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.