Tuesday, 27 December 2016

signs preceding the end of the world [yuri herrera]

On one level this is a very simple tale of a young Mexican woman, Makina, who, on her mother’s instructions crosses the border to go and look for her brother. When she finds him, he’s serving in the US army under a false name and doesn’t want to go back. Makina returns empty-handed. There’s not much more to the plot than this and it soon becomes apparent that you’re not reading the portentously titled novel for plot. What you’re reading it for its whimsical poetic register, which the translator, Lisa Dillman, wrestles with manfully. The use of words which at first seem alien or invented start to make sense, even if one suspects there are many linguistic layers which simply cannot be accessed in translation. The book is about Makina’s journey to cross the border, but it is also about language and the way that it is wielded by the powerful and powerless. Language is one of the signs of that the title refers to. There’s a high concept pulse percolating through the apparently straightforward framework. Although, having said that, it still feels as though Herrera’s novel is something of a sketchy, introductory text, perhaps mapping out directions that the writer will explore in other works. 

Friday, 23 December 2016

nocturnal animals (w&d tom ford)

There is much to admire in the curious case of Nocturnal Animals. The film’s conceit is that Amy Adams’ character is reading a novel by her ex-husband, (Jake Gyllenhaal), which recounts the story of a husband’s quest for vengeance after his wife and daughter are murdered by a gang of hillbilly hicks following a nighttime encounter on a deserted West Texas highway. The kidnapping scene in the  B-story generates an impressive degree of dramatic tension which fuels the whole film. In addition, the editing, presumably locked into the script, is superb, as the film cuts between the B-storyline and Adams’ lonely Art Dealer character, whilst then incorporating a C-storyline which is the backstory of Adams and Gyllenhaal’s ill-fated marriage. The cinematography and score are Hitchcockian. As noted, there’s much to admire and for large swathes of its two hours, the film is captivating, as we wait to discover what all this means.

Which is where the other side of the coin comes into play. In the end, it would appear that what the director is seeking to do is present a study of masculinity. What makes for a strong man and what makes for a weak man? Gyllenhaal, the novelist, (Gyllenhaal also plays Tony, the victim of his own story, meaning he’s presumably the novelist’s doppelgänger), is dumped by Adams because he’s seen as weak and romantic. In the climactic scene of the B-story, Gyllenhaal, the fictional character, breaks down and blames himself for what happened to his wife and daughter, saying his weakness was to blame. Gyllenhaal the fictional character is presented with two alpha-male antagonists in his wife’s murderer and the detective who investigates the case. The Adams character, who looks like she’s being set up to be the protagonist, virtually disappears from the narrative; her role is to read the book and look distressed as she has flashbacks to the events surrounding the marriage she walked out of. 

The culmination of all this, (sorry to spoil it), is that just when it appears that Adams and Gyllenhaal are going to reunite and possibly get back together again, after he’s communicated his cryptic message through the novel, he chooses to stand her up. At which point, one’s reaction might be, as was mine: is that it? Does the Gyllenhaal character finally prove his masculinity and overcome his weakness by standing up his ex-wife? Her chosen profession as an amazingly successful art dealer has become little more than incidental by this point. Where the film had hinted in the first act at an Antonioni-esque inquisition into the correlation of the values of the art world and the real world, this is a strand which isn’t developed. (There’s even a pseudo Hirst vitrine at one point, a cow with needles sticking out of it.) It’s also notable that the B-story, (the novel) doesn’t really go anywhere, turning into a run-of-the-mill revenge drama which comes to a predictable finale.

Ultimately, what this  glass bead game of a movie presents is a sophisticated structural approach which lacks any real punch. It’s clear that the issue of masculinity that Ford addresses is a potent one in his country, where a macho blowhard can become President because he’s perceived to talk tough and wear a red hat with a catchy slogan. It would appear that there is some kind of crisis of masculinity (perhaps in truth there always has been) and Nocturnal Animals gets the spear gun out and aims at a viable target. Unfortunately, in spite of the beauty of the chase, all it does in the end is deliver a flesh wound. 

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

francofonia (w&d aleksandr sokurov)

Sokurov has created a curious, Godardian elegy to European harmony. Francofonia is a potted history of the Louvre and its role as a lighthouse of European culture. The filmmaker narrates, telling of his fascination with the museum and its contents. Within the wider story, the film focuses on the history of the museum during the war, under Nazi rule. Paradoxically, rather than using the episode as an example of discord, it becomes a story about pan-european harmony. The museum’s director and the occupying German commander enter into an unspoken pact to preserve the museum’s integrity. The German does everything in his power to ensure that the museum’s treasures are not discovered and looted. They develop a relationship which is like something out of Renoir’s La Grande Illusion. 

The film documents their relationship through staged reconstructions, with actors taking on the parts, within a narrated, documentary framework. Almost as though Sokurov had an idea for a feature but never had the funds to make it, and this is the compromise result. Their scenes are interspersed with archive footage and a dramatic sequence where a container boat, supposedly carrying a crate of artworks, is lashed by a storm. 

Watching the film, you can’t help thinking that it says more about Russian history than the Louvre. The Louvre is a kind of fetishistic symbol for the filmmaker, representing the glory of European culture, a glory with which he identifies. At this time when Russia would appear to be reconfiguring itself, (or reconfigured), as an enemy of Europe, the story of two enemies who find themselves co-operating to save European culture feels like it might be a metaphor. There are hints of Tarkovsky’s meditations on art and culture in The Sacrifice. A quasi-mystical evaluation of European history, one that ring-roads colonialism (including modern-day colonialism) and washes its hands of the bellicose barbarity which has always gone hand-in-hand with European culture. Given this, there’s something unconvincing about Sokurov’s premise, no matter how fascinating. Francofonia is thought-provoking, but it feels as though it’s rooted in 19th century thought rather than the 21st. Having said that, at a time when the socio-cultural discourse surrounding Europe would appear to have been put into reverse, (not just in this country), perhaps this is appropriate.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

arrival (d. denis villeneuve, w. eric heisserer)

As one of the world’s most ancient cities collapses in on itself in an orgy of cruelty, as human society appears to teeter on the brink, the fantasy of a visit from a wiser, more ‘humane’ civilisation than ours, coming from beyond the stars, is a tempting one. Arrival caters to this fantasy, lending the film a timeliness which goes hand in hand with the hokum. The denouement presents a world which pulls back from the brink of nuclear war and is restored to the harmony of pan-national unity. Egregious wish fulfilment, which looks particularly dangerous coming out of Hollywood in times like these. The film’s efficacy and flair only serves to heighten the contradiction between its message and the actuality of the world within which it is currently being watched. Villeneuve is becoming a master-craftsman, incorporating camera and soundtrack with digital effects to create something which almost allows you to ignore the film’s facile message. The editing, skipping between the character played by Amy Adams’s past and her present, is deftly handled. The set piece scenes, with extra terrestrials which look like something out of Day of the Triffids crossed with ET, are languidly paced and beautifully lit. The film manages to ride the technical challenges which might have revealed the ridiculousness of the premise. It’s all neatly done. Nevertheless, the eternal recurrence thematic feels like soft-soap Nietzsche (all gain no pain) and the notion that a child’s death is to be celebrated might have its place, but tucked into this wish-fulfilment factory piece, at a moment in time when children are being cold-bloodedly murdered, it feels uncomfortable. 

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

blue velvet (w&d david lynch)

Given the forests and terabytes which have been dedicated to this movie, it seems redundant to add much more. Mr C and I watched it at the Curzon Soho, prefaced by one of those unfortunate spoiler introductions which have you putting your fingers in your ears so that you don’t lose the surprise of what you’ve hoped you’ve forgotten. It’s another one of those films I saw on the floating island in York University’s man-made lake, thirty years ago. There was hype about it even then and the hype has only increased. I realised that I hadn’t  seen it since, even though I’ve probably talked about it ad infinitum. So, a few notes and no more:

Hopper & Rossellini. The film rests on Hopper’s evil and Rossellini’s insanity. Hopper achieves something which even now seems shocking. His character seems unhinged and it feels as though the actor is as well. It’s grand guignol and a great, unnerving performance. Likewise, Rossellini gives film-star wattage to her damaged chanteuse. There’s no real character development, there’s no great logic to what’s happening, it’s not James Elroy, but the film succeeds in surfing mood and colour, with a frothy peak of violence, which gives this scarcely credible world enough substance to carry it off. In spite of:

Dern & MacLachlan. The love story between the two of them is pure pastiche. It ties into Lynch’s subversive vision, but it also tips the movie towards farce. Dern feels wasted in her girly role: she manages to suggest that she too has a darker side which the script has neglected to develop. 

Drugs. One of these days, a la Said and colonialism, someone is going to write the study of the influence of the drugs trade on US culture. Although it’s underplayed, the foundation on which the film’s evil is based is the drugs trade, the pernicious root which facilitates the plot. 

Dean Stockwell. This is one of the great cameos in one of the great Lynchian scenes, blending humour and horror and caricature. Lynch does great (bad) party scenes. 

The finding of the severed ear is the American counterpoint to the cutting of the eye in Chien Andalou? 

Sunday, 4 December 2016

gangster warlords [ioan grillo]

The title is perhaps a little prepossessing. The cover picture is of a tattooed member of a Central American gang. It seems as though the book might be overly colourful, exploiting the reader’s curiosity in a morbid world. This impression is misleading. In practice, Grillo’s book is a sober, measured account not only of the terrible consequences of the drugs industry, but also its machinations, its day to day working, its history and its appeal. 

The book looks at four different societies that have evolved as a result of the drugs industry. These case studies are located in Rio, Michoacan in Mexico, Jamaica and the Central American states of Honduras and El Salvador. Grillo goes and talks to the generals and the foot-soldiers from these societies. He excavates their history, anthropology and theology. The economics look after themselves. As he points out, the drugs business isn’t like any other. Its profits are off the scale. They permit the development of alternative societies within national boundaries, societies that have their own judiciary, social services and infrastructure. In some favelas in Rio, for example, the Red Commando installed sewage systems. These bodies, funded by drugs money, step in where the state will not, and have a transformative effect, for better and for worse. 

The most alarming aspect of Gangster Warlords, and its greatest achievement, is the way it succeeds in revealing the normalisation of these gangster societies, a normalisation which is sometimes accepted by the state and sometimes opposed. The lesson is that it is not at all unlikely that a group which achieves economic power through their control of the drugs trade (in this instance) can then impose their will on the geographic territory they occupy. Civil society is never as strong as it aspires to be. The author stresses that these groups are taking advantage of states which are either weak (Honduras, Jamaica) or have clear points of weakness (the favelas in Rio, the rural Mexican states). However, it isn’t hard to envisage a more fragmented, less unified world, where this kind of weakness could begin to emerge within societies which are currently considered far more stable. Above all, the book reveals the impact of poverty on the formation and development of strong anti-establishment structures. All the stories that Grillo relates have their roots in the existence of an underclass, where desperation drives people to adopt a criminal lifestyle, cognisant of the risks. 

Gangster Warlords is an exceptional, courageous work of journalism. Grillo goes to the places few other writers reach. He brings back first hand accounts of how and why the criminal industry flourishes. An industry which is entirely constructed around western consumerism. In centuries to come one hopes people will look back on the abuse that the absurd dugs system unleashes with the same horror that people look back on slavery now. Rich societies prohibit pleasure, which generates an illegal trade that eviscerates those places that produce the drugs that people consume illegally to obtain pleasure in the rich societies that prohibit pleasure… 

Monday, 21 November 2016

133 (d. eugeni bonet & eugènia balcells)

133 is a curio. The story goes that in 1979, in Barcelona, Eugeni Bonet came across a record which contained 133 sound effects. He and his co-director, Eugènia Balcells, would collect old footage from the Barcelona flea markets. They set about selecting a piece of footage for each on of the 133 sound effects. The resulting film is 45 minutes long. Some sound effects last for no more than a few seconds. Each moment is stitched together with a brief frame of black. The 133 moments are encyclopaedic. There is home footage from people’s super-8 cameras. There are scientific treatises. There’s documentary footage. There are also clips from old studio films. There’s black and white footage and colour footage. Some images are banal: a plane sound effect has footage of a plane. Others are spectacular, including a memorable black and white sequence where a group of Africans try and fail to capture an elephant. Some moments appear diagetic, with the sound effect complementing the image on screen; others are subversive, with the sound effect making a commentary on the images, or vice versa. Although it wouldn’t be quite true to say the whole world of cinema is contained within the film’ s 45 minutes, what might be true to say is that the film, a sublime Borgesian text if ever there was one, offers the possibility of imagining what a film containing every possible permutation of cinema might look like. This is simultaneously one of the most down-at-heel, straightforward films ever constructed, requiring nothing more than the capacity to select and edit footage, and also one of the most elaborately ambitious films ever made, with aspirations to a vision of cinematic possibility that the sly premise gradually reveals. If you can ever find a way to catch it, do so, it will be one of the best spent 45 minutes of your brief life. 

Thursday, 10 November 2016

the white castle [orhan pamuk]

Pamuk’s short novel is intricate and frustrating. Much of the time reading it feels like fiddling with a clock mechanism. It succeeds in suggesting that it’s a complex and ingenious text, although quite what this ingenuity is is hard to fathom.  A Venetian merchant is captured on the high seas by the Turkish fleet and his scientific knowledge is appropriated by the Pasha. There’s much Borgesian play with notion of doubles, as the narrator’s jailor/ colleague looks exactly like him and he ends up supplanting his life. However, there were times when I confess to getting lost in the mechanism and struggling to understand the significance of the narrative’s psychological playfulness. Unlike Pamuk’s brilliant, Snow, The White Castle seemed to lack any real sense of urgency, either in its telling or its premise. This is a meandering novel, whose twists and turns sometimes feel somewhat arbitrary, as though the writer is chasing the tail of his own story.

Friday, 28 October 2016

sin [zakhar prilepin]

Prilepin’s novel is composed of a series of scenes from the protagonist’s life. They show him in childhood, adolescence, as a young father and a sergeant in the Russian army in Chechnya. These fragments vary from the harsh to the lyrical. Bit by bit, Sasha’s character evolves. There’s a languid poeticism to the writing and clear affection for the everyman protagonist. Despite ending with a sequence which takes place in Chechnya, this is a more lyrical novel than Sankja. Once again it shows the author’s facility for getting under the skin of present day Russian youth. Sin could be compared to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist: it has the same elegiac quality as it captures the ebbs and flows of a young man’s life. 

Friday, 14 October 2016

mumbai to mecca [ilija trojanow]

Ilija Trojanow offers a rare insight into the hajj. The hajj is the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Only Muslims are allowed into Mecca, so an experience that is protean to the lives of millions of the world’s population remains scarcely documented in “western” literature. Trojanow offers a pared down account. There are no literary frills. It’s almost as though the writer is aware of an obligation to recount as plainly as possible an experience which he knows much of his readerhood will never be able to share. The emphasis is on a disciplined, sober detailing of the process. There are moments of near-hysteria: an account of being nearly crushed underfoot by the mass of pilgrims suddenly lends the text a more threatening edge. However, for understandable reasons, the book resists any instinct towards hyperbole. Instead it recounts the stages of the hajj, offering vivid accounts of some of his fellow pilgrims who have arrived from all corners of the world. Trojanow helps to demystify Islam. His voice is a valuable, measured bridge between cultures which sometimes seem like they are worlds apart.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

for two thousand years [mihail sebastian]

This is a love letter to the long-dead Romanian writer. In September 2001, a month that carried a historical weight which thankfully has yet to be emulated in this century, I picked up a copy of Sebastian’s diaries and began to read them. I have no idea where my copy came from. I finished the book on the first day of October. It is quite likely that it was as a direct result of reading his diary that I began to keep my own, something I maintained for four years. Diaries are one of the more curious literary formulations. They aren’t written to be read by anyone else. They accrue thousands and thousands of words. Imagine how long it would take to read all the unread diaries that have ever been written. The quantity of tedium, intimacy, incoherence, self-pity, social commentary. In a Borgesian world, every diary would find its reader. Mihail’s found me, in that moment. His voice, which was not a famous voice, spoke to me. Detailing the facets of his daily life as he struggled to cope with anti-semitism and fear of the war. But also whispering about the power of literature, the way it can make a voice leapfrog across the decades and the centuries, arriving unexpectedly to comfort you like a friend you never knew existed. 

That was fifteen years ago. Since then I have always carried Mihail Sebastian around with me in my memory and my heart. Of all the diaries I have ever read, his was the one that truly made me feel like I could have sat down for a drink with him. Laugh, speculate, opine, all those things. In a way that Kafka’s journals perhaps do not. Kafka being Sebastian’s contemporary and fellow Eastern-European Jew, sharing so many of the same concerns, the same hopes and fears. The pair with this new idea of a state of Israel lurking on the edge of their consciousness, a land which might be a promised land or might be a fable at the end of a rainbow, along with their shared history of Judaism, with its curses and its blessings. Kafka’s fame is exponential; in contrast I never came across another of Sebastian’s book’s in translation; in fact I never came across anyone who had read him or even heard of him. Mihail was a ghost, shadowing my thoughts, keeping watch.

Until I noticed that a book of his had been published this year by Penguin. For Two Thousand Years is a novel, written in a diary format. Over the course of several years it recounts the story of a Romanian Jew, an intellectual, who becomes an architect. The book is divided into six chapters, with each chapter occurring after a temporal break which is long enough to suggest that the writer has now moved on, as has the country he inhabits. The first book describes in mordant detail the abuse he and his fellow Jews receive at university. An abuse which is out in the open, which is treated as some kind of a game, even by Sebastian himself. A few years later, he is working as an architect in a rural part of the country. It appears as though the prejudice has blown over. He lives in Paris for a while, before returning. But the prejudice, which we would now call racism, never dissipates entirely. In the end even his closest colleagues reveal their anti-Semitism. There’s no escaping its insidious hold. 

It would be wrong to see this novel as being entirely about the issue of Sebastian’s Jewishness. It is also about friendship, about being Romanian, about love, about revolution. It provides shard-like insights into life in the late twenties and the early thirties. Within a Europe which had no idea of how close it was to catastrophe. I remember reading Sebastian’s diary, feeling as though I was living a parallel life, willing him to survive the war, to reach safety. Like Barthes, a fellow spirit, he was killed in a traffic accident. Of all the ways of dying that the 20th century had to offer him, this was the one fate chose. Reading the diary, it seems too cruel, although one can’t help feeling Sebastian himself might have enjoyed the irony. Having said that, Mihail lives on. True writers cannot be killed by trucks or bombs or cancer or any other formula fate throws at them. They shall continue to enchant, even when there remain no more eyes to read. How wonderful that this beautiful translation by Phillip O Ceallaigh has now appeared, opening up another window on one of the most elegant, measured voices of the twentieth century. 

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

años de calle (w&d. alejandra grinschpun, w. laureano ladislao gutiérrez)

The Sala Zitarossa is filled to the rafters with young people and no-one quite knows why. The film is shown free as part of a season of documentaries which normally attract around 30 people, rather than the hundreds who have turned up today. They watch respectfully this compelling account of the lives of four Buenos Aires street kids, told over the course of ten years. (Años de Calle translates as Street Years). The filmmakers, Alejandra Grinschpun & Laureano Ladislao Gutiérrez first find their subjects in 1999, when the political posters are for Menem. The filmmakers are contributing to a photography outreach program, taking photos of street kids and giving them cameras to take photos with. The kids, ranging from 13 to 17, show them around their habitat in the railway sidings which run through the heart of the city, the high rise buildings framing their cardboard shelters. Five years later, 2004, the filmmakers catch up with them again. Andrés is in prison. Gachi is about to have her third child. They retain the beaky optimism of youth, in spite of the hard years they’ve already lived. By the last time of filming, their attitudes have hardened. One, Ruben has vanished, his mother trying to trace his whereabouts. Andrés is back in prison, spending the eighth year out of ten incarcerated. His subdued monotone seems a lifetime away from the cheeky kid we first met. Gachi doesn’t want to talk to the camera anymore. The camera has done nothing for over the years. She lives in a noisy garage with her partner and some of her kids. She hides her face from the camera. The only one who seems to have been able to escape destiny is Ismael, who is now himself giving photography courses to street kids, recycling the knowledge the filming has given him. Once again, in Buenos Aires as in London, the arts prove more than just decorative: they represent a means of social mobility that other professions cannot offer. It’s hard to contemplate Ismael as a lawyer or a doctor, but photography would appear to have offered him a niche in a brutal world. This is a lovingly composed film, crafted over time. It’s lack of adornment or ego is to its credit: the souls who are its subject matter are the film’s tragic heroes. Años de Calle is the anti-Boyhood, with its North American complacency. This is an account of lives lead on the other side of tracks. 

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

zone [mathias enard]

Barthes was a fan of the James Bond series. He used them for his structural analysis of narratives. Although Zone contains many signifiers in common with Fleming’s novels, one finds it hard to imagine that Enard shares Barthes’ enthusiasm.  It offers a story constructed around the figure of a French foreign agent, a la Bond. Like Bond, Francis Mirković travels a lot; seduces beautiful women; like Bond his moral compass appears to be ambiguous, his past shady. That’s as far as it goes. Thereafter, conceptually and structurally, the Bond vision of the world and the Mirković go their separate ways, an ocean far wider than the English Channel between them. 

Zone’s narrative is reduced to bare bones. The novel opens with Mirković catching a train at Milan station, travelling under an assumed name. He is heading to Rome, where he is going to exchange a briefcase full of classified information for cash, which the Vatican will pay him. He will meet with his Russian lover and start a new life. As far as narrative goes, that’s it. No mysterious strangers on the train, no run-ins with bad guys, no heroics.The rest is flashbacks and a vomitous torrent of information, all told in a single-sentence 500 page monologue.

The information is an apparently haphazard stream of consciousness. Mirković’s and the author’s theme is the Mediterranean and the lands which border it. The narrator does a matchless job of reordering history, putting it back in its place. Spain and France border Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Italy borders Libya. Greece and the lands of the former Yugoslavia border Egypt, Turkey, Israel, Gaza and Syria. What all these lands have in common, beside the sea, is a shared history of violence. This is the focus of Mirković’s monologue. Atrocities in Algeria, in Salonika, in Beirut, in Barcelona and dozens of other places are all woven into one tale of blood, which also manages to incorporate the Nazi atrocities. Enard’s prose is unsparing, relentless. Perhaps like Bolano in the part about the killings in 2666, he wields language like a weapon, challenging the reader to go the distance, in spite of the horror. This is the novel as endurance sport; history without the niceties, a free-falling catalogue of despair. 

At the end of which there is no salvation. Rather, at the end of which there is only the continuation which could not be written when the book was published, which shall be Syria and Gaza once again and refugees drowning in the great lake. One has the feeling that Enard never wanted to finish his voyage through the Zone. He would have wanted it to be Borgesian text, renewing itself constantly to document the latest instalment of his zone’s barbarity. 

All of which makes Zone a curious, elucidatory and punishing read. A quick google revealed that the writer has a burgeoning reputation in his native land. There is something both alt-French and anti- French (anti-structuralist) in the immense seriousness of the book’s subject matter and the minimalist approach to the book’s construction. It’s the antithesis of the Anglo-Saxon Bond, which is all narrative and very little content. 

Monday, 12 September 2016

magallanes (w&d salvador del solar)

Magallanes is not the tale of the trans-oceanic explorer. Instead, it’s the name of the film’s protagonist, a Peruvian ex-soldier, who took part in the military’s cruel campaign against the Sendero Luminoso in the province of Ayacucho. Now in late middle-age, Magallanes lives in Lima. He makes a part-time living driving a taxi and is paid to look after his senile ex-colonel by the colonel’s son, a wealthy businessman. Magallanes, desperate to earn a few bob, decides to blackmail the son by revealing the uncensored details of his father’s activities in Ayacucho. 

The idea for the blackmail comes when he picks up a woman inches taxi, Celina, who the colonel took as his concubine when she was 14 years old. Celina has since moved to Lima and is struggling to pay off her debts and make a go of her failing hairdressing business. As Magallanes becomes more and more caught up in Celina’s story, what begun as a mercenary exercise turns into an attempt to assuage his own guilt for his role in Celina’s unhappy past. When the blackmail attempt fails, Magallanes turns to kidnap. However, his real objective is to try to deal with the guilt of what occurred in Ayacucho, a name that lingers over the whole film like a curse.

Peru, it is said, is divided into four zones: the city (Lima); the jungle, the coast and the altiplano, the highlands. These zones are not only different geographically, but also politically. The Sendero Luminoso guerrilla movement emerged from the Altiplano, the land of the Incas. The state of Ayacucho was its heartland, a harsh, mountainous land. In essence, Ayacucho became a kind of Peruvian Vietnam, a place where the gloves were off and any kind of military strategy, including rape and torture, was used in the name of the war against terror. At one point in the film, Magallanes’ old service comrade, Milton, talks about how he misses the fear and the excitement of war. It could almost be Walken in the Deer Hunter. Magallanes himself knows he contributed to the committal of war crimes, but he also knows that society has rewarded the victors, such as the Colonel and his son, with his infinity pool and fancy cars. 

The film does its best to bring these injustices to light. There’s something slightly methodical about the plot and the pacing: at times it feels as though this is as much a carefully framed political treatise as a cinematic narrative. Which raises the issue of the problems inherent in political film-making. How the intentions underpinning the script so often cauterise its cinematic potency. There’s a clarity to the narrative which at times feels almost counter-productive. Drama depends on shades of grey, not blacks and whites. Having said which, Magallanes emerges as a solid piece of storytelling, which affords a lucid reading of the complexities of recent Peruvian history, delineating the price that has been paid by the victims of the military’s excesses as well as the grunt soldiers who had to carry out the military’s orders. 

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

good cop, bad war [neil woods]

Coming through Gatwick, my plane the inevitable hour late, I browsed the terminal’s only bookshop. Where I found Woods’ first person tome sitting in the top 10 of the bestellser list. Something I hadn’t expected. I had earlier come across it via an article in the paper. Woods’ book describes his years as an undercover cop fighting the drugs war before arriving at the conclusion, one that has been carefully flagged up earlier in the book, that the drugs war is failing and that drugs should be legalised. It’s a heartfelt story, blending vivid action sequences with Woods’ descriptions of the personal price he paid, as his marriage breaks down and his career stumbles. Far from being respected and revered for his undercover skills, Woods suggests he was viewed as a loose cannon. His willingness to get down and dirty with the addicts and sometimes put his life on the line made it even harder for him to fit into a ersatz macho police culture, more mouth than trousers, according to the writer’s account. 

The argument proposed for legalising drugs on the basis of his experiences is well made. Likewise, the vivid accounts of each individual undercover operation. But more than anything, the book offers a gripping vision of another England. The invisible world of the street, populated by losers and petty dealers and vagrants and criminals. Woods depicts the towns he’s working in (Brighton, Leicester, Glossop, Nottingham, etc) from beneath the bottom of the glass. The estates and the streets and their suffering come vividly to life. This is the other side of the coin, a far cry from Waitrose Britain with its gastropubs and 2-for-1 Strawberry-n-Prosecco offers. This is the Britain that no-one wants to see and no-one wants to represent, neither in politics nor in art. As such, although its timescale does not match and its focus is the provinces, Good Cop, Bad War is a companion piece to Ben Judah’s This is London. Both writers have a commitment to revealing and showing understanding to the under-world, which exists side-by-side with the uber-world. 

Good Cop, Bad War is a cracking tale, well told. Which is no doubt what has propelled it into the airport bestseller lists. But it’s also an invaluable portrayal of a society which is broken, a postcard sent by a man who has visited parts of this country where few writers have dared or deigned to travel. 

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

clean hands (w&d. tjebbo penning; w. carl joos)

Sometimes you head blind to the cinema. You have a few spare hours and pick something at random. It's a hit and miss process. Clean Hands is a Dutch film, released in the UK, which makes it a rarity. For all I know Holland may have a cinema culture as radical as its footballing culture. For a country which is geographically so close as well as being culturally so for centuries, we in Britain know very little about Dutch cinema. Unfortunately, Clean Hands does not offer much of an insight into what we might be missing. It's a generic crime caper. There's a plucky heroine married to a small time hood who starts relatively sympathetic and then becomes increasingly psychotic. The narrative depicts a woman in peril, doing what she can to get by. The acting is fine and there may be nuances to the dialogue which the subtitles didn't capture, but in the end this is a humdrum tale. For all its competence, the movie never succeeds in generating any real tension. It makes one wonder why, of all the Dutch films which one imagines are made every year, this one was chosen for a UK release. The cinema was surprisingly full for an afternoon weekday screening. If there is an audience for Clean Hands, how much greater might be the interest in something more adventurous? 

Friday, 26 August 2016

tribe: on homecoming and belonging [sebastian junger]

Tribe is a short non-fiction book which examines the role of conflict in the shaping of society. Junger, a war correspondent, recognises the inherent value to a society of living through times of peril. The essay examines suicide rates and medical indices for anxiety, noting that post 911, the New York suicide rate dropped appreciably. In no way is Junger, an opponent of the Iraq war, a bellicose advocate for war. Rather he seeks to make the point that modern capitalist society pays a price for its affluence, a price which is commensurate to happiness. “As societies become more affluent they tend to require more, rather than less, time and commitment by the individual and it’s possible that many people feel that affluence and safety simply aren’t a good enough trade for freedom.” Junger weaves his own personal experiences into his thesis, drawing on his time in places such as Sarajevo and Afghanistan. He also talks to war veterans and, radically, seeks to rescue some of the wisdom of the native American traditions, looking at how those pre-colombian societies functioned and why, he claims, they were frequently far more attractive to white settlers then the ‘civilised’ world. In the end, this is a measured critique of the way that modernity, in search of the placebo of ‘security’, would appear to be making the human race an increasingly unhappy one. 

Thursday, 25 August 2016

childhood of a leader (w&d brady corbett; w. mona fastvold)

Brady Corbett’s film must be one of the most surprising films made by a US director in a long time. It possesses a sensibility which is so unusual that it not only makes you wonder where it came from, but also makes you question whether what you’re watching is any good or if it’s overblown nonsense. 

The overblown comes from the get-go. Scott Walkers’s score is almost ludicrously melodramatic, Shostakovich meets Phil Spector on a day they both got out of bed the wrong side. Before you have any idea of what the film is about, the score is almost daring you not to take it seriously. After a dimly lit exterior scene, more Mungiu than Hollywood, there follows a long, boldly mixed and loquacious scene about the post-war discussions that will lead to the treaty of Versailles. The great war does not really exist anymore in modern cinematic consciousness unless the film contains a suitably sympathetic creature at risk of untimely death.  (Be that a horse, a fey Englishman or Mel Gibson.) It’s a war that exists in order to provoke the sentiment that war is bad and to jerk tears. Corbett’s focus is the opposite. His interest is entirely political and far from being the bedrock for a sentimental saga, none of the film’s principle characters prove to be remotely sympathetic. The regles de jeu don’t seem to be functioning according to standard operating procedure. 

The film is split into three acts and a coda. The three acts are flagged by a heading relating to a tantrum by the film’s dauphin, Prescott, the son of a US diplomat charged with executing Woodrow Wilson’s policy in the negotiations. Prescott belongs to a dysfunctional family. His mother is neurotic and frigid, his father has a short temper and fancies Prescott’s French tutor. Promiscuous Prescott also fancies his tutor, at one stage groping her. Prescott’s only ally in the family is the sympathetic local maid. He’s a brat of the first order, but a funny one, quite happy to upstage his parents and disrupt his father’s diplomatic negotiations when he brings his work home with him. Prescott may be an attention seeker and an emotional bully, but the film manages to pull off the surprising trick of making this demon child appealing. He is possessed of a weird charisma which is captured by Tom Sweet in a telling performance, reminding us that child actors are often more natural performers than their adult cousins.

Corbett’s pacing is erratic. There are longeurs, followed by vivid dream sequences or moments of childish hysteria. The audience never knows where the film is headed next. The coda/ denouement is a disjointed thwack around the audience’s chops. Prescott has become ‘the leader’, something the camera captures with the kind of delirium normally trademarked by Gasper Noe. Scott Walker backs the camera up, and the effect is marmalising. An occasionally subtle portrayal of childhood is blown up, as though Corbett himself were the brat now, throwing his own directorial tantrum. 

What does it all mean? The film is a study in power, as we watch Prescott gradually take over the household. All this is presented within the context of the ongoing post-war negotiations, which at one point include a discussion about the true interpretation of Marxist theory. The Trumpian parallels are there to be made, retrospectively, but this is presumably fortuitous. Maybe Corbett struck lucky, or maybe he has his finger on the pulse. Only time will tell. As an actor Corbett has shown remarkable taste, working with many of the greatest living directors, something that has presumably helped to shape a remarkable cinematic consciousness. Childhood of a Leader may have its flaws, but in terms of delirious ambition it cannot be faulted.

Monday, 15 August 2016

the true story of the rolling stones [stanley booth]

It would not be hard to pastiche Booth’s of-the-moment tome. It would not be hard to chuckle at the vanity and vainglory of the band and its biographer. The band with its silk scarves and fey rebelliousness; the writer with his transparent faux-hardness. There are sequences which now perhaps, given what the band became, feel adorned, painted black. Moments which talk about chaos and hysteria, before the band became a ruthless money-making machine. Before the dreams had all gone up in smoke. All the same… Booth’s book genuinely succeeds in capturing that cusp between the one thing and the other.  Before Altamont and after.

The arc of the Stones’ sixties. Starting with a genuine love for the music of the American South, the very notion of blues. Evolving through the hysteria of a teenage generation that wanted to let go. Of the war, of the discipline of war, of a notion of conformity. (Which, natch, has mutated today into another conformity, the disciplined conformity of pseudo-non-conformity). The Stones belonged to that generation of teenagers. When dance halls from Blackpool to Bognor Regis shuddered under the weight of pubescent excitement and the band had to run for its life. Things forgotten now, because that audience doesn’t exist anymore; that hysteria has become packaged, controlled. The book traces how this energy converted itself into a battle with the powers-that-be, with three of the Stones facing the prospect of doing time in prison, for taking drugs, for being both of the time and out of time at the same time. Fighting battles that cost the life of one of them, one way or another. Terminating in the black heart delirium of Altamont. A gothically unhinged moment, where a gun was brandished and a man was knifed yards from the stage, as the singer sang and the band played. A dystopian seal to the utopian aspirations of a decade. 

Booth charts all of this. He’s great on the beginnings and great on the end. The middle sags, but then most middles do. He was there, he felt the vibes, he jotted them down. This isn’t a great book, but it is a great document. A register of something that has now been lost and gone forever. A moment that society cannot repeat. Watch the footage of the Mayles brothers in the seminal movie of the Stones’ 69 tour. The movie offers a flavour, Booth’s book does the rest. It’s about the limits of freedom, the victory of the machine, the delusions of a generation that believed they could change things and ended up murdering the planet. The Stones’ cynicism is, retrospectively, self-perpetuating and completely valid. Where others swooned, they battened down the hatches. They got the music made, they hung tough, they made it out of there. Booth captures them at the moment where Jagger’s androgyny might have been the clue to a new future, rather than a marketing ploy. After that it was drugs and marketing whilst the counter-culture, as Pynchon might have said, was subsumed in a gargantuan wave of mass-produced shite. But for a moment, there was a pixie at the helm, telling people there was another path, down where the campfires flickered, where kindness hovered, where the doing was more important than the having, where the money might follow, but it did not lead. 

Sunday, 14 August 2016

affections [rodrigo hasbún]

Affections is somewhere between novel and novella. It tells the story of three sisters, daughters of one of Leni Riefenstahl’s cameramen, who emigrated to Bolivia after the war. He takes his daughters to search for Patiti, the lost city of the Incas, which he believes is located in the Bolivian Amazon. They results of the quest are inconclusive, but of course, as with all quests, it masks another, more torturous quest, which is the one that each of the girls will go on: the quest to harmonise their antithetical roots: German and Bolivian, Latin American and European. One will move back to Munich, the other will teach German in La Paz and the third, Monica, will become a Marxist guerrilla, a lover to one of the survivors of Che’s doomed mission to ferment revolution in Bolivia. 

This is more than enough material for a chunky novel, which Affections notably is not. It strings the sister’s stories together using various narrators (two of the sisters, Monica’s former lover, the guerrilla, etc). These monologues are brief, and almost feel like notes towards a novel as much as a novel itself. As such, as a book, Affections ends up, perhaps, flattering to deceive. The material is so rich, but the execution has all the weight of a butterfly’s wings. There is a lovely moment, in the jungle, when someone observes that butterflies, that thing of beauty, love dirt. This is typical of the writing, full of lovely shards, which never quite feel like they combine to give the premise the cathedral it deserves. It is fascinating to gain some glimpses into Bolivia’s post-war history, but these glimpses only leave the reader wanting more (not such a bad thing). Hopefully more of Hasbún’s more meatier work will soon be translated. 

Sunday, 7 August 2016

berlin alexanderplatz [alfred döblin]

Döblin’s novel is one I have known about, it seems, forever. The very title has an emblematic quality. It has been waiting to be read for decades. It’s not the easiest book to get hold of. But finally, it has tracked me down. 

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a long novel, which consists of 9 dense chapters. It tells the tragic tale of Franz Bieberkopf. His story actually takes place over the course of a year, but the narrative sprawls, giving the sense of a lifetime. Bieberkopf is a fully-fledged anti-hero. We first meet him coming out of prison having served his time for beating his girlfriend to death. He’s obtuse, violent, disloyal, lacking intelligence, and yet… and yet, he becomes, with all the alchemy a novel can bestow on a character, strangely loveable. If there’s another figure he resembles it’s Slothrop, from Gravity’s Rainbow. A lumbering oddball whom the fates have decided not to befriend. The connections between Pynchon’s novel and Döblin feel marked. Döblin’s imagination is vivacious, frequently on the edge of control. The narrative is like a river in full spate. The whole city courses through the novel, which has no qualms in detouring for half a dozen pages to show us the city abattoir; or just jotting down the current events of the day. The book is full of anecdotes and loose ends. It’s a baggy read, driven by Franz’s doomed mission to make a go of things. He goes straight and that doesn’t work. He turns to crime and that doesn’t work. He falls in love and that doesn’t work. But onwards he ploughs, like an untameable ox. 

Apparently comparisons have also been made to Joyce. They might have something in common. But it seems to me that Döblin has something rawer, edgier, more indicative of the times. Written in 1929, when the Nazis were incipient and the Communists were still a force, the book captures a sense of transcendent insecurity. People’s lives mean little. Politics offers no solutions. A man (or woman) can only put their heads down and keep going, secure in the knowledge that it’s not going to turn out alright in the end. I’ve been reading this book over the course of a couple of months, during which time my country has left Europe, changed its leaders, and appears to have decided to teeter on the brink of economic oblivion. Meanwhile, across the channel, random acts of violence have become the norm. The world of Franz Beiberkopf and the present day feel far closer than they ought to. In the end of the book, Franz just about survives. But what lay around the corner was even more terrible. 

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

the commune (w&d thomas vinterberg; w tobias lindholm)

About a week ago I finally caught up with Vinterberg’s The Hunt. I’d got somewhat railroaded by watching It’s About Love a few years ago, a film that seemed so preposterous that it looked to me as though the director had managed to annihilate the monstrous talent he showed in Festen. Fortunately I was wrong. The Hunt’s critical success was more than merited. It’s as well-made a film as the 21st century has produced so far, combining a ruthless narrative with a gripping premise and some great acting. It pulled off the trick of creating a thriller where no-one is killed and the violence is below the surface rather than above it.

The Commune is not quite as complete a cinematic experience, but then few films have been or will be. Nevertheless, it showcases Vinterberg’s un-flashy hallmarks. At times it feels as though he’s the anti-Refn, though it’s a lucky country that produces two such distinguished filmmakers (not to mention the others). The idea of community underpins all of Vinterberg’s work. The Commune looks at a community that is constructed from scratch, almost as a whim of Anna, the news anchor who is bored of her marriage and decides to invite a host of others to come and live with her and her husband, Erik and daughter, Freja. The film starts with a feelgood vibe as we get to know this odd bunch and see how they interact. Gradually, however, we move into Bergman territory: this is a portrait of a marriage which is imploding. When Erik has an affair and Anna invites his lover to join the commune, her whim comes back to bite her. The second half of the film becomes a study in her disintegration (she looks a like Gina Rowlands in a Cassavetes film). Trine Dryrholm gives a remarkable performance. The family of Anna, Erik and Freya is one kind of collective, which doesn’t survive. However, the collective which Anna has concocted does, in spite of its chaotic nature. When the child of a couple who live there dies, the collective offers real succour to those parents. The Commune offers a more positive vision of communal living than Festen or The Hunt. The collective/ commune might not defend everyone’s interests, but it can offer an antidote to society’s harshness, especially to the weaker members, the oddballs who don’t know how they fit in. 

This brief summary doesn’t really do the film justice. Which is part of what’s appealing about the film. It’s a film which isn’t afraid to grapple with ideas, but is prepared to locate those ideas within a very human world. There are small touches, such as when Erik tells Emma that he’s not interested in Le Corbusier’s modular architecture, or the editorial team discuss how much airtime Pol Pot should be given, which reveal the film’s wider intellectual remit. This feels like the work of a director who wants to explore what it means to live in a community, explore the role of love within our modern society, who wants to grapple with big issues, but to do so in a way that resists pretension. It’s drama which is shaped in the shadow of Ibsen, (the script is adapted from a stage play.) It’s refreshing to see a filmmaker believing in the capacity of cinema to take itself seriously, without taking itself over-seriously. The Commune (whose title in Danish is Kollektivet) is an accomplished addition to the Vinterberg canon. 

Friday, 29 July 2016

the lamentations of zeno [ilija trojanow]

When’s it all going to end? Sooner than we might expect if you take note of some of the more recent data concerning the fate of the planet. Trojanow’s South Atlantic novel is a breezy, enjoyable read despite the fact it happens to be addressing the minor issue of the end of the world. The narrator is Zeno, an expert on glacial scientist. Zeno is devastated by the demise of his Alpine glaciers, a process which appears to have gone hand in hand with the demise of his marriage. He takes refuge in becoming a lecturer-expert on one of those expensive cruises which takes rich people to look at icebergs, penguins and the effects of global warming at the South Pole. Trojanow captures the beauty and cruelty of the South, as the ship visits The Falklands before heading towards Antarctica. The novel blends surrealism with science, as it seeks to convey the gravity of the world’s fate through the voice of its disillusioned narrator. Zeno’s frustration with the world’s idiocy and his burning desire to keep Antarctica as the last pristine place on earth boils over when he gets into a scuffle with a smoking Chilean soldier. In spite of his misanthropy, Zeno is an engaging host; if anything the book’s jovial tone sometimes seems to work against the seriousness of its content. 

Sunday, 24 July 2016

the neon demon (w&d. refn, w. polly stenham & mary laws)

Refn’s film has all the hallmarks. It’s shiny, so much so that at times the screen dazzles. It’s shallow, so shallow that the lead is killed in an empty swimming pool. It has hidden depths, which are so hidden that they can only be represented by an abstract, demonic symbol. It’s provocative. So provocative that many critics have fallen for the bait and decried the film’s taboo-breaking, as though the guiding hand was Nietzsche’s. 

Is this the twilight of the gods? It would be hard to make a case. Refn is more of a tease than a terror. There’s a scene of necrophilia but Roeg did this far more dangerously in Bad Timing. There’s cannibalism, but that’s off-screen. There’s very little sex. There’s a soft-porn lesbian shower scene, doused in blood, but it’s so kitsch you suspect that Refn finds this hilarious, not shocking. If anything this would appear to be a film which purports to be about smashing up the family china; but a film that never goes so far as to actually smash up the family china. 

In contrast to received notions of sensationalist films, Neon Demon is stately in its pacing. More Bergman than Fast ’n Furious. The director and editor delight in the wondrous images captured by the DOP, Natasha Braier. Rightly so. This is a cinema of the image and the images are ravishing. There’s some neat dialogue supplied by the playwrights Refn has drafted in, but the plot is wafer-thin and the denouement has no tension. It’s an aggressively semiotic film: a film constructed out of images which are all about what we choose to see. We choose pretty young things. We choose baubles. We choose the surface. Perhaps the film’s most radical moment comes towards the end when one of the characters eats a regurgitated eyeball. Pop will eat itself.

Refn is a provocateur, not a theorist. People might detect allegories of how LA eats its young, or capitalism turns its young into products and then eats them, or how coming of age in a capitalist society is about preparing oneself to become a sacrificial lamb. All these readings and more would seem applicable. Like a Dali painting, the film’s bland but seductive surface allows for multiple interpretation. Which might be its skill, or it might be the Neon Demon’s achilles heel. If heels are something that neon demons possess. 

Saturday, 23 July 2016

notes on blindness (w&d pete middleton, james spinney)

What does a blind person see? How can this be represented? Middleton and Spinney’s film, based on the writings of its narrator, John Hull, embraces the paradox. The film’s premise is a blind man seeking to communicate to the sighted what it means to be blind, for better and for worse. Logic would perhaps suggest a darkened screen, certainly from the moment when Hull loses his sight altogether. A complete absence of light. The film resists this logic. Alongside the anchor of Hull’s voice, the star of the show is DOP, Gerry Floyd, whose ephemeral, half-formed pictures help us to engage with the process of not being able to see, whilst never giving us nothing to look at. The sound mix by Joakim Sundstrom is similarly skilful in its execution. Notes on Blindness is narrated by the author from beyond the grave, his recorded voice playing over images of Dan Skinner re-enacting moments of his life with a sense of profound conviction. The voice is our latchkey and our guide into this other world, and the way the sound mix is assembled from Hull’s voice, music and the everyday sounds which give the blind world texture, is a small paean to the things that cinema can achieve. All of which goes into the construction of a bold, sensory documentary which feels more like a drama. Notes on Blindness is about living with disability, but it’s also a story about the power of faith and love; how they help us to overcome the struggle of confronting the void which shadows us all. 

Thursday, 21 July 2016

the last communard [gavin bowd]

Gavin Bowd’s book exhumes a fascinating footnote of history. The story of Adrien Lejeune, the last remaining survivor of the Paris commune, who died in Russia during the 2nd world war at the age of 95. This is a scholarly text, written by an academic, which seeks to root out the truth of Lejeune’s story, debunking the myths. As such it’s a somewhat prosaic account, rife in fiddly detail. Lejeune, somewhat disappointedly, didn’t spend years as a prisoner in the South Seas; he didn’t like it when his red wine orders didn’t arrive in the Soviet Union; he perhaps didn’t even really participate in the uprising of the Paris Commune in the way in which some claimed he did. The book is at its most interesting when the myth and the reality confront one another and the truth fails to emerge. For all Bowd’s attention to detail, the actualities of Lejeune’s life remain surprisingly vague. Quite apart from the issue of his actions during the days of the Commune, very little is revealed about his life after he was released from prison, up to the point where he chose to go to the Soviet Union in the thirties. His life there in Soviet Russia is similarly hard to get a fix on: was he an irritable old man, whose neighbours took advantage of him, or was he a saintly figure who radiated millennial calm? Either vision seems possible from Bowd’s book; perhaps both have some truth. If anything, The Last Communard demonstrates how difficult even recent history is to practice, if history is taken to be an investigation into the truth of that which has occurred in the past.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

the taming of the shrew (d. caroline byrne)

a trip to the globe

There’s inevitably something of the heritage experience about visiting the Globe, just as there is when you visit Sutton Hoo or Stonehenge. It’s on the tourist circuit. Lots of people probably go not because they want to see the play, but because they want to experience the theatre. And a wonderful thing it is to experience too. Within its Wooden O, you get a sense of the role the theatre played in Elizabethan society. A space to be seen and a space to see. A space which is both profoundly democratic and hierarchical at the same time. A space possessing an energy within a small town that must have been incalculable. (No matter how similar the Globe is to its forefather, the society and the city have changed beyond compare.) It’s an exciting experience to step into the Globe, cherish its intimacy, cherish the power that the theatre possesses. A power which the black box has done so much to nullify. 

The day we went, we were lucky enough to experience not just Caroline Byrne’s version of Taming of the Shrew, but also a brief piece by Jess Thom, a performer with Tourette’s, and a Q&A with the audience. Thom’s piece was short, sharp and incisive, describing a visit to another London theatre to see a Mark Thomas show about segregation in Palestine, where she had ended up being asked to move to the sound booth because of her disability. The inclusiveness of the Globe as a theatre was made all the more evident by Thom’s brief performance. It’s a space which allows for all manner of performance. all kinds of performers and as diverse an audience as you could wish for. A space which works for a circus or a one-woman show (a soliloquy or a masque). The power of the space was underlined by the Q&A with Thom and members of the Shrew cast. One member of the audience threw out a contentious remark about Byrne’s version of the Shrew being overloaded with theatrical devices, at the expense of Shakespeare’s verse. For a second you could sense the bear pit beneath the stage. It didn’t quite all kick off, but the cast’s response suggested the potential for tension that a space so intimate is capable of generating.

The audience member’s observation helps to pinpoint the difficulties of staging Shakespeare in the Globe. The new artistic director has been chosen because she’s a believer in making Shakespeare accessible. The more classically minded audience might feel this is a populist approach which fails to reveal the true glory of the text. Byrne’s direction of the Shrew is a rumbunctious, entertaining affair. The cast in the Q&A mentioned that they spent the first week of rehearsals exploring the physicality of the play. There are set piece moments, including the wedding, where the choreography supersedes the letter. From this audience member’s POV, this is all to the good. A play which has a reputation for being almost impossible to stage due to its un-PC approach to marriage somehow succeeds in this production in suggesting a neo-feminist subtext. This is in part down to a steely performance from Aoife Duffin, but also down the imaginative and successful feminisation of the casting. Although the Easter Rising 1916 setting in many ways passed me by, it clearly worked as device to lend unity to the Irish cast’s vision of a play which they regard as subversive rather than reactionary. I’m the last person to argue for populism over intellectual content, but not only does it feel to me as though the ethos of the space demands an inclusive vision, I’d also far rather see Shakespeare performed in a fashion that provokes through a willingness to use the imagination rather than a belief in the sacrosanct nature of the bard’s language. 

Monday, 11 July 2016

10:04 [ben lerner]

Who is Ben Lerner? This isn’t a challenge or a call-out, more, it seems to me, a logical reaction to his prose-poem of a second novel. The novel is about a writer who lives in NY who has recently been commissioned to write his second novel after the unexpected success of his first. This first novel is never named as Leaving Atocha Station, but that’s about as ambiguous as it gets. The writer makes no bones about the autobiographical mandate of the novel which shall be written, (which we are reading), detailing his relationships, his work, his low-fi Brooklyn lifestyle which, like the novel, seems to carry with it an air of vague if undesired hipsterdomness. A trip to the New Mexico desert which leads to a ketamine blow-out ends up being more Whitman than Jay McInerney. Lerner appears to be a reluctant new literary god, but at the same time there’s an unavoidable self-mythologising at work here. Which leads us back to the question I opened with: who exactly is he? Is the author we read about in the novel anything like the man who writes the novel? Does the novel’s apparent bid for a kind of transcendent authenticity, (again pace Whitman) have any authenticity? 

Lerner is hardly alone in going down this path. Of contemporary novelists one can think of Toussaint, Amis (at a pinch), Chefjec and presumably a host of others who I haven’t come across. Further down the line are the likes of Celine, Bataille or Proust. The play between a lived actuality, a fictional actuality and a fictional reality is fertile territory, not least for the poet, whose work is so often made out of the stuff of personal feeling. (Not always, Keats v Tennyson being a reasonable counterpoint, for example.) In his first novel, Lerner’s alter-ego persona seemed quite self-consciously manipulated for comic effect, using the trope of the American abroad as much as his own lived experiences in Spain, suggesting a wilful discord between the writer’s ego and that of the character who represents him in the novel. 10:04 blurs the lines far more effectively. The urge to try to extract ironic capital from the situations presented is restrained (even in the ketamine episode). As a result this novel is less funny, harder going, but feels more heartfelt. The narrator’s concerns remain heavily poeticised but are firmly felt. As he muses on both life and death, (there’s a lot of cancer in the book and he’s also seeking to help his best friend get pregnant), and the fragility of modern existence. Two storms threaten his NY sanctuary, hinting at the impact of global warming; his girlfriend creates art out of art which has succeeded in losing its value, leading us to question the value of value of itself. He helps a friend’s child create a book about the dinosaurs. The final sequence of the novel (which reminded me of the closing speech in Stephens’ Harper Regan) has him and his now-pregnant friend walking the streets of a storm-stuck Manhattan, in what might have been a post-apocalyptic landscape. This feels like a serious novel dressed up as a light-hearted one; a novel which instinctively rejects narrative, although finally finds itself unable to escape it. (In the end the friend is, after all, pregnant.) 

All of which gives the novel an evasive feel, as though the author wants to hide the truth of what is ‘really’ happening (or perhaps he’s incapable of ‘really’ recounting it); just as the writer himself remains something of a crepuscular figure. Apparently revealing so much, about his philosophy, cooking habits, sex life, etc, but in practice leading the reader to question what exactly has been said, and, more importantly, what hasn’t been said. 10:04 is a dense novel which resists any notion of ‘flow’;. stopping and starting with a deliberate awkwardness, full of moments which appear to reveal something but are then discarded (like the other novel which the novelist was going to write but in the end decided to delete). Like any fine poem, it’s a piece of writing which would merit multiple readings and exegesis, but sadly this must be left to the grad students who will pore over it in decades to come, as an example, alongside Franzen (although I say this never having read him) or Rippi of the new-neurotic American novel, which emerged in the wake of those brash, confident figures from the late decades of the twentieth century. 

Monday, 4 July 2016

tale of tales (w&d. matteo garrone, w. edoardo albinati, ugo chiti, massimo gaudioso)

Go and see this of an afternoon. That’s my biggest tip regarding Garrone’s fairy tale mash-up, with its three narratives condensed into a single film. Go and see it in a week when your country hasn’t committed an act of political suicide, when there isn’t a football match on you might want to catch, when it’s raining outside, when you are ready to be distracted. If you do go and see it whilst your country is committing auto-da-fe, don’t hold it against the movie. These might be rules for any moviegoer, at any point in history, but they struck me as particularly so on Friday evening at the end of a long Soho day. It took me a while to let the world slip away. During the opening half hour or so, Tale of Tales felt like it could end up being Tale of Tales of Tales of Tales of Tales of Tales etcetera. The pacing seemed slack and the rhythm clumsy, with that Euro-pudding use of English language feeling particularly unwieldy, allied to some less-than-convincing special effects, or were they merely retro. More Jason and the Argonauts than the latest 3D extravaganza. Then, gradually, the film’s clumsy charm started to take effect. Hints of Calvino’s folk tales or Carter’s fairy nightmares. The sense of an Italian spell being woven, with the beauty of the film’s locations being employed to full effect, with the slightly caricatured acting starting to feel like it was hitting the right notes, rather than being out of key. By the end, in spite of my anxiety regarding the outcome of that other fairytale, Wales-Belgium, Tale of Tales, with its silly English language title and its idiosyncratic aesthetic, had just about convinced me that this hadn’t been the week when the world had gone mad, Rather it was an ordinary week within a mad, mad world, one which has always been thus and shall continue to be so. Garrone’s oddball kings, queens and princes are less atypical than they at first appear, perfect company for an idle, unchained afternoon. 

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

mustang (w&d. deniz gamze ergüven, w. alice winocour)

(Written on Friday, June 24th)

I’m not sure there could have been more a more appropriate film to go and see on the last day on which the UK could be said to belong to the project known as the European Union. At the time we went, late afternoon, there was still the expectancy that the following day Britain would remain within Europe. Like so many others in the capital it feels as though we have sleepwalked into an unwelcome oblivion, which has sneaked up from behind and tied a union jack plastic bag over our heads. Asphyxiation will be long and slow and when we finally die and find ourselves reborn, it will be beyond the borders of the Arcadian project.

Mustang’s pertinence to this above paragraph may not be immediately obvious. This is a Turkish film telling the story of five sisters. Their parents are dead and after they are seen playing around on a beach, their grandmother and wicked uncle adopt the hardline, puritan approach to their allegedly wayward charges. The house becomes a prison which the sisters seek to break out of; then one by one they are married off. They youngest, Lale, is the most instinctively rebellious. She has no wish to find herself paired off against her will to a man twice her age and plots her escape.

Mustang has been drifting around London cinemas since I’ve been back. I had seen the trailer so many times that I had little enthusiasm to see the film. The trailer captured the dreamy camerawork and the luscious light of the Turkish mediterranean coast. It presented the film as a dreamy study of adolescent womanhood. Which the film is, but it is also, I discovered when finally the planets aligned and I went to see it, far more than this. At first there’s a suspicion that the film’s success might have something to do with the lingering takes of pubescent flesh, as the girls hang out in their knickers. If there’s something that feels queasy about this, then it is redeemed by the understanding that this queasiness is presumably the intention. The film is a far-from-subtle attack on the conservative and hypocritical Muslim mores of the girls’ conservative guardians and the society they belong to. This society decries any unseemly display of teenage flesh, whilst at the same time happy enough to climb into bed with it. The more the film affronts this conservatism, the more potent, on a visceral level, is its attack. 

The repressive, mind-numbingly restrictive scope of this society, which attempts to quash the girls’ instinctive joie de vie, is something anyone would want to flee. In the end, after a well-constructed escape sequence, Lale and her sister Nur succeed in doing so. They get to Istanbul and in a symbolically significant moment, cross the Bosphorus from Asia to Europe. We root for them, because we, as lay Westerners, would want to do the same thing in their shoes: get the hell out of dodge. In so doing, the film helps to explain why many young Turks, not so very different in their outlook to ourselves, might want to head towards Europe. Which was of course, one of the great terrors projected by the Leave campaign in the election. ‘The Turks are coming.’ As though we belonged to the Ottoman empire on the point of being stormed; as though it was not precisely those who wanted to escaped a repressive, conservative orthodox society who would be the ones most likely to be seeking to discover a place more in keeping with their values. 

Supposedly the drawbridge has now been put up, a day later, precisely to stop the likes of Lala and Nur reaching our shores. In the very act of doing so, those who raise the drawbridge show themselves to be just as repressive and conservative as the family the girls are trying to flee. Britain has now become the contrasting pole to orthodox Turkey (itself a gateway for the more challenging orthodox societies which lie to its Southern and Eastern borders.) Our conservatism and orthodoxy might take a different form to its Eastern polar opposite, but things they share in common are a distrust of the alien, a willingness to sacrifice their young on the altar of their narrow-minded mindset, and an introverted neurosis which stymies creativity and hope. 

Sunday, 26 June 2016

all the lights [clemens meyer]

All The Lights is a collection of short stories. There are plenty of them (15). There are no overt connections between the stories, but plenty of covert ones. These covert links have the effect of sparking associations in the reader’s mind: did this character crop up in another tale? Haven’t I read this somewhere else in the book? The book’s title, for example, is a phrase that recurs with regularity across many, if not all of the stories, and every time you come across this phrase it helps to construct a network of communality between apparently diverse episodes. (This might be even more apparent in the original, it’s hard to tell, although it should be noted that the translation by Katie Derbyshire is excellent.)

The stories are all set in the Eastern side of a reunified Germany, the former DDR. As such, they are the haunted tales of history’s losers, in one way or another. Even the foreigners who appear, including a Dutch boxer, are losers. They are the ones who history will not celebrate, whose stories are never going to be more than bittersweet. Which is not to say there is no light in the book, or that it’s remorselessly grim; just that there’s an aura of lost possibilities, of the unfulfilled dream. The shadow of the West. 

Under this umbrella, the author constructs elegant portraits of the little people trying to make their way. The immigrants, the warehouse workers, the salesmen. There’s a touch of Carver in all this, but there’s also a flavour of Cortazar in the way Meyer elides time. Like Cortazar he is not afraid of skipping backwards and forwards within the timeline of the story. The effect is disorientating, in the same way in which life can be disorientating. The present and the past and the future collide head-on in a single paragraph. This demands an assurance and skill from the writing; Meyer is not afraid to lead the reader to the border of incomprehension before reeling them back again to the through line of the narrative. Again, this frequently reflects the state of his subjects, people who don’t feel in control of their destiny, who never know if they’re about to fall off a cliff or get knocked out, but battle on regardless.


[As an aside, in Berlin last weekend, we visited the “DDR Museum”, a place which in the end I found unbearably sad. All the hope (all the lights) of a utopian dream reduced to rubble, steamrollered by the capitalist machine and corruption. In the museum people smirk at the Trabant or the mono-politics. It’s all but forgotten that beneath the surface there was once the dream of a more egalitarian and less materialistic society.]

Friday, 24 June 2016

embrace of the serpent (w&d. ciro guerra; w. jacques toulemonde vidal)

Ciro Guerra’s Amazonian fable, the story of three men in two boats, has a stately splendour. It unwinds like the river which is its home. What lies at the end of the river? As ever, death, but also, the film suggests, with a psychotropic élan, the whole of eternity and the universe which eternity contains. No small matter, in other words. 

The central character, Karamakate, appears twice, first as a young man and then an older one. On both occasions he escorts a white visitor down the river, leading them to the discovery of a fabled plant which is revealed to be a portal, perhaps from the gods, to a transcendental vista of the universe. Twice, Karamakate then burns the tree which produces this plant. Is this a theory of eternal recurrence? Will there be another visitor in another moment who Karamakate will again lead to a discovery which can never be shared by anyone else? Perhaps this is a metaphor for the ongoing destruction of the natural world by the forces of imperialism, something which continues to repeat itself with a relentless inevitability.

The film’s more mystical elements are tempered by its redoubtable account of the realities of the Amazon. It shows the terrible cruelties of the rubber trade as well as the dubious influence of Catholic missionaries whose legacy, thirty years later, is nothing more than a crazed cult. (With hints of Jonestown.) Karamakate himself comes from a tribe whose last remaining members have descended into a pitiable decadence, foregoing their jungle roots, using the sacred plant as nothing more than a drug to get high on, stuck between the warring white men of Peru and Colombia, powerless to fight back. In its account of all this, Embrace of the Serpent does what much great art does: it takes its audience into an unknown world and reveals things which the audience would never have known had they not shared the film’s vision. With the consequence that art might be seen as being another kind of sacred plant. (There is a hint of Andrei Rublev in the film’s use of colour at the conclusion to describe a transcendent world which underpins the ‘actual’ one.) 

The film has presumably had its break-out success because it’s a rollicking tale of adventure and mystery. It’s highly effective on this level. But. it’s also one of the few films which has managed to successfully integrate an indigenous narrative. (Atanarjuat & Birdwatchers are two more that come to mind.) This is the post-Tarzan world, which seeks to turn the technological equilibrium inside out. It’s Karamakate who possesses knowledge which the Westerners can only dream about, which the director’s camera can never quite capture. Guerra handles his complex narrative with boldness, a hint of terror and a resolute humanity.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

woyzeck (w. büchner, d. leander haußmann)

A visit to the Berliner Ensemble

It’s a warm Sunday evening. The square in front of the theatre is adorned by a statue of Bertolt Brecht. He looks almost too content with his legacy, an intriguing issue in a unified Berlin. The theatre itself is a baroque jewel, which always has half a dozen works of the maestro in rep. 

It's hard to assess a show critically when you know the culture it emerges from on little more than a superficial level. I guess that is part of the reason critics garner respect. By paying their dues. The Berliner Ensemble had a reputation for innovation which has since, perhaps, been overtaken by the Schaubuhne or the Volksbuhne. I have little idea what to expect. We are there to watch Woyzeck, which one imagines has become a kind of ur-text in Germany (and beyond). A tabula rasa upon which a director can weave his or her magic. 

Leander Haußmann’s version is immediately, resolutely modern. The most arresting facet of the show is its squadron of soldiers. Woyzeck is one of a band of about 25 brothers, whose erratic discipline, sometimes marching in step, sometimes acting as mocking chorus, sometimes jiving, gives the staging texture and depth. Marie is a spirited, flighty fun-loving figure who jitterbugs whilst Woyzeck is being tortured in a sadistic military hazing ritual. 

The military uniform suggests the soldiers are from the US, something which is reinforced by the use of American music. At any moment a dance might break out, a dance which transforms into a battle. The fairground scene uses the revolve to create a beguiling ad hoc merry-go-round, as the soldiers “ride” helium-filled animal balloons. It’s a beautiful, virtuoso scene, one matched by the appearance of a real-life ape-man who struggles with a chair and then drinks a beer; ‘poor theatre’ with a philosophical punch. The play never uses any constructed scenery as such: the stage remains bare, defined by a vigorous use of lighting and the number of bodies which populate it. At one point a dozen pop-up tents appear; on another occasion an apparent verdant mound turns out to be made out of camouflaged soldiers.

There is no shortage of violence, something the play ironises when Woyzeck kills the sergeant major a dozen times to the music of Mozart's Figaro. The production veers in an increasingly expressionist direction as it nears the denoument. The political references introduced in the opening hour begin to feel slightly contrived as the play appears to fail to develop them in any meaningful fashion. I say “appears to” because the production is, naturlich, in German, a language which I don’t speak. I have no way of knowing if the text was was being adapted or not. I had the impression that it hadn’t been tinkered with much, but this opinion is purely speculative. 

All in all, it could be said that Leander Haußmann’s production delivered what I might have expected. Self-consciously radical, an imagistic theatre, one which uses music and seeks to create a liberation from the word, one that uses violence with a Jacobean glee as a theatrical code, rather than naturalism. It is also a theatre whose use of staging elements: lighting; scenery; music; costume is resolutely anti-naturalistic, something which comes as a relief. There’s a theatrical dexterity which the British stage seems to struggle to emulate; a wilfully radical approach that might sometimes feel contrived but on the other hand ensured that this 2 hour version in a foreign language never felt dull or over-extended. 

Sunday, 12 June 2016

cat and mouse [günter grass]

Cat and Mouse is a novel that’s as agile as it’s title suggests. The narrative is seemingly straightforward, dealing with the difficulties of evolving from childhood to adulthood. However, this simplicity is muddied by the fact that the characters undergoing this transformation are living in Nazi Germany, during the war, on the Baltic coast. Grass’ prose feels, even in translation, effortlessly lucid. The slipages as the narrator veers between the third and second person as he tells the story of Mahlke, the child-man with the outsized Adam’s Apple, sometimes addressing him and sometimes the reader, feel like a masterly trick, revealing the narrator’s incipient guilt. This guilt gradually builds, suggesting that it is not merely caused by the narrator’s part in Mahlke’s downfall. but also by the war itself. Without in any way ever suggesting that he’s taking on the burden of that which he was born into. This is a guilt which is unavoidable, destined, as much as a story has an unavoidable shape, as much as a cat unavoidably goes for the mouse.