Heshel’s Kingdom (1998)

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Fist time with Dan Jacobson. Certainly clear why Sebald found it thought-provoking enough to write Aust, though DJ’s style is more level (less uniformly melancholic), despite some excursions into passionate questioning (eg. 180). Also a lighter touch (“His Britannic Majesty’s Lieutenant-Colonel Wholly Illegible” 51), with some Brysonian travel moments on 115 and 175. Some pretty devastating meditations and vignettes on 39, 104, 178, 189, etc. Overall just as elusively intergeneric as WGS, being a blend of travel writing, history and auto/biography. Plenty on witnessing, exile, photography (and representation more generally), distances (geographical, psychological, vital/mortal), religious (Jewish, exclusively) constitution of these issues, commemoration and museums.

  • Xi Unreachable history. Human creation
  • 3 witnessing for H. I can speak of him and he cannot answer. 5 task and gift of the living. 219 impossibility of giving testimony. 234 I did not know how to speak of him
  • 6 h is death before and after life
  • 7 more spatial metaphors for death 52 17
  • 8 Jewish nationalistic view of immortality
  • 12 exile at home in Lith. 35 L strange world, obscure moral. 55 to ask for a cup of tea is an adventure, alienating the familiar. 72 only world SA post exile is narrativised. 170 arty world of Lith. 181 reciprocal distance
    • 30 DJ himself feels stranded between poles
  • 13-4 vulnerability of the face to face
  • 15 looking through his glasses, Aust
  • 19 homesickness is universally similar
  • 39 historical similarity only backwards. 47 Hs emphasis on continuity
  • 51 light touch Colonel. 115 bill bryson travel 175
  • 64-5 lives set out, dispersed from point of H death
  • 67 cunning of unreason
  • 69 DJ through train window
  • 75 Lith was like a wound within me. Returning is uncanny
    • 77-8 old world like a womb fled. Dj spoken for in literature. 96 inarticulation
  • 91 holocaust hard to believe though known to have happened, “quasi-fictional”
  • 92 barrier in history
  • 94 compulsion to return
  • 98 spacelessness and timelessness of Jewish experience
  • 104 night terrors
  • 112 WGS underpopulation, 115 witnessing
  • 126 Polyvalence of place names
  • 129-30 ethics of photography. 143 nazi synagogue museums
  • 149 survivors like deaf
  • 158 spatiality of evil
  • 176 quasi revenants
  • 178 welled up a bit at the negotiations of responsibility. 180 passionate criticism of Austria
  • 189 death of a cemetery
  • 208 mundanity replaces the abyss
  • 217-9 ease of blaming victims. Impossility of secular extraction from J teleology
  • 230 dormancy
  • 234 see above

 

L’Innocente (1976)

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Third time with Luchino Visconti after La Terra Trema and Sandra.

Not too much to latch onto initially: Tullio is a total cad without being particularly seductive, as he waxes lyrical about his new love interest while his wife Giuliana listens with meek resignation. “You talk as if I never existed” is her response to his exaltations of newfound youth. She grows into relative independence while his mistress Teresa remains satisfyingly aloof. Turns out to be something of a false start as its the process of regeneration in G that makes her suddenly attractive once more to T; there’s a nice setpiece in the grounds of a fading and neglected villa, held in waiting by T’s mother for the couple, where they attempt to renovate their relationship (“Let’s imagine being two people who meet for the first time”). The allure of immoral decadence becomes a central theme, with G’s inability to resist T shadowing LV’s own obsession with the poisoned aristocracy of his background and of his later films (the idea of T being the seducer is intriguing, too, given LV’s own open homosexuality. There is plenty of implied tension in the frequent fencing scenes and one particular peak in a moment between T and his wife’s lover in the showers, but the theme isn’t explicitly developed any further).

The screws are slowly tightened. Desperation mounts as each character plays themselves into smaller corners, with G’s piety and questionable devotion to her now-deceased lover tensed against T’s opportunistic bourgeois atheism and pride. T’s degradation seems inevitable from the outset (“I knew Tullio was mad but not to this extent” says his mother, I think) but Giancarlo Giannini’s taut performance allows for some particularly catastrophic moments: his tears on hearing of G’s pregnancy; the violin spasming as he stokes the fire during her muffled labour (although this is one moment among a few, here, when we feel cheated of more thorough consideration of female perspectives. In the end Teresa challenges his erratically romantic chauvinism and receives a predictably unsatisfying bid for affection as an answer). The penultimate catastrophe is a real climax, with G’s nervous devotion at Christmas carols juxtaposed with the tormented T leering over the cot like Herod.

Not quite as fun as S but more feels more personal (perhaps in part because it was LV’s last film, released posthumously even in Italy). Definitely a grower, too, which is impressive given the lack of formal or stylistic bombast to distract from such a resolutely romantic and aristocratic story.

7

Get Out (2017)

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It’s smart. The dynamics of racial tension operate on a few levels in Jordan Peele’s script, who has a great ear for squirm-inducingly misjudged chat, hilarious and horrible. This is clearly the focus and it’s a great topic – it makes the construction of a robotic and uncanny community inevitable – but there are a few less amusing undercurrents. Tied into the themes of underexposure and cohabitation are issues of employment inequality, even modern-day slavery – uncomfortably present notions in the mind of Chris’ Dick-Halloran accomplice, Rod, masked though they are by his conspiratorial imagination. Rod’s trouble getting institutional help, which becomes increasingly significant towards the end, also touches on the problem of high rates of AWOLity among African Americans. People have talked about these immediate issues being suppressed by the more comic observations, but I think GO shows the way awkwardly superficial relations hold a more profoundly imbalanced framework in place. For Chris, “It’s all good” (and variants) becomes a quietistic and isolating mantra for diffusing tension, especially in the more subtle interactions with the seemingly sympathetic Rose, a kind of ally-squared in this horrible context (C is really alone before he even arrives). Observant horror in the year of Romero’s death.

It’s cine-smart too. Being a horror-novice I get most of this second hand, but so will an audience of people my age; easy to enjoy alongside Edgar Wright’s TCC trilogy and Shutter Island. There’s a nice flow from the former to the latter, in a sense, with the toe-curling social negotiations gradually giving way to a mistrustful search for answers. Preceding all this is a nasty encounter with a deer which put me in mind of Von Trier’s Antichrist. Also thinking of Under The Skin during the trips to “the sunken place.” The psychotic brother definitely seemed to be going for DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie in Django, too; later, the bingo slave-auction is a horrifying set-piece. Performance-wise, Daniel Kaluuya nails the reticent discomfort as well as the gasping panic, while his mumbled incredulities after some of the more egregious social interactions are always amusing and empathetic.

But it’s also smart in terms of pace (yeah too many). JP has talked about comedy being training for writing horror; the importance of timing is evident here, with the jump-scares carefully measured (sometimes forgone altogether) to keep you guessing. As a whole, the film moves along economically too, its briskness correcting for both the simplicity of the central idea as well as its predictability. While it is somewhat predictable, the tone does shift, as mentioned, and the climax is a gutsy and well-earned blowout which is less inventive but just as entertaining withal. It’s harder to piece the narrative together in retrospect (if the abductions depend upon hypnosis, and hypnosis depends upon the subject’s comfort, why are the family so knowingly discomforting?) but questions don’t come up while you’re watching, and the way grotesque violence somehow emerges from superficial solidarity is a point in itself.

Read about the alternate endings on wiki, too. You can see the seams when the police car pulls up with the sinking reactions on C’s and R’s faces. Makes for a nice final twist when Rod gets out instead. Shame the reason JP felt the need to swap it is because stories about police brutality against young black men seemed especially close to the bone in the States at the time. Obviously dealing with different issues here but glad we can all enjoy a smash blockbuster written and directed by an (established) AA debutant which deals with the complex realities of American racism in 2017; especially in a film as fun and generous as GO.

8

Halogen Continues (2017)

Sigurbjörn Þorgrímsson died six years ago; Trip have put out this retrospective comp. Aims to cover the idiosyncratic sweep of these scattershot releases (apparently he recorded more under other aliases and in groups). RA points out in their review that the label itself is testament to SÞ’s incubation of a national dance music scene in Iceland, with Bjarki among others on its roster.

There are, broadly, three approaches on show here: skittering and acidic IDM excursions, evolving techno-tinged suites, and blissful ambient pieces. The immediately ear-catching standouts come in the second group: ‘Borealis’ is structured with the linear but weaving flow of a chase sequence or a cut from a Wipeout soundtrack, but the queasy synth tones and mechanic percussion kind of remind me of the synthetic nightmares on The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual. ‘160 Techno’ has the same vibe of pursuit but sounds more urban and nocturnal like that Studio OST album from a couple of years ago; obviously its a lot more in your face, with some big-beat synths and a few ankle-breaking rhythmic shifts which skid through hardcore and breakbeat territory. ‘303 Ambient’ is the third triplet with its low-key start which crashes into a massive techy beat and starry synths.

Of the more cerebral cuts, ‘Lag 24’ is pretty distinctive with the interplay between its Mika Vainio-esque fuzz blasts, bouncy reverbed synths and impatient polyrhythms. ‘Lag 9’ sways, running in circles as the percussion plays catchup with itself. ‘Lag 8’ is good evidence of the compositional juggling-act going on with these shorter cuts; synths are often more percussive than melodic. Almost feels like the guy’s hammering everything out on an MPC at times.

The ambient pieces are generally pretty gorgeous. ‘Autofloat’ follows ‘Borealis’ with an equally playful ease but pushed through ebbing and flowing synths; it’s got the wonder of a particularly well-lit view of the night sky. ‘Bliss’s stupefaction is more new-age, maybe Jarre via Lopatin; it’s crisp but kinda sleepy, less immersive. The more abstract closer ‘Halogen Continues’ is perhaps the grandest and most beautiful, ending things with quite a poignantly elegiac note given the comp’s provenance.

Throughout a sense of wunderkind and almost amateuristic virtuosity, like the music is happening while you’re listening to it. Distinctive throughout despite ranging from crowd-pleasers to more leftfield tinkering. Perfect album art too given the otherworldly wonderment behind much of the ambience that sometimes serves as a floor for the beats and sometimes envelopes everything. HC is a nice testament to the variety in the talent the guy clearly had; feels like an anthology. Good for a boring train journey too.

8

Scarred Hearts (2016)

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First time with Radu Jude. Apparently blends the director’s own biography with the titular semi-autobiographical work by Max Blecher, a Romanian writer who associated with the surrealists while writing from an extended and terminal stay at a sanatorium.

Most obvious strength is the use of fragments from MB’s writings (idk whether from Scarred Hearts itself or from other texts) as intertitles illustrating or undercutting the film. The way they provide commentary on scenes and snapshots is vaguely comparable to Notes on Blindness in the uncertainty of whether text illuminates visual or vice versa. In general, Emmanuel (as he is named here and in SB the book, I believe) does follow a vaguely Magic Mountain trajectory of immersion in the sanatorium’s rhythmic society, while his notes detail the psychosomatic trajectory of his deterioration. This play between the often bleak and psychologically harrowing texts and E’s more colourful and fulfilled physical life often surfaces in eddies and incongruities in the film: a prophetic fragment from Shelley on sinking and expiring, traced reverently in MB’s real notebook (we presume) over the credits, is later echoed warmly by a drunken song shared between patients, then later still in MB’s notes when he imagines the entire sanatorium drifting away into the sea and sinking like Atlantis.

The striking 4:3 framing with rounded edges comes over rather twee initially, especially since it’s mismatched with true-colour HD visuals, rendering the impression of old-time photographs (there’s a montage pre-credits) incomplete. However, the meditative camerawork and editing does suggest the fixity both of long-exposure flashbulb photography and of E’s straightjacketed immobility in his cast: he is often framed centrally and at mid-depth, while more mobile patients or orderlies bustle at the fringes or in the background. Coupled with notably repetitious adoption of fixed vantage points throughout the sanatorium, this visual stasis does lend to the sense of hauntological anachronism which is maintained by the often Caretaker-like literary fragments: “the impression that nothing is real” “the feeling of immense abandonment“. Evoking Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward or Haneke’s Amour, E’s (MB’s) sense of human physical fragility grounds the film in a patient (geddit) study of illness and failed convalescence: “he felt very glued together” is a succinct evocation of his delicacy and the importance of the doctors who seem to have assembled him. When syringes extract shocking quantities of pus from an abscess, E screaming, “a claw sank in” as if he were Prometheus undergoing daily torture. Not all the reflections are so traumatic; again, they often communicate the erosive tedium of hospital life: “The washed out day goes on, boiling with illnesses, trifles and discouragement.” Think I prefer E’s perspective to Hans Castorp’s: “There’s nothing more stupid than the pride of suffering.”

I like the way weighty real-world conversations float through the narrative, snagging on E’s quite romantic and lyrical but still attractive perspective: heated discussions about nascent “hitlerism” and Emile Cioran, debate over the significance of the afterlife to piety, disturbing sketches of political turbulence in Romania whose evocations of civil unrest and rife antisemitism make the sanatorium seem an attractively amniotic haven. Amniotic except E will not be born, rather he is slowly fading; a visit from his parents who proudly boast to a nurse of his prodigious childhood writings is particularly poignant.

Not a film with great peaks or troughs; casts its spell over a full two hours with some restrained performances and an emphasis on rhythm and flow. Notable shots are often momentary: late on, when E’s life is diminishing fast, nurses tuck in him under a duvet which they accidentally cast up over his face like a shroud before hurriedly folding it back. The initial encouragement of his father, mocking his own impending infirmity in old age with an impression of delirium, hangs over these later scenes with increasing absurdity.

A distinctively poignant portrait of a writer and his time.

7

Il Divo (2008)

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Second time with Paolo Sorrentino after Youth.

Films that begin with glossaries are not making excuses for being complicated. Absolutely submerges you in the world of top-tier Italian politics 60s–80s. From recent memory would compare with The Clanexcept this is much more exciting, ambitious and breathlessly comprehensive. Throughout there’s a sort of bizarro inexplicability to actions, motives, affiliations; everything is just beyond our reach, whether through overwhelming connectivity or hilarious freakishness. Lock Stock introductions with police-file titles and monikers (personal favourite: the cardinal, “His Healthiness”) rattling around are all held in balance around the gliding, hunched performance of Giuliano Andreotti by Tony Servillo, an amazingly distinctive and outlandish turn.

It’s a bit of a whirlwind rush (although surprisingly traceable thanks to some carefully edited flashbacks); dogged by the feeling that you’re missing out on more than you’re getting, which is quite uncomfortable. As with Y, though, there are some stunning set pieces and brilliant highlights. The celebration at the 7th premiership, with the cacophony of African drums, feels decadent and unhinged, introducing Carlo Buccirosso’s performance as Milton Friedman-lookalike Chancellor of the Exchequer Paolo Pomicino – his ridiculous naked exuberance reinforced the visual similarity with Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder. Often complicated poignancy in GA’s humanity: earlier suggests importance of involuntary reactions like vomiting for evincing inner functionality; generosity with constituents is unexpectedly tender; flicking through tv channels with his wife, skipping news reports spitting his name, settling on a cheesy 70s pop concert, holding her hand mechanically in tribute.

Would reward another look, I’m sure. Would put it with Petri (especially Investigations) for scathing diagnosis. Stylistically maybe Danny Boyle in the incendiary variety.

7

The Devils (1871)

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Second time with Dostoyevsky after The Brothers Karamazov.

Effectively dealing with the undermining of ascendant and characteristic Russian “higher liberalism” – “liberalism without any aim whatsoever” (47) – by a group of reactive and destructive young nihilists, socialists, etc. At the centre (supposedly) of the plot is Mr Nicolas Stavrogin, a man whose superficial beauty masks potentially horrifying secrets in the manner of Dorian Gray:

Our dandies regarded him with envy, and were completely eclipsed in his presence. I was also struck by his face: his hair was just a little too black, his light-coloured eyes a little too calm and clear, his complexion a little too tender and white … he would seem to be a paragon of beauty,yet at the same time there was something hideous about him. (56-7)

This initial portrait follows 50 pages of introduction, which themselves focus on the pitiful but pitiable Stepan Verkhovensky, professor, admirer of S’s mother, and windbag exemplar of that “higher liberalism” in his ridiculous pretentiousness and grandiloquent proclamations (undercut frequently by his dearest associate, our narrator). V embodies the kind of baroque and waffly sociability of the town, punctured by S’s wordlessly mocking acts of iniquity, such as comically assaulting a beloved captain. David Magarshack’s fustily labouring translation from the 50s enhances the magnetism of S’s indecencies, as the relentless social pussyfooting around him becomes indistinguishably beige.

There’s a running theme in this early section – pre a significant congregation at which S makes a scene which precipitates agitation throughout the town and initiates plot momentum – dealing with Russia’s self-ignorance. Mrs S hatches the idea for a periodical omnibus which would preserves newsworthy events in the national memory, facts published in journals which “make an impression and are remembered by the public, but then forgotten.” (137; here one echo, among many, of The Secret Agent). These are mirrored by the reams of ineffectual political leaflets which are distributed by unwilling lackeys (275).

Result is that the political insurrections can bubble occultly. The first half is peppered with mysterious events, usually heralded by the narrator as then-inexplicable and summarised with a depiction of the confusion that follows. Increasingly frustrating; narrator’s feelings are ironically mine: “all this led me to believe that something had happened before my arrival, something I knew nothing about, and that, consequently, I was not wanted and that it was none of my business.” (143) V’s son Peter takes centre stage as the mob’s ringleader, exercising a pied-piper influence over the manipulable townsfolk. He stirs up trouble and disingenuously frames this in the same terms as the narrator – “all of you know something and … I’m the only one who does not know that something.” (207-8) He trades in ignorance as currency: he intentionally inflates S’s public persona (323) while himself under his spell.

The reentry of S, at that congregation, is deftly paced; this is definitely the point at which the air of mystery is most alluring in TD. By this point (190) I was eager for S to fill the screen, to sideline the increasingly indistinguishable extras. While we get an alluring section entitled ‘Night’ where we follow S like a shade visiting and bewitching his associates, the focus (contra my synopsis) shifts instead to PV’s cabal of Four Lions-esque nihilists (less funny obviously). At first they are empty but deadly (250) but as we spend more time with Virginsky, Shatov, Lyamkin and Kirilov they get less and less interesting and less and less memorable.

Reduced to a thin series of highlights: Mary Lebyatkin’s introduction is eerie and alluring; the fête is amusingly chaotic and a good centrepiece; Shatov’s assassination is suitably black. There was one moment in the entire book which I loved: PV’s pursuit of Kirilov, the atheistic would-be suicide. It descends into a terrifyingly wordless confrontation, in which K is driven to a kind of statuesque madness, as if paralysed before the possibility of accomplishing or failing in his mission to attain the status of a god through willed self-destruction. 619.

Writing about TD is tiring. Thinking back to The Way of All Flesh – perhaps I don’t have the attention-span or patience for these Victorian wedges any more. It’s fine; definitely not Karamazov (Elder Zossima gets a shoutout 268!). Stavrogin is interesting but unsatisfying; PV is pretty annoying; Kirilov is eventually the most alluring. The chorography is opaque and the social portrait stodgy. The interruption of peasants at the end is an unsatisfactory compromise: TD could certainly do with more life (more Alyosha K etc.). More in note. Next!

5