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’sThe 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.
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.
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 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.
A young girl nicknamed Pomme (Isabelle Huppert) works is an assistant at a beauty salon, living a quiet live with her mother and enjoying a close friendship with Marylène (Florence Giorgetti), the owner of the salon, a bitter, aging romantic who seems to lay herself open to any new relationship only to be regularly dumped. Marylène and Pomme go on vacation to Couburg, on the coast of Normandy, so that Marylène may recover from her latest heartbreak. This happens swiftly and Pomme is left alone, to her own devices, and rather vulnerable. Pomme is quickly spotted by François (Yves Beneyton), a tall angular bourgeois who’s charmed by her reticence and purity. They fall in love. He tests her, asking her to close her eyes and follow his directions so that he takes her right to the edge of the cliff to prove her trust in him. But really she shouldn’t have.
On their return to Paris, and wrapped up in each other and in a haze of love, they quickly set-up home together in a tiny apartment. Soon, however, class differences appear, start pecking at their happiness, and eventually shatters it: She doesn’t know how to handle the cutlery at dinner in his parents’ country house; the best his mother can say about her is that she’s honest; she can’t really participate in the conversation with his radical intellectual friends. But he really can’t explain the dialectic to her, much less its historical materialist variant. For all his tremulousness, delicacy, and shows of concern, he’s a selfish phony. Eventually, he leaves her. He’s surprised and guilty that she offers no resistance. But she sinks into a depression, faints on the street and is brought to a sanatorium. He goes visit her, but Mr. Sensitive needs his friends to come along for support. He’s more interested in being reassured that he hasn’t done anything wrong than in seeing how she really is. He asks her what she’s been doing. She’s been to Greece she says. Has she been with other men? Oh yes, many. He takes his leave and she returns to the sanatorium reading room, adorned by tourist posters of Greek holidays she’s obviously only been to in her dreams, as she starts to knit her lace; her future a reliving of the only love she’ll ever know, from one, who like her father, and like all of Marylène’s friends, wasn’t worthy.
It’s a lovely film, edited in languid rhtyhms, and interestingly feminist. The film begins at the salon, women beautifying themselves, making themselves up, putting on masks of femininity so that they can perform the masquerade as they leave the salon, masks which Pomme rejects: she can’t help being too much herself; she’s got no guile; it’s what will attract François to her and the reason he’ll eventually leave her. Despite living for the ideal of romantic love, none of these women get to experience it past the first stage of courtship and sex, except the intellectual Marxist friend of François, the independent woman, who by the end of the film is settled with her husband and expecting a baby.
Isabelle Huppert is extraordinary, first as a plain girl, barely past adolescence, then someone mysterious and astonishingly beautiful (one can understand why François is so taken with her) and lastly as someone so withdrawn she’s barely there, with a measured tentative walk and a pinched blank face; her future an endless clicking of herneedles; her lace-making ensuring that any thought is kept mechanically but efficiently at bay. A close-up image of her so made-up that she’s like a mask of the woman she thinks he wants — which then turns out to be the moment he chooses to reject her so that the mask is shattered by tears — is moving, beautiful and mysteriously resonant. It’s an extraordinary performance and the main reason to see the film.
But not the only one. Claude Goretta is probably best known in Britain as one of two young Swiss filmmakers (Alain Tanner was the other) so inspired by the two first Free Cinema programmes that they were inspired to make the marvellous Nice Time (1957) documenting London’s Piccadilly on a Saturday night. But abroad, Goretta made a name for himself in the 70’s and 80s with acutely observant and complex films such as Pas si méchant que ça/ The Wonderful Crook (1974) and La Provinciale. Pauline Kael said of the former, rather derisorily, ‘we know we’re seeing films made by artists’. But we do; and we are; and they’re worth seeing again. The Lacemaker is an excellent place to start.