Monday, 27 February 2017

Film reviews 2017 - supplementary - Manchester by the Sea

It is winter.  The haunted exile is working as a janitor.  He is called home by a death.  He has to confront the past.   There is guilt.  There is anguish.  It is beautifully photographed.  It is poignant.  It is brilliantly acted.  He does not escape the pain.  We do not know what it means.  He begins to find a way forward.  It is spring.

Film Reviews 2017 - #3 Casablanca

Casablanca (1942)

There is a refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, untold thousands fleeing war and persecution.  Swirling amid the rumours and intrigue there is a strange haven, a neutral staging post, an interzone, a place of waiting where the rules are in flux: Casablanca.  Here is where you come when you need to go; and congregated here too are all those that seek to profit from your coming and going.  There are thieves and pickpockets, smugglers and forgers, bandits and gangsters.  Most of all, there is a bar, run by an enigmatic émigré American called Rick (although he is given different names by different people) where everyone meets, where everyone hopes, where everyone waits.  Know the right people, have enough currency – or luck – and perhaps you will escape.

Escape to where?  Why, it’s obvious – America.  America in 2017 may be refusing entry and beginning to build walls, but seventy six years ago – the film is set in December 1941 - the United States of America was a beacon for the world.   For the desperate young Bulgarian couple that Mr Rick helps by fixing the roulette wheel; for the elderly German couple tasting one last brandy before they leave, speaking now only in English since this is the language of their future; for Victor Laszlo, freedom fighter on the run from the Nazis and given ambiguous shelter by Mr Blaine; for the beautiful Ilsa, wife to Laszlo and Rick’s true love – for these and innumerable others, America is the answer.

How odd that one of the movie screen’s greatest love stories should be looking back at us like this.  Or perhaps it is not odd at all.  The truly great stories are those (think Shakespeare) that work in and for every age.  And the way that they do this is by allowing us, whoever or whenever we are, to project ourselves and our contemporary fears and foibles onto and into the characters and situations portrayed. The film Casablanca, an archetypically ‘great film’, really is an actual great film: brilliantly conceived and beautifully directed, it has a razor-sharp script full of astonishing dialogue and one liners delivered by a group of actors at the absolute top of their game.  It is clever, funny, moving and dramatic. (It is also extraordinary to realise that the film was not merely set in December 1941, but it was made in the summer of 1942 and released in December of that same year – which is by way of saying that, at the time it was made, World War II was still underway.  We take it for granted that ‘we’ won – but the writers and actors and everyone else involved in the film did not know!)

Rick - or Richard, or Mr Rick, whatever you need to call him - is the film’s central character.  He first came to Casablanca ‘for the waters’, but he had been ‘misinformed’.  He claims throughout the film to be concerned solely with his own interests, but he is clearly loved by all those around him and is progressively exposed as a ‘sentimentalist’.  He ran guns for the rebels in Ethiopia, fought for the socialists in the Spanish Civil War and is wanted by the Nazis.  He fled Paris eighteen months earlier, on the last train before the Nazis marched into the city, having fallen in love with Ilsa.  She had arranged to meet him at the station, but she didn’t turn up, leaving him standing in the rain “with a comical look on his face because his insides have been kicked out”.

His relationship with Ilsa is one of the two central relationships around which the entire story hangs.  She really does love him – but she loves her husband, Victor, too.  At the time she met Rick, she thought her husband was dead.  He escaped a concentration camp and arrived in Paris just before she was due to meet Rick at the train station.  A year and a half later, fleeing persecution like so many others, she and her husband arrive in Casablanca: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”  How does Ilsa love Rick?  Is it the same kind of way she loves Victor?  And how does Rick love Ilsa?  Will he help her escape, with her husband?  Or will he ask her to stay?  Or will he go with her, back to America?  Love always asks the biggest questions; during wartime, love asks them with particular intensity.  ‘As Time Goes By’.  Play the song, Sam.  You played it for them; now play it for us.

But there is a second relationship, of a very different kind, between Rick and the local police chief, Captain Louis Renault.  Renault is sharp, sly and intent on survival.  He abuses his authority, but does so with humour and good grace.  He is smarmy and obsequious with the Nazis (who are present in Casablanca, and menacing, but who have no formal authority because ‘French Morocco’ remains unoccupied) but is secretly a patriot and loves Rick just as much as everyone else.  (“If I were a woman,” he tells Ilsa, in the moments before she first realises that the Rick of the bar in which she now sits is the Rick from Paris, “and I were not around, I should be in love with Rick.”)

Rick and Renault depend on one another – without Renault’s consent, the bar would not be open; and without Rick’s consent, Renault would not enjoy the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed – but are also both aware that the other is a survivor, which means there are limits to how far they can trust one another.  Survival, in these circumstances, means relying on a high degree of selfishness.

Or does it?  Perhaps it depends on what is at stake. You? Someone that you love?  An idea? Hundreds, thousands, millions of people?  More questions, more intensity.

Between 1965 and 2016 I somehow never saw the film Casablanca.  I’ve now seen it three times in less than three weeks.  I laugh more, and cry more, each time.  I firmly expect to watch it many more times.  If you haven’t seen it, watch it.  If you have seen it, you already know what I’m talking about – so watch it again!

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Film reviews 2017 - #2 'Birdman'

Riggan Thompson is a middle-aged white male actor famous for, as a young man, having played the superhero Birdman in a trio of globally-successful films.  We join him as he rehearses for his starring role in the Broadway play that he has also scripted, produced and directed. He will, during the course of the movie, be excoriated by his daughter, his wife and New York’s leading theatre critic for this monstrous piece of crisis-fuelled self-indulgence; but, for the moment, the mirror in his dressing room sports a postcard bearing a message:

“A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”

This is an interesting philosophical and artistic point about authenticity.  It invites us to consider what is ‘real’ and what is not; what can and cannot be said; and, perhaps most interestingly, what kind of thing counts as ‘a thing’ and what counts as something ‘said’.  A piece of art, for example: is that a thing, or something being said about a thing?  (Or even something not being said about a thing – after all, not only is it seen that ‘ceci n’est pas une pipe’, but it could be said that ‘ceci n’est pas une declaration a propos une pipe’.)  Is the film ‘Birdman’ a thing, or something that is said about a thing?

It all depends on the level at which you choose to consider the matter.  ‘Birdman’ is the name of a movie directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.  It stars a middle-aged white male actor (Michael Keaton, whose real name Michael Douglas is the name of another middle-aged white male actor) playing a middle-aged white male actor (Riggan Thompson) who used to play a character called Birdman in a series of films called Birdman.  By the time we meet Thompson, the character Birdman has been comprehensively adopted as Thompson’s alter-ego, an entity with whom he has a rolling and increasingly vituperative internal dialogue throughout the film.  We the audience know, of course, that the middle-aged white male actor 'Michael Keaton' played the character 'Batman', and Iñárritu knows that we know this, so we're all in on the joke that a bat and a bird are both things that fly but, just in case we don't, the Birdman alter-ego speaks with the same deep distinctive growl as did Keaton's Batman.

Which bit of this is the most ‘authentic’?  It is a question with which Iñárritu, Keaton and Thompson are all engaged.  And not just them – the play that Thompson is presenting to Broadway is an adaptation of “What we talk about when we talk about love”, an introspection into the authenticity (or otherwise) of communicating about love (which may or may not be ‘real’) based on a short story by Raymond Carver (a not-at-all-coincidentally middle-aged white man).

To make sure these multiple and interwoven levels cooperate fully in the game of chasing their own authenticity, everything else in the film is doing the same thing.  The camerawork is extraordinary, remaining almost unbearably close to its subjects at times, revealing every crease and wart and bead of sweat on every face, male or female; the entire movie is shot as if in a single take, moving along corridors, in and out of doors, out onto the New York street, into the adjacent bar, back into the theatre, down into the basement, back along the corridor, straight onto the stage; the amazing soundtrack consists of an almost unbroken drum solo, a piece of apparently improvised jazz (and how authentic is that?) that includes the actual appearance of the drummer on a couple of occasions, once out on the street and once in a broom cupboard.

(The meta-movie ‘Birdman’ throws in quite a few of these surreal touches as it hurtles along, including the actual flying and telekinesis that Thompson performs at various points during the film, to raise further fractal questions on what is and what is not real, for whom and at what level.)

Perhaps the most astonishing contribution to Birdman’s intoxicating breadth and complexity comes from the actor we call ‘Ed Norton’ who appears as the actor ‘Mike Shiner’ to play the character ‘Nick’ in Thompson’s play.  The scene in which Norton/Shiner/Nick interacts with Keaton/Thompson is simply breath-taking as the younger man demonstrates that he is the superior actor through the multi-layered process of – of being the superior actor.  As the meta-movie continues, it becomes ever-clearer (to the point where the Norton/Shiner character admits the fact) that he is unable to be ‘himself’ in the (ahem) real world and can only be himself (whoever that is) whilst on stage.  (The moment where this becomes physically evident, in front of an audience of several thousand, is very funny indeed.)

And, of course, if we are invited to ponder authenticity, then we can hardly escape the question as to who, or what, is observing or considering the authenticity, which propels us in turn into the question of consciousness itself, for which the meta-movie Birdman suddenly offers a metaphor: all the actors and characters and support staff and agents and managers, scurrying around in the subterranean rabbit-warren of the theatre are no more than the innumerable thoughts and wants and drives of our sub-conscious, collectively and miraculously resolved from time to time into a supply of conscious thought and a sense of self upon the single brightly lit stage of awareness…

Hollywood – and this is not meant to be disparaging or dismissive - loves this kind of stuff. Birdman won the Oscar for best movie: but think of Shakespeare in Love (best movie) or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (best screenplay) or even Tropic Thunder (in which the multi-layering reached the genius-intensity whereby Robert Downey Jr – who gets a reference in Birdman for his Iron Man franchise - was nominated for an actual Oscar for playing an actor called Kirk Lazarus, an Oscar-winning actor who has undergone ‘pigmentation alteration’ in order to play Staff Sergeant Lincoln Osiris in a film within a film and who remains ‘in character’ even when it becomes clear (to whom?) that he and his fellow actors are no longer making a film…)

Mention of Eternal Sunshine reminds us of Charlie Kaufman, and it is perhaps to Kaufman’s work that Birdman ought most to be compared.  In both cases, every element of the art – the scripting, the acting, the camerawork, the music, the message – is brought into the service of the whole, and no part is left unaddressed.  Every thing connects to every other thing, whether it’s said or not.  This review comprises things said about a thing, and is a thing too, but it is not the thing of which it speaks, and in that sense it is insufficient.  Birdman is a truly remarkable thing, and experiencing it is the only appropriate thing to do.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Film Reviews 2017 - #1 Belleville Rendez-Vous

1.              Belleville Rendez-Vous (2003)

We have become accustomed to astonishing animated movies.  The work of Pixar, in particular, has shown us how a million blades of grass can shimmer in the sunshine, how that sunshine can be vividly reflected on the perfectly rendered chrome of a speeding car, how that car (or rat or toy or fish or personality trait) can be a fully developed character in its own right.  Pixar has shown us, too, that a film ostensibly intended for children can have not merely the occasional comedic moment to keep the adults interested, it can have entirely parallel narratives for its respective audiences.  (Indeed, as A S Fell has suggested, Pixar invert the traditional relationship between the narratives: a Disney film, he argues, can be identified as an animated film for children with a sub-text aimed at adults; whereas a Pixar movie is in fact an animated film for adults, with a sub-text for children).

We have perhaps paid less attention to that genre of animation which eschews the children altogether (or which treats them as incidental) and which (for similar reasons) also rejects the use of computerised imagery.  Think of Spirited Away or Persopolis; or Ernest and Ethel, the Raymond Briggs film broadcast over Christmas, which comprises a tender line-drawing biography of his parents (and reminds us of his 1986 film, When the Wind Blows, which animates the prelude to and aftermath of a nuclear attack); while Anomalisa is the Academy-award nominated stop-motion movie from Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind et al) reckoned by The Guardian to have been the best film – of any kind – of 2016.

Despite the limitless ability of modern CGI to embed hyper-real imagery within movies ostensibly using ‘real’ people and scenery – and thereby create entirely fictitious visual worlds (viz. Avatar, Gravity, Lord of the Rings, Potter etc) - animated movies seem to provide their creators with opportunities to re-interpret or re-present reality in a more comprehensive way.  It is as if, freed from any convention that includes a regulation human, the film-maker can actually look even more closely at ‘the human condition’.  This is somewhat uncanny; and it is perhaps no accident that such films, in being uncanny, are also frequently unsettling.

This is undoubtedly the territory occupied by Belleville Rendez-Vous.  Set in a world of distended buildings, rectilinear baddies and impossibly tall ships, of extraordinary jazz, obsessive cycling and criminal sommeliers, Belleville tells the tale of a Tour-de-France cyclist who is kidnapped by the mafia for use in a gambling den and eventually rescued by his grandmother.

Or does it?  Perhaps Belleville tells the tale of a doting grandmother, who lovingly supports her grandson’s passion for cycling and who rescues him from baddies when he is kidnapped and taken to the big city.

Or does it?  Perhaps Belleville tells the tale of three singing sisters who, despite falling a long way from their music hall heyday (they now live in a tenement block used mainly by drug-dealers and prostitutes and survive on a diet exclusively of frogs, gathered each evening through the use of dynamite in the marshes) still concoct sublime music each evening and use their musical wits to help the grandmother and outwit the bad guys.  (The film’s original title was ‘The Triplets of Belleville’.)

Or perhaps the film is actually about a faithful and very fat dog, without whom the cyclist would not have matured from boyhood, without whom the grandmother could not have rescued the boy, without whom the singers could not have helped the grandmother?

It doesn’t matter.  We watch the film and enter its uncanny world, completely.  The frogs wander dazed from the explosions, the gangsters have noses red and swollen from drinking too much wine, the cyclist has an upper body made of string and legs that are massaged each day using an egg whisk.  The triplets cackle like witches while making music that is divine; the dog is so fat it nearly collapses each time it hurtles down the stairs and can be used as a spare tyre on the ‘broom van’ that collects the mad gibbering cyclists unable to complete the agonising climb up Mont Ventoux.  The grandmother has a club foot which she uses, at the end of the curtain-closing chase scene, to fling the chief baddie from an impossibly high bridge to an explosive end in the chimney of a passing ship.

What does it all mean?  Perhaps it doesn’t matter.  For 78 minutes we leave the ‘real’ world far behind and enter an alternative reality so thoroughly and wonderfully and powerfully conceived that the experience is its own reward.  There are no analogies, no metaphors, because they are not needed: it is sufficient in and of itself; enough is enough, so why have more?

But there is, even in that conclusion, a hint of what the film is ‘about’: how far is enough?  How far can you go?   How far will you go?  How committed are you to the thing that you love?  Committed enough to cycle the Tour de France?  Committed enough to use a pedalo to cross an ocean to save your grandson?  To be used as a spare tyre? To live in penury and eat nothing but frogs so that you can make music for the gods?

To make a movie as strange and brilliant as Belleville Rendez-Vous?  If that’s the question, then this film is a wonderful answer.

Athens 2016 - #6 The Four Ps

I sometimes said that my odyssey in Athens had personal, practical, political and philosophical dimensions.  I said this partly because it's true, and partly because they all began with P.

Now that I've reached the end of this chapter, I've assembled a selection of eleven insights under each heading.  (Regular readers will know my commitment to lists containing eleven magical items.)

I shan't be sharing the Personal bits (the clue is in the word) and I'll be attempting the Political and Philosophical heavy-lifting over the coming weeks, but for now, and with as much brevity and levity as I can muster, here's eleven Practical insights from my few weeks in Greece:

1. Best cafe - HBH coffee bar on Stounari overlooking Exarchia Place.  Coffee is always good: the comfy chairs outside are fantastic; and it faces ESE, which means you get delicious sunshine on your face all morning.

2. Best bar - Booze Cooperativa on Kolokotroni.  It's difficult to explain.  There are papier mache chickens, apparently modelled on the Chicken Run chickens, but by someone with a degree in Dark.  There is a man who I hesitate to call a DJ who ceaselessly concocts post-ambient jazz-rock fusion from a laptop, apparently by improv.  They sell Czech Bud.  Everyone is either mad or beautiful, or neither or both, and the owner - a 60-something gentleman wearing a black suit, white t-shirt and autonomous long grey hair - stalks the building and its environs as though hunting snarks.

3. Best view - the Acropolis is good, and the rock next to it (the Areopagus) is good too, but the best views of Athens are from the top of Lykavittos.  It's a bit of a steep climb - which I wouldn't recommend in very high temperatures - but it's worth it.

(Note weird boots in the third pic...)

4. Best place to just sit and watch the world - Syntagma Square.  This is where the Greek parliament is.  It's a busy place in and of itself; it's a major Metro station, and the starting point for the city's tram; and every protest march worth its salt heads there.  There's coffee shops and restaurants and hotels and taxis, and fountains and trees, and there's even a McDonalds.  Ignore all these.  Just sit and watch.  Mornings are best.

5. Best place for lunch - Couleur Locale, Monistiraki.  So cool it aches.  Amazing view.  Truly delicious food, served in portions you can actually eat.

6. Best place for dinner - highly subjective, of course, and my sample is painfully small - but go to Rozalia on Valtetsiou.  Hard working and highly skilled cooks and waiting staff; good ambience; good prices.

7. Best bookshop - by a country mile, Bookstore Politeia.  Quite remarkable place.  More good books in English than most UK bookshops, both fiction and non-fiction.  They don't have to stock trash fiction, of course (why would anyone Greek go to the trouble of reading utter rubbish in another language?) but, even so, the range is amazing.  My favourite - they had a copy of every single Richard Powers novel.

8. Best bakery - my local, imaginatively called 'Bakery Stores' (in English.)  It's on Trikoupi, near the junction with Kallidromiou.  Great bread, great staff, terrific little apple pies, amazing sandwiches.

9. Best stroll - any walk that takes you through the National Garden, just south of Syntagma.  Described by Henry Miller in The Colossus of Maroussi as 'the best city park in the world'. 

10. Best stall - at which to buy newspapers, cigarettes, cold drinks and so forth, is on Ermou, just down from Monistiraki Square and opposite a sports/shoe shop called Unity (hmm).  It sells everything you need AND it plays music all day and all night (I've heard Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Aretha Franklin, Bowie...) AND the people who work there talk politics.  Perfect.

11. Best place - unfortunately, the best place is not actually in Athens, its 60 or 70 miles away, not far from the ancient city of Mycenae, down a weird road and then turn right along another weird road and then drive up the hill a while until you reach the Temple of Heraion at Argos.  A simply sublime collision of physical geography, ancient human artefact, deep cosmological myth and a stunning view across the plain of Sparta towards the mountains of the Giants.  Genuinely awe-inspiring, goose-bump stuff.

That's enough for now, methinks.  

Oh, no, just one more thing:

Kevin, too, thought the Temple of Heraion was good...

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Athens 2016 #7 - poem

I'm tired of all this unproductive bile;
I'd rather we could just shake hands and smile.
Why don't we sit and natter for a while?

I see that you're suspecting me of guile
- I have, it's true, described your views as vile - 
but someone has to go the extra mile

before we're all completely fucked

Friday, 11 November 2016

Athens 2016 #5 - Embassies

(A few days ago, I went for a stroll and found myself in the Embassy quarter of Athens.  I drafted this blog immediately afterwards.  Since then (a) somebody yesterday threw a hand grenade at the French Embassy, (b) I learned that someone called Barack Obama is visiting Athens next week, (c) someone called Real Donald Trump was elected President of the United States of America and (d) Chancellor Angela Merkel responded to said election with the most important statement of Enlightenment values for decades.  All of which throws new and interesting light on what follows...)

It had not been my intention to be photographed by the security system surrounding the US Embassy in Athens, but given the vaguely circular route of my walk it was probably inevitable.  I didn’t know it was the Embassy at first: it looked more like a prison, or a fort.

I was disguised as a heavily tanned middle-aged white man wearing only a t-shirt and jeans.  I was carrying a black rucksack slung over one shoulder.  I stopped provocatively in front of some gates and took photos.  Of course they were going to react.

The US Embassy occupies an entire city block.  I was able to walk around it.  By the time I reached the third and, especially, the fourth sides, they knew I was coming.  Burly uniformed men on walkie-talkies watched me.  I couldn’t decide whether to try to look more threatening or less.

I stood on the opposite side of the road, here:

and took another photo:

Ha! I am protected from the mightiest nation on earth by several lanes of Athenian traffic!  (As anyone familiar with Athenian driving habits will know, this is actually more reassuring than it sounds.)

I wandered off, satisfied with the pebble I had thrown, through the rest of what I now realised was the ‘Embassy quarter’ – Portuguese, French, Argentinean…  A goodly chunk of the north eastern district of central Athens is maintained, it would seem, entirely by ambassadorial largesse.

Ah.  The British Embassy.

Actually, that’s a little unfair.  There’s also this:

and, er, by way of security, monogrammed and movable 'No parking' signs:

So, suddenly we can see how the history and present of global power is manifest: on the one side, a monstrous projection of defensive and aggressive posturing, an entire city block laid waste and replaced by a brutal excrescence of Uncle Sam’s commitment to making sure that whoever the fuck you are you don’t forget who’s boss; over here, a decaying remnant of former grandeur, still clinging to a belief of relevance, still hoping that a formidable ‘No parking’ sign will not only deter the would-be aggressor (have they seen how people park in Athens?) but will also signal some ineffable set of ‘British’ values to inspire both visitors and passers-by.

Rather than make them laugh or cringe.

Then – the Germans.  Of course.  They, like every other member of the European Union, fly not only their own national flag but also the flag of the union.  (Well, I say ‘every other member’; but there is of course one that does not…) They choose not to fortify themselves like either the Americans (behind immense barricades of steel) or the British (behind immensely powerful No Parking signs.)  In fact, the German Embassy is simply present on the street:

So there we go: the entire character of three great nations effortlessly and beautifully expressed through the metaphor of their respective Embassies: the Americans – wealthy, over-bearing, paranoid; the British – polite, bemused, declining; the Germans - modern, understated, straightforward.

Let’s hope the Germans don’t panic.