Monday, 29 May 2017

landmarks [robert macfarlane]

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

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

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

Friday, 26 May 2017

bricks and mortar [clemens meyer]

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

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

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

Monday, 22 May 2017

burden (d. richard dewey, timothy marrinan)

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

henri duchemin and his shadows [emmanuel bove]

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

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

Saturday, 13 May 2017

the salesman (w&d asghar farhadi)

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

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

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

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


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

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

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

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

Sunday, 7 May 2017

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

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

Thursday, 4 May 2017

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

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

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

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

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