July 16, 2008

Wonderful Winnipeg


My Winnipeg is not a conventional film. Guy Maddin's latest, a docufantasia according to its director, charts his attempts to escape from his hometown to which he is tied by ties of memory, history and culture. But it is much more than a buldingsroman- it is rather the tale of a mystical attempt at escape. My companion watching the film described the experience as being like watching a dream- she was right- there are those faint connections, bearly perceivable- my own thought evoked by a line in the film about Winnipeg calling it an unreal city, was that it ressembled the poetry of Elliot or the prose of Joyce. The film is a stream of thought- rather than a movie with a conventional narrative- and you have no sense at any point of where you are save that you are in Winnipeg. Maddin confronts his childhood, his anger about his own town- he makes actors act the parts of his family- brilliantly using the old Anne Savage (last seen in Edgar Ulmer's fantastic Detour in the forties) to play his mother and casting some deliberately wooden actors as his siblings- one of whom died when he was 16. His father is played by a mound of earth in the living room buried under a rug- the man died in the seventies and Maddin chooses to recreate his image in this way- a tomb amidst the room, a silence in the maternal confines of the home. Lastly there is his dog- Toby- played by his girlfriend's pooch- who in a comic turn looks nothing like the original dog.

You might think we have the cast- but oh no we don't. For as we go through the film we see a variety of characters from Winnipeg's past- great hockey players, school boys, girls and nuns, mayors, Prime Ministers, whores and Indians. Some flash by so that you scarcely notice them, others like a dancing mistress at a seance stay in your mind. All add to a fascinating panorama- a description of a city in the flakes of memory, reflected in the flakes of the ever present snow. One image- the image I have chosen to put up on the blog- stays with me and that is of horses who escaped from the fire only to freeze in the water. This is a film filled with images- it is a collage- from a vagina to a set of rivers merging and the arteries of blood rushing through a human being- from the ever present falling snow, trains through the streets, workers rushing at soldiers, the first world war, a hair salon, a department stall, a male stripping contest etc etc etc there is image after image after image- it is like a carnival into which everything that Maddin associates with his memories of Winnipeg is thrust and it is there for a reason.

The dreaming is not purposeless for it conveys the essense of what Maddin himself is. Towards the end of the film we have the semi-Stalinist worker's princess who gestures everything back to life and would enable Maddin to leave his memories- but of course what Maddin demonstrates is that that would be false. How can there be a city without memories? Ok some of those memories are farcical and some are of downright evil (regret with Maddin the demolition by philistine politicians the great monuments of post war Winnipeg and share his outrage by all means): but they are all memories- they are all real associations. They are all moorings in a world of chaos. This movie is about geography- it is about the way that geography really leads us all the way back to the womb- one of the reasons that Maddin is fixated by his mother is that as his mother says at one point, I gave birth to you. Its a revelation that is worth thinking about- we are our histories. In some way, Maddin is Winnipeg and should he escape Winnipeg- he would escape Maddin. This curious dream world is the director himself and its resistance to being circumscribed in the traditional narrative of film is his resistance. In that sense this film is a final affirmation of the crucial part character has to play in movies- character cannot even be confined by the construct of plot, story or narrative.

If Maddin is Winnipeg, then furthermore that means that Winnipeg is an aspect of Maddin. This is another thing that justifies, that explains why this film is important. Winnipeg without a human being does not exist- or rather it does- but dully. Winnipeg as imagined exists and is real- it is a place that matters to human beings. Ultimately the dream of Winnipeg is more important than the reality of Winnipeg- in a curious way when Maddin gets actors to react his family life the reaction is more important than the actual action that it immitates. For the reaction is that part of the family life that Maddin has preserved, archived and that still to this day influences him- the rest of the participants are either dead or have their own version- but none have the truth. The world Maddin is telling us in this deeply humanistic work is what takes place in human minds- it is important for the associations it creates within us. Part of being human is to have those associations and the dialogue between us and the world is what makes life worth living. Ultimately Maddin presents to us his Winnipeg- in so doing he shows that that is one of the many Winnipegs that matter and all of which have an owner who calls them mine.

And they are all indeed- as the song says- wonderful.

July 15, 2008

The Cloven Viscount

Italo Calvino's novel, the Cloven Viscount, is a fascinating gedankenexperiment. Calvino imagines a character- the Viscount Medardo who goes to the Turkish wars and in a battle in Bohemia is split in half with a cannon ball. One half of Medardo, the bad un, is a savage tyrant who returns to his people to kill and maim- to split everyone in half who is not already a half person- to cut flowers in half, animals in half, to hate the world and everything in it that is not halved. The other half of Medardo, the good un, is a pious and saintly beggar who takes his halfness as a signal to respect everyone else that lacks, but is so saintly that his very example irritates and his preaching alternately irritates and bores. Calvino follows the two halves through the novel- they seek the same girl who they both fall in love with and inhabit the same semi feudal landscape- they do so until a denoument that reflects the real nature of Medardo and closes the circle of the story.

As you can imagine this gives Calvino an opportunity to explore various types of human division. There is a metaphor in here for the Cold War- this was written in 1951 when the prospect of the two halves of humanity destroying each other was not so unlikely as it seems now. The novel is novel about a postwar situation and though the war is against the Turks, not the Germans, the idea of a Europe sweating from the aftermath of atrocity and the memories of madness would not have been foreign to audiences reading this novella in the 1950s. The description of the surroundings of the camp of the Imperial troops in Bohemia are graphically disgusting- they parallel the images of terror in Kadare's siege and suggest an appreciation for the horrible reality of chivalric warfare- horses lying with their guts hanging out, camps of prostitutes infected with the gruesome pox surrounding camps of soldiers, the men themselves approaching a battle in which they have nothing to look forward to but dying. And so the story's grisly approach constructs the surroundings for the split of the man- the surroundings for the inevitable tragedy to come- this is a postwar novel and in a way is about the condition of modern man- the condition of man lying under the threat of the horror of total war.

The Viscount in his split personality lives as one person within two bodies- Stevenson's (a novelist that Calvino admired) Jekyll and Hyde come to mind instantly as parallels to the Viscount. But using this device is merely a method to explore the world of whole persons: what Calvino is doing is twofold here- he explores the nature of good and evil and explores the nature of personality. Let us get into these two distinctions. What he demonstrates through his exploration of good and evil is that pure moral good is often something we idealise but do not actually like- a kind of pious disdain for mocking jokes or constant attempts to remind everyone in the midst of enjoyment that there are others who are not enjoying the world- takes all the enjoyment out of life itself- rendering life a husk. If goodness is a lonely business then by neccessity- so Calvino demonstrates is evil, evil creates fear and fear creates difference. Moral persons do not make actual persons- and a pure good person or worse a pure evil person is not merely likely to be a fool, they are unlikely to be human. It is this which moves us onto our second point- what Calvino is doing here is telling us something about what it is to be human. Humanity comes out not merely of our moral good or bad qualities but also of our ability to get on with others- to be comradly. Empathy rather than puritanism is a way out of our dilemmas- and empathy means recognising and sympathising with the moment that morality is less important than sitting on a couch reading. The saint at that point becomes a nagging parent- and an uncomfortable colleague for any adult.

Calvino's vision is an interesting one- its a brief story and there is more subtlety in these issues than the space of this article allows or the space of Calvino's story allows- but what this indicates is how humanity is not easily reduced into any theoretical or moral construction- dissection is not a useful theoretical tool!

July 14, 2008

Cristiano Ronaldo- a slave?


Cristiano Ronaldo a slave? Sepp Blatter's comments that the Manchester United winger is a slave have aroused anger and scorn, Ronaldo himself seems to be the only one who agrees with Blatter. The issue is simple- the Manchester United player wants to play for Real Madrid, at the moment his club do not want him to leave and as they hold his registration and he has a contract with them, their word is law- he will not move. Those disposed to shed tears for the Portugeese player ought to remember though that Ronaldo lives not the life a galley slave, or of a footballer from the early part of the century, but a man earning over a hundred thousand pounds a week with a new girl on his arm every night and more desiring to be there, and with houses, cars and no doubt every luxury under the sun to discard and buy again at will. Simply put he is a very fortunate and very arrogant young man- a kind of Ashley Cole on the wing- who deserves the scorn he is getting.

And yet... and yet... there is a sense in which the complaint he and Blatter are making is strictly true. Ignore for the moment the fact that you like me would like to kick Ronaldo in the face when he makes one of those sympathise with me I'm only a millionaire comments. Ronaldo cannot do something that you or I can do- he cannot walk away from his job, leave it and drop it. All the commentary envisages that Manchester United might for example leave him to rot in the reserves- they won't because it would diminish the value of an asset- but since when has it been acceptable to think of people as assets? Lets be clear about this- Ronaldo if left to rot in the reserves would be deprived of a right you and I have- which is to move on and leave- imagine for example if you played for a club and hated all of its personel, were you at work you could leave- were you a football player you couldn't.

The problem though with Ronaldo's argument is not that he is wrong- but its that he is right and that that is part of the essential nature of a club sport. Think for a moment about the context of a world where players could move whenever they wanted and tear up contracts at a minute's notice. The result would be that fans would lose any sense of identity with a team- if my team is different every week then Arsenal fans couldn't hate Cole, Manchester United fans couldn't despise Robin Van Persie and everyone but Chelsea fans might have to learn how to find the part of John Terry that isn't an over excited yob. The point is that football teams are the recepticle for identity. People go and watch them because they support them and they support them because they see a continuity between this team and the one that they grew up supporting. Without constant presence in the dressing room, that would become pretty impossible to understand.

Footballers are paid a lot because they are entertainers- and part of their business as entertainers is manufacturing a club and team loyalty from fans. When a Ronaldo claims that he is a slave, he forgets that such slavery is the condition of the vast wealth that accrues to him. He has made his choice between luxury and freedom. Whether that choice should bind him for his entire career- whether you can justly sign away your life to slavery is one matter- but you cannot have football as we know it without the principle that players stay with clubs for a reasonable time. Cristiano will have to learn: his riches depend on his contract.

July 13, 2008

Persepolis: the personal meets the political and dances


Whatever you think about Iran today, its history over the last thirty years has been tragic. The war with Iraq killed a generation of young men, the internal repression of the Shah and the following Islamic republic was brutal and especially horrible to women. Iran is one of the oldest countries in the world- the title of this film, Persepolis, draws on memories of the capital of the Achaemenid dynasty which reigned in the Middle East over two and a half thousand years ago. Running through this film is a sense of the antiquity and majesty of Iranian culture- it should be no surprise that some of the greatest directors and greatest novelists of the twentieth century are Iranian despite the depradations of history upon the country. That history is what shapes the film Persepolis- it is about two stories- the story of Iran from the late seventies until the early nineties and the story of a young girl coming from the age of five to her early twenties. The artistic acheivement of Persepolis is the blending of these two stories and the reflection it encourages amongst us upon the ways that we deal with the vicissitudes of historical fortune.

From the first moment of the film to the last, we are confronted with a subjective viewing of objective reality. The leading character Marjane, her family and her friends come from reformist circles in Iran. Her uncle was a communist, imprisoned by the Shah and then imprisoned again by the new revolutionaries and executed by Khomeini. Her father and mother show tendencies towards liberalism of an undefined type: her mother has aspirations that Marjane should become an independent liberated woman- educated and cultivated- an equal to any man and a superior by virtue of her intelligence and charm to many. But all around them of course is the world of the Islamic revolution which swept aside the Shah in 1979 and rules in Iran to this day. This captures an interesting and important sociological split within Iran- between the middle class in Tehran who back the reformers and the religious groups who back the fundamentalists. There is a faint whiff of this when at one point one of the Satrapi's neighbours has to depend on her ex window cleaner who is now a director of the local hospital. Religious revolution in this case is also social revolution.

But more importantly than the description of the revolution and more interesting, is the description of how people coped with the revolution. Marjane coped in two ways- firstly by emigrating to Vienna when she was 14 and secondly on her return to Iran for her university years by covertly remaining liberal in an illiberal society. Her time in Vienna seems to have been unhappy, deprived of an identity in her adolescence she seems to have roamed through her time in Europe. There is a sense in which her time in Vienna tells us a lot about the way that people can cope with dislocation at various points in her life: Marjane simply was not ready for immigration. She survived but she was dislocated, felt she had to ignore or conceal her identity and was not able to be secure enough to integrate comfortably into someone else's culture. Without the sense that she was Iranian, she found it hard to ever feel comfortable around those who were European- her picture of her time in Austria is as an outsider, a laughing stock, someone who deserved pity because of her origins.

Coming back to Iran, we face the other side of the dilemma. Marjane has to conceal her liberal behaviour- the fact that she doesn't want to wear a tight veil, the fact that she is interested in dancing, alcohol and of course men. She takes on her religious teachers- telling them for instance that there is a contradiction between the way that they treat men and women. She is arrested by the religious police for holding hands with her boyfriend in public. The illiberal state essentially forces her hand, turning a temporary relationship based on physical and instant attraction into a marriage because of its repressive targetting of human affection. The Iranian state forces her into a divorce. In a sense the picture of the Iranian regulation we get is most succinctly expressed, when some religious guards pursue some of Marjane's friends from a party and because of their pursuit one of the friends slips and falls to his death as he escapes across a roof. Of course though Marjane copes- and the key is that she does cope, she ultimately finds a kind of security in the affection of those that she knows and loves and also in a reinforced sense of self. She decides that she will survive and she takes on the contradictions between her private and public self. Eventually she makes the decision to go back into exile- but the exiled Marjane is an adult- able to cope with the dislocation of exile.

All of this is told through the medium of a cartoon. This works incredibly well- firstly because the drawings done by the real Marjane Satrapi- are impressive and interesting. But secondly because the dislocation of moving to a cartoon reinforces the dislocation of the surrealism of many of the pictures. We are shown Marjane's state of mind at various points, expressed graphically- say with her at various points talking to God. That would not work as well in a realistic film- but it works in cartoons, belief has already been suspended and we can accept that we are seeing a vision of reality rather than reality itself. The subjective nature of the film reinforces the fact that what we are interested in here is the movement of a character through the movement of a nation, it is something that cinema has not often done well- but here as in say Max Ophul's Letter from an Unknown Woman- we need to remember in order to understand the film that it is a subjective vision. Cartoons make that easier to appreciate- easier to appreciate the dual movement of the film.

In some ways this film is a fairly straightforward tale- the difficulty is in telling what is the straightforward tale- is it the growing girl's story or the Iranian revolution's. To be honest it is the intersection, the blending between them, which is the most interesting thing about this. The sense that preservation of self is the key to survival of historical tragedy has a certain truth to it: in Marjane's case it helped her survive and escape. Hopefully it will help many others round the world in similar situations.