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.