Sunday, 26 March 2017

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

groovy bob [harriet vyner]

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

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

Monday, 20 March 2017

civil war land in bad decline [george saunders]

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

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

homo faber [max frisch]

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

Sunday, 12 March 2017

certain women [w&d kelly reichardt]

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

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

babylon [pelevin]

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

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

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

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

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


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