Thursday, 31 October 2013

gebo and the shadow (w&d manoel de oliveira, w. raul brandão)

The writing credits for this film by the 104 year old Portuguese director feature de Oliviera himself and Raul Brandão, whose play the film adapts. In a manner not dissimilar from another veteran’s recent offering, Killer Joe, (although Friedkin is a stripling at the age of 78), this is an unadorned cinematic adaptation of a stageplay. The play tells the relatively simple story of an elderly man whose son returns after eight years, only to steal from him and leave. The action takes place over the course of 24 hours. Although ‘action’ is a somewhat misleading term.

The opening image is a beguiling, near-cubist framing of a boat at a jetty, in low light. From there, the camera takes us to a small, enclosed house, located within a network of alleys. We will only leave the house on a couple of occasions, and get no further than the corner of the street. The son, upon his return, observes his parents’ house populated by the grand old dames of European cinema, (Cardinale and Moreau, who has a scene-stealing cameo), and says it feels like a cemetery, or words to this effect. It’s hard to disagree with him: no-one under the age of 60 could hold out for too long here, and indeed half the audience of  a half-dozen walked out of the Cinemateca before the film had finished. The theft of his father’s savings offers a Dostoyevskian twist. It’s more or less warranted. Why should the elderly hang on by their bootstraps whilst the young have living to get on with? The son’s actions are shown to be immoral by his wife’s reaction, (she has lived with his parents during his absence and tries to stop him stealing), but if there is a parable at work within Gebo and the Shadow, then it would be the way in which Europe’s elderly generation has stockpiled wealth whilst much of its youth now flounders on the brink of poverty.

It’s hard to say if this subtext is something Oliviera and Brandao are seeking to express. If they were, then the retort might be that the oldsters should make way and free up resources for a younger cinematic generation. (According to IMDB the budget for the film was over 1.5 million euros.) There’s something staggeringly impressive in the way the filmmaker continues to work beyond the age of a hundred, but Gebo and the Shadow is not doing much to redefine the medium. 

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

C [tom mccarthy]

McCarthy's first novel dazzled. It took the nouveau roman, transposed it to Brixton, adorned it with a British sensibility and kicked some much needed life into the Anglo-Saxon novel. This is his follow-up. Where Remainder appeared to use Robbe Grillet as a model, here the predominant inspiration would appear to be Pynchon. So much so that C sometimes feels like a homage, to the similarly named V, or Gravity's Rainbow. Both in it's account of an unlikely hero traipsing across wartorn Europe and its relentless present tense.

There are worse writers to whom one might choose to pay homage. But C feels as though it is so self-consciously stepping into another’s footsteps that it never quite acquires an identity of its own. Instead, this feels like a book self-consciously in search of its raison d’etre.

There are frequent passages where the research is evident (into the life of a WW1 pilot, or post-war Egypt, for example), but all the research in the world cannot make C run. Whilst apparently a fractured narrative, skipping across the first decades of the 20th C in a series of precise chapters, its shape is clearly defined, tied as it is to the life of the book's protagonist, Serge Carrefax. Carrefax is something of an emotional vacuum, for reasons the reader understands, (his odd upbringing, his sister's suicide), but the fact that we understand doesn't help to make him interesting. Serge is a nerd whom the novel sometimes likes to suggest is on a covert mission through the semiotic warren of modern consciousness. He further he goes, the less interesting this becomes. Which might mean that his mission is a failure, or it might mean that the modern consciousness is fundamentally tedious.

As a result, C flatters to deceive, constantly hinting at hidden depths which are never plumbed. The same has probably been said of Gravity's Rainbow, only... one cannot say it with complete conviction. The Rainbow is so sprawling, so all-encompassing, that it might just contain the secret of the universe lodged within it. Which cannot be said for C. There are no hidden secrets. Serge listens to the airwaves in expectation but nothing arrives. The book has the feel of a shaggy dog story which gives itself away far too early.

Remainder suggested that McCarthy might be capable of redeeming the British novel, endowing it with what might be termed a European sensibility, welding playfulness to the prosaic glories of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. A detour via Pynchon is not such a bad way to go. But C feels like a staging post rather than a destination. It's a book which seems to be constantly searching for a reason to exist. The punchline, that it doesn't have one, does not quite convince. 

Monday, 7 October 2013

day of the oprichnik [vladimir sorokin]

When in Red Square, you notice that there are still copious quantities of Soviet stars adorning the walls and the turrets of buildings. The presence of the symbol seems as ubiquitous now as it must have been in the Soviet era. This is momentarily perplexing, until you learn that the Soviet Star has now been adopted by the military as their symbol. Thereby converting at a stroke what were multitudinous tributes to the Soviet state into multitudinous tributes to the Russian army.

This semiotic facility helps to explain the deceptive fluidity of Russian history, where one repressive system can be rapidly moulded into another, using the same techniques, personnel and symbols. Sorokin’s satirical novel, set in the future, engages with the way Russian political structures engage in eternal recurrence. This dystopian Russia is still repressive, still run by autocratic, corrupt apparatchiks. They are now subservient to a king and his royal family, rather than a President. The novel follows a day in the life of one of the elite ‘oprichniks’ as he gallivants around Moscow and the country indulging in dubious moral practices and a life of luxury. The contrast with Ivan Denisovich could not be much greater.

There’s nothing subtle about Sorokin’s writing. This is a most Swiftian of authors. He addresses the same territory as Pelevin, without the intellectual playfulness. Where reading Pelevin feels like participating in a fencing match, reading Sorokin feels like taking part in a Greco-Roman wrestling bout. It’s nasty, physical, sweaty and lacking any sense of emotional involvement. At the same time, his writing is frequently gripping and always enjoyably warped.