Love? Actually? Wednesday, Aug 31 2005 

Dan Jacobson’s All for Love

“I long to talk with some old lover’s ghost,
Who died before the god of love was born.”

– John Donne Love’s Deity.

On the surface, Dan Jacobson’s All for Love sounds more like a penny romance than a serious work of fiction – fare more suitable for teenage girls [1] than the judges of the Booker. Consider the plot. The scene is Vienna, at the end of the 19th century. A young and dashing Croatian officer, a virtual nobody by the feudal standards of the day, falls in love with a princess – the married daughter of the King of Belgium – and discovers that his love is reciprocated. The two lovers then begin a daring affair, unmindful of the forces of propriety and political correctness that are brought to bear against them, giving themselves utterly to each other and embarking on a heroic and extravagant adventure that leads inevitably to their mutual ruin. Parted and imprisoned by the forces of moral order, the lovers survive and are ultimately re-united through a series of reckless escapades, only to continue the course of their doomed passion. The whole thing could be straight out of Daphne Du Maurier.

But All for Love is not a romance novel – it is something far braver and infinitely more intelligent – a novel about Romance. The spirit of Romance is the key character here – it is he who is the main actor (the other characters being merely his agents), he who we get to observe most closely, learn the most about. Complete with sexual intrigue, duels, infidelity, passionate embraces, discreet love letters, midnight rides, daring escapes and even a balcony seduction scene, All for Love is a novel about two people living the Romantic ideal in an age when Romance is already beginning to become a thing of the past.

But the reigning spirit of the book is not so much Byron as Browning [2]. This is a deeply subversive book – one of its chief joys is the way that Jacobson slips easily under the surface of Romance, exposing its frail, human underbelly. Consistently refusing to idealise his main characters, Jacobson chooses instead to treat them with the indulgent whimsy that one usually reserves for little children – exposing their ‘grand passion’ for little more than the mutual egoism of two immensely selfish individuals. In the beginning, each lover’s participation in the relationship is motivated by a desire to advance his or her own agenda – each is using the other person (the young officer to win himself a prize well above his station, the princess to force a confrontation with her family). If these two come to be loyal to each other later, it is not so much for the rather thin affection that exists between them, but rather out of a sense of duty, the lack of honourable alternatives, and a fatalistic sense of being locked into a particular course of action. In a telling passage, Jacobson writes:

“Will the years preceding their death be calm and happy? No. No. No. Not a chance. They are incorrigible. Such an existence will always be beyond them. All they can do with their partnership is to try to resurrect the idle yet unflinching way of life that had brought them together. Inevitably the results will be what they were then – bankruptcy, flight, the lot.”

The point is that All for Love actively deconstructs the myth of lovers who choose to give up everything for the sake of their passion; if the princess and her officer are stuck in a rut it is only because they lack the imagination and maturity to get out of it; they are not so much Byronic as they are Flaubertian. There is no heroic choice here, there is only the failure of personality to rise above itself.

The true brilliance of the novel is that Jacobson does not limit this assessment to this one particular case – there is the definite suggestion in the novel that such falseness is true of all great romance – that all grand passions have feet of such base clay. This makes All for Love a delicious, if extremely sensitive, satire, the title of which is meant at least as sarcastically as it is seriously.

If all this makes the book sound overly cynical, two things redeem it from that fate. First, the key characters here may be deluded, but they are not, at least in their dealings with each other, deliberately false. Within their own heads they see themselves as wronged and noble spirits – the last bastions of true nobility in a scheming, underhand world. The sheer unfairness of this assessment, its incredibly delusional nature is often starkly on display, but for all that you cannot help feeling sorry for the two protagonists. You feel a twinge of compassion for them even as you laugh at their antics, much as you do for the characters in Gogol or Chekhov – and this saves the book from seeming too bitter.

The real saving grace of the book, though – both literally and figuratively – is the character of Maria. A peasant woman who falls in love with the young officer through the stories she hears about him and goes ahead to single handedly obtain his release from prison, secure herself a place in his life and even (eventually) help plan the escape of her rival, the princess, Maria is the novel’s one true lover; and easily its most interesting and genuine character. Maria’s love for the officer is the two things that the affection between the two main lovers is not – selfless and pragmatic. Where the two lovers are driven by their own self-absorbed motives, Maria is driven by a genuine desire to do what’s best for her man, to be of service to him. Not that she’s entirely self-sacrificing – it’s just that she recognises that part of being in love with someone is making them happy. And where the two lovers live their grand, impractical lives, never thinking of the future and tumbling inevitably to ruin, it is Maria who gets things done – who is practical and efficient and proactive, and who ultimately manages to live a reasonable and contented life despite what could easily have been a genuinely fatal passion. Maria’s love is true, but it is not blind.

Jacobson’s incredible point here is not just that Maria’s is a truer love, but that being a truer love, it is by nature less exciting, less demonstrative. In the ‘history’ that Jacobson constructs for his lovers, Maria’s role, so pivotal to the real story, is mostly ignored; and even in Jacobson’s novel, she only emerges towards the last quarter of the book and remains, even here, a more or less peripheral character. Part of this is of course because of her lower social standing, but a large part of her anonymity stems from the way her love refuses to fit the Romantic ideal. And this is Jacobson’s most insightful and subversive point – true love, as defined by Maria, is never really ‘romantic’.

There are several other interesting touches to the book. First, in order to make the story come alive, Jacobson adopts the tone of a faux biographer, inventing a plethora of documentary evidence that he draws upon to tell his tale[3]. Chief among these are the memoirs of both the officer and princess, which he ‘quotes’ from extensively, though other historical documents are also imagined. This gives the book an interesting palimpsest like quality, somewhat reminiscent of Byatt’s glorious Possession (though that book does this infinitely better). In particular it allows Jacobson to contrast his own version of events with the claims he puts into the mouths (or pens) of his characters. So, for instance, the officer claims in his memoir that in the early days of their romance he was drawn to places that the princess frequented by instinct, but Jacobson paints a more sordid picture – of a maid of the princess that the officer shamelessly seduced in order to get information about the princess’s movements. The contrast between what the lovers claim (either out of genuine delusion or out of a desire to dissemble) and what Jacobson reveals as being the real ‘truth’ is one of the most intelligent artifices of the book.

Another nice touch is the extremely realistic way in which Jacobson, like a genuinely good biographer, situates his characters in their late 19th century world. In one wonderful passage he writes:

“Vienna. 1896. The end of the century approaching. The high-point of a period of that would lead historians of a later generation to make exaggerated reference to the city as ‘the birthplace of the modern world’. Which presents a temptation here that has to be resisted. There is no need for you to imagine that this slight, bearded, firm-gazed, intensely respectable Jew, who looks on with interest as Louise and her retinue pull up in front of the Coburg palace in Silerstrasse, is Dr. Sigmund Freud (author so far only of Studies in Hysteria). Or that the abstracted, faintly smiling 22-year old on the far side of the park is Arnold Schonberg, listening inwardly to fragments of sound that will eventually become his tone-poem Verklarte Nacht. Or that several city blocks from him Gustav Klimt is striking a price with a consumptive prostitute whom he is eager to paint in the overblown, romantic manner he will soon abandon for something stiffer, stranger, more hieratic. Or that the little boy with a wide forehead, sharp nose and intense eyes, walking with his plainly intimidated governess towards the Franziskaner Kirche, is Ludwig Wittegenstein, who himself has no idea that within a few decades he will transform the direction of philosophical inquiry in the English-speaking world. Equally there is no point in imagining that any of these people – or any other Viennese poet, thinker and artist who will eventually achieve a stature comparable to theirs – is going to be casually snubbed by Louise or Phillipp or Stephanie (at a formal reception, say, or a theatrical performance), who will never know just how important that unknown person will appear to be when they themselves have been all but completely forgotten.

No doubt Louise and Phillipp attended a Schnitzler premiere or two; and Stephanie might (later) see Gustav Mahler mount the rostrum in Stadtsoper, after he had painstakingly converted from Judaism to Christianity in order to make himself eligible for the conductor’s job. But none of this mattered to them. They were preoccupied with what they had always considered truly significant: their health, their relations with one another, the exact degree of precedence given them on royal occasions, their clothes, public appearances, shopping, affairs, gossip, hunting, gambling, occasional political crises, the scanning of newspapers for mention of their names.”

These paragraphs are an excellent demonstration of Jacobson’s sublime and satirical brand of realism. Throughout the book, Jacobson’s main task is a refusal to idealise either the characters he portrays or the time they lived in. Thus anti-semitism, imperial callousness, nationalistic prejudice, and sheer fatuous pre-occupation with a dying feudal culture are universal sins in the novel – no one, including the lovers, is exempt from them. Jacobson’s point is not that this makes the characters more or less evil – it is simply a fact that must be accepted about them – a product of their fundamentally egoistic nature and the intellectual / moral realities of the time they lived in.

Bottomline: Overall, All for Love is an engrossing read, a fascinating exploration of Romance in all its facets and a book that keeps you constantly on your toes with the twists and turns of the plot. It is one of those rare books that manage to be both a delightful adventure story and a sombre and insightful meditation on the nature of Romantic love.

Should it make the shortlist? In my opinion, absolutely. Should it win the prize? I can’t say without reading the other books, of course (specially where the field is as strong as this years) but I, for one, wouldn’t be disappointed if it did.


[1] This is pure stereotyping – I have no idea what teenage girls read, or whether, in fact, they read at all.

[2] The work I was most strongly reminded of while reading the novel was Browning’s The Ring and The Book.

[3] I’m assuming, of course, that the memoirs are fictional – I think that’s a fairly safe assumption, though.


What do you call this? Friday, Aug 19 2005 

The Aristocrats

If I had to pick one word to describe Paul Provenza’s documentary The Aristrocrats that word would be, well…educational*. Fast paced, tightly edited, beautifully put together – this is one of the finest documentaries I’ve ever seen.

It’s also one of the filthiest, most depraved, most polymorphously perverse and most delightfully hilarious movies I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching.

For those who came in late – The Aristocrats is a documentary about a joke. Not just any joke but a joke that is a legend in its own right, a joke that is an institution among comedians, who delight in telling and re-telling it in a million different ways. The basic joke is this:

A man walks into a talent agent’s office, trying to sell him a new ‘family’ act. The agent asks what the act is about and the man describes something incredibly perverse. The agent, in shock, asks “What do you call that?”, to which the man replies, “The Aristocrats”.

Okay, so it’s not very funny. Or rather it’s not very funny without the real meat – the act itself. Because it’s in describing the act and making up the most disgustingly scatological, pornographic and downright bestial routines for the family to go through, that the teller of the joke gets his kicks. The Aristocrats is the ultimate dirty joke – a sewer of filth so infinite in its variety, so inexhaustible in the possibilities of what depravity can be practised in its bounds, that in the hands of a great comedian it can be like an endless riff on a truly disgusting theme. As the documentary points out, sodomy, defecation, bestiality, incest, etc. are all just par for the course for the Aristocrats – to really get a laugh you have to go one further.

Why (you’re probably thinking) would anyone in their right mind make a movie about this? Precisely because the joke becomes a way of uniting the comic fraternity and of delving deeper into the lives of those incredible yet insane people whose vocation in life is to make us laugh. The chief joy of The Aristocrats is the way it takes you deep into the heart of what has to be the most surreal, disturbing and most insanely challenging sub-culture in all society – the world of the comics. Forget surf-boarding, forget para-jumping – this is where the real danger is, this is where some of the most amazing people in the world are really pushing the bounds. The joke is a passport to this world, a means of exploring it in all its laugh-out-loud glory. What the documentary showcases brilliantly is the infinite variety of comic art – there are as many ways to tell the joke as they are comics to tell it. You’d think you’d get tired of hearing the same joke again and again – if you don’t it’s because there are so many diverse ways in which it is told to you: from Bob Saget’s incredibly outrageous rendition (at one point in the act the father knocks out his son’s eyeball by accident, then realises the orifice thus presented represents an opportunity, only to realise subsequently how sticky the retina can be) to Martin Mull’s subtle little riff, from Gilbert Gottfried’s loud, in-your-face version to Paul Reiser’s soft, almost innocent telling, from Billy the Mime’s silent take on the joke to Sarah Silverman’s deeply personal discovery of it, from Hank Azaria’s family reminiscences to the politically loaded take of the editorial staff at the Onion (let’s see – we’ve got bestiality, Satan worship, incest, what can we add? How about being Republican?)

That’s the other thing that’s so amazing about this movie – it’s such an incredible concept. How do you make a really, really funny movie. Simple: you just take something that comics all care about and can bond over, sell the concept to a hundred of the funniest people on the planet and get them on tape doing what they do best – being funny. If there’s real joy here, it comes from the fact that you can see some genuinely funny people just letting their hair down and going for it. There’s an improvisational quality to the movie that you just couldn’t get anywhere else.

It’s also, of course, a deeply graphic, cheerfully obscene romp. It’s a tribute to how truly the documentary captures the spirit of the joke that all this incredibly depraved talk seems harmless, almost casual. You’re shocked of course, but as someone says in the movie, shock is just a fancy word for surprise – and that’s what you’re really feeling – surprise – and not an unpleasant surprise at that. And the movie shows you how the obscenity itself is not the point – it’s the creativity, the challenge, the need to innovate. At its best, the Aristocrats joke is poetry, the ultimate form of word play. If you sit there getting upset about the obscenity and miss out on the humour, then the joke really is on you.

Bottomline: This is a hilariously funny and totally brilliant movie that had me laughing out loud pretty much from start to finish. Go watch it if you can – and be sure you get yourself a seat close to the aisle so you have plenty of space to roll about in.

Statutory Warning:

DO NOT go to see this movie if you are:

a) My parents
b) A devout Catholic
c) A prude
d) The kind of person who says he / she’s not a prude, but there have to be some standards, after all
e) A believer in Family Values
f) A militant feminist
g) A troll
h) A long-time fan of Full House
i) An impressionable child
j) An impressionable parent
k) Someone who likes Mills and Boon.
l) Ignorant of the facts of life (see point k above)
m) The kind of person who takes pride in being politically correct
n) A person who think elders deserve respect (and does not equate respect with using them as convenient orifices)
o) A person with any inhibitions whatsoever

*After all, what other movie will describe, with such clarity, what a brass trumpet is? You can’t get that on the UGC programs.

Ploughing on Thursday, Aug 18 2005 

Marina Lewycka’s A short history of tractors in Ukrainian

Have you ever been to one of those concerts where the pianist plays every note perfectly but you still walk out of the concert hall without being truly moved by the music? That’s what Marina Lewycka’s debut novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, feels like. An accomplished, well-crafted book that makes for enjoyable reading, but totally fails to overwhelm you.

There are many promising things about the novel – not the least of which is its plot. A Short History is the story of an eighty-four year old widower, a Ukrainian who moved to England after the War, who falls in love with, and marries, a thirty-six year old gold-digger desperately trying to escape the new realities of the Ukrainian economy. As the widower’s two daughters, Vera and Nadia (the narrator), come together to protect their father from the clutches of this greedy interloper, their common cause becomes occasion for a rapprochement between the two estranged sisters and the starting point for an exploration of their family and past. As the novel unfolds, this family bickering becomes a window into a world of memories that allows us to explore not only the history of this family, but also the larger history of Ukraine in the 20th century*. At one point in the novel the narrator’s father (who is writing a book about the history of tractors) links the great Depression of the 30’s and the great War that followed it to the excessive use of tractors in the US mid-west. That, in a sense, is the key conceit of this book – the idea that things are always more complicated than they seem and linked in suprising ways; and that it’s the little details that we rarely think about that shape the larger courses of all our lives.

If all this sounds too serious, it is nicely off-set by Lewycka’s easy-going writing style – the understated richness of her prose, its bitter-sweet quality. Lewycka’s style is somewhere between Nick Hornby and Graham Swift – without the coolness of the one or the intensity of the other. I was reminded a little of Toibin in Blackwater Lightship except that where Toibin is graceful and moving, Lewycka is funny. One of the sharpest gifts of the book is the way Lewycka, like many an immigrant writer before her, captures so perfectly the nuances of speech of those for whom English remains a foreign tongue. I know nothing about Ukrainian speech, but the little riffs on the language sound incredibly authentic, so that you can actually hear the words being said that way, and these inflections make the whole story seem more fantastic – more somehow, exotic – than it really is. There are some nice comic touches here (one especially brilliant moment where all the gold-digger’s lovers come together to bond over a broken down Rolls Royce – men!), but Lewycka’s real gift is more for a sort of soft-focus realism – the ability to make us feel compassion for the characters even as she makes fun of them.

Why then is this not a moving book? The first reason, I think, is that the plot seems too contrived, too clever. Decades of novels about immigrant families making a new life in the West and looking back with nostalgia to their past in the Homeland have made the whole notion a cliche (the book to read, if you really want to see this done at its best is Nabokov’s Pnin), and stories about estranged siblings being brought together by a family calamity are a dime a dozen. Lewycka’s novel is well written, but it feels like little more than a riff on a cloyingly familiar theme. This is made worse by the fact that Lewycka doesn’t quite manage to bring the different parts of the story seamlessly together – the stitches show through. There’s a sense of the deliberateness to the book – you can almost see the author thinking “let me put in a reminiscence about the grandmother, right about here”, even while you’re reading it.

The second problem is that the novel is too ‘short’, too sketchy. None of the subplots here have enough depth to get you seriously involved – you barely begin to be drawn into the situation before it resolves itself. There’s too little here to give you that sense of sweeping history or deep-founded conflict. This may be Lewycka’s point, of course, but to me the attempts to make this more than a book about an old man’s ridiculous obsession seemed weak, almost abortive.

The third issue I have with the book is that Lewycka takes the easy way out and stereotypes the main villain of the piece – the new wife Valentina. While there are a number of points in the book where the narrator tells us that she feels sorry for Valentina, this never really comes through – except, perhaps, right at the end. For all the understanding and compassion Lewycka lavishes on her other characters, Valentina gets surprisingly little. This is useful as a comic device, but it weakens the overall structure of the novel, loading it in the favour of the narrator. Had Lewycka chosen to let Valentina been less of an evil harridan and more of a desperate immigrant, this would have been a braver, more powerful book. Instead, much of the humour seems too easy, almost trite.

Bottomline: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is an extremely competent novel that makes for an enjoyable read. It is well imagined and skilfully written, and has a nice bitter-sweet quality to it. It is by no means a brilliant book though – and feels, at times, too much like a book written by someone who has spent too much time reading literary theory and too little time yearning to write**. Will it win the Booker / does it deserve to? I would almost certainly say No (specially in a year like this one) – but then, I’ve been wrong before.


* I can’t help thinking that A Short History of Ukraine in Tractors may have been a better title!

** 59 year old Lewycka teaches at Sheffield Hallam University. As an interesting side-bar to the book, there’s a strong sense of autobiography to the book – the narrator is a sociology professor at a Polytechnic who was born to Ukrainian parents right after the war – pretty much a description of Lewycka herself.

A sublime abduction Thursday, Aug 11 2005 

Inversion of Stereotypes in Mozart’s Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail

In addition to all the other things he means to me, Mozart is also, hands down, my favourite opera composer. His best operas – Le Nozze di Figaro, Die Zauberflote, Don Giovanni – are among the most inspired and moving pieces of music I’ve ever heard, and I have a considerable fondness for Cosi Fan Tutte. I even enjoyed Idomeneo, even though I can’t help feeling that it’s not really Mozart.

Which is why it’s fairly surprising that I’ve never listened to Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail more. I’ve heard it a couple of times before, of course, and thoroughly enjoyed it, but somehow it never made my list of essential pieces.

Until now. Listening to it again last week, I suddenly realised how much I’d been missing out on. Die Entfuhrung is the first of Mozart’s great operas – a work that is a stunning departure from the plainness of Idomeneo, written just one year earlier*. This is the first time you hear the glorious complexity of Mozart’s music in all its exhilarating richness – that inimitable talent that Mozart has for setting dialogue to music, so that a series of clear, individual voices come together in a dizzying harmony; the cut and thrust of notes fencing with each other, that exquisite sense of balance coupled with a powerful, driving force – what Ted Hughes calls “the bullet and automatic purpose” of Mozart’s music. The orchestration is richer here, the pace more hectic, the individual voices more clearly delineated. Die Entfuhrung is not quite as brilliant as Figaro or Zauberflote** but you can clearly hear that shades of those operas to come in the music here.

What last week’s listening (and paying close attention to the libretto for a change) really brought home to me though, was how deeply seditious the opera really is – how much it makes fun of the heroic stereotypes, turning them entirely on their head.

The story, in a nutshell, is this. A young noblewoman called Konstanza, along with her maid Blondchen and her maid’s lover Pedrillo have fallen into the hands of the Pasha Salim. While Blondchen has been given as a slave to one Osmin, a vassal of the Pasha’s, Salim continues to try to woo Konstanza for himself. From this predicament, Konstanza’s fiance, a spanish nobleman named Belmonte comes to rescue them. Obtaining entrance into the Pasha’s palace by pretending to be an architect, Belmonte plans a daring escape, but the four lovers are caught and taken prisoner. It is discovered that Belmonte is the son of the Pasha’s sworn enemy, and it seems certain that the lovers will be put to death. At the last minute, though, the Pasha decides to release the prisoners rather than torture them, and the opera ends with the lovers sailing away while singing the Pasha’s praises and thanking him for his mercy.

Two things are important to note here – first, that the real ‘hero’ of this story is undoubtedly Pasha Salim. Like Sarastro in Die Zauberflote Salim is the person with the real power here, Belmonte is nothing but a dilettante – a blithering idiot who blunders into a situation, sings a bunch of wonderful arias about love and longing and then ends up getting caught (even Pedrillo, his servant – a sidekick closely related to Papageno – is shrewder). It is Salim who shows admirable restraint (for a Pasha) in not taking Konstanza by force; it is Salim whose compassion and mercy eventually bring about the happy ending (ironically, it’s not a particularly happy ending for Salim, in fact, with a little bit of imagination you can almost imagine the bitterness he feels, having forgiven the foolish lovers and listening to them sing their hypocritical and overblown songs of gratitude – swearing never to forget him – which he knows to be false). Yet, in a move worthy of Becket, Salim is the one character in the opera who never sings at all – his role is entirely dialogue.

Why does Salim do it? The argument that Salim makes to Belmonte in the opera is that he (Salim) hates Belmonte’s father so much that he refuses to do what Belmonte’s father would almost certainly do in such a case – he chooses to be kind precisely because his enemy would be cruel. Yet Salim adds, “tell your father that there is greater satisfaction in answering an evil deed with a good than an evil deed with an evil one”. And later, speaking to Osmin, who is indignant at being robbed of Blondchen, Salim says, “If you cannot win someone with kindness, then there is no point in trying force”. It’s in these actions / statements of Salim that the fine irony of the opera lies – the fact that Salim, a Muslim ruler, is the only true Christian in the play. None of the other ‘christian’ characters have any real compassion for either Salim or Osmin.

This is an amazingly bold message (remember, the opera was first performed in 1781), even for one hidden away in what is essentially a comic opera. And what makes it interesting is that it would seem to be atleast partly Mozart’s doing. The original libretto for the opera had Salim discover that Belmonte was his own long lost son, with Salim’s subsequent actions being explained that way. When Mozart set the opera to music, however, the plot was changed to accomodate this darker, more ironic storyline.

The other interesting thing about Die Entfuhrung is the way in which, for its time, it’s an interestingly feminist work. Women in Die Entfuhrung are not helpless victims of the lusts of men, rather they are courageous lusty individuals who do more to maintain their own honour than the men who supposedly ‘protect’ them. In a pivotal moment at the beginning of Act Two, for instance, Osmin confronts Blondchen, insisting that she, as his woman, conform to his every wish. Blondchen immeadiately informs him where he can go, actually threatening to gouge his eyes out, and informing him that it takes kindness and consideration to win a woman’s heart, not rough, brutal behaviour. At another point (in the middle of what must be the most beautiful episode in the whole opera -a glorious quartet at the end of Act 2), Pedrillo, fearing that Blondchen is no longer ‘pure’ questions her about her relationship with Osmin and gets slapped for his pains and told that he can go to hell because she has no intention of being with a man who doesn’t trust her. The point is that there’s no fear in Blondchen, nothing servile or cringing, she comports herself throughout with a confidence that few Hindi film heroines of today could manage – and remember this is 1781! Nor is Konstanza far behind. While her role is more docile and submissive, one of the highlights of the opera is this massive aria in the middle of Act 2 (an aria that compares in power to the arias of the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflote) where Konstanza threatened with physical torture by Salim, informs him in a voice filled with rage that he can do his worst and nothing will phase her. Once again, this is an aria added by Mozart for the opera, the original libretto has nothing quite so enraged.

In some sense, of course, dark humour of this sort is not unfamiliar in Mozart’s operas. There is certainly a sense in which Figaro is both a tremendously dark comedy as well as a powerful social critique, and it is certainly true that the text of Cosi fan tutte makes fun of the idea of lyrical romance as much as the music itself seems to praise it. But I think of all the operas this is the one where the ironies are most evident – it’s almost as if there were two operas here – the comic opera on the surface and a darker, more emotionally complex plot underneath that Mozart’s gloriously happy music serves only to mock. The bitterness of Die Entfuhrung comes precisely from its sweetness – to think about the feelings of Salim throughout the opera is to experience the callousness of the other characters played out through the music. Like children in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan the singers in Mozart’s opera are gay and innocent and heartless.


* The fact that Mozart has just left the service of the Arch-bishop of Salzburg and moved to Vienna at this point may have something to do with this.

** The major problem with the opera is that Mozart, desperate for a commercial success and blessed with the finest singing talent of his day, spends too much time on the arias. They’re beautiful arias, of course, soaring and grand – arias that Verdi, for instance, would have been proud of. But they detract from the energy of the opera, they are a drag on the rapid pace with which the rest of the opera progresses

*** It’s interesting that the opera should be called the ‘Abduction’ from the Seraglio – technically, there’s no real abduction here – partly because it’s not as though the women are being taken against their wishes, but more because in the end it’s Salim who allows his prisoners to go. One more of Mozart’s clever little jokes?

Strike while the irony is hot Saturday, Aug 6 2005 

The films of Stanley Kubrick

At first thought, it seems a little strange to be compiling a list of my Top 10 Kubrick films – after all, the man only made some 16 films in his life, and I personally have only seen 12 of them, so it’s not like picking out the top 10 is much of a challenge* – not like picking my top 10 Bergman films (an impossible task) or my top 10 Woody Allen films (a task I will eventually get to). The reason it’s a feasible task (aside from the vicarious thrill of having to rank order the films) is the incredible quality of Kubrick’s work. It’s a tribute to the man’s talent that every single one of these movies listed below genuinely deserve to be in a top 10 – you could add a hundred movies by Kubrick’s american contemporaries to the sample, and most of these movies would still be up there.

Here, then, are my top 10 Kubrick films:

1. Dr. Strangelove, or: How I stopped worrying and learned to Love the Bomb

Forty years after it was first released, Dr. Strangelove remains both the funniest and most powerful indictment of nuclear warfare ever made. Dr. Strangelove is the very definition of dark humour – a movie that both chills you to the bone and makes you laugh out loud with its sheer insanity; a movie that takes every cliche, every stereotype about the heroism of war and turns it on its head. The undoubtable star of the movie is, of course, Peter Sellers, who plays a multiplicity of roles – the most chilling of which is the part of Dr. Strangelove, the former Nazi scientist who comes to personify the evil mania that drives men to world annihilation. Dr. Strangelove isn’t a long part – in the entire movie he’s probably on screen for all of ten minutes – but the mad evil he generates in those minutes is enough to make him one of the most memorable screen villains of all time. Don’t miss also, George C Scott’s incredible performance as a paranoid, narrow-minded general (a wonderful inversion of his role as Patton) and Sterling Hayden’s hilariously understated performance as Brig Gen Jack D Ripper, the man who sets off nuclear Armageddon because he’s convinced that flourination of water is a dirty commie plot to rob him of his sexual potency!

2. A Clockwork Orange

As a general rule, I’m always sceptical of great books that have been made into movies – I find that rarely, if ever, does the film manage to match up to the brilliance of novel (just watch Peter Jackson’s travesty of LOTR and you’ll get the picture). There are only three exceptions** to that rule that I’ve come across so far – and the most notable one is Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange. If someone had told me, before I watched this masterpiece, that any film could do justice to Burgess’s incredible, visionary novel, I would have laughed. Yet justice is precisely what Kubrick does – Clockwork Orange is as mind-altering, savage and beautiful as the book it is based on. Overflowing with sublime music, the film has a dream-like, nightmare-like quality; scenes that will burn themselves onto your brain forever, a sense of sick, almost nauseous elation, the feeling of being high on something. I won’t say that the film enhances the experience of the book – that would be too much to ask – but it certainly helps make clearer and starker what you thought you had imagined when you read it.

3. Full Metal Jacket

I’ve already talked about Full Metal Jacket in an earlier post, so I won’t spend too much time on it now. Suffice to say that this is Kubrick at his visual and allegorical best. The humour here is subtler than in Dr. Strangelove, the overall feel of the movie is more sombre and serious, but Full Metal Jacket remains a scathing critique of war and one of the most compelling and moving films ever made about the struggle in Vietnam.

4. Lolita

It would be tempting to say that Kubrick does as good a job with Nabokov’s Lolita as he does with A Clockwork Orange – but it just isn’t true. In the end, Nabokov is too rich, too fertile a writer to be trapped in any film, no matter how well made, and Kubrick’s movie fails, overall, to deliver both the intelligence and the deeply emotional aestheticism of the book (despite having Nabokov to do the screenplay!). The problem is simply that much of richness of Nabokov is in his prose, and all the wonderful scene settings in this film are a poor substitute for the sheer splendour of his language.

For all that, Lolita is an exceptional film, that pales only when compared to the book it is based on. James Mason does a more than competent job as Humbert Humbert and Peter Sellers odd-ball appearance as the school psychologist as well as the writer makes for entertaining viewing. There are some beautiful scenes here – I found the ending particularly well done – and for those who are genuinely interested in Kubrick’s work, this movie is a must watch.

5. Barry Lyndon

Barry Lyndon has to be the most under-rated of Kubrick’s movies. I, for one, had never heard of it. Yet Barry Lyndon is an accomplished and compelling film, that traces the rise and fall of a young Irishman into and from the ranks of nobility. Based on a Thackeray novel (you can’t fault Kubrick for his literary taste!) the movie is at once a telling satire of 18th century mores and manners, a hilariously funny romp and a sombre, almost symphonic exploration of the nature of human desire. This is probably Kubrick’s quietest work – its final hour tinged with a sort of melancholy mellowness that seems quite out of character. Yet for all that it is a beautiful film, a wonderful meditation by a master at the peak of his form.

6. Paths of Glory

The third among Kubrick’s great anti-war films, Paths of Glory is a less complex, less flamboyant film than any of Kubrick’s later work, but for all that it packs a powerful emotional punch. Set in World War I, the film tells the story of three men who are to be executed for ‘cowardice’ in the face of the enemy because their entire regiment refused to follow out the suicidal task set them by their politically motivated general, and their CO’s (played by Kirk Douglas, who manages not too over-act too much for a change) struggle to save these men from execution.

Paths of Glory is a bitter exploration of the politics of war, of young men sacrificed on the altar of old men’s ambitions. Yet for Kubrick it is a surprisingly uncynical work – there is no mercy here, but there is justice, of a sort, and Kubrick takes a more humanistic view of the soldiers than he does in much of his later work. As the movie closes, we are shown a group of soldiers sitting in a bar, laughing and mocking a pretty young german girl who stands crying on stage, forced to serve as ‘entertainment’. Just as your heart begins to harden against these pigs, however, the girl starts to sing, and the words of her song move these men first to silence, and then to tears. That’s the message Kubrick leaves you with – that war is harsh and people can be heartless and cruel, but inside all these devils is a great font of suffering and as long as we are still able to connect to that crying inner self, we are still human.

7. 2001 A Space Odyssey

If you don’t know much about Kubrick, you’ve probably been wondering when this was going to show up. 2001 is certainly one Kubrick’s most acclaimed (if not the most acclaimed) works, but it’s a movie that I personally have always been a little underwhelmed by. Okay, so I really loved the starting – Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra swelling from the speakers, that incredible, unforgettable vision of our ape ancestors. And much of the rest of the movie is well made too – the menace of HAL comes out incredibly clearly, and some of the scenes in space are brilliant.

Part of my problem with the movie, I suspect, is that I’ve never been a big fan of Arthur C Clarke (give me Asimov any day) so that the plot itself doesn’t really move me. Plus I can’t help feeling that of all of his movies this is the one in which Kubrick relies too much on visual spectacle rather than on character development and while the special effects in 2001 may have been quite impressive for their time – seen forty years later they seem quaint and clumsy. If the movie continues to be even as high as it is, it’s primarily because I love the score and the way that the music sharpens the effect of the film (this is true in much of Kubrick – but it’s especially true here).

8. The Shining

I’m not, in general, a big fan of horror films – largely because they either seem obvious and tacky (if they’re bad), or they scare the hell out of me (if they’re good). The truth is, I’m extremely susceptible to scary images – I had to give up TV for a week after I saw The Ring, because I was too afraid of turning it on and finding a blank screen staring back.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that after I watched The Shining I spent weeks either using the stairs or waiting till someone else was around before I pressed the button for the elevator. The Shining is a powerfully imagined, deeply visual film. The plot (taken from the Stephen King novel) is fairly stereotypical and unexciting – there are a few surprises, a few nice touches, but overall it’s not quite Kubrick quality. But the movie has some scenes that are visually stunning and a superb performance by Jack Nicholson helps to vault this film pretty much to the top of the good horror films I’ve seen. There is none of the subtlety or humour that Kubrick usually brings to his craft here, instead there is just exceptionally good film craft – a powerful score that heightens the emotional impact of the film, some wonderful cinematography and scene after memorable scene that makes this movie a true classic.

9. The Killing

One of Kubrick’s earlier films, The Killing is classic film noir. A group of unlikely men come together to plan and execute a daring race-track robbery. This is a classic suspense film – as the plans of the men are developed and go forward, the tension mounts and mounts. Kubrick catalogues in loving detail the events on the day of the robbery, drawing out the suspense, and finally releasing it in a massive explosion of an ending that is as fulfilling as it is dramatic.

There is, to be fair, very little of the Kubrick touch here. Oh, there are some stray touches of dark humour here and there, but overall this feels more like a Hitchcock film than a Kubrick. It’s an eminently watchable and exciting film however, a brilliant demonstration of how, in the old days, you could create a tense crime thriller without having to resort to special effects of high octane action sequences.

10. Spartacus

Let me start by saying that I don’t like Spartacus. It’s not that it’s not impressive – it’s just that it represents precisely the sort of over-blown, formula film making that I love Kubrick for avoiding. If William Wyler had made this film, I would have applauded, coming from Kubrick, it feels like a betrayal.

The problem is that Spartacus is too larger than life a figure – Kubrick’s great gift is for a denial of heroes – for creating characters who are as flawed and human as the rest of us, but who, in that crucial moment when it really matters, end up doing the right thing. Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus is a travesty of this idea – a nauseatingly perfect figure, more ideal than man, more caricature than personality. Because of him, Spartacus is perhaps the only Kubrick movie that is, at least in part, actively insulting to an adult intelligence.

Having said that, it’s not all bad. The action sequences are grand and entertaining enough, and the view of the political climate in Rome is so much richer and more sophisticated than you would find in the average epic (just watch Spartacus back to back with Gladiator, and you’ll see what I mean). What saves the movie (and makes it come in at number 10 on this list) is all the scenes where Spartacus doesn’t make an appearance. While Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons are busy hamming their way through their screen epic, there is a clever and more subtle battle being played out in the corridors of the Roman Senate, a battle in which Spartacus is little more than a pawn. The performances here, helped by an impeccable cast – Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Laurence Olivier – are gripping and superb, and Spartacus’s final irrelevance in this larger scene is perhaps the best and most cynical dark joke that Kubrick has ever played.

Unfortunately, it’s a joke that’s too long in coming, and having to watch Douglas prance and trip around the stage and spout idealistic homilies is not something I would wish on anyone. Watch this movie, if you watch it at all, for Laughton, who is superb – the quintessential senator of Rome’s soon to decline empire.


* The two I’ve left out – Eyes Wide Shut (why? why? what was he thinking?) and Killer’s Kiss (which is a fine enough movie in it’s own way, but a little flat)

** The other two are a) the 1961 version of Guns of Navarone (just check out the cast) and David Lean’s superb 1965 version of Doctor Zhivago .

A Dance to the music of Time Saturday, Aug 6 2005 

Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees –
Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

-W. B. Yeats ‘Sailing to Byzantium’

Saraband, n. A slow and stately dance set to triple time (OED)

Let me just say it. Ingmar Bergman is, quite simply, the greatest director in the history of film. Bar none. His movies, along with the writings of Franz Kafka, the novels of Virginia Woolf, the poetry of Sylvia Plath and the paintings of Picasso’s Blue Period, rank among the greatest works of art that the last century has produced. No other director delivers harsh, unflinching beauty with so much consistency; no other director has the ability to make you experience, first-hand, so authentic a sense of pain.

Yet even immortals grow old, and Bergman turned 87 this July, which is why I went to see the new Bergman film, Saraband, with some slight trepidation. Bergman’s last movie, his swan song, was supposed to be the 1982 Fanny och Alexander and though Bergman has continued, since then, to make movies and series for television (great – the Swedes get Bergman on TV, we get Donald bloody Trump), I’ve never seen any of them. Which means that twenty years have passed between the Bergman whose work I worshipped and the Bergman who made this film.

I needn’t have worried. Some talents, like fine wine, grow sweeter with age. Not that this is the same Bergman we knew twenty years ago – the tone is mellower here, more gentle; the scenes are more loosely constructed and Bergman sacrifices some of the burning energy of his earlier films to a more meditative quietness. It says a lot about Bergman’s usual style that I’m tempted to call this movie optimistic, even though it’s filled with images of death, loss and despair.

But perhaps that’s because at the heart of the movie is Johann Sebastian Bach. Bergman has long been fascinated by Bach – Bach’s music fills his work, both setting the mood in the background and being explicitly referred to (there’s a scene in The Silence where Ester is listening to music on the radio and someone asks her what it is and she replies: “Bach. Johann Sebastian” with the weariness of one summing up her entire life). But here Bergman outdoes himself. It’s not just that Bach’s music plays all through the film, it’s not just that two of the central characters are both classical musicians and that Bach becomes the battleground for their final denouement, it’s not just that Bach’s music is constantly referred to and becomes, in these dialogues, a metaphor for death and peace, almost for God. It’s also the very structure of the film itself. The format of twelve scenes, the first two scored for solo voice, the other ten consisting of dialogues between the four main characters of the movie, the quietness, the precision of the beauty that Bergman shows us – all this is true to the spirit of Bach. It’s characteristic of Bergman’s attention to detail that the scenes evolve in an elaborate counterpoint: m, mj, mk, kh, mh, jk, km, hk, mj, jm, m. Eliot writes: “Who is the third who walks always beside you?/When I count, there are only you and I together/ But when I look ahead up the white road /There is always another one walking beside you /Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded /I do not know whether a man or a woman /—But who is that on the other side of you?”. In Saraband, that presence is Bach – a ghost only Bergman could invoke, a spirit only Bergman could conjure with.

What makes Saraband a must-watch for Bergman fans is that it is a magical reminder of everything that Bergman stood for, stands for. It’s not just that the plot itself is a follow on from the wonderful Scenes from a marriage (much better seen in the original TV series version btw), it’s also that the movie is a return to the quiet intensity that is the trademark of Bergman’s work. It’s all here – the amazing natural banter, the psychological acuity that makes the characters come alive as real people whom we can admire and pity, hate and love at the same time; the view of the characters so deep, so multi-dimensional that you feel that you understand them better than you do your own friends, and yet at the same time know for certain that you will never completely capture them. One of Bergman’s greatest gifts is his ability to get closer to his characters than any other director on earth – his intense close-ups seem less like intrusions and more like gateways into a sudden intimacy where the characters stand emotionally naked, vulnerable, stripped off all disguises, almost of words, their simple sentences magnified by Bergman’s searching gaze into the highest poetry. Under the light of Bergman’s cross-examination his characters become witnesses to the human condition in all its merciless splendour, so that every line spoken has the ring of eternal truth. It’s this ability to get under his character’s skin, to show every emotion the character feels reflected in his / her face, that is chiefly on display in Saraband. (There’s a scene early on when Karin and Marianne are talking about Johann – Karin’s grandfather, Marianne’s former husband – and Karin asks Marianne “Did you love him?”. The camera instantly closes into Marianne’s face and then there is a long, pregnant silence as we watch, from less than a foot away, Marianne thinking about the question. No other director could have held that pause so long, or made it say so much. )

But over and above the technical brilliance of the film, it’s wonderfully crafted details, is (as with any other Bergman film) Bergman’s incredible vision of humanity. Bergman is the living illustration of Schopenhauer; perhaps the only director who understands that we cannot run away from pain because it is the central fact of the human condition. On the contrary, it is precisely by embracing our suffering, by accepting the terrible despair of being human, by not wincing, not looking away, not trying to escape, that we may break through to the monstrous beauty that lies beyond. There is no forgiveness in Bergman, no mercy; there is simply the knowledge, won through years of exploring the darkest regions of the human heart, that it is only ourselves that we have to forgive and even that forgiveness doesn’t matter because what is lived cannot be undone. The demons that torment us are only souls like ourselves, crying out for help – perhaps they are our own soul, products of our own imagination. You cannot undo your life, you can only discover the sad, sweet beauty that lies buried at its heart. We cannot be other than ourselves; we cannot even be with anyone other than ourselves; but it is enough to have touched the face of another, to have truly touched the face of God, if only in a dream, because that is all that is possible. In Bergman, as in Bach, there is a great sense of unforgiven peace hidden under the restlessness and the passion of the movement itself.

Of course, Bergman has always relied on the talent of others to help make this vision come alive, and Saraband is no exception. Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson reprise their roles from Scenes from a marriage and are both exceptional – watching the interplay between them you can see effortlessly past their sad, withered bodies to the couple we once loved. So transparent is their acting that you can see right through to their souls, so that the line between actor and character blurs and they become pure spirit, beings of light dancing their stately, gentle dance together. Ullman is as radiant as ever, the same hypnotic eyes, the same sense of trembling empathy. If the years have changed her at all, it is only that they have replaced her more obvious beauty with a sense of meditative grace – and Bergman exploits that grace to its full power*. And Josephson remains, at 80, the powerhouse he was in his prime – his portrait of a cantankerous, cynical, calculating and yet ultimately childish and vulnerable old man is picture and word perfect. If this really turns out to be Bergman’s last film, then it is only fitting that the two main leads in it should be the two people whose acting has done the most to make Bergman’s movies come alive. This is certainly true of Ullman, and at least partly true of Josephson, though on the whole the actor I most associate with Bergman is probably still Gunnar Bjornstrand (one of my biggest regrets about Fanny och Alexander was that it showcased so little of Bergman’s ‘regulars’ – though both Bjornstrand and Josephson had some role to play).

The two other cast members are impressive too – Borje Ahlstedt (who also featured in Fanny och Alexander) is quietly compelling as the tortured Henrik – the sheer suffering in his face would move a stone to compassion. And Julia Dufvenius deserves credit for holding her own against so stellar a cast. This may not seem like praise – it is. For someone who was not even born when Scenes from a Marriage was released, and who is acting in only her third film, Dufvenius does a brilliant job. Listening to her incredible monologue in the second scene one truly appreciates how powerful and gifted a director Bergman is – how a simple re-telling of a morning’s incident can become, in his hands, a sonata that Beethoven would have been proud of. It says a lot for the skill with which the dialogues are played out here, that you actually find yourself waiting for Bach’s music to end so that they can get on with it!

The one person missing here, of course, is Sven Nykvist. Nykvist, the magician who shot Winter Light and The Silence and made Cries and Whispers come alive with an almost Rembrandt like beauty, was not able to participate in the making of Saraband. His presence is sorely missed. Instead, Bergman uses no less than five different cinematographers, none of whom are quite able to bring out the clarity of his images. Many of the shots in Saraband seem a little faded, a little out of focus – the overall feel is of watching the episode of a 70’s TV series (I mean a normal TV series, of course – not a Bergman series). This is not, of course, a serious detraction – there is too much talent here for that – but it does keep the film from being as perfect as it could be.

I’m told that Saraband may be Bergman’s last film. The idea that there may be no more work forthcoming from this great man is a sad one, but if this has to be Bergman’s last film, then I would not wish for anything better. For all the suffering in Saraband, there is also a new sense of peace, of a life finally come to terms with. I can only hope that this is a feeling that Bergman shares, an emotion that he, after all his searching, has finally found. I can think of no one who deserves it more.

Bottomline: It’s always difficult to call a Bergman film a masterpiece, simply because he sets such a high standard for himself. For anyone but Bergman, then, Saraband is an authentic masterpiece, a genuine work of art. For Bergman, it’s another in a long list of cinematic triumphs, a reminder that even in these last times (in this hour of the Wolf, as Bergman would say) the great Maestro remains untouchable. When this movie ended, I walked out of the theatre with tears in my eyes and a great sense of calm in my heart. And it doesn’t get any better than that.


* The movie I was most reminded of watching Saraband (other than Scenes from a Marriage obviously) was Autumn Sonata. It’s ironic that Ullman, who plays a middle-aged woman still struggling to come to terms with her relationship with her mother in that film, should now have succeeded into the role that Ingrid Bergman played there.

Come from the Shadows Friday, Aug 5 2005 

Art Speigelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers

Remember how, once upon a time, comic books were the ultimate in low-brow entertainment? Sure they were exciting and addictive and you could read them again and again (and some of the best ones were even intelligent – like the Asterix series, for instance) but no one would seriously consider calling them Art (at least no one as snobbish as me)?

All that changed in the 80’s when Art Spiegelman published Maus. Spiegelman did the unthinkable – he took the darkest, most serious theme he could find (the Holocaust, no less) and turned out a grave, intelligent meditation on it in comic book format (for an excellent essay on Maus, scroll to the bottom of the page here).

Thirteen years later, he’s back – this time with what has to be the most intelligent and heartfelt meditation on the events of 9/11 that I’ve ever read. In the shadow of no towers is not a long book – it’s just ten pages pages – each page a monumental (literally) collage of comic strips / drawings that come together to make a simple emotional point. But for all that it’s an incredibly powerful book – one that will make you laugh out loud as easily as it will move you to tears.

What is it that makes No Towers such a great work? First it’s a deeply personal work. Spiegelman says some very important things here, but his perspective is deeply personal. Half of the book, indeed, is given over to his experiences on that fateful September day – we see him and his wife running desperately to their daughter’s downtown school to bring her back home, we see the towers collapsing the way Spiegelman must have seen them that day. This doesn’t just help you to relate to Spiegelman on a more intimate basis, it also makes the tragedy itself more personal for you.

The second thing that makes this a great book, ironically enough, is the extreme cynicism that Spiegelman brings to the work. His refusal to sentimentalise makes the book seem clearer and more balanced. Early on, Spiegelman admits that he’d never much cared for the twin towers – considered them, in fact an eyesore – but, as he puts it, I don’t like my nose much either, that doesn’t mean I want someone ramming a plane into it!

And that’s the third thing that makes this such a special book – that in a book filled with an overwhelming sense of tragedy, dread and fear (and Spiegelman is the paranoid to end all paranoids), Spiegelman still manages to find the most amazing dark humour. One of my favourite bits in the book is a drawing of Spiegelman with the face of a mouse staring directly at you, naked terror in his face, saying “I’m afraid that I may not live long enough for my cigarettes to kill me”. Indeed, part of Spiegelman’s nightmare about 9/11 is precisely that in the post 9/11 world all his extreme paranoia has come scarily true – his unconscious, he says indignantly, is being taken over by the real world. These lines work brilliantly because, accompanied as they are by dark, brooding drawings, they manage to be both flippantly funny and deadly serious at the same time.

The fourth thing that makes this an enjoyable book for me is the way that Spiegelman heaps his condemnation equally on the Al Quaeda terrorists and what he calls the Bush Cabal. There is some scathing political commentary here – meditations on blue and red states that seem eerily real after the Nov 2004 election (In the Shadow of No Towers came out in Feb 2004), a brilliant comic strip showing the upside down world that Bush and his cronies have created.

Finally, this is a brilliant, brilliant book because of the sheer ingenuity that Spiegelman brings to his craft. The entire comic may be only ten pages long, but every page is a miracle of detail and creativity (Spiegelman spent an average of a month on each page) created with endless inventiveness coupled with a nostalgia for comics as an art form. Spiegelman is undoubtedly a master of his craft – that’s why he can turn something as deeply personal and genuine as No Towers into an enduring work of Art. It’s the effortlessness that counts – you never get the feeling, reading the book, that Spiegelman is going out of his way to be clever; rather the whole book feels like it’s one incredible man’s attempt to cope with a darker, more desperate world.

Bottomline: Beg, borrow or buy, but get your hands on this book and read it. You’ll never be able to look at comics the same way again.

Bloody and unbowed Thursday, Aug 4 2005 

Jacques Audiard’s De battre mon coeur s’est arrete

Thomas Seyr, the main protagonist of Jacques Audiard’s De battre mon coeur s’est arrete (English title: The Beat that my heart skipped; New Yorker review here) calls himself a real estate agent, but is, in fact, little more than a common thug. He spends his days in a world of brutal violence coupled with easy male cameraderie that is strongly reminiscent of the early Scorsese, he listens to techno and pop music – he’s just another lowlife on the streets of Paris. Then one day a chance meeting brings back the ghost of his mother – a concert pianist – and reminds him of his own years spent playing the piano. The man he meets (his mother’s former manager) offers him a chance to audition to be a concert pianist himself, and Thomas finds himself rediscovering classical music like a wound in his heart that has lain forgotten but has never quite healed.

What follows is a finely crafted exploration of a young man’s struggle to define his own identity. Trapped between his loyalty to his friends and his love for his now decrepit father on the one hand, and the thrilling vistas of music on the other, Thomas is a soul in torment – a demon who can neither bring himself to believe absolutely in the possibility of salvation, nor deny it completely and adjust to his own private hell. As the movie progresses, Thomas finds himself drawn deeper and deeper towards the music, driven to question the realities of the life that he has taken so long for granted, more willing to explore new, different ways of finding satisfaction. But this new-found happiness of his is not without its fears – as his obsession with music increases, his work suffers and he finds himself increasingly driven to the point where he must stake all, risk everything to escape the netherworld he inhabits. Whether Thomas truly has the courage to make that leap is the chief point of suspense in the film.

What makes the movie interesting of course, is the basic premise of a man who is both an brutal beast and a pianist of refined taste (if fairly unexceptional talent). This is not a new conceit*. Truffaut exploits much the same dichotomy in Tirez sur le pianiste, though approaching it from the other side (and of course, Aznavour is a much finer pianist; just as Truffaut is a far more skillful director). And nowhere is the idea of beautiful music combined with horrific violence more powerfully depicted than in Kubrick’s classic A Clockwork Orange (based, of course, on the book by Anthony Burgess) where the old ultraviolence goes hand in hand with beautiful Ludwig van.

What makes this movie special though, is the way that Audiard explores the contradiction here – for Thomas, violence and music are not parts of the same fundamental urge (even though you could be fooled into thinking so by the way he plays the piano, at least in the beginning). This is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story – a wrestling match between the mild mannered piano player and the scruffy, indifferent villain. Throughout the movie, Thomas seems less like a master of music and more like some barbaric savage who has just discovered music on his shore and does not know quite what to do with it. You get the feeling that he is holding the music in his hands, trying to get it to work, dissolving into frustration when it doesn’t or letting his heart sing with elation when it does. There is something uncouth about Thomas’ search for redemption, and Audiard’s gritty, realistic visual style helps bring that out perfectly. As Thomas goes about his violent errands, playing air piano on tables and dashboards, trying to hold on to the music in his head, we are given a glimpse of a yearning that we can all relate to – the yearning for something finer, more beautiful than our plain, sordid lives (what was it Shelley said: “The desire of the moth for the star / Of the night, for the morrow / this devotion to something afar / From the sphere of our sorrow”)

Everything else about the movie, unfortunately, does not come up to this standard. Thomas’s tormented relationship with his father is acted with wonderful skill, but is, in the end, rather obvious; his love affair with a friend’s wife seems fairly gratuitious; his interaction with his chinese piano teacher (who doesn’t speak a word of French, while he, obviously doesn’t speak Chinese) feels trite and disingenuous. This is a film built around the single monumental struggle of Thomas the brute against Thomas the piano player – everything else is just noise.

Overall, De battre mon coeur s’est arrete is a movie well worth watching – if only for the incredible urge to listen to Chopin and Bach that you leave the theatre with.

*The movie itself is a remake of the 1978 Fingers, starring Harvey Keitel, so in some sense, nothing here is really new.

P.S. Don’t miss the shot of Horowitz’s hands moving on the piano keyboard in slow motion.

The War of the Worlds (and other helpful forms of family therapy) Wednesday, Aug 3 2005 

Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds

There was a time, not so long ago, when the fact that there was a new Spielberg film out was enough to send me into a frenzy of anticipation. Then AI came out and I found myself falling asleep in the middle and wondered if I was ill or something. (After all, this was Spielberg. How could I not be entertained? I praised the movie loudly and kept my boredom to myself like a guilty secret). Then there was Minority Report which had to be the most pointless and arbitrary sci-fi thriller I’d ever seen – hell, even Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner was more exciting. Then there was Catch me if you can, which was pleasant enough, but hardly great cinema. By the time Terminal came out, I didn’t even bother making it to the Theatre.

Let’s face it, the guy hasn’t made a decent movie in over half a decade.

So when I finally dragged myself to a theatre to see War of the Worlds I wasn’t expecting much. And I wasn’t disappointed.

In some ways, I admit, War of the Worlds is a better movie than Spielberg’s other recent ones. Many of the scenes here are reminiscent of the Spielberg we know and love. It’s all there – the sense of frightened anticipation before the monster bursts on to the scene (Jurassic Park); the rapid spread of panic, those little snippets that show you the crowd reaction (Jaws); the confused camerawork that puts you right in the middle of the action (Saving Private Ryan); the ‘perspective shots’ that show you the true enormity of the horror (Jurassic Park, Jaws); the plainitive scenes of death and desolation, bodies laid out all around you / drifting on a river (Schindler’s List); that sense of half-horrified, half-amazed wonder (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET). It’s not just that the movie has great special effects, it’s more that Spielberg combines these special effects with an incredible artistic vision. Every time the camera pans out for a long shot the effect is of looking at a beautiful painting, the images are iconic, unforgettable, the colours vivid and palpable.

It’s a shame therefore, that the plot is lousy and that Spielberg spend some 80% of the movie focussing on the banal problems of one unengaging family. War of the Worlds gives Spielberg the opportunity to create a vision of a fictional Armageddon every bit as powerful as Schindler’s List or the first hour of Saving Private Ryan – this could have been the ultimate disaster movie – an incredible film about humanity’s struggle to survive in a hostile and hopeless world (a movie of the scale and power that only Spielberg could make). Instead, Spielberg chooses to give us a camp-y low-brow family drama.

What’s wrong with the plot? Everything. First, the very idea of focussing on the emotional issues between a divorced loser and his children is ridiculous. I mean, hello, the entire population of the world is being wiped out – it’s great that your kids are starting to call you Dad and respect you more, but don’t you think that as therapy goes this might be a bit expensive? Next time buy one of Dr. Phil’s books, for christ’s sake. It’s not even like these emotional issues are even particularly interesting or unique (at least I don’t think so; because the characters here remain primarily caricatures – despite all the time we spend with them – it’s hard to know what their problem really is). On the contrary much of the dialogue between father and children is pure kitsch. At one point, for instance, Ray has his son pinned to the ground to prevent him from joining in an attack on the tripods, and the son says “Dad, you’ve got to let me go. You’ve just got to let me go.” I mean, please, could we be more obvious than this?

The second problem is the miraculous way that everything goes right for this family. This both makes a mockery of the seriousness of the film and destroys any sense of suspense the movie might have had. Consider this: Ray and his kids get away in the only working vehicle in their entire neighbourhood, just seconds ahead of the evil death rays and drive across miles of highway covered with stalled cars without every having to slow down. A plane crashes into the house they’re staying in, destroying everything in sight except their car that doesn’t even get dented. They’re always the last to run away from the alien tripods but never get hit by fire and always get to safety way before everyone else. All the lucky breaks in this movie, every single one, go to them. Plus which, Ray (who has a day job as a crane operator – hardly a task that requires great intellectual ability or presence of mind) turns out to be the smartest, bravest guy around, the one who thinks of all the clever strategems, the one who fights the aliens most effectively. Even hindi movie heroes are more realistic. I mean, look, I’m all for happy endings, but would it have killed Spielberg to, well, kill someone? Or at least let them suffer something more than a scratch? And what about using some logic occassionally (the Tripods leave central Boston more or less unharmed, but hordes of them were roaming about the abandoned country house where Ray and his daughter were hiding – hardly the most efficient way to exterminate humans – let’s kill off all of the rural areas first, then we’ll get started on the cities)

It’s this sense of magical dispensation (coupled with the lack of anything resembling real dialogue) that makes War of the Worlds an emotionally hollow film. Sure, one feels the bewilderment of its characters – their fear, their panic. But beyond that the movie doesn’t really connect with them emotionally. This is not helped, of course, by the fact that Tom Cruise can’t act (only someone with his incredibly mediocre talent could make so simple a role look so desperately challenging) and Tim Robbins, who usually can act, decides not to do so here. It says a lot for the acting in a movie when the only somewhat compelling performance comes from a 10 year old (Dakota Fanning)

The result of all this is that when the aliens are finally defeated (disease arrives as a convenient deus ex machina to destroy them) what you feel is not so much relief as disappointment. In some ways, Spielberg seems to echo this mood – the end of the movie has a sudden, dissatisfied feel, as if Spielberg really wanted to show you the world being destroyed and the human race destroyed forever, but the studio executives wouldn’t let him.

Bottomline: War of the Worlds is a disappointing movie – it shows you just enough of Spielberg’s talent to make you realise how great a movie this could have been, then devolves into kitschy family drama that feels more like a farce than a truly gripping disaster movie. Watch it, if you want, for entertainment / to pass the time; but don’t expect a true Spielberg film ‘cos you ain’t gonna get it.

Private Investigations Monday, Aug 1 2005 

Mario Vargas Llosa’s Who Killed Palomino Molero?

Mario Vargas Llosa’s Who killed Palomino Molero opens on a horrific scene. A young man has been brutally murdered, his mutilated body hangs impaled out in the countryside, discovered by a young goatherd. This, it turns out, is Palomino Molero – a guitar playing romantic young recruit at the local airforce base.

What follows is one of the most compelling, tightly written, amusing and passionate detective stories I have ever read. The story follows the investigations of the local police force (comprised of a soft-hearted young cop called Lutima and the wily yet hilarious Lieutenant Silva) as they find clues, follow leads, interrogate suspects and finally track down the boy’s killers.

At one level, Who Killed is just an extremely engaging detective story. Llosa jumps deftly from scene to scene, showing you how the different threads of the plot slowly untangle, moving the novel along at a brisk pace that Raymond Chandler would have been proud of. As revelation follows revelation, you find yourself ‘solving’ the mystery along with the protagonists, the full picture of the events leading up to the boy’s murder slowly coming together in your head. There is nothing really complex about these events – this is no Agatha Christie novel – there are no big surprises. What sustains your interest here is more how the secret plays out. There is a sense of constantly shifting back and forth in time as the pieces of the puzzle slowly assemble, making the overall plot come clear. It’s one of the chief joys of the novel that the story both builds rapidly to a climax and manages to switch effortlessly between past and present. It’s this restlessness of the narrative, combined with an explicit sense of not being in on the secret, the feeling that everyone else knows what you are trying to find out, of a conspiracy against you, that makes Who Killed reminiscent of Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay Llosa is that reading him I find myself constantly making comparisons to Marquez, and usually not unflattering ones. This contrasts sharply with how I feel about say, Isabel Allende, who usually leaves me wishing I was reading Marquez, or Llosa, instead)

What makes the novel truly enjoyable though, is that it’s so much more than a simple detective story. It’s also, simultaneously, a poignant love story, an examination of racial prejudice and a deeply funny book about life in a small provincial town. The fact that all of that fits so neatly into the 150 pages that the story takes to play out, gives you a sense of how taut the writing is here.

Part of what makes the book so taut is the incredible cast of characters that Llosa creates. Perhaps the most interesting of these is Lieutenant Silva – the chief investigator on the case. As a policeman, Silva is the archetype of the great detective – a shrewd investigator with a keen nose for a clue, a thorough understanding of human nature, a wily interviewing technique, brilliant deductive abilities, quick wit and, ultimately, a strong sense of justice. What Llosa adds to the mix is Silva’s strange obsession with a plump, married inn keeper who Silva spends all his free time fantasising about and who he is desperate to somehow sleep with. This is a marvellous twist, because it shows us how a man who is the smartest of investigators can also be the most ridiculous of buffoons. Picture Poirot falling in love with a 16 year old girl and you’ll get the picture. And the same is true of all the other characters in the novel – it’s as though Llosa had taken all the standard archetypes of this mode of fiction, and then changed them in oh so subtle ways to make them seem more real.

Bottomline: Who Killed Palomino Molero? is not one of Llosa’s greatest works (it doesn’t compare, for instance, to the sublime Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter or the wonderfully powerful Feast of the Goat). But it’s a short, bitter-sweet detective novel that makes for an incredibly engrossing, unputdownable read and is absolutely not to be missed.