Thursday, 27 February 2014

Necessary attrition

One of the indelible effects the First World War had on our collective psyche is that it completely crushed the illusion of progress the Enlightenment had promised. Man proved to be animalistic, war-mongering and insatiably evil. This, among other things, led to the 'lost generation' of writers. The war proved to man that attrition, the diminution of our hopes and dreams, is inescapable.

Of course, the halycon of 'utopia' is still a perennial attraction to this day. As thinker John Gray points out, when we collectively vie for unattainable impossible goals, this can lead to war, destruction, genocide. The rampant, unregulated free market capitalism that resulted in the market crash was the result of overly optimistic thinking. It proved that the booming period of prosperity in the 90s was something ephemeral, not ever-lasting. Wars are also often a result of delusional optimism. The foreign interventions mounted in the 90s/00s proved to their crude strategists that building democracy abroad is not a plausible task. This still did not prevent a gaggle of neo-cons and liberal interventionists - embodied perhaps by the belligerence of Cristopher Hitchens - from saying that, even though the invasion resulted in countless deaths and in the destruction of Iraq, it was a worth pursuit because it was a noble idea to begin with.

I am reminded of a quote from José Donoso I ran into recently: 'Nada queda. Todo se disuelve. Los proyectos fracasan.' ('Nothing remains. Everything dissolves. Projects fail.') Donoso, perhaps the most apolitical writer of the Latin American boom period, wrote this following the failures of socialism in Cuba and Chile. Writers like Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortázar and Carlos Fuentes continued to fraternise with Fidel Castro despite his heinous record of repression. As it happens, the novels by many of these writers turned more sombre once it became clearer that their youthful radicalism was misjudged.

The greatest literature is when there is some sort of conflict. We love plays Hamlet or Macbeth because they depict the vicissitudes of characters with lofty ambitions. Prince Hamlet may think that the murder of his father is unjust, but the ensuing tragedy is a result of the unrealistic way he plots for revenge. Brecht said that 'conflict is the essence of drama.' It might be a truism, but it was right on the mark.

The reason why we have these towering works of art is precisely because we live through periods of attrition, austerity and misery. I suggest you read my short story Planet Zhelanie (* Available on the navbar to the right. I am also pleased to announce that I plan to turn it into a novel soon. *) to see how I treat this theme. Even though we have ambitious dreams and hopes, it results in attritition - in their gradual diminution and eventual loss. Yet scarring moments in history result in great works of art. See the video below with Orson Welles in The Third Man: 'In Italy, they had the Borgias and that resulted in the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had 500 years of brotherly peace and democracy. And what did that produce? The coo-coo clock.'  I would not endorse the repressive measures of 16th century Italian nobility; I would align myself with the social democratic values exemplified by the ideals of 1945 Labour party. However, it does prove that the idea of a utopia would be dreadfully boring. (J. G. Ballard was against the idea of social democracy because he claimed that if a society would be that equitable, nothing happens.) What I do think it does prove is that any utopia would be dreadfully boring to live in. As there would be no conflict, we would have no tragedy. There would certainly be no Shakespeare! Scientific fundamentalists like Richard Dawkins relish the idea of a society governed by science, whereby we can relish the wonders of nature. (Such claims reveal the mind of a closet believer!) The kind of scientific utopian societies presented by Dawkins and Steven Pinker are fallaciously based on the premise that, if we are governed by science, we will have the perfect society. This just substitutes religion for science, the Catholic cross for the equivalent iconography. Science should just be used in its mundane forms. I do not undervalue it. In fact, I am sure the discoveries of Newton, Einstein etc. are up there with Shakespeare. However, as soon as you propose a scientific model for society, you a proposing a kind of fundamentalism. (In fact, one of the side-effects of secularisation should be religious tolerance.) In any case, if these utopian ideals did materialise, the human capacity for the imagination would be lost. It would be boring. Strife is necessary, as is attrition.

The paragraph above grew and grew. It is a tad bit long. I will not bother to edit it and break it down! Not to worry because, as promised, below you have the video of Orson Welles' classic monologue. Enjoy.

Friday, 21 February 2014

The ecstatic truth

In scholarly criticism, it is vital to be accurate. When it comes to any kind of representational media, however, veracity is not compulsory. Often, you are not trying to be faithful to historical records, you want to be faithful to psychology. You want to know how the mind perceives events. The mind is fallible and can be discrepant with an historical narrative.

Of course, the notion that there is 'one' single historical narrative of a single event is absurd. There is no 'one' universal 'we' which can singularly expressed an event. Testimonial writing of the Holocaust, for instance, reveal discrepant accounts. A single historical narrative is the simplification of a multitude of minds which perceive the event differently. One person might have perceived the First World War in a state of shell shock, thereby warping his perception of the war. The Second World War might have been experienced by an unrepentant Nazi officer who vehemently denied that the Holocaust ever happened. In that case, he has an account of the Holocaust refracted through a Fascistic lens. And, of course, history is interpreted by a number of different critical perspectives. There is no consensus on historical narratives because there are disputes as to what happened and there are also various disputes as to the ethics of certain events. (For instance, Michael Gove's steadfast glorification of the First World War.)

The Romantics and the German Idealists were interested in consciousness and heightened perception. They were particularly interested in the ways in which the individual experienced exalted moments of transcendence. The German filmmaker Werner Herzog coined the term 'The Ecstatic Truth' for the individual who arrives at a truth which might contravene to historical facts. His documentaries are not always faithful to facts and he often includes fictive elements. There is a very silly idea that documentaries should be didactic and 'inform' the viewer. Herzog rightly thinks this is a load of nonsense and his documentaries raises questions as much as a narrative work of fiction might.

What makes Herzog special is that he takes this German Romantic sensibility and applies it to cultures the world over. Indeed, it is much in keeping with the aboriginal view of history as cyclical process. Many aboriginal tribes in their natural habitat are also in search of the exalted transcendent experiences. Anthropological studies often apply to them a whole methodology which is grounded in a different western approach. Many a tribesman must have arrived at these 'ecstatic' truths, just as the 19th century Romantics did. The Romantic imagination is actually the appropriation of a timeless, universal sentiment.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Thoughts on Woody Allen

I have had in mind writing this post for several weeks. Woody Allen has of course been in the news of late for all the wrong reasons. Even if has been a child molestor, this should still not taint his great body of work. Rapists, murderers, sodomites can make great artists. We should learn to separate the life and the work. I don't mean to be disingenuous - if the allegations are true, then he is by no means an honourable man.

When I bring the name 'Woody Allen' up when talking to another devoted cinephile, it summons the same reaction as when I bring the name 'Frank Zappa' with a devoted fan of classical music. I receive a bemused reaction. He has made some funny films, but what has that to do with the likes of Bergman, Tarkovsky, Truffaut, etc.?

Others see him as a one-trick-pony who churns out the same film year in and year out. Even though several of his films overlap, and there can be predictabilities in his scripts, there is a lot more variety and breadth than people acknowledge. Even if many of his films might superficially appear to be similar, there is often an a priori concept behind it - a desire to reinvent himself and try something new.

The persona of Woody Allen is deeply ingrained into the popular consciousness. The nebbish, neurotic New York intellectual who has spent years in therapy. For people of a certain temperament, he is the celebrity one most readily identifies with. For a quirky neurotic like myself, I can look at Woody Allen dithering on screen and think 'By God, this is me!' And I am not alone - he elicits the same reaction from swathes of nervous people.

I will run through my favourite films of his and give comments. Of course, one cannot forget his early years as a stand-up comedian, where he provided the world with a repartee of witty one-liners. The comedy was sharp and incisive, though it was always very gentle. His skit 'The Moose' has me in stitches.

His early films has been self-described as 'the early, funny ones.' My favourite of these would have to be Sleeper. A failed clarinetist who runs a grocery store awakes in a topsy-turvy Orwellian future. The film is strewn with great one-liners and the slapstick comedy is hilarious. The rest of the films from this period - Bananas, Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex - have their moments though feel as though they are novelty films. There are great moments, though several other scenes do not really hold together.

Allen would reinvigorate his comedic films with Love and Death. Although it is a comedy, it deals with the big themes of Russian literature. It is slapstick for lit undergrads. There are hilarious scenes between Keaton and Allen which spoof the writing of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. 'I don't love you, I love Sonya and Ulalov' and proceeds to list a number of endlessly long Russian names. (Often, the most cumbersome thing about the Russian writers is having to remember the names of the characters). If they happen to have run into some kind of mishap, Allen invariably turns to the camera and philosophises about the meaning of life.

The major turning point was, of course, Annie Hall. It is the first film where Woody Allen consciously wrote three-dimensional characters and where his film had a dramatic arc. That's not to say that it isn't littered with great jokes - it is. And, of course, you get the charming relationship between the two ditsy neurotics, Allen and Diane Keaton.

Allen made a major statement of intent when he made a film completely shorn of comedy - Interiors. It was a tribute to his idol Ingmar Bergman. (I haven't seen it.)

Then would come another classic, Manhattan. Since I saw the film, it is difficult for me to hear George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue without picturing New York shot in monochrome. In this film we get the intellectual enclave of New York, where refined people go to art galleries and discuss whether Mahler or Mozart were overrated. The initial sequences are exhilarating. Allen stutters onto a tape recorder notes for literary projects. They are all perfunctory until he arrives at a phrase he likes, the Gershwin climaxes and there is a montage of precipitous Manhattan skycrapers. My favourite scene in the film is when Allen considers what makes life living. For all the meaninglessness of the universe, Allen can still find a few items here and there that makes up for it.

I've heard a few people say that, following Manhattan, Allen became inordinately indulgent. For me, he was only getting started. My favourite period in his career are his films in the 80s.

Just as Interiors was his Bergman homage, Stardust Memories was his homage to Fellini's 8 1/2. We see a star comedian beleaguered by the media papparizi. It is a meta-fiction film that Allen would revisit in the future. People were put off by the narcissistic self-absorption, but the film is magical and playful.

Woody Allen would meet his next muse Mia Farrow and they would go onto make my favourite films of his. Zelig is about an eternal chameleon. Shot as a mockumentary, it champions individualism and going against the grain. The Purple Rose of Cairo is a masterful film about the pleasures of fiction and how it trumps reality. Too much fiction can still create torments. Mia Farrow goes to the cinema every day to watch the same film, besotted by the male lead. The fictional lead jumps out of the screen and they start a romance. This leads to the ire of the real actor who wants the character to return to the movie! Broadway Danny Rose is a quirky comedy about a failed manager of entertainment acts.

Hannah and her Sisters is a novelistic narrative about three New York sisters and their predicaments. The pacing of the narrative is deft and we get as much drama as we do laughs. Allen contemplates committing suicide, but attends a Groucho Marx film and concludes that life is too precious. Allen proved in this film that the best parts he writes are for women. The sisters in the film are the most fully-formed characters in his work. The film was his most substantial insight yet into his neurotic/intellectual New York milieu.

The same narrative structure was preserved for my favourite Allen film (and a top 20 all time entry), Crimes and Misdemeanours. Whereas earlier films felt somewhat contrived whenever he ventured into serious cinema, the existentialist elements fit snugly here. There are touches of Bergman here and there, but this is wholly Allen's film. An esteemed dentist arranges the murder of his lover who vows to bring his reputation to an end. This runs in parallel to another Allen character who has a failed career as a documentary filmmaker. Once more, despite the horrors and setbacks, the film is very life-affirming. Whereas Allen thought the ending of Hannah and her Sisters was a tad bit sentimental, here there is enough doom and gloom to counterbalance that. Allen also makes stellar use of Schubert's 15th string quartet.

His relationship ground with Mia Farrow ground to a halt (the repercussions of which still sprout out in the media today). The break-up is painfully evident in Husbands and Wives. Modelled on Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, and shot with hand-held cameras, it feels like a fly-on-the-wall documentary of the acrimonious break-up. This is one of the few Allen films without the slightest semblance of the feel-good factor - it is harrowing from beginning to end. Whilst it does of moments of humour, it is very black.

Following this he made more light-hearted films which I think are very underrated: Manhattan Murder Mystery, Bullets in Broadway (another favourite), Mighty Aphrodite and Deconstructing Harry. Bullets in Broadway deals with the sheer shallowness and pomposity of the artist-as-genius. A gangster type writes a broadway hit which is wrongly attributed to an aspring playwright. Deconstructing Harry is another meta-fiction film which examines the creative process. There are a few skits which are racously funny.

Following 1997's Deconstructing Harry, Allen's films faced a gradual and steep decline. His working aesthetic - shoot quickly without rehearsel - now led to films which felt hackneyed and shoddy. The only exception for me has been Midnight in Paris, a whimsical jeu d'spirit wherein a literary enthusiast meets his literary heroes in 1920s. (I had a somewhat epiphanic experience when I saw the film in a cinema in Buenos Aires. I was so excited that I resolved to write a story on the experience, but it turned out turgid.) The critics were hasty to canonise Blue Jasmine, but to me it suffered the same problems as the rest of his late-period work - patronising, dated scripts and too much explanatory dialogue. Cate Blanchett gave an assured performance, but the film still felt like counterfeit currency to me.

However much I may despair over the quality of his recent films, Woody Allen's status as one of the greats in the history of the medium is incontestable. What I most like about his films is the comfort we find in fiction and stories (for instance, how seemingly innocent women fawn at the feet of nervous wrecks.) When you start watching a film and you hear the same new Orleans 1920s swing, you know you are about to enter a world which is so familiar yet so reassuring.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Primordial heaven

Manfred and the Alpine Witch (1837) by John Martin