The poet wanders the world, his soul a caldron of anarchic nihilism. Thus we are introduced to a young Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Volker Schlöndorff’s Baal. Based on a 1918 play by the legendary German playwright Bertolt Brecht, this 16mm work, vivid and wild, has remained largely unseen since it was first broadcast on West German television in 1970. An aghast cultural hierarchy, not least Brecht’s own aged widow, ensured the film would remain locked away until 2014, when a digitally restored version was previewed at the Berlin Film Festival. Now this restored version arrives as one of the latest additions to the Criterion Collection. [Read more…]
Cinema can become a tool for the exorcising of demons. Repressions and life experiences can suddenly be evoked and shared with everyone in the theater or watching at home. Joachim Trie’s dark and perceptive film Thelma is a gothic parable which serves as an interesting examination of the consequences of repression. A young girl becomes the receptor of her parents’ rigid, one could say Puritan, religious views of the world. Released in only a few arthouse venues and now available for streaming via Amazon, Thelma touches upon issues rarely gazed upon by mainstream/fantasy cinema. In an increasingly secular- albeit not rational- world, organized religion is being relegated more to a habit of the past. It even seems the Pope now claims hell does not exist. But for those raised within islands of dogma, belief is a very powerful and palpable part of life. [Read more…]
The myths have not left us even in a supposedly rational age. Especially in an imperial society what is past is prologue. With every passing year historical memory takes on a new gloss, and the darker shades are colored over with wishful thinking. In the United States the Kennedy family personifies the very idea of national myth. Chiseled in stone, the personas of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, both assassinated in their political primes in the 1960s, are equally romanticized and debated. Admired for their patrician air in a culture that worships opulence, yet deconstructed by scholars of realpolitik, the twin gods of American liberalism evoke a special allure via grainy photographs and film reels. It is the third brother, Edward Kennedy, denied his turn at the throne, who wanders under a shadow infused with that most bitter of phrases, “what could have been.” [Read more…]
Cinema has the capacity to become a conduit for dreams and nightmares, combining both into something the ancients could have scarcely imagined- the physical manifestation of myth. If critics such as Roland Barthes and Octavio Paz are correct, then the ritual of cinema or television has replaced the pagan rituals of old. Yet the primitive force of myth remains embedded in human expression, no matter if the medium has changed. Estonian filmmaker Rainer Sarnet’s new film, November (2017), is pure myth, a fairy tale lifted from the page and given life by moving images, the reverie of cinematography and the atmosphere of music. It is imagined and produced with a vivid sense of time and place, yet creating an environment outside of time. And like all myths, its grand and magical flourishes are decorations for a story that is simple in its evocation of human feelings, desires and experiences. [Read more…]
The spirit of an age is best captured in the artistic visions inspired by the times. This rings true in both the visual and literary arts. The Middle East has been the center of the world situation for so long that in the West we cannot think of the region without evoking words such as “crisis” and “war.” Since 2001 the region has experienced the crucible of foreign occupation, the eruption of revolutions and civil wars. But from the fire is emerging a new generation of authors grappling with the collapse and reshaping of their region via some of the most impressive literature being produced in the world today. A renaissance in Middle East fiction is upon us, and like the Latin Boom of the 1960s, it is literature magical in its creativity and haunting in its statements. Just published for the first time in English is one of this movement’s great achievements, Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Ahmed Saadawi. [Read more…]
Contemporary cinema is dominated by fast cutting and bombastic visual spectacle. Attuned to the fast times of the present, mainstream filmmaking runs at the pace of its audiences. It is a curious phenomenon considering the average blockbuster is actually quite long. Your typical Marvel film will run to about 2 hours and 15 mins. The recent, magnificent Black Panther features a sharp screenplay and visually rich vistas, yet it is engaging as a work of visceral energy. It rushes headlong through its vision and achieves the feat of making two hours feel like fifteen minutes. Alex Garland’s Annihilation arrives with a different approach, preferring to transcend its genre with a tone that is meditative and focused on creating an environment. [Read more…]
The streets have always been where the masses bring their voices and grievances. It is a practice as old as Ancient Rome. It is when the city rises and a sense of social war penetrates the air that even art itself cannot help but be transformed. This year marks a half century since the great convulsions of 1968, when art itself became the vehicle of capturing and giving voice to the emerging, clashing ideals of that heroic generation. The tail-end of the sixties featured much of the imagery, cultural shifts and pop evolution that define the decade in the world consciousness. Acid rock was in, fashion was taking leaps so colorful and free that trends were established which have not gone out of style. But an aesthetic not readily discussed in the mainstream is the aesthetic of revolution. [Read more…]
Is history born on the battlefield or in the subterranean corners of a city? This is the nature of the question of how the modern era came to be. We now live in that transitional period in the historical timeline, that moment between eras where nothing is defined but tensions saturate the air. The Italian revolutionary and intellectual Antonio Gramsci once described such a moment as, “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born; now is the time of monsters.”
Babylon Berlin, a feverish noir imported from Germany by Netflix and now streaming on the service, takes place in one of the great seminal in-between moments in modern history. It is set in Berlin during the Weimar years, that brief interlude after World War I when Germany found itself being both a key center of cultural innovation and social powder keg. [Read more…]
The year has begun with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists — those rational soothsayers of the global landscape — moving their infamous Doomsday Clock closer to midnight by thirty seconds. As it stands according to the clock, we are but two minutes away from cataclysm. If we are to approach it in messianic terms, we are living two minutes away from apocalypse. Desolation now haunts our daydreams and nightmares, even if the Doomsday Clock adjustment goes unnoticed by the wider populace still marching to the rhythm of a modern world. But the sense of upcoming cataclysm seeps into our pop consciousness, as personified by the sudden rise of dystopian television, young adult and adult fiction, and the return to political discourse of words associated with futuristic struggle (#resistance). [Read more…]
Hunter of Stories
by Eduador Galeano
Nation Books, 272pp. $26.
Eduardo Galeano taught me where my parents came from. Always more historian than novelist, or commentator as chronicler, the Uruguayan maestro’s work was one whole mosaic framing the Latin American experience from conquest to capitalist modernism. Galeano, who shed his mortal coil in 2015, was the modern artist of the vignette, telling history in snapshots. I first read him as a young student when a mentor recommended his classic Open Veins of Latin America, an eloquent history of the economic and social history of the region, told with a journalist’s precision and novelist’s sense of language. The late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez famously gave a copy of the book to Barack Obama during a summit in 2009, and I still sadly suspect that Obama didn’t bother to read it. [Read more…]
There are links between eras so subtle we barely detect them in the fabric of the times. We enter the movie theater and are swept away by the images and the aural force of the music score. But in the films we see we can also find the interesting threads that bind us to past histories. Listen closely to the harmonies propelling a scene forward, and the ear will catch the whisper of a previous era aflame with powerful ideals. At the closure of the film season, audiences have recently flocked to the polarizing new Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, the latest, bombastic addition to the canon. In addition to Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, there was another returning marquee name essential to the identity of this franchise, or better put, the pop mythology of the times. I mean, of course, composer John Williams. Audiences may have little way of realizing as they are experiencing a film that they are participating in one of the last stands of the great Romantic period. If we are at the dawn of new revolutions, then in the cinema we find traces of one of the grandest revolutions to have re-shaped culture. [Read more…]
Dvorák: Symphony No.9 In E Minor, Op.95, B. 178 “From the New World” – 1. Adagio – Allegro molto, by Wiener Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan. 1985
One sits in the dead of night, listening to Dvorak, while attempting to form thoughts on a strange, beautiful film. Guillermo Del Toro’s sensuous new film, The Shape of Water, is love as monstrosity, as a distortion of a conformist view of love. Del Toro could not have known how timely his parable would become. If the arts can interpret the psyche and the mood of a time, then Del Toro is but one of several artists and filmmakers who is producing art that responds to our predicament with a radical heart, but a radicalism based on the revolutionary act of seeing the other beyond their veils. [Read more…]
It is quite possible that the most fitting work of art to premiere onstage this year as an appropriate expression of the times is Thomas Ades’s searing opera, The Exterminating Angel. Apocalyptic, cataclysmic, it tells the story of a group of wealthy dinner guests who cannot leave a mansion, pushed back by an invisible force. Civilization soon crumbles and they become savages. The opera is noteworthy as both a work by Ades, certainly one of the great modern composers, and because it is an adaptation of a film by Luis Buñuel. More than most filmmakers, Buñuel’s cinema endures as both landmark filmmaking and as a powerful set of visions which interpret the human condition. His body of work spans from 1929 to 1977, yet feels even more at home now, in this age of surreal gestures and civilization as madhouse. Buñuel was keenly aware that humans are driven by desire, tribalism, and the power of fantasy. It is when these three mix within his cinema that even his lesser films maintain a dangerous undercurrent. [Read more…]
As the year reaches its twilight, it is becoming clear that 2017 was the year of iconoclasm. The wave of scandals and shocking revelations (shocking to those unaware of the habits of the elite) has cracked the great marble edifices of many a celebrity or political persona. For a population as addicted to social media and the religion of fads as ours, it is very telling that it has taken sex to shock the public consciousness into the realization that fame is a mask, popularity a vulgar makeup. But the current, lurid headlines still distract from a truth everyone knows but would prefer to whisper: There are darker ceremonies taking place in the deepest, darkest chambers of the American halls of power.
Great and terrible has been the year of 2017, midnight in the century approaches and war clouds faintly gather on the horizon. From the dim light of a mausoleum in Moscow, the corpse of Vladimir Lenin remains still, silent and hollow amid polished stone. What power can a corpse wield long after the state founded by the man himself has ceased to exist? Yet the new Russian Tsar fears this corpse. The Putin government has hesitated, in fact refused, to officially commemorate the event the once living Lenin took part in 100 years ago — the October Revolution of 1917. [Read more…]
One of the great oddities of our present moment is the overwhelming sense of stubborn conformism. The need to relish in specific designer trends and pose in the aesthetic of the middle or upper class is so strong that the rebels now find themselves shunned in popular media. The pressures of establishing oneself in a solid career and making a respectable income have turned collegial life into a Darwinian landscape of predatory competitiveness, where attainment of status supersedes any real intellectual growth. Do your homework, prove you can recite what the lecture told you, and off you go. [Read more…]
Cinema in our time is almost completely dominated by aesthetic. This has curiously been the case with both Hollywood mastodons and lower budget fare. The look of a film now supersedes its narrative, as evident in much of this year’s offerings ranging from Blade Runner 2049 to Wonderstruck. But Loving Vincent, an elegant and enrapturing film experience, proves that when approaching the life of a great artist, aesthetic is key — the trick is how to fuse the gesture with an engaging narrative. The film is an exploration of the cryptic life of Vincent van Gogh, his dark aura and wondrous talent, brought to life through his own visions. Here is a film worth seeking out in whichever local arthouse lucky enough to be showing it. I am grateful I accepted an invitation to see it from a dear friend who had just returned from those burning lands in the Middle East, who confessed Van Gogh was her muse and so was drawn to this film like a moth to flame. [Read more…]
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. — Friedrich Nietzsche.
It is hard to doubt that many inhabitants of the American imperium are going insane. The irrational nature of sudden, public outbursts of violence escalates to new levels of horror every year. The recent bloodbath in Las Vegas has raised many, quite necessary, debates over the gun-crazed culture that frames the American mindset, but little attention is being paid to the actual mental state of the republic. Surrounded by hyper-capitalism, predatory competition, and an increasingly isolated way of living, new monsters are being bred and formed, to roam the countryside and inflict new body counts. It is almost fitting that the current White House occupant is himself deranged, because shouldn’t a leader be a mirror image of his people? [Read more…]
There is a sense in our increasingly electronic era that everything is surface. We are defined by our social media pages and herd to the gym to look a specific way. What defines us is becoming an increasingly complex series of ponderings based on many material factors. It is only appropriate then, that Warner Brothers would decide to revive Blade Runner here and now. Denis Villeneuve’s new Blade Runner 2049 is a film that is indeed all surface, with the cold heart of an android, but this makes it a fitting fable for its audience.
In the age of spectacle the icon is as durable as ancient marble. Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the exterminating angel of the Cuban Revolution, comes down to us half a century after his CIA-backed execution in Bolivia as a Janus figure — a pop icon which nevertheless provokes fierce political debate and fears. His death in October 8, 1967 set aflame waves of indignation among the world’s revolutionary fronts. [Read more…]