Monday, 29 February 2016

a bigger splash (d luca guadagnino, w david kajganich)

Since arriving in London I’ve seen two films. The contrast between them seems to encapsulate the problems of scale and ambition that British cinema faces. One is Stephen FIngleton’s The Survivalist. A worthy, sturdy piece of filmmaking which seems entrapped by its simplicity, resolutely refusing to lend any kind of global dimension to its post-apocalyptic landscape, no matter how effectively plotted and filmed it is. A film that leaves with you with the feeling of something austere and underwhelming. The other was Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash, nominally an Italian film, but more of a pudding, featuring Brits, Americans, Italians a Belgian and, somewhat awkwardly, immigrants from undisclosed African countries. 

For all its imperfections, and there are a few, including the final flawed 20 minutes, A Bigger Splash is an engrossing film, marked by its very ambition as a distinctive piece of filmmaking. The story is essentially simple, four people holed up in an idyllic Italian hideaway, with their various connections and dependencies. The outcomes are not unpredictable, (what else can happen in these circumstances apart from fucking and fighting?), but the storytelling refuses to tow an easy line, constantly kicking against the inevitability of its characters’ destinies. There is a price to pay for this inventiveness. The refugee storyline feels half-baked; there’s a hint of something Haneke-esque to be wrought from their presence on this outpost of Europe, and the one moment where Schoenaerts and Johnson are met by a group of uneasy men has potency, but in the end the strand feels like a red herring. Similarly, the final twenty minutes are a disappointment; this film should not descend into the TV mechanics of a murder enquiry. It has had too much going for it upto then. 

However, these flaws are forgivable within the bigger picture. Luca Guadagnino displays the same delicate touch for the nuances of personal relationships he showed in his previous film, I Am Love. This time he pushes the characters to their limits. No more so than in a show-stopping performance by Ralph Fiennes as Harry, the verbose, larger-than-life record producer. Fiennes is one of those actors whose appeal, from the point of view of a recondite Englishman, is sometimes hard to grasp. Neither Bond-esque nor subtle enough to be a character actor. But here, he steps out of his shadow (or perhaps into it) to deliver a rip-roaring, relentlessly annoying character whose inability to control his particular lust for life leads to scenes of toe-curling embarrassment but also a weird kind of post-middle-age pathos. Why shouldn’t the self-absorbed middle-aged dads dance with the same sense of abandonment as the nubile youngsters? There’s something glorious about Harry’s refusal to bow to the rules of refinement, even if you know spending more than 15 minutes in his unedited company would be a kind of living hell. It’s a remarkable performance, which offers a counter-balance to Swinton’s more glacial Thin White Duke; allowing the two younger characters to tail the older characters like formula 1 drivers looking for the moment they’ll overtake. 

As a portrayal of post-middle aged pre-dementia, Guadagnino’s film cannot be topped. Its characters parachute through the screen with the splendour and abrasiveness which is normally reserved, these days, for 3-D effects. As though the director is reminding us (and even himself, given the film’s iffy ending) that cinema is just as much about character and story as it is about visuals or coherence. That you need to take a risk if you want to achieve anything exceptional. That the straight and narrow are all very well, but they are straight and narrow and they offer scant help of emotional rescue when you are most in need of it. 

Thursday, 25 February 2016

this is london [ben judah]

The author has a fascination with his city that goes beyond pure journalism. If you’re of a curious mind, London is a gift. There always have been and always will be corners and cultures to explore. Judah’s thesis would appear to be that in the past 20 years the process of immigration has grown at an exponential rate. There are times when he appears to delight in this, and others when his book, or at least the characters who populate it, would appear to be taking a more ambivalent line. These characters being the immigrants themselves, who are more honest and aware of the racial and cultural conflicts that the multicultural model turns a blind eye to. What Judah’s text does with a great deal of rigour and fidelity (sometimes to the point of near-incoherence) is offer these new Londoners their voice; a voice which the mainstream doesn’t have time for. The Romanian beggars and prostitutes; the Nigerian contract health worker; the Arab princess; these are just some of the London voices which speak through the text. Whilst mainstream drama is still struggling to incorporate the previous generations of Caribbean and Asian immigrants, Judah leaps straight to the next. He roots them out, from Edmonton to Plaistow to Knightsbridge with a journalistic doggedness. These sub-cultures, demi-mondes are the new margin and he pursues this edge even to the point of personal danger. (One of the curiosities or possible inconsistencies of the book is that in the opening pages, Judah seems set on enforcing his presence as the narrator, something that he subsequently, and in the opinion of this reviewer, wisely, downplays. They are the protagonist, he’s the shadowy figure on the edge of their vision, a place which reflects their position in society and perhaps helps to explain why so many open up to him with such apparent honesty.)

Is this melting pot. or Babel, a utopia or a dystopia? As mentioned, there are moments, such as the haunting episode with the prostitutes, remembering their murdered colleague, which seem to veer towards the latter. At the same time, the author himself observes that the murder itself is an echo of the Ripper murders; the city’s margins have always been a dangerous place, inhabited by the marginals. Judah is also acute about the issue of gentrification, observing the way in which barrios that the white middle class wouldn’t have touched a decade ago have now been transformed, just as happened to Notting Hill and Bayswater in the 60s/ 70s. The demographic impact of this on communities has been much discussed; the comparison that isn’t made is with the mega-cities, where the very idea of centrality has begun to erode, something that will happen to London, perhaps, allowing for more elasticity in the way it’s structured, with the line between suburb and centre eliding. 

Maybe the centre doesn’t need to hold. Maybe it needs to fragment.  The issue is tangible in the cafe I’m sitting in right now, in a corner of Peckham that hasn’t been transformed. Judah is a bit sniffy about Peckham and its gentrification.However, as I write, there’s the visible image of a racial mix that has integrated, to the degree at least that they come here and drink coffees and eat pricey bread, not just the white middle class emigres but also the 2nd generation Caribbean, Indian, the 1st generation Polish and Eastern Europeans. Maybe this is all a phantasmagoria, the wool pulled over my eyes, but from the seat I’m sat it, it does look as though there might exist the possibility that the city can continue to integrate, recycle, develop, in spite of all that isn’t working, in spite of the avarice and the philistinism. 

Judah never seems to draw any real conclusions about the capital’s ultimate fate, although many of the characters who people his book hold strong opinions, both positive and negative. No matter what London’s future, Judah’s book offers an intrepid, back-door portrayal of his city, a worthy successor to a tradition that banks and skirts Pepys, Defoe, Cobbett, Addison and Steele, Dickens… The list could go on. There is a fine tradition of British writers getting down and dirty in their investigations and This is London is a welcome addition to that club.

Friday, 5 February 2016

sankja [zahar prilepin]

Let me start again. I have tried to write this review about three times and stumbled each time. There is something about Prilepin’s writing that is so effortless and direct that it seems wrong to over-compose. So, in keeping with this spirit, I’m going to bash this out with as little thought as possible.

This is not a bad thing. There are all kinds of ways of writing. Some are tortuous, sinuous, knotty. Others flow like a brook, albeit one whose borders have been artfully tended. And others, as Shelley or Keats, might have said, fall like an apple from a tree. There’s a glorious, pure romanticism to Prilepin’s tale of a young Russian who is so disaffected with his society that he takes up arms against it. It’s a romanticism which is tied to a specifically Russian tradition which the novel itself recognises. At one point, in his reflections, Sankya, the protagonist, says that Russia is condemned to a cycle of state-ism and revolution. In the face of Putin’s moribund society, he opts for revolution. It’s in no way an idealistic or even, perhaps, a political revolution. It’s more of a way of expressing the existence of his identity in the face of a society that doesn’t seem to care if he exists or not. In this, of course, Sankya has much in common with Dostoyevski’s more tortured heroes or, more pertinently, the protagonist of Bely’s radical and neglected novel, Petersburg. 

Sankya’s revolution involves various stages. He goes to Riga to shoot a judge. He goes to Moscow to protest violently. He is beaten up and left for dead. He joins an armed insurrection. And, at one point, he leads the trashing of a Macdonalds. Here is the point where Sankya’s quest for identity through violent revolution tallies with that of a broader, global dissatisfaction. The process that Russia has embraced as it slipped from corrupt Communism to corrupt Capitalism is particular to its historical circumstances. But, in Sankya’s embrace of fatalistic glory instead of a slipshod treadmill, there are echoes not only of a nascent Western resistance to the forces of capital, but even the instinct expressed by young men and women towards Islamic extremism. Better to die for a cause than stagger forward through life like a zombie. It’s here that Prilepin touches a dangerous, romantic nerve which throbs far beyond the borders of mother Russia, the banner that Sankya adopts as the totem of his personal revolt.

With its rat-a-tat prose and driving narrative, each chapter another step in Sankya’s journey towards doom, Prilepin’s novel seems to declare its indisputable significance without really trying. Apparently it has become a cause celebre in Russia, and one can understand why. In contrast to Pelevin’s aesthetic complexities, this is a visceral declaration of war. The novel as blunt political instrument, in a society which flirts with Stalinist repression whilst presenting itself as a new model capitalist state. 


(Note. In 1993 I read Bely’s Petersburg. We were still at the tail end of the Tory oligarchy which had shaped my whole sentient political life. Unemployment was at 3 million. A degree seemed like more of a hindrance than a help, particularly a degree in english and philosophy. When I came to write my first play, Mickey Valid, Bely’s novel was my model. Mickey, an everyman, decides that the only way to give meaning to his life is through an act of political violence. The play opens with a dialogue between two bullets, the two bullets Mickey will later fire in order to assassinate a member of the royal family. The royal family being the ultimate representation of an alienating societal order. The play had a workshop at the National Studio. In the process, to my mind, it was chopped around and diluted. The original version of the play is lost. I only have the weaker, revised version.  Nothing else happened to Mickey Valid. It sunk into the quicksand. I would not be surprised if one of these days, Prilepin’s hero Sankya acts as a similar inspiration to a writer seeking a model for a figure on the brink of falling off the edge of his society.)

Monday, 1 February 2016

jacob the mutant [mario bellatin]

Jacob the Mutant is a genuinely strange exercise in writing. Bellatin presents the extracts of a lost novel written by Joseph Roth. These fragments are stitched together to tell a weird, cabalistic tale. Jacob lived in a border town on the edge of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He has a zoo. He helps people to cross the border. His wife is having an affair. She flees to the States with her lover. Jacob ends up following her. He has a transformation and becomes a late-middle-aged woman, who tries to shut down the town’s multiple dance schools. This is a basic summary of the apparent plot of the missing, fragmented novel. Which the author then rewrites in his own words. The author might be Jacob’s great great grandson. Then again he might not be. The translator adds his version. There is more exegesis. There are explanatory drawings which explain very little. There is also a latent hassidic mysticism to the book, which makes precise if baffling references to aspects of the Torah. In short, this brief book contains a degree of mystification which is impressive. What it all means I have no idea, but if you enjoy being bamboozled, this is a great read. I am looking forward to getting my hands on another of his books: The Uruguayan Book of the Dead.