Chilean Borghesian was aware of the work of the Serbian Borghesian.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

time of the wolf (w&d michael haneke)

There’s a moment in Time of the Wolf where Eva, the daughter, asks to listen to some music a man is playing on a tinny tape recorder. Beethoven. I suppose I must have stolen that moment. And many others as well. Although I was never particularly aware of the impact the film must have had on me. Until I saw it for the second time, last night. The first time, if memory serves me well, and I’m far from convinced that it does, was in the flat of Mr C, when he still owned the flat in Kilburn, before he moved to Archway and then headed East. It was always a pleasure to work in that flat, with it’s kitchen/ living room and marble worksurface. It was a productive space, from within whose walls emerged the first film we made, a blend of Cortazar, Woman of the Dunes and other random influences.

Haneke’s film must have made its points. It was, as ever, far preferable to see it on the  big screen in Cinemateca. Haneke’s films are like way stations. Each one defining in their pared back austerity the state of the world and the state of your life. Last night, there were no more than half a dozen people in the cinema. They don’t know what they’re missing. An old man at the end said, as we left, that the film grabbed you from the start. He was right. The start which seems like a homage to Funny Games, as a middle-class people-carrier noses its way through the countryside with no idea of what it is about to confront.

However, in spite of the film’s savage opening, this is a gentler, more humane piece of storytelling than Funny Games. We assume that everything’s going to go all Cormac McCarthy on us (ie The Road) with horses eating one another and humans too. But somehow the savagery is kept in check. It’s internal, even, curiously for Haneke, poeticised. There remains the suggestion that beneath it all he’s a  repressed Romantic, searching out the humane within the disjointed chaos of a world which has, more or less, forgotten what it means to be humane. There’s something about the messianic figures who arrive bearing torches which suggests that Haneke believes there might be hope after all; that one way or another once we rid ourselves of all the junk that weighs us down we’ll remember what it means to belong to a community. And learn to breathe again.  

Saturday, 25 May 2013

on the road to babadag [andrzej stasiuk]

Recently I learnt that Bolano wrote listening to heavy metal on his headphones. Franzen needs white noise. There always seems to be some debate about what are the best conditions for writing. How to disconnect yourself from the world in order to open up the interior space and let it loose on the page.

Reading Stasiuk’s remarkable prose I wondered how he goes about producing it. On The Road, as the title suggests, is a road movie of a book. A travel journal, to put it another way. But the prose itself feels like driving down a road. Through Eastern Europe. A road that sometimes meanders, sometimes crawls up hills, sometimes freewheels down them. Sometimes seems to turn into a blazing motorway. And sometimes, too, it feels as though the writer loses control of his vehicle, as the language takes over, barrelling forwards relentlessly, chasing the stars.

The book itself is an account of the writer’s wanderings through the netherlands of Eastern Europe. Places which, for the average Western European, might as well be in Asia. Moldova, Albania, Romania, Transylvania, Slovenia. However, his investigation is more abstruse than this. Stasiuk shuns the cities as far as possible, preferring to delve into the backwoods, searching out the roots that hark back to a rural Europe, unchanged by modernity. He doesn’t like motorways and he likes getting lost. He shows little interest in the tourist sights, preferring to drink beer or the local tipple in a bar than visit Roman remains. The writer seems to be on a constant search to find the essence of this other Europe which has managed to preserve itself in the face of the barrage of the modern world’s relentless quest for uniformity. Places are not the same as one another. They are different and people evolve with this difference as a result.

Stasiuk diligently investigates these differences. He searches out the thinginess of things, seeking the way in which man, beast and object are so tightly defined by one another that it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference. This is the world of the object from the  pre-consumer age, when the individual retained a different relationship to matter. His descriptions of these societies, preserved by their place on the European margin, have the resonance of a William Carlos Williams poem and the intellectual acuity of Foucault’s Les Mots et Les Choses.

The book is split into several sections detailing his journeys in various countries, until the last essay, a long, haphazard, semi-stream of consciousness where he allows himself to hop from place to place, name to name, creating through the act of writing alone a kind of communality between these corners of Eastern Europe. It’s bravura writing, perhaps inspired as the title suggests by Keroac, but something all of its own at the same time. In the chaos of words which flash like sparks, passages of the most extreme beauty and insight emerge. This is writing as incantation, spell, lyric. Geography is let loose on the page and places converge and separate as though these names on the map are part of an ancient dance that Stasiuk alone has managed to unveil.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

solaris (w&d tarkovsky, w. frederick gorenshtein)

Dyer in Zona talks about Tarkovsky's roving camera. He talks about the camera 'breathing'. It's true. Tarkovsky's camera is more like a living creature than an inanimate object. The machine that feels. We can never settle, just as the narrative never settles, caught up in the restless quest of its characters. It's a device that has been used in horror or suspense movies extensively, but rarely in drama. In horror it's clear that the intention of the roving camera is to put the viewer ill-at-ease, to subvert the feeling of security that the standard viewing position offers. But Tarkovsky does not appear to be out to unsettle us. Rather, he wants us to be aware of how 'real' the scene is. To fracture the assumed complicity of viewer and screen, in order to rebuild. Just as with 'reality' we can never be entirely sure what's going to come next, so within the world of Tarkovsky's camera. Don't blink. Because when you look up everything might have altered irredeemably, and you'll have missed the reason why.

Not that logic is necessarily the key factor in the sequence of events within a narrative adapted from a Stansislaw Lem novel. Some of the most entertaining dialogue occurs when the script starts to explain the apparitions in the spaceship. The 'real' characters, we are informed, are made of 'atoms', whereas the apparitions are made of 'neutrons'. So that's cleared that one up. Tarkovsky would appear to be escorting us into a zone where the rules of physics have become susceptible to unexplainable distortions. The search for a logical solution is spurious. The question is whether one chooses to go with the flow or resist it. A choice to be made by both spectators and characters.

I went with it. As Dyer’s book corroborates, reaction to Tarkovsky’s art is a highly personal affair. One can quite understand someone walking out at any point. It’s a reasonable response to a film that drifts and ebbs like a river, bringing to mind cinema seen through the lens of Heraclites rather than Ridley Scott. At some point the film wrapped me up in its dreams and I floated downriver with it, gravity-free, headed for the great ocean which contains another earth with its alternative philosophies. Like any journey downriver on a foreign planet (Apocalypse Now?), there are moments which drift, punctuated by moments that take your breath away. You would need to write a book, in the vein of Dyer, in order to begin to do justice to the power of this cinema, a few words here are but a frippery.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

a lesson in love (w&d ingmar bergman)

Those sassy Scandanavians. This may not be Bergman’s finest film, but all the same there’s a dexterity to the composition and thematic which marks it out. David is a successful gynaecologist who is having an affair with one of his patients. But when he learns that his wife is headed for Copenhagen to hook up with her old flame, Carl-Adam, he realises the error of his ways and takes drastic action.

Although there’s something slightly stagey about the film’s scenes, a reminder of Bergman’s debt to the theatre, there’s also a great deal of play with regard to the timeline and the revelation of information to the audience. At first we have no idea that the attractive woman who David sits next to in the train is actually his wife and the film cleverly manages to sustain the conceit for an entire scene. The writer plays fast and loose with the use of flashback, jumping back twenty years to show the unlikely circumstances under which David and Marianne’s marriage came about. The film, with its set-piece scenes might look a bit dated, but if a contemporary scriptwriter chopped and changed as effectively as this, the critics would be swooning.

In addition, there’s the whole mannered, measured attitude towards the complexities of love and marriage, in such stark contrast to a more straight-laced Anglo-Saxon approach. There’s an understanding that the course of true love does not run smooth which allows Bergman leeway to playfully explore his characters’ attitudes towards fidelity and sex, themes that would recur. It’s a comedy with fangs, which owes more to Shakespeare than the ‘romcom’, to which genre it could probably be described as belonging. 

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

zona [geoff dyer]

It’s a party just off Clapham Common. The host is a young woman who will later become an auspicious feminist. Judy Rumbold is there, something I find vaguely exciting, as I’d spent the last four years or so having her Guardian pieces force-fed to me as part of my crash course on all things fashion. (Alaia; Westwood; Gaultier; Alaia. It’s still the eighties, just.) The party is full of literary/ journo types fresh out of Oxbridge. All quite clearly on their way to somewhere, their destinations marked out, their lives bursting with their first and finest and final flowering, when it still feels like there’s such a thing of freedom of choice.

The hostess invites me into a room that is locked. Inside there’s about half a dozen people. There’s a man sitting on the sofa. He’s clearly very important, in spite of the fact that he’s no older than anyone else there. The others in the room as good as genuflect towards him. His every word is hung upon. Which is not something he seems to mind. The hostess introduces me to him. His name is James Wood. She says we need to speak about Saul Bellow and leaves us to it. We speak about Saul Bellow. I don’t think I have anything of any great import to say about Bellow and I’m not sure that he does either. But the important point is to talk about him. Of him. To be known, one to the other, to have spoken of Bellow. Our conversation is cloistered, a kind of samizdat. It lasts about ten minutes. At the end we acknowledge the Bellowness of our conversation. I leave the room, with the satellites still wheeling round the critic, grateful that Bellow and myself have given him back to them. The room is locked behind me.

This is my first and only meeting with the man who will later write, with some insight, of Geoff Dyer: “To spend one’s life writing is a betrayal of the writer’s life: Dyer knows this is a lunatic paradox, that even Romantics have to sit at boring desks and write, but he would rather have his battered paradox than Barnes’s clean coherence.” At the same time as the critic and myself are discussing Bellow, Dyer is quite possibly getting hammered down the road in Brixton. Ten years later I will stumble across Dyer’s memoir/ novella of Brixton life and it will register as authentic. Thereafter I shall never read anything else by Dyer or Bellow, never meet the critic or Rumbold or the feminist or discuss literature ever again.

And Dyer will begin to mutate into one of the more unlikely success stories of the London literary scene. Who quite possibly now has his own room where the door is locked. Where he might discuss Tarkovsky. Or Alan Watts. Or Calasso. Or Azzedine Alaia. Or not.

Now, having ignored Dyer and this world for so long, I find myself reading his latest book, whose full title is: Zona, A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room. It’s a blow by blow account of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. In another culture, this might not be such a surprising tome, with its overtly Barthesian premise, but in London it marks Dyer out as a maverick. People are far more likely to talk about Tarkovsky than watch his films. The intellectual exercise of writing a book about Stalker would by and large be viewed as a pretentious Europhile project. Of course, having pulled it off, it then becomes brilliant. As indeed it is. Zona is a small tour de force, a mini-Pegasus, flying over Tarkovsky’s territory, his zone, appropriating the master’s work as a means of displaying the writer’s breath of vision as well as his loyalty. It’s a book about the way in which time works, the way in which we create anchors to measure our progress. For Dyer, Stalker is one such anchor. It’s a point of constant reference, with regard to his relationship with cinema, and hence art, but also his own changing desires and ambitions.

At the heart of the book, as at the heart of the film, is the Room. The room is the place where our greatest desire can be realised. It’s only here that one starts to question the writer’s authenticity. His greatest desire, as he puts it, is so banal that it threatens to undercut the validity of his whole project. As though, on the cusp of the room, his inherent Englishness suddenly exerts itself, and he rises up against any risk of being branded a pseudo-intellectual Europhile. All of a sudden, the book veers towards GQ territory. Denuding his deepest desires, Dyer redeems himself. He doesn’t want to be a savant or a yogi or a radical or a revolutionary. He wants to get wasted and be an extra in Shame, hanging out with a desiccated, overacting Fassbender, whom he vaguely resembles.  

I have my doubts. I have a feeling that in the background of Dyer’s supposed orgy, his veritable Room, there would be a screen with a film on it. Something by Antonioni. Which would gradually lure him in. Whilst others hedonised, his mind would drift. In spite of his best intentions to pillage like an Anglo-Saxon, he’d turn to the critic, who just happened to be there because he’s a critic, not a writer, so can get away with the odd orgy without feeling like he’s blowing his creative juices, and find himself locked into a conversation about Barthes. Or Flaubert. Or Virginia Bloody Woolf. 

Friday, 3 May 2013

reticence [jean-philippe toussaint]

Toussaint's novel is essentially a shaggy dog story. A man arrives in a seaside town with his son and settles into a rhythm of paranoia and fantasy. His thoughts are conveyed with stream of consciousness, reminiscent of Bernhard and Bolano. A slim 130 pages, it should probably be read in one sitting, although I read it in four.  It’s one of those novels which relies on the implication of menace. The game is trying to figure out whether there’s any substance to the narrator’s musings or whether he’s just deranged.

Descendant of the Nouvel Romain, it has to be said that Reticence is ultimately underwhelming.  This is acutely apolitical writing.  An exercise in epistemology, it deals exclusively in the act of perception. (What little I’ve read of Nicholson Baker would be another point of reference). The word ‘political’ is one that has many variations to its understanding. In this context it perhaps means that it seeks to talk ‘of’ something. Toussaint’s novel approaches the stage before we can even talk ‘of’ anything. It addresses the acts of perception and interpretation humans engage in before they can get anywhere near the act of assertion. The world is a blizzard of data (even though this book was written in ’91). How can anything be asserted when we can’t even establish what the signifiers look/ smell/ sound like?