Saturday, 25 January 2014

the flamethrowers [rachel kushner]

This is a curious novel in so far as there is much to admire, but, for this reader, less to like, within its nearly 400 pages. The scale and ambition of the book are impressive and the research that has gone into it is evident. But Kushner seems to have deliberately chosen to have run with a narrator, Reno, whose shallowness has the effect of undercutting any moral or emotional resonance the novel aspires to. The narrator’s voice feels out of sync with the author’s apparent intellectual intentions. The result is that The Flamethrowers all too often feels like a textbook, a slightly stilted guide to the mores of the New York art scene through the ages. This is the novel as encyclopaedia, which has the effect of nullifying any emotional attachment we might hope to have with Reno, Ronnie, Valera & co. The fictional artists with whom the narrator sleeps and socialises feel as though they have been drawn by Lichtenstein: bold colours and clear lines, but no depth.

The debt to DeLillo’s Underworld is evident, in particular as the narrator embarks on her Nevada motorcycle-sculpture adventure. At times the book has the feel of a cut-out-and-paste Great American novel, assembled according to a take-home kit. Epic Western landscape – tick; deprecating sub-Fitzgeraldian dissection of NY pseudo-sophisticates – tick; adventures in the old continent, (in this instance, Italy) – tick. Coming of age story – tick. Hints of a discarded experimental direction – tick. It has all the ingredients, but they make for a somewhat self-conscious, stodgy cherry pie.

Kushner’s prose mirrors this inconsistency. There are moments where it comes off the page. This reader enjoyed the slightly incidental sections dealing with the Valera back story. At other moments it feels turgid, (“The Colosseum, a great decaying skull whose grassed over arena was all but lost in a strange haze of thereness, unreal because it existed, now, without its former use.”), or downright pretentious: “In any case, death was death: it had its own gravity”, leading to moments where you want to ask – what exactly is that supposed to mean? One suspects that the vacuousness of the narrator’s voice inevitably clashes with the broader perspective of the authorial voice, leaving the book hoisted on its own petard.

The novel has received vast swathes of literary hype. But its brilliance is worn on its sleeve. It’s a novel that sets out to dazzle and has clearly achieved that end, but exactly what lurks behind the sparkle is open to question. Strangely, the book is at its strongest when it allows the listless Sandro Valera his moment, free of Reno, in the penultimate chapter. The writing exhibits both cruelty and insight in its examination of the artist’s vanity and success. For a brief moment we see how the whole art charade functions, why a type like Valera can achieve what he does in spite of his flaws. Koons, Warhol and Hirst are just around the corner. But it feels like the writer can’t bring herself to exercise the same sense of distance when dealing with her narrator Reno, whose  navel-gazing naivety surely deserves the same cold-eyed treatment as her lover’s addled vanity.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

la grande illusion (w&d jean renoir, w. charles spaak)

A meditation on La Illusion

The first world war was one of the last wars fought without being extensively filmed. There are moving images, but the cameras were still primitive, pre-sound, and the footage has more of the feel of a dream than a documentary.

Thus, apart from the obvious historical significance of the war, it also marks a before-and-after in terms of how great events are perceived. Today, we live in a world where if something has not been filmed it is almost as though it never happened. So much more will be known and documented in a quantitative sense from the 20th century onwards than was known and documented in the centuries that came before. Something which permits a mystique to the latter which the former cannot emulate.

Renoir’s film hinges on a changing social code. Von Stroheim’s German commander, von Rauffenstein, believes in the existence of an aristocratic world which exists above and beyond the commonplace one. This belief allows him to befriend his enemy, the Frenchman Boeldieu, (Pierre Fresnay) with whom he feels more kinship than his fellow German soldiers. It’s made clear in Boeldieu’s last scene that he feels the same way as his German counterpart, even if a pragmatic patriotism leads to him betraying this kinship.

The film treats this relationship between von Rauffenstein and Boeldieu sympathetically, in spite of the narrative’s overt support of a more democratic and patriotic approach to life, embodied in Gabin’s earthy heroism. As such, it’s tempting to read the officer’s complicity as a metaphor for something more than mere aristocratic indulgence. The way in which these men are capable of understanding a broader framework, above and beyond the geo-political one in which they are trapped, suggests perhaps the last remnant of the possibility of living beyond the confines of history. We are all caught in the trappings of our surroundings: class, race, religion, nationality, language etc. Renoir appears to posit the existence of a greater freedom, one which the war is seeking to remove. The war, and by implication, modernity too. Beneath its jovial patriotism there lurks an existential treatise, hardly surprising for a film made in France in the thirties.

This greater freedom might perhaps be associated with the privilege of not being filmed or documented. Was it so ridiculous of the apocryphal Red Indian to believe that the photograph was a theft of his soul? The more we are defined as who we are, the more the image of who we are is pinned down, the harder it is to escape the circumstances of that moment of definition. The facebook/ selfie era restricts the possibilities of individuality, rather than enhancing it.

Perhaps this is too much of a leap to extrapolate from Renoir’s movie. But part of what lends it a power above and beyond the classic narrative of a wartime prison escape is the way in which the film captures, twenty years after the events it is documenting, a particular place and time. Showing the ways in which a mutating world seeks to define the individual through notions of race, nationality and creed. A form of definition which blights and limits, rather than liberates.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

the wolf of wall street (d. scorsese, w. terrence winter)

Lets call a spade a spade and a turkey a turkey. Despite generally positive reviews, rest assured that the Wolf of Wall Street is in reality a wolf with no clothes. Befuddled critics have been flummoxed by the Scorsese brand, which is there to full effect. Goodfellas voiceover, Casino narrative switchbacks, Mean Streets soundtrack etc etc. It’s like watching a Scorsese tribute band. The only trouble is that the tribute band has the original on bass, lead guitar and vocals. And goes on for so long you’ve almost forgotten what day it is when you come out. It’s one thing sitting through three hours of this if you’re getting paid for it and another if you’re the one forking out.

As such, before we even touch the subject matter, it’s an increasingly depressing experience. Increasingly, because the film opens with a certain amount of whiplash chutzpah. McConaughey’s cameo is the best bit of (over-) acting in the film. (The whole film is garishly over-acted, which is in keeping with a film which is garish and over-everything.) However, after about 45 minutes it becomes clear that the narrative and the edit have run away with the leash and they’re not going to be coming back in a hurry. Thereafter, as DiCaprio nerds his way around town, seeing the old master stumble through his paces becomes more and more dispiriting. Like watching an old boxer step back into the ring once too often.

Like many films which purport to be decadent and laden with vice, WOWS is a deeply nerdish enterprise. All the characters are borderline sociopaths, people who have the emotional intelligence of a peanut. DiCaprio, Marty et al might argue that that’s the point, that this is a savage indictment of US greed, but when the filmmakers themselves, from top down, are gorging themselves with such obvious delight, it’s hard to take this line in any way seriously. Boiler Room, a low-budget film, addressed the same material with much more punch. The slightly theatrical Margin Call got much closer to the nub of the matter. There’s nothing creative or revelatory about DiCaprio’s fall from grace as a low-rent Bernie Madoff. Indeed, far from critiquing its protagonist and his world, it’s evident that the film relishes and celebrates it.

You have to put this in some kind of context. In what other country or industry would a 71 year old man be put in charge of a budget of $100,000,000 (estimated, IMDB) and allowed to make a film laden with busty young women and drug-taking. If this is Scorsese’s Nero moment, it just goes to show how tedious the fantasies of a geriatric are. That he lives in a society which allows him to indulge these fantasies isn’t his fault. That he allows himself to tarnish his body of work is. Then again, when the dust has settled, no-one’s going to be going back to the Wolf to find out what was special about Marty. 

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

the planets [sergio chejfec]

To say that The Planets is a dense text would be to do it a disservice. It almost seems to possess a texture all its own, more akin to reading braille than the printed word. There is a temptation to use the word ‘viscous’, but braille is more appropriate. Lurking beneath the stickiness are subterranean meanings which won’t give themselves up lightly.

Kafka is a point of reference. The text includes visits to a Buenos Aires synagogue as Chejfec acknowledges a semetic tradition. It might be unPC to categorise literature according to race, but the influence of the Torah and the interpretative science it demands would appear to have influenced Jewish writers (and filmmakers, cf Aranofsky’s Pi) through the ages. The reading/writing of a book is a quest to discern hidden meaning, a quest shared by reader and author alike.

Chejfecs narrative, in so far as it can be pinned down, deals with the unnamed narrator’s friendship with “M” (another Kafkaesque touch). M vanishes one day from the Buenos Aires streets. The narrator assumes he has been murdered and also tortured. In spite of the narrator’s assertion that M had no political involvement, he appears to be another victim of Argentina’s dirty war against its own people. However, the novel seems less concerned with the political aspects of M’s fate than the metaphysical implications. In the narrator’s hands, the book becomes an evaluation of loss, and therefore history. (For what is history in the end, except the accumulation of endless loss?)

The book consists of seven chapters, with each chapter a diversion containing its own diversions. Random stories are included, told by half-formed characters who we never really get to know, such as M’s father. The net effect is a gradual overwhelming, or seduction, of the reader. The absence of a coherent narrative is compensated for by the reader’s vertiginous journey into the mystery of Chejfec’s prose, a mystery which appears to be constantly revealing itself without ever letting the reader know what exactly is going on.

The remarkable thing about Chejfec’s book is that, despite choosing to veer so radically from the classical Western narrative model, it proves to be such a delirious reading experience. The Planets succeeds in being both an engrossing text, as well as one that challenges received notions of how the novel can, or should, communicate with its reader.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

hypothermia [alvaro enrigue]

Enrigue’s quasi-novel is a smart, cold stab at puncturing the balloon of globalisation. A series of delicately connected short stories range across the Americas, from Peru to Washington DC, related by a succession of first person narrators. Through a process of osmosis the text skips from Lima to North Carolina, from DC to DF. Many of the stories address the issues surrounding the word ‘gringo’, (which might have made for an alternative title), as the narrator, more often than not a Mexican male, adapts to life in the US. How many years, the book seems to ask, does it take for a Mexican living in the States to transform himself into a gringo?

This globalised vision is constructed from small, domestic tales of loss or betrayal. There are stories about affairs, about domestic tragedy, about blue-collar life. Some of the stories are less than a page long, others developed in far greater depth. It’s never made overtly clear when a story will connect with another – there’s a touch of Cortazar’s Hopscotch in the way the book skips, elliptically, between its various narrative threads. Hypothermia is a pot-pourri of modern life. Albeit one that seems, perhaps, more adept at pinpointing the zones of contemporary tension than getting under their skin. Another point of reference might be Iñárritu and Arriaga’s artful global fable, Babel. Both texts suggesting that Mexico, a country on the hinge of first and third worlds, makes for an ideal vantage point from which to observe the contradictions of modernity, where the poor want what the rich have and the rich are never sure what price they have paid in the obtaining of their wealth…or how much it costs to obtain the things the poor still possess which they no longer have.