Thursday, March 22, 2007

Books: House of Meetings by Martin Amis

House of Meetings, the latest novel by Martin Amis is definitely a return to form after the depressingly shit Yellow Dog, where it felt as if the author was fulfilling a hated contractual obligation rather than actually trying to write a memorable or enjoyable book. The lazy borrowing from his own journalism - an article he wrote on the porn scene in LA re-appears barely disguised - and the work of others - a biography of 'Mad Frankie Fraser'- highlighted the lack of interest Amis appeared to have in his own novel. Plot or character are never paramount in his work because the prose is so good but Yellow Dog was characterised by an enervated style that suggested a writer who had lost any sense of purpose.
Such lassitude was not in evidence a year before when 'Koba the Dread' was published. Both a wild, short survey of the crimes of Stalin and a series of reflections on his father and friend Christopher Hitchens' supposed fellow travelling, the book had many faults - comparing the cries of one of his children to the screams heard from the Butyrki prison in Moscow was one- but there was an undeniable energy in the prose and an engagement with the subject hardly seen in 'Yellow Dog'.
It is probably not a surprise then that Amis has returned to this terrain in 'House of Meetings', which relates the story of two brothers' love for the same woman as they try to survive life in a Siberian gulag. Framed as a letter to his American step-daughter long after these events have occurred, the unnamed narrator is now an old man who is making a final journey to the region where he and his brother were incarcerated. On the way, he not only reflects about life inside but also about Russia before the Second World War and the country now as it recovers from the Beslan school massacre but faces a seeming terminal decline in its population.
John Banville has written a comprehensive review of the novel in the New York Review of Books but he does leave out discussion of what I thought was a striking deficiency and that was the recurring references to English literature that are supposed to offer insights into the Russian experience. The narrator explains this away by mentioning a relationship with an English woman that caused him to develop a pedantic anglophilia - he says at one point 'I prefer the droller cultures, and the wizened ironists, to be found on the north western fringe of the Eurasian plain'- but I kept on thinking wouldn't a Russian use Pushkin or Tolstoy rather than Marvell? Perhaps I'm being parochial but I think it suggests that Amis, not a separate fictional narrator, is telling this story. When he writes about Beslan or other contemporary atrocities, you sense the same outrage witnessed in 'Koba the Dread'. But then what saves 'House of Meetings' from being another tirade is the prose, alive again and not palely loitering.
When the aged narrator arrives in Dudinka, 'the tannoy erupts, and my hangover and I edge down the gangway to the humphing and oomphing of a military march. And that's what the port looks like - a mad brass band, with its funnels and curved spouts, its hooters and foghorns, and in the middle distance the kettle-drum of the storage vats.' Or when his brother Lev is beaten in the prison camp, he lie on bed recovering with 'two worms of bloody phlegm coiling out of his head.' Or to the Russian experience;: 'the frequency of the total. The total state - the masterpiece of misery.'
There are many more such examples of fine prose in the novel and it is these rather than the subject matter, which somehow still doesn't convince, that make House of Meetings worth reading.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Cinema: Hidden Agenda

By coincidence, given the last post on the conspiracy against Chavez, I saw Hidden Agenda (1986) last night on Channel 6. Directed by Ken Loach, I had thought it was about the the Stalker affair and the cover up of the shoot to kill policy in Northern Ireland but while referring to that and being set in the North, it in fact was concerned with a bigger conspiracy - the overthrow of the Labour government of the 70's by a cabal of Conservative politicians, army and security services, both British and American. Shot in the familiar documentary style, the film featured Brian Cox as a policeman sent to Belfast to investigate the murder of an American civil rights lawyer, who had been given a tape recording of meeting discussing the plan to topple the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson. The cop, on discovering the existence of the tape, vows to track down the conspirators but soon he is being blackmailed and convinced by those involved of the futility of ever trying to bring the covert operation to light. The last scene sees him returning to London as the lawyer's widow, played by Frances McDormand, above, looks on in disbelief. Bleak stuff.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Cinema: Double Impact

I watched the first twenty minutes of 'Double Impact' last night before thinking better of it and switching off. I have always been a big fan of Jean Claude Van Damme's quixotic career, though perhaps more in theory than in practice as I really couldn't justifiably have sat through the whole of this lummox of a movie, which relates the attempts of twins Alex and Chad Wagner, who were separated at birth, to avenge the murder of their parents in Hong Kong. Apart from a few ill-advised wardrobe decisions - Van Damme dons turquoise leotards and pink shorts in successive scenes- the most notable aspect of the film is it marks the first time the Belgian kick boxer utilised the 'double' device in his work. A quick glance at the Internet Movie Database shows he later again plays twins in Maximum Risk, a serial killer and his replicant in Replicant and modern and ancient versions of the same character in The Order. Whether the prevalence of the double in Van Damme marks a failure of the imagination or some deeper artistic impulse is a question I will leave to future analysts of popular culture.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Television: The Trap

I watched ‘The Trap’,Adam Curtis' new documentary series on Sunday night on BBC 2 with great expectations, given that his previous efforts, The Century of the Self, which traced the part the Freud family played in the creation of the public relations industry, and The Power of Nightmares, an examination of the intellectual origins of both the Neo-Conservatives and Al-Qaeda, were startling pieces of television.
In this third series of films, Curtis seeks to analyse how the idea of freedom, officially at least, has become so prevalent in modern Western societies. The chief aim of governments in Britain and the United States now is not only to ensure freedom for their own citizens but also to promote the concept, by waging supposed wars of liberation, in Afghanistan and Iraq.
However, Curtis has identified that the foundation of this drive for freedom is premised on a deeply pessimistic view of human nature that assumes humans only ever act in their own self-interest, a theory posited by Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek, above, as a refutation of the post-WWII consensus that governments had to play an active part in the economy for the common good.
From this point of departure, Curtis links the utilisation of game theory by Rand Corporation scientists during the Cold War to the attacks on the family made by psychiatrist R.D. Laing as instances of how the idea of the common or public good was chipped away at in favour of an individualist ethos that assumed people were always essentially ‘out for themselves’. But this championing of the individual did not usher in a new era of freedom, instead systems analysis, whether it was in the diagnosis of psychiatric disorders or the operation of public institutions, became the dominant method of organising how the individual acted in society. The new emphasis in psychiatry on diagnosis by reference to lists of symptoms rather than specific treatment and the introduction of incentives and goals in the British health service were both examples of the contradictory nature of this pursuit of freedom which appeared to accept the ascendancy of the individual while at the same time putting in place ever more rigid systems in which people could live, work and think.
It is only fair to withhold judgement until the final two programmes are broadcast but I felt that Curtis was trying to draw too many disparate strands together and at times I longed for a more straightforward rendering of say the history of economic thought after the Second World War rather than these undoubtedly daring but you sense unsustainable intellectual leaps. Curtis has been praised in the past for his ability to unearth remarkable archive footage for his documentaries but this time the constant jumping from one image to another was distracting and I felt rarely added a whole lot to his thesis.

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Cinema: Babel

Before he went for Babel, Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu toyed with the idea of 'Do Japanese tourists hunt in Morocco?' as the Philip K. Dickesque title for his epic meditation on chance and fate in a globalised world. Well actually, like the film, that's complete bollix. But the question did occur to me as I watched yet another close-up of Brad Pitt in anguish because whether the Japanese do go to Morocco to shoot animals or birds or both is the key to the whole farrago: how the disparate lives of a middle-aged Mexican woman working illegally in the States, an estranged American couple on a group tour holiday in north Africa, an unfortunate kid (and his family) who unintentionally shoots the female half of said couple and a deaf mute Toyko teenager are linked. The latter part of the film is reminiscent of Lost in Translation,the Morocco section is, at times, like Blackboards while the Mexico segment echoes The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which isn't much of a surprise because Guillermo Arriaga wrote the screenplay for both.
More surprising was Harriet Walter, a great Shakespearean actor, popping up in the tiniest of cameo roles as a disgruntled British tourist desperate to get out of the shitty village Pitt has lead them in search of treatment for his wife. Because of Walter's presence, I imagined that the whole tour bus was a group of English luvvies being brought reluctantly to perform at some far flung Moroccan outpost as part of a joint initiative to foster greater awareness of European culture sponsored by the British Council and the UN, represented on this occasion by Brad Pitt. I was that bored by this long, portentous, pretentious film.

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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Cinema: No Mercy

I watched 'No Mercy' last night partly to remedy a historical wrong, namely that I wasn't able to see it when it came out in Dublin in the mid-80's because it was rated certificate 18 and partly because there was nothing else on. The highlight of an otherwise dour film was the memorably named cop Eddie Jillette, played by the pouty and thoroughly unlikely Richard Gere, being described as looking like stale piss by his captain,played by George Dzundza, above. Other than that I found myself speculating as to why bad guy Jeroen Krabbe wears the same buttoned-up overcoat throughout the film and how many times has the premise of a tough cop going to another city-this time from Chicago to New Orleans- to bust shit up being resorted to by Hollywood.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Jean Baudrillard est mort

Philosopher Jean Baudrillard has died in France aged 77. Highly influenced by Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle, Baudrillard was famous for his book, 'The [First]Gulf War didn't happen', which argued that our (western) knowledge of that war was mediated to such extent that it was impossible to say what really occurred and what in fact reality was at all, instead we were left with the 'hyperreal', a reality only available to us through the media. He also wrote that the Disney sponsored town, Celebration, in Florida wasn't an idealised and artificial version of the American dream, it was the rest of the country that was fake; Celebration, with its white fences and Truman Show style community, was America!
As a mark of respect, here are some exhilarating opening lines from 'Simulations', published by Semiotext(e) in 1983:
"Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth it is the map that precedes the territory - PRECESSION OF SIMULACRA- it is the map that engenders the territory..."

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Cinema: The Black Dahlia

I was bored senseless by the utterly redundant 'Black Dahlia', which is notable only for the piss poor acting on show. You expect this from Josh Hartnett, whose ability to express emotions of any kind is virtually nil, or Scarlett Johansson, almost beyond parody as the vampy Kay Lake, but Aaron Eckhart? And worse still our very own John Kavanagh and Fiona Shaw, who in her closing scenes, seemed to be aping Norma Desmond's final exit from Sunset Boulevard. As for Kavanagh, the improbable Scottish accent really did him no favours and got me thinking about how well he played Joxer Daly in Juno and the Paycock by Sean O'Casey in the Gate back in the mid-80's, which also featured Donal McCann as the Paycock and was the first play I saw in the theatre. At least in Alexander, he was allowed keep his Irish accent.

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