A discussion of Alexandria Again and Forever, the third film in what was initially called Youssef Chahine’s Alexandria Trilogy — including Alexandria… Why ? (1979) and An Egyptian Story (1982)) and later to expand into a quartet and include Alexandria….New York (2004) — focussing on the uses of Shakespeare, the influence of the American musical on Chahine, John Gielgud’s visit to perform Hamlet in Cairo, queer desire, the peplum film, Alexander, Anthony and Cleopatra, Art and Activism, the 1978 cinema artists’ strike in Egypt. The podcast can be listened to below:
The scenes we refer to include this onset filming of a Hamlet soliloquy below:
the MGM musical à la Egyptian at the Berlin Film Festival below:
…which makes an interesting contrast with the Donald O’Connor solo visible below:
Listeners might find interesting this article by Margaret Litvin on
and this excerpt from John Gielgud: Matinee Idol to Movie Star Book by Jonathan Croall:
Lastly, this is the scene from the strike that ends the film and becomes a musical number, bringing once more into play the personal and political, the fictional and the historical…from a fictionalised personal narrative and onto history:
Here is the article on Chahine, affectionately called The Professor, that made Richard aware that his nickname was Joe and that we had recorded this not so favourable discussion, a first, on the anniversary of his death.
A teen musical à la Tennesse Williams with Shakespearean overtones and a blood wedding that would put both García Lorca and Game of Thrones to shame. Richard Layne and I discuss all of this in the context of both Chahine’s career, it was his first film after the Trilogy of Defeat (The Land,The Choice,The Sparrow) –and the political context of the time, with the Civil War in Lebanon, one that was to last fifteen years, starting in 1975, the year before this Algerian-Lebanese-Egyptian co-production was produced.
The film is structured around the Old Testament Story, with a Cain and Abel structuring device also accompanied by a Romeo and Juliet story, in this case, and in keeping with the film’s Marxist analysis, a love made impossible by a class divide. It also borrows from the André Gide short story of the same name which explores the impossibility of having one law that fits all.
The film is a very hybrid generically, but it IS a musical. In The Arab National Project in Yousssef Chahine’s Cinema, Malek Khouri writes,
The first musical number takes place at school where the two young dreamers Rafida and Ibrahim express their friendship and love for each other. The second song accompanies Ali’s release from prison and introduces us to his character through flashbacks of his lost time in prison and his consequent disillusionment with his political dreams and hopes. The third follows the fight between Ibrahim and his father Tulba, as Ibrahim and his father Tulb, Ibrahim and Tafida join other youths in proclaiming ‘The streets are ours,’ reflecting the solidarity and determination of youth in the fight for social change and freedom. The final song is inItially heard when Ibrahim is bit by a scorpion, and is heard once again as a mantra towards the end of the film as the bloody chaos explodes at the Madbouli household’ (p. 108)
The music is glorious, as you can see below in the footage of Sadat’s funeral, that leads to a full-blown musical number, with dancing.
The film’s first musical number is this lovely one about the ending of school.
This is continued by a song that refers both to Egypt after Nasser but also to the love story between our two young protagonists.
A song that. is reprised in the incredible finale for the film, which is as lurid and violent as anything in Titus Andronicus:
…and as always, Chahine puts his hopes in youth and the future:
I made this trailer for the podcast that gives a flavour of the film as a whole:
Todos somos marineros (in English, We’re All Sailors) was partly inspired by a workshop in which a group of students spent eight hours discussing the opening line of The Merchant of Venice, and a news story about three Russian sailors left stranded in a Peruvian port due to the sudden bankruptcy of the company they worked for. Writer-director Miguel Ángel Moulet developed a story about just that predicament, a story in which two of the sailors are brothers attempting to find their place in the world, stranded in the coastal city of Chimbote, able neither to go home nor to establish a stable life in Peru, living in limbo, tentatively making connections with the locals.
Moulet is a graduate of EICTV, the Cuban film school, where José visits and spends a few days teaching every year, and this is how we come to bring this podcast to you, José having been screened Moulet’s debut feature recently and keen to share it with us. We’re far from the first to see it, the film being on the festival circuit and already having picked up a number of nominations and awards, including the prestigious FIPRESCI Prize at the Toulouse Latin America Film Festival. A screener was made available for us to watch, and we’re so grateful that it was, as it’s a beautiful, sensitive film.
That line from The Merchant of Venice reads: “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad”, and that simple thought informs the tone and themes of Moulet’s entire film. Todos somos marineros is a story about isolation, displacement, loneliness, and a kind of all-encompassing, ethereal sadness. The central four characters pair up throughout the film – the two brothers, Tolya, the elder, who feels a degree of paternal responsibility towards his younger brother Vitya; the cafe owner and her delivery boy, Sonia and Tito, who function as a kind of surrogate mother and son; Tolya and Sonia, who are in a loving relationship, and Vitya and Tito, who grow close and whose relationship leads to the film’s climax and quiet cliffhanger ending. These pairings are developed and expressed subtly, intelligently, and with heart.
The film makes significant use of long takes, both moving and still, and doesn’t exactly discriminate between when they should and shouldn’t be used. At their best, these shots allow the performances space to breathe, contribute to a delicate, slow pace, or help to convey a rich sense of the characters’ environment; at their worst, they distract from or even obscure what the film is showing us. There’s also use of a trope in which the film opens on a flashforward we’ll return to later, one that effectively establishes a strong mood and mystery but which Mike argues is not purposefully used, and which detracts from the film’s later scenes. (At least, that’s his argument for why he didn’t grasp what was going on in the film’s final third.) On the other hand, there is simply gorgeous cinematography by Camilo Soratti, his camera capturing dense, diffuse natural light infusing the air over Chimbote with extraordinarily beautiful colour and texture. And, overall, Moulet’s direction exhibits a strong control of tone, the film surging with the sense of sadness and loneliness so crucial to it.
There’s more besides all of this to discuss, and we take our time to do so. Todos somos marinerosis an imaginative, rich debut feature that is deservedly earning praise and winning prizes. There’s no predicting if and when it will come to a cinema near you, but if you do get the opportunity to see it, we urge you to jump at it.
José spoke to Miguel Ángel Moulet recently, and their conversation (in Spanish) can be heard here.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
A dear friend asked me to do one of those facebook lists of my top ten books and in spite of trying I simply couldn’t do it. I realized I don’t really read books individually unless they’re not really satisfying. If I fall in love with a book, then I pursue the author, in a sense inhabit their world, read their oeuvre and then sometimes even their influences, until something snaps, I lose attention and I move on to someone else. So here are the ten writers who, for better or worse, I remember now as having marked a period of my life. This of course eliminates a whole series of types of books I read as a child, books where the series was more important than the author and in fact I now struggle to remember who wrote them even though I once lived in the world they created: Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, The Bobbsy Twins, Alfred Hitchock and the Three Investigators etc. Thus here we go:
1: J.D. Salinger. I’m a cliché but I did read Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, then Franny and Zooey and all the rest. I annoyed everyone about me for years by wanting to be Holden Caulfield, finding everyone phony, and itching to tell everyone ‘truths’ that a) might not be theirs or b) might be my view but might not be true and c) might in any case be at best inconvenient and at worse offensive. It took me years to realise that Caulfield might be a psychopath.
Simone De Beauvoir: I came across Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter at a second-hand bookshop and it rather changed my life. This led me to read all of her diaries. Until my very late twenties and beyond I re-read them, partly for pleasure, partly to compare myself to Simone until I reached a point where that comparison became laughable. Reading her diaries led me to read quite a lot of Sartre, all of Camus, all of Genet, some of Nelson Algren’s work. Reading Sartre then led to dabble with Merleau-Ponty until I realized I wasn’t really invested enough. I read all her novels too and The Mandarins led to Koestler and Darkness at Noon. The intellectual rivers that led from De Beauvoir are immeasurable — I could signal what Camus, Genet and Algren in turn led to just as I did with Sartre — and the pleasures ongoing.
James Baldwin: As a gay teenager trying to understand who I was I came across all the books one is supposed to read: A Boy’s Own Story, The City and The Pillar, A Single Man, The Picture of Dorian Grey, Our Lady of the Flowers and Giovanni’s Room. I liked them all though didn’t fully connect with any. But Giovanni’s Room did lead to If Beale Street Could Talk, Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone, Just Above My Head and then the rest of Baldwin including and especially, The Fire Next Time and The Evidence of Things Not Seen. For many years I felt Baldwin spoke ‘me’ better than I did myself.
Margaret Laurence: I grew up in Canada and grew up with bookshops having a section, a tiny one, entitled ‘Canadian Literature’; it wasn’t integrated into the normal literature section, it needed special attention, special care, special nurture; on the other hand, it also had the connotation that it wasn’t quite good enough to simply be literature; that a special case needed to be made for it. In this shelf I made my way though, amongst many others, early Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, all of Mordecai Richler and Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen. But in spite of having grown up in the neighbourhood that Richler wrote about and having to then no experience with the Prairie and West Coast world of Margaret Laurence, it’s The Diviners that became the first Canadian book I loved without qualification and, after reading The Stone Angel, The Fire-Dwellers and the others, Margaret Laurence with her wise, brave, gentle and feminist narratives, became the first Canadian writer I loved without special pleading.
Michel Tremblay: Tremblay was the leading Quebec playwright whilst I was growing up; from the late sixties onwards he wrote hit after hit. Plays like Les belles soeurs, La duchesse de Langeais, Laura Cadieux, and À toi pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou have become not only canonical but absolutely central works in Québécois culture and are continuously revived. I love the plays but the Tremblay works that are important to me are the novels, which have become collected under the title of Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal: La grosse femme d’à côté est enceinte, Thérèse et Pierretteà l’école des Saint-Anges, La Duchesse et le routier etc. They were all set in the neighbourhood I had grown up in but one unknown to me because it was in French; also some of the characters were central in one novel and then reappeared as supporting characters in others; then marginal characters in one would become central subjects in a later one. I loved those characters, understanding them made me understand a culture I lived in but only marginally had access to and I felt I went on a journey with them from book to book. I haven’t re-read them since but remember them still.
Shakespeare: I turn to Shakespeare for the same reasons others resort to The Bible; when things go wrong, when they seem beyond understanding, when one can’t quite make sense of one’s feelings or one’s life, Shakespeare seems to provide answers. One finds sublime articulation of one’s feelings in his work; things make sense beautifully. I’m fifty-two so up to now the Sonnets have been a starting point and ‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’ a kind of leitmotif. The plays have been a constant too though I suspect they might figure more prominently now that I’m entrenched in middle age.
Anthony Trolloppe. I was very ill for a time many years ago now and I found solace in the world of Barchester. The novels were so quietly enthralling, the world so precise but expansive, that I lost myself in them and found them so comforting that when I got over my illness I decided to save Trolloppe as the security of my old age.
Pauline Kael: I have been writing on film for over thirty years in one form or another and Pauline Kael got me started. I used to save up money to buy the New Yorker and wasn’t even disappointed when I opened the magazine to see she had written on a film I hadn’t yet seen or wouldn’t even be allowed to see because I wasn’t yet old enough. I still re-read her constantly and I still think no one has written better on film. An array of different types of writers on film (Richard Dyer, V.F. Perkins, David Bordwell, Robin Wood, David Thomson, Andrew Sarris, Thomas Elsaesser — I would even put Susan Sontag on this list – and this is only to name a few) have influenced me in various ways but there’s no one I love reading more. Her sentences have a jazzy flow and a snap; her understanding of American film is vast; no one I can think of has written better on film actors; and in spite of her fame, I still think she’s underappreciated. In my view Susan Sontag is the most significant American intellectual of the twentieth century and Pauline Kael is the best critic.
Antonio Machado: The poetry that I like to read is in Spanish; it’s my first language, my native tongue. I don’t know if that really has anything to do with this partiality but I suspect it does even though some of my favourite poets (Pablo Neruda, Mario Benedetti [te quiero por que sos mi amor mi complice y todo y porque andando codo a codo, somos mucho mas que dos/ I love you because you are my love my accomplice, everything; and because together arm in arm we are so much more than two]) are not themselves from Spain. Antonio Machado, however, writes in Spanish, is from Castile, and lived in Segovia, not far from where I was born, and I was moved enough by his works, particularly by Campos de Castilla, to make a pilgrimage to the house he lived in. It was emotional to see and made me better understand both he and I, a culture and a landscape he brings to life in his work; one that I left, recognise and once more feel when reading him.
David Foster Wallace: I know he’s no longer with us but I still consider him my favourite of contemporary writers. He’s got the largest vocabulary of anyone I’ve read; I love the way he mixes different generations of vernacular speech; his collections of essays – Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Things I’ll Never Do Again – are the very best essays I remember reading in the last ten years or so. In fact only Gore Vidal’s — a previous generation’s best American essayist — can really compare…and not favourably. It always delights me to come across one of his essays that hasn’t yet been collected (the one on Federer for example). I’m working my way though his novels at present and haven’t been able to finish Infinite Jest yet though the whole sequence at the beginning where the protagonist is waiting for his dealer has to be amongst the funniest and truest I’ve ever read. I plan to plow on.
There are others of course. As a teenager I read detective novels avidly (all of Agatha Christie, all of Arthur Conan Doyle, all of Dashiell Hammett, as much as I could get of Earle Stanley Gardner, Ross McDonald, even Mickey Spillane, etc); I had a mad passion for the iron curtain adventure novels of Helen MacInnes (Above Suspicion, Assignment in Brittany, The Salzburg Connection,The Venetian Affair, Cloak of Darkness etc: I read them all); I read Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann for the sexy bits; television turned me on to Irwin Shaw (Rich Man, Poor Man), Alex Haley (Roots), James Jones (From Here to Eternity) and others; I even read Jean Plaidy.
In my early twenties I lived in Stendhal and Fabrice Del Dongo and Julien Sorel are especially meaningful, my favourite characters in fiction to that point. In my first long-term relationship I lived quite a while in the world of Amistead Maupin’s Tales of the City without quite rejecting outright that of Capote and Isherwood though both of those were much less appealing than the world of Anna Madrigal. For almost a decade, I went to Barcelona every Spring and discovered the work of Manuel Vazquez Montalban, particularly his series of Pepe Carvalho detective novels. Pepe ritually burned a page of a book a day, cooked a dish, solved a crime and each of his cases offered a social history of an aspect of Barcelona (Andrea Camilleri names his detective Montalbano in hommage to Vazquez Montalban) — I read all his books including the cookery ones; I also lived in Mitford-world for a while and read what all of the sisters published and everything on them to the point that I made the happy discovery of the Mapp and Lucia novels simply because Nancy Mitford loved them. Gabriel García Maquez was and continues to be significant to me though I read just as much of Isabel Allende.
There’s an intellectual formation too, one that doesn’t quite belong here, one that took place in grad school and beyond and that still pervades my working life. But the list above is the after-work dream worlds that can only really take place in times of leisure or sleep,