Writing elsewhere…

Regular readers of Urban Landfill might be interested to know that I’ve been reviewing books for the Independent on Sunday recently.

My piece on Hélène Gestern’s The People in the Photo can be found here.

I also recently reviewed Decoded by the Chinese writer Mai Jia, here.

Slightly less recently, I wrote about Régis Jauffret’s Severe, here.

A recent piece on Laurent Garnier for the Times Literary Supplement is here (but you’ll need to pay).

Apocalypse Baby, Virginie Despentes (trans. by Siân Reynolds), Serpent’s Tail

Virginie Despentes first achieved notoriety on the French literary scene with 1994’s Baise-Moi, a feminist rape-and-revenge tale that sparked controversy for its blend of graphic sex and comic book violence. Since then, her novels have frequently packed a similarly visceral adrenaline-fuelled punch. Her literary ‘manifesto’, King Kong Théorie (2006), clarified her approach: she writes from the ‘outside’ to subvert the white, pretty, submissive, skinny, maternal, female media stereotype. She writes for the ugly, the undesirable and the unhappy: ‘toutes les exclues du grand marché à la bonne meuf’. Given such a commitment to the marginal, it is perhaps surprising that Apocalypse Baby was awarded the high-profile, and conservative, prix Renaudot in 2010. This mainstream acceptance does not, however, reflect any diminishment in her power to provoke. The uncompromising social vision that has made Despentes such a distinctive voice within contemporary French fiction is still here, but is tightly woven into a highly-readable narrative.

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Apocalypse Baby showcases Despentes’ oft overlooked ability to tell a story. It has a fast-paced and compelling detective plot at its heart. Lucie, the first-person narrator and private investigator, is trailing Valentine, a troubled rich teenager, when the latter disappears. Given the chance to make amends, Lucie teams up with the enigmatic, ‘mythical’ and sexually-charged ‘Hyena’ to track her down. As the search intensifies, the reader is drawn from bourgeois Paris on a road trip to the non-conformist squats of Barcelona. The journey takes in many of the hallmarks of Despentes liminal literary world: sweaty punk gigs, graphic lesbian sex, liberal drug use and underground anti-capitalist groups. Sentences are short and make liberal use of coarse contemporary argot, with Lucie and the Hyena’s snappy mutual distrust particularly well rendered into English by translator Siân Reynolds.

Despentes’ text presents a physical journey, but also a trip into the past of its characters. The novel succeeds in stressing the neurotic insecurities of all of her protagonists – even the most self-assured. Lucie’s narrative is interleaved by shifts of narrative focus to the the characters they meet en route. François, Valentine’s father is a mediocre right-wing novelist, hooked on painkillers and obsessed with his waning literary profile. Vanessa, his ex-wife and Valentine’s mother, is a cynical money-grabber and desperate to cover up her North African roots. Yacine, her cousin, is a knife-carrying bad boy from the banlieu tower blocks and bristling with spite. The Hyena is particularly memorably-drawn: androgynous, alternately charming and acutely aggressive and intensely attractive to both males and females alike, but with a dark secret. Lucie, by contrast, is more reserved and self-evasive, described as a ‘dozy mollusc’ (p. 241) but undergoes a radical turnaround on reaching sunny Barcelona.

Alongside the skilfully-plotted story, Apocalypse Baby is also a highly-provocative novel. It paints a pitiless, unsparing picture of contemporary urban life. Very little is free from the text’s ire. Paris is ‘grey, noisy, depressing and morbid, while the ‘shipwreck of heterocentrism’ is frequently highlighted as a problem (p. 146). Young people, the rich, mothers, Christianity, journalists, marriage, airports, celebrities all find themselves  under Despentes’ acerbic gaze. We live, the novel suggests, in an age where tension, cynicism and ‘vulgar indifference’ (p. 32) are the norm. As the Hyena stresses: ‘There is no dignity, there is no gentleness. All the people who were good and honourable, all the nice guys, have been wiped out’ (pp. 119-120). The novel is also repeatedly critical of the internet which, rather than an online utopia, encourages mindless narcissism. François writes his own glowing Amazon reviews and the Hyena observes a ‘frenzy of desire to broadcast, but without any receivers’ amongst the snap happy tourists she encounters (p. 210).

Is there, then, an overall message to Apocalypse Baby? It can be hard to tell since there is an overall unsettling ambivalence to Despentes text. The novel appears to desire a change to what it paints as the contemporary patriarchal capitalist status quo, but stops short of proposing any conclusive solutions. Indeed, the extent to which it ultimately endorses the novel’s unexpected, and explosive, conclusion remains devastatingly ambiguous. If there is a moment of hope that challenges the nihilism within Despentes’ bleak yet skilfully drawn novel, it comes from within human relationships, friendships and even love that can blossom against the odds, and often when least expected.

Salò o le centoventi giornate di Sodoma (dir: Pier Paolo Pasolini: 1975)

Salò is regularly both celebrated and decried as being the most obscene film ever made. It has been wailed about by critics and regularly tops Internet top tens of cinematic excess. Its relentless depiction of the torture and humiliation of Italian youths held prisoner and presided over by four sadistic libertines certainly isn’t easy or comfortable viewing. The subject matter is about as bleak as imaginable: an adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s blackest book set in an occupied chateau in fascist Italy. Pasolini’s film has been understood in many different, and legitimising, ways. It has, naturally, been understood as a reading of Sade’s thought, a comment on totalitarianism or, as the director himself suggested, a critique of consumerism and a consideration of sexual politics. But what if we read it as a comedy?

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I’ve seen Salò twice now. Some might suggest this is two times too many. The first viewing, at a sparsely attended screening at the Cornerhouse in Manchester in 2001 was, of course, unsettling. My most recent viewing was at a packed Paris Cinématheque as part of the current Pasolini season and the experience was a little different. Yes, the film was still difficult to watch, but the screening was notable for the sniggers and ripples of laughter that spread out throughout the film once the torture scenes got underway.

Why laugh at Salò? It could, of course, have been uncomfortable laughter as the audience struggles to process the brutal scenes of sexual abuse, humiliation and coprophagia. Maybe the laughter was one of relief that the film wasn’t as shocking as the hype had led them to believe it was. An uncharitable observer might note cultural differences between friendly Mancunian and colder Parisian crowds. I’m not quite what sure the nature of this laugher actually was, but there were however, more giggles at Salò than at some more traditional comedies I’ve seen.

Writing about the film in October, Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, have noted that there are a number of jokes or straightforward old-fashioned corny verbal gags in the film, easily overlooked amongst the more striking scenes of torture (Vol. 13, Summer 1980, pp. 22-35). At one point, as Bersano and Dutoit note, the head libertine, or President, asks: ‘What is the difference between the number 8, a gate and a family? An 8 is always closed, a gate is sometimes open. “And the family?’ asks the other person. “They’re fine, thanks,” answers the President, overwhelmed with glee’ (p. 29). There are, I think, other comic moments to be found throughout the film. Rather than purely horrific, there is a sustained slapstick quality to many of the scenes as the libertines’ frenzied excitement sees them often literally fall over themselves to realise their desires. Equally, the sheer extremity of the ‘narratives’ that are provided to accompany and inspire the libertines sexual excesses have their own degree of burlesque, if very dark, humour. The incongruous ridiculousness of the libertines’ drag attire, particularly that of the bearded libertine Duke (Paolo Bonacelli) and the acutely strange looking and cross-eyed President (Aldo Valletti), prime candidate for a comic lead, if indeed the film has one, also clearly add a degree of humour.

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The film has been pored over by theorists, but the humour in Salò has been noted by John Waters, himself a controversial film director. For me, there are even striking resonances between Water’s comedy Pink Flamingos (1972), released three years before Pasolini’s film in both Divine’s outrageous drag, that of the libertines, and, of course the scatological preoccupations of both films. Is Pasolini making an intertextual nod to Waters?

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I think we’d be wrong, and perhaps slightly twisted, to watch Salò exclusively as a comedy. Although I believe there is humour in the film, it is ultimately, however, overwhelmed by the relentless torture and excess. What role, then, does laugher play in the film? Perhaps Salò’s relationship with resistance is revealing from this perspective. At a key moment, when one of the chateau’s prisoners is discovered having unauthorised sex with a serving girl and is about to be shot for his transgression, he confronts the libertines with a raised first, a universal leftist symbol of resistance and rebellion. This gesture is, however, futile as he is shot after a brief, but tense, stand-off. There is also a similar sense of futility in the film’s absence of narrative progression. As Éric Marty has suggested Salò is in many ways a very shallow film – there is no development of character or plot (Pourquoi le XXe siècle a-t-il pris Sade au sérieux?, Seuil, 2011). In this way, any value, meaning or satisfying resolution that a viewer would be able to take from the film through a happy ending, or any conclusive ending at all, is not supplied. This reinforces the overall inescapable horror of the Sadean, fascist and consumerist systems sketched out by Pasolini’s film. A satisfying narrative pay-off would, like the raised fist and, ultimately, the humour in the film, be futile in the face of these systems according to Pasolini’s pessimistic vision. If not, then, a comedy, comedy plays a role in the film in a way that captures a spectator off-guard but closes off the possibility of a redemptive reading of the film. Sniggering is futile.

Call for papers – Intoxication

ULIP Postgraduate Conference Summer 2013, June 28th, 2013

Throughout literary history writers have consistently been drawn to intoxication. They have used their work to ponder the temptation of intoxicants, and the altered states of perception they produce. Writers have also regularly intoxicated themselves to aid the creative process, or to escape the pressure of artistic creation and the monotony of humdrum reality.

The intoxicant of choice can take many forms. It can be legal highs: cigarettes, strong coffee and alcohol favoured by the café-frequenting auteur. It can be ‘recreational’: cannabis and so-called club drugs such as ecstasy and ketamine. It can also be more radical, pushing the writer towards the edges of both legality and experience: heroin, crack and cocaine.

Intoxication can also take a more mundane form: prescribed medication and, in particular, antidepressants. It need not involve drugs at all: adherents report that asceticism and religious fanaticism can create equivalent states of intoxication. The very act of writing itself has also been posited as exhilarating or intoxicating. In turn, the process of reading has been celebrated for its capacity to produce a similar effect.

French writing, and French writers, have been particularly fascinated by intoxication, and have frequently been intoxicated. In the nineteenth century, Rimbaud called for a ‘dérèglement de tous les sens’, Baudelaire, Gaultier and Flaubert were attendees at the Club des Hashischins, whilst the shadow of Thomas de Quincey’s opium eating has loomed large over the French creative imagination. In modern and contemporary writing, Henri Michaux and Claro have explored LSD, whilst Frédéric Beigbeder published his Nouvelles sous ecstasy. Alcohol has also had a strong grip: Debord, Houellebecq and Duras all drank heavily. Paris itself has been a frequent port of call for foreign writers seeking intoxication: Miller, Burroughs and Hemmingway all famously indulged decadently in the French capital.

This one-day conference at the University of London Institute in Paris will consider the relationship of intoxication to writing produced both in French and in France. It invites proposals for twenty-minute research papers in English or French from postgraduate and early career researchers as well as proposals for interventions around the theme from writers working outside the university community.

Themes for exploration could include, but are by no means limited to, the following:

-       Ecstasy, raves and writing

-       Uppers and downers

-       Cigarettes and alcohol

-       Writing and rock

-       Hangovers and comedowns

-       Parisian expatriate intoxication

-       Writing and hedonism

-       Alternative intoxications

Proposals (maximum 300 words), together with a short biography indicating your academic background and research interests or short CV, should be submitted via e-mail to eugene.brennan@ulip.lon.ac.uk by April 5th 2013. Please include your name, academic affiliation (where appropriate), and contact details.

This conference is organised by the ULIP Postgraduate Society: Russell Williams, Eugene Brennan, Katie Tidmarsh and Alastair Hemmens.

 

Django Unchained (dir: Quentin Tarantino, 2013)

In some ways, a new Tarantino film is a very much like a pair of Clarks, a Vauxhall car or a bottle of seven quid wine from Sainsbury’s. Reassuringly, you know pretty much in advance what you’re going to get.  Unlike the desert boots, the Corsa or the Rioja, though, you can generally count on a Tarantino films to show enough sparks of cinematic magic to make the whole affair live long in the memory.

Django Unchained certainly looks like it fulfils most of the expectations that a cinema-going public weaned on Tarantino’s earlier work will have. It follows heist-movie Reservoir Dogs (1992), martial arts revenge film Kill Bill (2003-4) and war romp Inglorious Basterds (2009), by again paying fond tribute to an unfashionable genre. This time, Tarantino has remade a western, but with a twist: picking on Carbucci’s Django and Francisci’s Hercules Unchained to inspire a story of a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) wreaking revenge on the white men who dominate nineteenth-century American society and have hold of his wife.

Tarantino’s treatment has lent the film a reliable whiff of provocation: its subject, liberal use of the n-word and its par-for-the-course bloody violence, have already sparked debate with Spike Lee kicking off online and Krishnan Guru-Murthy rising to the bait too easily on British TV. Of course, we’ve seen controversy with Tarantino before. The ‘is it too violent?’ question  being a particularly limp one.

Like Tarantino’s previous films, Django Unchained provides both a platform for stars from the past we thought were long forgotten (think John Travolta in Pulp Fiction or Pam Grier in Jackie Brown) or shows us stars we though we knew in radically different ways (Uma Thurman as sword-bearing ninja or Robert De Niro as a weed-smoking small-time crook). Here Django casts, Titanic whimperer Leonardo DiCaprio as a menacingly evil plantation owner whilst the iconic cool Samuel L. Jackson loses the Kangol and is cast as Stephen, his simpering right-hand-man.

We can also generally expect a Tarantino’s film to feature a somewhat toe-curlingly embarrassing cameo from the man himself (check) and for the films to be slightly over-long and rather clumsily put together at the final edit. Kind of clunky. That’s OK though, because the music will be good and there is enough going on to keep our attention. The bloated-yet-compelling Pulp Fiction being a case in point.

Django Unchained has most of this. It is most effective when it comes to character. Christophe Waltz gives a notable turn as dentist-turned Bounty Hunter who frees Django from his irons and kicks off the movie’s plot. A performance not as memorable, however, as his as a particularly sinister Nazi ‘jew hunter’ Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds. It is Jackson, who is almost unrecognisable from his previous Tarantino roles and, in particular, DiCaprio who steal the show. The latter, as Calvin Candie is alternately charming and brutal, echoing, in fact, Waltz’s role in Basterds.

You can normally count on tense set pieces to be the highest points of Tarantino movies. These are scenes that stay in the memory long after you’ve forgotten the rest of the film. Reservoir Dog’s ear surgery to a Stealers Wheel soundtrack set the mark. This was followed by Pulp Fiction’s adrenaline shot through the heart and Jackson’s fire and brimstone hitman speech. Even the woeful second half of Death Proof doesn’t seem quite so bad when you remember Vanessa Ferlito’s lapdance. A highlight of Basterds was, equally, a set piece, set in a Munich beer cellar where an Allied undercover agent infiltrates some heavy duty Nazi drinking. This is, however, where Django Unchained lets us down. The film has its fair share of good moments, most of them stating DiCaprio and Jackson, but nothing approaching the sheer heart-thumping tension of his earlier works.

Yes, there is excitement, yes there is violence. Yes, it looks great – I particularly liked the flashbacks, themselves shot on pseudo vintage film. Django Unchained is a good movie, but mediocre Tarantino: Tarantino restrained. Maybe describing it as the movie equivalent of a warm Pinot Grigiot or a Vauxhall Astra is doing the director a disservice, but Tarantino is here on, what is for him, uncharacteristically comfy territory.

Killing Them Softly (Dir: Andrew Dominik, 2012)

Killing Them Softly, a film set in a nameless urban American wasteland and directed by a Kiwi is a resolutely French piece of noir filmmaking.

Let me explain. Andrew ‘Chopper’ Dominik’s latest movie, which tells of score-settling, amongst small-time mobsters, is a movie about contemporary economic politics every inch as much as it is a story of revenge. The plot follows the aftermath of the audacious yet ill-advised hold-up of a backroom gambling operation. The world is one where everybody, from the rookie crooks and the shady poker players to the Brad Pitt’s ‘sensitive’ hitman – who can’t bear to see his victims suffering so he kills them from a distance, hence the Roberta Flack-referencing of the film’s title – are explicitly caught up treading water amidst burgeoning global financial gloom.

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Killing Them Softly is set against the background of the initial waves of the 2008 global economic crisis and the associated financial pledges from aspirant presidents Bush and Obama, both promising to lead the US to financial security. All its characters are at the sharp end of the economic wedge, all of them trying to stay afloat. The candidates’ promises are mediated through distant television reports, highlighting the cynical remove from the sober realities if contemporary American life.

In such a way, Dominik’s film stands up as a dark satire on capitalism’s inability to bring any lasting benefits to the society it dominates. Pitt’s killer, driven exclusively by the market, stands as a contemporary shadow of the heroine of French writer Jean-Patrick Manchette’s novel Fatale (1977) where the hired assassin is cast as the distilled product of capitalist spirit. Whilst Killing Them Softly, itself based on a detective novel, George V. Higgins’ Cogan’s Trade (1974) shares Manchette’s critical imperative, the film also shares his bleak pessimism.

Whilst the story is reasonably compelling and the satire interesting from the context of a Hollywood product, the film is most successful at the level of character. The fantastically-named Scoot McNairy brings a Buscemi-esque twitchiness to unsteady criminal Frankie, whilst Ray Liotta provides a pitch perfect cameo as the doomed wiseguy Markie Trattman. Perhaps most impressive, however, is Pitt’s hitman, Cogan. In a restrained, mature performance, Pitt all but buries memories of his over-the-top Inglorious Basterds buffoonery around these parts. Killing Them Softly is an all-too-rare piece of filmmaking – a movie that is concurrently both entertaining and has a relatively palatable message. Shame Pitt went and ruined it all with that fucking horrible Chanel ad, then, innit?