Saturday, 29 April 2017

graduation (w&d christian mungiu)

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

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

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

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

fever dream [samanta schweblin]

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

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

Sunday, 23 April 2017

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 20 April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

graceland [chris abani]

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

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

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



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

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

all dogs are blue [rodrigo de souza leāo]

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

Monday, 3 April 2017

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 1 April 2017

nocilla dream [agustin fernandez mallo]

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