Manuscripts Don’t Burn

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Manuscripts Don’t Burn

Directed by Mohammad Rasoulof

Iran, 2013

Cornerhouse, 14 September 2014

Manuscripts Don't Burn

Despite a low key, naturalistic directorial style this is in places a terrifying film.

For much of the time it follows two state agents as they seek out copies of a manuscript which their boss wants to destroy.  Banal, everyday actions occur within scenes where you are virtually watching a man die.  The actors portray men who have killed before and will do so again.  For them, it’s not theatre – a beheading to be placed on social media – but just a job.  It is surprising, in fact, that the film has just a 15 certificate.

With regard to the story behind the making of the film, there’s no doubt that this is a valuable document of the kind of terror, oppression and censorship happening now in Iran.  What I’d stress, however, is that it’s also a supremely crafted film: the director has a sure touch and the actors – both cast and crew are unnamed, in order to grant them a measure of protection – give splendid performances.  A comparison with The Lives of Others is inevitable – it is that good.

The Deer Hunter

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The Deer Hunter

Directed by Michael Cimino

USA, 1978

Cornerhouse, 7 September 2014

The Deer Hunter

The shadow cast by the Vietnam War is the subject of Cimino’s most perfectly realised film.

Made when memories were still raw, the war is depicted as destructive and traumatic yet also salutary.  It changes the three friends who go over to fight in it, the two who return to their Pennsylvanian town.  Adapt or die; hold fast to what is precious; sculpt a world you can live in.  Other injunctions can be gleaned.

On this viewing, I wondered why Nick (Christopher Walken) would send cash to Steven (John Savage) at the VA Hospital.  How would he get his address or even know he was there, being all the way out in Saigon?  And if he did so, why would he later not recognise Michael?  De Niro plays Michael as a kind of Hemingway figure, right down to the latent homosexuality, which is not entirely convincing.  He maybe bears comparison with the Burt Reynolds character in Deliverance.  There is as well a future unforeseen for the people in this town, one not apparent when the film was made: the decline and closure of the steel mills in and around Pittsburgh, resulting in large-scale unemployment.  Reagan would preside over that.  ‘God Bless America’ indeed.

Like Heaven’s Gate, The Deer Hunter begins with hope and celebration (a wedding, not a graduation) before plunging into the chaotic horror of war.  Certain tropes occur in both.

The Deer Hunter is showing again on Wednesday as part of the Matinee Classics season, further details are here.

Night Moves

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Night Moves

Directed by Kelly Reichardt

USA, 2013

Cornerhouse, 30 August 2014

Night Moves

Young and committed, earnest about safeguarding the earth, three environmental activists set out to blow up a dam.

They are not bad people.  On the way to meet up, two of them tend a deer by the roadside.  She’s dead but pregnant, her belly warm, the foal alive inside her.  Even so, they do a bad thing, for although the terrorist act is carefully planned and executed, it has unintended malign consequences.

This is a brilliant film, full of tension and torment, fraught with terrible meaning.   There’s dismay, elegy, accident and remorse, the stain of original sin.  Jeff Grace’s music is disconcerting – alone, it’s about enough to set your nerves on edge.  The actors, above all Jesse Eisenberg, deliver fine performances.

A very great film.

Epitaph for a Tramp & Epitaph for a Dead Beat

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Epitaph for a Tramp & Epitaph for a Dead Beat

By David Markson

Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007

ISBN: 9781593761349

Epitaph for a Tramp & Epitaph for a Dead Beat

Perhaps the most surprising thing about these two crime novels – published as paperback originals in 1959 and 1961 – is their author: David Markson, he of Wittgenstein’s Mistress fame.  A very different kind of novel, that one.

As for Epitaph for a Tramp and Epitaph for a Dead Beat, they feature a PI called Harry Fannin and are set in Greenwich Village, amongst hipsters, beatniks and would-be poets and artists.  Fannin is apart from this world, indeed is not above the odd satiric quip and/or superior wisecrack.  He’s basically your typical PI, a world weary ex-cop with an errant heart.  He bends the rules and is handy with his fists.

Markson seems to have written the first, Epitaph for a Tramp, as a pastiche of Raymond Chandler – the prose is mannered, even a bit leaden at times, you’re not really engaged.  Whereas Epitaph for a Dead Beat is much more adroit, has more of the flavour of the time and place: a milieu of basement parties, coffee houses and poetry readings; hipster dialogue; every third character with pretensions to be a jazz musician or poet.  Both novels exhibit homophobia to some degree, but that’s true of a lot of pulp fiction before and since.  In fact, you could probably file the same charge against The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.  Maybe it’s endemic to the genre?

These novels represent a welcome reissue – then again, I’ll read just about anything written by Markson.  The cover paintings (there are two, front and back) are by Robert McGinnis, an artist who’s done a lot of work for Hard Case Crime.

The Keeper of Lost Causes

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The Keeper of Lost Causes

Directed by Mikkel Nørgaard

Denmark, 2013

Cornerhouse, 31 August 2014

The Keeper of Lost Causes

Expect a dark, gruesome quality to this solid Scandinavian crime film, all about a cop in a cold case unit.

Mørck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) is assigned to the unit along with a Muslim cop called Assad (Fares Fares) and their first case involves a murdered, or maybe missing woman.  He is an impulsive, driven cop, Mørck, while Assad is more reflective.  Together, they make for a good team.

It’s a bit generic and formulaic – if you’ve watched a fair few episodes of Waking the Dead, this film will be familiar territory – but nonetheless it’s an effective thriller.  Actually, at the end it’s clear that this is, or could become, a series.  And that’s what it feels like: of a good standard, but not exceptional or unique.

Friedensreich Hundertwasser, 1928–2000

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Friedensreich Hundertwasser, 1928–2000

By Wieland Schmied

Taschen, 2014

ISBN: 9783836551281

Friedensreich Hundertwasser 1928–2000

A tour of Vienna would be incomplete without a visit to the so-called Hundertwasserhaus at the corner of Lowengasse and Kegelgasse – it is not everyone’s cup of tea, some prefer to gaze at Otto Wagner’s Majolikahaus by the Naschmarkt, but apparently Prince Charles is a fan.

In this book Schmied looks in detail at Hundertwasser’s artistic career, devoting along the way quite a lot of space (5 of its 77 sections) to a consideration of the famous house, its genesis and construction and the opinions of critics and tenants – the people who actually live there.

Hundertwasser was a painter before he became an architect, and he was a graphic designer too.  He designed postage stamps, licence plates and flags as well as illustrating the Bible.  And very early on, long before it became fashionable, he campaigned for ecological issues.

Schmied notes the influences of Klimt, Schiele and the lesser known Walter Kampmann on the paintings (and the influence of Chagall is discernible in what Schmied calls the ‘naïve’ paintings); the significance of the friendship with Arnulf Rainer; the antipathy toward Loos’ architectural credo and the clear sympathy with the ideas of Ruskin, William Morris and (closer to home) the Wiener Werkstatte.  He does all this and more, and yet- and yet the issue of Hundertwasser’s Jewishness and Austria’s complicity in Nazism and its possible effect on his work is rather muted.

About 70 of his relatives (‘his mother’s relatives’ in the book) were deported from Austria and murdered by the Nazis and we are told that ‘it seems a miracle that he and his mother survived the Nazi persecution of the Jews’.  Just that: the artist apparently never spoke openly about this period of his life.  There’s the odd reference to numerology and the Kabbalah and the intriguing statement that ‘colour was to him what vowels are to Hebrew’.  But little else within the book.  It is also interesting that, while insisting (so we are told) on his Austrian identity, Hundertwasser ‘spent more time away from Vienna than in his native city’.  Clearly, something is not being said here.

Hundertwasser did remark that his architecture was inspired above all by the illustrations of dwellings he found in the fairy-tales he read as a child.  They were places where he felt he could hide.  He would have been just 9 or 10 at the time of the Anchluss in 1938, a contemporary of the children whose portraits appeared in Manfred Bockelmann’s exhibition Drawing Against Oblivion, which appeared last year at the Leopold Museum.  His key architectural credo of ‘unregulated irregularities’ is here read as a refusal to control nature, to allow plants and vegetation the freedom to grow alongside human habitation.  That’s what it means in practice, of course; one notes merely that as a concept it’s the very opposite of the Nazi notion of Lebensunwertes Leben.  I also find it quite difficult to believe that Hundertwasser could see the swastika as simply a Hindu religious symbol, but Schmied passes over this use without comment.

If you have any kind of interest in Hundertwasser’s art and architecture, this book is a pretty good place to start.  It will give you a solid understanding of the background to his work, not least the less well known paintings, which appear here in abundance.  But, as intimated, it’s by no means the last word on the artist.

The publisher’s description of the book can be read here.

Two Days, One Night

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Two Days, One Night

Directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne

Belgium, 2014

Cornerhouse, 24 August 2014

Two Days, One Night

A convincing portrait of the precarious nature of employment in modern Europe, which features an astonishing central performance by Marion Cotillard.

I found her portrayal of a woman recovering from depression, faced with the prospect of unemployment and fighting for a place in the world, to be very moving.  Even while recognising that the set-up is more than a little contrived.

There is an interest also in how her erstwhile colleagues respond to her plight.  Do they help another, can they in fact afford to?  Or do they protect themselves and their own?  What will they sacrifice to allow her to remain in their world?

The film has an elemental quality, like a parable or Hasidic tale.  A modern morality.

We are uplifted at the end, though it is by no means a triumphalist film: the social bond, frayed and fragile at this worst of times, for the moment holds firm.

Mortal Bonds

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Mortal Bonds

By Michael Sears

Duckworth, 2014

ISBN: 9780715647233

Mortal Bonds

These bonds will hold you fast.

The novel concerns an investigation into some missing dosh, maybe squirrelled away by the head of a banking family just before his untimely death.  A lucrative assignment for Jason Stafford, Sears’ just-about-getting-it-together PI protagonist, but one complication is that a ruthless drug cartel is looking for the money too.  They believe – not without reason – that it belongs to them.

It is a satisfying thriller with a diverse range of well-drawn characters, not least the Kid, Stafford’s autistic son.  There are surprises right up to the end, the prose crisp and effective throughout.  You learn something about finance along the way.  And altogether it feels fresh and cliche-free.

Also, it is good to be reminded what wonderful stuff roesti is, not least as an accompaniment to Tafelspitz.  Though naturally chips have their place too.

The publisher’s description of the book can be read here.

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