Hard To Be A God (1964)


Second time with the Strugatskys after Roadside Picnic (third if you count Alexei German’s Hard To Be A God adaptation).

Picked this up to see if I could unravel AG’s film. One of the most striking differences is the use of internal monologue:

Too bad that the psychological conditioning peels off like a sunburn, that we fall into extremes, that we’re constantly forced to remind ourselves: grit your teeth and remember that you’re a god in disguise, they know not what they do, almost none of them are to blame, and therefore you must be patient and tolerant. (45)

I like that AG worked to submerge this kind of reflection, to tell the story (his own story, which doesn’t take much from the book) visually. But its undeniably refreshing to be given access to Anton’s thoughts, which opens up a sympathetic channel to the world of Arkanar before (as in the film) the detail can rush in to clog it.

There is also restraint that helps the story’s development (which runs parallel to the film): the kingdom’s descent into feudal-fascistic pogroms and anti-intellectual purges. Rumata observes an “inexorability” that was palpable in the “angry mobs”, the “inexplicable port closure”, the increasingly epidemic alcoholism, the disappearance of terrified peasants (72). Writing at the dawn of the Brezhnev era, the S’s reach more explicitly back to the dawn of fascism (with references to the Night of the Long Knives, Ernst Röhm, etc.) than Stalinism (see also A’s vision of a properly effective industrial revolution of “ten thousand hammerers” on 185), but there is also a sense of “utopianism”, of Arkanar being everywhere and nowhere. My favourite moment was the chilling anthropological assessment of the hostage doctor Budach:

Evil is ineradicable. No man is able to decrease its quantity in the world. He can improve his own fate somewhat, but it is always at the expense of the fate of others. And there will always be kings, some more cruel and some less, and barons, some more violent and some less, and there will always be the ignorant masses, who admire their oppressors and loathe their liberators. And it’s all because a slave has a much better understanding of his master, however brutal, than his liberator, for each slave can easily imagine himself in his master’s place, but few can imagine themselves in the place of a selfless liberator. That is how people are, Don Rumata, and that’s how our world is. (206)

B is almost a kind of holy fool here: he speak from below and well before R but with Londonian precognition, which unsettlingly pushes the books internal history (one that froze before the Renaissance could happen) into our own. The passage continues with R allowing B to interrogate him as if he were God, recalling “The Grand Inquisitor” and various promethean analogues (which tie in with the knowing Arata’s request for R to give him the gift of technological “lightning”). Overall this discussion is like a briefer but equally wise equivalent to the long chat between Red and Noonan in RP; both are central, effective, philosophically direct pitches.

Don Reba is much more interesting here than in AG. I like the way his power and malicious influence is counterbalanced by R’s historical perspective:

Reba is nothing, a tiny speck in comparison with the enormous influence of traditions, the rules of the herd – sanctified by centuries, unshakeable, tested, accessible to the dullest of the dull, freeing one from the necessity of thinking and wondering. (85)

They try and analogise him to “Richelieu, Necker, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Monck,” but the most frustrating aspect of his savage coup is how pathetic he is. (220) He’s kind of a Great Man and a No-man altogether, eventually engulfed by the repressive tide that he sets in motion.

Unfortunately HtbaG is also a pretty canonical justification for Waterstones lumping sci-fi and fantasy onto the same shelf. There’s lots of neo-arthurian galavanting and folkloric waffle which is personally pretty cringeworthy and therefore doesn’t inspire the effort required to keep track of terms. (interesting how different this and AG’s film are, but that what puts me off both is the ultimately stultifying detail) Did raise an interesting question about childishness and imagination though. The preface is like Stand By Me but you can’t tell how old Ru and the others are, and there is an interesting perspective on children in A:

For Rumata, who rarely interacted with children, the ten-year-old prince was the antithesis of every social class in this savage country. It was ordinary blue-eyed boys like this one, identical in every social class, who would grow up to be brutal, ignorant, and submissive men; and yet they, the children, showed no traces or beginnings of such rot. Sometimes Rumata thought it’d be great if all the people older than ten years of age disappeared from the planet. (144, EM)

Prefer the more pulpy and energetic Roadside Picnic but looking generously on this because a) I thought it was more successful than AG’s film; b) I enjoyed it despite it being firmly outside of my usual bracket; c) I read it lightly and quickly as a distraction from my thesis, which emphasised its entertaining side above the philosophy.




The White Ribbon (2009)


First time with Haneke.

The film begins with the doctor tripping off his horse because a wire has been inexplicably tied between two trees. His departure to hospital is followed by the accidental death of a woman at a mill. These are importantly distinct in severity, mysteriousness, consequence, culpability: these gaps create imbalances that cause mistrust, accusations and unrest. The effects begin to precipitate down like a fanning domino chain, the two first causes like the fibonacci 1 1 that are spontaneous, apparently alike but contributive to exponential differences. TWR‘s first hour introduces this cascade, and I expected the whole film to be a sort of tumbling, Drane-like mathematical shower of uncanny and unknown malice.

But the village isn’t a house of cards: it is propped up by its own imbalances of authority, numbers, wealth and – most importantly – age. The doctor’s boy fears that his father’s disappearance is final; his older sister reassures him, saying that it is only temporary, like a winter flu. As the dark events begin to scar the villagers permanently this dichotomy is disrupted, but it’s suggested here that the village’s kids feel the gravity of these situations more acutely and perceptively. The adult world is rhythmic, governed by harvest work for the poor, holidays for the rich, and religious observances for all. The swing of the seasons brings respite through tradition until the deceased woman’s older son bitterly digs up the past, a mad reaper in a cabbage field.

The effects of the traumas have become subterranean; they sprout here and there with different consequences, while more unexplained horrors keep a building, macabre rhythm and slide the village towards a reckoning. The cast of characters is huge, and the film’s overriding theme – the perversion of innocence through punitive authority – takes on varied hues according to circumstances, creating scenes that themselves produce consequences that spill beyond their particular situations. Been listening to those Deleuze podcasts recently and definitely thinking of the town in terms of rhizomatic connectivity, the events as haecceities, nexuses of complex interactions. This woven interconnectedness constantly suggests TWR to be a text (also the teacher’s grave retrospective narration).

H also interweaves tonal shifts that are threaded together by this underlying fear of authority. It’s touching, funny, chilling, shocking, haunting, everything. Made a few notes about particular scenes and images (the doctor’s boy creeping around the house at night is terrifying; his disgusting father’s rejection of the housemaid’s affections suggest Winter Light, in connection with the pastor’s passing resemblance to Gunnar Björnstrand; the bitter farmer’s quiet suicide; the pastor’s perfect son bringing him a new bird after his daughter had murdered the old one) and contrasts (the way the doctor is introduced as a neutral victim and rapidly becomes truly vile vs the obviously disgusting pastor’s strange partial retribution with the vindication of his kids). But I mostly stopped writing after halfway. The suppression of the traumas’ consequences under the assertive system of the town did kill the pace for a while, which threw me off kilter, but it’s amazing to look back on and piece together. This really is perfect storytelling. It’s recognisably modern in style but distinctive in its confidence with the tonal shifts and unexplained mysteries. It’s as personal as a Sebald narrative but universal beyond the WWI context.


The Taste of Money (2012)


First time with Im Sang-soo. Firstly amusing to note that the film was produced in partnership with Isu Group, a Korean venture capital conglomerate.

The trajectory is signalled nicely by the film’s brief introduction, in a way formally comparable to Whiplash. Chairman Yoon encourages his deferential but quietly opinionated new secretary Joo Young-jak to skim a few bundles off the top of a colossal pile of bills in a safe, from which they are subtracting an underhand payment to a client. Alone Y-j handles the money, even kisses it, but puts it back before leaving. Even though he exhibits resilience and resistance, he is already infected with the plutolatry that defines the world into which he is to be inducted. Unfortunately, when he returns halfway through the film, we immediately telegraph his greedy grabbing. This is also indicative of the film’s trajectory, as it wends an often disappointingly predictable path through the world of the Korean superrich.

It’s quite interesting to observe the dynamics of behaviour and status. Every word is spoken either up or downhill, with meaning and weight dictated more by the power gradient than the content of the utterance. An American businessman, for some reason called Robert Altman, introduces a linguistic interface that also plays out with the film’s sacrificial lamb, a Filipina maid called Eva. She seems to be about to inject some class-consciousness into the family, but is mostly absorbed into its world of polished perpendicular surfaces, delivered croissants, and fireplaces that look like massive Apple products. Incidentally I watched this after listening to James Ferraro’s Human Story 3, which configures capitalist vapidity as more ubiquitous and essential, but the emptiness of the behaviour here still rubbed off on me.

Some interesting juxtapositions of observation: keeping your friends close and your enemies closer is updated with the risk that spying on the people closest to you can give you information you might not want. After seducing him, Y’s wife Baek Geum-ok formally inducts Y-k into voyeuristic spying in the same gesture as promoting him into power at the company.

After a while, though, the emptiness of the film’s world becomes or is revealed to be its own story’s weightlessness. The shocks are spaced widely and not particularly shocking (the first death is reminiscent of the only Eastenders episode I can remember having watched, with Marcus). G-o’s daughter Nami grows a conscience seemingly out of nowhere (apparently this is, admittedly, a sequel to S-s’s 2010 film The Housemaid, in which her character is a child). We can believe her opposition to her mother’s machinations, but her formulating this as an awakening against excess is not creditably forceful. I was rooting for Y’s degeneration into Lear, but even his final reckoning is weirdly protracted and stagey, as his family gathers round his blood-filled bathtub to hear him being somewhat rude about them.

The ending is certainly striking at first glance. However, looking back, the reintroduction of E as an accusing body – a silent scream, an albatross hung around the necks of the seemingly liberated N and Y-k – seems like a last-minute attempt to shoehorn in the physical consequences that are mostly abstracted away from both the family’s actions and, less interestingly, the film itself.

This report relates S-s’ frustration at the dead reception TToM got at Cannes, where it was apparently last in the race for the Palme d’Or:

Before and after the closing ceremony, … [Im] said to various Korean media that his failure to win was a personal “tragedy” and his participation a mistake because he was telling a “very Korean story” that foreigners can’t understand.

Naturally I concede that the behaviourist social observation, while one of the film’s more engaging aspects for me, might carry weight not accessible to me as a non-Korean. But I don’t agree with the rest of the report’s review (written for a Korean website, even), which claims to be summative of the Cannes response, labelling TToM as “nearly pornographic” and provoking only “gross satisfaction”. I thought it was passably engaging, occasionally elegant, but mostly tepid and unambitious.


The End Of Eddy (2017)

Édouard Louis’ autobiografictional phenomenon appears three years later in English translation by Michael Lucey.

The moulting of an old self. An attempt to constitute himself as an individual, as beautiful. First moments of real self-discovery on 16:

I’d pilfer some of my sister’s clothes and put them on and parade around … These performances, for which I was the only spectator, seemed to me the most beautiful I had ever seen. I found myself so beautiful that I could have cried tears of joy. My heart could have exploded it beat so fast.

E’s emancipation is definitely by his own bootstraps, which can pair uneasily with the determinism governing the people in his world. But critical self-awareness also emerges as one of the forces that contribute to the social aporias that hold reality in place (see note about mother’s “modes of discourse” below). TEoE ultimately feels soberingly diagnostic without being too directly prescriptive.  That diagnosis plays paradoxically with perspective, as E’s position is now an alienated one, yet he claims an unromantic lucidity from direct experience: the buildings of his Picardy neighbourhood

conjure up in the imagination the towns and working-class landscapes of the North with houses crowded up against each other, piled on top of each other (in the imagination of people who aren’t there, that is. People who do not live there. For workers from the North, for my father, my uncle, my aunt, for those people, they conjure up nothing in the imagination. They provoke a disgust at daily life, or, at best, gloomy indifference. (22)

(See also the interpolation of symbolically freighted working-class food into haute cuisine, 77) E is perceptive and deft when marshalling our sympathies, knowing when to emphasise the uniqueness of his deeply troubling experiences vs when to paint pictures many of us could recognise:

I wandered without seeming to wander, with a sure step, always pretending I had something specific to do, some place to go… (24)

This is a text about the complexities of involvement vs abstention, about “what the real meaning of complicity is, what the boundaries are that separate complicity from active participation, from innocence, from carelessness, from fear.” (26) The note here is on the recurring, magnetic presence of E’s school bullies; under the heat of their glare E’s emotions and reactions warp until they are at times so deceptive as to even resemble gratitude (we learn later that he “knew them really well,” better than almost anyone else, purely through these physical interactions [136]).

But the dynamics of complicity also govern the involvement of E’s people in their own lifestyles. Causality is indecipherable: “Bellegueule is a fag cause he gets beaten up (or the other way round, it didn’t matter)” (25); his mother would rationalise his father’s health issues “without realising that these problems were not the cause, but rather the result of my father’s punishing workday.” (27) People (always already) tired before work rather than after (52); a cousin attempts a crime to at least equal the jail sentence he knows is coming anyway. There is a sense throughout that writing has at least helped E (he has written himself out of his past), and that literary diagnosis will elucidate these dynamics for proper attention. But when E adopts a panoptic perspective the inevitability seems to rush up to us from below: his mother

didn’t understand that her trajectory, what she would call her mistakes, fitted in perfectly with a whole set of logical mechanisms that were practically laid down in advance and non-negotiable. (53)

The textual effect of these inconsistencies is often a kind of jarring affective disjunction, most commonly where the recorded past’s light entertainment scans as appalling tragedy; see the grisly, Joyce-Carol-Vincent story of an immured deceased man – “we told that story often, we thought it was funny.” (82) Sometimes its just the proximity of violence, as in the grandmother’s disquietingly extended metaphor of a rabid dog when sympathetically relating the story of her grandson Sylvain’s evasion of the police. (115-6)

E’s frustrated and abortive realisation of his own homosexuality is riddled with these disjunctions as he internalises the confusing compulsions of his surroundings as violently contradictory and self-destructive feelings. (these again mirror more popular forms of self-destruction, as in the youth alcoholism of 86; 128 has the striking image of E trapped between his own subconscious impulses and the external rhythms of industrial, masculine society: “sound of a hammer, then a heartbeat, sound of a hammer, then a heartbeat; the two together combine in an infernal symphony”) The sense of being always-already thwarted extends to his identification with female pop singers and tv personalities, as he is forcibly identified with a gay tv host by his caustically homophobic father (“once again, crying was not an option. I smiled and hurried to my room.” 97) The epicentre of these excruciating negotiations of identity is the chapter ‘The Shed’ (which begins the book second section), in which E’s first homosexual experience is a kind of sickeningly perverted emancipation, a pitch-dark cousin to Alma’s epiphanic beach story in Persona. It allows him to perceive the more radical futility that emulates the broader aporetic social determinism but which weighs on him centrally as a young gay man: “The crime was not having done something, it was being something.” (140) This sequence is the text’s Big Crunch, at which the pressure is maximum and from which E is propelled outwards (though still whirling chaotically) towards his eventual amputation from his home.

It is important to note that the chaos does not subside, because again E is forced to internalise this traumatic experience and fundamentally misinterpret it. He strains to attain the standards of heterosexual virility that are demanded of him; he can justify his flickering success as facilitated by the real underlying problem: “We are always playing roles and there is a certain truth to masks. The truth of my mask was this will to exist differently.” (149) The conscious, bootstrap agency that will eventually give him the centrifugal shove needed to escape his social orbit is here interpreted counterproductively and, again, self-destructively. That glimmering prospect of emancipatory self-love (Philautia) quoted at the top here temporarily becomes an obstructive impulse to self-correct, having internalised externally imposed standards:

I wanted to show the world, and myself, since I was watching everything I was doing and kept by far the closest eye on my own performance, … that I was attracted to women… (163)

But the individual focus of the book is retained and does become liberating. E cites Gide as an inspiration (for his inclusion of gay lives in a literary sphere that had not thitherto accepted them openly) but the titling of a late chapter (beginning “I had to get away” 175) as ‘Strait is the gate’ is transformative (strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leadeth unto life…)

What is most immediately eye-catching about the book is the use of register. The provincial, often acidic and guttural speech of the townsfolk (of the recalled past) is rendered in italics (though Lucey’s translation does seem to slightly muffle the effect). E said in PR that he “wanted to point out that these two languages are created in relation to each other by mutual exclusion,” and he achieves this disjunctive effect by weaving the prose together with a flow that accentuates the disparity:

She even said as much from time to time, Look, when your job is wiping old people’s arses, that’s the expression she’d use, I make my living wiping old people’s arses, old people with one foot in the grave (then the inevitable joke, always the same one, at this moment of the story All it would  take is a heatwave or a flue epidemic and I’d be out of a job), every evening up to her elbows in crap in order to earn enough to keep food in the refrigerator… (58)

There is a kind of infected frustration that E reveals to be in part produced, again, by internal confusion: “I came to understand that many different modes of discourse intersected in my mother and spoke through here…” (59) discourses with contradictory ideas and impulses about education, employment, family, pride, shame, poverty, culture. As far as his own voice, E foregrounds the distance; he admits that

(I didn’t say it exactly like that, but some days, as I write these lines, I’m too worn out to try to reconstruct the language that I spoke back then) (66)

(he also confesses to crying as he writes on 143). He has an objective, almost Levian documentary style, which occasionally rises to a pitch of Gallic urgency: “Imagine a scene taking place every day…” (47) (This reflects back onto a proleptic note about the inheritance of a loud tone that makes him stick out among the “self-possessed voices of well-brought-up young men” in the city. 59)

“I didn’t want to be around them; I refused to share this moment with them.” (184) The ending is a furious defiance, a rapturous realisation of E’s status as a person. It made my breath catch in my throat. But there is a poetic epilogue filled with fragmented observations of a new life at the lyceé that ends with a troubling recurrence. At first this confused me but I think the formal shift helps to constitute this as an important postscript, a story on its own terms. The End of Eddy happens at the end of the book, but that is not to say that the future is devoid of the forces that created him. It sheds light on E’s decision to revisit his past: he is writing in a future from which his past will continue to return to him.

I thought of Knausgaard only twice: when I picked TEoE up, and on 74, when an aside reports his sister’s notice that they would need to renovate their late grandmother’s upsettingly neglected house, much as Karl and Yngve do with their deceased father in My Struggle Book One. E cites Kn in that Paris Review interview so I wouldn’t be surprised if this parenthetical addition is a nod. In any case, the fact that it stuck out to me revealed how sui generis E’s text is, despite being grouped in the same autobiografiction bracket. It’s somehow purgatory and cathartic while also being revelatory. It speaks with a distinct voice that rewrites its precedents (as a thorough reevaluation of socioeconomic problems in contemporary France, as an autobiographical investigation of LGBT identity). It weaves and spins its internal relationships and dynamics into aporetic inconsistencies, its protagonist only wrenched from the social mechanics with a scream and ragged scars that belie the finality of the title. Thinking about reading it again soon.


Waltz With Bashir (2008)


Second time with Ari Folman after The Congress with Stan.

Firstly, the animation. Made me think of the interludes in Mirror’s Edge because of the slightly puppet-like, non-fluid movement. However much more expressionist and printed. Able to slide between highly fantastical (John Woo slo-mo; overlapping imagery of destruction and adolescent army hedonism) and highly mimetic (distance images like the family lined up against the wall).

Ultimately the animation gets drawn into the movie’s questions about representation and witnessing, which are brought to a head at the very end when (like Come And See) the artifice falls away. AF today is a collaborative creator of the memory narratives related both by his interviewees and his own past self. At the centre of the film is his attempt to trace the provenance of a memory for which he can find no objective historical evidence. One professor of trauma studies tells him that a former interviewee managed to cope with the witnessed horrors by convincing himself that everything was playing out on a screen. (The rupture of this fantasy comes from seeing horses suffering around a bombed-out hippodrome; interesting points about the ethical status of animals) (The animation thus foregrounds and makes a talking point out of the setback that it sometimes [throughout] seems insufficient to convey the difficulty of the original experiences. Why is this any worse or better than live action staging?)

Returning trauma. Begins with an old friend questioning the new presence, in his dreams of 26 dogs, he shot on an expedition, 20 years after the fact. (“memory is a wilful dog”) AF goes on to question the mechanics of repression and representation (advised by therapists and psychologists). WwB touches on the (re)integration of aspects of the conflict into popular culture (clubs, punk music – most interestingly the abrupt interjection of ‘Enola Gay’ during a recollection about transport on a military ship, piercing Max Richter’s quite dynamic score.) The staggering victims of the central massacre are forced to reenter their bombed town and directly confront their losses. Ultimately his therapist theorises AF’s interest in the massacre as an anticipatory reaction inherited from his parents’ experience of Auschwitz. AF seems to interpellate societal memory of the massacre as his own personal hallucinations, seeing them from the perspective of the documentary footage that closes the film – a return which is most ethically urgent.

The contours of the 1982 Lebanese War context itself are traced informatively but adroitly – we aren’t bombarded with new information because that’s not the point, though this is fundamentally documentary in intention, and successful. Perhaps in Levi style, WwB is less accusatory than illustrative.

The central narrative is handled briskly and with appreciable development, but WwB brings in these peripheral topics and questions to an extent that is suggestive without being cursory. Leads to a very thought-provoking psychological and historical portrait of (a) war and memory.


Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders (1970)


Watched this a fair while back with Mary as part of a Czech film night double bill with Pictures of the Old World.

Pretty ridiculous. The tone is madcap from the beginning but it does retain a Picnic At Hanging Rock vibe until the vampires and the coffins come out for real. Weir definitely a touchstone with the education of young girls and the unlocked occult potential. Can hear all the Broadcast-isms in the soundtrack too which is great in itself.

VahWoW gleefully trashes its own internal logic, which is funny if a little frustrating. Pretty unsettlingly sexualised presentation of the 13-year old lead at points, too. Still, over all lavish and rollicking, and definitely a perfect b movie counterpoint to PotOW.


Japón (2002)


First time with Carlos Reygadas.

Artificial Eye said inspired by Tarkovsky and it is somewhat of a roll-call. Solaris traffic at the beginning; Sacrifice tree with the boy, as well as the central “proposal”; Nostalghia pessimistic isolation; Stalker view from the wagon and concluding train tracks. W/ the first and penultimate of these I’m not convinced the score isn’t lifted directly from the sources. However, CR manages to make something for himself.

(A pretty unlikeable deadbeat man from Mexico City makes a pilgrimage to a remote village in what looks variously like a valley or a canyon. His intention is to end his own life. He lodges with an elderly indigenous widow, whose purity and generosity compel him to reevaluate his mission as he gets drawn into a local dispute that threatens the widow’s stability)

First section reminded me of Ceylan’s Climates in that we are really shackled to this guy. For whatever reason [All Reasons] his humanity has been eroded away to the extent that he has become a stubbly, impolite and self-absorbed leech who treats the locals dismissively (they in turn treat him with a mixture of generosity and caution). He resembles a contemporary Al Pacino character, with all of the world-weariness but none of the passion. It is quite taxing plodding around with him. J is shot in a striking letterbox aspect ratio, adding weight to the sunbaked Mexican slopes,  but he remains resolutely central and in focus. The effect compounds the intentionally low-fi resolution which often gives the landscapes a flat and toneless quality as we try frustratedly to pick out detail. The plotting carries this first section, as the reticent script (succinct: “the devil loads guns and idiots fire them”) helps create an enticingly mysterious tone, like Gidean silently unfolding tragedy.

evolves quietly and engagingly, though. There are some memorable tableaux: the widow at her lavish altar kissing a picture of Christ; a filing rank of rubbernecking schoolchildren which puts our man in the position of either an icon or a casualty; juxtaposition of scenes of washing and horses mating, introducing a theme of rebirth and regeneration that tees up the hopeful but futile “proposal”. The widow’s house is the focus of a stark and sometimes bleak general view of rural Mexican life that was quite eye-opening when behaviouristic. Our man takes on a sort of inverse High Plains Drifter role in his slow awakening. The drunkard screeching the wedding ring song after helping the act of familial vandalism is quite a disquieting sight.

But I had other reservations, besides the unsympathetic first stretch. The amount of animal cruelty here is unacceptable (of course a matter of controversy that Tarkovsky himself stoked). The point seems to be that men are bad and our man himself is emerging out of that smoggy world, but the gasping severed pigeon’s head and the stomach-churning screams of the slaughtered pig (offscreen) are especially egregious, a jarring opening theme if nothing else. Always strange to find demerits with a film that consist in aspects that actually contribute to the power of the artistic statement.

is also unable to outrun the slight scent of pretension that tracks it from the moment the mystery begins to settle in. On reflection the final shot – while elegantly choreographed and initially disturbing – does seem an only superficially satisfying conclusion. CR is going up against one of the greats, though.

Interesting, despite these setbacks. Certainly distinctive, which is of elevated significance when the influences are foregrounded so regularly and obviously.