March 27, 2010

Epic homelessness: The Road

“Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.”
When I was 15 or 16, they shipped us in buses out of school to see The Day After, an American TV movie about the effects of a nuclear strike on a town in Kansas. You had already heard about the nuclear winter, the idea that the attack itself wasn’t going to be the worst of it. Those things you had read about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bright flash and the hot blast? When it came -- and in those days you were sure it would, sooner or later -- you were going to wish it was like that. The nuclear winter quickly became part of our greater, shared nightmare about nuclear war in the early 1980s: what would the world look like afterwards and for how long?

You pictured ash, so much ash that it blanketed fields, stopped crops from growing, got into lungs, blocked sunlight. Clouds of ash. Ash and bone. I pictured this dead grey world all over again when I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in 2007. The novel puts two survivors -- a man and his son, both unnamed -- into a North American landscape as bleak as any we could have imagined at the very worst of our 80s nuclear anxiety.
Each day is more gray than the one before. Each night is darker - beyond darkness. The world gets colder week by week as the world slowly dies. No animals have survived. All the crops are long gone. Someday all the trees in the world will have fallen.
Recently, the “world-without-us” genre of speculative writing has proposed a post-human planet upon which plant and animal life will get a chance again. Trees will crack concrete, deer will run in packs through city streets, eagles will nest in towers. There are hints of this comeback of the wild in the most recent film version of I Am Legend and Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men; Werner Herzog touches on it at the end of his otherwise puzzling Wild Blue Yonder. The idea that if and when we go, things might get better for everything else is an idea that could give doomed humans some consolation, but McCarthy doesn’t entertain any of that. Some humans live -- and only just -- in the world he describes. But no birds, no grass, no plants, no flowers, no fish. There’s just one dog that we know of. And really -- what kind of optimist would you need to be to even think of keeping a pet in the world McCarthy imagines?

Anyway, maybe the thing is that few books have come alive so easily and completely in the imagination as The Road. You could see this stuff; it unspooled as a movie as you read it. John Hillcoat’s dutiful film adaptation gives us a world even darker than the one I had pictured, a world you have to squint to see into. A world dimming away. Crepuscular is the word.

"Some people thought it was a con. I always believed in it."
That line is spoken in Hillcoat’s film and it might be the only time that the dialogue differs meaningfully from the book (otherwise, this adaptation treats McCarthy’s novel as borderline sacred). The line is delivered by Ely -- an old blind man the father and son meet on the road and share a meal with, the only character in the story who gets a name. Robert Duvall plays him and it’s one of two cameos (Guy Pearce being the other) in which name actors are so well-disguised by their apocalyptic situations that you may not recognise them. In the book, Ely says: “I knew this was coming … This or something like it. I always believed in it.” But he says nothing about a con. So the inference is obvious: Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall want to add climate change to the list of possible causes of the unnamed catastrophe that has left these few alive. But what kind of catastrophe is the book’s God-crazed Ely talking about? What was he ready for?

“There is no God and we are his prophets.”
A few writers have talked about Gnosticism. The man and his son are moving through a world from which God has removed himself and they wonder about his absence, or they feel it acutely. They speculate. These aren’t 21st century mindsets; these are much older. All the Old Testament struggle and violence and blood of earlier McCarthy characters are in these guys too. Wrath, vengeance, punishment -- this is the stuff that Hillcoat also worked with so effectively in his Australian western The Proposition (blood on your hands, blood on the sand). But there is also Gnosticism: this world is a fallen world and there is no way of redeeming it or seeing beyond it, something the thick, shielding layers of ash in the sky even seem to symbolise (there’s no seeing beyond it in a more prosaic way too: The Road is rare among disaster films for refusing to give us a broad overview of the situation, a global picture, a timeline and news montage; its point-of-view is very tightly reduced).

Both book and film are framed around a long walk. A pilgrimage to no set destination. They are heading to the Atlantic coast and heading south, and as winter is coming that’s a wise thing to do, but there is no expectation that there is a community of back-to-the-land survivors to get to, the usual consoling destination of apocalyptic sci-fi (absurdly rendered in the last I Am Legend). Staying alive is the only reason to stay alive. There is a Manichean reduction of the few that remain into good guys and bad guys.

There are other religious intimations. “He only knew that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” The bleak suggestion that God never spoke is Gnostic in itself. But we get this imagery a few times: the boy “carrying the fire”, the boy needing to survive. The boy saying, “I am the one”. When Viggo Mortensen’s character, the father – bearded, pale, thin, serious -- splashes in the water, we get an intimation of John the Baptist. Which is not to say that this thing is a straight forward religious allegory, a kind of nuclear winter Narnia movie -- instead, Christian ideas are deep in its characters and in the culture of the novelist (for the Australian Hillcoat and British Penhall, perhaps less so). And the peculiar thing about this Hillcoat/Penhall adaptation is that once you reduce McCarthy’s minimalism even further, peel back his many ways of describing grey land and dead trees and hunger, the simplicity of his themes becomes starker still. Religion and ethics – or a diminishing idea of human “goodness” and a concern about whether it can survive or has just been a luxury we have allowed ourselves -- is one of them.

“Can you do it? When the time comes?”
What would you do for your children? What sacrifices would you make? What fears do you have? All parents have thoughts like this, about whether their kids are safe in the world, whether they will be able to go on without us. This is the other big theme of The Road. The story goes that McCarthy was inspired by watching his young son as he slept: parental love, parental fear. Imagine the worst. So here are father and son facing that worst, fighting for their lives, starving and scavenging. The father has two bullets in a revolver and can take both their lives if he needs to. He has shown his son how to put the barrel in his mouth, how to pull the trigger.

This is what we tell our children about: good people and bad people. But can being a parent make you more distrustful than you should be? One of the ideas to come out of the film more strongly than the book is the suggestion that the man may be seeing more threats than are actually there. To him, this world is all-against-all. There is no goodness, no sense that the remnants of humanity can re-organise themselves back into communities. Resources are too scarce. People are eating other people. It is pure competition. Throughout the book, the man suspects that people are following them. Perhaps they are but the surprise of the ending is that those who have been following seem to have good intentions. They have been watching and worrying.

This last scene hints at some remnants of what the man assumed was a lost goodness. It’s a hard-won moment in the novel. But in the film it comes to seem needlessly sentimental, perhaps a moment dwelt on too long, a softening by Hillcoat of the harder, starker edges of the story. Like the other softening Hillcoat makes: flashbacks to the man’s dead wife, the son’s dead mother, played by Charlize Theron.

McCarthy caught the terrible longing for a world that has gone and can never be brought back more effectively in the book’s very last paragraph. It is a piece of writing that has no equivalent in the film:
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.
“They plodded on, thin and filthy as street addicts.”
The central image of The Road – book and film – is a man pushing a shopping trolley loaded with whatever he can scavenge. Scraps, clothes, plastic bags. You need good shoes. Any kind of food. Hillcoat has talked about Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realist film Bicycle Thieves as an influence – a man and his boy scouring the streets of post-war Rome for the bike that was stolen. The Road’s man and boy have the same kind of dejection in a world that seems indifferent. Depression-era photos by Dorothea Lange are in there too.

The shopping trolley is an important part of all this. The two immediately resemble the homeless of contemporary American cities pushing what little they have in shopping trolleys, looking for shelter, avoiding violence – viewers of The Wire will be thinking of the character of Bubbles (and so it doesn’t seem surprising that one of the others they encounter on the road is played by Michael K Williams, famous as The Wire’s Omar Little). Maybe The Road is really about homelessness on an epic scale -- homelessness without any home to be found anywhere in the world.

It's less a great film than a satisfactory rendering of a great novel. Hillcoat and Chris Kennedy’s production design is a match for the strong images McCarthy gave us. Wrecked bridges in abandoned cities. Row after row of bent powerlines. Fires on the hills at night. Empty houses and earth tremors. Falling trees – not even the marauding redneck cannibals that could be out of George Romero are as terrifying as a scene in which one heavy tree after another crashes down. The locations include post-Katrina New Orleans, Mount St Helens and some of the abandoned neighbourhoods of north-eastern American industrial cities, where houses have been vacated and factories fallen into disuse. The film’s use of places like New Orleans and Pittsburgh lets you read it as potentially allegorical for the kind of despair that follows when communities and work and social agencies start to disappear from cities. In some ways – its questions about God, its Gnostic speculations – the world of The Road can seem ancient, largely symbolic and perhaps remote. But in other ways, it can seem like a very easy extrapolation of the present.

March 22, 2010

Patti Smith goes to the pictures

1. New York, 1967. "Robert [Mapplethorpe] was not especially drawn to film. His favourite movie was Splendor in the Grass. The only other movie we saw that year was Bonnie and Clyde. He liked the tagline on the poster: 'They're young. They're in love. They rob banks.' He didn't fall asleep during that movie. Instead, he wept. And when we went home he was unnaturally quiet and looked at me as if he wanted to convey all he was feeling without words. There was something of us that he saw in the movie but I wasn't certain what. I thought to myself that he contained a whole universe that I had yet to know."

2. Paris, 1969. "We saw Godard's One Plus One. The film made a huge impression on me politically and renewed my affection for the Rolling Stones. Only days later, the French papers were covered with the face of Brian Jones: Est Mort, 24 Ans. I mourned the fact that we could not attend the free concert the remaining Stones held in his memory for over 250,000 in Hyde Park, culminating with Mick Jagger releasing scores of white doves into the London sky. I laid my drawing pencils aside and began a cycle of poems to Brian Jones, for the first time expressing my love for rock and roll within my own work."

3. New York, 1969. "His [Robert's] first letters seemed a bit down but brightened when he described seeing Midnight Cowboy for the first time. It was unusual for Robert to go to a movie, but he took this film to heart. 'It's about a cowboy stud on 42nd street,' he wrote me, and called it a 'masterpiece'. He felt a deep identification with the hero, infusing the idea of the hustler into his work, and then into his life. 'Hustler-hustler-hustler. I guess that's what I'm about.'"

4. The three extracts above are from Patti Smith's Just Kids (Bloomsbury, 2010), a beautifully-written and carefully self-revealing memoir of Smith and Mapplethorpe, New York in the 60s and 70s -- or the straight-forward account against The Coral Sea's elegiac poetry. Movies as personal signposts, unconscious maps or guides to urgent self-invention. Wonderful Harry Smith scenes too.

5. Music from The Caretaker: long term (remote), from Persistent Repetition of Phrases (Install, 2009). Discovered via this invaluable link.

March 17, 2010


"The genius is revealed not in the absolute perfection of a work but in absolute fidelity to himself, in commitment to his own passion. The passionate aspiration of the artist to the truth, to knowing the world and himself in the world, endows with special meaning even the somewhat obscure, or, as they are called, 'less successful' passages in his works.
"One might even go further; I don't know a single masterpiece that does not have its weaknesses or is completely free of imperfections. For the individual bias that makes the genius, and the singleness of purpose which sustains his work, are the source not only of the greatness of a masterpiece but also of its lapses. Again -- can lapses be the right name for something that is organically part of an integral world outlook? The genius is not free. As Thomas Mann wrote: 'Only indifference is free. What is distinctive is never free, it is stamped with its own seal, conditioned and chained'."
-- Andrei Tarkovsky, from Sculpting in Time. University of Texas Press, 1986. The picture is a still from Stalker.

March 14, 2010

Bela Tarr

"First of all, I’d like to make it clear there are no allegories in any of my films. There are no symbols and such metaphysical things … The instrument we call the lens can only record real things which are there."
--Bela Tarr, in an interview with Jonathan Romney, London, 2001, on the Artificial Eye DVD of Werckmeister Harmonies.
One of the interesting things about the 40-minute interview Bela Tarr has with journalist Jonathan Romney on the Werckmeister Harmonies DVD, with Tarr speaking in Hungarian next to an onstage translator before or after a London screening, is the way that Tarr says "we" almost every time he talks about his process. So that should be their process: Tarr plus editor and occasional co-director (and spouse) Agnes Hranitzky, composer Mihaly Vig, writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai. We're used to an idea that works of art spring complete from the mind of an individual genius, especially in art cinema with its auteur cults, and the warmest reception for Tarr's slow cinema has been on the festival circuit. Instead, here is an idea of Tarr and his collaborators operating more impersonally, like an experimental film-making group, a research and development unit. These are some of the questions they might have set out to test: How might film language be taken apart and reassembled? How do you make the time and space that a story moves through more material to the audience? Can you do minimalism without looking like you are aspiring towards something mystical? Is the evasion of philosophy itself a philosophy? Their homemade version of neo-realism became something recognisably Tarr-esque -- slow, muddy, black-humoured -- by the time they got to Damnation (1988); this film and ones that followed were praised by Susan Sontag as “some of the very few heroic violations of cinematic norms of our times”. A major violation was around the unfolding of time. In the peculiar, insular, grave masterpiece Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) -- secularised Tarkovsky; phantasmagoric realism -- there are only 39 individual shots in a film that stretches to two hours and 25 minutes. That evasion of philosophy has been mastered too: asked why there were such long sequences of people walking in Werckmeister Harmonies – an idea picked up by Gus Van Sant in his openly Tarr-influenced Elephant -- he has said, that’s how long it took them to get there.
When I asked Bela Tarr what the whale [in Werckmeister Harmonies] meant for him, he answered, "I don't really like talking about individual things in my films." I was reduced to asking him how he built the whale. "It was a lot of iron, some plastic. We had a scientist girl come in to design it."
-- Gabe Klinger, in Senses of Cinema.

March 11, 2010

Phenomena and Occurrences

Footage to accompany the first edition of The Folklore and Mathematics Periodical. A Ghost Box film by Julian House.

March 9, 2010

Oscar night, 37 years ago

"You know Brando's single most crucial moment?" Perkus quizzed me.
"Uh, not On the Waterfront?"
"Not even close. Too compromised by McCarthyism."
I hated this game. "Apocalypse Now?"
"Well, that's an important one, with the whole Heart of Darkness subtext, but what I have in mind is when he sent Sacheen Littlefeather to accept the Oscar in his place. I mean, it's the most amazing conflation of the American Imaginary, just think about it! In one gesture Brando ties our rape of the Indians to this figure of our immigrant nightmare, this Sicilian peasant doing the American dream, capitalism I mean, more ruthlessly than the founding fathers could ever have dreaded. We're as defenseless against what Don Corleone exposes, the murderous underside of Manifest Destiny, as the Indians were against smallpox blankets. And in the vanishing space between the two, what? America itself, whatever that is. Brando, essentially, declining to appear. Because the party's over."
-- Jonathan Lethem, from Chronic City. Faber and Faber, 2010.
In the Lethem novel, Perkus Tooth is the paranoid scholar of popular culture's secret history, Pynchon-like right down to the name. But stoned or not -- chronic city -- he might be right about this part of his Marlon Brando obsession. It was a crucial moment. And it seems to me that the Sacheen Littlefeather moment -- pictured above; YouTube link here -- wasn't just Brando's most crucial, it also foreshadowed the Oscars 37 years in the future, in the year 2010. Or at least Avatar's (surprisingly meagre) Oscar haul.

In 1973, Brando was involved in a protest at Wounded Knee. Littlefeather was the president of the Native American Image Committee. She attends the Oscars in full Apache dress. Watch the clip and you see her looking pained, nervous. She waves away the statuette offered by a perma-tanned Roger Moore. She holds the speech from Brando that she is not given time to read. She says: "He very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the reasons for this being the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry'' -- and this is where the booing starts, quickly met with counterbalancing applause, at these words film industry -- "and on television in movie re-runs and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.''

She says that she hopes she has not intruded. But she has done more than just intrude. This was reality disrupting the spectacle. Hollywood on Oscar night is used to harmless, gentle puncturing of its greatest egos and the ceremony's long-winded self-importance, but it rarely gets news from the outside like this -- it rarely gets called out for the harm done by decades of misrepresentation. From the Brando speech she did not get to read, that was printed in the New York Times:
Perhaps at this moment you are saying to yourself what the hell has all this got to do with the Academy Awards? Why is this woman standing up here, ruining our evening, invading our lives with things that don't concern us, and that we don't care about? Wasting our time and money and intruding in our homes.
I think the answer to those unspoken questions is that the motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing his as savage, hostile and evil. It's hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children watch television, and they watch films, and when they see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know.
Recently there have been a few faltering steps to correct this situation, but too faltering and too few, so I, as a member in this profession, do not feel that I can as a citizen of the United States accept an award here tonight. I think awards in this country at this time are inappropriate to be received or given until the condition of the American Indian is drastically altered. If we are not our brother's keeper, at least let us not be his executioner.
When Avatar opened last December, it coincided more or less exactly with the 40th anniversary of the publication of Dee Brown's book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which is commonly understood to be the first popular history of the American west from the Indian perspective. In other words, a detailed and unrelenting account of injustices, massacres and broken promises; it could be the most heartbreaking non-fiction book ever published. It's hard not to think that Brown's book, along with other necessary revisions like Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and David Stannard's American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World -- published in 1992 as a response to the Columbus anniversary, it's the book that put the notion of "genocide'' squarely into this argument -- were as central to Cameron's ecological/sci-fi/indigeneity parable-in-3D as such widely touted examples as James Lovelock's Gaia theory or Ursula Le Guin's The Word for World is Forest (itself Vietnam inspired). You can flick through Stannard's astonishing book and suspect that you're actually reading an Avatar treatment -- a point that occurred to Guardian columnist George Monbiot. Stannard even offers outlines for the inevitable sequels, especially helpful for those doubters who thought that Cameron's action movie ending was far too triumphant to work as an analogy of such grim history.
From the very beginnings -- from at least that day in 1493 when a "very beautiful Carib woman" fought off the violent advances of Michele de Cuneo, before being thrashed with a rope and then raped by him -- the people of the Americas resisted. None did so more successfully than the Maya, who combined retreat into the deep jungle cover of the Yucatan lowlands -- where, as one historian puts it, the pursuing conquistadors "soon found themselves adrift in a green expanse of forest without food to eat, souls to convert or labour to exploit" -- with relentless military counterattacks that finally led to temporary expulsion of the Spanish in 1638. And neither did any people resist with more symbolism than the Maya, who made a practice of destroying not only Spanish soldiers but whatever foreign things the Spanish had brought with them -- horses, cattle, cats, dogs, trees and plants. In the end, however, the Maya too lost 95 of every 100 of their people -- a price for their resistance that most outsiders, if they know of it, can hardly hope to comprehend.
By the time the 16th century ended perhaps 200,000 Spaniards had moved their lives to the Indies, to Mexico, to Central America, and points further to the south. In contrast, by that time, somewhere between 60 million and 80 million natives from those lands were dead. Even then, the carnage was not over.

March 2, 2010

Reality problems

1. Richard Brody at The New Yorker's film blog, The Front Row, has run a great series of posts in support of Scorsese's Shutter Island -- and an important part of supporting the Scorsese film is sorting out the critics who've got it wrong. This is good:
David Edelstein, in New York, dismisses it as “a doodle” and then he drops an r-bomb, claiming that, on the evidence of the film, Scorsese is “farther from reality than his hero is.”
A critic invoking reality is like a politician invoking God—if insincere, it’s demagogy; if sincere, it’s dogmatism.
2. Alice in Wonderland: there is a good chance that this and this are actually better than this. But probably still not as good as this.