Ran

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Ran

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Japan, 1985

Studio Canal, May 2016

Ran

This 4K restoration of Kurosawa’s classic film includes lots of extras, including an interview with the wonderful Mieko Harada.

A fairly free adaptation of King Lear, Ran (the title apparently translates as ‘Chaos’) is in essence an antiwar film. It is an epic, yes, and Kurosawa the storyteller commands your attention throughout. Yet each scene is a poem.

The killer sequence is a montage of images of death following a virulent castle siege. It almost stops your heart; you think of Bosch and Goya. The warring men (Lear has sons, not daughters, in this adaptation) are weak and the woman (the Edmund figure, here reminiscent of Lady Macbeth) is fiendishly strong. In this latter role, Mieko Harada gives a fierce performance.

A few times the Lear figure (here a Japanese warlord, played by Tatsuya Nakadai) lifts his eyes up to the sky; a telling gesture. Kurosawa and his Japanese audience knew what Shakespeare did not, that apocalyptic ruin can come from the air.

Ran, a Studio Canal release, is out now on DVD and Blu-ray, details here.

The European Identity

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The European Identity: Historical and Cultural Realities We Cannot Deny

By Stephen Green

Haus Publishing, 2015

ISBN: 9781910376171

The European Identity

Despite being fairly short and sketchy, Stephen Green’s book is replete with vital insights and – what is as important for igniting discussion – the odd contentious statement.

Most people, perhaps not surprisingly, see themselves as British or French or Italian (etc.) rather than European; or as British (etc.) first and foremost. Green accepts this but he then goes on to explore what it means, or might mean, to be European. What do a Brit, a Pole and a Greek (say) have in common? And if the honest answer is ‘Not a lot’, then how might one forge or engineer a common European identity?

It is an issue of current concern, what with the EU referendum coming up in the UK in June and a general disillusionment with the EU evident across the continent. In the main, Green addresses the issue by looking at the entangled experience and fraught historical perspective of three European nations: France, Germany, and Britain. These were the most interesting passages in the book, putting me in mind at times of Stephen Toulmin’s still magnificent Cosmopolis and making me wonder whether ‘the European identity’ Green hankers after might be just another way of referring to modernity. Anyway, Green’s final view is that for these three nations, and the rest too one assumes, there is enough common ground, enough shared history and entwined culture and plain geopolitical interest, for us to stand together. Towards the close, he writes:

Out of their different perspectives, and out of the many and painful failures and wrong turnings we Europeans have taken over the generations, has emerged something profoundly important for the world of the twenty-first century: a commitment to rationalism, democracy, individual rights and responsibilities, the rule of law, social compassion, and an understanding of history as dynamic, open and progressive. These are worth our loyalty: this is the basis for a European patriotism.

This is all very fine, of course, though one might question whether these are specifically European values, and whether ‘compassion’ or indeed the simple ‘rule of [international] law’ is much in evidence in the deal that the EU has struck with Turkey to manage the migrant crisis.

Within the book, one notes that Europe segues into ‘the house of Europe’ (Helmut Kohl’s designation of the EU and an allusion, I think, to the description of the Holy Roman Empire as ‘the house of God’) which then becomes ‘the European project’ and then the EU proper. This tends to give the impression that Europe and the EU are as one; that only a nation that is in the EU can be properly or officially European.

In the light of this, Green’s statement at the start that Russia is not part of Europe – a curious note, to my mind – becomes more understandable. He gives as one supporting reason that Russia is ‘the land of the steppes and forests’. To which one might reply: Well, yes, and Sweden is the land of fjords and forests, what of it? (Incidentally there is, as I learnt in another book published by Haus – Smile of a Midsummer Night – a Swedish connection to St Petersburg.) And applying Green’s own criteria of ‘historical and cultural realities’ one might mention the battle of Stalingrad and a war that saved Europe from Nazism. The human cost of that war on the USSR side, according to Antony Beevor, was about 25 million lives. Or one might mention the scores of Russian artists and writers (Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Kandinsky…) who have made immense contributions to European culture. Russia has a towering presence in the European imagination, whereas certain other EU member states (say, Malta) do not.

Yet Green’s statement makes sense if one accepts that Russia is at odds with the EU and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, as long as the EU and NATO are as one. At present 24 of the 28 EU member states are also members of NATO, including all former Soviet bloc countries (Poland, Hungary, etc.) and all countries that were once part of the USSR (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania). The EU has even courted Ukraine, a country right on Russia’s border, a policy that has arguably (John J. Mearsheimer and Richard Sakwa – not Boris Johnson – put this case best) provoked the crisis there. Even so, one can hardly argue that Russia’s geopolitical centre of gravity lies outside of Europe…

The European Identity is a worthwhile and thought-provoking read, though come June the choice for Britain remains just as thorny as ever: an unhappy marriage or a messy divorce?

The publisher’s description of The European Identity can be read here.

Pink String and Sealing Wax

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Pink String and Sealing Wax

Directed by Robert Hamer

UK, 1945

Studio Canal, April 2016

Pink String and Sealing Wax

These old British films – Robert Hamer’s melodrama is of a 1945 vintage – often let themselves down at the end.

It might be a desire to send the audience home happy, very understandable here for it was pretty grim post-war, in Year Zero. Or an anxious need to reaffirm the pieties after spending the bulk of the film giving them a bit of a bruising. Or simply a wish to tie everything up in a neat little package. All or any of these impulses might explain the close here, what with Pearl, Googie Withers’ once imperious femme fatale, taking a crumbling fall.

There is a lot to admire before that, mind, especially Gordon Jackson’s performance as David, a young man (yes, Gordon Jackson was once young) cowed by his father, who becomes fascinated by the beautiful and forceful Pearl. David seems to want this tavern landlady-cum-burlesque queen not so much as a flight for freedom or for what his father cannot give him (respect, esteem, tenderness) as for what his father has given him. A brutalising bullying, more of the same, albeit in an eroticised version…

Patrick Hamilton did not write the script for Pink String and Sealing Wax – it is based on a Roland Pertwee play – but anyway this is his world, a world of quotidian ecstasies and vagrant dread where vulnerable men are easy carrion, collapsed among the dark bottles of stout and pale ale. The spell holds you in thrall, up until right before the end.

Hamer’s masterpiece was of course Kind Hearts And Coronets, a film where he forsook the happy ending and transmuted all through irony and tone. Though not quite in that league, Pink String and Sealing Wax is still an atmospheric and accomplished film.

Pink String and Sealing Wax, a Studio Canal release, is out now on DVD and Blu-ray, details here.

Ixcanul

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Ixcanul

Directed by Jayro Bustamente

Guatemala, 2015

HOME, 12 April 2016

Ixcanul

This nuanced, intelligent film makes you aware of the distance between the Mayan people and Spanish speaking Guatemalan officials.

There is a young woman, Maria, whose family, poor Mayan tenant farmers, work on a coffee plantation. The foreman, a Spanish speaker, wants to marry her but she has her eye on someone else, one of the migrant workers. A strong bond exists between Maria and her mother.

María Telon’s performance as the girl’s mother is extraordinary. She sees everything clearly, this elderly woman who is in thrall to none, not even to their shaman. And she loves her daughter dearly.

El Clan

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El Clan

Directed by Pablo Trapero

Argentina, 2015

HOME, 13 April 2016

El Clan

This is an engaging family drama, illustrating many familiar issues.

The father is concerned about his sons’ filial loyalty: are they as committed to the family business as he is? One of the sons has met a nice girl and is thinking of settling down; a bitter-sweet predicament for the mother. There is a younger daughter who struggles with homework and an elder who works hard to succeed in business; it is tough for both. As for the mother, a teacher, she marks exercise books when at home. The work-life balance is a bit off-kilter in her case.

Of the family business, it can be said that they kill people. They kidnap people, extract a ransom from their families by threatening to kill them, usually a large tidy sum, and then kill them anyway to keep them quiet, for they are generally known to one of the kidnappers. The dead are usually found dumped on waste ground, with a bullet in their head. It is a business model which succeeds for a time then flounders when families realise that they can keep their loved ones alive by delaying payment.

An excellent film.

Against the Double Blackmail

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Against the Double Blackmail

By Slavoj Zizek

Allen Lane, 2016

ISBN: 9780241278840

Against the Double Blackmail

A thought-splattered book, wherein Slavoj Zizek addresses a fair few issues vexing Europeans at the minute: terrorism, TTIP, Turkey, Islamic State and the performance of the EU itself (exactly what is it good for?), in particular its handling of the migrant crisis.

The bulk of the book is about the migrant crisis, mind, and the crucial question of what is to be done about the hundreds of thousands of people (you may ask: is this an exaggeration? Answer: No) seeking to settle in Europe (specifically, Germany and/or Sweden). Zizek identifies two main options open to the EU, this being the ‘double blackmail’ of the title, both of which he rightly rejects.

First option is an open door policy a la Merkel. This cannot work: it is unsustainable economically and not possible politically. It leads to local/national unrest and the rise of the far-Right, as can be seen in Germany and Sweden even now, less than a year after migrants began arriving in large numbers. There are concerns about disorder too, whether this takes the form of terrorism (as in the Paris attacks) or rape and pillage (as on New Year’s Eve in Cologne). Incidentally, Zizek discusses the Cologne attacks by reference to the latest Tarantino movie and carnivals. A lapse in taste here, I think; definitely the wrong register.

Second option is to close up shop, batten down the hatches and allow entry to none but the most deserving. An approach adopted by Hungary and then Austria and now by the EU itself in its deal with Turkey (Zizec calls this deal ‘shameful’; at any rate, it is a deal which may shortly be shown to be illegal under international law). Now this approach has the merit of controlling the influx of migrants, something which Europeans understandably appreciate – Ordnung is a quality that the Austrians in particular value greatly – but it doesn’t address the humanitarian aspect of the crisis, nor the root causes of migration. It just makes it more manageable, gets it off the front page for a while and lets us all live comfortably numb lives once more. Until a vessel leaving Libya for Italy sinks, and many drown.

Instead of these two, Zizec proposes that we ‘reconstruct global society on such a basis that desperate refugees will no longer be forced to wander around.’ Now, this statement raises a number of questions. What is ‘global society’? Are all migrants desperate and/or refugees? Are they ‘forced to wander around’ , say from Turkey (where they presumably – I concede this may be a dubious presumption – are free from war and persecution?) to Greece?  Or, again, from Greece to Germany, in order to seek asylum there? UNHCR usually raise an objection when migrants are not allowed to wander, when they encounter closed borders; ie, when they are ‘forced to’ stay put.  Anyway, he, Zizec, concedes that this reconstruction might strike some as Utopian – and one cannot but agree with this part, at least. For how can one eradicate war and social division from human society? Perhaps by means of some form of transhumanist technology, a moral enhancement pill if it can be found, but that’s a prospect for the long term. And it may strike some as Utopian.

This is an interesting book but by no means does it present a solution to the migrant crisis; probably because there is none. It is provocative, erratic, scattered-gunned with ideas, worth reflecting upon. Europe is beginning to resemble the world of Chez Max, the late Jakob Arjouni’s final novel.

The publisher’s description of Against the Double Blackmail can be read here.

 

Son of Saul

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Son of Saul

Directed by Laszlo Nemes

Hungary, 2015

HOME, 1 May 2016

Son of Saul

This film represents a noble attempt to grasp the enormity of the Holocaust, to look upon it afresh.

It is a terrifying film despite the fact that the horror and brutality is blurred or off-camera or just on the periphery of vision. Clearly, an intentional decision: this Nemes being a director for whom aesthetics is ethics. You recall Luc Moullet’s astounding statement: ‘Morality is a tracking shot.’

Saul the man is a slave worker at Auschwitz. He scrubs and disinfects the gas chambers. He drags away the dead to be cremated. He collects their clothes and valuables, keeping some to barter for favours. He shovels ash from the ovens. All the soulless mechanism of genocide and mass murder is his labour.

Then one day Saul sees the body of a child, perhaps his son, and he is stricken. He becomes an onen, one of the onenim. His sacred obligation (mitzvah) to attend to the niftar, this niftar, one released from this life among so very many, fractures his world, overrides all.

There is a dread absurdity about Saul’s urgency to honour and purify the dead boy (we see him providing tahara at one juncture) when set amidst such industrial carnage. On reflection, though, that is the point: the contrast between a tradition of ritual that honours the dead (shivah) and a process of mechanised mass murder where all human feeling is absent.

The cost for Saul and his comrades is high. He has chosen to serve the dead, not the living, and when they carry out an escape he weighs them down. That’s the danger inherent in any liminal state: you are not of this world. Remember, there are some who never got to sing Vir zinen doh. Mourn for them.

I found certain scenes, especially at the close, problematic. Yet still, a great film.

Magallanes

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Magallanes

Directed by Salvador del Solar

Peru, 2015

HOME, 20 April 2016

This film I liked a lot.

It is a superb slice of neo-noir with one of those hard, hard truths at its core. Here it is: sometimes you cannot get redemption, no matter what you risk. And you cannot buy forgiveness, ever, it is solely a matter of grace.

Magallanes is a chauffeur sometime taxi-driver whose life is torn asunder when a young woman gets into his vehicle. He knew her once, he violated her terribly. Now he wants to make amends…

Damian Alcazar, the actor who plays Magallanes, resembles Humphrey Bogart in appearance somewhat, probably one reason why I like the film so much. He is a fine actor.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato

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Eisenstein in Guanajuato

Directed by Peter Greenaway

Mexico, 2015

HOME, 21 April 2016

And in bed, mostly: Eisenstein, played by the effervescent Elmer Back, tends to spend a lot of his time in Guanajuato in bed, exploring his sexuality as they say.

A tragic triumph of style over substance, that is how I would describe Greenaway’s film. Yes, there is an abundance of cinematic invention, yet this serves in the end to undermine the veracity of the narrative and your belief in the people who are present. Mexican bandits and maids and Day of the Dead freaks give the film picturesque local colour. During its slow meander you look about for a blessed distraction and they serve as well as any other. I also found myself examining the interiors of the hotel where Eisenstein was staying and wondering whether certain of the features dated from the brief Habsburgs era. We have come to a fine pass in a film when the ground is more interesting than the figure, though I’ve since learnt that this – ‘panoramic viewing’ – was a surrealist pastime.

I made an effort to like this film, but it is probably not really my thing. Only stray to the margin if you can go deep, that’s my advice. Greenaway cannot.

Desde alla

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Desde alla

Directed by Lorenzo Vigas

Venezuela, 2015

HOME, 20 April 2016

Desde alla

This dark film has at its centre a relationship between an older man and a younger one, who is a sort of sensitive street punk.

It is an edgy, fraught relationship: callous, needy, sadomasochistic, on one side increasingly passionate. The two men are mismatched and it is not clear who is using who, or indeed whether love might blossom from out of this arid soil. Breaking through the barrier that prevents intimacy seems to require an act of violence – and it comes soon enough. There is something of the flavour of the fiction of Genet, Mishima and Goytisolo to this very dark and fascinating film.

A study of trust and intimacy and the inability to love.

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