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…