Tuesday, 24 October 2017

i was told to come alone: my journey behind the lines of jihad [soaud mekhennet]

Soaud Mekhennet’s book is part autobiography, part thriller, and most importantly, all journalism. It leaves the reader with little doubt that it’s one of the most important books of the century. This is because it’s hard to think of another writer who seems to have got close to not just bridging the gap between “the West” and “Islam” but also clarifying and explaining how and why a conflict has arisen between these two concepts. 

It starts with a deeply personal account of her own upbringing, the child of a Turkish and Moroccan (Shia and Sunni) immigrants to Germany, who spent some of her early years in Morocco, who experienced the benefits and the downsides of being a second generation immigrant. This is essential to an understanding of her perspective. Although she makes it clear she has no truck with terrorism of any form, she can begin to understand why young Western youths becomes radicalised. This understanding in turn helps her to make contacts and get under the skin of a conflict which has devastated the Middle East and had such a striking impact on Europe and the States in the 21st century. 

Time after time Mekhennet is there, making sense of history for us. Putting herself at risk to do so. She reports from Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain, the train stations of Vienna, the mosques of Hamburg, London and beyond. This is a writer straddling the modern world with the contacts of a spy, the insights of religious expert and the humanity of a family member whose life has also been touched by tragedy. She can say with authority that which seems obvious but that which Western politicians so steadfastly refuse to accept: that Western foreign policy does impact the thinking of ordinary people in both the Middle East and Europe and has contributed to their radicalisation. She can say it because she’s spoken to ISIS fighters or wannabe fighters and they’ve told her. Her critique of Western attitudes to the Arab Spring proves prophetic, as well as the way that the hallowed concept of “democracy” might not be the salve-all that people claim.

The stories of the world today aren’t governed by borders anymore than governments are. No matter how much they might seek to fence themselves in. The world is porous. The internet ensures that the thing which happens in a village in Kashmir or Peru will be known in Paris or New York or Dundee. Mekhennet’s book goes further towards helping to make sense of this jumbled world and its terrifying consequences than anything else you are likely to read. She traces the threads from Kabul to London, from Bahrain to Hamburg, from Casablanca to Vienna. Her book often reads like a novel and is all the more remarkable for being true. 

Saturday, 21 October 2017

satori in paris [jack kerouac]

We were given this book to read by an eager young teacher at school, when we were about 16. I have no idea what I made of it. Re-reading it 30 years later, I couldn’t remember a thing from my earlier reading. Then again, it’s such a flippant, discursive little book, that’s hardly surprising. Mr Kerouac goes to France for a week and jots down his observations, which mostly consist of random meetings in bars, taxi journeys and the odd pick-up. Ostensibly he’s looking into his family history and the origins of his name, but even that seems of marginal importance, although it does give him plenty of opportunities to display his erudition as he reels off lists of the French writers he’s read. The narrative isn’t the thing about the book, nor are the characters, save perhaps for the narrator. It’s all about style. And there’s plenty of that. To what extent Kerouac defined a style of american prose, or to what extent he was part of a wave, is up for debate. What isn’t debatable is the continued potency of a hip irreverence which at the time must have seemed groundbreaking, and now feels commonplace. What also seemed striking was how enjoyable this breezy style is, like drinking a cold beer on a hot day. Although it might also be that the brevity of the book helps to ensure its success. Too much lightness can soon start to feel heavy; the writer shows impeccable timing by curtailing the trip and heading back to Florida before his journey has really got going; before he gets on our nerves.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

feos (w guillermo calderon, d aline kuppenheim)

Feos (which means “the uglies” in English) is a featherweight theatre piece which nevertheless punches hard. It recounts the story of two hideously disfigured people who meet at the cinema, go for a coffee, then go back to his and make love. The majority of the 50 minute play is taken up by the conversation in the cafe. The action cuts in and  out of their conversation as they gradually get to know one another. It’s a love story, but a love story between two people who believe themselves fundamentally unloveable. They feel this way because of their disfigurement. Part of the skill of the piece is that this disfigurement has a metaphysical edge, as everyone feels themselves to be unloveable, in their own secret fashion. The beauty of love is that it succeeds in overcoming this innate, common instinct, no matter what you look like. Calderon again reveals his exactitude as a dramatist, burrowing away at this scene in order to extract every nuance, every tragic-comic detail. Calderon writes like a dog with a bone it’s in love with: he won’t leave a scene until every last scrap of meat is off that bone. It’s an intense but affecting style, whose potency gets its pay-off in the last scene, when the lovers go back to his flat and decide that, in spite of the fact they are so unloveable, they will commit to love each other. 

There is a twist to the show. Which is that these two “people”, are actually puppets, manipulated by no less than five puppeteers (who received a great reception when they came out to take a bow). The effect of this is that it acts as a distancing device, which allows us as an audience to disengage sufficiently from the action to not feel as though we are being voyeuristic as we observe the intimacy of these two damaged characters. It also means we don’t gawp; this isn’t a freak show. In some way, knowing that these characters aren’t actually human, allows us to engage more with their feelings. We don’t need to feel pity for them, because we know they’re not “real”. Rather we engage with our own experiences of meeting someone who helps to make our own stay upon this sometimes painful earth make sense.

We saw the play on the night that Guillermo Calderon’s play opened at the Royal Court in London. He’s a writer who always takes the high road, never the low. Which sometimes makes him challenging, but the work is all the richer for that. His writing makes you acutely aware of the possibilities of theatre, in a way which few contemporary playwrights are capable of. Feos is a bold, beautiful piece which celebrates the importance of seeing, being seen, and also not being seen, the darkness. It’s also a piece whose many words reinforce, when they reach a quietus, the value of silence and the way in which these opposites nurture each other. 

Thursday, 12 October 2017

a narco history [carmen boullosa & mike wallace]

A Narco History tells the history of the narcotics industry in Mexico, and by default the USA, from the early days of the 19th century, when Chinese immigrants were early pioneers of what was, at that point, a legitimate narcotics trade, through to the savagery of the 21st. The book opens with a detailed account of the murder of 43 normalistas in Ayotzinapa in 2014, an event whose pointlessness and barbarity finally started to provoke a political reaction at a grass roots level to the intertwined violence and corruption which has devastated the country. The book then uses Ayotzinapa as a point of reference, one it builds towards during the course of its narrative. The book is particularly concerned with the relationship between Mexico’s politics and the drugs trade, something which ensures it also investigates the links with politicians from the USA. The authors, one a Mexican novelist, the other a North American historian, establish clearly the degree of political collusion between the two countries that suits various interests, but leads to bloodshed and civil chaos in the towns, villages and countryside of Mexico. In spite of the terrible nature of much of what the book documents, it resists any instinct to sensationalism, ending with a considered overview of the feasibility of legalisation and the possibilities of de-escalating the narco-wars. 


An aside: when Mr Amato and I were traveling through Michoácan in 2015, we visited a small pueblo, not far from where we were staying. It was a Sunday on the weekend of the Dia de Los Muertos. It was about eleven in the morning. People had gathered outside the cemetery, filing in with flowers and offerings for their dead. There was a festive atmosphere. It’s a day for celebration as much as mourning. The nearby pueblo we had been staying in had felt completely safe and untroubled by the issues that plague Mexico, which A Narco History talks about. Our travels around the area were similarly untroubled. This nondescript place was only part of our itinerary because we needed to catch a bus there. A large, friendly fellow, wearing a broad straw hat, came over and started talking to us. We talked a bit about the day of the dead. Then he said something along the lines of, they’re going to be watching us. We weren’t quite sure what he meant. He explained. He said that anyone from the pueblo who was seen talking to strangers would be noted. They’d be watching us even now. He said that this particular pueblo was controlled by someone, whose name meant nothing to us. That nothing happened here without their say-so. They controlled everything. They’d know that he’d been talking to us, it was obvious, anyone could see. He talked breezily, hurriedly. As though he was making the most of what he knew was a very brief opportunity to explain something very important. Eventually, after less than ten minutes, he said he had to go. We walked away, towards the bus stop, which was on the edge of the pueblo. Everything looked so normal. The townspeople were out and about doing what townspeople do. But that brief chat had torn the veil off this normality. And for a moment, everything looked frighteningly different. 

Monday, 9 October 2017

the company (d altman; w. neve campbell & barbara turner)

Altman’s ballet film is a curio and a great example of how the mish-mash of filmmaking means that a potentially potent project fails to come off. The film is set in Chicago and uses dancers from the Joffrey ballet company. There are roles for two choreographers who play themselves, Lar Lubovitch and Robert Desrosiers, the latter to great comic effect. There are numerous dance sequences, lovingly filmed, giving the film a strong visual aesthetic. The sequence of Neve Campbell’s dance in the open air theatre, as the storm closes in, is particularly effective. This is filmmaking with a sense of risk which echoes the risk the dancers and the audience seem to be taking. However… the film stars Neve Campbell and she’s also given a story credit, alongside the screenwriter. Campbell dances alongside the rest of the ballet company, with some panache. (It doesn’t look like she’s being body-doubled, a la Portman in Black Swan, but I may be wrong). She also plays a low-key, introspective character, who gets involved in a low-key fashion with James Franco’s young and tender sous-chef. If these character notes sounds wooly, they’re positively concrete in comparison to the narrative, which feels like one of the wooliest narratives ever concocted. Apart from getting together with Franco, and hurting her shoulder when she falls awkwardly, and dancing, absolutely nothing happens to Campbell’s character. There’s no journey, no development, no story to speak of. Which might not have mattered, except for the fact that The Company reminds us of the importance of narrative. As a filmmaker, Altman was a master of creating a world, in a neo-documentary style, and immersing the viewer in that world. Which is something he achieves in The Company. Anyone who has had any dealings with a ballet company will recognise the authenticity of the portrayal. But the portrayal alone begins to become less and less compelling as the film goes on. Because you need a narrative to construct a reason to watch that portrayal. You need stories to knit the fly-on-the-wall elements to life. The script makes a half-hearted attempt to do this at times, with stray storylines about a dancer who’s got nowhere to stay, a storyline which never develops; and Malcolm McDowell’s somewhat laboured character of the great, yellow-scarfed ex-dancer who’s now the autocratic head of the company, but none of these strands are in any way developed, just as Campbell’s character remains frustratingly nebulous. The film collapses in on itself through the lack of narrative. What we’re left with are sketches for a movie: Altman’s capacity to film dance (which was clearly the aspect he enjoyed most in the making of the film); Altman’s documentary-style approach which might have made for a great film about a ballet company but didn’t; and the story of the naif ballerina, Campbell’s alter-ego, which never really got off the page. A glorious failure perhaps, a great example of what film can be when all the pieces of the puzzle are present, but no-one can be bothered to put them together. 

Saturday, 7 October 2017

the power and the glory [greene]

The whisky priest feels like a definitive Greene trope, even if you’ve never read Greene. Catholic angst. Addiction. The struggle. 

It’s a hard to put a finger on Greene. Was he conservative or radical? Was he establishment or anti-establishment? On the one hand  he carved out a role as a celebrated British man of letters. He’s not an outsider like Lowry, for example. On the other, his themes and interests are decidedly internationalist. As though the British shores were too suffocating and he, like Lowry, had to swim away in order to find the stories that mattered, or find a context within which he felt as though he could tell the stories he wanted to tell. 

The Power and the Glory finds him in deepest, darkest Mexico, at the time of the repression of the priests, following the Calles law. The book follows a downtrodden priest as he tries to escape, constantly finding himself held back by the pull of his own conscience. Greene transforms the priest into a minor saint, with a coda showing a child’s veneration of the fallen hero. It’s a novel which feels both brilliantly constructed and yet dry, slightly brittle. The author’s eye always appears to be outside, looking in, rather than inside looking out. We sympathise with the priest but we never empathise with him. You sense that in so many ways Greene is using the character of the priest to articulate his own struggles as a believer; yet it also feels as though the author is using his narrative as a framing device which allows him to maintain a distance, to not engage.

It’s a curious, double-edged approach. Greene’s skill as a novelist is not in doubt. He maintains an alien story as it unfolds towards its seemingly inevitable grim conclusion. The skill is admirable; the power undeniable; but the passion feels as though it’s kept at arm’s length; the glory is evanescent, opaque.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

mother (w&d aronofsky)

Aronofsky lets his hair down.
No doubt about it. This is the equivalent of a director rocking out with the longest extended drum solo he can get away with. Well actually, two drum solos, because the film is essentially two hyper-ventilating sequences which belong to no real genre apart from a the excess genre (which doesn’t exist). cf Ken Russell, the closing sequence of Zabriskie Point, Zulawski etc.
Aronofsky goes eco-conscious.
Because, yes, this is an allegory about mother nature and the way that mankind had raped and pillaged the earth in the quest to make his beautiful music. 
Aronofsky goes Sarah Kane.
Well, to be fair, he’s not the only one. It’s just that having recently worked on Blasted, you pick up the way in which violence and shock-value are used, artfully, to provoke a reaction, and that’s exactly what Mother is doing too. It wants you to walk out. It wants you to say, Ya basta, as many of the good citizens of Montevideo did indeed do on Saturday night.
Aronofsky reveals unexpected sense of humour.
Which is connected to this point; you can almost hear the cackling glee of the director behind the camera as he unleashes his next affront on the viewer. Take that, he says, with a big grin, and he’s right, because Mother is hilarious. 
Aronofsky has fun at the studio’s expense.
What a joy it must have been to sit on the first preview screenings. You’ve got Lawrence and Bardem and Harris and Pfeiffer this is what you’re doing with them?
Aronofsky the provocateur (again)
Mother might be his closest film to Requiem for a Dream; only this is a project which lacks the po-faced quality of the earlier film. Requiem took itself so seriously it was painful, for all concerned, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Mother doesn’t appear to take itself seriously at all, but somewhere lurking in both films is the need to activate the spectator, to make them less passive than they’d normally expect to be during the cinema experience. So much so that you could just about get away with calling it Brechtian.