Sunday, November 30, 2008

Iraq in Fragments, dir. James Longley

Most of the documentaries I have seen on Iraq have been made for television, usually by television journalists, with lots of hand held camerawork, found footage taken by journalists, often material that was never shown on television. What I loved about Iraq in Fragments was that it was photographically stunning. It captures the vivid colors and textures of life in Baghdad, as well as in the Kurdish North and the Shiite regions of Moqtada Sadr, the vast desert, and the drab world of the war that goes on in its present. It's a documentary that has won a slew of awards, and the beauty of the country and the people it depicts must have something to do with that.

The fragments of Iraq are not only these three segregated regions, all struggling for independence, even if only from the Americans, but also the fragments of the past that still emerge around corners and behind the doors of the present turmoil, and the fragmentary dreams of the future. Similarly, the three parts of the film are fragmentary in their vision of the trauma of living in a country ripped apart geographically, historically, politically and socially by the invasion of America. If we are to believe the voices of those who speak in this film, the only apparent reason for American destruction and colonization is oil.

What binds all these fragments is perhaps the most powerful element of Iraq in Fragments. Namely, again and again, what Mohammed Haithem, the 11 year old boy who the film follows in its first fragment, the Sadr followers in Najaf who comprise the second fragment, and the elderly farmer, Mahmoud, whose thoughts on family, people and God are the centrepiece of the third fragment, all have in common, is they belong to a country, and a culture whose people and history are not just misunderstood by America, but wilfully ignored.

The focus on children and the old man in the north make for appealing subjects, and clearly, Longley has chosen his characters carefully, especially given the apparent absence of scripting. However, what I kept wondering throughout the film - how can this be a balanced vision of the many Iraqs and its people when there is not one woman interviewed, and only a handful appearing throughout the 90 minute film? Is this indicative absence of women another of those elements of Iraqi lore and life that we will never understand? Or is it the filmmaker's decision making?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


I just came home from seeing Steve McQueen's (not the Hollywood one, the UK installation artist) first ever feature film Hunger. WOW. What pleasure to see a well made film that actually shows a thinking man behind the camera with an aesthetic sensibility.

There is lots to recommend this film, not the least of which is McQueen's familiar power to immerse the viewer in the experience on the screen. The first half of the film is all but silent, and through this silence we are plunged into the hell of the Maze Prison in which the IRA prisoners were incarcerated in 1981. I remember the countdown (or up) of Bobby Sands' hunger strike on the nightly news in Australia. I had no idea at that time of what it might mean to be in the notorious H Block. But McQueen brings it all back to life. The smearing of the cell walls with faeces, the maggot-ridden food, the slops in the corner, the urine streaming down the corridor before it is swept by a guard, are all shot in long takes - prolonging the agony of looking at the image, in order to capture the dehumanization of being locked in those cells. In the most excruciating scene to watch, the prisoners are made to run the gauntlet, being beaten by the truncheons of the riot squad brought in specially for the occasion. Here we learn how Bobby Sands received the battered and bruised face that he sports in the first half of the film. It's terrifying to watch, and even more so to imagine. And another difficult moment to watch? As well as the wasting away, the growing lesions and painful deterioration to death of Sands' body which is graphically depicted. It's the realist moments such as when the doctor who cares for him strips the bed of the bloodstained sheets, and underneath the stains are as intense, and so the doctor, pausing for a moment, turns the mattress over to its other side. A practical solution to a very disturbing reality.

It's not a film that's really concerned with the politics of the IRA and their fight for Independence, though it is a film that rails against the iron fist of Margaret Thatcher through snatches of her ruthless refusal to give political status to the "terrorists." Yes they came before Al Qaeda, but weren't the first! It's also not a flawless film, in many ways, it's uneven. The film's set piece is a long conversation in the middle when Sands reveals to a catholic priest that he plans to go on a hunger strike as a final protestation. This scene is all dialogue, and sitting in the middle of the overwhelming silence of the film, it feels intrusive. What remains so powerful about this film is its vision (both literally and imaginatively) of a nightmare that might otherwise have been forgotten. And it achieves this through what is, in the end, a realist camera that takes its time to watch what words cannot describe.

Is this enough to have a political impact? I don't think it really matters, the point is, it's what McQueen has chosen to do by way of political statement, and it's what he does best.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Another Theatrical Adventure

Toshiki Okada's Five Days in March
Théâtre 2 Gennevilliers

I have never seen anything quite like this piece of theater. A group of young - late 20s/early 30s - disaffected Japanese people, on an all but empty stage, talking to themselves and us about an encounter between a man and a woman and the next five days they spend together. The meet in a night club, go to a love hotel and never know each other's names. We are told the events take place on March 21, 2003, the eve of the British and American offensive in Iraq. Outside the love hotel, on the streets below, a demonstration against Japan's involvement in war for the first time since 1945 takes place.

The actors looked and dressed no different from the young people we see on the street everyday in Japan. And their behaviors, gaits and expressions reminded me of my students: slouched, not looking each other in the eye, and so on. Identical. However, their body movements were distinct. Tiny gestures that seemed to be independent of the narratives being woven by their conversations, like nervous tics and slight contortions that reveal their awkwardness with themselves and each other. Somehow, at the same time, these body movements were also exaggerated, if understated. Of course, the movements were carefully choreographed so that by the end of the performance, I recognized how difficult these movements must have been. Apparently they were talking in colloquial Japanese - I had to rely on the French surtitles which didn't capture any colloquialism.

Nevertheless, the piece captured the aimlessness and the seeming inconsequence of these youths' everyday lives and concerns. Even though it was specifically Japanese, not speaking the language, as I say, it spoke way beyond Japan, about a generation living in the midst of war and other crises, in a precarious and hesitating reality.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Postmodern Profundity? McDermott and McGough "An Experiment of Amusing Chemistry"

As a fan and defender of the artistic and conceptual significance of Mike and Doug Starn's photography, I was enthusiastic about the recent exhibition of photographs by McDermott and McGough at the Musée Européenne de la Photographie. However, despite the fact that the pair are celebrated by the contemporary art world, and have been for some time, I didn't see any great insights in these works. Many of them are aesthetically pleasing photographs, especially with the wealth of colors made possible through the nineteenth century processing techniques - witness, for example, the four different colored versions of The Last Supper. However, what was unclear to me was what the deeper significance of this work might be. There is a lot of quotation and appropriation of nineteenth century technique, as well as nineteenth century photographs themselves. Are these photographs then a case of postmodern pastiche at its best, and thus, its worst?

Some of the Bichromate Gum prints are interesting for their painterly appearance, which maybe warrants thinking about the images as blurring the lines between painting and photography. But again, it is still unclear as to what the larger point is

The final room of the exhibition is the most interesting: inspired by the book, Les Récréatinos Scientifiques by Gaston Tissaudier, (1881), the recrete and photograph magical scientific experiments from the book. These photographs are more interesting because of the association of the photograph with magic tricks at this time in the nineteenth century. It was a moment when science, art and magic all came together to create visions of awe and wonder. However, this euphoria a moment of innovation from the past, does not seem to be the concern of the photographers. Critics insist that they are continually challenging the lines between the performance of the past and the everyday of the present. However, I am still left wanting more, for example, to know what of the capacity of photography to travel through time, both backwards and forwards?

So I would say, skip the McDermott and McGough, and go down to the basement to see Mutations II/Moving Stills - way more provocative and interesting.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Why are we still in the 18th Century?

When all the movies at the MK2 were sold out last night, I counted my losses (which ended up being more than I could anticipate as my bike seat was stolen while I was in the movie) and went to see *The Duchess* It will probably be one of those films nominated for a bagful of Oscars, and well it should because Keira Knightly is ravishing, as are her dresses. Is it a great film? Not really, but you need to see it for the sheer pleasure of looking at Knightly for two hours in a refined, gracious and extraordinary performance.

Though at first glance, Woody Allen's latest film, *Vicky, Christina, Barcelona* might seem worlds away, it reminded me. Not only because Penelope Cruz was at her fiery best, but, yet again, we find a film extolling the need to be more flexible, embracing, and adventurous in our approach to sex and love. *Vicky, Christina, Barcelona* encourages exploration of polygamy, three-way sex, and eschewal of the sexual strait-jackets that typically enslave us to committed, monogamous (heterosexual) relationships. I came away from Allen's film thinking it was a welcome change from the stolid and stuttering films he has churned out over the past few years. But on reflection, its ultimate proclamations are no different from those of *The Duchess.* Well, they are different, on account of the fact that Woody Allen thinks he is being transgressive and liberal in his representation of twentieth century relationships. Whereas Saul Dibb who made *The Duchess* has us outraged and weeping at the forced sexual repression, violent misogyny and corrosive social mores of the eighteenth century.

Both films represent the pleasures and pluses of men's sexual experiences and expressions. Men are represented as sexually and romantically polyvalent, they are shown to desire and deserve multiple women as a way of confirming their identities as men with needs to be fulfilled. However, where Woody Allen's film waxes lyrical about such male escapades, Saul Dibb offers a searing critique of 18th century society's approval of the same. Ralph Fiennes as the abhorrent Duke, obsessed with the procreation of a son, is given not the slightest whiff of redemption. Javier Bardem (of *No Country for Old Men* fame) is, contrarily, a hopeless, dreamy romantic who we are encouraged to identify with.

So why is it that we still live in a world in which the perversions of men's erotic lives be sanctioned as socially acceptable while we women must continue to be sexually compliant and complicit? I don't understand this, and have no answer to the question. It's true that the women in my life are generally exciting and gorgeous and they make the world a different place with their feminine energy - sexual and otherwise. I also know many men who live happily, fulfilling sex lives without ever even thinking they are too virile or passionate for one woman. Why should either these women or men be subjected to such sexual politics? But that's not really the point: if we continue to ignore the blatant misogyny and the effective abuse of women, albeit candy-coated, on the big screen, we run the risk that it will continue to be the reality for your daughters and mine.

I am off to see *Two Lovers* - I could be wrong, but my suspicons are not good.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Gerhard Richter

I went last week to Bochum and to give me courage to face the German bureaucracy that is worse than Kafka could have imagined, I stopped off in Cologne to see my favorite German painter on exhibition at the Museum Ludwig. See what I thought at And then I stopped in at the cathedral to see the window that everyone is talking about:

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

People - that means my American friends - kept telling me about Gilead and that I absolutely had to read it. And then when I saw on Facebook that it is one of Mr Obama's favorite books, I was sold. By the time I put it down, I knew full well why those who either took it on themselves, or were indeed entrusted to express Mr. O's views on everything from literature through movies and music, all the way to politics (?) had nominated Gilead as a favorite novel. 
The most morally dubious character in the book - a white son of an Iowa Presbyterian minister in "Gilead" - a town that burnt the "negros" out of town before he was born - turns out to be hiding a black wife and child in the ever-racially segregated 1950s South. And so this prodigal son is redeemed, but not before his story is used as a foil to that of the dying  narrator's 7 year old son. Mr. O may not have campaigned on the basis of race, but let's be honest, race is everywhere in the anticipation of the next administration. 

Gilead is, to be sure, a very American novel. It is American in its sensibility, American in its story - spanning the country from Kansas to Tennessee, from the Civil War to the late 1950s - and its literary allusions, most notably Ralph Waldo Emerson. What remains so powerful about the book, and indeed so universal, is its spiritual dimension. Not only because it takes the form of a letter from the dying father to his 7 year old son, and because the father/protagonist is a Minister, but it is spiritual because even in its literariness, the language  is seemingly powered by a spiritual wisdom and Romanticism. The protagonist, John Ames with his religious vocation, living  in his biblically-named Iowan town, sees the world as a poet - this, despite the essayistic style of the narrative. He looks at the moon and captures its light as a "metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence." Ames sees what we already know but have never had the words to express. He writes, for example, of the miracle of water as he watches his son and friend Tobias hopping in and out of the sprinkler. The joy and the freedom of the two boys is captured so perfectly on the page without having to use words as pedestrian as joy and freedom: "you two are dancing around in your iridescent little downpour, whopping and stomping as sane people ought to do when they encounter a thing so miraculous as water." 

As well as the wonderful language, I was moved by the feelings the father writes about his son, feelings, one imagines Ames has never expressed elsewhere. I identified the old man with my own father - a man who was never able or allowed by cultural mores to express emotion. But more realistically, Robinson's ability to go deep inside the human soul, make sense of everything otherwise unavailable to touch, to smell, and to sight, and then to translate it for us into the calm, yet vivid words of John Ames, makes me realize something else. To be able to find a harmony between words and what doesn't live in language - the spirit - is a gift given only once in a lifetime. Robinson finds transcendentalism in the material and empirical reality of an ordinary life in Iowa.