Tuesday, 7 November 2017

triple agent (w&d rohmer)

Rohmer’s chamber piece has a curious topicality, in a modern day era of Russian spies and double crosses. A white Russian in exile in pre-war Paris and his Greek wife get caught up in the machinations which eventually lead to the HItler-Stalin pact. It would appear that the film is based on fact, with an addendum that the sympathetic heroine died from TB in prison in 1940, after being tried for her alleged part in her husband’s plot to abduct an exiled Russian general on Stalin’s behalf. (A charge which Rohmer’s film suggests was ridiculous.) There’s a stately feel to the film., which appears to lack the subtlety of Rohmer’s earlier work. The delicate character study of the heroine is swallowed up by the march of history and the film’s epic scope as it covers the years leading up to the second world war. The film’s attempt to show the way in which ordinary people become victims of historical contrivance, though supremely relevant, is never as effective as the story suggests it should be. Having said which, there’s something peculiarly haunting about the way in which the film incorporates black and white archive footage, charting events which retrospectively appear inevitable. Are we in the midst of a similar era today? Are there ordinary or not-so-ordinary couples whose lives are on the point of being torn apart? 

Friday, 3 November 2017

confession of the lioness [mia couto]

Confession of the Lioness is another journey with Couto through the fabular land of rural Mozambique. It’s a story told from two points of view. The mysterious female character, Mariamar, and the weary hunter, Archie Bullseye. The premise is that there have been a succession of lion attacks in Mariamar’s rural village, the latest of which has claimed the life of her sister, Silência. Archie has been hired as a hunter to come and kill the lions. But the more we read, the more we realise that Archie’s not that interested in killing anything anymore. He’s in love with his brother’s wife, his brother who’s in a mental hospital after killing their father. He’d rather hunt with his pen than his rifle, and takes to writing a journal, which the book contains. Meanwhile, Mariamar fell in love with Archie when he visited the village 16 years ago to kill a crocodile and now she pines for him. 

As the book unfolds, it becomes, somewhat wonderfully, far less clear, rather than more clear. Is Mariamar actually a lioness? Is the Mariamar who talks about Archie and lives in her mother’s house the fictional invention of this lioness? None of the presumed threads leads where you expect. Archie and Mariamar never have their moment together. Archie loses all interest in his mission. Things don’t work according to the narrative rules we’ve been taught to expect. We’ve entered a weirder, more complex narrative world. Which at the same time paints a portrayal of a strange rural society, one which the inhabitants of the city will never really understand. Like Archie and his writer companion, we are these visitors, offered a glimpse of another way of life and thought, one which belongs to the lions and their antagonists, the people who co-exist with the lions. 

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

i was told to come alone: my journey behind the lines of jihad [soaud mekhennet]

Soaud Mekhennet’s book is part autobiography, part thriller, and most importantly, all journalism. It leaves the reader with little doubt that it’s one of the most important books of the century. This is because it’s hard to think of another writer who seems to have got close to not just bridging the gap between “the West” and “Islam” but also clarifying and explaining how and why a conflict has arisen between these two concepts. 

It starts with a deeply personal account of her own upbringing, the child of a Turkish and Moroccan (Shia and Sunni) immigrants to Germany, who spent some of her early years in Morocco, who experienced the benefits and the downsides of being a second generation immigrant. This is essential to an understanding of her perspective. Although she makes it clear she has no truck with terrorism of any form, she can begin to understand why young Western youths becomes radicalised. This understanding in turn helps her to make contacts and get under the skin of a conflict which has devastated the Middle East and had such a striking impact on Europe and the States in the 21st century. 

Time after time Mekhennet is there, making sense of history for us. Putting herself at risk to do so. She reports from Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain, the train stations of Vienna, the mosques of Hamburg, London and beyond. This is a writer straddling the modern world with the contacts of a spy, the insights of religious expert and the humanity of a family member whose life has also been touched by tragedy. She can say with authority that which seems obvious but that which Western politicians so steadfastly refuse to accept: that Western foreign policy does impact the thinking of ordinary people in both the Middle East and Europe and has contributed to their radicalisation. She can say it because she’s spoken to ISIS fighters or wannabe fighters and they’ve told her. Her critique of Western attitudes to the Arab Spring proves prophetic, as well as the way that the hallowed concept of “democracy” might not be the salve-all that people claim.

The stories of the world today aren’t governed by borders anymore than governments are. No matter how much they might seek to fence themselves in. The world is porous. The internet ensures that the thing which happens in a village in Kashmir or Peru will be known in Paris or New York or Dundee. Mekhennet’s book goes further towards helping to make sense of this jumbled world and its terrifying consequences than anything else you are likely to read. She traces the threads from Kabul to London, from Bahrain to Hamburg, from Casablanca to Vienna. Her book often reads like a novel and is all the more remarkable for being true. 

Saturday, 21 October 2017

satori in paris [jack kerouac]

We were given this book to read by an eager young teacher at school, when we were about 16. I have no idea what I made of it. Re-reading it 30 years later, I couldn’t remember a thing from my earlier reading. Then again, it’s such a flippant, discursive little book, that’s hardly surprising. Mr Kerouac goes to France for a week and jots down his observations, which mostly consist of random meetings in bars, taxi journeys and the odd pick-up. Ostensibly he’s looking into his family history and the origins of his name, but even that seems of marginal importance, although it does give him plenty of opportunities to display his erudition as he reels off lists of the French writers he’s read. The narrative isn’t the thing about the book, nor are the characters, save perhaps for the narrator. It’s all about style. And there’s plenty of that. To what extent Kerouac defined a style of american prose, or to what extent he was part of a wave, is up for debate. What isn’t debatable is the continued potency of a hip irreverence which at the time must have seemed groundbreaking, and now feels commonplace. What also seemed striking was how enjoyable this breezy style is, like drinking a cold beer on a hot day. Although it might also be that the brevity of the book helps to ensure its success. Too much lightness can soon start to feel heavy; the writer shows impeccable timing by curtailing the trip and heading back to Florida before his journey has really got going; before he gets on our nerves.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

feos (w guillermo calderon, d aline kuppenheim)

Feos (which means “the uglies” in English) is a featherweight theatre piece which nevertheless punches hard. It recounts the story of two hideously disfigured people who meet at the cinema, go for a coffee, then go back to his and make love. The majority of the 50 minute play is taken up by the conversation in the cafe. The action cuts in and  out of their conversation as they gradually get to know one another. It’s a love story, but a love story between two people who believe themselves fundamentally unloveable. They feel this way because of their disfigurement. Part of the skill of the piece is that this disfigurement has a metaphysical edge, as everyone feels themselves to be unloveable, in their own secret fashion. The beauty of love is that it succeeds in overcoming this innate, common instinct, no matter what you look like. Calderon again reveals his exactitude as a dramatist, burrowing away at this scene in order to extract every nuance, every tragic-comic detail. Calderon writes like a dog with a bone it’s in love with: he won’t leave a scene until every last scrap of meat is off that bone. It’s an intense but affecting style, whose potency gets its pay-off in the last scene, when the lovers go back to his flat and decide that, in spite of the fact they are so unloveable, they will commit to love each other. 

There is a twist to the show. Which is that these two “people”, are actually puppets, manipulated by no less than five puppeteers (who received a great reception when they came out to take a bow). The effect of this is that it acts as a distancing device, which allows us as an audience to disengage sufficiently from the action to not feel as though we are being voyeuristic as we observe the intimacy of these two damaged characters. It also means we don’t gawp; this isn’t a freak show. In some way, knowing that these characters aren’t actually human, allows us to engage more with their feelings. We don’t need to feel pity for them, because we know they’re not “real”. Rather we engage with our own experiences of meeting someone who helps to make our own stay upon this sometimes painful earth make sense.

We saw the play on the night that Guillermo Calderon’s play opened at the Royal Court in London. He’s a writer who always takes the high road, never the low. Which sometimes makes him challenging, but the work is all the richer for that. His writing makes you acutely aware of the possibilities of theatre, in a way which few contemporary playwrights are capable of. Feos is a bold, beautiful piece which celebrates the importance of seeing, being seen, and also not being seen, the darkness. It’s also a piece whose many words reinforce, when they reach a quietus, the value of silence and the way in which these opposites nurture each other. 

Thursday, 12 October 2017

a narco history [carmen boullosa & mike wallace]

A Narco History tells the history of the narcotics industry in Mexico, and by default the USA, from the early days of the 19th century, when Chinese immigrants were early pioneers of what was, at that point, a legitimate narcotics trade, through to the savagery of the 21st. The book opens with a detailed account of the murder of 43 normalistas in Ayotzinapa in 2014, an event whose pointlessness and barbarity finally started to provoke a political reaction at a grass roots level to the intertwined violence and corruption which has devastated the country. The book then uses Ayotzinapa as a point of reference, one it builds towards during the course of its narrative. The book is particularly concerned with the relationship between Mexico’s politics and the drugs trade, something which ensures it also investigates the links with politicians from the USA. The authors, one a Mexican novelist, the other a North American historian, establish clearly the degree of political collusion between the two countries that suits various interests, but leads to bloodshed and civil chaos in the towns, villages and countryside of Mexico. In spite of the terrible nature of much of what the book documents, it resists any instinct to sensationalism, ending with a considered overview of the feasibility of legalisation and the possibilities of de-escalating the narco-wars. 


An aside: when Mr Amato and I were traveling through Michoácan in 2015, we visited a small pueblo, not far from where we were staying. It was a Sunday on the weekend of the Dia de Los Muertos. It was about eleven in the morning. People had gathered outside the cemetery, filing in with flowers and offerings for their dead. There was a festive atmosphere. It’s a day for celebration as much as mourning. The nearby pueblo we had been staying in had felt completely safe and untroubled by the issues that plague Mexico, which A Narco History talks about. Our travels around the area were similarly untroubled. This nondescript place was only part of our itinerary because we needed to catch a bus there. A large, friendly fellow, wearing a broad straw hat, came over and started talking to us. We talked a bit about the day of the dead. Then he said something along the lines of, they’re going to be watching us. We weren’t quite sure what he meant. He explained. He said that anyone from the pueblo who was seen talking to strangers would be noted. They’d be watching us even now. He said that this particular pueblo was controlled by someone, whose name meant nothing to us. That nothing happened here without their say-so. They controlled everything. They’d know that he’d been talking to us, it was obvious, anyone could see. He talked breezily, hurriedly. As though he was making the most of what he knew was a very brief opportunity to explain something very important. Eventually, after less than ten minutes, he said he had to go. We walked away, towards the bus stop, which was on the edge of the pueblo. Everything looked so normal. The townspeople were out and about doing what townspeople do. But that brief chat had torn the veil off this normality. And for a moment, everything looked frighteningly different. 

Monday, 9 October 2017

the company (d altman; w. neve campbell & barbara turner)

Altman’s ballet film is a curio and a great example of how the mish-mash of filmmaking means that a potentially potent project fails to come off. The film is set in Chicago and uses dancers from the Joffrey ballet company. There are roles for two choreographers who play themselves, Lar Lubovitch and Robert Desrosiers, the latter to great comic effect. There are numerous dance sequences, lovingly filmed, giving the film a strong visual aesthetic. The sequence of Neve Campbell’s dance in the open air theatre, as the storm closes in, is particularly effective. This is filmmaking with a sense of risk which echoes the risk the dancers and the audience seem to be taking. However… the film stars Neve Campbell and she’s also given a story credit, alongside the screenwriter. Campbell dances alongside the rest of the ballet company, with some panache. (It doesn’t look like she’s being body-doubled, a la Portman in Black Swan, but I may be wrong). She also plays a low-key, introspective character, who gets involved in a low-key fashion with James Franco’s young and tender sous-chef. If these character notes sounds wooly, they’re positively concrete in comparison to the narrative, which feels like one of the wooliest narratives ever concocted. Apart from getting together with Franco, and hurting her shoulder when she falls awkwardly, and dancing, absolutely nothing happens to Campbell’s character. There’s no journey, no development, no story to speak of. Which might not have mattered, except for the fact that The Company reminds us of the importance of narrative. As a filmmaker, Altman was a master of creating a world, in a neo-documentary style, and immersing the viewer in that world. Which is something he achieves in The Company. Anyone who has had any dealings with a ballet company will recognise the authenticity of the portrayal. But the portrayal alone begins to become less and less compelling as the film goes on. Because you need a narrative to construct a reason to watch that portrayal. You need stories to knit the fly-on-the-wall elements to life. The script makes a half-hearted attempt to do this at times, with stray storylines about a dancer who’s got nowhere to stay, a storyline which never develops; and Malcolm McDowell’s somewhat laboured character of the great, yellow-scarfed ex-dancer who’s now the autocratic head of the company, but none of these strands are in any way developed, just as Campbell’s character remains frustratingly nebulous. The film collapses in on itself through the lack of narrative. What we’re left with are sketches for a movie: Altman’s capacity to film dance (which was clearly the aspect he enjoyed most in the making of the film); Altman’s documentary-style approach which might have made for a great film about a ballet company but didn’t; and the story of the naif ballerina, Campbell’s alter-ego, which never really got off the page. A glorious failure perhaps, a great example of what film can be when all the pieces of the puzzle are present, but no-one can be bothered to put them together. 

Saturday, 7 October 2017

the power and the glory [greene]

The whisky priest feels like a definitive Greene trope, even if you’ve never read Greene. Catholic angst. Addiction. The struggle. 

It’s a hard to put a finger on Greene. Was he conservative or radical? Was he establishment or anti-establishment? On the one hand  he carved out a role as a celebrated British man of letters. He’s not an outsider like Lowry, for example. On the other, his themes and interests are decidedly internationalist. As though the British shores were too suffocating and he, like Lowry, had to swim away in order to find the stories that mattered, or find a context within which he felt as though he could tell the stories he wanted to tell. 

The Power and the Glory finds him in deepest, darkest Mexico, at the time of the repression of the priests, following the Calles law. The book follows a downtrodden priest as he tries to escape, constantly finding himself held back by the pull of his own conscience. Greene transforms the priest into a minor saint, with a coda showing a child’s veneration of the fallen hero. It’s a novel which feels both brilliantly constructed and yet dry, slightly brittle. The author’s eye always appears to be outside, looking in, rather than inside looking out. We sympathise with the priest but we never empathise with him. You sense that in so many ways Greene is using the character of the priest to articulate his own struggles as a believer; yet it also feels as though the author is using his narrative as a framing device which allows him to maintain a distance, to not engage.

It’s a curious, double-edged approach. Greene’s skill as a novelist is not in doubt. He maintains an alien story as it unfolds towards its seemingly inevitable grim conclusion. The skill is admirable; the power undeniable; but the passion feels as though it’s kept at arm’s length; the glory is evanescent, opaque.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

mother (w&d aronofsky)

Aronofsky lets his hair down.
No doubt about it. This is the equivalent of a director rocking out with the longest extended drum solo he can get away with. Well actually, two drum solos, because the film is essentially two hyper-ventilating sequences which belong to no real genre apart from a the excess genre (which doesn’t exist). cf Ken Russell, the closing sequence of Zabriskie Point, Zulawski etc.
Aronofsky goes eco-conscious.
Because, yes, this is an allegory about mother nature and the way that mankind had raped and pillaged the earth in the quest to make his beautiful music. 
Aronofsky goes Sarah Kane.
Well, to be fair, he’s not the only one. It’s just that having recently worked on Blasted, you pick up the way in which violence and shock-value are used, artfully, to provoke a reaction, and that’s exactly what Mother is doing too. It wants you to walk out. It wants you to say, Ya basta, as many of the good citizens of Montevideo did indeed do on Saturday night.
Aronofsky reveals unexpected sense of humour.
Which is connected to this point; you can almost hear the cackling glee of the director behind the camera as he unleashes his next affront on the viewer. Take that, he says, with a big grin, and he’s right, because Mother is hilarious. 
Aronofsky has fun at the studio’s expense.
What a joy it must have been to sit on the first preview screenings. You’ve got Lawrence and Bardem and Harris and Pfeiffer this is what you’re doing with them?
Aronofsky the provocateur (again)
Mother might be his closest film to Requiem for a Dream; only this is a project which lacks the po-faced quality of the earlier film. Requiem took itself so seriously it was painful, for all concerned, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Mother doesn’t appear to take itself seriously at all, but somewhere lurking in both films is the need to activate the spectator, to make them less passive than they’d normally expect to be during the cinema experience. So much so that you could just about get away with calling it Brechtian.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

la cordillera (w&d santiago mitre, w. mariano llinás)

Reaction to Santiago Mitre’s bravura La Cordillera in the faux-Swiss restaurant on San José was mixed. C remained neutral. Javier was underwhelmed, saying he never really engaged. I was quietly blown away. It might be that our respective nationalities had something to do with these reactions.

Mitre’s film is a collage of references. Part of the fun is working your way through them. To begin with, there’s a great deal of Aaron Sorkin. The film sets out its stall as a talkie, political drama. The president of Argentina, played by the likeable Ricardo Darin, is due to attend a regional summit. The day he leaves, with his team in tow, news breaks of a threat from his son-in-law to blackmail him with accusations of corruption. So far, so predictable. Darin appears to be squeaky clean, but he’s also an unknown quantity. (A neat irony, as Darin is one of the best known stars on the continent.) 

The team cross the Andes (the Cordillera of the film’s title) in a private jet, experiencing a teeth clenching level of turbulence at one point. They arrive at a plush, mountainous hotel, near to Santiago, where the summit is taking place. The hotel is reminiscent of Force Majeure - an isolated place where morality is put to the test. Darin settles in and we are introduced to the presidents of Chile, Mexico and Brazil, as the Argentine president gets inveighed into the political shenanigans of his neighbours. It’s worth noting at this point that this is a film which has been financed by Warner Brothers. It’s a big budget enterprise, featuring various superstars of the Latino/ Hispanic world, both in front of and behind the cameras. This is Latin America flexing its cinematic muscle, albeit with (presumably) financial support from Uncle Sam, something the film’s narrative ironically alludes to with the arrival of Christian Slater as a dubious representative of the US government. 

There’s something gloriously unwieldy about all of this: the narrative; the international co-pro; the far-fetched premise. The pacing is languorous and dialogue-heavy, as though the director is resisting commercial expectations. Then, with the arrival of Darin’s disturbed daughter, Marina, the film takes a twist. Whilst the President is quoting Marx to a Spanish journalist, his daughter has a decidedly funny turn and ends up mute in bed. This Hitchcockian swerve towards psycho-drama is consummated with the arrival of a psychoanalyst, a shift in the visual language, and the gradual revelation that everything we have assumed to be self-evident is nothing of the kind. 

La Cordillera is bold to the point of foolhardiness. In Latin America, there’s a tendency to view the Argentines, or at least the Porteños, as somewhat arrogant, or ‘soberbio’. La Cordillera is a decidedly ‘soberbio’ film. It’s arrogant, ambitious, over-reaching. It doesn’t really stack up. The mish-mash of styles and references pushes the boundary of the credible, risks excluding the viewer rather than engaging them. And yet, there’s also something wonderful about this boldness, or arrogance. There’s a refusal to be pigeon-holed within the assumed parameters of Latino (or third world) filmmaking. There’s a refusal to be pigeon-holed, full stop. Perhaps it was easier for me, as a non-native Latino, to suspend disbelief and go with the film’s jagged flow. But go with it I did. In contrast to the slick Relatos Salvajes, this is dangerous filmmaking which teeters on the edge of auto-destruction, but shows enough verve and brilliance to ride the turbulence, soar over the threatening peaks, and leave you wanting more. 

Friday, 8 September 2017

in the beginning was the sea [tomás gonzález]

González’s novel is a slight, storm-tossed thing. Set on an island off the coast of Colombia, it tells the tragic tale of J, a man who has had to flee the city for reasons that are never made clear, with his haughty, difficult girlfriend, Elena. J is an intellectual who isn’t cut out for island life, no matter how much he tries. Already in debt, his efforts to generate money from the land they’re living on are catastrophic. Elena succeeds in offending the locals, he becomes an alcoholic, their relationship goes to pot and J comes to a sticky end. Whilst the novel is always readable, it’s sometimes hard to fathom what, exactly, the author’s intentions are in the telling of it, beyond a somewhat obvious cautionary tale. Middle class intellectual hipster types should steer away from seeking out an idyllic hippie life, because it’s an illusory dream. Life at the rough end of civilisation is always going to be harder than the pampered middle class bank on. J’s journey has something in common with Robinson Crusoe’s, or the Lord of the Flies, or even The Beach. In the Hobbesian world, there’s no place for the weak. However, it might have helped had the book revealed more of the context for J and Elena’s fateful flight to the island and the world these protagonists’ emerged from, which might be obvious to the native Colombiano, but is less so to the average gringo. 

Saturday, 2 September 2017

my blueberry nights (w&d wong kar wai, w. lawrence block)

Wong Kar Wai had already made one affecting and intuitive road movie in the Americas, Happy Together, before he got round to his North American debut. Happy Together retained a Hong Kong/ Chinese feel through the use of its lead characters, a gay couple spiralling out of control on a road trip through Argentina, something My Blueberry Nights foregoes, with its resolutely Anglo-Saxon cast. Perhaps as a result of this, it feels like a film without a centre. The episodic narrative follows a character played by Norah Jones, who seems rootless in all the wrong ways. Not only does it feel as though she’s not really going anywhere, it also feels as though she doesn’t come from anywhere, save Hollywood Central casting. The same could be said for Jude Law, whose erratic Northern accent is supposed to suggest that he’s an itinerant Mancunian who has ended up running his own bar in New York, for reasons the script never deigns to explain. Which is not to say that the film doesn’t have its moments of bravura, Wong Kar Wai, charm, most noticeable in the performance of Rachel Weisz as a vampish  femme fatale who drives her alcoholic husband to suicide. Weisz gives it all she’s got and for a while there’s a sense of real passion, rather than contrived pseudo-passion, the kind of heightened sexual tension that made In The Mood for Love such an electrifying watch. However, this is no more than an episode in Jones’ journey, an episode that soon fizzles out with David Strathairn’s convenient automobile accident. The lighting becomes the most interesting aspect of a film which, for a supposed road movie, feels excessively pedestrian; whilst the director joins the list of greats whose Hollywood nights ended up providing more of a snack than a main course. 

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

woes of the true policeman [bolaño]

According to the notes, Bolaño spent many years working on the Woes of the True Policeman, a novel which is clearly unfinished. How many writers have stuff lying around, which was in reality part of another project, a project which gradually took over. There might be novels that spring from nowhere, fully formed, but it seems more likely that every novel is the distillation of years of thought, notes, unfinished scraps. As a narrative, overall, Woes of the True Policeman is frustratingly incomplete: a host of parts which don’t add up and aren’t fully formed enough to stand on their own two feet.  There’s clearly a reason for this. An alternative title for the book might be Notes towards the Creation of 2666. Because this is a book which acts as an escort for another book which is now regarded as a masterpiece. The central character, Amalfitano,  is one of the protagonists of 2666. The book is steeped in the fictional history of the novelist Archimboldi, another key figure in 2666. The book touches on the issue of the femicides in a Mexican border town which also constitute a major element of 2666. 

It would appear that Woes of the True Policeman is made up of material which Bolaño chose, in the end, not to include in 2666. Or perhaps, if he hadn't been dying whilst he was completing that work, this would have been material which he would have found a way to have included had he had more time to work over the text. Certainly the section on Archimboldi, which includes synopses of his novels, accounts of his friendships and enemies, etcetera feels as though it might have slotted into 2666 fairly seamlessly. 

All of which is to say that the novel is of more interest to the Bolaño aficionado than it might be to the casual reader. The narrative has too many loose ends, the novel is too bitty. Having said all of that, the one thing which that any reader can take from this novel is the unadulterated pleasure of reading Bolaño's prose. There might have been greater stylists in twentieth century literature, but they will be few and far between. No-one picks up an idea and plays with it with quite such kittenish pleasure as Bolano, and that pleasure is something the reader basks in. For a partial, frustrating, unfinished novel, there’s still a hell of a lot to enjoy.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

aquellos dos (compañía luna lunera)

Four men come on stage and start to warm up. They stop and talk to the audience. The house lights stay on. Has the play started? Has it not? Will it ever? What's it about? The men move about the stage. There's a fluidity to everything. A story starts to emerge. Two men work in a Kafkaesque office. One day they start to talk about films over coffee. They will become friends. They might become lovers. They might not. They are sacked. They are released. 

This is an exercise in loose-limbed storytelling, even though the story is little more than a Macguffin for the company’s stagecraft. The stage is cut to ribbons by the four bodies, then it's reconstructed and cut to ribbons again. Life is captured in all its repetitive glory. Days become weeks become months become a story. We remember what it's like to work somewhere, how long it takes to make a friendship, how complex a friendship can be. The show, adapted from a novel by Caio Fernando Abreu, is part narrative, part dance. It restructures reality in its own image and makes us wonder how we would tell the story of our lives. Not the show of the highlights, but the show of the mundane in-between bits. How all those ephemeral moments might be captured, documented, celebrated. All the moments we have lived and already forgotten. 

Sunday, 13 August 2017

typewriters, bombs and jellyfish (tom mccarthy)

In this collection essays, McCarthy dips into his bag of stuff and comes out with his thoughts on Ulysses, Acker, Toussaint, Richter, Sterne, Lynch, Kafka among others. As we know and love, McCarthy likes to promenade in the more esoteric cultural corners. He has none of the Englishman’s fear of the pretentious, which sometimes works in his favour and sometimes works against him. Perhaps the key motif which connects the essays is his fascination with Ed Ruscha’s Royal Road Test, which depicts a shattered typewriter, thrown from the window of a speeding Buick. This image celebrates the semiotic liberation of language, free to run wild, letters disassociated from their seemingly obligatory epistemological roots. (It’s an image which could have leapt out of Mallo’s Nocilla Dream.) McCarthy relishes the possibilities of language when it’s released from its tedious representational duties. His gods are Joyce and Mallarmé, both seers and pranksters at the same time. The longest. most sprawling of the essays is titled Nothing Will Have Taken Place Except the Place. It’s a wonderful splurge of thought, taking on Ruscha, Auden, Henry Blofeld, DeLillo, Mallarmé and Gordon’s remarkable film Zidane. When McCarthy goes full tilt at his material, allowing his mind to run riot, setting up threads which seem unlikely, implausible or irrelevant, is when it feels as though he’s at his strongest. When he postulates a more microscopic approach, it sometimes feels as though he’s in danger of drowning in a fog of whimsy or detail. His imagination needs the open road, just as much as Ruscha did. At times it feels as though McCarthy is the lone high-wire artist, steering his way between the twin towers of Anglo-Saxon culture and the European tradition. It’s no wonder that sometimes he wobbles. But when he gets it right, it doesn’t feel as though he’s tip-toeing across the wire. It feels as though he’s flying. 

Saturday, 12 August 2017

dunkirk (w&d nolan)

We went to watch Dunkirk in a cinema on Ejido, which was nearly full. People here don’t know much about the Second World War; the film has no major stars; but the grinding wheels of the publicity machine had worked and Montevideans had come out in force to see Nolan’s curious change of direction. Dunkirk is a visceral film. If the ending of Inception is one long action sequence which somewhat undermines the (relative) subtlety of that which has gone before, this film announces itself from the very first as an action picture, designed to bludgeon the spectator into submission. It’s loud. It’s in your face. It’s heart is more interested in the sound of its own beat than reaching out to find another. 

On some levels, at the time, it succeeded. For example: my grandfather was a fighter pilot who was shot down, so the story goes. On the Eastern Front, fighting for the Luftwaffe, but all the same, his fate had much in common with Tom Hardy’s journey through the sky to the coast of France. Or, at least I can imagine that it did. I don’t know how many war films I’ve watched in my life, but none has made me associate so readily with his, my grandfather’s, fate. Again, it was the sheer viscerality of the film which achieved this. It didn’t give me time to reflect. The connection occurred and it stuck. Not that I particularly cared what happened to Hardy’s character. Or any of the characters, come to that. They were figures on a battlefield, statistics. Any attempt to personalise these figures felt half-hearted. The sentimental twist of the boy who died getting his moment of glory in the local paper seemed tacked-on. As, indeed, did the whole last 10 minutes, as the troops returned home. Because it’s fairly clear that Nolan isn’t interested in the history; he’s interested in the dynamics and the logistics. He wants you to have some idea of how it feels to be stuck on a beach knowing that the sands of time are running out. The short-termism of war, the way you live for the next ten minutes, or hour, or, at most, day. In which regard, of all his films, this one has more in common with Memento than any other. 

Which is also how it ties into his wider oeuvre. Above all, Nolan is interested in time. What it means to live within edited time, when the value of a second, a minute, an hour, becomes radically heightened. Cinema narrative is about all kinds of things, love, peace, war, betrayal, you name it. But it is always, no matter what, about time. Nolan relishes this. The great attraction for the filmmaker of Dunkirk wasn’t that it was a valiant moment in British history. It was that there was a fixed time permitted to get the troops off the beach. The enemy wasn’t just the Nazis. It was time. 

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

the end of the affair [graham greene]

The End of the Affair is a multi-faceted novel. It is all of the following: a dissertation on love and its limitations; an investigation of the catholic faith, and the notion of faith in general; a subversive portrayal of Second World War Britain; and a meditation on what it means to be British. The book’s spine is the affair between Bendrix and Sarah, who is presented as something of a femme fatale. Their affair takes place during the course of the war and is terminated by the arrival of the V-1 missiles. (A kind of anti-Slothropian trope). Neither Bendrix not Sarah’s husband, Henry, are serving in the army. They live nearby in Clapham, (the influence of the novel on McEwan’s Atonement is an interesting aside), Bendrix on the unfashionable South Side, Sarah and Henry on the smarter North. Not so close that there’s much danger of them running into one another, but close enough for Sarah to visit Bendrix’s flat without difficulty. 

The fact that Greene frames his narrative around men who didn’t fight in the war immediately suggests an anti-heroic stance. The author isn’t interested in strength, but weakness. Henry is a weak husband, who fails to satisfy Sarah on any level. Bendrix is revealed to be a fool, opening the novel talking about his hatred for Sarah, who he presumed had dumped him for another man, and Henry, before gradually realising the idiocy of this hatred as the novel unfurls. And Sarah, who seems to be the strongest of the three, dies prematurely young after contracting a bout of flu. However, within this seemingly critical narrative set-up, the characters emerge as increasingly sympathetic. Just as Bendrix’s misplaced assumptions begin to fall away, so do the reader’s. 

In addition, it’s also worth noting that Bendrix is a novelist. Greene offers plenty of details regarding his working practice. 500 words a day, without fail. The way in which the unconscious shapes the novelist’s work at all times. The duty to render those unconscious thoughts/ impulses into a coherent text. These details are fascinating and instructive. It’s hard for the reader to separate the novelist himself from his novelist character. In which case, what is the End of the Affair? A work which is the product of an exculpatory urge? An act of self-flagellation? Does Greene identify with the insipid intellectual who never got his hands dirty in the war? And if not, why pick such an unsympathetic figure as a guide to love and faith? 

These are too many questions which in a sense only serve to illustrate the complexity of Greene’s text. A complexity which is echoed in the structure, as the novel flits back and forth across the timeframe of the affair in a non-linear fashion. Firstly, the novel picks up two years after the affair has ended. Then it doubles back to recount how the affair began. There’s a crucial account of the affair’s final moments, when the doodlebug struck. Then, audaciously, the author allows himself the contrivance of the discovery of Sarah’s diary, which means we revisit the narrative all over again from a second perspective. Thereafter, the novel jumps forward towards a kind of present, wound up in the days that follow Sarah’s untimely and slightly convenient death. 

This structural inquietude, along with the meditations on Catholicism, do not appear, at first sight, particularly British. It’s almost as though, just as the narrative of Britain’s glorious victory in the war is being burnished, (a narrative which is far easier to sell for the second than the first world war), Greene sets out to make a counter-narrative.  The dominant narrative still resonates, politically and culturally: Britain’s greatness and heroism, a narrative for internal consumption, which helped to gloss over the crimes of colonialism, helped to fuel the endless identity crisis with regard to Europe and could be said to have found its latest instalment in the go-it-along bravura of Brexit, should one choose to see it that way. But Greene chooses to focus on a few underwhelming metropolitan types. And, it seems to this reader, revels in their messiness, their awkwardness, their anti-heroism. This is Hamlet Britain, not the Henry the Fifth version. And I would argue that these values: awkwardness, anti-heroism, a reluctance to fight, an understanding of the messiness of life which means that, after Sarah’s death, Bendrix actually ends up living with Henry in a morbid menage a trois, (minus one), which are the attributes that distinguish the British. Not for nothing did we used to be masters of the slightly sordid art of diplomacy, an art which involves recognising the unfeasibility of an unambiguous standpoint. As Hamlet gleaned, life is far too complex for absolutes. Bendrix tries to arm himself with a shield of hatred, but as the book goes on he realises how foolish he has been to do so. 

Greene adds the great irony that the only surefire winner in life is a god that might not exist. That’s where he and Beckett perhaps overlap. The Catholicism almost seems to railroad the last part of the novel,  which goes to far as suggest, perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek, that Sarah attained some kind of sainthood. It’s of course possible to view the issue of religion as fundamental to the novel, but it seems to me that it’s a red herring. The real substance of the novel is tied up in the title. The contemplation of God occurs after the contemplation of love has been forcibly abandoned. 

Friday, 28 July 2017

al otro lado del muro (the other side of the wall) (w&d pau ortiz)

A lot is known about the problems facing Latinos when they enter the United States. Much less is known about the issues facing Central Americans when they get to Mexico. The migratory process, as noted in the work of Grillo and Martinez, among others, frequently begins a long way from Mexico, and frequently goes no further than that country. Ortiz’s film studies the fortunes of a Honduran family which has arrived in Southern Mexico. It’s never made clear why they left their homeland. The film focuses on a teenage brother (Alejandro) and his younger sister (Rocio). Their mother brought them and their two younger siblings, along with Ale’s partner, Olga, to Mexico a year ago. But now she’s in prison and the family have to fend for themselves. There’s no father and no fairy godmother. The film tells their story in two chunks, firstly introducing them and then returning a year and a half later. 

Ortiz’s film is a delicate portrayal of the struggle of those who are at the hard end. Alejandro is desperate to find work, but he doesn’t have the papers he needs. Rocio wants to live a normal teenage life, but she has to take on the responsibilities of being a foster mother to her younger siblings. They both are given moments when they speak to camera, revealing their intelligence, their wit and their struggle to cope with the hand that life has dealt them. Alejandro dreams of better things: he plans a route that will take him to the USA. Better to be an illegal there than in Mexico. Rocio fights for her independence, even though she recognises the responsibility she needs to face up to if the family is to survive. In the midst of this, their humour and mutual affection act as beacons, an example which those in more privileged positions would do well to learn from. 

The film achieves a remarkable level of intimacy. Although occasional scenes feel ‘directed’, the participants seem on the whole to be oblivious to the presence of the camera. They argue and joke as though it wasn’t there. At times the intimacy almost becomes uncomfortable: what right do we, the viewers, have to watch the family’s travails as though it were some kind of soap opera. The film is permitted, by fate, an upbeat ending, but the question remains. Which is part of the film’s strength. It forces us to confront the paradox of our own engagement. These people aren’t figures or caricatures. They are real people, desperately trying to get by, and their very humanness makes us warm to them, makes us feel as though we’d be happy to hang out with them. Only they’re right on the edge, and we’re sitting in a comfortable cinema, looking in. It would not be hard to criticise Ortiz for encouraging a kind of voyeurism through his filmmaking; yet at the same time it would be fairer to say that what he does with his film is break down the divide that is so easily constructed between the haves and the have-nots. And in so doing, his film makes us ask radical questions about the way in which our world, with its innate unfairness, is structured.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

ejercicios de memoria (w&d paz encina)

Paz Encina’s film is a rare film to emerge from Paraguay. A place with a minimal film industry, and therefore a great deal of space for the director to do their own thing. Which Encina signally does. The film recounts the story of a Paraguayan doctor, Agustín Goiburú, who set out to resist Stroessner’s dictatorship. He was arrested twice and the second time he disappeared for good. His body was never found. The tale is narrated by his children, and perhaps his grandchildren. It’s hard to tell, because these are voices, only, which float above the pictures the director presents. The images are mostly dreamy, elegiac footage of kids in the Paraguayan outback. The film opens with a shot of a child swimming underwater, then shifts to a deserted home, in the countryside. From here, it picks up on the kids. There are two groups: one of youngsters, who scramble up trees and eat wild fruit. The other is an older band of three teenage boys on horseback. One particularly striking scene shows the three boys wheeling their horses, almost completely submerged, in a fast-flowing river. Occasionally these scenes are interrupted by photos, firstly of people who disappeared in the Paraguayan dictatorship, then family photos of the doctor himself.  Linking image with word, the first voices we hear tell of childhoods lived under threat of arrest; a grown-up voice narrates how, as a child, he knew how to strip and use a shotgun. The narration gathers pace as it tells of the bomb which was supposed to blow Stroessner up and the subsequent flight and arrest. The overall effect of the piece, (which is reminiscent of the work of Ben Rivers in the way it disassociates word from image), is a gradual, beautiful haunting. The piece is called Ejercicios de Memoria, (Memory Exercises), and its subject is memory; the way in which everything that childhood brings is carried with us into adulthood; the way in which those memories are also passed on, or not, to subsequent generations. This is not so much a film about the dictatorship as one about how events form us; how we are constantly riding the past like a horse in a swirling stream.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

soldado (w&d manuel abramovich)

Abramovich’s documentary opens with an extended single take, shot on a long lens, showing soldiers from the Argentine army attempting to get into formation. This is interrupted by the arrival of more soldiers, and then more. The scene becomes chaotic. It’s not clear what the soldiers are doing, or even trying to do. The film lets the scene run for about five minutes, before the opening credits come up. It’s a bold piece of direction/ editing, which gives time for the viewer to reflect, before the film has even got going. As to plays out, it’s hard not to see the scene as a metaphor for the country itself. 

Thereafter the film follows the story of one soldier as he embarks on his career in the army. He’s a trainee drummer in the army band. The film is rigorously fly-on-the-wall. We are always observing the young man, who rarely speaks. We intuit his feelings, rather than being told. It’s only when, at one point, he goes to the doctor and explains how he’s vomiting and suffering from terrible headaches that we realise the toll that the whole process is taking on him. Towards the end of the movie, the young man returns to visit his mother and his hometown, and we get to see another side to him, although, if I’m honest, this was the part of the film which least convinced me. The film is great at capturing the dehumanising process of being in the army, where your identity has to be subsumed to fit into the greater whole. The protagonist is no Woyzeck; it almost seems as though, within the chaos of his country, he finds solace in the anonymity the army bestows. 

There’s a great deal of artistry to the way in which the film is shot (by Abramovich himself), edited and sound designed. It’s an immersive, textural journey. There’s plenty of sly irony captured by the camera, in line with that opening scene, including another where a sergeant major urges the troops to makes sure they take out proper life insurance. One member of the battalion has died, (we never learn the cause of his death), without sufficient insurance to ensure a proper burial, something his family won’t be able to afford. The security of the barracks keeps the harshness of contemporary Argentina at bay, but only just. The spectre of the dictatorship and the Malvinas hangs over this apparently neutral portrayal, which got the army’s approval. The fact that the protagonist is such a sympathetic character helps to soften the portrayal of the military; but then a brief scene of older men, not in uniform, coming together to attend the passing out ceremony, instantly raises the question: what was their role in the Military Dictatorship? And what would be the role of the protagonist if that spectre were to return?

Sunday, 23 July 2017

the night battles [carlo ginzburg]

The Night Battles is a text which explores pre-enlightenment Europe. It offers an account, taken from verbatim reports from the day, of a curious sect, (if you like), known as the benandanti. These were ordinary men and women who ganged together in order to fight witches, (using fennel stalks, among other things), in order to protect their crops. The book reveals a world where evil spirits are understood to be part of everyday life, where the battle between good and evil is one that is ongoing and tangible. Ginzburg traces how, over the centuries, the benandanti themselves came to be regarded as witches, by the church, in spite of the fact that they claimed to be fighting the said witches. Gradually, the way in which the world thinks, or shapes its consciousness, shifted, so that the benandanti went from being seen as a positive force, to being indistinguishable from those they were fighting, to becoming, by the mid 17th century, an irrelevance, a more-or-less forgotten whisper of a forgotten Europe. 

It’s not a straightforward read: this is a scholarly work of history which excavates a lost world pedantically. Yet, underneath the text, there’s the suspicion that what really interests Ginzburg (along with, perhaps, Foucault) is the way in which the human consciousness evolves and develops, incorporating and then shedding world-views, suggesting that the basis upon which the apparent fundamentals of our societies are established is always shifting. That which is solid melts into thin air, as Prospero, who would appear to have many of the qualities of a benandanti, observed. 

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?)