Friday, 6 January 2017

Film Reviews 2017 - #1

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 their 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.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Five reasons why Trump is Thatcher

It occurs to me that Trump is America's Thatcher:

  • both have backgrounds as tradesfolk - Trump is a 'businessman' and Thatcher was the daughter of a grocer

  • both (partly as a result) are not merely anti-Establishment, they are outsiders in their own parties (Thatcher was loathed by the patrician class of old-school Tories)

  • both arrive as vigorous reformers against a background of (real or perceived) ossification (in Thatcher's case the background was post-World War II corporatism, the 'sick man of Europe' label, the winter of discontent etc; in Trump's case, the failure of the US Establishment to distribute the benefits of globalisation, the failure to control its debt etc)

  • both evoke extreme reactions among both the general public and the commentariat - there is no middle ground with either of them, people either love them or hate them

  • both have a weird thing with hair

Make of it what you will.  

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

In the event of a scary future, run to the past

So I had intended that this missive would be a light-hearted piece on the Athenian's fondness for shoes – but then I woke up and remembered it’s 2016, so Donald Trump has been elected President of the USA.

Somehow this doesn’t feel as shocking as the Brexit result; but that’s probably because I’m still numb from June.

Either that or I actually believe my own analysis, which is that very large numbers of ordinary people across the western world are angry and confused at how things are panning out for them and they will vote for anyone – literally, anyone – who appears to recognise their pain.  Millions and millions of ordinary people in the US and the UK do not pay attention to current affairs, do not involve themselves in the complexities of globalisation, do not think too often about climate change, do not wonder too much about the relationships between economic growth, debt, tax avoidance, productivity, automation, media ownership, employment, finite natural resources and so forth.  They just want a steady job, a decent house, healthy kids and something to look forward to.

But what is there to look forward to?  More jobs going to other countries?  More people coming here to compete for the remaining jobs?  More expensive housing? Fewer holidays?

Once upon a time I wrote a piece (god knows which hard drive it’s on) suggesting that one of the side-effects of the Cold War was that it provided an underpinning purpose to headline economic activity – by which I meant, the reason to keep on spending and growing and running around as fast as possible was to be as strong as possible in order to counter the obvious threat.  It was a ‘deep frame’, a pervasive myth, a macro-political narrative that justified a whole host of economic policies and actions.  It was tantamount to a duty to be a good consumer, because that was how to maintain the economic strength upon which you and your country’s safety depended.

With the end of the Cold War, that narrative has progressively ebbed away – and behind, there is nothing.  A great existential hole.  What is the point of all this?  Where are we going?  Why?

No one will or can say.

Add in twenty or so years of 'post-person' globalisation, then the crash of 2008 (and its still unfolding aftermath) and – hey presto - we start to go backwards: in the UK, through Brexit, to a time of Empire and ‘sovereignty’, to those re-imagined sepia-tinted ‘good old days’; in the US, through Trump, to a time when America was ‘great’, when all right thinking white folk had good jobs working for great companies, when women and blacks knew their place.  We go backwards to those re-imagined certainties because the future is so frightening: the Chinese in charge? Climate change flooding us out?  Robots doing all the work?

Perhaps the greatest failure of the liberals, the political establishment, the experts, the ‘Front Row Kids’ et al has not been so much in not hearing, or listening to, or comprehending or even empathising with all that bewilderment, but in not developing and then proposing a Good Future.


Deep down, I am optimistic that such a project is possible; and it is, self-evidently, more urgent now that it has ever been.

But now is not the time to begin to sketch what I think might be involved in such a project; nor is it a time for optimism.  (I note my own optimism, and store it in the cellar.)  Now is a time for pain and disbelief, for tears and grieving, for that sensation of shock whereby all the news, all the work, all the ordinary everyday stuff suddenly seems pointless.  Now is a time to allow the numbness to approach and to take hold, knowing that it will pass.  Then, and only then, will it be feasible to act.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Athens 2016 #4 - poem


A crack opens, suddenly, unexpectedly
and I tumble back two decades
into a giant lake of love and play
where my children’s smiles radiate like gold
where the smell of ironing their shirts fills my chest
where everything is a game, or will be soon, even the washing up
where the living room is a great plain, covered with creatures 
     and figurines and imagination
where excitement at a forthcoming journey is physical
where I always finish work on time to collect the boys
     from school
where fights and tears are vapours
where cooking a family meal is an endless experiment in fun
where each morning brings a new and wondrous achievement
where the past is overwritten every day
where the future is a realm of pure potential
where the present is all there is

So fully present were we in that present
it leaves no trace
no memory
just shapes, and hues, and
invisible fissures

A small price to pay
for all that joy

(Ironically the crack was opened by Kate Bush's 'Bertie'; both my sons really dislike her music...)