New FB game doing the rounds. An FB friend asks you to list your X favourite films. Kevin Stenson gave me 21 and I wrote the first ones that came to mind, in order, without reflecting. It will almost certainly change tomorrow. I nonetheless thought it worth sharing.
1. Law of Desire
2. A tout prendre
3. Tokyo Story
4. Rocco and His Brothers
5. Spirit of the Beehive
6. Some Like It Hot
8. Les Parapluies de Cherbourg
9. La Verité
10. Written on the Wind
12. Meet Me in St. Louis
13. Swing Time
14. A Star is Born (Cukor version)
15. Dog Day Afternoon
16. Foul Play
17. North by Northwest
18. Big Deal on Madonna Street
19. Bringing Up Baby
21. Los Olvidados
Le Samouraī is all slate-grey sadness edged by Courrèges-like white modernist elements and encased in lazy jazz. Plus Alain Delon in his prime: Gorgeous. I had the luck to see it at the Cine Doré, the cinema where Benigno (Javier Camará) goes to see the silent ‘The Shrinking Man’ in Almodóvar’s Talk to Her and which acts as a metaphor for a loving violation. It’s worth remarking that the Spanish title of Le Samouraï, El silencio de un hombre, which translates literally as ‘A Man’s Silence,’ here markets noir, whereas a woman’s silence, like the women in Talk to Her, women whom circumstance prevent their speaking their truth, would instantly connote melodrama. The connections between noir and melodrama interest me and Le Samourai, like Talk to Her, is mired in muteness.
Delon’s Jeff Costello appears to us as languid loneliness enveloped in puffs of smoke from the first shot and he remains – not autistic, not even impassive – rather recessive, detached throughout. Is it that he can’t speak his ills or that he simply doesn’t know them? No matter, Melville and the film do, and every frame and camera move speaks them. The world of Le Samourai is a dirty one for a professional hit-man who claims some honour. Delon’s Costello is focussed on doing but disconnected from being, yet wanting. He’s desired but unable to reciprocate such longings: desire would imply longing, wanting and indicate a rooted and fleshly existence that Costello seems detached from. It’s a glorious film. Lovely print too. My main visual memory is an image of Delon as Costello, filmed outside his car window, rendered out of focus by fog and rain. The most memorable scene is the last one, where his professionalism battles his honour and Being succumbs to Nothingness.
Now You See Me: The Second Act (John M. Chu, 2016)
I rather liked Now You See Me; and I love caper films, magic, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg and Morgan Freeman. But all of that together didn’t add up to liking Now You See Me: The Second Act. Daniel Radcliffe is a very unsatisfactory villain; that he’s often paired with Michael Caine in the frame invites comparison and only highlights his shortcomings: one can see that Radcliffe is giving a performance that’s been thought through but Caine still squeezes more out of one tired look or the way he says ‘bastard’ than Radcliffe does from his whole frantic performance. Moreover, the camera woozes about all over the place. And the cons have to be painstakingly explained as an addendum at the finale. It wasn’t painful to watch. And there was a moment where one of the wonderful card-trick set-pieces was revealed, where the guy behind me said ‘Ooohh that’s so sexy’. But it could have been so much better. The inclusion of Chinese elements (language, location, casting) as a way of catering specifically for that market I have mixed feelings about: it could be enrichingly multicultural or it could seem a cheap commercial gimmick. Here it feels the latter. Too bad.
The Legend of Tarzan (David Yates, 2016)
Will anyone care that The Legend of Tarzan is terrible?: Christoph Waltz is the villain and Alexander Skarsgard swings half-naked from trees on IMAX. The filmmakers have tried really hard to resolve issues of racial representation. It’s everywhere evident. But they’ve failed, again; and it might just be that they are insurmountable if one takes Edgar Rice Burrough’s world as a given. This is all a fight against the King of the Belgians enslaving the peoples of the Congo; so its got a historical basis which neatly creates a villain whilst leaving a history, not to mention an analysis, of British colonialism untouched and neatly off the hook: the racial politics are, at best, contorted. Margot Robbie is acceptable but doesn’t shine. Samuel L. Jackson is Samuel L. Jackson. Waltz is Waltz. Djimon Hounsou looks and acts better than both. But Hounsou’s performance and Alexander Skasgård swinging half-naked from a tree do not compensate: the film is terrible.
Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (Mandie Fletcher, 2016)
I loved Ab Fab the movie. It’s trashy, inconsequential, uneven but with great jokes and many real laugh-out-loud moments. Like the show, but with everyone looking 20 years older and the film making that it’s central issue. When discussing the film with friends, I was surprised that so many of them took issue with Jennifer Saunders. She’s shy and stiff and awkward and not a natural performer. But she makes that funny to me. This is the type of film where Joan Collins appears in multiple cameos as herself, all trying to look 25. If you can’t see the humour in that, or in the film actively responding to internet rumours that Patsy might really be Patrick, stay home. If you think Kate Moss drowning in the Thames might make front pages internationally and care about Jean-Paul Gaultier, this film is definitely for you.
Badlands (Terence Malick, 1973)
A real treat to be able to see Badlands again in a gorgeous print at The Electric Cinema in Birmingham: the landscapes, the tone, Sissy Spacek: all were better than I remembered; and Martin Sheen wasn’t as bad. I first saw it when I was a teen and then found it dull and unexciting. I have seen it since, but on a small screen, and the effect of the landscape also passed me by. It’s simply gorgeous in this print and on a big screen; it affects you viscerally in a way that it hadn’t me when seen on a TV monitor. I learned to appreciate it as I got older but didn’t really love it until now. It is definitely a serial killer road movie. Spacek not only looks the part so terrifically but she does tiny gestures, lovely, that flesh out a performance ever so beautifully and that are communicated clearly and powerfully on a big screen. I’m still uncertain about Sheen. Personally, I don’t find Spacek falling for him so quickly is credible: his tightly worked-out but pinched and slightly contorted body, his lack of height, which no careful staging can conceal; his age. Why he falls for her is clear; the reverse isn’t quite. I took it as a conceit of the film; something one simply decides to accept. Sheen is interesting because everything he does is good but I can imagine other people being more effective in that part (for some reason Jan-Michael Vincent, then a hot up-and-coming star but not nearly as good an actor, is the first to come to mind as better casting; someone with a real sexual threat that doesn’t need unexpectedly shooting people to convey it); a fascinating oral history of the film in GQ mentions that Don Johnson and Robert De Niro were also mooted for the part. All then had the sexual threat and the charisma that Sheen lacks here. On the other hand, this is all speculative. Sheen is a wonderful actor and is better than good here. And really, it’s all quibbling. Badlands is a work of poetry and a truly great movie.
On the evidence of Gods of Egypt, Gerald Butler might have found his calling playing villains. He’s terrific and so is the movie. It’s like the very best ‘Sword and Sandal’ films of the 50s — lots of gorgeous semi-naked people cursing fate and doing graceful things with their bodies they call ‘combat’ –but with more interesting and sophisticated visuals. The film shows us Gods twice the size of mortals in the same frame throughout. It’s visually extraordinary i.e. like he major spectacular moments of films like Ant-Man but treated nonchalantly, not really drawn attention to, just part of this magical world conjured up by Alex Proyas. It’s a look that becomes gobsmacking upon reflection and in retrospect — and that’s just one aspect of this gloriously imaginative film. Some of the acting, however, is still at moments bad enough to bring out a camp response. So, all in all, rather perfect.
I was surprised to see that the reviews have been so bad. It seems performances are all professional critics pay attention and performances are a problem in Gods of Egypt . However, Butler has never been better. Rufus Sewell, who was so memorable in Proyas’ classic Dark City is still looking very handsome and is very good as a cold and conniving architect. Some have expressed surprise he’s never quite become a star but he’s had lots of chances. People can’t seem to identify with him, one of the many reasons he’s so effective in this. There are a few duff performances, but not offensively so (Nicolaj Coster-Waldeau is no different in Game of Thrones and no one seems to mind; and except for the final speech he makes at the end, I thought he was fine); and I think the story is an interesting one (the origin of the kings of Egypt), well told, and timely (it’s partly about the need of the 1% to listen to the 99%).
I think Proyas is a master at constructing arresting and meaningful visuals. The film is tons of fun, with superb set-pieces, action that genuinely engages and thrills and is visually pretty breathtaking at times. I know there’s been a brouhaha about the casting. But no one’s wearing blackface; how exactly were Egyptian Gods supposed to look like at the Dawn of Creation? And even if we admit that there’s a tinge of racism to the casting of this film, why is this more the case here than in any other big budget spectacle film? Gods of Eguypt will undoubtedly become a staple of television schedules for year to come but there may not be too many opportunities to see it in its full glory. If you can, go for the full IMAX 3-D treatment. It’s worth it.
Based on Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, Love and Friendship won me over in the end. But I did wonder if it wasn’t too slight, derivative and possibly better as a play. It’s a stupid think to say — and wrong also –but for lack of a better way of putting it: I at first didn’t think it was cinematic enough (except for the explanatory subtitles at the beginning and in the letter -reading/writing scenes which structure the narrative). I thought it too talky. But then the film’s languid rhythms, its classic but slightly askew compositions and it’s tone – which a friend described as on the right side of arch – won me over. I did end up loving it. But I wasn’t sure I would until it ended.
Adrien Garvey has described Love and Friendship as a sketched-in heritage film, which I think describes it beautifully. It doesn’t offer the visual pleasures of the traditional heritage films such as A Room with a View (James Ivory, UK, 1985) or other Jane Austin adaptations: the sumptuousness of place (here the stately home is slightly run-down), costume (modest for the period, slightly worn, like the best clothes of those who can’t quite afford them) or setting: none of this is used as spectacle here. But then, to its credit, it also eschews the nostalgic tone of heritage in favour of a smarter, slightly more worldly and wittily cynical flavour. Unlike Chlōe Sevigny, who’s every appearance as Alicia Johnson seems to leap off the screen, Kate Beckinsale seems to lack charisma in the first scenes. But then her performance wins you over on merit: Her Lady Susan takes no relish in her wickedness; she doesn’t underline or make a show of it; all Beckinsale does simply becomes who the character is. It’s a shrewd, witty and understated performance. And then there’s James Fleet who steals every scene he’s in with mere intonation.
Love and Friendship is an elegant chamber piece that feels slight, echoey, thin and empty at the beginning but fills out, gets richer, more resonant, and more enjoyable as it unfolds. Very typical and very good Whit Stillman.
Extraordinary work from cinematographer Peter Suchitzky in Tale of Tales: the whole film looks like Renaissance painting at its best, with gorgeous décor and the most sumptuous costumes as a perfect setting for the fantastical, otherworldly, frightful and harsh. I liked the film also, and I’ve never seen Selma Hayek better: she’s become like a great silent film actress, both astonishingly beautiful and hauntingly expressive. The film’s a bit dark and gory, as fairy tales should be. And all the surprises are told in the most matter of fact way. The horror, both bodily and fantastical is shown as if from a culture that teaches one to simply expect the worst and bear it. There is gore but much less so than in your average horror film, actually practically nothing. There’s a scene where a princess slashes a troll’s head (which is delightful) and that’s about the worst of it. I can see why it would leave some people slightly cold: the different intertwined narratives are morality tales meant to be pondered over, and with intelligence; and they’re not told at the pace of Gods of Egypt. It’s not for children; it’s not quite a genre film; it’s not gory enough to satisfy horror fans. It must be murder to market. Yet, all the more reason to make an effort to see it. I think it’s one of the most beautiful, haunting and resonant films of the last few years.
It is available to see as a VOD on Curzon Home Cinema here: https://www.curzonhomecinema.com/#!/film/CRZ_TALE_OF_TALES
Independence Day: Resurgence is filmmaking-by-focus-group: dumb, ugly and deserving of the contempt with which it treats its audience. I haven’t snorted this much at a movie since Oliver’s Story (John Korti, USA, 1978). Some of the cast of the 1996 Independence Day (Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum) returns, looking 20 years more tired and 20 years less attractive; others are sentimentalised in their prime as tacky oil paintings (Will Smith). Liam Hemsworth is meant to be the current eye candy: he is a pretty face, an ineffectual talent and lacks the threat of danger or surprise that could make him sexy. The film can’t decide whether to jingo it up for America’s 4th of July or to more directly address the Chinese market. The special effects look like two-dimensional cartoons. It’s so dispiriting you can’t even take pleasure in your own jeering; it left me too sad and tired to even walk out before the end; it’s Ronald Emmerich’s fault.
A lovely byproducts of visiting Athens was its open air cinemas. I now see that it’s famous for them, with over sixty still remaining. But I had not known. I’d gone to Athens for the Parthenon, classical sculpture, Melina Mercouri and sunshine. Once made aware, however, I had to go, and we went every night of the short long weekend we were there. Each time was special: magical, incantatory, hypnotic. Each time was also different. All were a reminder that filmgoing was always about so much more than the movie being screened: it was a bout courtship and friendship, leisure and rest, a ritual taste of the luxurious; a context for engaging more senses than just sight and sound.
The first cinema we went to was the Thysion. As you can see above, the view of the Parthenon is marvellous and, as the evening progresses, you might find your head wavering as in a tennis match between it and the movie. It has a very friendly staff, with a bar in which every nook and cranny seems pasted with film posters from the Fifties; Burt Lancaster and Gina Lollobrigida feature prominently. Wine is cheap enough to guzzle. And you can sit in one of the dozens of tables printed with iconic photographs of movie stars of yore, bask in the sights, smell the bougainvillea, delight in the cool wine on a hot day and just feel grateful you’re alive.
The movie playing was Truth. It had something to do with Dan Rather, and news being clamped down in the US by the Bush administration and corporate interests. Cate Blanchett looked very chic being very worthy and I thought Robert Redford rather good as Rather. I enjoyed it very much but I really couldn’t tell you if it was any good. It was definitely secondary to the cinema itself, one of the earliest Open Air ones, which opened in 1935.
The second evening, we went to the Cine Paris, with an equally spectacular view, this time, as you can see above, of the back of the Acropolis. Here drinks were a bit more expensive but they do cocktails and it’s worth it. The film was better too, Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe in The Nice Guys. The cinema is upstairs from a fantastic poster shop where you can get Greek posters of your favourite films, Hollywood and International Art House. It has several levels and it’s worth exploring them as the higher up you go, the better the view. The Cine Paris also overlooks a central square in Plaka, teeming with a range of dining options which we made full use of.
On our third evening we went to the Zephyr. This one offered classic programming instead of a view. We arrived early and ate in a restaurant just opposite that fulfilled every fantasy of Mediterranean communities: A baby passed around for everyone to kiss. The waiters seemed to be part of the same family: they’d serve and then go off across the street to chat with the lady from the cinema’s box office or other merchants from across the street but were quick to return should you need anything. Every so often a car would drive by, stop, the driver would shake hands with one of the waiters, chat for a while and move on. Those in the cars behind didn’t seem to mind waiting. Everyone seemed to know each other.
The film we saw was Bringing Up Baby; all the films we saw were in original version. Baby was in a 16mm print that had seen better days but on a lovely big screen. Seeing Grant and Hepburn at their best, on a balmy night, with an audience that got every joke and appreciated every nuance was a thrill.
We also went to the Dexamini, which ostensibly has the very best view of the Acropolis. But here they were also showing Truth, and we had already seen Truth and….well…it was a reminder that whilst cinema-going has traditionally been about so much more than just the movie; the movie’s still the central component of filmgoing. We ended up not going into The Dexamini and opted instead for sitting in a terrace outside, guzzling more wine, and taking full advantage of the calamari.
Continuing from first blogpost on Juan Madrid, I have now read the two first volumes of the Toni Romano series, currently published on a 35th anniversary edition, by B de Bolsillo: Un beso de amigo/Kiss From a Friend, 1980; and Las aparencias no engañan/ Appearances don’t lie. Romano is a former policeman and boxer, scraping a living doing things that could put the skills he was trained for to use (taking blows, finding people, security, doorman: as the series progresses, his jobs go from bad to worse). The first novel is set in the Madrid of the transition, the moment between Franco’s death in 1975 and Colonel Tejero’s attempted coup in ’81; the second is set immediately after; and both novels vividly evoke the period of the Transition.
There are Goyaesque vignettes such as a dwarf offering Toni a blowjob whilst her blind mother is seemingly asleep in the same room; drunks making a home in the parking lots under the Plaza Mayor; characters such as Zaza Gabor, playing his accordion in local restaurants in exchange for meals, neighbourhoods where everyone knows each other, each trying to work out the angles to survive; all against the police; all at a time of change and incertitude, with the rich and right-wing trying to hold on the power they wielded under Franco, funding thugs to beat the more liberal factions with; yet, with some of the certainties and completely accepted ways of being under the Franco years crumbling (there’s no Church so far in the novels; the family is the ultimate source of betrayal in the first novel; I’ll come to the police in a moment). Sex is everywhere, and it’s for sale.
Like with Vázquez Montalbán, Juan Madrid paints a picture of a known Madrid of the period and you can trace Romano’s walks (as I did with google maps) through the central neighbourhoods of Madrid (Sol, Plaza Mayor, Chueca, Gran Vía: the action is all very central except for a few forays to the more prosperous new suburbs or in order to deposit the odd body in the forests outside Madrid; all streets he mentions can be found; the books are like an artist’s pulpy and vernacular sketch of the human geography of the city of Madrid in the era of the transition to Democracy
As to the forces of law and order, Madrid is Marxist:
‘La policía, a pesar de los discursos y de las pamplinas que se escribían sobre ella, no servía para defender a los cidudadanos, sino para vigilarlos. Éramos una especia de guardia pretoriana de unos pocos, pagados por los impuestos de todos….Sé de comisarios con cuatro sueldos, algunos de profesor, acudir a burdeles y después condenar a prostitutas apelando la Ley de la Peligrosidad Social. A cambio de tanta corrupción, se conseguía una policía fiel y dedicada a encarcelar a desgraciados. Y el que no aceptaba aquella cosas era tratado como sospechoso o imbécil.
Me han dicho que ahora con la democracia las cosas han cambiado. No lo sé/
In spite of the discourses and all the nonsense written about it, the police is not there to defend citizens but to keep them under surveillance. We were a kind of of praetorian guard for the few, paid for from the taxes of all…I know of commissioners with four salaries, some as professors, going to brothels and subsequently arresting prostitutes under the Social Danger Laws. In exchange for so much corruption, one aquires a faithful police force dedicated to incarcerating the unfortunate. And whomever didn’t accept that was liable to be treated as either stupid or suspect.
They tell me Democracy has now changed those things. I don’t know’.
I’m finding Madrid’s novels most interesting. All his women lack depth; they’re stereotypical projections of sex, danger and betrayal. And yet, the (city of) Madrid of those years, which I know first hand, seems vivid; if one doesn’t look for depth, the line drawings of the people and social relations that peopled those streets in that time are as real and evocative to me as nothing else I know of except Almodóvar’s early films (which dealt with a different but intersecting side of that same [city of] Madrid).
An interesting instance of popular Global Cinema that does not primarily address a Western audience, SPL2: A Time of Consequences is a very loose sequel to Yi Wai-shun’s drama about police corruption, SPL or Kill Zone (2005). The film jumps from Hong Kong to Thailand through the China Seas and unfolds in four languages. I was thrilled to see that it’s had a mainstream if limited release through Cineworld — it’s been a smash hit in Asia — and I rushed to see it.
Watching SPL2: A Time of Consequences reminded me of Carlos Monsiváis comment that melodrama is easy and addictive. It is easy if, like here, you have a young child who will die unless she has an organ donor and other children who are being senselessly kidnapped and brutally killed for their organs: I dare you not to feel. It is addictive, in spite of the crude way they are fictionalised and narrated, because these films seem to speak about and to a more recognisable world that more sophisticated films often eschew. This is a world where friendship, family, love and other bonds forged through shared struggle are the only protection against the nightmarish brutality and injustice, sometimes random, that pervade everywhere and persist past the film’s conclusion. It’s crude but most effective.
The plot reminded me of Arthur Laurents comment that plots were easy because all he had to do was come up with a set of characters, throw them into conflict and then realign the ways they reconnected through their struggle into a conclusion. Let me say just say here that there are two brothers: one who’s built his fortune on illegally harvesting organs (Louis Koo); the other, the only one who can match his brother’s blood-type; a prison guard in Thailand with a daughter needing a transplant (Tony Jaa); a Hong Kong cop with a heroin habit (Wu Jing) who ends up in a Thai prison and is the exact match for the daughter: the uncle of the Hong Kong cop (Simon Yam)and a martial arts wiz of a prison warden (Max Zhang). Throw it in the air, put it back together, and you’ve got a serviceable plot.
But plot is the least important part of these films. The reason why they continue to enchant is the action. Here both Tony Jaa and Wu Jing are superb at demonstrating their martial arts in some sublime action sequences where we get to see their art in full flower: Li Ching-chi, who directed the action set-pieces, has the wit to allow us to see their bodies extended in motion to complete an action before cutting on to something else, thus allowing us to appreciate their grace and skill. The stars are very charismatic with and without movement, which is a plus. There’s a slight suggestion of homophobia in the way the villains are coded as gay (a tender fingering of a tie between biggest baddie and second biggest baddie) but it’s brief. The film won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Action Choreography, and one can understand why. I liked it.
A not quite successful adaptation of John Le Carré’s novel that I nonetheless found intriguing and enjoyable. In a year with two such Le Carré adaptations, this one for film and The Night Manager for TV, both directed by women (Susanne Bier directed all six episodes of Manager for TV), the works are bound to raise interesting questions about the connections between film and TV long-form fiction narratives, which is the best form to adapt this type of novel to, and the place of women directors at the intersection of these media.
Let’s be clear, The Night Manager is by far the most successful work. It was glamorous, tense, thrilling; it had superb and memorable performances (I was particularly impressed by Olivia Coleman and Hugh Laurie; whilst the beauty of Elizabeth Debicki and the callow elegance of Tom Hiddleston remain memorable). The failure of Our Kind of Traitor is mainly due to it not being exciting; there’s not enough tension in the scenes; there are not enough thrills; and the heart remains distanced and disengaged from what melodrama there is on offer.
I nonetheless enjoyed the film because there’s a very glamorous film star turn from Ewan McGregor, one he rarely chooses to give, opting instead for the plumping for greater depth often unwarranted by characters like the Perry Makepeace he plays here. There’s also a truly great performance from Stellan Skarsgård as a Russian Mafioso equally capable of love and murder; I also appreciated the inter-racial romance (McGregor’s wife in the film is played by the elegant Naomi Harris) and how it’s presented without fuss and as completely commonplace. Lastly, the director has found a fascinating way to film the moral ambiguities of a thriller; everything in the film appears only partial; we see through distorted images or through glass that dimly reflects what happens outside that which contains or carries our characters (reflected through cars, windows, etc); how we see is made equivalent to what we know. Bits and pieces; aspects; as the peaces of the puzzle are put together, so is our sight in relation to the events that are shown. One understands how the director is trying to condense and symbolise; to create images that not only convey plot but reverberate into other aspects of the story. I found it quite beautiful.
It’s not enough however: chase scenes and fights scenes are both lax;, unforgivable in an espionage thriller; and at the heart of the film is the embarrassment that is Damien Lewis’ performance. He’s trying for a stylised turn but is letting his glasses do most of the styling and in making this choice also loses the emotional effects a more understated and realistic performance might have conveyed of the lengths a father might go to avenge his son.
Not good but enjoyable and worth seeing.
I loved Florence Foster Jenkins and I didn’t expect to: Hugh Grant, Meryl Streep and Simon Helberg (from The Big Bang Theory) are terrific and it’s laugh-out loud funny, camp, touching. Stephen Frears is really superb in creating and maintaining a tone for the film that allows us to laugh at but also feel for all of the characters involved.
Meryl Streep plays Florence, the deluded society lady who lives for music, loves performing it, and hires out Carnegie Hall so she can share her gift with the world. Streep’s performance is a tricky one: she could have sung badly and simply grate our ears; or she could have made the singing comic but go a bit too broad and we would lose sight of the person, her delusions and vulnerabilities. Her performance is a tour de force: I laughed at each wrong note, incrementally, and more so because of the relish with which Street acts it out. She’s greatly aided by her costumes, enormous vulgar tiaras, piles of bracelets and necklaces and gigantic tassle earrings that teeter dangerously with each note and frame Streeps’ eager and gleeful eyes. It’s what she lives for.
Hugh Grant has always been under-rated. There’s been no better light comedian in the last two decades. As St. Claire Bayfield, Jenkin’s watchful husband, he’s not just funny but touching. He’s the man who makes all of Florence’s delusions possible; who cocoons her against a too harsh world; and that takes charm, and money, and steel and a considerable amount of self-sacrifice. He keeps reiterating the happiness of the world they’ve created for each other; and his performance makes you believe it. But Grant also conveys the sadness and strain of the failed actor; one who loves to recite and has played in Hamlet but too hastily adds that not the leading part of course; the toll of looking after her needs; and the price he’s paid. Grant gets each laugh and also, perhaps for the first time, not only evokes Hugh Grant but also simultaneously embodies a complex character, one we believe in, where dreams of art and acclaim, what he provides for her, have faded; and he’s been left only with her and what she provides for him: riches and glamour; it’s part of the greatness of his performance that he makes us understand both how little and how much that is.
If Grant hasn’t been given his due, neither has Frears. After, landmark films for forty years (from My Beautiful Laundrette onwards) and after the extraordinary work of restrained emotion that was last year’s Philomena, doesn’t the man deserve more credit? Who else can maintain and sustain a tone in which delicacy of feeling, farce, drawing room comedy and melodrama, can co-exist so easily in a period setting?
I recommend it.
I wish I’d been able to go to more events at the 10th edition of Flatpack. But I did manage quite a few: the excellent exhibition of the Projection Project at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s beautiful Gas Hall; a bittersweet screening of Dreyer’s Vampyr at the Adrian Boult Hall at the Birmingham Conservatoire (sweet due to the greatness of the film and the superb new score played live by its composers — Stephen Horne and Minima; and bitter due to it probably being the last event hosted in the hall before the imminent demolition of the Birmingham Conservatoire); I saw Les Trucs’s performance of their score for Murnau’s The Last Laugh at the Lyttleton Theatre in the late-Victorian marvel that houses The Birmingham and Midland Institute; all three volumes of Miguel Gomes’ extraordinary Arabian Nights at the Midlands Arts Centre; and the superb finale that was Murnau’s Faust with a great new score by Matt Eton and Gareth Jones performed at the lovely old Birmingham Rep Theatre, where Olivier and other English theatrical greats first learned their trade in rep. I don’t think a working person with commitments could have gone to many more events in what was only a period of five days.
What I love and admire about Flatpack this year is partly what I’ve praised it for in the past. In 2013, I wrote ‘I want to pause here for a moment to praise Ian Francis and Flatpack because they are excellent at doing all the things film festivals are expected to do: put together an excellent programme; discover and nurture new talent, introduce new works to audiences; create a space for artists to meet and exchange ideas; create new audiences for new, different and difficult types of works; draw people from other localities at home and abroad into the city for the event, generate press, etc. But they are also superb at doing what film festivals sometimes see as beneath their remit and which should by rights be fundamental to it: to contribute to and enrich the cultural life of the city’.
On the evidence of just the few events I was able to go to, Flatpack involved a wide range of city spaces and institutions (The Birmingham Museum and Gallery, the Birmingham Conservatoire, The Birmingham and Midlands Institue, the Midlands Arts Centre, the Old Rep), thus not only involving those institutions but exposing new audiences to the beauty of those spaces and the facilities that those institutions offer. They commissioned new work and involved other local organisms (e.g. The Feeney Trust) in that commissioning, whilst also looking outward and involving bodies like The Goethe Institute in an exchange with Frankfurt Lichter Filmfest in bringing in Les Trucs for The Last Laugh. And the remit they’ve chosen is not only to introduce audiences to a range of new work but also a scholarly and pedagogical one of introducing new audiences to the great works of the past in exciting new ways. It’s a superb festival that Birmingham is very lucky to have.
My only criticism, a selfish one, is that rather than growing in size over a short space of time (i.e. packing in as much as possible across the city over the space of five days), I wish they’d split up part of their programming, do a festival of silent cinema with new scores say in the Autumn, The Optical Sound element in the Spring and so on. I would certainly go to more if it were more spread out. However, it might be best to not tempt fate, value what we now have in Birmingham, and let someone else take up the challenge of creating new but equally exciting and enriching festivals of culture at other times of the year.
27th of April, 2016.
A scathing critique that comes across as heart-warming and sweet; the structure of a fable to explain the present; poor people suffering hardship depicted with beauty and dignity: Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights is quite special. Is it one film or three? Is it documentary or fiction? If it’s hard to categorise, I also find it hard to review: I simply find myself unable to remember, much less describe and evaluate, six and half hours of film on the basis of one viewing. So I leave you with a sketch, hopefully with reasons to see a great film, one that Richard Brody has rightly praised for re-inventing political cinema.
At the beginning of the first episode, ‘The Restless One’, Gomes begins to make a version of ‘1001 Nights’ but has an epiphany: austerity measures in Portugal are so harsh and so inhuman that the project seems frivolous; why not send all his crew to collect stories about how citizens are living through these times and then use the structure of Arabian Nights as a means to encompass them all? After all, what’s at stake in the telling for Scheherezade is the same as for the citizens of Portugal: survival itself.
Of the first episode, I remember the fantastical judgment of the cockerel, where a rooster is put on trial for waking up the neighbours; the way a woman gives a man some chocolate for having helped her and so that it might sweeten his heart; the businessmen so excited to screw everyone out of everything they can’t get rid of their erections; the rituals, festivals, dances as well as the christening of the ships in the dockyards; there’s also that international (and symbolic) collective cold-water swim which ends the episode. But what I remember most is the footage of the dockworkers, left not only without a job but, perhaps more important, also without a way of life.
There’s a wonderful moment in Arabian Nights where one of the dockworkers, screwed out of a settlement by the government and fired by the company, says that he’s only 50, too young not to work. He’s got a sister in Switzerland and he could get a job there. But if he has to go to another country to work, he’ll sell his house, leave Portugal and never return. If he can’t be allowed to subsist in his own country, he also won’t be extorted out of money by what he sees as a mafiosi alliance of big business and government. It’s angry and moving and made me think we’re probably all in the process of becoming 21st century equivalents of Corleone peasants.
Volume 2 is called ‘The Desolate One’, and begins with the story of ‘Simon Without Bowls’, who’s killed his wife, daughter and two other women. He’s hiding out in the countryside, careful of behaving honourably according to his code, and being supported by the populace for doing so. In fact he becomes a hero. The other story starts with a young woman, just having had sex for the first time, who calls her Mom for advice. Her Mom turns out to be a judge and we get to see not only the advice she gives her daughter but the reasoning behind her judgments on several of the stories we hear, which as each case develops, turns out to implicate someone from a higher and higher class. The final episode is about a dog called Dixie who passes on from owner to owner, each one telling a story of malaise and hardship.
Tom Bond, writing in Little White Lies, finds the story of the judge to be the most intriguing:
‘An evening trial begins in an amphitheatre, with a mother and her son accused of selling the contents of their rented flat. The case seems straightforward enough, but with the judge poised to deliver a sentence, a third party takes the stand and complicates the issue. Like a farcical legal version of Spartacus, the sequence continues with victim after victim standing to deliver new evidence. Some of the perpetrators have committed their crimes because of greed (or, in a prime example of the film’s absurdism, a rogue genie), but most have done so because of poverty.
There’s the mother and son forced to sell their belongings to clear a debt; the deaf woman who acted as a go-between in the sale of some stolen cows because her ex refused to pay child support; and the man who stole her wallet because he couldn’t afford to eat. Gomes suggests that austerity and unemployment don’t just impoverish individuals, but risk creating a butterfly effect. When those too poor to pay their way find inadequate support from the state, the only option left for them is crime. Their victims are often equally impoverished, creating a situation where those struggling the most are pitted against each other’.
Together all of these stories tell a tale of survival and loneliness, of the present imbricated in the past, of the otherworldly or fantastical being more real than the real. It’s like a magical realist fable shot in documentary style.
Volume Three, ‘The Enchanted One’ focuses much more on Scheherezade but what I remember most vividly is what the stories of the Chaffinches, their trappers, owners trainers, tells us about the current state of Portugal. There’s also the morality tale of the young Chinese girl who fell in love with the Portuguese man and has her heart broken. The film sometimes meanders. It’s sometimes overly whimsical. But I dare you not to well up at various moments and be completely charmed by people’s imagination, inventiveness, pragmatism and kindness.
Part of the problem with writing criticism and perhaps with viewing is that we want everything to cohere, to be balanced and measured, to make sense, for each part to be necessary to the whole. And the thing with great art is that it sometimes spills over, it delights with incoherence, it might move us through its tangents, we might learn something because of the moments of narrative incoherence.
In the introduction to a special issue devoted to Arabian Nights, the editors of Little White Lies write: ‘Back in 2012, we awarded our annual film of the year prize to Tabu, a sweeping colonial love story featuring a melancholic crocodile by the Portuguese director Miguel Gomes. His follow-up, the singular, whimsical and boldly romantic Arabian Nights, premiered at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival – and we haven’t been able to get it out of our minds since’. I feel the same.
Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights is great art. Nowhere in cinema that I can remember have poor people in crises being treated with greater empathy, dignity and a kind of beauty. Nowhere that I can remember has such a relentlessly scathing critique come across as so charming, so inventive and so delightful in almost every way (encompassing melancholy and sadness). A humanist perspective and humour obviously buys a lot of leeway. We might get restless and desolate at moments whilst watching it but I at least ended up completely enchanted. It’s a folly and it’s a great film. It’s unique. It deserves to be more widely seen. I’m very grateful that the tenth edition of Flatpack brought it to Birmingham.
Seen at the Midlands Arts Centre as part of the Flatpack Festival
I’ve been struggling the last few days to try and articulate why Jamie Lloyd’s production of Doctor Faustus, currently on at the Duke of York’s in London, has made such an impression.
The play’s themes are certainly timely: what makes a man sell his soul to the devil? Is all he gets worth all he loses? Could he not have achieved the devil’s promise without the devil’s bargain? Arguably, few plays raise the most salient ethical and moral questions of today as pointedly and vividly. I’m not sure the robber barons of the digital age are beating themselves up with considerations of conscience in their tropical tax shelters. But they should. The play raises questions we might individually ask of ourselves and collectively want answers to from them. Or at least those are some of the thoughts and feelings this production puts into play for me.
There’s also the beauty of the language itself, with phrasing so memorable we still use it in our every day lives:‘Misery loves company’, ‘Where we are is hell/ And where hell is must we ever be’; etc. But this is not simply a new production of Marlowe’s play; Colin Teevan, whilst keeping the main plot and much of the language, has rewritten the ‘difficult’ middle part and modernised the references – here we get to hear of the Panama papers, we get to see the Prime Minister’s father in hell; and Barack Obama bargaining with the Pope is performed for us as a vaudeville sketch; it’s telling too that in this version the scholar becomes a Vegas Illusionist Rock Star, a modest seeker of truth turned into razzling-dazzling the populace with lies: each of the jokes hit their mark; each laugh earned is a point communicated and accepted as true. It all adds up to a joyfully scathing critique.
This is already a very successful adaptation. It’s been previously staged by the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Citizens Theatre Glasgow – where The Independent called it ‘a thing of beauty to watch.’ I’m sure the casting of Kit Harington in the title role was one of the main reasons a centuries-old play is getting a West-End airing. And both he and it have done an excellent job in this regard; the theatre was sold-out, full of young people; and the play itself still feels as startling, vital and contemporary as anything I’ve seen on stage this season.
This production is a tour-de-force of staging by Jamie Lloyd and it’s useful to compare it to his production of Jean Genet’s The Maids, which is running concurrently at Trafalgar Studios. There, Genet’s tale servitude is played in what looks like an invisible box, with the audience looking on from back and front, and with a powerhouse performance from Uzo Aduba that thrillingly threatens to explode that invisible glass wall that separates the stage from the audience and stab you in the heart. Her performance makes of Genet’s words a weapon. Yet, in spite of that – and it truly is a great production – I felt slightly removed from its drama and its concerns; I understood them, accepted the validity of the critique but it all still felt abstract and removed to me in spite or perhaps because of the maids being cast as black: This adds a dimension of racial servitude to the film’s economic and ideological one but it also brings connotations of slavery and plantations and elsewhere. It’s interesting that Michael Billington’s excellent review in The Guardian brings up the issue of the play connoting the Mistress (Laura Carmichael from TV’s Downton Abbey) as American. I don’t mean to suggest that the play’s concerns are only theirs just that Billington’s aside made me question where my feeling of the plays’ concerns being abstract and other rather than burning questions of the here and now for me — which they should be, as they are in Faustus – comes from.
In contrast, Jamie Lloyd has staged Doctor Faustus as a cabaret that could take place in a suburban housing estate of dashed hopes and truncated desires. Soutra Gilmour’s set design, inspired by the paintings of Gregory Crewdson, is sublime: everything looks like drabness covered by a layer of cooking oil. When the characters appear at the beginning, their nakedness feels dirty, repulsive, alienating. The subsequent carnivalesque ascent to fame and descent to hell will alter this. The stage changes, moves faster, revolves, moves forward, we’re even allowed to see the backstage. All with the energy and verve that accompany the play.
Lloyd manages Kit Harington’s stardom very wittily. He avoids unbalancing the play with unneeded and unwarranted applause by having the star appear, sitting on the bog, as the audience enters the theatre and before the play begins. Indeed all entrances are arranged to prevent the show from becoming a rock concert or the church of Harington-worship; and so successfully that Harington doesn’t even get a standing ovation at the end (and this was actively managed to be so). Yet, the play is also made to seem about Harington himself. As he told Nick Curtis in The Guardian:
‘About 25 pages in we walk into a completely modern play. It really works. My first line is: “They love me, they really fucking love me.”
Game of Thrones must have been great preparation for that.
At first, I thought this [Faustus] was going to be about selling yourself for fame, but actually it is about a man completely trapped in his own head. I’m not sure how much I can say…
Again, thanks to GoT, that’s the story of your life.
It really is…’
Later, as the play unfolds, and temptations are laid on for Faustus, the suburban sordidness turns queer, with Craig Stein as an evil angel in a nightdress with a flamenco fringe, half-muscles, half-flounce, tempting Harington. In an interesting interview with GQ, Harington reveals that, ‘At drama school in my third year I was resigned to the fate of being Young Male Rape Victim No. 2.’And that’s exactly how he seems with Stein on top of him.
Lloyd doesn’t deny the audience its pleasure. If they’ve come to see Harington, he shows them Harington; his body is prominently on display after the intermission and there’s even a buttock-clenching joke thrown in for good measure. But if Harington displays the best torso on the London stage, his performance, albeit, adequate, doesn’t live up to the part. He doesn’t have the vocal power to wring as variegated expression as the text deserves, much less to then theatricalise it verbally to the audience for full effect; and his speaking of the text is sometimes sing-songy. He simply doesn’t have the range. But what he lacks vocally, he more than makes up physically (and fans of Game of Thrones will be interested to know he still sports the hair and beard he’s contractually obligated to grow for Jon Snow).
It’s interesting that the best part of the show is not Harington even though he might be what made the show possible. Each member of the cast gets their turn, I’ve already mentioned Craig Stein as an Evil Angel. But there’s also Forbes Masson as a zaftig devil; Tom Edden is terrific as an El Greco-ish Good Angel who gets to illustrate the seven deadly sins as a tour de force vaudeville turn (If we’d been Americans, we’d have given the moment a standing ovation). And Jenna Russell is a terrific Mephistopheles, taunting the audience during the intermission with performances of pop numbers (Better the Devil You Know, Devil Woman, Bat Out of Hell), milking the applause, being both in character but also slightly out of the play in the best Brechtian manner. But if Harington is not the best part of the show, Doctor Faustus does offer evidence of his taste, ambition and generosity.
It’s a really electric show. I loved the way the director uses the solo bit leading to the high note in Minnie Ripperton’s ‘Loving You’ as an indicator of attraction verging on love; it’s characteristic that this play deals with issues of power, fame, TV, the Postmodern condition and the price of inequality with poppy, energetic irreverence. There’s pop music, dance numbers, nudity; all deployed knowingly, irreverently but expressively, to communicate meaning as well as joy. It’s a great show and I was so excited by it that I raced at intermission to buy the program in order to find out who else aside from Harington had made it possible. See it if you can.
327 Cuadernos is a beautiful and complex work on biography and on the intersection of memory and history, both individual, as a reconstitution of fragments of the self; and collective, as a shared social history; one that simultaneously examines the intersection of expression and re-presentation whilst keeping in play the various ways in which they differ: very moving.
Andrés di Tella, one of Latin America’s foremost documentary essayist, arrives in Princeton to find writer Ricardo Piglia, a colleague at the University and someone he’s interviewed before many years ago, packing up to return to Buenos Aires after having worked in the U.S. for many years. Piglia’s kept a diary since the age of 16, when politics –the aftermath of the coup against Perón in ‘55 – meant his father, a lifelong Perón supporter, moved the whole family from Adrogué, a suburb of Buenos Aires, to the relative safety of Mar de Plata. His father defended Perón in ’55 and was in prison for a year as a result. “It’s really tough when you’re a kid and your old man is taken away by the cops. That’s really ugly: a strange feeling. But anyway, that’s how it was”.
‘’’55 was the year of sorrow; ’56 was prison and ’57 was even worse” says Piglia, “the trip (to Mar de Plata) was like an exile. Since then, where I live has never really mattered.” In the film, the old writer’s return to Buenos Aires is rhymed, accompanied, contradicted, by that first exile that would turn the displaced and disturbed teenager into the writer of these 327 notebooks; though, interestingly, the images that accompany the latter will be reconstructed, re-imagined and even re-imaged ones. Thus, like we see in the rest of the film, the self, the past, history and society are all both documented and, via acts of interpretation, also to a degree imagined; they offer no immediate or clear access; they’re always mediated, often by more than one element or source.
“There’s nothing more ridiculous that the aspiration of recording one’s own life,” says Piglia, “It automatically turns you into a clown.” But something propelled him into keeping a diary, one that would eventually sprawl across the eponymous 327 notebooks, and he believes the displacement and the diary that ensued as a result was transformative and might have been what turned him into a writer. The film begins with the exposition of a point of origin – that ‘exile’ to the provinces of the film’s protagonist — in which the subject at the film’s present – the return to Buenos Aires from another type of exile in America –- may be found, whilst at the same time acknowledging the narrational and fictional dimensions of such a search. “The art of narration is the relationship the narrator has with the story’s narratives’, says Piglia, ‘that’s what defines the tone”.
Initially, Di Tella announces the film’s project as ‘‘To keep a diary of the reading of a diary”. But who and what does a diary document? The problems begin at the beginning: “I have the impression I’ve led two lives. The one written in the notebooks and the one fixed in my memories. Sometimes when I re-read it, it’s hard to recognise what I’ve lived. There are episodes set down there that I’d completely forgotten. They exist in the diary but not in my memory. Yet at the same time, certain events that endure in my memory with the vividness of a photograph are absent as if I’d never experienced them.”
Thus begins a complex and sustained exploration of memory and history, how the self is narrated to oneself but also to others, socially. Di Tella consciously delineates a series of methodological problems: How does one film the diary of a writer? What’s a film’s present tense? Who is the narrator and who and what is being narrated? What is the connection between documentary and fiction.
“I can’t even make out my own writing,” says Piglia, “The diary allows you to integrate what happens with a certain documentary style … but (uses) the genre and its tricks to make fiction, an imperceptible fiction. There’s a con there: there’s fiction, and then there’s my real life, my experience; and in between there’s an area of experimentation in which I experiment also with possible lives, you know”.
Piglia’s diaries are not just what’s written in them but also the doodles and sketches they contain – Evita, for example, figures — what falls out of them when opened — pictures of Brecht, an airline ticket from a trip to Cuba, newspaper clippings — ‘Demons Reluctant to be Exorcised– etc; and also what they convey: what does a ranking of boxers reveal about Piglia?
“There’s always a propensity to lists,’ he says, “I think one makes lists in order not to think, right? To rid one’s head of ideas.” He sees another list: love, meaning of life, politics, days of soccer, theatre, movies, literature. “It’s another list but more internal, see? The meaning of life! Isn’t that marvellous. And here it is, side by side with boxing!”
Until the filming, Piglia’s never re-read his diaries. He started to type them up at various times but failed to follow through. Now, as he tries going over them once more, problems arise: ‘It’s hard going back over your own life. It’s not easy’. Moreover, he sometimes can’t make out his writing, often doesn’t remember the events described and eventually declares: ‘ ‘I don’t like this. I don’t like anything I’m reading. That could be the title of the film.’
Half-way through the film, Piglia develops a serious illness which the film doesn’t reveal but which we now know to be Lou Gherig’s desease. Thus the film has to change tak. Piglia now needs help writing and an assistant is found for him. The scratching sound of the pen that has accompanied most of the film until now gives way to the tapping on a keyboard and it’s as if the change in sounds leads to a change in tone.
The illness leads to a series of interrogations on the nature of the project and thus of the intersections of biograpy/autobiography/ fiction: Autobiography could be a collage (of other autobiographies); the project could re-focus on what wasn’t written down but is still remembered; memory comes to us as splinters, flashes, full of light, perfect, unconnected; that’s how it should be written, affirms Piglia. He experiments with putting diaries in third person; he talks about himself as if he were someone else. “A writer’s diary is also a laboratory. Not so much experiences but rather experiments”. He re-writes, makes changes. Literature, he says, is the place in which someone else always does the talking. He thinks on the connection between his fiction and his diaries:
“It’s as if in my novels there’s always this anchor. Hooked to something that actually happened. Sometimes found in diaries.” He fantasises about publishing the diaries under the name of one of his fictional characters, Emilio Renzi (which is how the first volume has since been published). Sometimes, he just dreams of setting match to paper, burning them all and be done with.
De Piglia’s illness becomes more serious and Di Tella is unable to film for two months. What to do? Di Tella does as Enrique Amorim did in the 30s and films Piglia’s friends, tries to talk about him through filming them: Roberto Jacoby, Tata Cedrón, Germán Garcia, Gerardo Gandini. Gandini like possibly Horacio Quiroga in Amorim’s filming, dies unexpectedly shortly after these images were filmed. Even as the film tries to bring Piglia to life through various means and in various guises, death haunts this project.
327 Notebooks is a complex and sustained exploration of memory and history. The times when one feels part of a historical event, when a historical event intersects with one’s personal life, changes it and one is tossed about by the waves of change and feels part of history are few. For Piglia, “’55 was a moment were history enters life”, so was the coup of ’66 and the death of Che Guevara: “It rained a lot that day…I have an image of myself crossing the street flooded with rain with the awareness that Che was dead.”
The film uses found footage gathered from a private archive of Super 8 films, as well as the leftovers of 16mm footage shot for news reports (what was broadcast has been lost; but the trims survive). Thus Piglia reading of events he lived but can’t remember is interspersed with historical events (people waving their white handkerchiefs as a symbol that Cristo Vence! (Christ Wins!), Peron’s wife giving an emotional speech from the presidential balcony, the debates around whether the photographs of Che Guevara’s corpse are authentic), some home movies, other people’s memories but with the people now dead or scattered away so that they can’t re-invoke them; someone’s else’s home movies standing in for a social memory, something akin to what one might have experienced.
As the film unfolds this interlayering of history, the social, the personal, the personal as history, events unremembered, memories unrecorded, all these partial but interacting layerings of aspects, of parts we sometimes reconstitute into a whole and call the self, becomes more deliberately metaphoric, thus we’re asked to interpret the meaning of a polar flight with huskies being pushed onto a plain, or at the end of the film, a horse tamer, bronco-ing through the horse’s every attempt to throw him.
In voice-over Di Tella recounts how according to Piglia: “in the diaries an unknown man appears, unknown even to him, an intimate character who only exists in the pages of the notebooks; someone darker, more violent, sentimental, vulnerable. It’s not the same man his friends know.” The man that appears to us in the film is probably also different to the man that appears in the diaries, or the person who unfolds and changes through history and who write them in the process of changing who that self, those various selves, was in the very process of transformation, of perhaps altering into someone else. It’s a great film that manages to convey all of this whilst interrogating the various grounds of each step of the representation itself. And the found footage also gives it a touch of the poet, those powerful images that evoke a social history one recognises but can’t quite pin down into a singular meaning. Very beautiful.
Seen at EICTV in the presence of the director and available to view at as a VOD rental on Vimeo at: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/327cuadernos
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Juan Madrid was, alongside Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano is named in homage to the Catalan writer), González Ledesma and Andreu Martín – one of the founders of what came to be known as la novela negra Española, a combination of hard-boiled detective novel, investigative journalism, a semi-Marxist analysis of structures, a thrall to the darker dimensions of sex and society, all textured within a pulp style of story-telling..
I have a particular love for the novels of Vázquez Montalbán, with his cynical attitudes to the rich, his love/hate relationship to literature (“For forty years I read book after book, now I burn them because they taught me nothing about how to live”), and his various recurring relationships (“My girlfriend is a call girl. My technical assistant, waiter, cook and secretary is a car thief called Biscuter. My spiritual and gastronomic adviser is a neighbor called Fuster”).
I taught at Ramon Lllul university in Barcelona at the turn of the last century, and reading Vázquez Montalbán’s novels was a way of learning about the city; in each, investigator Pepe Carvalho burned a book, cooked a dish, and was badly beaten up exploring one element of the city’s structure – the construction industry during the Olympics, football, etc.—through the investigation of a crime that then proceeded into an investigation of corruption at the heart of the city, its neighbourhoods, its social structures; all with a wise-guy lippyness and a lightly-worn learnedness, one tinged with the ennui of a man who knows too much, that’s simultaneously funny and sad.
Madrid was in EICTV in San Antonio to launch his new novel, Los hombres mojados no temen a la lluvia, already winner of the 14th Premio Unicaja de novela Fernando Quiñones in Spain, but published in Cuba as part of the Colección ORBIS, Editorial Arte y Literatura, by the Instituto Cubano del Libro.
I’d not had the chance to read Juan Madrid’s work before but his talk, impressively erudite, ranging from the quotation of Marx’s opening sentence in The Communist Manifesto (“A spectre is haunting Europe”), to a history of the formation of national police forces in Europe, their rationale (to preserve order and protect the interests of the ruling class) and so on, made me want to read Los hombres mojados no temen a la lluvia (which translates literally as ‘Made’ Men Don’t Fear the Rain).
It’s a novel with a world one happily sinks into and is absorbed by: it’s structured as a paternal melodrama, which gives the resolution of the crime not only a hook and a coda but also texture, an extra layer of depth. The spark that starts off the drama is a missing DVD of an S&M orgy featuring the rich and the powerful. Liberto Ruano is the lawyer who gets embroiled in the case and, in exploring the links between high finance and the mafia, ends up finding out who he is. The ingeniously plotted narrative is set in a Madrid of low-rent brothels and long-standing watering holes in the process of change. Though it’s set in the present, Madrid’s Madrid is always dialectically imbricated in the past; thus an exposition of a particular place, is also an explanation of what it once was, what it meant, who owned it, who went there and how much a meal cost.
The story is set now but the Francoist Spain of the sixties with its strictures, norms and power relations are an important, even necessary, part of the story and its telling: the answer to the castrations of the present lie in the forbidden sexuality of the past, yesterday’s taboo is today’s totem. I was also very intrigued by the paraphrasing, so light as to be almost an unacknowledged quotation, of the Johnny Guitar dialogue (‘Lie to me. Tell me that you love me’) I wrote about recently here; or rather by the way the protagonists in the story, Liber and Ada, use it to talk to each other; they reiterate but without attribution. Thus, to the uninitiated, the impression is of a heightened romanticism; to those in the know, that plus a suggestion that what links the characters is a love for what Johnny Guitar represents, precisely this type of heightened, fatalistic romance. I liked Los hombres mojados no temen a la lluvia so much I scoured central Havana to find another novel by Madrid and succeeded in finding Pájaro en mano/ Bird in the Hand (2007), which I liked just as much. I mean to read more.
I wanted to interview Madrid. Some of his novels have been adapted into films: Dias Contados (Imanol Uribe, Spain, 1994) is especially notable for Javier Bardem’s extraordinary performance as a rattled drug addict and small-time police informer. He also wrote the script or the Brigada Central TV series. I wanted to find out more about his views on noir and on cinema and also about how one of the key chroniclers of Spain’s transition to democracy and its aftermath is now being published in Cuba and printed by the ‘Imprenta Federico Engels’. I sense there’s a story there. But though we met and I told him how much I liked his talk, I was too shy to impose any further.
Paul Bush from the National Film and Television School arrived at the Escuala Internacional de Cine y Televisión (EICTV) in Cuba on Monday to show some of his films and talk about his practice. He’s of the Damien Hirst generation that studied Fine Art at Goldsmith College he says, but was always more interested in conceptual art than painting and somehow drifted onto film (I was amused by the translator, who was excellent with all the difficult terms and technical language, not knowing who Damien Hirst is, as was evidenced by the many different gos she had at the name).
He puts a picture of a cow onscreen, not showing the film but indicating how that was from his first film, entitled The Cow’s Drama (1984), the result of following a cow in a field in Wales for two days, and how it took him over a decade to make the first film he was paid for, His Comedy (1994), a stop-motion rendering of Dante’s Inferno, using Gustave Doré engravings as a model through which to cut right into the celluloid. The cutting into the colour film was a surprise, as he found himself also scratching into layers of colours, thus creating a series of striking colour effects, at first unintended, then worked through and consciously deployed.
It’s a very beautiful work and led to his being able to make a living making short films, a considerable achievement. He says he was of course aided by the founding of Channel Four in those years which had as its remit a provision of minority programming, which aside from works for the disabled, people of colour, gay communities etc, also included a remit for experimental cinema, a term he says he dislikes due to its connotations of seriousness and dullness. He says he likes movies, shown in a theatre and that there’s room for frivolity and fun in seriousness.
Bush also showed his latest work, The Five Minute Museum (2015), beginning with stop-motion images of stone, then swords, porcelain, chairs, clocks, all giving the impression of being constantly in flux. The most striking of these was a montage of the drawings on Greek pottery, through which he created the striking sensation of the history of the world being all about love, sex, art and war all in communication with each other and all exploding together before ending in a museum behind glass.
His work is intriguingly conceptual; in Furniture Poetry (1999), he takes Wittgenstein’s question of ‘Is a chair a chair when we’re not looking at it? Does it become one only in response to our gaze?’ a starting point to show us tables changing before our eyes, then green apples turn red, apples turn into pears and so on, converting before our eyes, 24 x a second. In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (2001), Bush uses the same set-ups that Victor Fleming deployed in the 1941 MGM version with Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner, but condensed in stop-motion and accompanied by dream-like excerpts from the original soundtrack to create an effect similar to human schizophrenia by subtly changing every single frame but leaving the narrative superficially intact. It’s marvellous.
Bush offers the usual advice to students — ‘keep your collaborators with you as long as you can even though there will be fights’ – but what I remember most is his example of the concept of ‘tree’; how when we read the word ‘tree’ in a book we all share in the imaging of a tree but the tree which each of us actually imagines is different, and thus the role of the filmmaker is to create that ideogram, that image which each member of the audience can share but also take hold of, create something with it they can treasure, that is also uniquely theirs. Lovely thought from a stimulating talk by a charming man.
José Arroyo, EICTV, April