Friday, 31 July 2009

Broken Embraces: Review

Thank the heavens for Broken Embraces. In a summer that has been dominated by dismal Hollywood refranchising (Terminator, Wolverine, Transformers) and arthouse shock tatics and self-indulgence (Antichrist, Synecdoche New York), Pedro Almodovar's 17th film is a breath of fresh air. The trailer's wordless sequences give nothing away and to those not familiar with the director, I doubt it will invite your interest. But dare to be curious and you will be pleasantly surprised. This is a serious piece of filmmaking; it will reward both the cinephile and the casual viewer.

Penelope Cruz is the ostensible 'star' of the film, though the film is reticent to focus on a particular protagonist or narrative. The plot is embellished as the film jumps between 1994 and 2008: a complex web of storytelling that only reveals the particulars at the film's climax. We meet a blind cinematographer who lives under a pseudonym, an aspiring documentary filmmaker seeking to ruin his father's memory, a jealous financier and of course, Penelope Cruz herself- in the role of Magdelena: a typically passionate, but dissatisfied woman upon whom entire film turns. The film refuses to conform to type; allowing for a myriad of complex, often contradictory emotions.

A touch of self-referentialism never hurt anyone, and Broken Embraces boasts a 'film within a film' storyline that ties all the disparate elements together. Whereas other films have attempted this ad naseum (Synecdoche- to it's absolute limit), it never feels laboured or indulgent. Broken Embrace's characters carry heavy burdens- but the light hearted 60s romp 'Girls with suitcases' within the film is used as much to distract as embolden. It's subjects are dark, but the film's tone is brisk.

This is not a typical indie flick. It lacks the pace of genre-staples such as 'Y Tu Mama Tambien' or 'City of God'. But throughout the film are clues: A delicate scene with a television playing an Ingrid Bergmann film in the background. Casting agents instructing Magdelena to wear her hair 'like Hepburn'.This is classic cinematic storytelling, beautifully shot and acted, rooted in the style of 50s Hollywood.

First published in Planet Notion

Compositional aesthetics in children's literature.

I enjoyed a conversation recently with an as-yet unpublished author of children's stories. Another of my friends is devoted to this craft, though I am no expert on the particulars, the histories and conventions of the genre, nor the difficulties in embellishing it with that dislocated sense of fantasy and reality concurrent. However, certain aspects of the genre draw my interest, and certain aspects in the production can be seen to mirror those of more adult literature. I remain convinced that the subtelties of storytelling are as nuanced no matter your target audience, no matter the particulars of your narrative style or form- all writing is fiction at it's root, all writing strives to entertain, prove and disprove.

We are all condemned to silence unless we create our own relation with the world and try to tie other people into the meaning we thus create. That is what composing is.

Children's stories are embedded in the rich tradition of folklore and fable. The simplistic language used in both mediums is employed to appeal to the widest possible audience. There is an allegorical quality to this storytelling which demands itself to be heard. It's raison d'etre is to interpellate, and so broaching a mass market is entirely in agreement with this. If one is able to reduce any series of words and sentences to it's discursive core, then perhaps one could argue that children's literature is a tool of socialisation much in the way that fables contain moralistic and ethical codes that we are meant to learn from. I was curious though as to the extent an author conciously writes these allegories and subtexts into their character, the extent to which these characters are 'allowed to breath'.

I believe that this is an authorial difficulty which is not exclusive to children's literature. All writers seek to prove something. Perhaps the form of the fable allows for a greater indulgence in political subtext which can come across merely as clumsy storytelling in more contemporary forms. Is it possible to suspend an adult audience's critical disbelief with success throughout an extended fable storytelling format? My mind recalled, in particular, Lars Von Trier's 2003 film Dogville, which structurally is set out in chapter format, is narrated by an omniscient and disembodied male. I think Von Trier is a pretty appropriate example of perhaps the shortcomings of fable format in adult fiction. His biggest shortcoming, throughout his back catalogue of uber-realist and more recently, more artifice laden filmmaking, has been that he forever regards his characters merely as plot devices, political tools to manipulate in order to prove his artistic point. His films are thinly veiled thesis, and he expects an audience to be moved to agreement, or shocked into a reactionary disagreement. Arguably, through allowing his characters no room for human development, he is shutting the door on any significant emotional attachments being drawn between the audience and text. The intended socialisation of his films is more easily dismissed, thanks largely to the arrogance with which he composes his thesis/story and expects you to be passively subjected to it's self-evidence.

The socialisation which occurs in children's literature is, though composed in a blunter fashion (through the language of fable, as discussed), is of a more progressive nature. There are certain edicts, certain established codes of behaviour which are transmitted and naturalised to the child, and it could be argued that these are of unspeakably important value to society, and in the development of that child's character.

I was curious as to how these concerns about characterisation manifested in composition, in the extent to which an author of children's literature knowingly embeds these cultural, moral, ethical codes and resolutions into their characters and narratives. Are characters composed firstly for their political subtexts, or does a story reveal itself (shudder) "naturally" ? Conversation moved on to discussion of Jung's archetypes, and other historically noteworthy examples of a collected embodiment of a particular representation.

Moreover, if the purpose of fable is to interpellate cultural codes, conventions, valuable information otherwise intangible- is then it limited to imparting what has already been quietly agreed upon? Should representations of, say, good and evil, valour and cowardice, integrity and untrustworthiness, neccesarily be conventional? How far can an author attempt to transgress whilst maintaining the culturally-affirmative element of the genre- a stylistic trope which cannot be disregarded for therein lies the convincing aspect of the narrative.

Wonderful conversation- a fragment that I did not want to lose.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

The Market

The market had been there since anyone could remember. For six days a week, the streets were empty and sullen, the shop facias faded in reverence to the sun; all things remaining closed in anticipation. The rusted skeletons of stalls formerly and stalls-to-be were carted with infrequency in the early mornings of the week and put in place: helpful council red paint used cleverly to demarcate each allocation. In doing so, it etched a permenance onto the concrete of the streets, it earmarked the market's timeless validity.

Once a week this dormant calvacade would awaken into splendid colour and vibrancy; from my second floor windows I could see these empty streets and eventual hubub in something like time-lapse. Curiosity would get the better of me, and anyway- are we not composed within our environments? Oh, colour me in.

On market day, it was as if the entire neighbourhood could not contain it's excitement. Shopkeepers would arrive on six thirty, coming in white vans, the families in 4x4's to lay out tables and build up their palaces: neat arrangements of goods, wares and vividly coloured price tags. By ten o' clock that morning the streets would be filled with a mingling fraternity, many colours of skin, eager to be impressed.

On this particular Sunday, such recently uninspired weather had produced a thick July glow. Stalls were laid out like tents inviting all the hustle and bustle inward for shade. On the corners, hot dog vendors had seized an opportunity. Certain shopkeepers had brought small radios along, such is the vibe, their clatter fills the air. Different speakers crossfade an abstract ethnicity that alters as one browses.

Geographically, it was near and far away enough to remain a hidden treasure. Not a hundred feet away around corners, glass skyscrapers reflected a blue sky that was only marred by the trails of a departing commercial airliner. They all ached toward the heavens.Below, there could have been five hundred stalls hidden in low buildings and winding, narrow streets. Noone would know. A colloquial drinking hole seemed to signify your transition from that world to this, at any rate it appeared itself closed in the distance. As you walk amongst the crowd, you notice the fervor. Stuck with tiny steps, the crowds seem endless. Street names disappear. Stall after stall of identical coloured ensemble, not small curios of interest, no no, their hegemony maddens you. That it had not occured to any of the stallkeepers to engage in diversity was to me, staggering. The effort expended without merit since six thirty that morning, for this draining onslaught of similarity.You came here for coffee, perhaps clay-wrought cups and such, but no- these wares can roughly speaking be put into three categories:

The first is of clothes and textiles. Colourful stalls, garments lain flat-packed in polythene, lined up either on tables or vertically from their boxes. Some stalls may specialise in a particular kind of faux-leather, and others may cater exclusively in traditional clothes for a certain ethnicity- but the vast majority of these stands hawk similar wares. Generic shirts and plain trousers, nondescript shoes and rails proposing to offer knock-off High Street brands, slight seconds. All of the above for prices lit up with colourful tags carved as explosions or thought bubbles, writ in black marker. Five pounds. Ten pounds. Three for ten pounds if you're lucky. These, sometimes laminate. I am sure they expect you to haggle, though I don't see much of it. Is this an English thing? The darker skinned here, by far a majority, look perfectly at home.With the exceptions of the two leather and the handful of speciality stalls, all the clothes here seem completely identical.

In a smaller amount, but noticable all the same, are the dozen of so emporiums of music and video. Each of these advertises their intent by demonstrating the innate worth of their Music over a cheap speaker system- often to the point of distortion. These can be heard, as I have mentioned, wherever you are in the market. These collections, most generally, are world music set in brightly coloured cases, though I have spied 'The very best of the Rat Pack' and other more Western compilations, all canononical. There are large sections devoted to religious music, often choral and very contemporary. I once saw a woman stop in the street in appreciation of a gospel number, but this is not an uncommon thing.

Lastly, and boasting the least representation, I counted three stalls hawking supplementary electrical goods. These were run by bearded men in jumpers not befitting the heat of the day. On these stalls, tables would be laid out with small boxes containing such vital household goods as plug socket covers, AV cables made redundant with the advent of SCART, electrical extension cables and the like. Upon walking past these stalls, do not be surprised to hear the shopkeeper invite your interest with a gambit of "you want one metre, I have one metre" or similar boast, whilst holding said length of cable up to the sky. Inviting your interest, like I said.

Competition is fierce. Shopkeepers call out bargain price after bargain price, bounce off each other's offers. Some are, naturally, more competant at this than others. Such public performance relies upon confidence and an undeniably good deal. The neccesity to compete in this manner is made ever more important by the climate in which they compete. Since the entire market is consisted of rival traders selling identical products, the process of advertising those wares becomes of utmost importance.

From a consumer's point of view, exactly where one shops is of arbitrary importance.Perhaps all anyone wanted from this market was clothes, fabrics, pirated ethnic music and plug socket extension leads- but they seemed like strange bedfellows. Why those things? I had gone intrigued, searching for ambiguous things: a pestle and mortar, perhaps a pepper grinder, a cafetiere, a Shish, some organic farmhouse delicacies, a surprise.