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.
Wednesday, 28 June 2017
Friday, 16 June 2017
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 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
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
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.