Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Nest (2020)

There's something weirdly wonderful about this BBC/Canadian-funded flick, written and directed by Sean Durkin (He of Martha, Marcy and so on).

It could have been scripted from the outset with Jude Law in mind, though it seems we watched it just a bit too soon after The Third Day such that that besmirched white linen jacket was hard to dispel from the mind. If Jude was cast almost by default, Carrie Coon's inclusion was a little more inspired.
The main action is located in a permanently autumnal England of the mid-eighties, roughly between my last year at school and the end of my first at university, a setting that is both rousingly recognisable, whilst amusingly filtered through transatlantic goggles.
There's a similar duality to plot and script as well, in parts very much on the nose with admirable precision, in others almost excruciatingly off target. (The less said about a horse disposal sub-plot the better.)
There are not many films these days where I can say around the midpoint that I have no idea where it is heading, and that is generally a positive, especially when accompanied by the sensation of being gripped.
As the conclusion loomed I started to wonder if Durkin was planning on ending it every which way he could, but he drew back from the near simultaneous calamities he'd apparently been lining up, leaving his protagonists, rather like 2020, significantly battered and largely bereft of either the means or the disposition to carry on, and yet intact and importantly, still together.
How this became listed under 'Romance' on the IMDB is a minor mystery. Someone must have seen the poster and not the film. The original score by Richard Reed Parry might also have provided a few early clues as to how much of a feel good experience was to be anticipated...

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

HBO's The Art Of Political Murder

A disappointing adaptation of Francisco Goldman's extraordinary book, which retains the 'art' of the title, whilst shedding it in the telling for telly. 

The format is a string of interviews — essentially a trip down memory lane for the key investigators and journalists involved, plus some useful backstory. 

Goldman himself tries to add some deeper insight, but it might have been better to have deployed him as the narrator and to thus frame the narrative as a complex whodunnit, which is precisely what the author did on paper. Sadly, sales of the book are unlikely to benefit following the airing on HBO, because the whole production is rather mundane and slotted into standard-received Guatemala for foreigners...

Bishop produces surprisingly revealing and detailed report on army atrocities and is murdered a couple of days later. Authorities try to pin the blame on housemate and then the same supposedly gay priest's dog. But persistent human rights investigators locate a vagrant come double agent who will testify to the presence on the night of a pack of mid-level military sociopaths and eventually the justice system comes good. The end. 

What has gone missing from this version are the disturbing connections to two former presidents: Alvaro Arzú and Otto Pérez Molina. The documentary barely mentions the fact that Lima jnr and Villanueva were part of Arzú's palace protection unit and that on the night of Romero's death the sargento was supposedly doing time here in La Antigua for another more random homicide, which Arzú was at the very least a direct witness to. 

Arzú's subsequent attempts to globally propagate an alternative solution to the crime, assisted by the likes of Mario Vargas Llosa, are also strangely absent here. 

Some mention of the bloody fates of Byron Lima and his sidekick might also have been included. Plus how the former evolved into one of Guatemala's most vocal pantomime villains even as he was simultaneously very loud and yet very quiet from his jail cell. 

Anyway, the book remains a top recommendation (now in updated form) even if the documentary was thoroughly meh. 

Sending 2020 off with a glug...

My Somebody Else's Problem Field is just about holding up. And this really does appear to be somebody else's problem.


On the plus side, just as La Antigua has been granted some sort of Safe Travels recognition, we appear to have acquired a brand new tourist attraction. And there's definitely some water hiding underneath the village. For now...

Monday, December 28, 2020

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Fitting perhaps that the two ‘big’ movies of 2020 were both utterly absurd. 

First there was the one that was going to save the big screen experience (Tenet) and now we have the one that essentially says sod it to cinemas. 

The trouble here is I couldn’t consistently establish whilst viewing just how knowingly ludicrous WW84 is, and ended up pondering how great it would be to see Gadot in a movie for grown-ups before this nonsense swallows her career. 

Great to see Pedro Pascal out of his helmet again. His performance is silly yet entertaining in a good way, unlike a lot of what is going on around him.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Brexit, a pre-history

Under the influence of a continental super-state Britons started to live in rectangular houses instead of round ones and social status began to accrue from education and economic muscle rather than the more local ties of kinship and tribe.

It was in these circumstances that perhaps our first great Brexiteer emerged: Boudica, queen of the Iceni.

In 60 AD she led an army of up to 100,000 in a bloody revolt against 'ever closer union', laying waste to much of urban Roman settlement in the south with a particular ire directed against Londinium. According to Tacitus 70,000 of its citizens were slaughtered as it was razed to the ground. 

There is still a layer of red, oxidised iron to be found under the City, so in effect there have been two Great Fires in London's history.

Brimming with optimism, Boudica's horde then faced up at an uncertain location to a Roman force led by Gaius Paulinus Suetonius (ten times its inferior size-wise) and duly lost, really badly. 80,000 dead on the British side, 400 on the Roman. 

In modern parlance it seems they had a tactically-naive attacking game and were thus extremely vulnerable to the counter.

Britain's new anti-cosmopolitan folk heroine then either fell ill and died of natural causes, or partook of poison. 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Chambermaid (2018)

"On Monday, February 16, 1981, I was hired as a temporary chambermaid for three weeks in a Venetian hotel. I was assigned twelve bedrooms on the fourth floor. In the course of my cleaning duties, I examined the personal belongings of the hotel guests and observed through details lives which remained unknown to me. On Friday, March 6, the job came to an end."

An extract from the blurb accompanying L’Hotel, a series of voyeuristic photographic observations made by Sophie Calle of the items in these rooms, that were at one stage on show at the Tate in London and went on to inspire a stage play by Mexican actor-come-director Lila Avilés which evolved into her first feature film.

And perhaps if this had focussed more on the reverse anthropology conceit in Calle's installation the movie might have been more consistently interesting. Instead it uses atmosphere (very effectively) to show us multiple aspects of its protagonist's invisibility, with the whole not quite adding up to a fully coherent story. 

In his review Peter Bradshaw captured what is both gripping (and in a sense the opposite of gripping, as we both nodded off a couple of times) in the mood projected by Avilés as she shows us a set of salient incidents in the daily activities of young camarista Eve, seen to be "in revolt against the almost erotic narcosis of the place and the expensive weightless perfection, which the reality of her existence is always liable to soil in some calamitous way."

Like the art work that inspired it, the film is fascinating in an almost photographic way, as a collection of stills or vignettes that inspire further contemplation beyond the narrative line. 

Mexico has a solid tradition in a sociological cinema of race and class, where non-professional actors have often excelled. As Eve, Gabriela Cartol is a pro, seemingly trying to capture the guilelessness of an amateur. It works some of the time, but there are moments in the movie where both the lead and the director seem to be too visibly struggling to project a depth beneath the blankness. 



The 'Shit Taped Together At The Bodegona' phenomenon appears to have leaked out onto the streets of Antigua...

Monday, December 14, 2020

Awkward Freedom

How much much does abnormality need to impinge on our existence before normality caves in? This is a very 2020 question.

In his account of a tour of Mexico's border towns a couple of years ago, Paul Theroux repeatedly expresses amazement at their 'civic pride' amidst all the cartel violence. In effect, it appeared that he could not quite cope with the levels of everyday normality he kept encountering.

This weekend I read that 1 in 500 people in New Jersey have died this year from covid-19.

In a town of 500,000 this would equate to something like 1000 deaths over the course of 10 months, actually somewhat more extreme than the prevailing stats for violent fatalities in Mexico's notorious border communities. Has 'normalcy' duly collapsed in New Jersey? I suspect not.

A major part of the 2020 narrative has been so-called complacency — people going out and acting normal when they supposedly shouldn't. From this perspective civic-mindedness involves self-isolation, rather than picnics in the park or museum visits.

Yet when he wrote The Plague in 1947, Albert Camus seemed to grasp something vaguely counter-intuitive: that the more calamitous the circumstances around us, the more we feel the urge to break out and enjoy the moment. 

He seemed to be suggesting that there is a fundamental human instinct at play here that transcends blinkered selfishness. In his novel we come across a 'parade' of young people on the streets attempting to demonstrate a "passion for living that grows in the midst of great misfortunes", a pervasive inclination which deepens as the plague takes an ever more profound hold on the locked-in city of Oran. 

"When they saw that it was serious, they remembered the enjoyment. All the anguish which is painted in the daytime on the faces is then resolved, in the fiery and dusty twilight, in a sort of haggard excitement, an awkward freedom which infects a whole people."
I am reminded too of Antony Beevor's extraordinary account in Downfall  of the grand apocalyptic blowout that took place in Hitler's Berlin bunker as the Soviet's closed in.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

What's done to us...

Spinoza believed that thoughts of personal mortality were rarely conducive to freedom: “A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life.”

Which is perhaps why, in times of war and pandemic, freedom tends to become the hot topic of the day.

In 2020 the most visible public reflection of this sort has been done by libertarians, of both the smart and the dumb sort.

Much of this has looked a lot like denial. As if the world’s sudden veering sharply away from near optimal conditions for their sort of planned existence, has somehow to be shouted down or confounded with dubious observations posing as useful data.

Like a lot of formalised freedoms in the western tradition, theirs kind of depends on everyone having more or less the same idea what freedom means, and so, in a sense, is not really freedom at all.

In my parents’ early days, when the world undoubtedly faced an even more extreme set of circumstances, the ones doing the high profile thinking were mostly a new lot called Existentialists, but the interwar years had seen a proliferation of navel-gazers, all generally caught off guard by the advent of WWII. The English surrealist poet David Gascoyne, living in Paris, sounded seriously pissed off in his diary: ‘What is so detestable about war is that it reduces the individual to complete insignificance.’

Sartre understood the moment when it hit him. In The Reprieve set during the months leading up to the conflagration, he spoke of “a hundred million free consciousnesses, each aware of walls, the glowing stump of a cigar, familiar faces, and each constructing its destiny on its own responsibility.”

The imminent possibility of death and reflections thereof might not mean an end to freedom, as Spinoza had warned, but they sure change some of the fundamentals. The essence of Sartre’s post-war thinking on the topic was encapsulated thus: “Freedom is what we do with what is done to us”.

And now, a new generation has learned that history is not merely something that we ‘witness’ on our screens. Sometimes it becomes the very incarnation of a set of challenges to our basic preconceptions and rather annoyingly elects to move in with us for a while. 

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Vacas and Vacunas

Spanish-speakers will probably be alert to the shared root of the words for cow and vaccine. 

At the end of the eighteenth century British zoologist Edward Jenner had observed how milkmaids seemed to be immune to smallpox. 

He subsequently established that this immunity appeared to be conferred by the pus from their cowpox sores, a disease contracted occupationally, which in turn had been transferred to the cattle by horses which were vulnerable to an ailment known as 'the grease'. 

In 1796 Jenner injected this cowpox pus into the arm of James Phipps, son of his gardener, and thus the world's first vaccine was born.

The institution of slavery had a hand in modern medical advances as slaver ships often carried scientific observers who would duly note all the relevant symptoms generated by different afflictions that became rife below decks in the hold. 

But in Latin America at least, slavery would also play a key role in the way Jenner's vaccine was distributed. 

The story is told in a fascinating footnote in this rather wonderful book by Greg Grandin...

“In 1803, after his daughter died from the disease (smallpox), Spain’s King Carlos IV ordered its vaccine (a practical version had been recently fabricated by the British) to be disseminated throughout his dominion. Francisco Xavier de Balmis, the doctor who headed the royal expedition appointed to carry out the task, decided it was best to transport the vaccine live. Twenty-two foundlings aged three to nine were boarded on a ship: doctors made a small incision on the arms of two of them and inserted a mixture of lymph and pus, which after a few days produced the pustules that would provide the material to vaccinate the next two boys. The procedure was repeated until the ship reached America. Once there, the foundlings were feted and praised, laid at the foot of church altars, and adopted by the king himself as “special children of the country.” But Balmis’s team didn’t have the funds to cover all of Spanish America. It turned to the one institution that already reached across the far-flung realm: slavery.

“In Havana, Balmis bought four young slave girls, whom he used to send the vaccine to the Yucatan (once they performed their service, the two girls were sold). At first, slaves were sent on journeys specifically organized to transport the vaccine. But as time passed, it became easier just to use already established commercial routes, sending the vaccine “arm to arm of the blacks” who were being shipped as cargo. Portugal had from the beginning relied on African slaves to get the vaccine across the Atlantic, sending it to Brazil in the arms of seven enslaved children. It was then taken to Río de la Plata in a shipment of thirty-eight vaccinated slaves who were to be sold in Montevideo. An African woman “with pustules in perfect development” carried the vaccine to Buenos Aires. And from there, slaves took the “miracle discovery”—which made slavery much more profitable for slavers—through the rest of Argentina, over the Andes, and into Chile.
“Interestingly, before the Spanish began to disseminate the vaccine through the arms of orphans and slaves, the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt reported that young African slaves and Native American cow herders on the slopes of the Andes knew that exposure to the tubercles of cow udders protected them from the pox. Africans and Indians, Humboldt said, “display great sagacity in observing the character, habits, and diseases of the animals with which they live.”

Saturday, December 05, 2020

Tenet (2020)

In Nolan's latest some people are going forwards, others backwards, but it's the stuff that comes in sideways that proves the most frustrating.

I remember that the second time we watched Inception we enjoyed it in terms of both visual and intellectual content as much as we had the first time. Sitting through Tenet again would seem like a chore, though a chore made almost necessary in order to work out what the $%&# is going on.
There's nothing wrong with a bit of difficulty, or even disorientation per se. In The Existentialist Café, Sarah Bakewell has this little anecdote: “Hans Jonas, who studied with both Husserl and Heidegger, remarked in a later radio interview that Heidegger was by far the more exciting of the two. Asked why, he replied that it was largely ‘because he was much more difficult to understand." 

Opacity can of course be strangely thrilling, as I noted recently in a social media post about about one of my favourite lecturers at Cambridge, John Dunn, emeritus Professor of Political Theory at King's, whose labyrinthine sentences, both spoken and on the page, seemed like the main reason for attending them. 

Heidegger's game, specifically, was to make the familiar feel unfamiliar and vice versa (and thereby philosophically invigorating) via a set of ultimately very modernist techniques in the idiom he was using. 

Hardcore Christopher Nolan fans will no doubt be getting much of what they crave from Tenet, even if the director appears to be stooping to self-parody at times. 

Yet there are smart films that even if they don't make the viewer smarter, do get them thinking. Tenet is complex, but in the end its complexities appear to amount to little more than a sort of cinematic fairground ride. 

The best smart time travel movie we've seen in the last couple of decades was Spanish: Cronocrímenes. It toyed with paradoxes, sent multiple versions of its characters chasing around a confection of timelines, and yet never left us feeling lost. 

2004's Primer was more of a mind mangler, but I ended up convinced that Shane Carruth (at least) had a comprehensive grasp of the physics (and metaphysics) he was playing with, something I doubted about Nolan at various stages of this ride. And there's nothing especially meta about any of the physics here in the end. 

There's also some serious mission creep going on. At the beginning it seems that only fairly little stuff can be inverted, but soon major characters are also going through the revolving MacGuffin and travelling in reverse time. 

This is still reverse 'real' time however, and it is not until the final act that the possibility of larger shunts backwards are suggested. Yet these inherently open up all sorts of potential plot holes. And it is never adequately explained why the pointy heads of a distant future would pick our time, supposedly at some distance from their own, to begin the wholesale inversion. 

And what would inverting time's arrow actually do for the future civilisation and its messed up world? Would they need special respirators? Would their new inverted environment appear so to them? Cars seem to invert when inverted people board them. What else? And so on.
If there is an open philosophical question at the end it is the one about whether all these loops are open or closed. The Protagonist stumbles upon it quite early on and is reassured by Neil, but this same character later pronounces wistfully 'What's happened, happened'. That Nolan intends this one to remain open is signalled by the fact that, for me at least, he has left a bit of a loose end — the lacuna between the moment the Protagonist takes a pill and the moment he wakes up with all his teeth.

Anyway, the best thing about the movie is Robert Pattinson's Neil, in part because he's the only character who seems to be speaking, and emoting, like an actual human being.

John David Washington is excellent too, but the role is restrictive. Elizabeth Debicki is playing a character that is inherently hard to sympathise with on many levels. She seems to specialise in females bored and disgusted with a life attached to wealthy male bullies: here as Sir Ken's wife, in The Night Manager as Hugh Laurie's elfin moll and in The Crown as Lady Diana. You'd have to think that in any future movie about the Trumps...

Thursday, December 03, 2020

The Plague (1)

Exile. A condition mostly associated with wandering around, usually quite freely, away from a fixed point in space. 

Yet in The Plague Albert Camus hits on the fact that sometimes it is when our freedom of movement is at its most limited that this sense of displacement takes hold, perhaps because it is subtly informed by time as well as space. 
"It was the feeling of exile that this hollow that we constantly carried in us, this precise emotion, the unreasonable desire to go back or on the contrary to press the march of time, these burning arrows of memory.”
I think you can probably detect, as I did, that there is something a bit off about this English translation, so it wasn't long before I switched to Castellano, a language into which the French shifts rather more naturally and elegantly. 

Further examples to follow. Soaked characters. The translator was really even trying there. 

Before I tucked into this novel I was unaware that it is widely understood as an allegory for the rise of fascism, so it is in some ways a doubly deserving read for 2020. 

As far as I know, Camus never directly experienced the constrictions of an epidemic, but he apparently had a good idea of their psychological effects on a community in quarantine — specifically how they mess with everyone's conditioned sense of past, present and future.

I've been living away from the place of my birth for many years now, and it could be argued that a sense of exile has been slithering up to me. Brexit in 2016, changed family circumstances back in the UK and so on. But the pandemic and 'partial confinement' have crystalised its presence in my psyche.