Saturday, 8 July 2017

the father’s daughter (mulher do pai) (w&d cristiane oliveira)

The Father’s Daughter is set in Brazil, near the Uruguayan border, in a sleepy, nothing-happens kind of place. Nalu, 16, lives with her blind father and grandmother. When the grandmother dies, her relationship with her father becomes more complicated. She doesn’t want the responsibility of looking after him, but she’s stuck with it. He eavesdrops on her phone conversations as she tells her friend about her trysts with a roguish Uruguayan trader. Into the mix comes a professor, Rosario, played by Veronica Perrota, who develops a bond first with Nalu, then with her father. 

There are moments when the film threatens to take risks. The jealousy that exists within the father-daughter relationship is teased out as far as it can go, with the faintest suggestion of incest, an incest that never occurs, but which the remote rural world, beyond the scope of internet or roaming, might engender. The father grows as a character through the course of the film, becoming more intriguing as it goes on. There are layers to the narrative which are teased out. At the same time, the film sits within a recognisable genre of slow-burner rural Latino melodrama. This is a world of  narrowed ambition, thwarted hopes and minor epiphanies. Perhaps it’s not so far removed from a film such as Andrea Arnold’s Fishtank, another coming of age tale which seeks to capture a young woman’s struggle to overcome the limitations of the environment she has been born into. It’s a work of studied social realism, with few fireworks, but offers a solid, convincing insight into this semi-isolated corner of the world.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

notes from no man’s land [eula biss]

Eula Boss’s text is both a journey through her own history and, as a consequence, contemporary USA. Raised in upstate New York, she subsequently moves to New York itself; California, with a brief sojourn in Mexico; the midwest; before ending in Chicago, where she lives with her husband. The unifying theme is race. Biss herself is white, but some of her family are black, some are mixed race. All have a pot-pourri of genetic inheritance, something she notes is the case for the vast majority of North Americans. Underneath her discourse, she would appear to be investigating the possibility of a post-racial consciousness, something that ought to be emerging, but isn’t. Colour and its genetic imperative shouldn’t be the determinants they still are. But they are nevertheless. The lynchings have stopped but the police killings go on. There’s something discursive about Biss’ approach, to an extent that there are times when it feels as though she’s reluctant to reach conclusions, which is no bad thing, Her prose is restless, searching for clues, seeking to find significance in detail which is then backed up with scholarship. At the heart of these investigations is the body of Biss herself. Resistant to being defined, yet recognising the inevitability. There are echoes, acknowledged, of Didion in the text as well as, once again, Baldwin. 

The sheer quantity of material which takes the issue of race as its dominant theme, from Get Out to Markovits to Biss, not to mention the Beyonce’s and Kanye’s, is striking. All the more so in the wake of the police repression documented over the course of the past five years or so. The USA feels more and more like an intractable, unknowable concept, a work of fiction being written in a secret room, from which only the occasional pages emerge, scattered, random, disconnected. Biss’ description of the university town in Iowa shows an America which perhaps corresponds with the America of both Trump and Obama. No matter how much one might want to differentiate the two, they still have something in common. It’s as though there’s something cooking in the US, something which we still scarcely know, deep in the rock formations, in Saunders’ post-apocalyptic caves. This isn’t the America of Fitzgerald or Mailer or Updike or even Pynchon, It’s something else entirely, a battle zone whose wars get little more coverage than the skirmishes in the Paraguayan chaco. A whole host or writers are starting to document the fringes, but the coverage remains fragmentary. Pages from a medieval manuscript offering shards of light on life in the dark ages.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

i am not your negro (d. raoul peck, w. peck & baldwin)

The number of times the name of James Baldwin crops up on this blog is testament to his influence. Anyone casting even a cursory glance over US history or culture needs to know Baldwin’s work. The issue of race in the US is inextricably interlinked with the up-to-the-minute issues of globalisation, unfettered capitalism, neoliberalism and all the rest. The film has several clips of Baldwin being ineffably articulate as he confronts a myopic white TV presenter, among others, outlining the issues concerning race as he sees them. The brilliance of the man is there for all to see as is the way in which he punctures the balloon of white privilege. Peck’s film rightly makes the point that these issues haven’t gone away. In recent years, they seem to have intensified. Paradoxically, issues around race continue to generate a remarkable artistic reaction. Perhaps there’s a recognition that until the USA begins to finally and seriously come to terms with the inherent racism which scars it, and which the election of a black president has done little to alleviate, it cannot begin to advance as a society. Baldwin’s relevance is as crucial as ever and this film is as fine an introduction to his work as you could hope to encounter. Having said which, it would be great to see the film of Another Country being made by the right director. 

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

berlin syndrome (d. cate shortland, w. shaun grant)

Mr Curry recommends Berlin Syndrome. As the film goes on, he becomes more and more amused by this fact. Afterwards he tells me the director’s first film was great. Meanwhile I’m trying to make sense of how a female director can bring herself to make such a wilfully exploitative film. If Eil Roth or one of his ilk had done this, there would by righteous and justifiable complaints of misogyny. Young woman gets abducted and incarcerated and abused. Her abductee buys her frilly underwear and there’s a two minute montage of her posing for him wearing said garments. Young woman is tied up, beaten up, maltreated, all in the name of our entertainment. The title alludes to Stockholm Syndrome, when a hostage falls for his/ her captor. All of which suggests a degree of psychological complexity which the film does no more than pay lip service to. The opening (which is essentially Victoria mark 2, be wary any young female who ever goes alone to Berlin), includes leaden plot notes such as the protagonist discovering a toy wolf mask in the street. The ending is so farcical it’s almost brilliant. Almost, not quite. Somehow the film manages to soak up two hours of screen time. It’s like a bad jazz riff, going over the “how will this end” refrain until we begin to fear that it will never end. We too have been incarcerated. Perhaps the filmmaker hopes that that some kind of syndrome will afflict us and we’ll fall in love by default, but somehow I resisted.

Friday, 16 June 2017

887 (w&d robert lepage)

887 opens in a disarming fashion, with the writer/ director informing that the play will start shortly, but beforehand he just wants to explain his reasons for creating this piece. Which leads us seamlessly into the night’s first piece of theatre magic, as a miniature version of his childhood block of flats in Quebec City appears and he talks us through the various inhabitants. In chocolate box size, little fragments of life from the flats, barely visible, appear in video: a barking dog, or children bouncing on a bed. The style of the play is revealed to be both representational and imagistic at the same time. There is a representation of the narrator’s description, but that representation remains so opaque that it could almost be something abstract, out of an 80s Brook play. The audience is still compelled to become active. It has to work to decipher or interpret the images that are being presented. There’s a ludic quality to the staging, never more so than when Lepage films with his phone the contents of boxes which represent the interior of a flat at Christmas. Tiny details which the naked eye could never see are picked out on a screen, as Lepage’s face hovers beside them. We are made into children once again, exploring the content of the Doll’s House. 

Lepage has always liked to let his work play out over time. In essence, 887 is a memoir of his childhood, gradually revealed with all the urgency of a baggy novel. This memoir incorporates the political history of Quebec, as well as the structure of the brain, and the nature of memory itself. At times, the play rambles, but it rambles in the way a well-told story is allowed to. There are blind alleys and illustrative moments. We, in the audience, know that there will always be magical moments of stagecraft round the corner. This is a picaresque evening, shaped by moments, rather than any great dramatic narrative. Which means that we are blessed with a different fashion of receiving the story. There’s no need for narrative twists or high jinks. Our participation is shaped by enjoyment rather than any kind of dramatic tension. Reminding us that theatre is, above all, spectacle. A point emphasised when Lepage indulges in a brief sequence of shadow play, which, he suggests, might have represented the very origins of theatre.

The play’s denouement, of a kind, is the recital of a poem, Speak White, by the Quebecois author,  Michèle Lalonde. All through the play there has been the running thread that Lepage has been having problems memorising this poem, which he is supposed to recite at a special TV gala. When it comes to the moment, his delivery is faultless and passionate. It’s another kind of spectacle. The poem is a fierce dissertation on the issue of language, and the way in which language is controlled by the powerful. However, it’s also a complex piece of writing. The logic of the poem isn’t easy to follow. In keeping with its content, it rubs up against our notions of ‘coherence’. As though to suggest that “the coherent whole” is a myth, an idea imposed by the powerful on the powerless. Lepage’s play adheres to this thinking. it doesn’t seek to fabricate a work of clarity and complete coherence. It has rough edges, loose strands, it lacks a guaranteed narrative motor. It uses magic rather than argument; it postulates that memory is fragmentary, elusive, incoherent. That these qualities can also be true of theatre. That the notion of the perfect play is ridiculous. That we should learn to watch theatre with the simple delight of children observing the world with eyes anew. His work makes you fall in love with theatre all over again. 

Friday, 9 June 2017

the moor’s account [leila lalami]

The Moor’s Account narrates the story of a Moorish slave, Mustafa ibn Muhammad, who is taken on a New World expedition to Florida by his master, Dorantes. The expedition is lead by Pánfilo de Narváez. In her notes at the close of the book, Lalami notes that the official account of the real expedition, written by Cabeza de Vaca, (a key character in the novel), included a reference to “el negro alarabé, natural de Azamor”, a moorish slave, as one of the four survivors of the expedition. This is Lalami’s re-imagining of his version of the story. Mustafa’s account is told in 25 chapters which include flashbacks to relate the story of his childhood and how he ended up as a slave in Spain, before being purchased by Dorantes and taken on the expedition. The chronicle of the expedition covers a period of lustful ambition for gold, a terrible survival story,  as the five hundred member’s of Narváez’s party are whittled down to four, and finally a more idyllic perambulation through the southern states of what is now is the US, encountering various tribes, most of whom prove to be friendly. Three of the four survivors take native brides, and Mustafa himself finds happiness with Oyomasot, his partner. His story ends on an upbeat note. The prose is accessible and the story flows smoothly. Mustafa is a likeable narrator, perhaps too likeable at times. His insights remain somewhat self-evident, as he becomes the architect of his own downfall on repeated occasions (choosing to be a merchant; selling himself into slavery; etc) There are moments when it feels as though the writer is attempting to crowbar in Mustafa’s self-flagellation because he is so clearly the better man than any of his Spanish contemporaries. This might be realistic, but it also means that Mustafa is a predictable protagonist: we always know he’s going to do the right thing. This reader was delighted that he achieved a kind of happy ending, but the novel itself lacks much in the way of dramatic tension.  Instead this is an enjoyable perambulation around the new world, albeit seen through different eyes to the ones that history normally accords the right to record events. Those things that Mustafa shows us in The Moor’s Account are fascinating, even if there are times when it felt as though the author might have explored the geo-political implications of her story slightly more adventurously.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

siddhartha [herman hesse]

At my highly privileged school, there used to be a class called “Div”. Div classes happened most days. They were a chance for the assigned teacher to throw anything he (always a he) thought might be of use for the development of the child. One year we had a teacher called David Lorimer, who had almost been an Olympic runner. He and his fiancee would sometimes be seen canoodling in the water meadows, before she ditched him. (So the story went). Lorimer was a strange product of liberal England. Probably born in the fifties. In many ways he seemed like a decent, understated man, albeit one who didn’t seem particularly happy with his chosen life plan, to be a teacher at a public school. There’s a curious British strand of intellectual endeavour which veers towards mysticism and this was the direction Lorimer lead us. I’m not sure if we studied Gurdjjeff or Castaneda under Lorimer, but I know we read Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, a book which opened several doors, Huxley, and the doyen of a kind of post-sixties consciousness, Herman Hesse, among others.

This slightly mystic strand continues in the British consciousness. Sometimes it seems to me that our colonial endeavours owed as much to this instinct as they did to the commercial imperative. (Which is not to deny the significance of the latter.) From T E Lawrence to The Beatles there’s a longing to escape the straightjacket of the classified, calcified British social structures and flee into the uplands of the mind. Hesse caters perfectly to this longing. HIs writing created a spiritual firmament waiting to be occupied. It was potent material within the confines of a privileged boarding school. 

All of Hesse’s novels have a spiritual flavour, but none more so than Siddhartha, a straightforward retelling of the life of a Buddhist savant. The novel is beguilingly  simple. The book is not just successful because it tells a cute story, but also because it does so with no-nonsense prose and a clear narrative rhythm. In spite of its spiritual themes, the story moves along at a good lick. The India Hesse describes feels like it might be centuries old or it could be today.  At the heart of the book is an anti-intellectualism that chimes perfectly with a British sensibility. Enlightenment will not be achieved through teaching, but via a personal quest, a journey to the innermost corners of the soul. 

Re-reading the novel today, you can perfectly understand its appeal to adolescents trapped in a world where it seemed logical to question an established order which decreed that learning was there in order to prepare you for a life of tedious social conformity. If that was all that learning had to offer, what was it really good for? Hesse articulates the possibility of an alternative, more individualistic method and objective for the process of learning, one that denies the  materialist values of society. Although it must be added that it would not appear that Mr Lorimer’s Div classes, or our reading of Hesse, ever had any real transformative effect on the society we eventually inherited. 

Friday, 2 June 2017

the other side of hope (w&d aki kaurismäki)

Kaurismäki’s latest film addresses Europe’s most topical subject. Khaled is an Afghani refugee who has stowed away on a boat shipping coal to Helsinki. After various misadventures he finally finds a home for himself working in the restaurant of Wilkstrom, a lugubrious but well-intentioned man. The restaurant is a haven for Khaled, where common humanity is the only thing that matters. There are several appearances at different moments of ageing rockabillies playing their tunes. These moments chime with a vision of the world which is determined by a down-to-earth humanism. (If you wanted to pursue the roots of this music, you would probably go via Presley to Chuck Berry or Muddy Waters and then back to slave music that arrived in the US, thereby meaning it belongs to a consciousness where nationalism is an irretrievably nostalgic concept, where regionalism is nothing more than a memory; meaning the players have been left with no option but to adopt a more universal perspective.) Kaurismäki, as is well known, uses this music and its Finnish aficionados as a kind of touchstone for his warm, fuzzy vision, something which complements his dry humour. Deadpan humour, from Beckett to Tati, is one of the world’s most universally understood codes. This helps to lend his films their appeal, making Kaurismäki one of those rare filmmakers (and the only Finnish one) to have generated a worldwide following. 

All of which means that The Other Side of Hope, marrying the filmmaker’s deadpan, cross-border appeal with an up-to-the-minute themed narrative, sounds like a surefire winner. However, whilst there are many affecting and entertaining moments in the film, and the two leads Sherwan Haji & Sakari Kuosmanen give notable performances, the lack of any real narrative development means that it feels as though it never really gets out of second gear. There’s a B-story involving the fate of Khaled’s sister, but this is resolved so easily that one wonders what all the fuss was about. A narrative about this issue has to tread a delicate line between resisting an urge to preach, whilst at the same time never over-simplifying things. There’s a moment when Khaled explains why he had to leave Afghanistan, which has real power in its simplicity, but thereafter the film feels as though it doesn’t really do Khaled’s story justice. For all its good intentions, The Other Side of Hope ends up feeling like a slightly uneasy foray into social realism from a director whose forte is creating a heightened world which teeters on the brink of credibility. 

Monday, 29 May 2017

landmarks [robert macfarlane]

Robert Macfarlane has niched himself a corner of the British folk revival, which is a corner of the global folk revival. Long may it last. The excavation of the past and the bid to ensure that past remains healthy in the present and beyond is at the heart of the project. Landmarks is very specifically predicated on language. Not just the writers (most of them little known) whose work he rediscovers, but also the very words themselves. The book contains several glossaries, where Macfarlane creates lists of regional dialect words, in danger of being forgotten. These are words used to describe landscape and nature. The task of preserving dialect in Britain is just as valid as it might be were the ethnographer capturing words from a Patagonian or an Indian language, for example, in danger of extinction. 

Macfarlane is an enthusiast. The book is composed of 11 chapters, each one focused on the work of a different writer. He investigates the way in which these authors wrote about nature, the way that the natural world they were investigating impacted on the way in which they wrote. Were he French, this might have turned into a complex analysis of origins, but Macfarlane is a resolutely British intellectual. The flights of fancy are kept tethered; his language is always down-to-earth. 

Within a wider eco-political perspective, Macfarlane is one of the most important writers around. The popularity of his writing hopefully attests to this. It’s not just that he connects with a nostalgic urge for a time when ‘nature’ felt less distant to the human experience for most in Britain. (He includes a withering assessment of the way children’s vocabulary dealing with the natural world is being attacked almost as ruthlessly as the Amazon forests). It’s also a recognition that the rediscovery of a more pantheistic/ holistic approach to the role of the human within the eco-system is an increasingly essential political end. 

Friday, 26 May 2017

bricks and mortar [clemens meyer]

Bricks and Mortar is not an easy read. It’s a kaleidoscopic text, which assembles a portrait of the prostitution trade in an unnamed East German town over the course of thirty years. There are multiple narrators, operating across multiple timelines. Details criss and cross, but the information is so opaque that you’re more conscious of the fact that you’re probably missing a connection than aware of the fact that you are making one. (At least this reader was). There’s a narrative threaded in there, for example, about a man who is murdered by a bren gun and then dumped in a “mire” outside the city. The killer tells us about this, and later a policeman (who’s sleeping with a prostitute, natch) discovers the body of the man, next to two other bodies. The Bren gun used to kill the man is referenced in other chapters. But I never really understood exactly why the man was killed or what the significance of his death was, in terms of the overarching narrative. 

In many ways the book is similar to All The Lights, Meyer’s collection of short stories. Random voices float to the surface from the bottom of the East German swamp. Meyer collects them and lets them be heard. However, Bricks and Mortar is a novel in so far as it possesses a narrative loosely woven around various characters, the enigmatic ‘AK’ and the Count, as well as Hans the Slaughterer. This semblance of a narrative makes it a more challenging read. You want the chapters to connect, to add up, and when they don’t, really, it’s frustrating. Which may well be part of the point. Meaning is elusive. Significance is hard to grasp. Life is cheap. The tease of coherence makes Bricks and Mortar a far harsher read than All The Lights, as though the writer is saying ‘you know you want it (to make sense) but you’re never going to get it.’ The fact that this is novel set in the world of organised prostitution doesn’t do anything to lighten the tone. 

Tonally, it might be said to have something in common with Meyer’s Fitzcarraldo stablemate, Enard. There’s a similar harsh relentlessness, allied to a resistance of any real emotional engagement. As though history should be wary of the emotions. It feels like macho writing, and it has been noted elsewhere that the female voices who appear in Bricks and Mortar are few and feel perhaps more one-dimensional than the male voices. Another obvious comparison would be with Berlin Alexanderplatz, but whilst it shares the sense of an all-encompassing portrayal of a society, it doesn’t have the playfulness of Döblin’s prose. I battled with the novel and ended up feeling as though it was one you admired (and resented) rather than enjoyed. But who says literature is there for enjoyment?

Monday, 22 May 2017

burden (d. richard dewey, timothy marrinan)

This doc is a great insight into an artist who, on this side of the Atlantic, at least, is little known, but whose influence was remarkable. Burden’s most famous artwork is one where he had himself shot, but this was just one of many challenging pieces of performance art he created. The film shows him nailing himself to his Volkswagen beetle, putting out a fire with his body, and other lunatic practices. There seems little doubt on the part of the interviewees that Burden was unhinged, and it appears that after fame caught up with him in the 70’s, he started to go off the rails. But so many artists, from Abramovic to Taylor-Wood to so many of the Britart crew, appear to owe a debt to the way in which Burden sought to reimagine art’s paradigmatic boundaries. In one revealing moment Burden explains how he interpreted sculpture as an artform with which the viewer has an immersive relationship and this determined the way in which he wanted to create a more visceral engagement between the artwork and the artist.

The film mixes up archive footage with visits to Burden’s Topanga Valley studio. After what would appear to be a lost period in the 80s and 90s, Burden makes it clear that there came a point when he decided to quit performance art. Instead he moved into making large in-situ pieces which seek an engagement between environment and audience. This is an extension of his earlier work, but whereas that tended to be confrontational, these artworks have a more mellifluous relationship with the audience, forming gentler moments of magic. (As opposed to the earlier black magic.) 

At the end of Dewey and Marrinan’s well-crafted documentary, we learn that Burden died in 2015. Their film does a great job of providing an insight into the nature of a true maverick, who is perhaps not as well-known as he should be. 

The film also reminds one that cinema is a great medium for accessing and documenting fine art. There’s scope for an engagement and enquiry into the artist’s method and output that the drier medium of literature struggles to emulate. 

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

henri duchemin and his shadows [emmanuel bove]

Bove’s stories are full of young men who seem to have become separated from their selves. Either by choice or chance. Clearly there’s something of his contemporary, Kafka in all of this, as well as hints of the post-war writings of his compatriots, the existentialists. However, there’s something more mundane about Bove’s characters. They are insistently normal. A man who suspects his wife of infidelity, haunted by the night she might or might not have had with a lover; a man who plans to return to his family after an absence of years, but upon arrival at the family home feels as though the abyss that has opened up between them could never be bridged, and flees. Another man who believes he has found a friend to support him in at a moment of poverty, but the friend is a phoney do-gooder, who collects lost causes and discards them as quickly as he finds them. Perhaps most hauntingly of all, another man who, seemingly for the hell of it, chooses to cut the ties to his happy life and walk away, leaving only confusion and upset in his wake. In most of the stories the characters inhabit a seemingly stable world which is in fact in danger of evaporating at any moment. The void is just around the corner.

This voice also feels like one that resonates with the chaos that Europe became in the first half of the twentieth century. The nineteenth century certainties were ripped asunder and young men and women edged towards existential crisis, a crisis that would reach apogee in the second world war. At times it feels as though Bove is talking about people who survived some terrible calamity, but never managed to fully recover, instead finding themselves forever on the cusp of madness. One imagines the lost exiles of Syria and beyond, those who fall through the net, forever inhabiting the kind of half-life which Bove’s characters lead. The trauma might have dulled but the effects will never be ended. 

Saturday, 13 May 2017

the salesman (w&d asghar farhadi)

Last year there was a successful, UK financed, Tehran-set horror called Under the Shadow. It told the story of a woman who won’t leave her home in spite of the fact that it’s being attacked by a Djinn. It was a rudimentary, if effective piece of filmmaking, which received considerable plaudits in the UK. The fear was contained within the apartment’s walls. The Tehran it described (actually filmed in Jordan), was claustrophobic and restrictive.

Farhadi’s film shows a Tehran which has much in common. Once again a woman, Rana, finds herself feeling under threat in her own apartment. However, in this case, the threat isn’t supernatural. It’s the down-to-earth fact of a man coming in to her apartment when she was in the shower and assaulting her, possibly raping her. Farhadi’s world is real, tangible, and in its way far more scary. At the same time, it’s more morally complex, more profound. Rana’s husband, Emad, doesn’t know quite how he should react. Rana doesn’t want to go to the police because they are a potential threat as well. Emad sets out to find the culprit and exact revenge, a revenge which Rana herself doesn’t want any part of. This dark moral complexity is beautifully handled and, for an hour and a half, completely absorbing. Suddenly, not just the apartment, but everything, becomes a potential threat, because within such a rigid society, any unorthodox behaviour could be seen as an indication of guilt, even on the part of the victim. Both Rana and Emad are liberal souls. They are both actors, taking part, as it happens, in a version of the Death of a Salesman. But Emad’s liberal instincts have no place in a society where justice is an unreliable concept. If the state can’t be trusted, then the individual is compelled to become his own judge, and that’s not a comfortable position to occupy. 

The fact that the protagonists are actors contributes to a sense that Farhadi is both celebrating and evaluating the role of culture in everyday life. The troupe of actors, for whom this is clearly not a full-time job, clean up the theatre and dedicate their time to the pursuit of culture. Only in the cultural field, such as the film itself, can our societal values be interrogated in a neutral space. The script sets up various subtle parallels with Miller’s text. The tension builds and builds until the final twenty minutes or so. Up to that point the handling of pace and dramatic tension has been masterly, but the denouement is drawn out and ends up feeling melodramatic. Theatre can get away with this kind of protracted ending more readily than film. It starts to feel as though the director is dotting his i’s and crossing his t’s. 

In spite of this The Salesman is a remarkable piece of filmmaking, in its way far more terrifying than any kind of horror. It’s not the unknown which is truly terrifying; it’s the dominion of banal, day-to-day fears which have the power to turn any society into a place of consummate, inescapable fear. 

+++

(ps Thinking about this, it’s striking how few films emerge from what might be termed ‘restricted’ or ‘restrictive’ societies. Clearly censorship plays a part in this, as does the repression of artistic freedom, something which impacts on film in particular, as it requires more infrastructure than say, a novelist or a singer, in order to create its narratives. But this is also true of, for example, of the Mexican experience in the US. An enormous semi-clandestine society, whose stories have never been told in film. There will be countless other examples. It goes to show how political, economic and artistic freedom are tightly interwoven in the creation of cinema. Unless this is another example of the way in which the tyranny of cinema’s distribution chain in turn censors which films we are permitted to receive?)

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

klf: chaos, magic and the band who burned a million pounds [john higgs]

John Higg’s quirky book on the KLF’s burning of a million quid on the island of Jura felt a little heavy on pontification and a little light on detail. It is, as the author observes, a fascinating moment in the history of the music business, as well as being a pungent semiotic event. The book seeks to contextualise this by giving potted accounts of various connected movements, from Dada to Discordianism. The writer is good on the social history of the time and the state of British culture in the early 90’s, all of which sometimes made it feel as though the narrative might have worked better as a novel. In the end, you don’t feel as though you have too much of a handle on Cauty and Drummond’s actions: rather you feel you have a very strong handle on the author’s interpretation of their actions. 

Sunday, 7 May 2017

utopia for realists and how we can get there. [rutger bregman]

Bregman’s book has a central thesis which is that everyone should be entitled to a universal basic income, anywhere in the world. He also believes in the eradication of borders and the implementation of a shorter working week. It’s an accesible read, which deliberately ensures the theories it proposes are readily comprehensible. The author is transparent in acknowledging that some people might find these ideas like something out of cloud cuckoo land, but then points out that radical ideas frequently seem entirely sensible in retrospect (abolition of slavey; women’s suffrage etc). The book has the advantage of being well researched, as Bregman investigates social experiments regarding a universal wage across the ages, looking at the relevant documentation. In the process he discloses a fascinating forgotten putative policy of Nixon to implement a universal income in the US, a policy which in the end, as we know, was never instigated. The book makes a strong economic case for the reforms he proposes, above and beyond any ethical imperative. It’s a down-to-earth, sensible investigation of what we mean when we refer to an economic good. For example: every book you ever read, unless you’re being paid for it, has, supposedly no measurable benefit. Or blog, for that matter. That time might as well have been spent, according to economic theory, lying in bed staring at the ceiling. Yet, surely, there is a benefit to be accrued? The fact that it can’t be measured is a fault of the system, not the action. Bregman is very good on these kind of paradoxes, exposing the inherent conceptual flaws in a capitalist system which he is also happy to defend. In these weird times, when no-one seems to know how politics is supposed to impact on economics and personal well-being, (it’s just agreed that it isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do), Bregman’s book is great thought-provoker and antidote to the bleating fools of both right and left.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

lady macbeth (d. william oldroyd; w. alice birch)

Here’s an exegesis which may or may not explain why Lady Macbeth has been such a hit, within the terms of British independent cinema.

Vibrant young woman finds herself trapped in Brexitland. A place where strangers aren’t trusted, people are repressed, but order reigns. At the first opportunity she embraces Multiculturalism. Literally. Which has been introduced to Brexitland to make the service economy function more effectively. But the rulers of Brexitland have failed to realise that the introduction of Multiculturalism is a perilous danger to the order of the land. Multiculturalism is the opposite of repressed. It fails to adhere to rigid social codes. It gives the youth ideas above their station and gets them listening to that strange tribal music. In short, it’s a disaster. But Brexitland shouldn’t worry, because after the lady of the house has done with the delights of Multiculturalism, she will see the error of her ways, revert to being a true patriot of Brexitland and deport the Multiculturalists. 

Perhaps the boldest decision taken in the making of Lady Macbeth, one which has helped to mark it out as a radical re-imagining of the period drama, is the decision to include several black characters in rural 19th c Britain. It took courage on the part of the creators, because it could have provoked ridicule. Film is a naturalist medium and the assumed ‘realism’ of Britain’s pre 20th century history is that everyone was white. Theatre has for a long time been more adventurous (and historically accurate) than cinema, with companies from the RSC downwards employing racially diverse casts. Lady Macbeth’s bold choice is actually a logical one. All the same, it’s perhaps worthwhile enquiring as to what the semiotics really mean? Could the Florence Pugh or Paul Hilton characters have been black? Or is it only the servants who can plausibly be represented by non-white characters? I somehow doubt that the exegesis included above was the intended one on the part of the filmmakers, but if there is a flaw in Oldroyd and Birch’s conception, it’s that it doesn’t really resolve the complexities its choices put into play. Perhaps as a result, the film seems to lose steam as it goes on, with the plot peaking too early, meaning the final act feels like an unsatisfactory add-on. 

Nevertheless, the film deserves its plaudits. It’s beautifully shot by Ari Wegner (hints of Vermeer) and edited by Nick Emerson with a suitably severe economy (I can’t remember the last time I saw a British film that was as well edited), There’s a constant sense of an ambition and intelligence at work, seeking to explore the potential of the cinematic form. The first half of the film is marked by a studied restraint which creates a growing sense of tension. If it is unfortunate that this tension is punctured around the hour mark, with another half hour to go, the simple fact of being able to watch a British period film without having to writhe with discomfort at the re-creation of a lollipop vision of this supposedly gilded land’s past, more than makes up for it. 

Saturday, 29 April 2017

graduation (w&d christian mungiu)

There’s a rare pleasure to settling down to watch a film and realising that the guiding hand behind it knows exactly what they’re doing. You can sit back in your seat and trust that the narrative is going to engage, inform, give you a pay-off. 

Mungiu delivers exactly this in his latest film. It’s centred on a doctor, Romeo, who works in a small town, Cluj. Romeo doesn’t seem overly sympathetic at first. For a start he doesn’t look like most leading men. Rather, he looks like an ordinary middle-aged man. Overweight, specs, slightly hunched shoulders, careworn. We start off early knowing that he’s cheating on his wife and that he’s willing to bend the rules if he has to in order to ensure his daughter gets the grades she needs to study in the UK. It’s not a great starting position and Romeo has to earn the audience’s respect, gain our trust. Which, over the course of two hours, he does. The film probes and teases Romeo’s world, revealing how the small town he lives in functions, and the way in which these conditions shape a man or a woman’s morality. This is the other side of the social realism movie coin. Not the one that uses the lower classes as zoo fodder for the middle class cinema-going public, but one that carefully dissects the entirety of a community, pulling every loose string, slowly building a comprehensive portrayal of why the world it depicts functions like it does. 

Adrian Titen, as Romeo, present in almost every scene, delivers a masterful performance. Then again, so does every other actor. There’s not a single off-key note. As the story gradually plays itself out, we come to understand not only where every character fits into the world of the film, but also what their hopes, dreams and fears are. None of this ever becomes laboured. Meticulously, the film describes how Cluj functions, and why Romeo’s destiny has to be that which it is. (As such the film acts as an interesting corollary to Toni Erdmann). There’s nothing spectacular about Graduation, it doesn’t have the fireworks of the director’s most famous film, but it’s a storyteller’s film and constantly engaging. Sometimes telling a plain story is the hardest thing to do well. Mungiu does it with aplomb.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

fever dream [samanta schweblin]

Fever Dream has recently landed on the International Booker Prize shortlist. From a publishing point of view you can see the attraction. It’s short, sharp and more or less to the point. You can read it one sitting and the world it creates is hypnotic. The book does possess a mesmeric quality, assisted by the dialectical approach of question and answer. There are effectively two narrators, and their combined quest to find out ‘what happened’ drives the increasingly strange narrative forwards. A woman, on the point of death, is talking to someone, relating a story about how she’s fallen into a feverish state shorty after going away for a holiday in the countryside with her young daughter. There’s an eco-reference, which may or may not go over the heads of it’s non-Latino audience. The implied cause of the fever, which seems to be about to kill her, is the water in the fields, which has been contaminated by the use of agro-chemicals. This reflects the shocking problems of the agriculture industry in both Argentina and Uruguay, and perhaps further afield, where the groundwater has become so contaminated that rivers have become poisonous and much of the local produce contains toxins. Nature has been turned on its head.  

Fever Dream is a concise, compelling and clever piece of storytelling. Yet, at the end of the novel, finished in the bath, I actually found myself shouting out loud: “Cortazar”. Because in a way, this book is a tribute or a riff on the work of the great Argentine writer, Cortazar. Cortazar’s stories tightroped along the edge of reality and fantasy. The unstable narrator, the feverish warping of the reality established within the story’s world: all of this was, to a certain extent, perfected by Cortazar. It’s perhaps invidious to make comparisons, except that Schweblin, as an Argentine writer, will surely be aware that her novel has so much in common with his work. Fever Dream is a fine piece of writing and will do well, but I would urge anyone who has enjoyed Schweblin’s novel to get a hold of Cortazar’s short stories, and sink your teeth into them. 

Sunday, 23 April 2017

the handmaiden (w&d chan-wook park & w seo-kyeong jeong)

There are quite a few things that confused me about The Handmaiden. Firstly I went into the cinema thinking this was an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, which I’ve read about but never actually read. From what I have read about that book, rather than having read it, I take it to be a quite serious post-apocalyptic tale, with, perhaps, an eco-friendly subtext, along with a feminist, or at least female orientated narrative. (It might have none of these things, as I say, I’ve never read it.) The opening scene, where Japanese troops marched through a Korean village, felt as though it fitted into Park Chan-Wook’s reimagining of Atwood’s tale. Although from then on it seemed to veer further and further away. There is nothing post-apocalyptic about The Handmaiden, nothing eco-friendly either, and I’d be really interested to hear anyone try to defend it as a feminist text, in spite of the fact that the narrative might be construed that way. 

As it it, the film is actually based on Sarah Walter’s Fingersmith, which is, as they say, nada que ver. I haven’t read that either so the issue of the adaptation can now be dismissed. However, the second thing that confused me concerned the dichotomy between the film’s narrative and Chan-Wook’s direction of said narrative. The narrative is in large part constructed around the story of an old man who collects classic obscene literature (’Is that Sade?’ someone asks at one point), and invites selected men to come and listen to these rare classics being read by his fetching niece. That same niece is also the object of a scurrilous plan hatched by one of the men who visits and befriends her uncle. He hatches a plan to marry her and claim her fortune, and enlists a young Korean servant girl to work as the niece’s handmaiden. The handmaiden and the niece end up in a frisky relationship. My confusion arose because as the narrative develops it’s made very clear that the uncle is essentially a dirty old man whose pornographic collection is viewed as an object of scorn. The logic here is that pornography is bad. On the other hand, the director more than makes the most of the two women’s lesbian relationship. With shades of Blue is the Warmest Colour, Chan-Wook documents their intercourse with a degree of relish which ultimately, especially in the closing shots, ends up feeling like soft porn. The film appears to be arguing that porn is the stuff of dirty old men, unless it’s being filmed by the director, in which case it’s artistically valid. Maybe there’s a subtlety I missed. 

Having said all that, the storytelling is great, and although there’s little of the edge or dramatic tension that was present in his earlier works, there’s still a considerable amount of cinematic flair in evidence. The narrative structure is presumably lifted from the book, but Chan-Wook nevertheless makes it feel fresh and clever in a way so little cinematic storytelling tends to be. (Unlike in fiction, where structural ingenuity is far more common.) There’s a charm to the director’s use of period and the acting has a slightly operatic quality which seems entirely appropriate. It’s an entertaining yarn. Albeit a confusing one. Perhaps Park Chan-Wook is poking fun at the novelist’s feminism? Wiser heads than mine will no doubt be able to explain what exactly his intentions were. 

Thursday, 20 April 2017

you don’t have to live like this [benjamin markovits]

Markovits addictive novel is set in Detroit. The narrative describes how a failed historian, Marny, who has spent ten years teaching US history in Aberystwyth, returns to his homeland and becomes involved in a scheme to revitalise the dying barrios of the city. The project is funded by a fellow Yale alumni, Robert James, who made a lot of money in business very young and sees the scheme as a way of both giving something back and turning a profit. Marny is a lost soul, who responds to the challenge of trying to create and develop a new community, seeing in the project echoes of the Founding Fathers themselves. However, just at the Founding Fathers of the original Jamestown were constructing their dream on someone else’s soil, so the mixed bunch who colonise the deserted streets of Detroit are also stepping in the footsteps of a community which might have thinned out, but still has presence. Specifically, the black community. This is perhaps the bravest and the most committed book since Another Country in its approach to the issue of race in the USA. Markovits goes where angels fear to tread, straight to the heart of a divide which if anything seems (from the outside) to have become more exacerbated in the Obama years, rather than less so.

Obama makes a fleeting and telling appearance in the book. Just like Marny, Obama attempts to straddle the different American communities that exist, constantly on the verge of some kind of unofficial segregation. The settlers’ Utopianism always teeters on the brink of tumbling into the racial divide. Marny has black friends and white friends. He goes out with a black woman. He wants to believe in the possibility of a colour-blind society, but no-one else seems interested in sharing that vision. In the process, the author offers a harsh critique of the state of the North American dream, which ends in fire, or pegged behind steel walls, with shades of Saunders’ dystopia. 

There’s an urgency to Markovits’ text. In contrast to Saunders, it’s written in the most direct, un-obfuscated language possible. He’s capturing a moment and telling a story at the same time. It’s as though the importance of the story demands a style that excises any frills. The low-key stylistic approach dissimulates: the more banal and everyday the language, the more the reader begins to suspect that it hides a terrible, secret truth. There are similarities, in a way, with Abani’s novel, Graceland. The writers are both examining the limits of the dream of communal living in the 21st century. The privileged North American experiment fares no better than the African slum experiment. 

However, it could be said that Markovits’ narrator is also following in the neo-realistic tradition of Bellow, Updike and Roth. Narratives constructed around overly intelligent if slightly vapid figures whose personal calvaries reflect the psychological ailments of their country. (Franzen too probably, though I’ve never read him). Where Markovits’ prose distinguishes itself from this tradition is that it is underpinned by the author’s unashamedly political commentary. This is a story about the limits of community in America, and what creates those limits. Marny is an anguished observer, but his personal agonies are kept firmly backgrounded, ensuring the wider narrative maintains its prominence. This plainness of the book also feels like boldness. The screen on the TV, showing the revolution that will not be televised, is ripped off. So that all you can see are the gubbins. The wires and the sockets and the air compressors of a machine that looked like it was capable of producing miracles, but in the end never came close to realising its promises. 

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

graceland [chris abani]

Mike Davis, in Planet of Slums, references Abani’s book several times. Planet of Slums is a non-fiction tome, but the reference helps to illustrate how fiction can take the reader into the experience of life lead within a particular environment far more effectively than facts and figures. Abani’s book rises up out of Lagos’ Maroko slum like another one of its rickety, fantastical structures. Its words and images are balanced above the lapping tides, resisting the onset of the floods, the bulldozers and the developers.

The book’s narrative tells the story of Elvis, a sixteen year old wannabe dancer, whose idealistic vision leaves him ill-prepared for life in the slum. Elvis reads Rilke and tries to make a living doing Elvis interpretations on the beach for tourists, impressions they fail to appreciate. He is one of the millions trying to get by. He’s also a curious, adventurous soul, convinced there has to be a way to achieve a brighter life than the one he’s living (cf my next entry). HIs game approach leads to him getting into dangerous scrapes, which ultimately only go to show that the slum, and the politics behind the sum, are stronger than he is, and his only real hope is to get out.

Abani’s novel is a dense tale, full of characters and stories. Perhaps its nearest contemporary is the work of Rohinton Mistry. The book is peppered with Elvis’ dead mother’s recipes, something which felt, to this reader, like a slightly twee touch which didn’t really benefit the novel, no matter how important food might be to our understanding of culture. Beneath these artful notes lurk more robust, powerful flavours. The Zolas and Dickens’ of the twenty first century will emerge from the “developing” world. Elvis, defined by his optimism in the face of a world which has little time or space for optimism, feels like a second cousin, several times removed, of Pip. 

+++

Aside:

Many, many years ago, I had a job looking after a Nigerian theatre group who came to London under the auspices of the Royal Court to do a show. They were about a dozen actors and I became quite close to some of them. On the last day, I was due to drive them in a minibus to Heathrow. One of the troupe had already absconded. I stayed the night in a room in their digs in Notting Hill. We had to leave early in the morning to catch the plane. They were still up when I went to bed. In the morning, three of them had vanished, including Peter, the one I was closest to. I drove the remaining members of the reduced troupe to the airport. The mood in the minibus was sombre. I asked one of them, Femi, what people would say when they got back to Nigeria about the absconders. He told me that they would say: Why have you not joined the others in staying in London? Why have you come back? 

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

all dogs are blue [rodrigo de souza leāo]

The notes at the close of the novel, written by Blue Dog’s original publisher, reveal a great deal. The author Souza Leāo suffered from schizophrenia, and was frequently in hospital. All dogs Are Blue belongs to the pantheon of literature which lurks on the edge of society, a voice from the other side, as Foucault might have said. The book details the life and times of an inmate of a psychiatric ward, who is accompanied by his blue dog as well as a whole host of other friends, some of them imaginary, some of them fellow patients. Two of these are called Rimbaud and Baudelaire. The narrator lives in Rio, coming from a seemingly middle-class family. His poeticised prose refers to the hybrid nature of his nation’s history: European, African and Indigenous. A mixture which feels, in his voice, unstable, on the point of explosion. At the same time, it’s a carnival of language, (perhaps reminiscent of Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World), a delirious roller-coaster of words. There’s no plot to speak of, just a mosaic of unhappy magic. Like poetry, this is a novel which no doubt rewards repeated reading. The translation, by Deborah Levy, is effective. We go into the narrator’s mind and dance with him for a while. He might be from Rio, but he could be from Shanghai, Essex or Moscow. There’s a universality to ‘madness’, a culture which unites above and beyond geography.  

Monday, 3 April 2017

silence (w&d. scorsese, w. jay cocks)

In the final ten minutes of Silence we get a glimpse of what the film might have been like had it been made when its director was at his peak. From nowhere a narrator appears, a Dutch merchant. The story begins to be told through the interplay of narration and image. The acting complements the storytelling, rather than trying to drive it. The film isn’t dependent on reaching those minor climaxes which are now known as ‘beats’ in the language of screenwriting. Rather, the film finds its own pace, skipping over years of real time in minutes of film time, picking out details which elucidate the world the characters inhabit (16th century Japan). There’s no need to try to win the audience with a comic character; there’s a confidence and fluidity which the rest of the film, all two hours and a quarter, signally lacks. 

Why the rest of film cannot retrospectively follow in the footsteps of its ending is a mystery. The script feels like it has been assembled by robots, the acting feels as though it’s being performed by robots, the art design is uneven and prompts more questions than it answers, consistently leaving us wondering whether what we’re seeing has even a grain of authenticity or if this is all some Hollywood dream. Even the editing and camerawork, so often fallback staples of Scorsese’s work, feel lacklustre. There must be a metaphor lurking behind the decline of Scorsese as a filmmaker. Maybe it’s just old age. Maybe the industry has wrong-footed him. It certainly feels surprising that the script for Silence, supposedly a passion project of the director’s for decades, is quite so wooden. It smacks of unnamed figures being drafted in to “help”.  

I had missed Silence when it came out in London. But looking for a suitable English language film in Brasilia, it seemed like it might be a safe enough bet. The cinema was a third full. People munched popcorn with enormous vigour. No-one walked out. Whenever the comic character appeared, people laughed. Perhaps there was something that my take on the film had failed to grasp; after all it's no small feat to convince people around the world to munch their popcorn whilst watching an epic about Jesuit priests in medieval Japan. All the same, until we got to the last fifteen minutes, Silence never felt like a Scorsese film to me.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

nocilla dream [agustin fernandez mallo]

Mallo’s book is one of those texts that ends up making you feel dim. In spite of the fact that it may well be created with the intention of making the reader feel smart, or at least more informed. The book is composed of about 130 short sections, few of them more than a couple of pages long. These fragments are bound together by the concept of the desert and the science of physics. The novel centres on a tree in the Nevada desert which is festooned with people’s shoes. This is the centrifugal point, as various characters find themselves returning to the tree and leaving their shoes like a kind of reliquary. The book is populated by drifters, prostitutes, an argentine devotee of Borges and several scientists, allowing Mallo to thread the book with asides from the world of physics, fragments which adorn the book rather than feeling fully integrated into its development. It might have been that my reading of Nocilla Dream suffered from the fact I was trying to digest it on a never-end bus journey to a place called Trienta y Tres (33), but much of the physics went over my head. The notes inform that Mallo is also a scientist. There’s probably something far more clinical and precise in the novel than I was capable of grasping; at times it felt like a highly readable but slightly whimsical collection of fragments that never quite added up to the sum of its parts; another entrant in the novel-as-blog category.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

a vida privada dos hipopótamos (maíra bühler, matias mariani)

This is a suitably Latin American Gordian knot of a film. Is it a documentary or a fiction?  Is it a film about Latin America or North America? Among other artful steers. The film is constructed around a lengthy interview with a North American, Christopher Kirk, who is, ostensibly, in prison in Brazil. The filmmakers state that they discovered Kirk whilst researching a project about gringos in jail in South America. Kirk proceeds to tell an elaborate tale about his relationship with 'V', a half Japanese beauty he met in Bogota. The more he extrapolates, the less believable his story becomes. 

The filmmakers speak to people who knew the incarcerated American in his earlier life. The film is assembled with clips from YouTube and photos and video clips purportedly taken from Kirk's hard drive. There's also a curious segment when Kirk appears on local TV after a friend looking after his flat whilst he's away wraps all his possessions, down to the toilet paper, in aluminium foil. When Kirk heads ‘south’, his dull demeanour changes, reflecting the changing landscape. Bogota and Seattle are chalk and cheese. Bit by bit, the film suggests, the Latin world takes over. Kirk’s description of “V” ends up suggesting that she might, in fact, be a kind of alias for the exciting uncertainty he discovers when he heads south of the Rio Grande. An uncertainty that appears not just in his surroundings, but also within himself. 

Kirk would clearly appear to be an unreliable narrator, something backed up by his old friends. However, what the audience doesn't expect is that the filmmakers themselves are also unreliable narrators. The further down the rabbit hole we go, the more unstable the ground becomes. Is there any truth at all to what we’re watching? Does a Youtube clip of Chris Kirk on the Brazilian border really mean Chris Kirk ever visited or was even near to the Brazilian border? In this way the narrative ties in effectively with current preoccupations about the authenticity of data in the digital age. it also makes for a fascinating, uncertain film, one that tantalises with notions of a “truth’ which remains constantly out of reach.  

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

groovy bob [harriet vyner]

Groovy Bob is an account of the life of Robert Fraser, the art dealer immortalised by Richard Hamilton’s picture of him and his friend, Mick Jagger, handcuffed together after the police raid on Keith Richards’ country house at Redlands. Fraser is one of the sixties’ forgotten men. He was a force of nature and a hedonist, who was instrumental in bringing Pop Art to the UK. The driving force behind Peter Blake and Jann Haworth’s cover for the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album, he also brought Rauschenberg, Twombly, Warhol, Oldenburg, Haring etcetera to the public eye, not to mention staging exhibitions in his gallery including work by Dubuffet, Bacon, Caulfield, Riley and many more. However, as the title of the book suggests, more than being just an art dealer, Fraser was also a pivotal figure in the development of what has come to be known as the swinging sixties. An old Etonian, born into wealth, he set out to cross the class divide, participating in the pop world, the criminal world and the burgeoning gay scene. He rode the wave of the sixties dream, moving between New York, London, Morocco and India. His restless curiosity matched the artistic and intellectual movements of that decade, as a post-colonial world began to open up and society sought to recalibrate itself. Vyner’s biography relates this journey and the price Fraser ended up paying for it. Prison was followed by financial ruin and exile. Fraser overcame the setbacks with increased levels of drugs, sex and partying, eventually becoming one of the first British citizens to die of Aids. There are two ways at looking at his story: either as a cautionary tale of a Hogarthian character who lived life to excess and paid for it; or as the story of the comet who blazed the path that future generations would follow. Fraser was entwined with the Beatles and the Stones and the vision of the world they sought to realise. Today that counter-culture has become the mainstream; that which was beyond the pale has been absorbed into the beating heart of the world. 

A note on Vyner’s work: the biography is made up of short, verbatim accounts, culled from those who knew Fraser, from the Stones to his mother’s oldest friend. It’s a vivid, generous method of writing biography. Vyner herself sometimes appears as one of the voices, but more than anything this is a curatorship. This allows for the juxtapositions between divergent points of view, with differing contributors sometimes flat-out contradicting one another.  In giving the narrators their voice, the range and tenor of the various worlds Fraser inhabited comes through all the more effectively. It makes for a compelling read and leaves the reader feeling as though they have a real handle on who this curious, multi-faceted man might have been. 

Monday, 20 March 2017

civil war land in bad decline [george saunders]

Saunders' short stories have a rebarbative, offbeat feel. The prose is abrasive, occasionally challenging. The author creates unusual, surreal american worlds where surprisingly normal sounding people struggle with demented situations. In Bounty, the longest story, a man born with a deformity which means he belongs to the flawed sector of a world divided by a new form of apartheid sets out on a journey across the country to rescue his lost sister. The journey looks both backwards and forwards: at once an allegory for an escaped slave but also a terrible vision of a post apocalyptic USA. It's The Road meets Gravity's Rainbow meets Native Son, told in a sparse 80 pages. The US has become a kind of theme park in Saunders' imagination, something to be cannibalised for entertainment purposes. It’s a dystopian vision, and the clanking prose seems like part of this; even the language people use to communicate has become mechanised, atonal.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

homo faber [max frisch]

Homo Faber is one of the more indefinable novels you are likely to read. Part travelogue, part mid-life crisis, part Oedipal nightmare. The novel relates an extended journey taken by Walter Faber, an engineer. His plane has to make a forced landing in the Mexican desert, which then propels him on a journey to meet an old friend in the Guatemalan backwoods. Only the old friend has recently hanged himself. He ends up back in New York where he takes a boat to Southampton and falls in love with a young woman who happens to be the daughter he never knew he had. In most hands this level of coincidence and melodrama might have rendered the tale ridiculous. No-one can plausibly experience this degree of bad fate that Faber does in the course of a few weeks. The gods are crueller to Frisch’s protagonist than they even were to Oedipus. Through it all, the narrator’s voice remains not so much stoic as near-imbecilic, insistent that he doesn’t believe in anything except for a rational twentieth century logic. Faber is almost heroically unmoved by the events that befall him. So much so, that one begins to believe the lady doth protest too much. At a certain point, it feels as though the object of the author’s irony is not so much his protagonist as the reader. Constantly expecting the protagonist to rebel against his fate, but instead finding someone whose tone remains phlegmatic and dispassionate throughout. The blurb suggested this was an ‘existential’ novel. Perhaps there is something of Mersault in all this, but there’s no angst, no expression of alienation. A closer comparison might be that other arch ironist, Houellebecq, another writer half-in love with a kind of Schopenhauerian cruelty. The writing is what might be described as flinty, with staccato dialogue and vivid descriptions. Vultures consume a dead donkey. A man contemplates the shape of his daughter’s hips. Frisch constantly pre-empts the drama, relating that which is to pass. The reader is placed in the god’s chair. Should we judge this curious anti-hero? Or should we accept that morality is flat, life is flat, shit happens, we just have to learn to live with it? 

Sunday, 12 March 2017

certain women [w&d kelly reichardt]

Reichardt’s movie has that neat trick of putting high wattage stars in low wattage roles. Dern, Stewart and Williams play underwhelming, small-town figures in three very loosely connected vignettes. Their stories are whimsical and ephemeral. There’s no great drama, indeed in the Williams strand there’s barely any drama at all. The film is more concerned with the process of observation. A precise study of a few women in a particular moment of their lives. Of the three stories the film consists of, the third is by far the most compelling. This the Stewart strand. Perhaps this benefits from the fact that Stewart herself isn’t the predominant character. Rather it’s Lily Gladstone, playing a ranchhand who looks after horses and develops a crush on Stewart’s lawyer. In contrast to the other two stories, this one has a sense of development and pathos. Reichardt’s pacing is deliberately slow, and this rhythm comes into its own in the shots of Gladstone going about her work as she looks after the horses. We understand the tedium and loneliness of her life and engage completely with her sudden passion for Stewart. It’s a lovely performance and the advantages of letting the camera linger, and letting the narrative breathe, helping to accentuate the performance, come through. It feels as though, in the other two strands, Reichardt is reaching for this level of transcendence, without quite achieving it. Certain Women is only a frustrating film in so far as it hints at the possibility of something more profound than the film it eventually became.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

babylon [pelevin]

What is Russia? Is it a country? Is it a state of mind? Is it a race? At a time when “Russia”, the idea of ‘Russia’ is being bandied about like a tennis ball being chased by a dog on a beach, all we truly discern is the degree of ignorance possessed about the word itself. When you’re swimming in a sea of ignorance, that is when literature can come to your assistance. No work of literature can disclose the truth about the country it emerges from, but it can help to offer some insight, at the very least. Given this, there’s no better time to read Pelevin. In the nineties, a new wave of post-Soviet writers emerged (see also Sorokin and Prilepin) who sought to capture within their writing the course their country was taking. The results are delirious, terrifying, wackily entertaining and frequently appear to be nonsensical. In other words, more than a bit like Trump-world.

There is, of course, a strand of US literature that foreshadows this. The Pynchon-Acker-Burroughs strand (there will be others who escape me). In this sense, the two sprawling superpowers have more, culturally in common, perhaps, than we tend to realise. This is a world of drugs and conspiracies and naked power. Throw in the Babylonians and you start to get a handle on Pelelvin’s early novel. It tells the story of Babe Tatarsky, (a Pynchonian name if ever there was one). Tatarsky is a no-mark who finds himself working as an advertising copywriter during the Yeltsin years, when every two-bit criminal is hoping to become the next oligarch. Boris Berezovsky appears in the novel and there are doubtless dozens of other specific references; this is a book rooted in the Moscow which formed Putin and his clique. 

Pelevin follows Tatarsky as he makes his way up the greasy pole. Clients are both dangerous and endangered. All of them have criminal ties, but their life-spans are brief, as one after another is bumped off by the next man down. The copywriter’s adverts are brilliant; the objective is not so much to promote the brand as to explode it into public consciousness. The more depraved the advertising idea, the better. This is anarcho-terrorism-capitalism. (Sound familiar?) In a state of perpetual chaos, the consumer’s attention is all that counts, and nothing but the most outrageous, obscene idea will gain their attention. Truth and falsehood are ideas which are left behind. Survival and power are all that matter.

In the meantime Tatarsky is visited by the ghost of Che Guevara who offers a neo-buddhist propaganda doctrine (As someone points out to Tatarsky, the Spanish word for advertising is ‘propaganda’). He also takes copious amounts of magic mushrooms and hangs out with Chechen terrorists. Gradually, by a process of default, rather than any cunning plan, he finds himself being promoted up a nebulous Masonic chain, until he finally assumes the position of propagandist-in-chief. 

At one point, Tatarsky’s role is “senior creative in the kompromat department”. The chaos that it would appear Putin’s mandate has succeeded in unleashing globally was something that was being perfected back in the nineties in Russia. Babylon describes a state which is so unhinged it can only be managed through the intercession of a cult. If Pelevin’s novel is any guide as to how that played itself out, expect more ‘American carnage’ sooner rather than later. 

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

moonlight (w&d. barry jenkins, w. tarell alvin mccraney)

Moonlight has become a cause celebre. A film that speaks not so much for itself, but for the minorities of the world. People have talked about it in terms of the importance of universal stories coming from all sectors of society. Whilst this is completely right, whether it helps Moonlight to be saddled with this baggage is another story. In the end, all film is political. That’s why we watch more movies from the States than any other country. Including stories from the margin. It’s a reflection of the soft political power that the States exercises, whether we like it or not. The fact that the film was garlanded with the Oscar only serves to reinforce the potency of the Oscar brand, and by default, the North American brand. At a Curzon screening a few months ago, the man introducing Blue Velvet said that Moonlight would have the same impact as Mean Streets/ Taxi Driver. But I think it's worth noting that Scorsese was rejected at the Oscars for decades. They didn’t like his films, and they didn’t like them because they offered the kind of messages which the establishment didn’t want to hear. 

Once a film becomes judged for its political standpoint as much as its aesthetics, the boundaries shift. This is true for Moonlight just as much as for Rambo. Barry Jenkins exercises considerable directorial flair, and there should be a hat-tip to the cinematography of James Laxton. Almost as though in reaction to the last film review on the blog, we see a director employing the tricks of the trade with glee, from the opening gyratory shot to the use of colour and camera. Another film Moonlight is reminiscent of in this regard is McQueen’s Hunger. Having said all of this, the narrative itself becomes pedestrian. There are times when the screenplay’s stage play roots begins to show through, as though there’s a tension between directorial intent and the script. The extended restaurant scene in the third act has a clunky feel, and the last scene with the mother veers towards melodrama. The promised journey to the hard edge of the American dream is never delivered. The film’s final act veers towards sentimentalism instead. Which, of course, helps to explain its mainstream appeal. Oscars are not given to films that truly rock the boat. 

Moonlight is a fine film, which has some bravura moments. It deserves all the plaudits and love its getting. It takes a lot of the indie tropes and makes them work on a grand scale. Perhaps the Chazelle film it should really be compared with isn’t its supposed rival, but Whiplash, another rites of passage movie which was also a showcase for an emergent director making a  name for himself. 

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(As a ps - Moonlight also brought to mind the brilliance of James Baldwin’s Another Country. As far as I know there has never been a cinematic version of one of the more astonishing works of American literature, which also incorporated a gay narrative in order to recount the story of the ‘other’ United States. It’s twenty years since I read it but the power of Baldwin’s exploration of the margins holds fast in my mind. In many ways it is a terrible indictment of North American culture that over half a century later a narrative employing themes of race and sexual orientation - specifically a ‘black, gay’ narrative - should still be seen as radical.)

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

damnificados [jj amaworo wilson]

Damnificados is a book inspired by a building. I don’t imagine there are too many. The Yacoubian Building is another that comes to mind. Bleak House, perhaps. There will be others. The building in question is called the Torre de David, and is situated in Caracas, Venezuela. Both Mike Davis and Justin McGuirk discuss it in a non-fiction context. This is a tower block in the middle of Caracas which was taken over by squatters. It has acquired a mythical status and Amaworo Wilson taps into this. His novel is a Homeric fable. It tells the story of a saintly cripple, Nacho, who leads the poorest of the poor (los damnificados) as they take over the tower and turn it into a shelter for over a thousand families, with free electricity and water, schools and spaces for small businesses to spring up. The narrative is constructed around various “trash wars” along with the battles of the tower’s former owners (the Torres family) to reclaim the property. It’s an entertaining read, albeit one that seems to skirt any notion of historical accuracy. Instead Amaworo Wilson constructs an alternative Caracas which is part Arabic, part African, part Latino. It’s a genuine tower of babel, which is held together by Nacho’s charismatic powers of leadership. One imagines that Amaworo Wilson did his research into actual events in the history of the Torre de David. There are times when this reader might have hoped for an account which revealed more of the socio-political context of the city of Caracas, as captured in the lyrics of the rapper Cansabero for example. Nevertheless, Damnificados is a spritely, enjoyable read and offers hints as to what life in the squatter’s tower block might have been like. 

Monday, 27 February 2017

goodfellas (w&d scorsese, w. nicholas pileggi)


In the middle of the NFT (or BFI for the new-fangled) screening of Scorsese’s classic, the fire alarm went off. A blur of red encroached on the screen as Liotta’s lover’s boss was being given the once over. For a second, I thought it was another of the director’s tricks, before the film came to a sudden halt and it was apparent the red blur was the house lights. In this instance it wasn’t a Scorsese device. But what’s so refreshing about watching Goodfellas is to note how playful and adventurous it is. With the lighting, or in the edit or the soundtrack. In the program notes, Scorsese acknowledges his debt to the French New Wave. The freeze frame, the way of narrating using a feverish Godardian edit style, the irreverence of the music. It’s hard to think of any mainstream filmmakers in the US or the UK who are willing or allowed to do indulge themselves and play with the medium like this. In a comedy or a musical perhaps, before anyone mentions La La Land, but not in what would now be described as a ‘drama.’ 

Scorsese’s bold narrative style is beautifully wedded to the epic narrative. He handles the passing of time dextrously, loving the challenge. Costume, music and art design are tools he relishes. When we returned from the fire alarm, after a chilly pause of ten minutes, the scene which had been playing before we left was repeated. It was the introduction to Henry Hill’s lover’s apartment. Watching the scene twice in the space of ten minutes allowed the viewer to truly process the depth of information and detail which each frame possesses. The throwaway remarks which get lost in the rapid-fire dialogue. This apartment perhaps features in just three scenes in the film, but the work that has gone in to making the apartment perfect is all there. This detail accumulates. There are no short cuts. We are immersed in a world we completely believe in and this helps to raise Scorsese’s films to another level. We’re not watching a gangster flick; for two hours plus we’re sharing Henry and his wife’s lives with them.

Another thing the director says in the notes is that he wanted the film to be like a documentary. It isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination. There’s too much flair, too much authorial incidence. But you know where he’s coming from. When young Henry looks out at the gangsters who populate the shop across his New York street, you know that this could be the young Scorsese. I think it was Barthes who declared that all writing is autobiography. With Scorsese, all filmmaking is autobiography. The more he honours this adage, the better his films. Goodfellas has a panache and a lust for life which still dazzles and feels modern, nearly thirty years after it was made.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

no island is an island [carlo ginzburg]

Ginzburg’s book is a sequence of four connected essays which deal with notions of Englishness in the literature of More, early Elizabethan poets, Sterne and RL Stevenson. Each essay is a delicious treat in its own right. Ginzburg is the kind of scholar who relishes the task of uncovering connections that shed light on his subject. Stevenson and Balzac, More and Lucian, Sterne and the arcane dictionary of  the 18th c Frenchman, Pierre Bayle. The erudition on display is dazzling, but it’s always there to serve the writer’s thesis, not merely to show off. 

Ginzburg’s thesis is that literature and national identity are interwoven, something most people would accept. However, a work of literature would appear to be a rounded thing, whole in itself. Tristam Shandy might be as English as they come, but what Ginzburg does is reveal the influences that helped to shape these seemingly ready-made objects. The book beautifully explores the links between continental and European thought. Hence, perhaps the title. No matter how much the British might seek to view themselves as a self-contained literary world, Ginzburg’s essays demonstrate that this identity is contingent on a broader intellectual context. This might, in the case of the renaissance poets, involve a rejection of continental forms, but even this is part of a binary relationship which evolves out of a common heritage. 

This  is a slim volume, but each essay has the density of a small, digestible book in itself. There is no better time to explore what it means to talk of “British” anything, and British literature, that foundation stone of identity, in particular. This erudite Italians brief guide is as good as anything I’ve read on the subject. 

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

richard 3 (d. ostermeier)

A few thoughts, no mas. There’s been a lot written about this show and deservedly so. I read a comment the other day by someone reading it who, whilst praising the show, stated that it helped to show that British theatre is fucked. This isn’t the place and I’m not the person to comment on the British theatre debate. The point is that every now and again a show comes along, usually from the continent, (more often than not Germany), which shows up the limitations of the artistic parameters mainstream British theatre (MST(?)) chooses to operate under. Ostermeier’s R3, perhaps like Brecht’s visiting shows, or more recently, Nubling’s Three Kingdoms, would appear to be that show for early 2017.  

Richard 3, for all it’s fame, is a difficult play to stage. It’s a paradoxical play. The protagonist is dazzling and charismatic and the rest of the play is stodgy, save for the odd moment of needless violence. The more one watches it the more it seems like the template for the far more sophisticated later tragedy, Macbeth. Richard dominates the play in a way that’s unhealthy. The play will live or die on the lead actor’s performance.

It doesn’t take a theatrical genius to realise this. Ostermeier gives Lars Eidinger’s Richard free rein to make the stage his own. With its sandy surface, it’s more like his playground. He’s given a hanging microphone as a prop, which doubles as a kind of swing. At one point, Eidinger goes flying out over the audience. This is what director and star do brilliantly. The fourth wall is not a wall. (A phrase that could probably be trademarked in this day and age.) The audience is another prop for Richard to employ. Not only does he swing over their heads, he climbs in to the auditorium, he ad-libs, he treats the audience like his followers. 

There’s nothing new in breaking the fourth wall. Richard is also given clowns’ shoes, making a none-too-subtle point. Clowning, an art that might pre-date theatre, is all about exploring and bridging the gap between the audience and the stage. According to Shapiro, Shakespeare got rid of Kemp, the company’s best clown, because he was mucking around with the text too much, playing with the audience at the expense of the play. This sort of behaviour is also known as irreverent, and this, it seems to me, is the tonal note which audiences have enjoyed so much, and which British theatre so rarely succeeds in achieving. It’s an immensely enjoyable theatrical experience, from an audience point of view, to feel oneself included in a great work, rather than excluded.  To visit the Barbican to soak up culture and discover that this process can be funny and inclusive.

Because, aside from all this, there’s nothing particularly radical about Ostermeier’s staging. The set, sandpit aside, is prosaic. There’s a drummer in public view, off-stage, but whilst this is a nice touch, it’s not ground-breaking. The scenes which lack Richard actually begin to plod, something that’s almost inevitable in this doughy play. (Although the curse of Lady Margaret is nicely subverted). This isn’t a radical staging. What it is a radical re-connect, reconnecting Shakespeare to its pantomimic roots, and doing so without fear of shame or ridicule. When Richard paints his face for the denouement, it reminded me of two things. Brando in Apocalypse Now; and comedia del arte. Rather than soaring into the future, Ostermeier takes Richard back towards his origins, which also happen to be the origins of performance on the European stage. And audiences love it. 

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(Also worth noting the following observation from Chris Goode in reaction to one critical reaction to the play, suggesting Ostermeier undercooks the play’s political content: “The politics is in the form, chaps, not the content.” In the theatre, content can only ever be political up to a point. It is the form in which that content is presented, the way in which it questions the relationship between audience and stage, which defines the play’s political intentions. An idea which some of the more lauded political playwrights of the contemporary British stage sometimes seem reluctant to engage with.)