Tuesday 27 November 2007

Review: Angel, dir Francois Ozon with Romola Garai (2007)

Garai is perfect for this role. We last saw her in a supporting role as the Romantic girl who marries William Wilberforce, a role asking for passion and a felt expression. Fast-forward seventy years and we get a teenage Angel Deverell amid the red-brick ordinariness of a lower-middle-class suburb of a northern manufacturing town. Dickens country.

Angel wants to write and she does, but it is not just the ideal personification of Romanticism that we can enjoy here. The exquisite costuming captures each age perfectly. We start in the 1880s with 'Victorian' starch and move inexorably onwards -- like Angel's publishing success -- to the years just prior to the Great War.

Each set of costumes is a perfect fit, a stunning achievement, truly. With the war come less confining dresses and, after it is over, we see flapper dresses with straight lines instead of curves. Angel, however, is a bohemian.

Here, we see how the Romantic ideal fed into a gritty realism (Angel's love is Esme Howe-Nevinson, a Modernist painter) that would squirt forward in the thirties and forties with full-blown rebellion against received modalities. This is, therefore, a movie that contains essential lessons for any person wanting to understand the emergence of The New.

As such, we can surmise that Modernism is an extension, in a real sense, of Romanticism in a way that Romanticism was not an extension of the mannered figuration of the mid-18th century. Reynolds is not the father of Turner, but rather Poussin is. The centre of art-practice thus swung across the channel, from France to England, and back to France.

This is overly simple, but then again so is the movie. It is something of a woman's version of Citizen Kane and, I think, equally to be admired.

Five stars!

Sunday 25 November 2007

Review: The Tent, Margaret Atwood (2006)

Time Out is a London-originated entertainment magazine that has just been launched in Sydney (3 November). We used to buy it in Tokyo to find the right cinema showing the right movie. Lisa Mullen's review there of the book (no date, sorry) includes the observation that reading it is "a curiously intimate experience, like peering into Atwood's skull and watching her brain's synapses twitch and sizzle".

Mullen also calls the book a "beautifully packaged collection of oddities". Drawings by the author (reminding me of Orhan Pamuk's recent book of non-fiction, which also contains the author's illustrations) are scattered throughout but seem not to be used to a specific purpose. Like the structure of the collection itself, they are 'free-form' and not 'pointed'.

As to the "habitual Atwoodian territories", I'm hardly in a position to speculate. Nevertheless, the contents are definitely 'pointed' and do canvass 'issues', as fables habitually have done, over the millenia. In the old days a fable would serve to educate without attracting the unwanted attention of powerful men. Nowadays, perchance, it serves to achieve impact without seeming to instruct. Nobody likes being told something they don't already know.

Prose poem might also be a way to describe what's in here. If so, then these are either reworkings of old themes (Mullen's view) or first drafts of something still to come.

At this dim season of the year we hunger for such tales. Winter's tales, they are. We want to huddle round them, as if around a small but cheerful fire. The sun sets at four, the temperature plummets, the wind howls, the snow cascades down. Though you nearly froze your fingers off, you did get the tuplis planted, just in time. In four months they'll come up, you have faith in that, and they'll look like the picture in the catalogue.

This set me off on a tangent along which I bumped into my old friend, which starts on page 2883 of The Norton Shakespeare (edited by Stephen Greenblatt). Most scholars agree that The Winter's Tale (1609-11) is a fable detailing the vicissitudes suffered by Elizabeth I at the hands of her extraordinary father, Henry VIII. But it could equally be read as a prophesy of what would come, in 1660, when the prince returned to his grateful subjects.

In it, a young girl is abandoned on a distant shore because her father doubts his paternity. She falls in love and ultimately returns to her home. Her mother, also spurned by the jealous king, is likewise reinstated to her proper place.

There are, however, deaths.

Greenblatt's intro to the play starts by noting Ben Johnson's complaint about plays that "make nature afraid" (Bartholemew Fair (1614)). And certainly this and The Tempest, which debuted around the same time, are extraordinary in terms of the theatre, and what it could achieve.

Atwood seems, in her book, to be seeking an authentic voice and these prose poems seem to be ideal for the purpose. They make you think and their fragmented format and evocative language sidestep conventional demands in terms of plot, coherence and 'development'.

The book is, therefore, a new departure and, possibly, a new method for remaining attuned to the zeitgeist without overburdening the reader with explanations and justifications. A writer should never be asked to do this, but our preference, these days, for 'engaged' fiction, means this is a real danger.

Friday 23 November 2007

Brazilian police sentence, without trial, a 15-year-old girl to a month in a jail cell with up to 34 male prisoners who rape her "innumerable times" says a legal body representative (reported in The Daily Telepgraph). Following her incarceration on 21 October, "an anonymous caller tipped off the media" reports The Sydney Morning Herald.

Para State, where the events occured, is in the north of the republic and has 5.2 million residents. The capital city is Belem, which is home to 1.4 million people.

The expert, Miere Cohen, says that the crime for which the girl was imprisoned, is unknown. Ana Julia Carepa, governor of the state, vows to dispense "exemplary punishment". The girl "said she's able to recognise the police officers who locked her up and the detainees who raped her".

Brazil's prisons are notorious for gang activity. Its cities are also known for gang warfare. Brazil is a Catholic country.

The Christian Science Monitor published a story in 1996 detailing child sex in Brazil, where Jack Epstein reported that police in Bahia State's capital Savador were "known for harassing child prostitutes with beatings and demanding sexual favors".

"We [police] have long been part of the problem," concedes Police Maj. Gautier Amorim Neto. "Now, we want to be part of the solution."

This kind of boilerplate statement is less visible nowadays (remember the story ran over a decade ago), but is typical of dysfunctional organisations where change may require high-level, exemplary punishment.

Judge Afrânio de Andrade Machado in a Bahia city "condemned 15 of the city's leading businessmen to prison terms of eight to 24 years for the 1992 sexual abuse of two girls, aged 9 and 13", reported Epstein.

Cedeca (Center of Defense of Children and Adolescents) was involved in both stories.

Thursday 22 November 2007

Review: Thank You for Not Reading: Essays on Literary Trivia, Dubravka Ugresic (2003)

I have a lot of time for this Croatian emigre and Holland resident (the book was first published in Dutch by Breda in 2001 as Verboden te lezen!, which is I think slightly different in meaning to the English title).

Most of the items in the book date from the late 1990s. As such, they predate the seminal moment of the first half of this century. You can tell immediately by the standard post-colonial bias she possesses but that also, it is salient to remark, lacks the hysterical cast of much political non-fiction published since September 2001.

It is, if you like, a work of the intersticial years: those following the fall of the Berlin Wall and preceding 9/11. A time of possibilities during which the tone of voice of a woman of such evident learning as Ugresic echoed in a void.

Nevertheless, the reading here is salutory and highly entertaining. Ugresic has an old-world practicality that expresses itself in a muted authority. She knows wtf she's on about but she's not going to tempt fate (or the higher authorities, such as those who control passports and residence permits) by indulging in triumphalism.

Indeed, her emigre status (despite belonging to the elite) gives her words a stubborn resolve generally lacking in those of us permitted by custom and law, to flaunt authority (because it ultimately resides in us).

Of particular note here is her observation that the literature industry developed within Communist Russia resembles that which dominates in late-term capitalism. The uniformity sought by publishers, the reliable forms and themes of the contemporary publishing industry, set her antennae quivvering. She is suspicious and so this book should be read by every publisher in the free world.

Lest we forget.

The book also has a charmingly light feel. Each essay is short and dense, but easy withal. No item takes more than five minutes to read. And the pace is regular, like the beam of a lighthouse that scans the walls of nearby houses just as easily as it shoots its ray into the darkness hanging just above the ocean's skin.

A truly delightful read written by a fair witness (the 'new elite' predicted by Heinlein in Stranger in A Strange Land). May she enjoy her fame.

Sunday 18 November 2007

Elizabeth: The Golden Age ends with a lie. The triumphalism is irksome. Defeating the Spanish Armada is dealt with by Bill Bryson in his new biography of Shakespeare in two pages.

Again, there are inconsistencies. Bryson says no English ships were lost. The movie tries to build tension at this point by relaying news of losses to the flagship.

Further, the movie borrows shamelessly from The Lord of the Rings, viz the lighting of signal fires to announce the enemy's approach.

And while it opens with plainsong coming from the mouths of 'sinister' monks in Spain, the music depends largely on the kind of stereotypical atmospherics this kind of melodic construct offers, and which has been used again and again over the years (even Simon Schama relied heavily on it) when depicting 'ye olde Englande'. It's not good enough.

Remi Adefarasin's cinematography, however, is excellent. A lot of shots are oblique and interesting. Further, many shots of individuals in moments of drama are taken behind a screen of some sort, providing a nice counterpoint to the insane reliance people in those days had on religion to define themselves. Bryson mentions sumptuary laws (Alexandra Byrne's costumes are not only spot-on but dramatically satisfying) and here we see how individuals were largely defined by rank. Walsingham's wife, particularly, is very good in this regard.

I wept in many places. Nevertheless small details irked. Of particular note is the Scotch accent used by Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton). It is unlikely given that she spent the first 13 years of her life in France. It is further not adequate that the Scotch used in the (louring, Romantic) Scots scenes is so close to English pronunciation as to be almost identical. Scotch of the time contained many words not used in English. Subtitles would be preferable.

As to the lie the film ends with, it's the assertion that, while Spain went bankrupt, England "entered into a period of peace and prosperity". Nonsense. Within thirty years the people Elizabeth purported to protect (the word 'Puritan' is a derogatory introduced around this time) by keeping the Inquisition at bay, would be fighting against Mary's grandson for control of the revenue.

The result of the struggle would be, far more than Elizabeth's triumph over the Spanish, the establishment of a power-sharing situation on which all modern nation states that can claim to be democratic, are based. The triumph is not with people like Walter Ralegh or Francis Walsingham, but with people we never see in this film.

Bryson, in his Shakespeare biography, pours scorn on the Puritans because they closed the theatres. In the film they are totally overlooked. But it is in their continued existence and in the prosperity their endeavours gave rise to, that we find the surest signs of individual "conscience" (the word is Elizabeth's, just prior to the 1688 battle).

Another signficant character is John Dee, ERI's necromancer and the man she apparently turned to for future prognostication. Dee stands, with Francis Bacon, at the head of a succession of inquirers that lead up to the discoveries of Newton 100 years later.
Review: Shakespeare (2007) by Bill Bryson.

The book is part of the 'Eminent Lives Series' of HarperPress that also includes Mohammed by Karen Armstrong (an eminent specialist on religion) and Thomas Jefferson by Christopher Hitchens (a Vanity Fair columnist). The bias is clearly, in the series, towards accessibility.

Bryson is prolific but clearly spent time on the book, which includes a list of 36 "principle books referred to" on three pages at the back. In brief, he takes the 'new historicist' method and makes it less scholarly than accessible. The 'new historicist' method is a West Coast innovation used in the peripheral material included in my Norton Shakespeare, which Greenblatt edited (although the primary material is from the Oxford edition).

Greenblatt also wrote a monograph (which I reviewed in July 2006) of which I said that the author's "immense scholarship is worn lightly". The same holds for Bryson's book.

But it's got no surprises if you are a dedicated enthusiast. Rather, Bryson includes most of the material you know already, and in an engaging and competent form. You will not, however, come away with much that is new or innovative. Bryson is neither a scholar nor a critic. He keeps his opinions to himself.

This can be a relief if you are more interested in such things as the current temperament of academia regarding Shakespeare who is, it must be honestly admitted, the most-well-known writer in the world.

Bryson tries to assess the relevance of things Shakespeare himself would have traken for granted. The irony in his dedications (to the longer poems and the sonnets) centres around fashion: while those he adulates are now nonentities, the bard's own currency has never been so valuable.

This thing of how posterity handles a poet is also frequently the cause of amusement, as where the high-Romantic literati, troubled by Will's homosexual attitudes in many of the sonnets, ascribed his figures to the ability to imagine love from the point of view of a woman. In this way they could brush under the carpet the unwholesome idea and grant additional cachet to the poet, who was so skillful.

Like Greenblatt, Bryson demonstrates with his easy manner considerable command of a vast amount of material. The simple statistic (there are around 4000 new books on WS every year) is the most telling. James Shapiro's commendation, printed on the jacket, actually sums the book up pretty neatly: "Vivid, unsentimental, witty, and fast-paced." Nothing less would sell, although one must also remark on the size of Bryson's name on the cover: celebrity holds cachet now, where birth did in Will's day.

All-in-all I'd recommend this performance to a potential buyer. It was my own insight that a book of criticism is like the performance of a play. Each successive exponent will be different, and may draw on the gains of earlier ones. For me, when I did a lot of WS reading, to read another's words on this most mercurial of poets, was much like taking a seat in a large theatre.

Bryson pretends that it is a small one, and writes in a frank and yet suggestive manner, that gives much food for thought.

Saturday 17 November 2007

Julia Zemiro looks like Her.

Zemiro hosted the If Awards, the Oz event for locally-made films. Tonight The Home Song Stories (which I reviewed in August) won five awards. It's a bio-pic by Tony Ayres, a Chinese-Australian.

The love sonnets were written on 27 October (two items: 'Were we alone in this metropolis' and 'I don’t know if it’s good or bad'), 28 October ('I park my car, walk to the café'), 30 October ('You say that she has eyes that sum you up'), 31 October/1 November ('I lay an open book on the table'), 2 November ('Silence please. I’m in awe of the power'), and 4 November ('I drive through Petersham again').

Awards, and especially the speeches they generate, are always just slightly off-key. There's something degenerate about the drone of job titles you hear ("I'd like to thank my co-director and my other co-director"), and the sweaty pleasure a recipient exudes when standing at the dias.

It's not cool to be so overwhelmed by the acceptance of your peers. Worst of all are the sweet endearments ("I can't name you all but you know I love you") that spring like posies of cut flowers from their lips. Their awful graciousness ("I'd like to recognise the original owners of this land").

Their smug fulfillment. Safety in numbers. Money is involved.

Thank god for Zemiro. A real, live woman who admits to swooning over Mel Gibson at the Belvoir Theatre in the seventies, with her mum waiting outside, in the car, urging her daughter (with two friends, natch) to get the young man's autograph.

Thursday 15 November 2007

John Samahah is a natural actor. Tonight at the Australian Poetry Slam he did three skits that were very funny. The poor viewer response to his YouTube site is a great shame.

What gets me though is that he's the spitting image of the guy in the Greater Union ad ('feel like a star'). Not the guy who drives the brown, late-70s Honda Civic and prints portraits of himself to give to his office colleagues, but the rotund individual at the corner shop who has to catch the keys.

"It's not me," he said when I asked. A thoroughly charming man.

On YouTube, John has 13 videos posted. Watch them, they're classic. If you thought the Chaser was good, you'll love this stuff. It's got an edge and is genuinely amusing. And John himself presents brilliantly; obviously a man of great dramatic talents.

The reading was OK. Too much of the same stuff, though. Certainly too much rap. Bea doesn't agree. I met Bea three readings ago in Glebe and when she's not cadging fags, we chat about poetry.

Last night I didn't stand close enough to the mike (she said) so she didn't hear my pieces. Mark Mordue, who compered as well as read some stuff (published in the Ilumina 2007 anthology), picked out two lines (one of which I stole from a work colleague).

Returning home, I worked on one of them, removing some false clauses and working to sustain one or two metaphors. I guess that in a sonnet you would want to have two, at the most.

I also put together another one. This is not part of the earlier series, which is a series of love sonnets. The new one is a 'concept' piece and employs a single metaphor that has elements stolen from Tennyson and Cowper. It is 'about' the single-pitch thematic content of most of the open-mike poetry available in Sydney.

Out of the three readings I've recently been to the same, tired drama is played out: the 'disgust with politicians' theme. In fact, this contempt, bred from familiarity, is one of the triumphs of democracy. The sense of fatigue that most political debate generates leads to the citizenry rejecting the whole, sorry drama.

I also spoke again with Kayat Fadeel who was absolutely chuffed to receive a grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council. He was with his Asian girlfriend and I was surprised to hear him demand a cigarette from her, as we stood on the pavement outside the venue.

There was one girl who delivered a stunning poem, but I didn't collect her name. Apart from her, there was not much worth writing home about and, as I started with, just way too much rap coming out of the voice boxes of a bunch of middle-class urbanites.

One guy (this is too precious) actually performed a rap number that was quite slick. The content, however, was how rap celebrity corrupts its beneficiaries. Bizarre! the irony was so thick but it seemed the performer was unaware of this element.

Bea came fourth. Miles Merrill actually offered me a slot but I turned him down. I was irritated as the situation in terms of gaining a slot is absurd. Only the first 15 who contact the organisers get to read. A further five people have their name drawn out of a hat. The problem is that they do not tell you, beforehand, that this limitation exists. As a result, you need to contact them immediately the event is announced, to gain a turn at the mike.

Tuesday 13 November 2007

Jiang Rong is the pseudonym of Lu Jiamin (61 or 58 depending on which report you read), "a political economy professor working at a university in Beijing", and winner of the inaugural Man Asia Prize (which Sharon at Bibliobibuli has spoken about on several occasions). Both Jonathan Watts at The Guardian and Donald Greenlees at The International Herald Tribune have covered the story.

No surprises in these facts:

  • Rong is an ex-Tiananmen Square protester
  • The book, Wolf Totem (Lang Tuteng), celebrates an ethnic minority, and
  • Criticises the Han majority
  • Chronicles the writer's experiences during the 1966-76 cultural revolution
  • From 1967 to 1978, he lived on the Inner Mongolian steppe

However, there are some curious facts that are more unexpected:

  • The book is a publishing phenomenon in China
  • Where it has sold two million legal copies (and with an estimated 10 times that number of pirated copies)
  • The propaganda minister has praised its style
  • It has been the subject of literary debates
  • It has been the subject of management motivation courses
  • It has been the subject of military training lectures

Rong did not attend the award ceremony in Hong Kong but he should be heartened by the response to Sharon's blog post about how "Asian story arcs differ significantly from Western ones", according to Nuri Vittachi, a prime-mover in the establishment of the prize who was shouldered out of the judging panel by other experts.

Vittachi has complained that the prize is 'too Western' and also chronicles the evolution of the set-up. These are his 'facts':

  • Vittachi had the idea originally
  • And was also the main speaker at the presentation at which Man Group plc gave the green light
  • But Peter Gordon wanted to play a senior role in managing the prize, and
  • Gordon set up a separate organization, chaired by himself, and Vittachi was forbidden to play any role in it
  • The set-up now is "strictly expats only", with no Asian authors involved in any significant roles in administration or judging

Says Vittachi. But here are the real facts. The admin people are, as follows:

  • Mr Peter Gordon (Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival),
  • Prof. Christopher Hutton (Head of School of English, University of Hong Kong),
  • Prof. David Parker (Head of English Department, Chinese University of Hong Kong) and
  • Ms Sue Gourlay (Man Investments)

The judging panel, however, is slightly more Asia-centric:

  • Andre Aciman, Egyptian
  • Adrienne Clarkson, Hong Kong Chinese who emigrated to Canada in 1942
  • Nicholas Jose, Australian who's done a stint (1987-1990) as "Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy" in China

Bizarrely, the Web site of the prize does not contain any mention of the award, while there are numerous media reports available. According to a blog post:

The prize winner was announced at a celebratory dinner at Cipriani Hong Kong. Jiang Rong was awarded USD 10,000 and the book’s translator, Howard Goldblatt, was awarded USD 3,000.

The Bloomberg site tells us the book was published (in Chinese) by Changjiang Art and Culture Publishing House. But The China Daily site tells us it was published by Yangtze Literature and Art publishing House. This link gives a long precis of the book's contents.

Penguin will publish it next year in English.

The China Daily link is interesting in what it displays as the elements that would appeal to China's ruling apparatus:

Jiang argues that agriculture has made people adopt what he calls a "sheep-like temperament."

"They are tame, meek and passive, doomed to be beaten and bullied. On the other hand, the nomadic steppe people have guts and bones just like the wolf."


He describes how [wolves] are considered the embodiment of all the features that any creatures, including man, should possess in order to earn a dignified survival in the harsh environment.

Superior in wit, grit and patience, they are aggressive, relentless, and intractable. On the other hand, they always play by the rules of the game, killing only when hungry, as the maintenance of a wholesome steppe society mandates, and preparing at any time to sacrifice for its team.

Here is some true, battle-hardened Asian essentialism. Rong's earlier subjection to the Party's hegemony over ideas only makes his writing the book now ("Jiang said he prepared for the book for 25 years, then spent six years writing it") more interesting.

The parallels with Tokyo governor Ishihara are striking.

Sunday 11 November 2007

Vale NM: 31 January 1923 - 10 November 2007

Photo: detail of NM debating William F. Buckley, Jr.

Paul Byrnes thinks Lions for Lambs "a movie that engages with the biggest political issues of our time" and this, he says is "a cause for celebration". In fact, Byrnes says, director Robert Redford has "revive[d] the political movie". Which is patent nonsense. Recent blockbusters such as The Constant Gardner and this year's A Mighty Heart both fit the bill.

What this film is 'about' is spin.

The three strands Byrnes elencates all include individuals "addressing" the "issue" of the 'war on terror'. But Byrnes is correct to point out that this script is ideal for the theatre. Its launch in a vehicle designed for movie houses merely means the producers wanted the broadest range of outlets possible.

Andrew Garfield (pic) plays Todd, a political science student faced with an hour in the office of his lecturer, Dr Stephen Malley (Redford). The issue here is how to "make a difference". Malley tells Todd the story of two students who gained admission to the university through a sports scholarship, Arian (Derek Luke; who is black) and Ernest (Michael Pena; who is hispanic).

The two students appear at the start of the film, when the helicopter they are in is shot at while it flies over Afghani mountains. Ernest is hit and falls from the aircraft, Arian jumping, blind and into cloud, after him. He doesn't think, he just jumps, not knowing what is below.

The raid is introduced by Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) during his one-hour meeting with Janine Roth (Meryl Streep), a journalist. His aim: to convince her to write a 'good' story about "the implementation of a new strategy". Naturally, she isn't swallowing it whole.

A further, great, scene takes place back at her office. Here, the ANX editor (Kevin Dunn) tries to get Janine to run the story just as the senator gave it to her. He is frustrated by her scruples. As happened when she brought up historical precedents with Irving, the editor is frustrated by her broad grasp of history, specifically that of Vietnam. He practically threatens to fire her.

It should also be noted that Janine got the story because she was the first journalist to recognise Irving's potential five years earlier, when he was just starting out.

So the film is really about how we 'imagine' events at home and abroad. The constraint seems to be bandwidth. It is just not possible, it seems, to imagine the Taliban (whose soldiers are shown in a satellite link-up advancing toward the two black smudges representing the American soldiers, stranded on a mountain pass) in any other guise than a manifest, irrational threat.

Also of note is the tag cloud on the Web site.

Thursday 8 November 2007

Review: Rohypnol, Andrew Hutchinson.

Christos Tsiolkas worked on the book and wrote a clip for the front cover but by page 31 I was irritated. At the talk Andrew gave on campus speech was rapid and abrupt. He writes like this. Single-word sentences. Abrupt clips of conversation (two lines only). Short chapters (which my friend Tony says is due to the petercaryism of literature today).

But there's absolutely no poetry, no risks taken. It's a small, safe world where bad things are supposed to happen. We're promised violence and cruelty of a casual kind. So I wanted it early and I wanted it to make me sick.

The first chapter sees two guys drag a schoolgirl into a car. This is by far the best scene. You can hear the voices, smell the recently-cut grass. Hear the purr of the sedan's engine as it idles close to the curb just prior to parking.

But everything after that, although slightly faster-paced, is ruined by a sense the writer is just not 'into it'. He's going through his paces in preparation for the grisly bits. Well, sorry, it's not enough.

Let's talk briefly about Salinger and Murakami: two writers often spoken of in tandem. Here, too, is disaffected youth compelled to perform casual acts over which little control is brought to bear.

In their books, however, we feel the 'soul' of the protagonist. We 'know' them and they are, in actual fact, out of step with the world (as youth frequently is). This is because we can see the frame but it's one we've been conscious of in our own lives. There's some element of lived experience.

Here, however, the cut-out characters seem to roll on rails, or casters. Like that TV commercial where an office copying maching goes to prison (for jamming: 'it was the paper' goes the punch line). At the end we see the copier at the foot of the prison wall, a rope swinging behind it.

Unfortunately, Hutchinson's immaturity shows. He has had it too easy. His run-of-the-mill masculinity has opened several doors and he's just making the same kind of sketch here that got him published in the past. But this is a novel: stamina is key.

Undoubtedly this book will get some attention but I forsee it dropping pretty quickly from the publisher's list. There's nothing new here, despite the hype (Tsiolkas is without question our best writer currently). Just enough to get over the line.

Wednesday 7 November 2007

Review: Other Colours: Essays and A Story, Orhan Pamuk.

It is more than a "grab bag" (William Grimes, writing a review for The New York Times) and certainly more than "pen-and-ink doodles" (Charles McNair, Paste magazine). Los Angeles Times writer Richard Eder gets closer (at least not denigrating ephemera for being true to itself):

Pamuk sees in [Dostoevsky] someone bred to Western rationalism but with literary instincts that drew on his sense of affront at the West's blindness to the spirituality of the Russian people.

But he misses the point. Pamuk's feeling of kinship with the Russian Romantic author is due to a radical disconnect between what it means to be outside the castle, wanting to belong, but hating the self-satisfied airs of those who unthinkingly ape its residents:

Behind Dostoyevsky's great anger and hatred for the Westernizing liberals and the modernizers who propagated Fourier's determinist utpoianism in Russia during the 1860s was his fury at the way they basked in the limelight of their ideas, embracing success unabashedly and without question.

Pamuk talks of the "jealousy, anger and pride of a man who cannot make himself into a European".

The appeal to 'spirituality', which in D's case took the form of pan-Slavism (a form of nationalism within the Romantic trope of self-sufficiency) the LA Times guy points to, is a mask. Nabokov's sneer is sensible here, like a Cheshire Cat in a slasher film.

But Pamuk is across all this. He talks ('Forward to Tristram Shandy') of the grand narrative that is "the logic behind all great legends, religions, and philosophies". In other words he speaks in a language comprehensible to any person with a Western background.

But there's more. Often he talks of the coffeeshops and barbershops of Istanbul which "served ... as places where news, legends, and rampant rumors, outright lies, and tales of wrath and resistance were fabricated and enriched to undermine the pronouncements of religious leaders and the state".

It is in this locus, within this trope, that Pamuk does what few people from a subaltern culture will normally do: admit that (a) the developmental level of their nation is backward (compared, for example, to that of the English-speaking world). Even if they do this, they will never admit that (b) democracy and pluralism are of potentially universal application. For many leaders (Japan, Malaysia) essentialism is the name of the game.

Refreshingly, he not only writes about D but also those from other subaltern nation states, of particular note being Junichiro Tanizaki. Pamuk referring to Tanizaki is a token of signal significance, placing the Japanese writer well above his competitors, such as Yukio Mishima (with whose nephew I worked in Tokyo).

The link between Istanbul and Europe, in the context referred to above, is Habermas, the German sociologist for whom 18th-century London stood as a high point in Western civilisation, and for whom the London coffeeshops served as arenas of discussion, commerce, and scandal-mongering. Just as in Istanbul today.

To mention 'grand narratives' in this context is to point more insistently to the German. In this sense, Other Colours is a complex, rich and rewarding underground network of essential infrastructure referring to which allows a reader to understand the novels of this massively-talented writer, better.

We can gesture of course to My Name Is Red, where (wrapped in the typically Western trope of a murder mystery) the essentialism of the 16th-century Ottoman court is exposed as a sham. The Venetian painters were right, Pamuk now tells us. Perspectival painting changed the world because it placed the human animal in a proper guise, no longer only comprehensible in relation to a supreme being.

Pamuk's breadth of knowledge puts most Western residents to shame.

I usually do not post a review of a book unless it's all read (or, if it's bad, when I get to the extremity of my patience) but in this case there's enough -- more than enough -- in the first 211 pages to warrant this post. The relevance of the book is striking, given such utterances as this, by an Afghani politician, Malalai Joya, talking with Australian journalist Glyn Strong (Good Weekend, 3 November 2007):

I believe no nation can donate liberation to another nation. Democracy, human rights, women's rights are not something that someone gives to us. We must ourselves make sacrifices to achieve these values.

Here's Pamuk singing from the same score ('Where Is Europe?'):

No matter what language they speak in their homes ... a good many Istanbul intellectuals have read this work [Albert Sorel's L'Europe et la revolution francaise], but, as I know only too well, they did not read them as a French reader might, seeking connection with their memories and their own pasts, but rather searching within the pages for some sense of their future, of their European dreams.

Richard Stanton in his new book (All News Is Local, McFarlane, 2007) says this, in precisely the same locus of relevance:

... democracy is ... an inductive or empirical model. It must by its nature be imagined historically through the long-run establishment of its institutions. It cannot be grounded in anything other than history.

Tuesday 6 November 2007

Miles Merrill is from Chicago and the other guy, too, who was an organiser of this event, was North American. Of course, the concept of a 'slam' comes from Chicago (1986) and is, essentially, a competition where showmanship counts for more than honesty and truth.

The big issue here, however, is not the poor quality of many entries, but, rather, the fact that you do not know, in advance, that only the first 15 arrivals are guaranteed a spot. In addition, five late-comers are drawn from a hat. Thus 20 people get to read.

This seems somewhat unfair, as no such detail is provided in the advance publicity. If you went to the previous event you will know these things. An uninitiated prospective participant, however, is in the dark and hence unheard.

Only one performer touched me and I do not remember her name. I do remember that she was nervous. Her first item, read shyly, was overtly sexual, explicit even. The second I don't recall. By the third item, though, she was in her stride and confident. When she left, I congratulated her. Her delight was delightful.

I spent the third session talking with a woman met in the street outside the pub. We chatted for ages and shared cigarettes. There was a guy I know from the Internet. There was a Turkish guy I thought was a Maori. And there was an Iraqi who was so happy to have the opportunity to tell us that there are forests in his country, his hands shook.

Who knew?

I mean, have you ever seen a forest in any news coverage of the hostilities? In addition, we discussed the allusive nature of Arabic, how you can say three things with one sentence. It was fun.

The next event is on Thursday 15 November and, I tell you, I shall be early!!

The competition is sponsored by the NSW State Library. The finals will take place at their location on 30 November. The national grand slam is on 7 December, also at their location.

So if you want to hear two love sonnets, come to the Tap Gallery, 278 Palmer Street Darlinghurst next Thursday. I mean: who the f**k writes f**king sonnets?

But tonight I had no dinner.

Friday 2 November 2007

Shibuya - Kiwi - Grunt - Dismemberment - Death Proof is a stunning justification and a precious reminder of the power of rejection as Tarantino reimagines himself following the appallingly bad movies that preceded it (the Kill Bill franchise).

Shibuya: At a movie house right smack in the centre of Tokyo's main groove (a locus of trade, love hotels, labyrinthine alleys, overpriced coffee shops, gangsters and a dog on a monument) I walked out into the buzz and bustle following Pulp Fiction. The year: 1994. I remember Karen didn't like it but Darrell and I wafted into the street (a street so crowded you either shuffled with the mass of humanity or weaved in and out, careful not to bump your fellow humans off the footpath).

We knew there was something different and we knew that the rules had changed. What we didn't know was that, 13 years later, and again playing a cameo role (in this movie Tarantino is a bartender wearing a cowboy shirt with black-and-white-checked shoulders), the boy from the video store would again come up with the goods.

Vanessa Ferlito plays Arlene. In the scene (pic) Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell; here Tarantino has done for Russell what he did, in Pulp Fiction, for John Travolta) asks this gorgeous-looking woman: "Are you afraid of me"? Arlene: "Yes." Stuntman Mike: "Is it my face?" Arlene: "No, it's your car."

It's your car.

There is no obvious category in which you can reliably place Stuntman Mike. 'Psychopath' sort of fails to reach the level of evil he represents. Something like 'unadulterated cruelty' comes closer, and it's especially because, in this conversation-rich experience, Stuntman Mike is extremely eloquent. Charming, even.

Four dead girls and Stuntman Mike is in hospital. Here, we get a nice interlude placed neatly between the scenes of raw auto-porn that constitutes much of the film. The throaty growl of an eight-cylinder car at full throttle makes up a decent part of the soundtrack. The bar scenes that open the movie are accompanied by some fetching tunes, probably from the 70s (the era the film seems to borrow from most heavily), but it's the effect of speed and the inherent danger of it, that form the nexus of allure that defines the appeal of the film.

Arlene's lap dance is a fascinating vignette of ersatz desire since, although it's Stuntman Mike who gets the benefit of her performance, it is only when behind the wheel of his car that he expresses his real urge: to demolish, obliterate, ransack, and dismember. The ultimate experience of the modern age: to destroy using the products put at our disposal by the efficiency of industrial production married to private enterprise, and the empowering drive of a universal franchise.

The logical next step is to pursue total control by exploiting these achievements. As for the law, well, that interlude is a Socratic exchange of wisdom between the older cop Edgar McGraw (Michael Parks) and his son Edgar (James Parks; the real-life father-son combo is delightful). If he does it again, says the older cop, he'd better not do it in Texas.

Change of scene (and the film shifts to monchrome; these nice touches of cinematographic elegance are ideal analogues of the excellent script, written by Tarantino himself) to Lebanon, Tennessee.

And here we get a beautiful little surprise: Zoe (Zoe Bell, playing herself) is a Kiwi. But is she as beautiful as Vanessa Ferlito? It doesn't matter as much as another thing. Karen was wrong, I was right: Tarantino is a genius.

I walked out of the cinema into the underground carpark, got into my 200-kW, V6, beige Toyota, and drove home alone but happy.