Monday, 28 February 2011

Review #20

Atomised - Michel Houllebecq

Houllebecq has caused a great stir in the literary establishment, gushing out novels not only containing sleaze, shock and sexual perversion but also provocative commentaries and statements on society. Atomised is the book that catapulted him into notorious fame (some would say infamy).

He most certainly divides people. Many academic critics are highly dismissive of him because, in structuralist terms, his work is badly formed, and he often makes sweeping generalisations on his satiric targets to manipulate the reader and make his point.

There are so many ideas amounted on top of one another that it is difficult to condense what it truly is 'about'. Principally, Houllebecq is deconstructing post-war society (from a Frenchman's point of view), arguing that love has been replaced by sex and religion by pseudo spirituality embodied in new age philosophies. There is a furious, nihilistic contempt against humanity; Houllebecq seems to be indicting humanity for its political correctness, emotional detachment and malevolence. In something of a twist, which is latched on as a epilogue that I won't reveal here, Houllebecq appears to be disgusted with us yet, at the same time, oddly eulogising.

The two central characters are half-brothers; they know little of each other, both were abandoned by a hippie mother at a young age and both are stark opposites. Michel is a molecular biologist, who is deeply immersed in his profession and his little time for anything else. He is described as having had a precocious childhood, but since his infancy has rarely been capable connecting emotionally with others. The other half-brother is Bruno, a sex-obsessed libertine, plump, lascivious and a complete failure. He frequently visits resorts for the sole purpose of sexual adventure, his lusts never being fulfilled.

Bruno's sexual escapades are described graphically and frequently, the encounters rarely having any sort of affect or emotion from the participators. He drifts into marriage, pulls out of it and returns to this frantic world of sex. Michel can't sustain a relationship with a childhood sweetheart, retreating to his scientific work instead.

Houllebecq is far from subtle in the ways he transmits his messages. Characters frequently break off into philosophical discourse, vent their rage on a societal trend and a whole chapter consists of the two half-brothers suddenly having a conversation on Aldous Huxley, an author Houllebecq likes the idea of being compared to.

I certainly enjoyed reading it, the lurid sex and violence really exciting me, even when it uneasily takes a shift towards xenophobia and racial hatred. Its constant subversive and provocative tone make it a page-turner, although he often gets heavy-handed with the philosophising, which slowed me down and gave me pause for thought. A lot of the time the philosophising is insightful and perceptive, other times it is cheap and half-baked.

Having finally read this I can certainly see why it has drawn so much attention and won over both praise and condemnation. The thrilling and inducing nature of the book makes me place myself in the laudatory camp.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Review #19

Ok, here's a first for this blog: a negative review.

Eloge de l'amour - Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard

I will begin this review by stating that I am a very big admirer of Godard's earliest work. While I was completing A-level film studies there was an opportunity to research a subject of your choice as part of coursework. Without a trace of hesitation I chose to research Godard, the project having the convoluted title (don't laugh) 'The film aesthetic in the auteurial signature of Jean-Luc Godard during the French New Wave period'.

Godard, even in the early '60s, never cared for linear narratives or conventional dialogue. Roughly from 1968 onwards he has eschewed any element of narrative to construct 'film essays', assembling a melange of images and words that, apparently, when viewed on a number of occasions, all falls into place. Eloge de l'amour is considered to be amongst the best of his later work.

Having sat through all this, I can quite simply say that it was not a pleasant experience. I find Godard's agenda snobbish and reactionary, simply there to flaunt his own superiority. Why attack Spielberg, the United States, imperialism, etc.? I am mystified by it all.

Godard's New Wave films include back-and-forth banter that works to great effect. In this film, again, conventional dialogue is put away with. This time I found it to be sophomoric and pretentious, making me cringe for the most part. There is no interaction as much as a series of loose, unconnected aphorisms.

A lot of his aesthetic has been to be unorthodox and 'radical', often using alternate camera angles and framing. Here, though, I became really flustered by characters constantly being filmed from their backs, elongated shots, random intertitles. A film like Vivre sa vie also employed these techniques, but then there was a lot of vitality and vigor that held it together that I find missing here.

The cinematography has moments of great beauty, particularly the black-and-white footage of Paris and the transition to colour in the second half of the film.

I guess that I haven't picked up on what other people see in this film. To me, it seemed like pseudo-intellectual nonsense; perhaps I may have disentangled its meaning and appeal on repeated viewings, but judging by how bored and irritated I was by it all, I was not encouraged by that thought.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

'Extracurricular actvities'

Interest which don't fall within the category of schoolwork and academic learning are called 'extracurricular activities'. In this post I will - briefly - go through this term and its connotations, expressing my views on it.

Many students put a lot of effort and energy into their school/college/university work, but what do they do in their leisure - their extracurricular - activities? I often find that academic learning, instead of encouraging students to branch out across a wide range of interests, limits them.

I'm not criticising the quality of the education; I have come to find over the years that, in comparison with other countries, education in Britain is fairly ok. What often happens is that school exhausts students so much that in their spare time all they have time to do is 'clubbing' or wasting their time doing nothing. Alternatively, they put no effort into their academic and, again, spend their time doing nothing.

To most people it is an alien concept to shun academic education in favour of one's own independent learning. I flunked my GCSEs pretty much out of boredom and lack of interest yet, at the time, I had a fervent interest in modern classical music and the arts. When lecturers in a subsequent course saw my academic work, they seemed pretty startled - how was it possible for someone to flunk their GCSEs to produce material like this?

I met a fellow last November to drink some coffee, and he described the work he had to do at school as so boring. He told me that he is currently writing an opera. For people entranced by the wonders of academia, and for people not acquainted with autodidactism and independent learning, it may seem incomprehensible how a dropout is capable - or even inclined to - writing an opera.

He also told me "I learnt more after I left school," which I also sympathise with. School really flustered me, both with its social codes in the playground and the classroom as with its stale and formulaic academic work. Once I left school I made a conscious effort to read books, articulate myself better and write fiction. All of these activities were sparked off after attending classes was no longer compulsory.

What I found particularly exciting about doing A2 coursework was the opportunity to study, research and write about subjects that I had investigated/read up on in my own time. In English literature I wrote a comparative essay on William Burroughs and applied ideas of aesthetics to the poetry of T. S. Eliot, in Film Studies I undertook a research project on Jean-Luc Godard and in English Language I wrote a research on the linguistic features of William Faulkner. I had read up, and watched, all these subjects as part of my 'extracurricular activities', and I found the chance to intermingle it with my own academic work illuminating, bringing to it a vitality and vigour which I assume was lacking in a lot of the other students' work.

For a lot of students their only contact with intellectual subjects comes through academia, but I think that an excellent way of remedying this is to provide youngsters with alternatives that do not fall into this category: to perhaps make them think and question the status-quo outside the classroom.

Friday, 11 February 2011

An alternative to Facebook

When applying to universities via the undergraduate system UCAS I found out that 94% of applicants have a Facebook account. That, to me, is a shocking statistic.

It seems that Facebook is the ultimate teenage - and grown-up - device. An assortment of people of different ages and ethnic origins log onto it every day to keep up with what their fellow friends are up to. They channel their whole life into it, keeping the most minute detail of their daily occurrences and incidents.

It's not true that it is used purely by 'mindless yobs' and 'imbeciles', the most intelligent and cerebral folk use it to exchange intellectual ideas and details about the latest cultural or scientific event - and they do it with relish. There is a possibility to list your favourite music, books and films as well as joining groups purporting to represent a certain trend or belief. Often, if you don't have a Facebook account, there is a possibility that you'll miss out on the trendiest and most sophisticated events.

Where do I fit in all this? Nowhere. I am not compatible with it. This, apparently, is most unusual; I am part of the 6% of university applicants who are not a member of this social network.

What I find worrying about this is that this is the cornerstone of our generation - what defines all our ideals and beliefs. I find this most disheartening; surely there should be some sort of interest for something else, some sort of interest in broadening one's horizons.

Many people do not know of other alternatives. Some of mine are: keeping a diary, looking for interesting literature and film, going for walks, constantly challenging and redefining my notions of how to better myself. Not many people are doing this, and I find that Facebook, rather than encouraging people onto new and exciting avenues, is a dead-end, leading people to repeat the same activities time and time again, instead of looking at things objectively and considering ways of how one can better oneself.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Friday, 4 February 2011

Review #18

The Green Ray- Written and Directed by Eric Rohmer

While Eric Rohmer may have a reputation of being difficult and cumbersome, I have found the opposite to be true, in comparison with the work of his New Wave peers, at least. I had heard of these films allegedly consisting of long, insufferably inane conversations. So much so that he was the last New Wave director I looked up - even after Rivette.

For some reason I find his films to be 'feel-good' experiences; they leave me feeling uplifted and cheery, even if they consist of sombre or morose subject matter. I am not one to watch Hollywood romantic comedies for the simple reason that they don't appeal to my sensibilities, but Rohmer adds enough of what I am interested in to make this type of cinema worthwhile.

The Green Ray is my favourite of his films I've seen so far because it really resonated with me. I, too, am an introvert and have spent a vast quantity of my life without much human contact. Like Delphine, I can't create many friendships because of many ingrained beliefs and ideals.

To begin with I did find her quite irritating but, unlike Rohmer's principal character in another comedies and proverbs cycle film Le beau mariage, she won me over in the end and I sympathised with her. Her crying outbursts or her pettiness is initially straining and irritating, but once we learn about her experiences the audience sides itself with her.

The cinematography has nothing remarkable about it; in fact, it is strikingly primitive. Like his narrative devices, it is all rather sparse - there is no score, there are no flashy camera angles or complex narrative devices. Rohmer draws you into the inner life of his characters in an austere and economical way that evokes many emotional responses. He does not have a cerebral agenda, either: this is a simple account of an introvert's difficulties in finding love or companionship.

Like an excellent book, it will leave you with fond memories, which are especially sparked off by a very satisfying finale.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

We must all experience the sublime

"Impressing the mind with a sense of grandeur or power; inspiring awe, veneration, etc.: Switzerland has sublime scenery."

"The term especially refers to a greatness with which nothing else can be compared and which is beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation." Wikipedia

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) by Caspar David Friedrich