Thursday, 18 September 2014

avant (d juan alvarez)

Juan Alvarez’s Avant opens with a shot of the Sodre, a purpose-built concert hall that, like many big projects in this part of the world, opened years late, over-budget, looking like a white elephant. The narrative kicks in with the arrival of Julio Boca as the Sodre Ballet’s new artistic director. Boca is the superstar of Southern Cone ballet. Which means he’s more than just a ballet dancer. In Argentina and Uruguay he is revered. An Argentinean, he agreed to take on the artistic directorship of the Uruguayan company after having retired from dancing himself.

Avant traces the development of the Sodre Ballet as Boca’s management helps to transform both ballet and the building into a flourishing success. But this is just a single strand in what is an increasingly complex and sophisticated narrative, told with a detached eye and a finely-chiselled edit. The film touches on how hard it is to produce work of artistic ambition in the third world; but it also adheres to a democratic vision where the cleaner’s importance is respected just as much as that of the prima ballerina. This is a film conscious of its context, unafraid to allude to the socio-political conditions the ballet operates within.

However, no matter where it takes place, ballet is ballet. Avant is, above all, a film about what it’s like to create ballet. The show that reaches the stage, full of clean bodies in perfect sync, belies the labour that goes into the creation of the art. Alvarez’s film traces the thousand and one elements that go into the creation of a ballet, offering along the way some kind of insight into the stress that Boca and his company contend with as they struggle for perfection. Scenes such as a ballet dancer exiting the stage in tears, or Boca himself contending with the problems of communication from the sound booth, or the simple case of a man trying to pull an office chair up a flight of stairs, offer vivid insights into the difficulties of both creating ballet as well as creating ballet in the third world, without the film ever having to resort to any kind of formal explanation or exposition.

My personal relationship with the Sodre has lead to an understanding of an art which for many years I didn’t get. In Alvarez’s backstage vision we see how ballet dancers are as much like sportsmen as artists, pushing bodies to their limits, constantly challenging themselves. Where Alvarez could have gone for the X-Factor approach, his film instead conveys the dancers’ dramas with an  understated eye, showing how their efforts are part of a greater whole. Alvarez achieves this with an almost metronomic discipline as he builds his portrayal, frame by frame. It is a cliché which, perhaps, he might not object to, to say that the film is a ballet in its own right, prioritising image and music above the spoken word, capturing the essence both of the Sodre and of ballet itself.

Monday, 15 September 2014

don't point that thing at me [kyril bonfiglioli]

This is the first of a trilogy of Mortdecai novels. Mortdecai is a decadent bon viveur who is also a dodgy art dealer trying to get rid of a stolen Goya. This makes for an elaborate, zesty plot which darts around London before nipping over the Atlantic to take in Washington and Texas (road journey incluido) before hopping back, via Eire, for a dénouement in the Lake District.

The plot is ridiculous and a coat-hanger on which to hang the wit and wisdom of Mortdecai himself. He’s a deliciously British figure, second cousin to Bond, whose amoral approach to life doesn’t prevent him from having rigid codes of behaviour and a clear idea of what’s right and wrong. Although what’s wrong might be the way you pour your tea or knot your tie, rather than whether or not you’re prepared to murder or fence stolen goods. Of course, Mortdecai’s amorality is something he shares with the workings of the British state, which has no qualms about murdering or torturing if it feels the need, and in this the book, written in the early seventies, is still timely.

The London section of the book is set in a world of Mayfair art galleries and Gentleman’s clubs. It might be one of the few corners of the capital that has not changed beyond recognition. A vivid description of a visit to the East End shows the lost London of small, artisanal barrios, which reminded me of the London I knew thirty years ago.  

Bonfiglioli, hardly a household name, has been something of a connoisseur’s delight for decades. All this is about to change as, having completed the book, I learned via the interweb that a great big movie starring Johnny Depp is about to be released, based on the Mortdecai adventures. One can’t help feeling that the protagonist of the novels might have felt, or indeed be feeling (do literary characters ever really die?) somewhat dubious about the prospect. Nevertheless, Bonfiglioli deserves the larger public he’s about to get and would no doubt be sanguine about the trade-off between commerce and art which one is sometimes forced to make. 

Thursday, 4 September 2014

yalo [elias khoury]

Months which are not turbulent in the Middle East are welcome. This last couple of months have been particularly lacking in this respect. When people look back in twenty years at the Summer of 2014 in Palestine, Syria and Iraq, will they remember the terrible events which have befallen them, or will it just blend into a generalised history of catastrophe and violence?

Khoury’s epic and terrible book is set in the Lebanon, in the nineties. I recently read that a new synagogue is being built in the Lebanon, a sign of its current stability. A whole generation will have grown up which will have no memory of the events in that country, events which destroyed Beirut and made the Lebanon a basket case for over a decade. Every day from my youth seemed to bring a fresh tale of woe, a tale which at the time seemed as though it would have no ending.

Khoury’s novel is set in the aftermath of that civil war. However, that war, just like the ones currently raging in the region, was part of a wider conflict. The anti-hero, Yalo, traces his roots to Aleppo, Damascus and Turkey. He can’t be sure if he’s Arab, Assyrian or Kurdish. His grandfather is a priest from the last Christian sect which speaks the language of Christ, or so he claims. He berates his grandson for not being able to speak the language himself, telling him: “To whom do you think you will talk at your second coming?” The Grandfather’s religious philosophy offers an overbearing Gnosticism, one that Yalo can never get to grips with. “’I am Mar Afram’ the grandfather answered, and he smiled because his grandson was such an idiot that he didn’t know that all the writers of the world are merely copyists and there is only one, hidden book on the face of the earth, a book not written from human inspiration, and that when people write literature or poetry, parts of this book are revealed to them and they copy them down a rearrange them.”

Yalo is born into this confusion and is a product of it. He is not particularly religious, although he believes in the miracle he thinks his mother and grandfather performed when they drank the seawater of the Mediterranean. He is pliable, unsure of his identity, gullible. He fights briefly in the war and then is easily convinced when a fellow fighter suggests they steal from the company safe and run away. That same fighter then leaves him high and dry in Paris. He is brought back by a Lebanese arms dealer as a guard. He discovers that he lives in what would now be called a notorious dogging spot, in the country, and begins a brief career as a rapist and thief, a career which comes to a halt when he falls in love with one of his victims, who will later denounce him.

Yalo has plenty in common with Mersault, Camus’ anti-hero from L’Etranger. Any sympathy we feel for him is grudging and hard-earned. Seen from the outside he’s a miserable character. However, we watch Yalo as he buckles under hideous torture and gradually his whole construction of his self, his identity, starts to fall to pieces and then reassemble itself. So much so that by the final part of the book, the narrator, who is Yalo, has come to see his former self as another man, whom he observes and talks to.

The novel narrates Yalo’s story in a circuitous flashback. Its present tense is the interrogation cell, where Yalo recollects his past and tries to assemble it in a form that will appease his interrogator. Yalo’s is a terrible journey which comes at the end of the terrible journey which has been his pitiable life. It’s the life of any young man who has the misfortune to become caught up in the internecine strife of the region. Whose world view is constructed around the myths of his family, the urges of his masculinity and the peer pressure of the militarised world he inhabits.

The book was intially published in 2002. Twelve years on, its bleak vision appears to be more apposite than ever.