I’ve taken an extended break from blogging to try and focus my attention on academic and professional writing on film and cinema. Wednesday, April 3rd 2013 saw Intellect’s free cinema publication The Big Picture, a magazine and website devoted to the visual aspects of film criticism, publish a 400 word ‘Four Frames’ piece on the closing scene in Bruno Dumont’s debut film La Vie de Jésus. It’s on their website now, so please stop by and take a look. Over the coming months I’m intending to have more publications in print, focused on contemporary mainstream cinema, cult cinema, emigre Polish filmmakers (Borowczyk, Skolimowski, Żuławski), the film work of Bruno Dumont and Scottish experimental ‘art’ film. This blog will serve as a platform for links to these publications, or where these publications can be sourced. It will also continue to be of some use as a free-form online notebook, for which all of your comments are very welcome. Thank you for reading.
I’d been putting this film off for quite some time, as I know just how much of a true horror film director Haneke is. I place quite a lot of stock in Haneke’s assertion that his movies are fundamentally defined by the things he finds most troubling or disconcerting, at any given moment. Amour, as much as it may seem it, is no ironic title. Yes, this is gruelling cinema, particularly for those of us who have the attention span of a gnat, but it is also a beautiful, haunting and meditative work, and certainly the best of the director’s films that I have seen thus far. Jettisoning much of the overt tricksiness and formal experimentation of Cache, in favour of a deceptively straightforward narrative approach, Haneke has concocted one of the great cinematic love poems, and he has done so not from the vitality of youth’s fountain, but rather from the small holocaust that awaits us all at the other end of life.
The movie revolves around the relationship between an ageing French couple, impeccably and daringly played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emanuelle Riva. Riva’s character suffers a serious stroke, that leaves her paralysed down the right side of her body. Over time the inconveniences of her condition mount up, until a second stroke leaves her bedridden. Throughout all of this Trintignant soldiers on with old-fashioned stoicism, to the point where his daughter, played by the still disarmingly attractive Isabelle Huppert, fears for his sanity, and his concierge comments on his commitment respectfully. Haneke’s remarkable work in this movie is to give equal attention to the depth of the emotional bond between the couple. Far from being the voyeuristic account of mortifying incapacity that it could easily have become, this instead transcends Haneke’s obsession with ‘horror’ and becomes a meditation on the necessity for sharing our life with another, the joy of being when it is a shared being, and the horrendous loss that the termination of life brings. This loss is not just felt by Trintignant’s character, but is also, ultimately, what underpins the fantastic closing shot of Huppert wandering through the now empty apartment in which her parents had shared their life together. The accretion of material things that become the artefacts of live’s passed.
The moment that made me aware of just how masterful a movie I was watching, was a wonderful sequence toward the middle of the film, in which we see Riva’s character enduring the embarrassing process of having her nappy changed. Haneke’s camera is tightly framed around the upper part of Riva’s prone body, as the nurse tosses her one way and then the other, all the time supposedly reassuring her with the babble of baby talk that seems to be the lingua franca of the ‘caring’ professions. Haneke then cuts to a shot of Riva playing the piano in their livingroom – she is a music teacher. This shot is clearly anachronistic, forcing the viewer to make the assumption that they are suddenly privy to an imaginative projection by Riva’s character, back to a moment of contentment, or even joy. The solipsism of this image is attenuated, however, by Haneke’s next move. The next shot is a reverse shot of the living room, revealing the corner that the camera had inhabited in the last shot. In this corner sits Trintignant’s character. Is he enjoying a memory of his wife’s performances? Are the couple sharing the self-same memory of happiness? Trintignant’s character then gets up and turns the CD player off, making us suddenly aware that the music comes from an actual diegetic source, rather than the memory of a diegetic source. It’s the kind of unflashy piece of cinema that might go unnoticed, but when it catches the attention has such a profound effect that it deepens and strengthens the surrounding material incommensurably (it even made me paper over the rather more forced sequence in which Trintignant slaps Riva for refusing to drink).
In another bravura moment in the film, Haneke simply shows us still frame sections of the works of art hanging on the wall of the couple’s apartment. The shots seemingly leading the viewer from darkness into light and back to darkness once more, a microcosm of love, the fruits, the bounty, the idyll, then the long, treacherous path toward impending blankness, or worse the dark cliff-edge. Never before in a Haneke film have I felt so assured of both the director’s, undoubted, abilities, and the truthfulness of his material. There is a real sense that Haneke isn’t just being reductively reactionary in this work, but is giving shape to an emotional realm that his coldly clinical movies have hitherto avoided.
Both lead actors turn in remarkable performances, and if I had any belief in the Oscars being more than just a Hollywood back-slapping contest, then I’d place my money firmly on Riva for a Best Actress nod. There is an infectiously girlish quality that Riva has in her laughter, that suggests exactly why Trintignant has fallen in love with, and remained alongside, her for a lifetime. Little sequences between the two character’s suggest a playfulness borne of a true affection for one another, something only comparable in recent memory, to the work carried out by Rob Brown and Clarke Peters, as father and son, in David Simon’s delightful New Orleans drama series Treme. The lives of these two people aren’t exclusive, aren’t separated, they share books, they share the news, they share musical epiphanies, they talk about things as if they truly matter to one another, all of which makes Riva’s decline a genuine source of loss and sight of ‘horror’.
The narrative frame of the film has an echo of Haneke’s debut feature The Seventh Continent, another exercise in horror, namely the horror of life’s futility and meaninglessness. Whereas that film had an almost scientific rigour about the way the narrative moved towards its harrowing end, Amour, despite the intense patterning of Haneke’s directorial style, suggests an interest in life and a concern for the living – hence the closing shot. What I personally cannot escape musing over, again and again, as obsessively, no doubt, as Haneke, is the first shot after the movie’s title, which is a direct echo of the famous closing shot of Cache. In this shot we have an audience awaiting a concert performance. A wide-angled lens allows the camera to be fixed in place, as if the audience were the performance, and it is. As the viewers eye follows a trace line of greens (a colour that is pointedly present in almost every shot of the film), it falls upon the elderly couple that are about to become so intimately known to it. They are talking about something, animatedly, with interest and glee. The joy and power of this film is that despite everything that the couple endure in the next two hours, it is this intimacy they clearly share, that is withheld here in one of the only shots that occurs outside the confines of their private apartment. It is this intimacy that is precious and it was what I found myself most interested in.
Irvine Welsh, writer and none-too-subtle agent provocateur, took his keynote address at the third day of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference as an opportunity to prove how drably bland and innocuous his literary vitriol has become. With the Conference itself being a restaging of the ‘infamous’ 1962 event, Welsh appeared to be taking a leaf from James Kelman’s manual on spurious public pronouncements. Apparently the Booker prize, Britain’s foremost literary award, is awarded, “based on the conceit that upper-class Englishness is the cultural yardstick against which all literature must be measured”. This, as Welsh helpfully pointed out, goes against “The Booker prize’s contention to be an inclusive, non-discriminatory award”, furthermore, Welsh suggested that such a claim “could be demolished by anybody with even a rudimentary grasp of sixth-form sociology”. I never did sociology at sixth form. In fact I never went to a sixth form, choosing instead the dubious pleasures of a Further Education college. Yet, that aside, I think that maybe, just maybe, I might be able punch a few holes in Welsh’s wee nationalist-fixated temper tantrum.
The main thrust of Welsh’s argument, coming during the session on ‘Nationalism, Localism and Regionalism’, appears to be that the Booker is ‘anti-Scottish’, as it assesses all literature through the prism of ‘upper-class Englishness’. He was careful enough to circumvent the troubling fact that in recent years the Booker shortlists have been dominated by potentially non-establishment, colonial names, such as Coetzee, Donoghue, Ghosh, Hamid, Matar, Adiga and Desai, by attaching a caveat to his argument that the award is divvied up “between largely upper-middle-class English writers and citizens of the former colonies, presumably to stamp legitimacy on this ‘global accolade’”. This bizarre assertion allows Welsh to place Scotland outside of this dichotomy, as being a part of Britain that isn’t ‘blessed’ with the condescending salves of postcoloniality. Here he claims to be siding with Alan Bissett, by describing the Booker as an ‘anti-Scottish’ award, presumably for its failure to reward writers like himself and Alan.
This must surely be the case that Welsh is effectively making, for the Booker prize has been given to James Kelman, of all Scottish writers, in the past. It has also had the likes of Ali Smith, George Mackay Brown, Shena Mackay and Muriel Spark on its shortlists. Are we to take it that an Orcadian pastoralist like Brown, or a supreme stylist like Spark or Smith, are indicative of ‘upper-class Englishness’ in their prose offerings? The fact that Kelman is the sole Scottish novelist who has won the Booker, should, in itself, puncture any such notions of the Booker award as some ‘imperial-elitist’ token. The whiff of sour grapes wafting from Mnsr. Welsh’s mouth during the session must have been extraordinary – or was he delivering this keynote with that wry and oddly cherubic smile of his, suggestive of ‘unironic irony’.
I have some sympathy for Welsh’s notion that the Booker prize has a particular type of novel that it gravitates toward. However, unlike Welsh, I don’t see this ‘type’ as being defined along Nationalist/Imperialist lines. And if we are talking about class, then surely the Booker is a much more middle-class concern. Past winners tend to be tapping into key themes of the period, or harking back to earlier historical moments in the 20th century. There has been a gradual shift from the old ‘colonial’ concerns of the early winners (Farrell, Newby, Scott), to a ‘postcolonial’ reassessment of Empire in (Naipaul, Rushdie, Carey) and onto a more curious cosmopolitan vs. localism debate in recent years (Okri, Swift, Adiga). Yet, the prize manages to throw out curveballs like Martel’s populist fable The Life of Pi, or Pierre’s anarchic Vernon God Little. By no means is the prize a sincere measure of the diversity of English-language writing, but it is very far from being the patronisingly narrow award that Welsh attempts to describe it as. In many ways I find myself more offended by Welsh’s claims of an ‘anti-Scottish’ agenda, than any potential bias within the award itself. This hollow argument sounds like the very worst kind of Nationalist insularity, that I’d sincerely hoped the ‘Independence issue’ in Scottish society was doing its very best to avoid.
However, Welsh may well be an advertising plant, as the one thing his little outburst has done, is get me interested in the damned award again. With the new Booker Longlist recently announced, I’ve decided to put Welsh’s provocation to the test. Reading each of the novels on the Longlist, I will publish short 1200 word reviews of each on this site, along with a side analysis of how ‘upper-class English’, or simperingly colonial/postcolonial they are. This will be known as the Irvine Index, as I wouldn’t like the Welsh to think I’m unjustly ridiculing them. The first review will be of Nicola Barker’s Yips.
Note:- A month of train journeys, mostly overnight, bisecting Poland from the navel to the curve of the jaw. In First Class carriages of relative peace and quiet, one can occasionally find an hour of rest, sprawled out over three berths like some bloated maharajah. On awakening from such brief sojourns in the Land of Nod, the world beyond the reinforced glass window pane often takes on a refashioned feel, as if the eyes have been withdrawn from their sockets, scrubbed, then soaked in pickling brine, only to be returned to their rightful place moments before reactivation. This effect I find particularly pronounced on the journey from night into day. The flat plain land from Włocławek is like something from Kierkegaard’s diaries, only without the landfall at the edge of the world. The light in summer is quite remarkable, leaving the surface of things with a glister of hidden, secretive motion, as if you were being made privy to the absolute impermanence of all things. Post-marriage I found myself fixating on a magpies chase, dazzled by the flashy destruction of the early summer’s morn.
The solitary magpie
across the fallow fields
A smudge of black and white;
chasing its own reflection.
Blue, brown and lovat -
the clarity of turf and sky.
Within the boundaries,
bordered on both sides by bog.
Some thing shimmering
compels the skin.
The magpie, alone again or
makes a feint toward the light.
And the ground, prolapsed,
sucks upon itself hideously,
of mollusc muscle in turmoil.
A shattering of soil;
and stalks and leaves
the mulch of end trails,
and the squeak of claw and beak.
I am not ashamed to say that I derive a fair smattering of my ‘pop’ musical knowledge nowadays, from the superslick legal drama Suits. Whoever is working on compiling the soundtrack for that particular show obviously has a keen and eclectic ear for a tune. Charles Bradley, Splitter and Foster the People have all floated beneath my critical missile defence system, courtesy of underscoring a Gabriel Macht face of arrogance, condescension and contempt. Not only does Suits function as an involving and rather witty variant of the well-worn American television legal drama, it also manages to get schmo’s, like me, all aspirationally consumerist for Tom Ford suits and Canali shirts – if only to quieten my inner Cary Grant (oh, how hollow must you be). Yet, it is with the music that the show has really pushed the promotional tie-in cache.
We Are Augustines are the latest fringe ‘pop’ act to get a sizable bunk up the greasy pole of mainstream musical success courtesy of the show, currently in its second season. Previously, leadsinger /guitarist Billy McCarthy and bassist Eric Sanderson had featured together for Brooklyn-based indie rockers Pela. After the dissolution of that particular outfit in 2009, McCarthy and Sanderson took the material they’d written for the sophomore Pela release that never was, and turned it into their We Are Augustines debut Rise Ye Sunken Ships.
‘Chapel Song’ was the track that featured at the close of Suits second season opener, but of the tracks released off the album perhaps the strongest is ‘Juarez’, a song full of the kind of echo, bellow and reverb that Joe Meek would have approved of. We Are Augustines are definitely a band that warrant the volume being shoved up to tinnitus-inducing levels. McCarthy has a desperate, keening quality to his gruff, booze-tinged vocals, and the band are rather remarkable for the manner in which their spartan arrangements coalesce around soaring choruses, that, although overly familiar, never seem to do quite what you’d expect them to. Of particular interest is the way in which Rob Allen’s drum, and synth-drum, work develops the textures of these songs in unusual directions, straining, toward a kind of operatic trip-hop sound, that belies the seeming simplicity of his rhythms.
We Are Augustines and Suits actually seem a perfect fit, the more I think on it. McCarthy and co., have clearly worked hard on their image, presenting themselves as a musical package of organic throwback indie influences, in much the same way as Mumford & Sons have in the UK. Whereas Mumford & Sons serenade the twee summer sun of the same slightly seedy England as the movie Wish You Were Here, We Are Augustines seem to be setting up camp in Denis Johnson territory. There lyrics are a mess of creative writing class religiosity and barroom Bukowskian imagery, and there videos show a degree of wit and a willingness to explore the receding 70′s aesthetics of cinema, yet the band somehow transcend this packaged quality. They manage to do something which the woeful Scottish band Glasvegas couldn’t, making pose and simulacrum seem searingly ‘authentic’. If the schizophrenia that inhabits McCarthy’s backstory is to be taken as something other than a considered marketing ploy, then perhaps this is the source of genuine anguish, in amongst all of that secondhand bluster.
Note:- Was the communist party’s love for vast quantities of paper certification merely a hand-me-down from the high decadence of the Hapsburg bureaucracy? Kafka’s detailing of the interminable vagaries of ‘process’, in dealing with all forms of ‘Czech’ governance (be it local, regional or national), seems to suggest as much. In 21st century Poland, despite the innovations of mobile computer technology and sophisticated video surveillance, bureaucracies still feel that the need to sap the will through pointless paper procedures is the most effective and efficient means of thwarting the potentially invigorating and radical energies of youth. Some of the paper-based hurdling, with the added difficulties of signature obstacles and/or promissory watertraps, deserves a descriptive vocabulary comparable to the various opening gambits of a chess match. By the end of such vast trials of pulped wood accretion, one may feel as if a navigation of the Cretan labyrinth, or Spaghetti Junction, could have been significantly less time consuming and infinitely more purposeful.
Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare:
Papers to enable the acquisition of
papers which categorically prove that
papers, yet to be issued, are in order.
Ordered papers must then be legitimised
through the further acquisition of:
papers assuring that no other counter
papers have been lodged to gather
papers which categorically contradict those
papers, yet to be issued, which, in turn, are
papers proving the validity of those
papers, hitherto lodged with these offices.
Correct completion and submission of all necessary
papers, will result in issuance of an official
document certifying the acceptable conclusion
of all paperwork regarding the application for
papers offering certification and legitimisation of
the paper process.
Note:- Anyone who has ever visited the city of Łódź will find this ‘man’ loitering around the darkened parts of their cerebellum. For over a decade he has marked out time, a sentinel of stillness in the most public of places in the city. Occasionally he will break into life – for a fee of course. If you watch him for long enough, he will eventually cast, break and recast his spell. Composing himself in the glass of a regal 1920′s storefront – too long abandoned – he is a man of time, so utterly outside of it. I sense that one day I will stare across the junction of Struga and Piotrkowska and see the world end, in the still frame of that ‘unnoticed man’, who has apprehended everything, and whom is no longer performing.
The Man stood to attention.
Crushed black bowler
And butler attire;
Sooted white gloves and
Crocodile clipped ponytail -
Disappearing up the hat.
A Beckettian human abstraction.
Standing by his reflection.
Describing a right angle
Under times a-changin’.
His nose a third eye,
A calm in the slow storm
Of purchased passers-by.
Stillness then a godly virtue.
Each day as the last.
The Man stands to attention
A stammered glottal stop
Between desolate shopfronts
(Emptying of all meaning)
At Struga and Piotrkowska junction.
Note:- The curiosity of getting together for social ceremonies comes from the ill-fittingness of cliques and circles, brought together around a person (or in this case persons). Fascinating is the way in which people weave toward a shared meaning and understanding, whilst rarely renouncing the old fallbacks of routine and ‘good form’. Mind your ‘p’s’ and ‘q’s’ and keep yourself well-watered at the bottomless Uisge Beatha well (isn’t it a wodka bath?). Mark out the points of ceremony and offer up your thanks and congratulations, when they are asked for, of course. How to navigate a collision of protocols though? Which way to dance when there are two physical interpretations of the music? One woman, in particular, becomes profitable currency in such a setting. That is the woman who speaks convincingly in tongues. She is sought everywhere. Sometimes it’s good to embrace chaos and conflict – and accept, if there is a God, then it’s name is most likely carnage.
They seek her here,
They seek her there.
A slantwise approach in crackling tulle,
As someone in a Hobbs’s –
Invitation Maisy –
Forgets the incoherence of languages
And thus requires her linguistic Eucharist.
Speaking over one another:
“No,no, after you.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
Mother to mother,
Settling on the musclework of smiles.
Not knowing someone
Yet translating each word.
A benign Anglophone courtesy,
The politeness of listening, only,
Before thundering in, again.
To move toward a Slavic sentiment
Of saying what you mean –
An avoidance of tangents and subterfuge
And the pricking needle of innuendo.
“What is she saying?”, (a-swig of daiquiri),
“Miło cie poznać.”, (fluting pink champagne).
Those fields before the factories
Already arranged into greens and fairways,
A much easier transfiguration – of mind.
The Best Man is speechifying
At a speechless wedding.
An exchange of ceremonies
Lost before translation, “Gdzie?”.
Far better the cultural alchemy of dancing
and drunkenness. Has Samson had a haircut?
Are those not verbal walls being tongued down?
Material things are only tools / Or they’re nothing. / Food is a sort of tool, / Fire a warming tool, / And paint-brushes, pencils, cameras, books / All tools of a kind / For making a life / Or lives. / But too much food is poison, / Comfort a permanent anaesthetic, / And too many paint-brushes, cameras, books / Waste away as toys. / A tool has the feel of the user’s hand on it / If it’s a real tool. / A tool that is fully used / Gets a bloom on it / From its own essential-ness. / All other bits and things are clutter.
[Margaret Tait from: 'For Using' from Origins and Elements (1959)]
[Nowadays], because we can, we can completely neglect the stimulation of art, we don’t do it, we let people take over; corporates, engineers, even architects, who have no passion for the arts…. That’s a big problem. I don’t know how you can bust that. But I work away at it and talk about it.
[George Wyllie from: Interviews given in 2003/04 for the British Library sound archive]
Over the past week I have been ruminating over the ideas (and productions) of two Scottish artists. The first of those, Margaret Tait, has been with me for a long time now, since my cousin put me on to a program of her exceptional film work, at the Edinburgh Festival in 2004. The other, George Wyllie, was brought to my attention a few years ago, by the passionate advocacy of my friend and family member Kenny Munro.
Wyllie died earlier this year at the grand old age of 90, having fully utilised a late-blossoming artistic career, after earlier working as an engineer. Tait, on the other hand, died in 1999, at the age of 80, having doggedly pursued her singular path to aesthetic creation, that meant that most of her films were entirely self-funded by her work as a locum doctor. In an odd quirk of coincidence, these near contemporaries, born at the tail end of their respective years (1918 and 1921), both passed away in the month of May.
Despite inhabiting seemingly disparate realities – Tait was primarily based in Edinburgh and the Orkney’s, having qualified as a medical doctor at Edinburgh University and trained as a film student in Rome; whilst Wyllie had grown up in the shadow of the Glasgow shipyards, had worked for the Postal Service and had been, in effect, self-taught as an artist – both artists have a common concern, namely the specifics of place and the way in which people define, and are in turn, defined by the spaces they inhabit.
Wyllie considered himself to be a Scul?tor – hinting at a crucial element of his character, and a very Scottish one at that. Probably Wyllie’s most famous work was the Paper Boat, one of two ‘social sculptures’ he produced (the other being Straw Locomotive) in the 1980′s. When taking the ‘Paper Boat’ to North America, he freighted the vessel with quoted materials from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, as a means of drawing attention to the misappropriation of Smith’s other vital 18th century tract The Wealth of Nations. Wyllie’s defence of Smith is a telling one, as within the Theory of Moral Sentiments there is a clear agenda toward a formulation of the self, that is predicated on the manner in which the self corresponds with others, within a society. In many ways it is a foreshadowing of what John Macmurray would more exhaustively detail in his increasingly important works of 20th century philosophy, sociology and theology: The Self as Agent (1957) and Persons in Relation (1961). Crucial to all of these works is the idea of action taking precedent of theorising, with an ecology of society, including, and being largely determined by, the natural environment, being described.
It is Ecology that is the defining aspect of Tait’s film work and poetry. As a creative artist Tait focused in on the manner in which ‘reality’ is constructed by a combination of small-scale temporally located activities and large-scale ‘universal’ actions, both of which were discernible only through the intelligence and perception of the human subject. Small-scale activities involve the everyday events of human society, which Tait documents in her films with a keenly perceptive and sensitive eye. The large-scale ‘universals’ are those elemental aspects of ‘reality’ that are to do with geology, landscape and natural processes. These are things that, until the birth of the film camera, the eye was unable to apprehend in a continuous manner, but rather just observed occurring in atomised moments. Tait then describes in her poetry a distinction between the small-scale activities of the everyday, which can be easily apprehended by the attentive individual and the larger-scale action of these universal elements, that are beyond human apprehension, but nonetheless can be felt in a more intuitive manner, when a society has a sense of itself as an ecological whole.
Likewise Wyllie was an artist who drew some degree of inspiration, particularly through the 80′s and 90′s, from the works of Scottish biologist, ecologist, sociologist and early urban theorist Sir Patrick Geddes. In works like his monumental sculptures series Spires (1982-1990), Wyllie was focused upon creating structures that expressed through the choice of materials used and site selection, the ecology of a specific society, be it the Highlands, Berlin, Sarajevo, or Long Island, USA.
Thanks to continued dialogue (and just damned good conversation) with the likes of Cormac Anderson, Stephen Butler, Sundesh Hemraj, Kenny Munro and Kerry Watson, I’ve become increasingly interested with how a 21st century creative artist can begin to elucidate the fundamental issue of our times: namely how to refocus economic and political concerns onto a more thoroughly integrated and international idea of localised and specific ecology. In the next few months I’m hoping to present a paper on Tait’s work, that will follow on from a recent student presentation at the John Paul II Catholic University in Lublin, Polska. Beyond that I’m eager to develop a lengthier and more considered examination of Tait’s cinema and poetry, as an aesthetic continuum of these ecological concerns with people and place, with the view to a publication of a monograph on the subject. I would also like to thank Dr. Sarah Neely of the University of Stirling, for her impassioned promotion of Tait’s work through various curatorial efforts, publications, talks and the editing of a Carcanet volume of her poetry and prose, published earlier this year. It is through the excellent work of such individuals that vital parts of our (and by that I mean human, not just Scottish) culture are brought into the light and preserved for posterity.
As for Wyllie, my work with this artist is only just beginning, but figures such as Dr. Murdo Macdonald of the University of Dundee, journalist Jan Patience and, the aforementioned, Kenny Munro, have been actively participating in the year-long celebration of Wyllie’s life and work, that has unfortunately had to go on without his ebullient and effervescent presence. For more information about the myriad events that form part of this large-scale retrospective, I recommend that you check out The Whysman, which is Wyllie’s well-maintained internet portal, featuring a comprehensive overview of all that is going on.
Note:- This piece began from the opening verse – which originally ended with the line ‘ferreting out the glimmer gone’ – and the concrete image of a sad old wind-catcher, given as a gift years ago by a Polish-American friend of my mother’s. I wanted to have some doubling lines in here that awaken a sense of frantic, frenzied activity – the brain refocusing on the same few details again and again. Is this someone rooting through the rubbish? If so what are they looking for? What have they lost? After completing the piece I felt a strange amity for a film I saw last year and didn’t particularly enjoy, 3 Backyards. This film had a fixation with the slow procession of mundanity in a ‘pleasant’ area of the Long Island ‘dormitory’ suburbs. Yet, in its precious little way, the film was getting at something stifling and noxious under this pristine veneer. The ‘normal’ and ‘mundane’ gradually became eerie sights of potential ‘atrocity’. A doll’s head, becomes a doll’s skull, which destabilises all previous securities. As a poem, I’m not sure this works, but the writing of it left me anxious, dizzy and unsettled by a certain vertigo-inducing energy in its movements.
He looks for something that
he isn’t sure is there.
Ferreting around in other people’s shit:
ferreting out the glimmer of spark.
A bicycle pump, bent out of shape,
little breaths emitting from both ends.
The soft, slow fart of a declining air bed,
seeking permission to exhale.
Some cracked milk glass jars
of spoiled strawberry and damson preserves.
A clique of emerald furred pipe cleaners
contorted into Celtic swastikas.
A bleary-eyed wind-catcher
imported from Hooksett, New Hampshire.
A hideous mink stole, wrapped around
a candy-striped barber’s pole.
The rhythmless, leering abomination
of a slit tongue tom-tom drum.
An armless Saville Row suit, pockets rifed,
besprent with the waxen life of dead bees.
Lint infested Rice Krispies and Sugar Puffs,
raisined rabbit droppings and damp sawdust.
A broken crystal bowl
swamped in yesterday’s celebratory confetti.
Arm deep in week-old egg yolks
and cloying newsprint,
he looks for something that
he’s certain is somewhere.
Underneath the vegetating doll’s skull,
a slither of crimson obsidian.
Refuse scattered to either side,
pulling away from the scene of a massacre.
His fingers slither over
the cool chalk white flesh.
A splayed chicken breast, vulnerable,
reeking in the mulch of its miniature midden
The toothed edge of enamel,
a ceramic blade for denuding,
against a pillowing rose red lip,
over which a lump grey muscle lies protruding.
Note:- A song of transitions, perhaps. The fear of change and the fear of renouncing what you once had and thought you would never give up. Change involuntarily brings with it return, and here the ‘you’ is going back to a ‘home’ on the flight path of bird migrations. But not just any bird migration, perhaps the longest migration undertaken by any avian species, from New Zealand to Scotland (and beyond). All of this instigated by the eye and the word, two things that can cut to the quick of a person more effectively than any weapon. The other woman here digs more than her claws in. She realigns the spinal column, until nothing is felt but through her. The initial fierce fire of passionate embrace, giving way to parasitic possession, and, upon withdrawal, the dangerous potential for reignition that embers maintain. Distance is required, but at the end of such remoteness comes the need to change again, and the possibility of return, with all of the fear of pain that entails. I see two women and I know I’m not one of them.
When you saw that kiss of hair,
Fall and unfurl
Through the length of her face,
You knew there was spite there.
Her eyes: cold scolding leather,
As brown as the rosin
Preventing horse hair from skirling.
Calculating digits that untether
The body from its sensory anchors,
The mind’s servants,
Till her nerve is all-encompassing
And you’re limpid, without rancours.
She despised you with just three words:
Not even nothing.
Returning home to black mistrust
And a broken nesting box for birds,
You felt adrift in a sea of ember.
A worrying woman
Recording the migratory patterns of
Bar-tailed Godwits in September.
So small a space has need for gossamer,
Ghosts and aged things;
How else to become uninhabited?
Those eyes mute a scream to a murmur.
I finally had the opportunity to watch the film adaptation of George Moore’s short story ‘The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs’. I’d heard about the film during an Edinburgh International Book Festival Q&A with the Irish novelist John Banville, a few years ago. Banville was, at that stage, in the process of fine-tuning the screenplay (which would undergo a further rewrite credited to the star, Glenn Close).
The film, simply called Albert Nobbs, has been Glenn Close’s long-term labour of love for almost three decades. Back in 1982 she had appeared in a stage version of the story, and in the early part of the previous decade she had been involved in an abortive Istvan Szabo screen adaptation. It’s easy to see why Close has become so personally attached to the project, after all it offers up a rather striking premise, as well as a particularly flash (Oscar couldn’t resist) central role. However, the form in which it has finally arrived on the silver screen is somewhat muted, very much in keeping with the circumscribed, quietly smothered, existence of its eponymous character. The low-key anti-drama of social observation and scrutiny that occupies the bulk of the film’s running time, is occasionally punctured by the most glorious moments of utter bewilderment. Rarely has a film tried to accommodate such degrees of ridiculousness and profundity within the same sequence (Close and Wasikowska’s kiss, the dinner at Hubert’s), exhibiting an almost Shakespearan pleasure in the confusion of genders and the undermining of sexual tension. Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Breakfast on Pluto could be a queer, punk bedfellow (for there is a spiky humour in Albert Nobbs, that belies the sedate direction and torpid pacing).
What I found most incongruous and affecting in the film was the way in which two ‘handsome’ actresses, managed to inhabit conflicting ideas of masculinity, without really ever looking the part. Close’s forcefully angular features are made to seem so very feminine in her heavily made-up lead turn. Whilst Janet McTeer, in the supporting role of Hubert Page, has the height (185cm) and the broad-shouldered build to convince as a blue-collar painter & decorator. Yet short hair and a working man’s overalls cannot obscure Mcteer’s innate asymmetrical beauty. This has been what much of the criticism of the film has focused upon, and yet I came to feel that this was a crucial part of director Rodrigo Garcia’s narrative patterning and, perhaps, the film’s supreme strength. The women who are playing men, look unmistakably feminine and yet from a distance they could easily blend into – as happens throughout the movie – a masculine background. Part of the reason why the character’s become so clearly feminine, is through Garcia’s use of close-up and extreme close-up shots of both, that effectively compel even the most inattentive viewer to question what is being presented to them. The camera is conditioning the viewer’s eye to scrutinise the finer details of the reality they are being presented, so that the carefully sculpted kinks in Albert’s hair become as indicative, and imitative, as Hubert’s use of rolled-tobacco cigarettes, or preference for neckerchiefs. This is the pretence of pretence, only it is wanting the audience to acknowledge it as such.
The confusion of gender presentations reaches its apotheosis with Albert and Hubert’s reversion to formal lady’s attire, for a walk along the strand. McTeer is playing the slouching galoot, only dressed in a frock and bonnet that are far too small for her. Close, on the other hand, seems to return to her ‘handsome’ self, which is to say she looks like a rather masculine, if somewhat dainty, woman. Close’s Albert, is never known by another name and in all other ways identifies ‘himself’ as male, yet in this moment upon the beach, in ‘drag’, which isn’t ‘drag’, there is a sense of the character being suddenly and inexplicably liberated. Hubert, on the other hand, is straitened within the confines of a dress that not only doesn’t fit, but doesn’t suit. Yet, back in the workman’s garb, the masculine female, gives way to the all too feminine male. It is not the actor’s overplaying their roles, but rather a conscious and rather subtle choice, to demonstrate the time devoted to artifice in these two men, escaping from the woman’s world of the times. They stand, unbalanced, between the social codes of the masculine society they ghost into (for work purposes, for money, for protection), and the feminine world in which they are at home (which is far more the case with Hubert than Albert). Is McTeer’s Hubert a ‘male’ in a ‘female’ body? Or, as is revealed by Albert, is there a story that compels ‘him/her’ to play within the rules of men? Ultimately the deliberate performances of Close and McTeer, cast a destabilising vision over all the other turns within the movie, as through their insertion into alternate gender roles, and through Garcia’s promotion of the scrutinising shot, the pair’s presence increases the potential for ambiguity. Such gender-bending may not be overly original, but in Albert Nobbs it is somehow comic, tragic and thoroughly unsettling.
NOTE:- This is a composition that started with the opening sentence and developed in rather rapid succession. The central idea was to do with comparing being, to language acquisition. Your memories encoded in the mind, increasingly non-linear, fragmentary and only expressible obliquely, if at all. An approaching end that leaves you out to sea, literally adrift in the last distinct memory. My own dog Billy – dead a decade now – paddled freely out into the FoF, just in the reverse direction. He may have made it to the Bass Rock, if he hadn’t felt the fearful suck.
Betwixt languages: one you do not know
the other you cannot remember.
Remember that pleasure place?
A fragment of pinkish finger nail.
Or was it the cracked curvature
of a snail shell?
The colour of salmon scale
‘neath the wombing venter.
Skin so serous and sloughed
as if about to be shucked off indecently.
There was a dead sweat around the eyes -
that close and reclose -
damp to the day and the light
and haloed in the words that failed
to compose, or be composed.
A memory in the process of evacuation.
Remember that dog, swimming to Aberdour
from the pebbled ache of Portobello?
Set forth across the Firth of Forth
jerking back amidst the serry of spray
and spume – a lone skipping stone.
Resume and then atrophy;
the medial waves folded in disarray
a last sucking upon the bone and marrow.
A gorgeous summer’s day in Warszawa, the perfect conditions and the perfect city for an intriguing flâner. Wandering through the park life, pushing through the Euro hype, gawping past the impressively quirky renewal of communist functionalism, I found myself swiftly falling for the myriad charms of the place. Cud Nad Wisła, an open-air music venue and bar, by the banks of the Wisła, has the potential to be a precious little hipster haunt. However, much like the city it is at the centre of, Cud Nad Wisła manages to seem effortlessly decadent and modern, without ever quite falling over into the kind of strained trendiness beloved of the lackadaisical urban rich-kid.
Sat upon an aesthetically confused palette (warehouse meets rustic chic, anyone), and imbibing from bottles of the latest cider-like drink to hit the virginal Polish booze market – Somersby (as voiced by the earnest man’s sense of earnestness – a.k.a. Sean Bean) – I found myself having the good fortune to hear from a few acts on the Warsaw-based record label Thin Man Records. Of these bands UL/KR was something a little bit special. The duo were a blast from the recent past and a step toward an intriguingly different musical future destination. Błażej Krol of Kawałek Kulki and Maurycy Kiebzak-Górski are a little bit Deerhoof, a little bit James Blake and a tiny slither of Joy Division, surrounded by lyrics and electronic sound manifestations that are completely unlike anything I’ve come across. Of the tracks they played from their debut 8-track, this is perhaps the best example of their oeuvre. I’m now somewhat excited to see what their heavily distorted guitar, synth, vocal yowling can deliver from a field in Gdynia, come the Open’er festival, in a month’s time.
As I was leaving Warszawa’s allure behind today, I stumbled upon the duo at the Central train station, making their way back to Wielkopolski. It was striking how little artifice they exuded, whilst still looking utterly singular. Krol’s stylised hair/moustache combination, in particular, is further enhanced by the bizarre ratios of his body, which seems to mix the obscenely elongated, with the freakishly compressed. Visually arresting with the minimum of apparent effort, much like Warszawa itself.
‘Po tak cienkim lodzie’ is featured on the Thin Man Records release UL/KR, available on CD and Download.
Cass McCombs is the hardest working songwriter in contemporary rock music. Fact. I first came across Cass McCombs supporting Cat Power at a disastrous Shepherd’s Bush Empire gig, back in 2004. McCombs was the saving grace in a shambolic, seating-only, well-soused Chan Marshall presentation. The headline act had chosen to take to her inner-preciousness (as well as the contents of a nearby off-license), not emerging till nigh on midnight and then proceeding to stumble through a series of ‘stripped-down’ renditions of her back catalogue, that sounded more like the insanely irritating repetitious noise cycles of a small child (only with added miserabilism). McCombs had taken to the stage some two hours prior to Marshall’s appearance and in a thirty minute set, that included wonderfully trippy renditions of ‘Aids in Africa’ and ‘Bobby, King of Boys Town’, he managed to win over at least one new listener.
After the gig I purchased his full-length debut A, which managed to cement the impression his live performance had made. Since then I’ve been a close follower of McCombs career, but was still left jaw-droppingly surprised by this sublime track from his sixth release, and second album of 2011, Humor Risk. To describe ‘The Same Thing’ as catchy, is like repeating the Harry Hill joke about heroin (it’s a bit moreish). McCombs has crafted a relentless and insidious little guitar/drum rhythm that underpins lyrics that rove around the mundane and the epiphanic, treating them much the same, as the song suggests. It’s a decidedly insular and self-contained track, with hints of an upbeat Jesus & Mary Chain squeaking off of each gently distorted guitar note. It should undoubtedly bring McCombs a bigger audience than he’s had for the last decade, but somehow I don’t think he’ll be too bothered if it doesn’t.
‘The Same Thing’ is featured on the Domino Records release Humor Risk, available on CD, Vinyl and Download.
Poland goes into documentary hyperdrive over the next few weeks with not one, but two, different film festivals devoted to the cinematic form. The relatively smallscale Gdańsk DocFilm Festival celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. The event runs over 5 days and is themed around the idea of ‘Dignity and Work’ (Godność i Praca). The programme features documentary films from France, India, Israel, Mexico, The Netherlands, and many other nations, as well as a sizable domestic presence. It also includes a masterclass with veteran Polish filmmaker Jacek Bławut and spotlights upon Marcin Sauter and Paweł Jóźwiak-Rodan, among others. The entire cost of access to the festival is as little as 35PLN (or 12PLN p/day). The festival operates in two main locations in the city Kino Neptun and Kino Kameralne, both of which inhabit the same complex on ul. Długa (one of the main streets in the Old Town and about a 15 minute walk from the main train station). I will be going along myself, most likely for the Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and will post a report of the highlights from the festival sometime after the 6th May.
View Gdańsk DocFilm Festival Venues 2012 at Google maps
The Planete Doc Film Festival enters its ninth year with a bumper nine day documentary extravaganza in Warszawa, and an ancillary six day event from the 14-20th May in Wrocław. The festival is based out of the Kinoteka Theater in the formidable Warszawa landmark that is the Palace of Culture and Science, located literally right beside the main Warszawa rail station. Other venues are the Kino.Lab on ul. Jazdów and the Kino Luna Art Center on ul. Marszalkowska (both in Warszawa). In Wrocław the festival films are being screened in the DCF (Dolnośląskie Centrum Filmowe) on ul. Piłsudskiego. Whereas the Gdansk festival is a fairly low-key affair Planete Doc, organised by Against Gravity, is Poland’s premier Documentary Film Festival, as well as one of the biggest festivals of its kind in Europe. The festival is organised into a series of broadly themed categories, including: Fetish and Culture, Climate for Change, LSD: Love, Sex and Dream, Intimate Stories and Faces of Revolution. Each of these categories will include a large cross-section of documentary films from across the globe. This year’s festival also features a full-scale retrospective of the work of Czech-born documentarian Harun Farocki, as well as a section devoted to the distribution network Doc Alliance, that helps to promote the exceptional documentary films that have come to the fore in Europe’s flagship Documentary Film Festivals (of which Planete Doc is one). The cost of attending screenings during the festival varies from 15-18PLN p/film, depending on the time of the screening and the presentation of the screening. Unlike with other film festivals Planete Doc does not sell full passes to festival events, mainly because it has such a packed programme of screenings. I’ll not be able to make it down to Warszawa or Wrocław for this years events, but I will look forward to catching up with some of the best films through the Doc Alliance website. Anyone who does attend any of the screenings, please feel free to post opinion pieces in the comments section below.