Archive for January 2010
For John Wyndham, as for most British science fiction writers in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the plan was to tell a story so transparent a dog could follow it, then have your central characters fail to make the connections: the reader would always be ahead of the game, and thus feel comforted. In addition, since science fiction was an index of the American-ness of the coming world, it would be a mistake to write in anything resembling English. So the aim was to suggest hardboiled dialogue but dilute its wisecracking with long-winded British rhythms, and, if necessary, have the characters explain the slang to each other. By 1951, when he set about fulfilling his Plan for Chaos, Wyndham had been producing work in that style for approaching 30 years. It had booked him a place in obscurity.
I experienced queasy deja vu when I opened this recently rediscovered John Wyndham novel. The prose was cheap. The concepts were cheap. The paper was cheap. The glutinous wordplay in the title made me feel cheap for having read it. For a moment I might have been back reviewing cheap sf, 1969.
We are still in January but A Prophet has already been anointed one of the films of the year. So when David Cox’s take on the film popped up in my feedreader, I thought it was typical journalistic contrarianism from someone whose opinion I don’t value. Having now seen the film, there is something to it though. Cox concludes:
So we’re left with a conventional genre flick decked out with a tasteful amount of imaginative and well-executed violence… Films like this one clearly press a very particular button, at least in rarefied quarters. Maybe they constitute a kind of brutality-porn for refined persons who require their fix cut with purported profundity and slicked out with subtitles.
There is a sense in which this type of film is prioritised by both critics and punters. Laurent Cantet’s The Class did get good reviews but it didn’t get this sort of coverage. Beyond this, there is a core of conventionality to the film which the skill of its execution can’t disguise. In his review, Peter Bradshaw raves that:
It comports itself like a modern classic from the very first frames, instantly hitting its massively confident stride. This is the work of the rarest kind of film-maker, the kind who knows precisely what he is doing and where he is going. The film’s every effect is entirely intentional.
This is true and the first act – in which young prisoner, Malik El Djebena (played by Tahar Rahim), finds himself forced into murder – is magnificent. After this, and despite the fact director Jacques Audiard is remarkable assured, the film does become something more like a conventional gangster film. El Djebena slowly rises to the top, building alliances, playing each side off against the other. Cox compares the film to Brian De Palma’s Scarface and, although Audiard is a much better and more interesting director than De Palma, the major difference is that there is no fall from grace. Instead the film culminates in a ridiculous final scene in which El Djebena finally leaves prison having served out his original sentence. He walks off into the sunset, side by side with his brand new family (a wife and child donated by his dead partner) and flanked by a convoy of SUVs containing his footsoldiers.
I watched A Prophet back to back with The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005), Audiard’s previous film. To go with their blanket coverage of the former, the Guardian have published a post by Jonathan Jones comparing the latter with Michael Haneke’s Hidden, released the same year. Of Audiard’s film he says:
The Beat That My Heart Skipped is not a great movie. It’s quite good fun, with some terrific acting. It has the look and the atmosphere of some wonderful French films gone by. But it’s really a bit silly
Silly is a well chosen word. Tom Seyr (Romain Duris) is a thuggish real estate developer and aspiring concert pianist who trots around Paris in the most preposterously cocky manner imaginable (this is aided by the fact Duris has a simian facial resemblence to the young Martin Amis). His sensitive and brutish sides war, he rages and he mopes. Like A Prophet, it is disturbingly weightless and consequence-free. Even the fact his actions lead to the death of his father (played by Niels Arestrup, a similarly malevolent paternal presense in A Prophet) does not really get beneath the skin. This is not the remorseless ambiguity of Haneke but a turning away from the reality of the world Audiard has created.
It is my own fault. I recently watched both parts of the slick, stylish and hollow Mesrine (2008), another highly lauded French film. Afterwards I swore off gangster films but I only made it a week because I made an exception for Audiard. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough of an exception.
I should probably note that I still think Cox is a dick and I don’t find his more specific criticisms of the film particularly accurate. Nor do the commenters to the post; in fact, they tear into him at length. Some of them raise his review of Hunger which I hadn’t previously read. Sample quote:
I appreciate that my responses to this beautifully made film are uncharitable, immoderate and indeed reprehensible.
The negative response to this was so overwhelming that the readers’ editor felt obliged to respond. As with Hidden, Hunger does make an interesting comparision to A Prophet in terms of directorial boldness and producing truely extraordinary cinema.
The math is simple: Tor mashes Sufjan Stevens (“multi-instrumentalist and indie hero”) with some of the finest hip hop of the last two decades. And Grand Puba.
Every time the human species has looked as if it might break its current bounds, might not just approach the limit but possibly, just possibly, be able to peer beyond it, there’s been a Hell-bringer waiting ready to bring an iron-soled boot stamping down to crush the groping fingers of the venture . . . . For all of the universe’s countless species, there will always be that stamping boot.
I went to the Battersea Arts Centre – or BAC, as they like to call it – last Saturday. It is on the opposite side of London to me and I’d never been before but, for some reason, I’d got it into my head that it would be a 1970s municipal box. In fact, although it is a municipal building, it is situated in the old town hall which was opened in 1893. It is an absolutely wonderful space and I’m sure I will be schlepping over there in future.
I was there to see Trilogy which, as the name suggests, is a performance in three parts. It was created by Nic Green (whose website is unfortunately bloody Flash) and she describes it as “a celebratory venture into modern-day feminism [which] examines and interrogates the joys and complexities of being a young woman today, whilst driving steadfast into the future with commitment and hope.” Right enough. The celebration centres around women’s bodies in their range and variety, independent of media images. The interrogation around what it means to be a young feminist in 2010 (the performers were all born in the early Eighties).
Part 1 is certainly celebratory. Green and the other lead performer (sorry, I’ve forgotten her name) come on, do an energetic and eclectic dance, before stripping off and continuing. They are then joined by fifty volunteers, similarly naked. There was a lot of joy in the room but, as a companion remarked, there was something of the Dove advert to it, and it is hardly revolutionary. In this context it was interesting to read Germaine Greer’s latest column for the Guardian on elles@centrepompidou earlier in the week:
Some of the younger women artists in the show may turn out to be discoveries, but too many of them are making the kinds of female body art that have been doing the rounds for years. Innocents may be excited by Sigalit Landau’s Barbed Hula of 2001, a video showing her full-frontal naked doing the hula with a hoop made of barbed wire, but only if they were too young to see Marina Abramowic´ slicing into her naked belly in the 1970s, or Orlan on the operating table in the 1990s.
More on Greer later. Part 3 moves the performance out to the audience. The show itself becomes interactive but more importantly it acts as a shop front for a collaborative website, Make Your Own Herstory (bloody Flash again). A key aspect of this is climbing up a hill, taking your clothes off and singing Jerusalem (an anthem for the suffragettes) then uploading the video to the website. This was recreated inside the BAC and again there was a great deal of enthusiasm from the participants, although again it is hard to be sceptical about how far this gets us.
And Part 2? This is the heart of the performance and makes extensive use of footage from Town Bloody Hall – I would have linked to the wikipedia entry but it doesn’t have one (a point raised in Part 3) – a panel discussion with Norman Mailer, Jacqueline Ceballos, Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston and Diana Trilling which took place in New York in 1971. Green and her fellow performers interact with footage from this event but really it is the film clips from the discussion itself which are the star. Trilogy transfered to the Barbican on Friday and to coincide with that they were also showing Town Bloody Hall so yesterday I went along to see the whole thing. It is bloody brilliant.
Calling it a panel discussion makes it seem rather more staid than it is. From the opening shot there is a palpable charge to the atmosphere, it is not so much that the event is history in the making but that the whole world is at a point of revolutionary change. The four panelists represent different parts of the women’s liberation movement (with Trilling the most removed). Mailer, on the other hand, had just published The Prisoner Of Sex along with an attendant (and controversial) article in Harper’s and, despite his protestations to the contrary, it is a bit like Mailer versus the feminists. He obviously revels in this and lives up to his reputation as a misogynist: throughout he is half prick, half pedant and although some of this is clearly deliberate, quite a lot of it obviously isn’t.
The four ten minute talks are all excellent from Ceballos (representing NOW) giving a straightforward presentation on the need for change to Trilling (literary critic for The Nation) questioning not only Mailer’s assumptions but those of the women’s movement with a wonderful digression on the female orgasm. It is Greer and Johnstone who are the real stars though. Greer, wearing a fur wrap and an expression of unrelenting disdain, mixes literary and social critique to confront the notion of the great male artist, as represented by Mailer. She is alternatively scathing and heartbroken and it is hard not to fall a bit in love with her. In the following discussion, despite being tetchy to the point of petulant, she gets all the best lines. Johnstone takes a different approach, launching into a structure free-association poem which starts hesitantly but builds into a torrent. She is cut short, mid-flow, by Mailer for having overrun (“slopped over” he later describes it). This marks the point where it becomes all about Norman and the evening gradually descends into a slanging match. A wonderful slanging match; they might make little progress on any of the big questions – although how could you expect them to? – but the mild anarchy and intellectual jousting is a joy to watch.
If you don’t subscribe to the London Review Of Books, you can only read the first paragraph of James Lever’s review of The Humbling by Philip Roth online but that is probably all you need:
Here’s a novella of slightly over 30,000 very plain words – Philip Roth’s shortest book since The Prague Orgy – structurally straightforward, winnowed of syntactical excitement, sterilised of jokes, rhythmically muted, baldly plotted, low on confrontation, low on tension, low on brilliancies and generally low all round. Here, the writing temperature has sunk below even that of Everyman: it’s prose as utilitarian as you can get without making the flatness of the style into an ostentation. It opens with a verdict, rapped out with judicial impatience: ‘He’d lost his magic. The impulse was spent … His talent was dead.’ The text that follows is so shorn of obvious sorcery that you’re tempted to read the first four words half as a challenge, daring you to think the verdict is autobiographical – a prophecy or a lament. Or a boast: the magic hasn’t been lost so much as abjured, like Prospero’s.
Except it isn’t. Lever’s review is brilliantly biting but also deeply knowledgeable and sympathetic and in the end he concludes that, no, Roth hasn’t lost his magic at all. Wonderful stuff and Me Cheeta has gone straight in the basket. If only the LRB only reviewed fiction…
Capitalism is wrong. This goes without saying yet people still feel the need to say it. This is fine if you are going to be sharp but if you are going to be blunt, why bother?
I’d heard good things about Ockham’s Razor but unfortunately The Mill was not very impressive. It is part of the 2010 London International Mime Festival but I prefer to think of it as physical theatre and the performers’ interaction with the set is the heart of the piece. Discussing this in an interview with the Guardian, one of them says that “we bashed around with various Heath Robinson-style systems, and they were all rubbish”. They have ended up with something quite simple but they fail to really exploit its full potential. The company works outward from their equipment and so here we move from the great millwheel at the centre of the stage to the concept of a mill itself to an examination of labour. They work, they change shift, they rest and enter a child-like state of grace, they return to the crushing conformity of work, they rebel, they stand around wanting to know what comes next. We slip out into the night, unmoved, to get a good night’s sleep before the wheel starts again.
I did like Derek Nisbet’s score though.
I have just finished reading ‘The Farenheit Twins’ by Michel Faber. It is very good. It is collected in the book of the same name. My copy of the book (published in 2006, bought in 2009) has a big sticky label on the front boasting that you can download a podcast of the story, read by Faber and scored by Brian Eno. This sounds very interesting. Putting aside the incorrect use of the word “podcast”, what is vexing about this, however, is that the big sticky label directs you towards a location – http://www.canongate.net/downloads – which no longer exists. Nor is it available elsewhere. The closest you can get to it is this article by Faber on the collaboration (which contains another dead link). Bloody sticky labels. Bloody internet.
My joint review of The Year Of The Flood by Margaret Atwood and The Rapture by Liz Jensen is up now at Strange Horizons:
Both Atwood and Jensen have form, but there are far more similarities between The Year of the Flood and The Rapture than I was expecting. This review was predicated on the simple coincidence of Bloomsbury publishing two works of literary science fiction at around the same time. Inevitably the novels were concerned with dystopian and apocalyptic themes, the bread and butter of non-genre SF, but their concerns within these broad subgenres are shared and Jensen is obviously influenced by Atwood. Neither author seems quite sure what to do with their concerns, though, and this tarnishes the notable achievements of their books. In the end, The Rapture is the more successful because of the purity of its tone; there are none of the mad digressions of The Year of the Flood. I expected more of Margaret Atwood because she is so obviously capable of it. I will now expect the same of Liz Jensen, and I am especially interested to see whether they will both return once more to the possibilities offered by science fiction.
Today is also the first of John Clute’s Scores columns for Strange Horizons.