Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Second Heimat

This was probably one of the first, if not the first, art-house film I saw. I saw it at age of fifteen. It captivated me and fuelled my imagination. Heimat was a 15-hour long film (divided into 11 episodes) about a German village. It covers a village from 1919 until 1984, amidst the backdrop of sweeping historical change. The Second Heimat is a 25-hour long film (divided into 13 episodes). It follows a young aspiring composer who leaves the village, vows to never return, and settles in Munich to study composition. It is set in between 1959 and 1970 and covers a range of characters. Most of these characters are either artists of some sort of another, and are either fiercely avant-garde or partake in political activism. An equally good series was made - called Heimat 3: A Chronicle of Endings and Beginnings - which returns to this village after the fall of the Berlin wall.

There is a scene in the film, where a virtuosic cellist called Clarissa spends Christmas in a hospital ward. To pass the time, she reads Robert Musil's mammoth 1000-odd page tome The Man Without Qualities. And indeed, this film is a celluloid equivalent of that kind of undertaking. It requires endurance, patience and attention. A sizable chunk of your life will be devoted to this. (Though, if you think about it, how many hours has one whiled away in front of the television set? Or the contemporary equivalent - the internet?)

The film follows Herman Simon, a vain, proud and jaundiced aspiring composer. The films begins with him making two vows: that he will never "love" again and that he will never return to the German village, Schabbach. This, I think, highlights the film's only major weakness: its frequent lapse into bloated melodrama. That aside, the cinematography is lush and the first episode in particular is especially propulsive and engaging.  Hermann's awe at this vast, sprawling city, and his discovery of atonal avant-garde music, are particularly striking. Although Herman essentially remains the central character, each episode is allocated its own protagonist.

It must be noted that the English translation of the title is problematic. The German word 'Heimat,' in itself, is loaded with implications. It is a word which has very specific connotations as regards Germany. It means 'Homeland' (though Germans insist that it is difficult to translate to foreigners). Several fascist and right-wing films were made called 'Heimat,' which glorified chauvinism and national pride. Edgar Reitz's first Heimat series was interesting in that it was a film refracted through a more leftist perspective. The Second Heimat refers to a second home we adopt as adults. The title Heimat 2 (the official English translation) suggests that it is a kind of sequel, which in many ways it is not. The narrative is not a continuation from the first installation, it is a departure.

The film highlights a rift between an older generation and the rise of a new one. The older generation, most of whom are former Nazis, are far more socially conservative and try to temper the rampant radicalism of these youngsters. The film also traces the emergence of three movements: the German New Wave (which proudly declares 'Papa's cinema is dead'), the classical avant-garde and the radical left known as the 'Red Army Faction' (which later resorted to terrorism). Whilst these older figures, for the most part, are not depicted kindly, the younger characters are very listless and impetuous. The political activists, in particular, seem less interested in actual revolution than they are in sexual liberation (there is a Hippie commune) or to simply derive a false sense of comfort (as the character Helga seems to). The characters Helga and Ansgar seem to embody this abrasive angst the most. They feel riled by the failure of their parents to recognise their Nazi past and by their conservative intolerance.

The artists, for the most part, are crushed by the sheer weight of their own ambitions. Hermann concocts megalomaniac schemes which never truly pan out. He is eventually bequeathed his own electronic studio where he can do whatever he wants (we see echoes of Stockhausen and Boulez's IRCAM here). Nothing really ever materialises and he later admits to himself that he has been granted the project because of the youthful idealism he radiates. Similarly, the film directors try directing several film projects, but more often than not they never get off the ground.

The earlier episodes, in my mind, are better and the later ones can lag at times. This is chiefly because the earlier characters are more interesting. The earlier characters are musicians whereas the later ones are film directors. The musician characters have more of a vibrancy to them because they are actual musicians (their performances in the film are genuine and they are stellar), whereas the film directors are actors. Music, in itself, is more of a nebulous form than film and therefore lends itself to dramatisation. Film is more clearly defined and the dramatisation of film directors therefore becomes more problematic, since the art of these characters carries more semantic connotations.

Although the film deals with the German New Wave, and in many ways is a chronicle of the 60s avant-garde, it is shot in a classical manner. There is no experimentation with film form or anything of the sort. Ultimately, the film's chief concern is in the manifold ways it treats narrative. It has all the scale and breadth of reading a large literary novel. That's not to say that it isn't beautifully shot. The artful interchange between colour and black and white which was used in the first series is once more deployed to great effect. (Especially since day time is shot in b/w whereas night time is shot in colour, which highlights the sense of excitement it has for these characters.

Even though these characters have lofty pretensions, the film does not shy away from exploring several love affairs and unfortunate tragedies. Some of these affairs have a lot of fizz to them (such as the one between Ansgar and Clara), though others are less interesting and can become very heavy-handed. The film at least has three tragic deaths. As I said before, this kind of melodrama can become a little heavy-handed at times, though more often than not the relationships between characters are three-dimensional and thoroughly engaging.

Finally, I'll stress the importance this film has had in my life. I had just discovered at the time I began listening to 20th century classical music, so the dramatisation of composers, at the time, I found very compelling. Ultimately, it is a big, big film and it has taken me to places few films have done.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Thoughts on William Faulkner

In this post I will try - emphasis on try - to write an appraisal on one of my favourite writers, William Faulkner. The sheer joy I experience when I get caught up in one of his streaming paragraphs is somewhat inexpressible. Every time I have finished a Faulkner novel, it convinces me that this is the furthest you can take literature. I get the 'tingle,' if you like.

Faulkner is a writer with a very world-wide appeal because of two reasons: 1) He deals with universal themes of suffering, unrequited love, conflict and 2) He created his own imaginary county, Yoknapatawpha, where most of his novels are set. Creating a new territory and making it your own is something that resonates with any writer of fiction. Although the vernacular of the American South is burrowed into everything he does, his work has struck a chord with Latin-American, European and Asian writers. This is because his work has shown them that you can take something very quintessential from your culture and transfigure into a mythologised world of your own making.

Although he does allude to many writers, one does need to recognise intertextual references to understand his writing. This sets him apart from other modernists like T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, whose dense writings often demanded the reader to be well-read in classical literature. Faulkner, meanwhile, is self-referential and acknowledges the own construction of his texts. Sometimes you have to read his books twice to make sense out of them, or a second reading will simply be more enhanced and revelatory. (Just like a second hearing of a piece of music will reveal more to you than the first.)

The staple of any Faulkner novel is a decadent family, living under outmoded socio-political strictures. There is a memorable scene in As I Lay Dying, where a member of the Bundren family walks into a convenience store in a bustling centre. She is barefooted, with an outworn dress and completely unkempt. Having grown up in an antiquated rural environment, she is a stranger to this prototypically modern society. The kind of environment these characters inhabit is one bereft of cars, high-ways or industrialisation. Instead it is a microcosmic society in which the word of the bible is taken at face value, where hierarchical family structures from several decades prior persist, people lack a formal education and blacks are firmly subordinated to white supremacy.

A lot of people quarrel who the better writer is: James Joyce or Virginia Woolf. Whose use of stream of consciousness was better? Many concluded it is Joyce, as he is more fragmentary and we generally don't think in elaborate paragraphs. Yet my own thought processes, I think, more closely resemble Faulkner's prose than Joyce's. If I get over stimulated a whole barrage of ideas stream out. These thoughts tend to be overlong and protracted, but not clearly defined. Several of them, too. Quentin Compson's breakdown in The Sound and the Fury is a masterful depiction of a mind coming to terms with discord. He sifts through his past, but mundane incidents in the present also sway his thoughts. Not only do I find this treatment of thought accurate, once you get caught up in it it's a wonder to read. Though, at times, it might strike you as non-sensical and you might re-read once or twice, there are moments of stark lyricism and beauty.

The characters who inhabit these novels, it must be said, are not mentally stable. (Perhaps it is those with mental disorders who find the stream of consciousness accurate...) They often have extreme pathologies. There are murderers, incestual affairs and the most unusual predilections. Quentin Compson is obsessed with his sister Caddy and by how she was so pure and virginal in her youth. Constant images of her purity come back to haunt him and permeate his thoughts. He cannot come to terms with her later promiscuity. Similarly, there's the turbulent love affair between Charles and Eulalia Bon in Absalom, Absalom!, who are brother and sister (unbeknownst to them to begin with). Certain characters have been so isolated and so deprived of an education that they lash out in the most extreme ways. In Absalom, Absalom!, Wash Jones kills the family patriarch Sutpen and thus ends years of brutal coercion and misery. Joe Christmas in Light in August murders his lover and becomes publicly demonised. He is mentally scarred by the abuse he has received for his racial colour and ruins his reputation after a fit of anger.

Most of these narrators and protagonists are marginal observers. They differ widely as regards intelligence, temperament and social standing. Whether it is the Harvard undergraduate Quentin Compson, the mentally impaired Benjy or an overweight priest, most of these characters do not partake in the dramatic incidents that occur. They rationalise situations, regardless of their command of language. And even if many of the reveries of some characters might be grammatically awkward, now and then they'll knock off a sentence so beautiful it is worthy of Shakespeare. Ultimately, Faulkner is not indifferent to the tragic fate of these characters. This is why he is not a pessimist. He is compassionate for all his creations, even the so-called "idiots" like Benjy and Vardaman. Reflecting upon the plight Joe Christmas endures, one of the more thoughtful character reflects 'Poor man. Poor mankind.'

Finally, I'll consider Faulkner's use of time. His radical use of temporal ellipsis, arguably, certified his reputation as one of the most original writers of the 20th century. One critic noted that perhaps reading The Sound and the Fury from back to front would make more sense on first reading. In Benjy's narration, you can glide twenty years in time within a couple of sentences. As I Lay Dying rotates around fifteen different narrators and therefore has a very detailed and multifarious take on events. One of the thrills I experience upon completing a Faulkner novel - a thrill I previously described as 'inexpressible' - is how you have jumped through so many different moments in time. You are not circumscribed by a single view of events, you are presented with a polyphony of voices and viewpoints.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Short Stories

I have uploaded a few recent-ish stories to my blog.

These are stories I've now decided not to publish in magazines. After I had a story published (my first ever submission!), I thought anything I'd send anywhere would get accepted. Wrong. Everything has been rejected.

This has frustrated me a little. I've abstained from publishing them online in the past, but I've now realised that it's the only way they'll get read.

These stories, I guess, are a middle-ground. They aren't the best pieces of written, so I've now decided I won't try to publish them. But they aren't bad enough to make me embarrassed, either.

You can access them via the navbar, on the right.