Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Geoffrey G. Robinson - "Experience in Groups"

I was rather struck recently on reading Geoffrey G. O'Brien's poem "Experience in Groups" in the latest issue of The White Review. I'd previously only come across O'Brien through this exchange with Keston Sutherland some several moons ago. But I'm now very keen to explore his work further; in fact, carelessness - actually not solely mine but also that of an online bookseller - with that central G. means that I'm now awaiting not only work by this poet but also by this poet, who it turns out is also a film critic: by such contingencies discoveries are made!

But to return to the poet with the central 'G.', and the text in question. It has a beautiful balance between obscurity, clarity and urgency (though I actually think it most effective when the urgency is underplayed), with the obscurity never residing in the vocabulary. It contains some beautifully long, self-entangling sentences with graciously strained syntax. It's a poem "about" what the internet has done (is doing) to our interpersonal relationships, the meaning of shared experience, and particularly political action and political art, with particular reference to immigration - and specifically to Jonas Dahlberg's proposed memorial to those murdered on Utøya by Anders Behring Breivik - but it is also "about" the first person plural pronoun, which is "worn smooth, / Translucent, picked up and discounted." And because of this, and also because "The problem with pronouns is you / Says more and less than wanted, / Frequently all the time.", the best thing to do is hardly include said pronouns in your poem at all (one "us", one "we", one "ours", by my count).

I like the complaint against "reliance on facial recognition", which both protests against technologies of control and against the idea that a first person plural could only apply to those we know in the flesh. Although an increased reliance on facial recognition would almost certainly be preferable to the distance killing of drone strikes in Pakistan: "Mandi Khel, Ghar Laley". The poem is certainly not a Luddite jeremiad - surely most of its readers will need the internet to discover the significance of the places just named? - despite the observation that before mobile phones "what you were unable to do / Determined how and what you did", because of course "what / We can't do now" also "affects / What we try anyway to accomplish". I also like the assonances and internal rhymes, giving a lyric beauty but sometimes teetering on the edge of parodic excess: "an illness of believing / In something still to come, to be done / By all or none, not any // You could state the case for / Becoming more than one of." And I like the reference to The Big Bang Theory, accomplished with a complete absence of pally down-with-the-kids winking: "undecided whether / It totally will have hasn't happened / Yet."

Sunday, January 03, 2016

John Updike on Bruno Schulz

"The harrowing effort of his prose (which never, unlike that of Proust or Kafka, propels us onward, but instead seems constantly to ask that we stop and re-read) is to construct the world anew, as from fragments that exist after some unnameable disaster."

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Werckmeister Harmonies

Very lucky, yesterday, to see two of my favourite films in one day. I can't honestly say that seeing The Werckmeister Harmonies for the first time on the big screen (also at the BFI Southbank) was as revelatory as Mirror. This one was shown on 35mm, though it was a surprisingly ropey print: beautiful when undamaged, but particularly at the beginning and end of reels seriously scratchy and juddery in places as well. Although this did have the effect of making the film look like it was more likely to have been made 50 years ago than 15, which was perhaps not inappropriate. It's not a competition, but for sheer impact I would have to say that Mirror wins the day: the intensity of The Werckmeister Harmonies feels a little one-note when seen immediately afterwards. But it is still an extraordinary cinematic experience; what seeing it on a big screen for the first time did certainly emphasise is how extraordinarily choreographed the cinematography is, how marvellously fluid while still retaining a lightness despite the fact that any frame chosen at random, one feels, would be perfectly composed. This ought to suck all the air out of the film but it manages not to. Worth emphasising, by the way, that the film is credited at the beginning to Lásló Krasznahorkai, Ágnes Hranitsky and Béla Tarr - the shorthand of "Tarr's films" should not be allowed to obscure this.

Friday, October 23, 2015


Sometimes seeing a film on the big screen, surprisingly, really does nothing to alter the sense one has gained of it through watching it on DVD. At other times it may be enjoyable and add something here and there but not really transform one's sense of a film. Watching Mirror today on a big screen at the BFI in London - a film I know well from DVD viewings - did not exactly transform my understanding of the film, but it was a profoundly different and revelatory experience. It wasn't the size of the screen as such (though that did accentuate certain things beautifully, like the cat early on, drinking away, happily oblivious to the salt the mischievous Alexei is pouring on its head; or the military instructor's headwound, pulsing in time to his loudly beating heart), but rather the gradations it made visible. These gradations, particularly in the colour segments, and particularly of focus, of light, and of hue, are all but invisible on the small screen. They created, not a sense of hyperrealism, but of simple, beautiful, corporeality. I really did want to reach out and touch somebody's face, or shoulder. Having the sound come from a single speaker behind the screen also bound the sound to the image more than can happen at home.
Other more local touches I spotted for the first time: the way the camera seems to pass, impossibly, through the wooden fence as it pans round the mother speaking to the passerby at the beginning; the apparent allusions to suspense or even horror cinema in the music at certain points (eg the ghostly appearance of the two women in the apartment), and in the images: the final shot of the mother before they leave the doctor's wife. It also seemed to me that inside the dacha, before we exit to watch the haybarn burn, a telephone can be heard faintly, preechoing the call from the mother that follows and suggesting the way sound can insinuate itself into a dream. But I may just have imagined this...
And this was a digital print, so although I have now finally seen Mirror on the big screen, I still have yet to see it on film...

Monday, October 12, 2015

Cornell, belatedly

A few thoughts, belatedly, on the very fine Joseph Cornell exhibition (now ended) Wanderlust, at the Royal Academy.
One of the most striking things about it was the sense of how open to the world Cornell's work was. For all its apparently hermetic aspects (of which there are many), I still left with the sense that his practice was fundamentally centripetal, making connections outwards, and that too much of the work influenced by him has mistaken this for something centrifugal, making more and more connections among an ever-more tightly circumscribed set of artists and artworks. (Much of the later work of John Zorn comes to mind here.)
There was a certain frustration at not being able to interact with the objects. As wonderful as it was to see them up close, so many of them explicitly ask to be handled and manipulated that seeing them in the flesh gave the odd sense that one loses much less in reproduction than one would have thought: if you can't pick them up and move the parts around, it makes very little difference whether one is a foot away from the original object, withdrawn behind glass, or looking at a photograph or video.
Generally I found the non-box collages less striking than the boxes (with the exception of 'The Sorrows of Young Werther', which is very strong), and the films were excellent and refreshingly accentuated Cornell's sense of humour. The narratives he sometimes hints at were also intriguing. I want to know more about Berenice.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Encountering Horse Money

Juxtaposition of two excellent pieces this past weekend - Complicite's The Encounter at the Old Vic in Bristol, and Pedro Costa's film from last year, Cavalo Dinheiro, or Horse Money, at the Watershed.

The former is a genuine tour de force by Simon McBurney and his associates, moving beautifully from an introduction to the complex microphone setup involved (all the audience wear headphones) handled almost like stand-up comedy, into its narrative (which concerns the encounter between photographer Loren McIntyre and the Mayoruna people of the Amazon). Perhaps sometimes a little too credulous (it feels as if the production wants to believe in the telepathic communication with the Mayoruna chief which McIntyre himself claimed to have taken place), and I cannot claim to have been absolutely transported at every moment - but on reflection perhaps this is itself the point. McBurney begins by discussing how everything is fiction, but that we cannot draw a neat line between the real and the fictional: he tells us that when he blows into the microphone we will feel our ear, beneath the headphones, getting hot, and indeed we do. Breaking the spell is repeatedly dramatised in the production, as McBurney's daughter interrupts his narrative, but the dialectic between immersion in fiction and observation of the fiction as fiction will be different for every audience member. For me this was encapsulated by realising in retrospect how carefully a piece a fake blood must have been placed, which was needed after a sequence in which McBurney trashed pretty much the whole stage.

More quietly, Costa's film (the first by him I have seen) is equally remarkable. It also entangles the fictional and the non-fictional, but whereas The Encounter begins with a man on a stage telling a story taking full advantage of the possibilities of theatre (it could never be filmed), Horse Money could be nothing other than a film. Its apparatus, to begin with, mixes the real and the fictional: the actors are relating events based on, or at least very close to, their own lives. But this narrative - whatever it status - is then placed in a space which refers obliquely to itself. Time and space continually blur, transform & get confused. But, intriguingly, the narrative itself is not confusing: we piece it together fairly straightforwardly. What is remarkable is that there is no attempt to create a stable fictional space within which to deploy this story. If we were told that this was the afterlife, or a dream, nobody would have much trouble, but withholding such certainty allows Costa to create a sense of stability of reference simultaneous with utter mysteriousness. It is also visually extraordinary, mostly stable camera set-ups (which somewhat recall Roy Andersson) showing a collection of unforgettable faces with a palette of mostly subdued but occasionally vibrant colours embedded in utter blackness.