The gifts reserved for age Tuesday, Oct 9 2007 

Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost

For surely now our household hearths are cold,
Our sons inherit us: our looks are strange:
And we should come like ghosts to trouble joy.

– Tennyson, ‘The Lotos Eaters

Why is it that a ghost returns? Is it really in order to seek justice for the wrongs done to him, or in the hope of contact with a loved one, or to protect those he loves from harm? Or is it just that, by meddling among the living, the ghost hopes to reclaim for himself some vestige of past excitements, some inkling of what it meant to be alive? Does the torment of the grave lie not in anguish, but in the slow suffocation of the self, the knowledge that all we once were is lost forever?

This is the idea at the heart of Philip Roth’s intriguing new novel Exit Ghost. Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s familiar alter-ego, has spent the last 11 years of his life living in almost complete isolation in the New England countryside – a period in which he has become both impotent and incontinent. Returning to New York after his long absence, ostensibly for a medical procedure that promises to restore his bladder control, he finds himself suddenly thrown into the world of the living, and proceeds to seize upon it through a series of spontaneous and unbalanced decisions that he recognizes as madness even as he makes them. Why then does he perpetuate such foolishness? Because he wants to be, in his own words, “back in the drama, back in the moment, back into the turmoil of events! When I heard my voice rising, I did not rein it in. There is the pain of being in the world, but there is also the robustness.” It is this doomed attempt to hold on to one’s slipping existence, this rage against the dying of the light, that Exit Ghost gloriously celebrates.

Light and gravity Saturday, Oct 6 2007 

Bela Tarr’s The Man from London

To describe Bela Tarr’s starkly ravishing new film The Man from London as film noir is, I think, to miss the point substantially. It’s like describing Hamlet as a murder investigation. Tarr’s film is so much more – a celebration of aesthetic possibility, a testament to the unflinching power of the camera’s gaze, an uncompromising vision of what film, as a medium, is capable of. Every shot, every frame in this film is put together with the skill and patience of a master craftsman – producing an effect that I can only compare to the best work of Bergman and Tarkovsky. Whether it’s a wizened old man crumbling bread into his soup; the same old man balancing a billiard ball on his nose while an accordion plays in the background and a man dances around him with a chair; the abstract image of a ship’s prow, the central line dividing the screen into two parts, light and shadow, life and death; the clockwork of figures descending a ship’s gangway and stepping into a waiting train, like the souls of the damned arriving in Hell; or just the image of a man standing alone in the gleaming glass cage of a railway switchbooth that becomes a metaphor for man’s fundamental isolation – every scene in this film is pure poetry, every scene combines the bleak realism of a Hopper painting with the immaculate lighting of a Cartier-Bresson photograph. And Tarr’s shots of the human face reveal a nakedness so severe, so absolute, that you almost feel like his film should be rated NC-17. Bergman, in an interview about Nykvist, says that the greatest achievement of cinematography is that is has conquered the human face. Watch The Man from London and you will see exactly what he means.

Lust, Yawn Wednesday, Oct 3 2007 

Perhaps the most challenging thing about watching Ang Lee’s new film Lust, Caution is managing to remember that it’s not In the Mood for Love. It’s not just the presence of Tony Leung that brings the parallel to mind – it’s the costumes, the lush interiors, the slow, nuanced unfolding of an impossible relationship.

Normally, this would be high praise. Except that the plot of Lust, Caution is so at odds with the quiet mellowness of Kar Wai’s masterpiece, that the end result is an awkward, patchy piece of work that tries to be both frenzied espionage thriller and unlikely love story and is convincing as neither.