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. 

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

andrei rublev (w&d. w. tarkovsky, andrey konchalovskiy)

The newly refurbished Renoir screen, within the Renoir cinema (as I shall continue to call it), is a fitting place to watch Tarkovsky’s epic. Obviously words like masterpiece can and should be applied to this spectacular piece of filmmaking. It might be that there is little to add. It feels as though Tarkovsky’s reputation, justifiably, continues to grow. Each new generation of auteur filmmakers acknowledges their debt to the Russian, none more so than Inarritu in The Revenant. Someone put together a striking comparative video of that film with images from Tarkovsky’s, claiming the Mexican was stealing from Tarkovsky, but, as Brecht pointed out, all writers are thieves. 


Watching this film on the big screen, for the first time, allowed many of the set piece scenes, including in particular the battle scenes, to be appreciated in all their glory. Whilst on one level a poet of the natural world, Tarkovsky was also a master composer of the grand set piece, showing a flair which Hollywood can only envy. The screen is filled with detail, like a Breughel painting, the camera lingering on the scene for long enough for its glorious complexity to be assimilated on a large screen; a TV or a computer cannot do justice to these moments. 


There’s so much mud in the film. The last scene is Rublev in the mud with the child bell-maker. Having visited the area around Vladimir, including Suzdal, there’s nothing exaggerated about any of this. Even in the middle of Summer, when I visited, the mud was wonderfully pervasive. The film takes place in the 15th c, but it’s no better now. Which also suggests the reason for all this mud. There’s something elemental about it, something overwhelmingly Russian. The mud is actual and metaphorical. Nothing is easy in Russia, everything is muddied, which might have something to do with a climate which veers from one extreme to the other. Andrei Rublev is a film about Russia, this elemental, unchanging Russia, the same now as it was under Stalin or the Peter the Great. The mud is a constant which glues this all together, both within history and within the film.


The film famously opens with a balloon trip, offering a sky-to-earth perspective. Thereafter the film continues to play with perspective and angle. The camera is employed to encourage a sense of viewer disorientation. Tarkovsky was not the only Soviet director to do this, and it’s a methodology which has since been pushed further. (Kalatozov’s Soy Cuba immediately springs to mind.) The question is why this technique is adopted. The man in the balloon is not central to the narrative of the film. Who is he? (The film never clarifies this, nor does a cursory internet enquiry, beyond telling us his name is Yefim). What we can say about him is that he appears to be an ordinary, anonymous individual. As such, he’s the reflective image of the spectator. It’s a bold move to open the film highlighting a character who has, as they now like to say, no agency within the story. Perhaps this is Tarkovsky’s nod to us, his audience. We are about to embark on a balloon ride; to soar, to lose ourselves in the clouds, to get caught up in the exhilaration of the experience. At the end, we will come crashing back down to earth (like Yefim) with a hard landing, as discordant, colourful images fill what has been a black and white frame. For a brief while, the camera’s perspective offers the common man another vista. You could make an argument to say that in so doing, Tarkovsky is towing the blockbuster line (what is Andrei Rublev if it’s not a blockbuster?). You could also make an argument that in Soviet Russia, as in the hegemonised world of global capital, the need to dream, to look at the world from an altered perspective, is paramount. Art is one of the few mechanisms available to us to do this, to step back and see the world afresh. It was ever thus, the film’s protoganism appears to imply, from 15th c Russia to the present day and beforehand too. Tarkovsky’s film is a remarkable proto 3-D portrayal of a 2-D artist. 

Sunday, 5 June 2016

alone in berlin [hans fallada]

The war, the war. I’m not sure why the second world war suddenly feels so immediate. Of late, so much of my reading seems to return to that point. It might be connected to the fact that in a few weeks I am to return to the city of my great grandparents, which I would visit as a child, the city where they spent the second world war, which is the first tangible point in history where my identity begins to be recognisably formed - genetically, psychologically, spiritually.

That city is Berlin. Fallada’s novel captures it during the course of the war. Fallada’s Berlin is a cruel, suspicious city where the venal are rewarded and the good lurk in the shadows. People still drink in bars, there is still a discernible communal life, albeit one that revolves around suspicion and fear. Those who seek to live in something akin to normality head to the rural outskirts, which then turn out to be just as bad, if not worse, than the city. This is a 1984 world with a snooper’s charter, where the punishment for non-conformity is likely to be death. 

The narrative is a gritty, perhaps even Loachian tale of a common man who resists the machine. The machine being nothing less than the Gestapo and the apparatus of National Socialism. Otto Quangel decides to take on the system via the simple mechanism of producing letters which he drops around the city, hoping to create a viral campaign of resistance. HIs wife, Anna, joins him in his campaign. Ultimately, their failure, and the doomed fate of the couple, are secondary to the significance of the instinct being acted upon. Fallada would seem to imply that the act of resistance, no matter how impotent, is never futile. The novelist commemorates the Quangels and dignifies their actions in spite of their apparent futility. The fact that this narrative is “based on a true story” makes it all the more poignant.

In Fallada’s novel, the Kantian imperative to act is weighed against the societal drift towards inert corruption. The Second World War might have been the last time that the notion of the individual had such little currency in Europe. Wartime is a time when the notion of personal destiny is subsumed to the notion of national destiny (or the destiny of the chosen cause). It’s probably the greatest misunderstanding regarding the concept of terrorism. The terrorist believes him or herself to be at war. War suspends the normal rules of ethical society, primarily that saying “thou shalt not kill”. The Quangels are also terrorists. Their actions are not predicated on the notion of a ‘productive’ result. Instead the action itself is definitive. Their individuality is sacrificed to a greater cause. It’s notable that very little of the novel actually focuses on the potential drama (or dramatic tension) of the Quangels’ actions: instead it looks at the impact their actions have on themselves and others. Within the grand scale of the war, theirs is a minimal tale, one whose impact, measured by spreadsheets, is negligible, but measured by another less definable standard, contains the real stuff of glory. 

Perhaps I find myself returning to the war because I’m trying to understand the societal logic in a world where the individual has become king to such an extent that almost anything can be sacrificed on its altar. On a psychological, spiritual and ultimately even genetic level. Which, in a way, would seem to be far more of a reflection of the Nazi culture Fallada demonstrates in his novel than that of the Quangels, who resist it.