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

 

King of New York (1990)

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Second time with Abel Ferrara after Bad Lieutenant.

After a penitential Christopher Walken is led out of his scantily monkish cell he’s escorted through a steaming night-time New York which looms up at him through the windows of his limo. The buildings are drenched in a Gotham electric blue (check the neo-noir poster); Badalamenti synths wash through the scene and increase the sense of intimidating alienation. KoNY (paint the night) is best when NY takes on the status of a character, as towards the end, after CW has hacked away at his inner circle like Richard III (having dispensed some killer lines – “bury it with him”), when its neon blocks rear above the seedy basement and remind him that he can never win (“If I can have a year or two I’ll make something good”). CW is King in a king-of-the-jungle way: the suffocating, tentacular city is the only winner.

KonY is a predictably hard-nosed and unflinching but surprisingly sleek depiction of the drug war that pulled snarling antagonists from both side of the law into a moral black hole. CW, though, is looking at the stars after a supposed reformation and a convincing conviction to drain his nihilistic associates and partners for cash to prop up a hospital in the deprived local neighbourhood. His performance is great – there’s a subtle disengagement, which goes beyond world-weariness, in his eyes from the tense weigh-in vs Lawrence Fishburne’s psychotic henchman and previous employee. He knows the rules, and he knows the risks, but he wants something else. Definitely connected with him more than the foul, even demonic Keitel of BL, who seems to generate the town’s moral torpor rather than react to it.

Can see his stated influences in this: Pasolini in the charged visual symbolism (the madonna and the coca cola signs cast shadows); Fassbinder’s unapologetic political righteousness; Kubrick in the clean, centred headshots and the menace of elegance (first connection is obviously with Eyes Wide Shut because of the NY decadence). Also thought of Elio Petri’s Investigations of a Citizen Above Suspicion during the simple and self-explanatory shots of dripping material wealth, particularly at the beginning.

Not perfect: stretches of the action feel like high-powered bluster which drowns out the message, and there’s some dodgy acting particularly from David Caruso. But the politics are great, which leads to an unsettlingly righteous rant by CW in the home of his opposite number, and some nice touches like the continual pressure on a disingenuous local politician (there’s even an accusatory cake like the one in The Bad Sleep Well). I’ll definitely return to KonY to see CW stalking out of the subway like reheated death, swimming through the vast crowds and silent glass walls until he collapses bleeding into a cab, cops closing in like teeth.

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The God Of Small Things (1997)

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Picked this up amid the buzz around Arundhati Roy’s new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

Title refers to the subsumption of personal grievance into the “Worse Things” that happen on a national level. The impossibility of stacking our own needs and pleas against a mass of traditional and political movements.

So Small God laughed a hollow laugh, and skipped away cheerfully. … He whistled, kicked stones. The source of his brittle elation was the relative smallness of his misfortune. He climbed into people’s eyes and became an exasperating expression. (19)

Here framed as Larry’s inability to comprehend an expression on the face of his wife Rahel, central character. Thus this disparity helps introduce friction from cultural clashes both domestic (most notably caste, religion) and international (Anglo-Indian). Successful love (even if temporary) is framed, in TGoST, as a focus on Small Things, even if (especially if) temporarily so.

The Big Things ever lurked inside. they knew that there was nowhere for them to go. They had nothing. No future. So they stuck to the small things. (338)

This also helps decode Roy’s distinctively empirical style. Nearly every chapter is introduced with Conradian scenery (HoD is an explicit touchstone, but I thought also of the peripheral isolation and partial porosity of Almayer’s Folly‘s outpost), as if the scenery imposes itself upon its inhabitants. Minor observational details stick, become extended metaphors that build into a kaleidoscopic symbolic vocabulary for complicated personal histories. Perhaps excluding the climactic final third, this modal cascading makes Roy’s novel a kind of minimalist tone poem. This irreducible, rhythmic quality sometimes threatens to rise and overwhelm the narrative (compare, as I had to, Midnight’s Children, with its narratively micromanaged tapestry of foreshadowing and callbacks. AR does do well to confound expectations, though, playing with character perspectives to reveal initially unseen truths: Balliol alum Uncle Chacko is presented as a liberal intervention into ignorant patriarchal violence (48) before being shown to hypocritically manipulate laws of property to cement his own masculine ascendency (57).). However, the tonality ties in to the running theme of childish perspective and interpretation of relationships and events, which is dominated by (sometimes inaccurately) rote-learned, capitalised concepts and phrases – Small Things take on supreme, constitutional importance.

Baby Kochamma, principle villain, serves to distort Big Things through her own personal worries as avarice and spite. She has become isolated, imposed upon by grander forces (“She viewed ethnic cleansing, famine and genocide as direct threats to her furniture” 28) but not above manipulating them to maintain her status quo. She is an agent for the conservative forces which heartbreakingly pin Estha and Rahel in their places, as when they are unable to constitute themselves as victims rather than perpetrators.

The pressure and heat warps family relations, introducing the theme of forbidden love which reacts with frailty against convention, at least until the empowering final chapter (it is the twins’ mother Ammu’s romantic rebellions that primarily compel BK to light the fuse). Untouchable carpenter Velutha is central here; his crime is one of attitude:

It was not what he said, but the way he said it. Not what he did, but the way he did it. (76)

Interesting to consider alongside The End of Eddy, in which EL’s crimes are not of action but of appearance and description. V’s horrifying punishment – the consummation of a thread of tragedy that extends from the death of Ammu (161) which ranks with Nabokov’s Luzhin’s father for cold pathos – is horrifyingly matter of fact, a weighing-in of history upon individual life, a reassertion of order through authority. It is amid these later incomprehensible terrors that the childish perspective blooms as an effective device evoking regressive traumatised responses: their families are rendered as the grieving parents of Hamelin in their plans to abscond through terrified reaction against Ammu’s condemnation (292), but they come home to roost in the History House like “Hansel and Gretel in a ghastly fairy tale in which their dreams will be captured and redreamed.” (293) Throughout, however, imagination is preserved as a precious defence-system, a flickering vestal flame:

The twins climbed into the vallom and rowed across vast, choppy waters.
With a Thaiy thaiy thaka thaiy thaiy thome. And a jewelled Jesus watching.
He walked on water. Perhaps. But could He have swum on land?
In matching knickers and dark glasses? With his Fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo? In pointy shoes and a puff? Would He have had the imagination? (211)

Roy’s style is very distinctive but sometimes distracting, as mentioned, and occasionally the fey misunderstandings feel uncomfortably persistent (childish, even). The story can verge on mawkish, if shocking, melodrama. But the telescopic scoping is handled seamlessly, with the interrelation of Big and Small events integral both to the worldview and the plot. Definitely a keen eye for detail, synesthetic description of a beautiful and broken world. The sort of book that rewards more the more you invest in it.

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Lost Highway (1997)

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Watched this a little while ago.

Lynch is great at imbuing everything with a sense of danger. Nothing is safe, like in actual nightmares, where the link between threat and warning is broken. The first half plays out like a postmodern gothic story about domestic terror, a proper eerie exposition of the power of horror that strikes closest to home. Perspective switching between swooping interior presence and static overhead CCCTV observation. Zizek said something about the two parts representing the fear of normal life and then movie mad fantasy respectively.

“I like to remember things my own way.” Definitely feeling Videodrome from the taped messages, the weird man filming everything.

“This is some spooky shit we got here.” Authority is often hapless in his movies (it exists on the same level as childish innocence and fronted normality) but that makes the empty prison feel a bit weird. Can’t escape the feeling with this one that there’s enough bad stuff being done to real people by recognisable perpetrators that the fantasies of shadowy manipulators seems a little escapist (c/ Badalamenti in Mulholland Dr., BOB)

Really tips the omnivorous pastiche overboard here. Weird cameos (Richard Pryor as a wacky mechanic, Henry Rollins basically playing himself as a prison guard), the Edgar Wright coffee-table death, ridiculous soundtrack (Rammstein?). I will say that LH has possibly the funniest David Lynch moment I have seen: Mr. Eddy beating up a tailgater Ray Liotta-style on the side of the road, frothing and screaming statistics about road accidents.

Besides all that it too often feels like a David Lynch Starter Pack. Mulholland Dr. identity crisis, Blue Velvet perversion of innocence / the sub-Hopper performance from Loggia / horror on the lawn, Twin Peaks Coop in the mirror. This time my heart wasn’t in the task of putting the puzzle together. Perhaps would have been more intrigued in 1997 but we probably don’t need this one any more.

Bill Pullman should play Ted Hughes.

“Do you like pornos?”

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The Garden (1990)

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First time with Derek Jarman.

Gardens are claimed spaces; marshalled and worked-upon but essentially open and flowing, personal and impersonal. “I want to share this emptiness with you” says J over frenetic opening footage of a floodlit set, swimming dizzy like a memory, “this wilderness of failure.” The Garden is explicitly presented as an alternative to directed and directing narrative; a negative space of uncertainty. A retreat, a holing-up inside the mind. Yet it has a lot to say and buried themes slowly surface and coalesce.

Tilda Swinton as a Madonna, a paragon mobbed by paparazzi in balaclavas like terrorists. She burns out and is left scrubbing the rocks, sifting; isolated in a cabin with a scream and a candle. A Tiresias figure: when the tragic couple above are introduced (their story constituting the closest thing to a narrative through-line) they throw rocks into the sea idyllic, sunshine idleness like A Single Man; cuts to TS wind-battered grubbing for mushrooms. Boys fighting with pillows; TS bitterly plucking a pheasant in the dark.

Frequent use of green-screen staging like a Platonic cave: the fire of ambient scenes – Super 8 burning hurtling – projecting onto portentous women running fingers round wine glasses, a Spanish dance upon the table, later scenes of distress. Conscious revelling in artificiality. (To me this ties in with a theme of broken promises and dashed expectations, the naïvety of the couple as fragile self-representation) Later scenes of boys washing disturbed, clouds over and the eldest furiously pushes J himself and his camera away.

The Think Pink song is amazing, dazzling jingle over a backdrop of a gay rights march (in Cambridge?). A hanged Judas, gnawed tongue purple and exposed, a ponytailed suited man with a spotless motorcycle using his corpse to flog credit cards.

The seemingly more personal memories are often the best: the public school boy frantically spinning a globe on that table while old masters slap their canes or open-close books like automatons; a sprinting PE-teacher furiously blowing a whistle (later horrifyingly interpolated as a tuxedoed observer to a stoning in dresses, those paparazzi flashing. – these image bleedthroughs string scenes together and add to the aurora of nightmare)

Environmental disaster. Jesus beneath the pylons. “This year winter never came…”

Lynchian feel throughout and the apotheosis is the cafe. The couple silent, gagged and bruised as police build simian laughter; smearing treacle on the captive condemned, tar and feathers as they bellow operatically. (the main guy looks like BOB) This is horrifying.

The poem at the end is really heartbreaking, and for me redeemed any discomfort with the occasionally bald exhibition of imagery. “Old age came quickly for my frosted generation.” Jarman in his garden awaiting his death from AIDS complications, four years after the film four years after diagnosis. Writhing on a bed pushed out to sea. Turning the pages of a journal, scenes of industry, red clouds piling past overhead.

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Casa de Lava (1994)

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Second time with PC after Horse Money.

Tensions of emigration and isolation: powerful opening with almost documentary (no voiceover) footage of eruptions joined by shrill strings; cut to women’s windworn faces, blank stares suggesting deeply-set condition. Then emigrant workers in Portugal joking and community, but sickness at the heart with Leão’s blank stare. (recognise Isaach De Bankolé from Casino Royale) Cape Verde’s Conradian outpost.

Hermeneutics of illness: L’s black body examined under Portuguese gazes, visual dissection. Once arrived Mariana throws herself into diagnostics, travelling from door to door like a Dickensian philanthropist; the locals don’t want to know. (CdL‘s most striking sequence is a series of closeups of front doors with overlapping wails from pained infants, a very deft switch to psychological insight into M’s blocked urges) Soon she is reading the letters of her patients. (Persona consistently for me) The CV hospital has seen whole crowds of abandoned lepers; (it sits eerily empty now) the local doctor says “no one wants to remember.” The children’s contraction of the diseases against which M has vaccinated them is bold and shocking, critical and unresolved.

M, who vocally refuses to “pity” her patients, armed with a altruistic but naïve interpretation but the narrative begins to fray (“He’s not my invention!” when no-one wants to know”) and the uncanny, Strickland mystery of the island (the pilots retreating to the running helicopter with vague promises of a return [seems almost parodic]; that empty hospital; the reticent hostility of the locals) (this after the caustic New Wave opening scenes) becomes complex, more open but just as opaque. Fairly central is the murder of L’s dog Blackie which causes tension and prompts allegations; weird connection with Mr Pip, after which I expected CdL to run in parallel but the dynamics become more complex for us too.

Presentation becomes observation; explanation of the present gives way to excavation of the past. “Not even the dead can’t rest here.” (Lowry!) L’s lover, Edith’s deceased political prisoner husband. “You’re starting a new life,” says M to L; “This land fooled me.” The nurse calling Edith to the music, recounting snippets of forgotten political rebellion, “youth on the march!” – cut to local kids sneaking out to abduct L. Perceptive violinist tells M “your heart speaks with sadness”; thought of Josephine Carter’s ‘The Ethics Of The Melancholic Witness’: Sebald “represent[s] melancholia as a condition that constitutes the witness’ traumatized subjectivity as first and foremost an ethical response to other people” – trauma as buried but speaking past (L the testifying body, plenty of speaking wounds [eg. Tano’s dog bite that betrays his murder of Blackie])

(The plot is enigmatic and resistant; this is perceptive analysis, particularly regarding the dynamics of charity around Edith. For me the CV community is a broken one, the regular parties like those in Damnation that seem ironically fatalistic. The island has been wounded and there has been a regular flow of people in and out, distorting the balances of community such that we have some uncomfortable and suggestive confrontations: frequent language gaps; the players serenading Edith but spurning her son; Edith in particular consoling a reluctant Tina / bullied by local and Portuguese women / beseeched at the end for a grant to emigrate. Failures of (re)integration played out through such images – L onstage at the dance forgotten how to play violin, handing back to his father. M’s idea is to simply right the wrong of L’s emigration, (symbolic of diasporas through slavery or colonialism) reflected also in her over-simplistic though feminist empathy for Tina’s isolation after her male relatives have shipped out to Portugal. (she warns them they will simply end up in hospital like L) The difficulty of resolution is metonymised through L’s reawakening and lack of gratitude for her effort / difficulty of reintegrating. At the end the focus shifts to the younger generation, which cuts through the complex and unresolved (unresolvable?) peripheral narratives to dramatise a clearer failure of M’s altruistic diagnosis.)

M is repeatedly drawn to the mountain, (whenever she goes she instantly seems to be miles from town, like repeated trips to the end of Teorema) shots of it towering over her and others, parallax shots on cars where the foreground streams by and it sits impassive behind. Flopping around on the slopes fixes Stromboli overtones; this reads as an interesting riposte to Bergman’s internalisation of her circumstantial problem into a Romantic kenosis (here the strings are many and intertwined, the narrative switching focus capriciously and indiscriminately, sketches growing and vanishing)

Beautifully shot and elegantly edited: those crying doors; blocking and depth during the first party as M integrates with the locals; L dark at night on volcanic soil whispering first words “My land” cut to E pale asleep on white bedsheets.

Horse Money was more confrontative, both of its subject and of its audience; CdL is similarly alienating but more textured and unfolding. Need to return to both but need also to do more.

8

Pygmalion (1995)

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Picked up a reissue copy from the market in Cambridge, having never made much of an effort to listen to S but having enjoyed the Hollis-esque change of direction on cursory listens to P.

Dusky cymbals, prominent bass, (so warm on vinyl) sparse post-rock progression and clear vocals from Neil Halstead (now based near me in Cornwall, apparently) do kick off with a Laughing Stock feel. Lyrics and reverb on the guitars do give ‘Rutti’ a more psychedelic tone though; breathing space of Jackie-O-Motherfucker’s sunbaked soundscapes. “Here’s to the light outside.” Patient and peaceful. (thinking of Durutti Column’s sparse cold beauty too)

‘Crazy for You’ sounds like a kodak run through a knee-high field. After ‘R’ skirting pretension we’ve come right down; ambiguity in the lyric, repetition also in the restless guitar line, like trying to capture a whole summer in a single moment in six minutes. Ebb and flow. Guitar line prolonged at the end like it can’t really last. ‘Miranda’s’ haunted loops like the same burnt out memories filtering through a feverish head. Rachel Goswell singing like Chelsea Wolfe, sampled vocals; ‘Trellisaze’ concrète arrangements, beating Radiohead to it by five years with the effects. (‘Rutti’ also “don’t bother me”) Concludes A-side’s slow inwards degradation; mental isolation, effects automatically generated. Confrontative, cold and without concession.

‘Cello’ most Eno, glowing embers. Cracks of daylight through fingers on ‘J’s Heaven’, downstream guitar wandering and voices from the bottom of a well, “isn’t life small”. ‘Visions of LA’ like a Hollis/Bunyan collab, Goswell’s fey, Nico singsong sketch of impossibility of empathy.

Back to the “light inside” before ‘Blue Skied an’ Clear’, which is perfect; reapplying all the drenching effects to the wistful space of ‘Rutti’ and the aching nostalgia of ‘Crazy For You’. Ethereal background operatic wailing. (pop like ‘Ya Hey’) “You say life and it sounds so good / You say love and it sounds so sweet.” All the occlusive thickening effects but blooming with that irresistible Galazie 500 openness.

Sinking back into ‘All of Us’, ‘Rutti’s’ acid-dyed Gillespie vocals. “He is all of us”. Cello disappearing.

Plumbing deep sadness at the heart of pop, 90s. Hypnotic but not at the expense of clarity; you can hear it being put together, which makes it hold up better than most shoegaze sacred cows. Less sunbathing than heatstroke, mirages and memories.

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