Monday, September 25, 2006

Talks: Richard Ford at the Royal College of Surgeons

American author Richard Ford gave a reading from his new book 'The Lay of the Land' at the Royal College of Surgeons tonight. The novel is the third outing for Frank Bascombe, the slightly aimless hero of 'The Sportswriter' and 'Independence Day' and finds him still living in New Jersey, married and preparing for Thanksgiving in the year 2000, a date chosen by Ford to avoid having to write about 9/11, the fact of which he believes fiction can't yet elaborate on or imaginatively explore. He also believes the fault lines in American society were already there before the terrorist attacks and thinks his latest offering reflects this.
The extract Ford read concerned the re-appearance of Bascombe's current wife's ex-husband, a Vietnam vet who vanished thirty years previously and had been pronounced legally dead at the request of his wife. Instead, he had decamped to Scotland to live in various hippie communes before ending up as a gardener for some landed gentry on one of the Hebrides islands. His return is prompted by a web site created by his family appealing for any information on their son; they never accepted his apparent death. Bascombe's reaction to this is to both rail at the absurdity of the situation and to muse on the implications it will have for a marriage that up to then had been lived out in splendid isolation.
There were moments of levity in this but also present was that bleak awareness that though we attempt to fashion, to construct something, underlying this is a fundamental lack of control, an exposure to events.
Ford was introduced by Roddy Doyle who made a tasteless joke about a lover of literature being delighted on hearing the news they had cancer so they could plan what last great book they would read before the end.
The questions after the reading were the usual mixed bag. An extraordinarily pompous American pleaded with Ford to return to the dirty realism of his Rock Springs days while another member of the audience seemed keen to tell Ford the plot of some his short stories. The latter is probably forgiveable as enthusiasm because Ford is a really fine writer; his long twisty sentences seem an accurately represent the ebb and flow of hope and despair that characterise so much of our thoughts

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Friday, September 22, 2006

Cinema: Children of Men

Conspiracy theories are characterised by their detractors as a consolation; they explain a world that in reality is resistant to neat explanation. Similarly you could say that dystopias, although depicting shattered worlds, are a symptom of the persistenc of hope, in this instance that something will happen at some stage in the future. In other words, life always won't be this boring,a change is gonna come.
But inevitably dystopias (and utopias) are also a working out of the consequences of the particular political, economic moment the writer finds him or herself in.
A fine example of this genre,'Children of Men', was released today in Dublin. It is adapted from a novel by PD James and directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who previously lensed Amores Perros and 21 Grammes. Ok, and 'Arry bleeding Potter.
The film is set in 2027 in a world where all the women have been infertile for the last eighteen years and a fascist junta holds an iron grip on power in England, the only country that continues to have a functioning state apparatus. To continue its existence, the state has revived the idea of Britishness, which in turn gives them the excuse to wage a savage campaign against the many immigrants who come to the country in search of work. For those despairing in the face of inevitable extinction, the goverment helpfully provides a suicide kit called 'Quietus'.
Clive Owen, who I normally find irritating, delivers a good performance as a deadbeat bureaucrat, sloping around in a fug of alcohol and cigarettes. His only friend is the hippiesh Michael Caine, who lives in a secluded pastoral setting, far from the bleak future London, with its rickshaws and billboards encouraging people to inform on their neighbours if they suspect them of being illegal immigrants (which turns out to be topical in the week that British Home Secretary John Reid suggested that Muslim parents should keep an eye on their children for fear they may fall under the sway of extremists.)
Owen is contacted by a former lover, played by Julianne Moore, now involved in a resistance movement fighting on behalf of immigrants. It turns out that Owen once was a radical too but his life was destroyed when he and Moore's child died some twenty years previously. He to the bottle, she to the cause.
In any event, Moore tells Owen they have discovered a young pregnant woman and need his help to get her out of England. Initially cynical and solely interested in the money on offer, Owen is converted when he sees the pregnant woman and realises that both the resistance faction and the state are likely to exploit her and her child ruthlessly.
Despite some uncomfortable religious undertones, it is a compelling film full of references to current political events. Immigrants are housed in cages at train stations and on arrival at detention centres they are hooded and forced to crouch in a manner similar to the detainees at Guantanamo Bay. In fact, the detention centres are more accurately described as war-torn ghettoes, raising parallels to what happened in Lebanon in August and what is still going on in Gaza.
The film also expresses current fears in European countries about the dwindling birth rate, which has fallen below replacement levels in Spain, Italy and Germany. People are having fewer children later in life, the slack is being taken up by immigrants, which in turn is leading to an extremely disturbing revival in far right politics as witnessed in Mecklenburg last week.
Added to the topicality, is the direction, which Cuaron executes masterfully. The action is well paced, with explosions and gunfire visceral in the extreme, and though the film holds out hope of redemption - there are some problematic scenes - it ends ambiguously, the viewer left uncertain as to whether the first new child in twenty years will survive the next twenty minutes.

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Friday, September 08, 2006

On the way to Rathmines

Do you chat to taxi drivers? I take it on a ‘case by case’ basis. Sometimes you just couldn’t be arsed. Other times an opening conversational gambit is greeted with such lack of interest that the rest of the journey is silent. During the World Cup, I was surprised that on a number of occasions my attempts to engage in a chat about Spain’s lively campaign opening or the majesty of the Argentine demolition of Serbia were rebuffed. Then sometimes you deeply regret initiating a verbal exchange especially when you get onto subjects such as Dublin Airport, the Ryder Cup, property or worst of all immigrants. But amid all the dross, there are hidden gems. On the way to Rathmines last night, the cabbie told me how he had seen the Beatles five times in the sixties and had lost count of the number of times he had seen the Stones. He worked all over England – Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham- and took in as many gigs as possible – Gerry and the Pacemakers, Freddie and the Dreamers, Manfred Mann, Cilla Black even. “We were like the Poles then,” he said. “You had to go elsewhere for work.” And despite the ever-present racism towards Irish people in England at the time, he loved life there. “Later on, I was a mod and had a moped, parka, the whole thing. And we used to have scraps with the rockers. My girlfriend was a hippie, into flower power and free love. Those were the days, mad fuckin’ memories.” He came back to Dublin in the 80’s but goes back to England, particularly Blackpool all the time. “The working men’s clubs are the best. You pay nothing in and the pints are only two pounds. The comedians are great – they always rip the piss out of you if they know you are Irish and I love listening to the cabaret singers. The hotels are dead cheap and once the clubs close we usually head back there. There’s nothing like it in Dublin.”
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