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. 


(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.)

Monday, 20 February 2017

transparent things [nabakov]

Nabokov is a name imbued with such a mystique that it’s in danger of overwhelming the reading experience. How do you judge the work of a alt-20th centre master? It’s too many years since I read his work. Mr C recommended Transparent Things. I have dutifully read this somewhat clumsy narrative, detailing the life and times of Mr Person, a thinly developed character whose love life is brought to an abrupt end when he strangles his wife in his sleep. Nabakov lends a strange insularity to the story. He both inhabits Person’s perspective and observes it. You might say there are suggestions of the development of the modern roman a la Toussaint or Chefjec, if it weren’t for the mannered narrative tone, which accentuates the presence of the author at every step. In calling his protagonist Person, there’s the suggestion he might be being presented as an everyman. Only Person feels like such a recherché figure, with his Alpine trips and his unlikely womanising, that one can’t help thinking in the end that this is an everyman dreamt up by a writer who had become so far removed from the everyday that he no longer had much of an idea of what an everyman might be. 

Sunday, 19 February 2017

planet of slums [mike davis]

Davis’ book is like an anti-tourist guide. It takes you into all the places that the shiny world doesn’t want to be seen. Although it’s only 200 pages, it’s a sprawling, comprehensive guide to a the urban populations of all every continent on earth. Davis readily skips from Kinshasa to Quito, Shanghai to Cairo. He brings an encyclopaedic knowledge to bear on the issues that blight the vast expansive super-cities which have evolved over the course of the last 30 years. The details are terrifying. From sanitation and sewage to education and child labour, he reveals how most of the world is inhabiting a new Dickensian nightmare, whilst the G7 politicians congratulate themselves on their successes. One chapter mercilessly skewers the notion that privatisation leads to better living standards, dissecting the way in which the IMF/ World Bank’s SAP policy (Structural Adjustment Program) has only enhanced poverty in third world slums. The section on Kinshasa is devastating. 

Besides its academic value, Davis’ book is invaluable because it casts a light on a world which is neglected and ignored. How can we still exist in a world where the imbalances between rich and poor are so invidious, and becoming more so? Whilst people from the Western world holiday in far-off climes, bringing back stories of exotic life-affirmation, the countries they visit possess poverty on a scale that seems unimaginable. Davis’ work helps to make the invisible visible. Although, in reading Plante of Slums. one is also made aware of how little those of us who live in more privileged regions have access to information regarding the actual conditions under which a vast proportion of the world’s population subsists. 

How we move on to the next stage of creating a more equitable society, given the failures of the neoliberal model, is the challenge the book lays down. 

Thursday, 16 February 2017

toni erdmann (w&d maren ade)

It’s far easier to criticise than to eulogise. That’s a rule of thumb. To observe flaws is harder than it is to deliver praise. Flaws stand out, like marks on a dirty wall. They ask to be addressed. The flawless work is blank. How should one approach this? Are there hidden flaws which haven’t been spotted? How do you get in there, find the opening to dissect? Is it even necessary?

There is of course, no such thing as a flawless film, and I am sure that if there were, Toni Erdmann wouldn’t want to be that film. It’s a film, if anything, that glories in faults. Glories in the uncomfortable zones where people do stupid things. Because, and even if this is what is called in Spanish, un obviedad, that’s how people learn. 

The film is the story of a father and a daughter who have drifted apart. The father, on the tail-end of middle age, wants to reconnect. He will go to any lengths to do so. He’s prepared to embarrass his daughter, jeopardise her career, provoke her wrath. She’s a career woman and he’s trying to teach her there’s more to life than that. This is the ostensible premise. Which then gets flipped, as, in an unexpected twist, she decides to accept his proposal and sets about teaching him a few lessons of his own.

This is the stuff of comedy, but, although there are some spectacularly funny scenes, Toni Erdmann isn’t a standard comedy. Perhaps it has more in common with the screwball comedies of Hawks. But it’s also a serious, engaged and entertaining examination of the way in which our society operates. Our society being the neoliberal model, within which the world has chosen to function. Ines works for a consultancy that is looking for a contract to restructure the oil business in Romania. This will imply redundancies and social upheaval. The film also shows the other side of the tracks: the poor Romanians who live across the road from the five star hotels; will neoliberalism help those trapped in poverty to escape or will it just make things worse? Ines drags her father into this complex ideological terrain. In desperation he resorts, in a symbolic way, to pre-christian beliefs, hoping to find some way to cut through this cruel modern world and reach out to her. He sort-of achieves this. Even though we learn at the film’s conclusion that far from having given up her business career, Ines is going to Singapore, where she’s going to work for McKinsey. The very apex of the neoliberal world. 

In many ways, this is a film about how difficult it is to learn to accept ourselves in all our faulty glory in the world we have created. As one would hope from a film as near-faultless as this, there’s no suggestion of solutions. Ines’ father learns a lesson and then doesn’t learn from it after all. Ines will continue to plough her lonely furrow. All we can do is keep going and try to find a way to be a little more human with one another. 


On a side-note, it’s worth mentioning use of camera and cinematic techniques. Toni Erdmann is a long film, but it remains engrossing throughout. It reminds us of the  pleasure of sitting in a cinema and letting a narrative whose outcome we cannot predict unfold. With the courage of its convictions to do so without resorting to elaborate set-pieces or fancy tricks. The camera never does anything extravagant; its role is to follow the characters and be true to their journey. There are no magic shots, no elaboration. The film reminds us that, more than anything else, cinema is an adjunct of the art of storytelling, and reminds us that, all too often, the other stuff can get in the way. 

Monday, 13 February 2017

christine (d. antonio campos, w. craig shilowich)

I don’t know if it’s a question of the programming of the London cinemas or my lack of adventurism, but there seems to be a surplus of US material. Christine is another solidly constructed US drama. It’s based on the true story of Christine Chubbuck, a 1970s reporter who shot herself on air. Given that her story has a notoriety which is the reason the film is being made, the ending is always in sight. We know this woman is going to have a breakdown which will result in her suicide. The key is how the film navigates this process. It does it with a clear-eyed linear efficiency, resisting any impulse to explore the interior world of her depression in any kind of poetic or heightened cinematic fashion. Instead the script employs a dry wit, permitting us to identify with this anguished soul as she rails against the ridiculousness of the news-making process she is a part of. The topical issue of “fake news” never seems far away (will the reader have any idea of what this means in thirty years time?), as is the suggestion of an America which is in danger of losing its moral compass. The impeachment process against Nixon is the political backdrop for Christine’s story, although she herself is operating in a sleepy Floridian town. Her editor’s desire to sensationalise the local news is part of what drives her to despair, with the suicide representing, according to the film’s version, a kind of semiotic statement on the absurdity of the process of news itself. All of this is handled adroitly by the script and the film. A more profound exploration of the reporter’s mental illness is left to Rebecca Hall, who plays her. Hall’s performance is notable: the sidewise looks and mood swings are realised with an economy that never threatens to turn into caricature. It’s her performance which lends weight to a film which sometimes seems so tied up with presenting a measured, ironic portrayal of this corner of 1970s USA that it’s in danger of losing touch with the seismic personal trauma its heroine is experiencing. 

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

manchester by the sea (w&d kenneth lonergan)

"Manchester, so much to answer for."

From a British perspective, one of the most striking aspects of Lonergan’s film is the title. Manchester has never been and never will by the sea. It’s hard to know whether the American director has chosen the title as an ironic nod to the original Mancunians or not. What is notable is the names of the small towns which are thanked in the credits. Richmond, Gloucester, Essex, etc. All stout English names. Which reflects the fact that this is an implacably Anglo-Saxon film. It doesn’t even have the Gaelic tinge which many north-east coast US films do. (cf Casey Affleck’s brother’s oeuvre, not to mention The Departed etc). However many years ago, disenfranchised dreamers from Britain landed on this shore, and set about constructing an immigrant’s version of the old world. The names didn’t change all that much. The question is: did the values? 

This is all the more prescient because one can’t help thinking that the world Lonergan portrays feels like Trump-world. It’s introspective, small-town and tainted by prejudice. Casey Affleck’s character, Lee Chandler, is blackballed by the community for his supposed role in his children’s death. No-one will give him a job and in the end it’s completely understandable why he has to leave. No matter that Lonergan seeks and succeeds in wresting a cathartic narrative out of Lee’s misfortunes; that which underpins it, besides an act of god, is the local community’s almost complete lack of empathy. Manchester-by-the-Sea is far closer to The Crucible than Little House on the Prairie or Our Town. There are also echoes of Vinterberg’s The Hunt, even if Lonergan is interested in creating a redemptive narrative, rather than a condemnatory one. At heart, Lonergan would appear to be a sentimental soul, seeking to find shards of hope within the harshness of the universe and the societies his characters inhabit. 

The complexities of the film make it richer. Affleck’s protagonist has no shortage of flaws. He’s given a classical journey to go on and that journey is meticulously laid out. It is a cinematic masterclass, to the point of cliche, in the art of the character arc. However, what makes Manchester-by-the-Sea special is that it does more than this. It creates a portrayal of contemporary US society which is poised in the balance between kindness and cruelty. A Morrisey-esque dichotomy. Which way will the respective Anglo-Saxon worlds tip? Will there be space for the Lee Chandlers of this world, the damaged survivors? Or will they be driven out? 

Sunday, 5 February 2017

w, or the memory of childhood, [georges perec]

Perec’s novel includes a whole section is apparently set on an island in Tierra del Fuego, visited last year, which is what lead me to it. I didn’t realise that it’s also another novel to add to the cannon on the Holocaust. Perec adopts a subversive, lateral approach to the subject. The novel describes an island where the narrator’s namesake has perhaps ended up after being shipwrecked in the South Atlantic ocean. The island is a paean to sport, with rituals dedicated to an annual athletic event which is an echo of the (modern and ancient) Olympic games. As the author describes the island in more and more detail, it becomes increasingly nightmarish. What at first seems like healthy competition eventually proves to be a desperate battle for survival in the face of an exterminatory system. At the very end of the novel, the link between the island and the concentration camps is made explicit. There’s something remarkable about the way in which Perec posits links between a society constructed around the banality of sport, and the historical reality of the Holocaust. Our continued glorification of sport as an antidote to politics or political action gives the book an ongoing prescience. W is a brief novel, which includes alternating chapters that offer a potted version of the author’s childhood, revealing how he managed to evade the Nazis, even though his mother didn’t. She died in the camps. The arm’s-length tone of the book’s description of the island masks the author’s personal stake in the terrible history W recounts. The book’s brevity gives it an added power, as the novel traces its metaphor towards a  terrible, seemingly logical end.