Category Archives: Modern History

Independent Bookshop Week

Today and for the next seven days, 24th June to 1st July 2017, if you do anything at all you should go and buy a book from an independent bookshop. My favourite in London is in Primrose Hill and is called Primrose Hill Bookshop, unsurprisingly! PHB shop

Here you will meet Marek and Jessica and an assistant, all three are conversant with the books they sell, either Marek or Jessica will have read all the books, so they can give you informed opinion and choice, if you are hesitating.

I might never have bought The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler, translated by Charlotte Collins, had it not been recommended. PHB4
This is a fairly short novel about a tobacconist shop in Vienna in the 1930s. A young boy from the countryside is sent by his mother to help out in the shop; the owner is very strange but kind and one of their regular customers is Sigmund Freud; this novel is about the strange and disturbing times in Vienna, and the relationship between the boy, the owner of the shop and Sigmund Freud. But also, is a very delightful, sometimes sad and sometimes heart warming, coming-of-age story. Robert’s previous novel A Whole Life was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

[Should you wish to learn more about this interesting and diverse prize you should follow A Little Blog of Books, one of the best book blogs that there are.]https://alittleblogofbooks.com

Downstairs there is a remarkable selection of second hand books, mostly in excellent condition, many are nearly new.

There are also events, some at lunch time, some arranged through Eventbrite and are always interesting or intriguing. Take for example, an interesting and lively evening at the Union Chapel to hear Yanis Varoufakis speak about his new book Adults in the Room about which I cannot speak highly enough. .PHB3
Anyone at all who thinks Brexit will come out all right on the night needs to read this.

Particularly David “bra-size” Davis, who needs to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest it, because without it he will be “walking naked into the conference chamber” to use Teresa May’s illimitable description of Jeremy Corbyn.

Primrose Hill Books sell many top popular titles with signed copies, if you are quick and other less well know authors are promoted on a blackboard outside the shop.

Practically all the books that I have written about over the years have come from them; and even though I now live in South London I still use them as my main source of literature and non fiction. I email orders regularly, they store them until I can get over to the shop and even send them to me, or as a rare privilege Marek will drive over with a box. But that may not be a universal offer, so do not assume that you will get a delivery on one order. I ordered Perfume River by Robert Olen Butler, one time winner of the Pulitzer prize, an intriguing love story set in Vietnam, PHB5
where the river of the title gets its scent from the blossoms falling on the surface. It is a book about personal relationships and how the experience of war and its personal aftermath can reverberate down through several generations.

We all get excited by the many book prizes, my main focus being the Man Booker. But Jessica keeps me abreast of many of the others and not infrequently, I leave the bookshop with my order plus some recommendations by either Marek or Jessica.

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More of America

darktownAs promised in the last post, here is Darktown by Thomas Mullen. Set in 1948, it is a fictionalised account of early police work in Atlanta, Georgia. However, on this precinct all the policemen are black; eight men, under a white mentor, operate out of a hot basement apartment in an area of Atlanta largely populated by African Americans. These eight men have all the appearances of the white city police: guns, batons, badges and uniforms – but they have no squad cars and they are not allowed to arrest white citizens, furthermore they can do nothing if white cops decide to bring their operation into the black neighbourhood.

This happens, frequently and often violently, especially if a policeman called Dunlow happens to be around. Known for violent and often wrongful arrests of African American citizens, he is the nemesis of Officers Boggs and Smith.

So on a dark night when Boggs and Smith stop a car, one with a white driver and a young African American passenger in a yellow dress, there is not a great deal they can do; but a few hours later they seen the same car being stopped by Dunlow and Rakestraw, by this time it is clear that the young girl is in trouble as they have seen her being hit and when she jumps from the car and runs away, they assume that Dunlow and Rakestraw are dealing with it…

This is, at one and the same time, a police procedural thriller, a search for the perpetrator of several  untimely deaths and the extreme difficulties faced by the black officers who are not permitted to investigate crimes, even ones committed on their patch; they are not permitted to walk about in their uniforms unless actually on duty or appearing in court, so they are required to carry their uniforms in garment bags and to change on the site – generally in a cupboard and finally, they are not permitted under any circumstances to enter the police HQ.

This is also about race relations, the gulf between the two sides of Atlanta. The invisible dividing line between the areas where the white folk live and the areas for other people, and woe betide any uppity African American who builds a property on the wrong site, real estate being what it is, an area needs to maintain its status as a white neighbourhood, otherwise property values will nose-dive…

The writing is brilliant, the story breath-taking and the message is plain.  It is hard to believe that we have moved such a short way beyond this divided and hideous world and to many people it looks as though some of it may come back any time soon. This is the book to read, being forewarned is some way towards preventing it all coming back to haunt us.

Searching through the TBR pile I came upon another, very different American novel. Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen is so different that it is hard to relate the two books as being placed on the same continent. This is the tale of a woman, a doctor, looking back over her life and upbringing on a farm near to Philadelphia. In fact it is not clear where exactly the eponymous place, Miller’s Valley is exactly, but it must be East somewhere.Millers Valley.jpg

Mary Margaret Miller is the only daughter of Bob Miller and his wife, a nurse, who farm in the lower reaches of the valley.  They have two sons Ed and Tommy, Ed is quiet, stolid and hard working and eventually goes off to become an engineer, Tommy is fabulously good looking, and wild with it.

The thrust of the story, though, centres around plans to dam the valley. The state engineers come round offering deals to people who will give up their homes and relocate, this process is slow and many people think it will never happen. Often after severe rains there is catastrophic flooding, but still the residents are reluctant to move. The Miller family have been there at least since 1822, a matter of about one hundred and twenty five years and possibly more.

The characters, their families, their successes and failures are bewitchingly drawn for us, the readers. We really care and appreciate their dilemmas. The mistakes they make are terribly human and familiar and the Miller family are not unique in their triumphs and their tragedies.

This is also a novel about change, change resisted and then embraced. Mary Margaret moves away to study, marries and has a family and circumstances bring her back to Miller’s Valley to work as a GP. Looking back over her life, she muses on the things that change, the hidden secrets even among families and those things that remain unchanged – among them love.

Anna Quindlen has written several novels, but is virtually unknown in this country, hopefully that will change.

edricFinally, another book about the flooding of a valley, this time an English valley and written mostly from the perspective of the engineer. He comes to look at the feasibility, but finds his decisions are made much harder once he gets to know the residents. This is The Gathering the Water by Robert Edric, and author I have frequently recommended.

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A life in paints

Two unexpected coincidences. I read a beautiful memoir by Stefan Hertmans, War and Turpentine and then visited Tate Britain to see the new exhibition of paintings by Paul Nash.

war-and-turpentineThe book is a memory of his grandfather, a man that always seemed to be painting copies of the great masters. Shortly before his death Urbain gives his grandson a set of notebooks, though it is many years before he actually reads them.

They are the notebooks that describe in accurate and appalling detail his war service in Belgium during World War 1. Slowly a picture emerges of a young man, fighting a hopeless, chaotic and bloody war against a stronger and more ruthless enemy. Such actions that Urbain witnessed were unparalleled in savagery, such that he could not mention them again. So he painted, again and again simple, peaceful landscapes, mostly devoid of people, or many and detailed copies of famous grand masters, Rembrandt, Velásquez and others.

Hertmans, once he gets around to looking at the notebooks, begins to uncover a life filled with loss, horror and sadness, but it is through discovering this that he finally begins to understand his grandfather.

He comes upon him one day, weeping over a copy of Diego VelásquezThe Toilet of Venus [more commonly called The Rokeby Venus now in the National Gallery]. What was it about this particular painting that could evoke a memory so painful that a grown man should weep? Towards the end of his journey through his grandfather’s life, looking again, finally – properly – at his paintings, he sees something that reveals the man.

This book is a tour de force, the slow and steady accumulation of knowledge, as the author physically traces the steps of his grandfather, taking stock of places named in the notebooks, going to the places and looking, trying to imagine what his grandfather saw, probably through the target lens of a rifle or his binoculars, brings him to a place where he begins to understand the warrior, but it is something quite other that draws him towards the appreciation of the man.

This discovery also reveals the nature of his grandparents marriage, how it came about and its consequences, both for his grandparents and for his family.

A telling, subtle and rewarding book. A look into the past, seen through the lens of the gun and of the painter, a painter who never in all his life painted a single picture of the war.

nashThe exhibition at Tate Britain similarly tells the story of a painter, starting from his 20’s and passing through all the stages of his painting and development through to the final year of his life.

Paul Nash developed different styles of painting, from exquisitely detailed pieces in monochrome, showing a sensitive artistry and graphic skill, wood engravings, calligraphy and book illustration, (poetry even) right through British Surrealism and Expressionism to abstraction and finally back to landscape.

In all this, Nash changed styles, media and colour. His early works, often including trees and birds showed a definite mind-set, were frequently monochromatic and often studies of the same view, accurately, stylised or abstracted. At the bottom of some fields near his family home, for example, there were three elm trees. These appear often, sometimes in daylight, more often in moonlight, occasionally in silhouette, vastly out of scale with the landscape in which they are placed. All the more poignant because they have virtually disappeared from the English landscape.

This period was interrupted by the First World War. Paul Nash joined the Artists’ Rifles. He was in active service on the front line trenches in France. Sadly, at a time when he was convalescing after an accident in which he broke a rib his battalion, stationed on Hill 60, received a devastating and fatal attack and nearly everyone was killed. Nash’s paintings of that time, some of them the best known of all his work, were made later on and were a memorial to his lost comrades.   Paintings of the view from the trench, blasted trees standing in a sea of mud, and views of the trench showing soldiers on duty, many of these pictures show no man’s land at night, lit by flares and starlight in eerie and horrible ghastliness. A single monochrome work, shows unusually, the aftermath of the bombardment with dead bodies, barbed wire and chaos.

From there he moved towards painting interiors, generally of places looking out from indoors. His style has altered once again, taking on a symbolic message, death lies in the garden; a huge tree stump with a naked billhook thrust into its heart was painted after the death of his father, and is simply called February. Trees in an orchard look as much like barbed wire defences as apple trees, stacks of chopped logs and a snake coiled around a fence represent both death and healing.

There are often other mirrorings, from his flat window in St Pancras, he mixes the supports in a pot plant (the plant itself is dead) with the back of an advertisement hoarding and the window frame, making the viewer step back to figure out what exactly is going on here.

His dabbles in abstraction, filling his canvases with objects, often mathematical or draughtsmen’s tools, strange perspectives.

His landscapes of Berkshire and Oxfordshire however, return more and more to the naturalistic, though there is often something uncannily like the world war landscapes in the placing of ponds and curving hills. But trees and birds abound.

His flirtation with Surrealism and Expressionism failed to move me, it seemed to be an experiment engaging the mind and not the heart, though they are some of his more favoured works.

The Second World War intervened and he joined the war effort as an official war artist, his age though, kept him in England. Here he was taken to places where Nazi planes had crashed, and he faithfully recorded these spectacular failures: a huge plane, nose-cone deep in Windsor Great Park, a downed bomber bellied in a corn field, and the most famous painting of all –  a graveyard of smashed bombers, looking for all the world like a furious ocean of waves, until you pick out the swastikas and black crosses on wings and tailfins. There is an accompanying video film of Paul Nash visiting this extraordinary place, where smashed planes were gathered in huge stacks.

Paintings of the Rye Marshes and Dymock were done when he was recovering from a nervous breakdown, the angular sea wall and the river bending towards the sea take on sinister and war-like appearance, mirroring once again his trench experiences in an earlier war.

After the war, Nash returned to Boar’s Hill, his house looked across to Brightwell Barrow. A view that he had first painted in 1912, calling it Wittenham Clumps, though this is a mis-nomer.

The final room in this exhibition shows about sixteen different paintings all of the same view, though you need to pay attention to see this, since he moves or eliminates various strategic trees, plants or visual clues.

Two of the most striking show the sight of the clump, a high hill with beech trees at its summit, in an eclipse. You see both the sun and the reddened moon floating above this familiar but not familiar landscape. Both painted in 1946, the year of his death.

The trees have grown since then and it is no longer possible to see exactly the view that Paul Nash painted, but you can visit the footpath near Castle Hill, Brightwell Barrow itself, though, is on private land.

 

 

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Books, books, books again

Actually, although I was fully immersed in the big screen experience I was also reading lots of books between films.

hm-returnOn the publication of his memoir, The Return, by Hisham Matar, I returned to his previous books on my shelves, two novels – In the Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance. I am not entirely sure whether it is appropriate to describe writing like this as lyrical, but I am going to chance it.

Hisham Matar has been an exile from his own country, Libya, since he was a small boy. Born in New York during a period when his father was in favour, he lived for a short while in Libya and then fled with all his close family to Egypt, leaving cousins and uncles behind at the mercy of the Qaddafi regime.

When he was still a young boy, his father was abducted from Egypt with the connivance of the authorities and taken to Libya and incarcerated in the dreaded, notorious prison Abu Salim. In this dreadful place were also his brothers and some of his nephews. The only way that they knew that he was there was that night after night he recited from memory reams of beautiful poems.

In fact, many people that Hisham Matar later interviewed in his endless search for what had happened to his father mentioned this nightly, comforting and exquisite recital.

At some point, though there is no proof of date or time or where, Jaballa Matar vanished.

The Return is about the search for information, and also about the moment when Qaddafi fell and the family: Hisham, his mother and his brother Ziad, returned to Libya; about the release of the remaining members of his family from Abu Salim and about the search for answers.

So why describe this writing as lyrical? The descriptions of the sea, the light, the sky in Libya are sublime, it is poetic and also the language of the exile. Lyrical, too, are the passages about meetings with family, many of whom had not seen Hisham since he was a small boy, shared meals and companionship in different houses.  Again it is the scents, the light and the sense of realignment which seem to me to be covered by this term.

Clearly, the same cannot be said for the terrible description of the hardship and privation that was the experience of the prisoners in Qaddafi’s network of hidden prisons and torture chambers; but an equal level of descriptive power lies there however horrific. Overriding all the books is a plangent tone of loss, of uncertainty, of fear.

hm-country

In the first novel, In the Country of Men, a nine year old boy lives in a family situation of secrets. His mother’s secret (since alcohol is forbidden) is that she is a drunk; his own interpretation is that she is ill, but to the practised ear it is clear what this illness is; his father, an importer of European goods, also has a secret. He is not always abroad when he says he is, which untruth Suleiman discovers one day while waiting for his mother by a plinth, he sees his father cross the square and enter a narrow house; but later on the same day, his father telephones home, and on being asked where he is, he says that he is abroad.

Suleiman also witnesses his neighbour being hurriedly bundled into a car, whereupon his friendship with the boy next door cools suddenly. Such is the nature of childhood loyalty – go with the flow; and this need to be helpful, liked and favoured leads Suleiman into a morass of duplicity and eventually betrayal.

This book came out in 2006 and was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It is a deeply affecting and devastating novel, a story of love and betrayal, innocence and intrigue and it came out before it was widely known how very close the author was to the horrors unfolding in his home country.

By the time Hisham Matar’s second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, was published in 2011 more information about his own life had appeared in the national press.

Nuri loses his mother at a very young age; the effect of this loss is spread-eagled over the whole novel. Nuri meets a young woman, Mona on the Alexandrian coast while on holiday and experiences his first feelings of love, imagine the emotional impact then when his father also falls in love with Mona and marries her.hm-anatomy

His emotional turmoil turns in on himself though, because although he profoundly wishes for his father to get out of the way, when he does vanish one night in Switzerland he and his stepmother grow closer, and in their attempts to discover the truth they uncover a wealth of detail which makes them both wonder whether it is ever possible to know anyone, even someone as close as a father and husband.

This is a marvellously constructed novel, travelling through a trajectory of youth to manhood; of animosity to affection and at the same time having a slow reveal that is as surprising as it is affecting. It is hard to stop reading this book.

In all these books the sense of impending doom, the overwhelming sense of mystery and loss, of unfathomable mystery seem from the point of view of the young is presented in beautiful, spare, lucid prose. I am not sure at all in what order they should be read, but if all of them are on the TBR pile, I would start with The Return.

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60th London Film Festival – 11

Two very contrasting films today, both in their own way documentary, just with very different methods and messages.

Daughters of the Dust is a fictionalised portrait of a group of slave descendants, now freed and making their way north to Nova Scotia; they have one last family gathering, with photographs and a re-telling of their history and then a group of them leave in a boat.

15-10-1-daughters-of-the-dustPlayed by actresses, this tells the story of three generations of Gullah women. It takes a fresh and rather different look at the experience of black women, as they remember and mythologise their arrival and departure from the sea islands off the coast of America.

Julie Dash clearly has a feminist agenda here, however this is not a polemical film. It states the case, the elderly great-grandmother explains what their lives were like, the growing, weaving and dying of the cotton, how their hands were permanently blue with the indigo dye; the hardships of feeding and survival and the ways in which they took care to remember their African background.

They serve a typical African American meal, a stew of fish and prawns with okra, plantain and sweetcorn. It is lush and colourful, although all but two of the women are dressed entirely in white.

Made in 1991, this film has been completely re-mastered with a refreshed sound track.

Following that was the animation of Raymond Briggs’ biographical book – Ethel and Ernest, which was the story of his own parents. How they met, married went through the war together, and lived. This animation is bewitching and captures all the beauty and detail of Briggs’ pictures.

15-10-2-ethel-ernestEthel and Ernest, the movie, keeps faithfully to the original with Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn in the voiceovers as Mr and Mrs Briggs. The sound track is completely in keeping with the time of the film, immediately pre-and post-war Britain (including the voices of Chamberlain, Churchill and the first man on the moon). To animate such a story, and because it was so personal, to animate it with extraordinary accuracy took several hundred draughtsmen, some doing background and others doing the hand-painted character drawings, over 7000 of them.

I realise that animation is not for everyone, but this is such a beautiful story, ordinary people living an ordinary life with all its hopes and mysteries. Quite superb. We were privileged to have pretty much everyone in the audience with us, including Raymond Briggs himself, and I was able to thank him publicly for years of delight that he has given us and our children – the film was as good as any animation of his books, many now regular favourites like The Snowman.

It has UK release and venue and dates can be found on the website: http://www.ethelandernestthemovie.com

 

 

 

 

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60th London Film Festival -10

A marathon today, three superb films, each in its own way brilliantly crafted and filmed. 14-10-1-their-finestTheir Finest, a film by Lone Scherfig (another female director) with a glittering cast of stars, when I say that Jeremy Irons had a near walk-on part that lasted all of seven minutes, you will get the picture. Gemma Arterton plays a female scriptwriter, paid two pounds a week, engaged by the Ministry of Information in World War II. This out-fit was run for the purposes of information dissemination: what to do in an air-raid, how to make your rations go further, walls have ears and that sort of thing; the really interesting thing about the set up was that the film was able to show some reels of actual propaganda film made, some of which was not shown at the time for reasons of low-morale or off-message scripts.

Bill Nighy plays an ageing thespian, rather full of himself and very “actorly”, a part which got a number of laughs, he was superb. The twist in the tale was that eventually the Ministry hire a full-time studio to make a feature film about the rescue from Dunkirk, the idea being that this would play out in America and bring them into the war.

It is clearly a comedy of manners, it tells a fairly accurate story about the horrors of the London Blitz as well as telling the story of the importance of the propaganda machine, information was dealt with by showing short films between the B-movie and the main film of the day, [This will mean nothing at all to anyone younger than 65!], the idea being that they would be a captive audience as they would not be leaving the cinema before the main film.

It has an under-lying message about the opportunities for women that arose while the men were at war, and also the discrepancy in pay between the sexes – what a surprise!

14-10-2-brimstoneThe second film, Brimstone, was very different. A tightly woven tale of a mute midwife living in a religiously-minded community of Dutch-folk who have emigrated to America. Another film with a very strong cast.

Part of the OFFICIAL COMPETITION section, this was a tense drama which started at the end and then reeled back to the beginning. Set into actual chapters with titles, Exodus, Genesis, Retribution etc, it covered the life of the mute midwife, played by Dakota Fanning, from where she was within a community who respected her, which turned vile when a birthing went wrong and worse still when a new pastor arrived in the village.

Guy Pearce gave a sterling performance as the menacing, maniacal, diabolic preacher-man. It was as much his story as the midwife’s. The Dutch director, Martin Koolhoven, manipulated his audience with a taut series of events that told a story about as horrific as it could possibly be; he did not shy away from any of the issues but gave us just as much information as we needed without actually spelling it out, which is not to say that there were no graphic moments. A nail-biting and frightening pall hung over the whole film.

I would say that this was a must see for anyone with strong nerves and if you like The Night of the Hunter, this is very much a film for you.

I have to say the Q&A after was a disaster! I have seldom, if ever, heard more stupid and mindless questions, one had to wonder which part of the film they did not understand? In my view he absolutely nailed it!

Finally, what must be one of the best foreign language films in the Festival. [Bearing in mind I only see about a tenth of the whole offering, nevertheless…].

14-10-3-the-innocentsAlso set in the aftermath of World War II, and based on the diaries of a young, French Red Cross doctor working in Poland, The Innocents is a film of extreme emotional integrity and impact. Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge) is called out to a convent to save the life of a young novice, her assistance is requested by another Polish nun. (Agata Busek) At first, her request is ignored as they are extremely busy in the town’s makeshift hospital, but then in a break she sees the nun kneeling in the snow praying. Transfixed by this display of determination, Mathilde follows her secretly to the convent.

What she finds there is horrific and soul-destroying, especially for the nuns, and a tremendous challenge as the Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza) is set against her being allowed in at all to help. Marie, the nun who came to get her is punished for disobedience.

The director, Anne Fontaine, gave us  no explicit images of what had happened, the evidence was plain. Everything in the film was chosen with care, both for the truth and for its impact and the actresses playing the Polish nuns were indeed Polish. Shot in Northern Poland in winter, filming must have been very challenging.

It reminded me in some way of Ida (also Polish, hardly surprising as the Mother Superior in that film was also played by Agata Kulesza) and a bit of Of God and Men. This is superb and I would strongly advise anyone to see it if they can.

 

 

 

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60th London Film Festival – 7

Another two challenging films today. Christine by Antonio Campos attempted to put a backstory to the true life drama of Christine Chubbuck who notoriously shot herself live on a local television news channel.

The macabre and lurid myths that have arisen as a result of this shocking act needed to be toned down and examined, whether this film quite succeeds is debatable – though this film is in the DARE section, not the DEBATE section where it more probably belongs.

10-10-1-christineI would have liked to see the other film about Christine Chubbuck that is also in the Film Festival this year, Kate plays Christine by Robert Greene, but it did not fit in with my schedule which is already quite overloaded.

Rebecca Hall puts in a storming performance as the troubled tele-journalist, whose private life seems to be a mixture of the terrifying and the fantasist. Suffering already, though this was only referred to, in a career move brought on by a nervous disorder, Christine is now working in Saratoga television, attempting to produce issue-based news bulletins; her boss however, with a view to the bottom-line, wants more ‘blood and guts’ stories; when she attempts this though, once again she misfires because her item concentrates on the human angle of a fire and rescue story, not the more vivid filming of the fire itself.

The health issues she is suffering from are further exacerbated by the news that she has an ovarian cyst, which accounts for the acute abdominal pain she has been putting down to stress for several months. Sadly, since Christine internalises many of her problems, her flaky mother, with whom she lives, does not have a sympathetic attitude at all, although clearly aware that her daughter is emotionally unstable in some way. Christine makes to-do lists, but this is a displacement strategy and she doesn’t actually do them, apart from thinking of story lines for her two hand puppets.

The happiest moments in the film show Christine in a home for ability challenged children playing out ideas and conversations between these two puppets. Tangerine is a wise advisor to the other puppet, and between them they often externalise some of the problems that Christine knows herself to have: “how to be bold and brave; how to show other people qualities that you know that you have, but that they seem unable to appreciate”.

It was telling, if accurate, that she used the second weaker puppet, her ‘needy’ voiced puppet in which to hide the pistol that she eventually used to shoot herself.

While, in my opinion, this was a brave undertaking, I suspect that it failed significantly on engaging the emotions of the audience. One fully understood the limitations, two hours to portray a complicated and troubled woman whose career suicide was exactly that. There was not enough time to establish a connection between her desperation to do serious work, her fantasy emotional life which was hinted at, left undeveloped and then dealt with in one short, obscure and brief scene and the depths to which she had sunk in order to end her life so publicly and dramatically. There was too much to say and not enough time to say it.

The second film of the day was a photo-essay mostly about Mount Fuji in Japan. This was the EXPERIMENTA SPECIAL PRESENTATION. This mysterious (and holy) volcanic mountain in Japan has long attracted mythical stories and illustrations, many early manuscripts and early Japanese woodcuts, especially those by Katsushika Hokusai have images of Mount Fuji in them. [Though I was a bit amazed to hear Fiona Tan say in the introduction that she had never noticed Mount Fuji in his most famous woodcut The Great Wave, since this belongs in a series called Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji.] Those same woodcuts which so entranced and influenced Vincent Van Gogh that he and his brother Theo ended up with about 400. [They also entranced my grandfather, who was the Cultural Attaché to Burma and the Far East and we have ended up with rather fewer than the Van Gogh’s but nevertheless some very, very fine ones.]

10-10-2-ascentThe EXPERIMENTA section can be tricky, and it would not be the first time that the offering was less interesting than watching paint dry. But this was quite, quite different: an elegiac meditation on the mountain, its image and its myths. The genesis was an invitation to visit a vast image library in Japan, with many previously unpublished pictures including some of military personnel grouped for photographs with the mountain in the background.

This was a surprise to Fiona Tan because after the capitulation of the Japanese in the Second World War, all images referring to conflict which included the mountain were banned.

The essay contained many dazzling images of Mount Fuji, in all seasons, from all angles, at all times of day, both in black and white and in colour; the collection was further augmented by ordinary Japanese people being invited to send their own images via a specially opened website – Fiona Tan ended up with over 4000 photos.

Except for very occasional moments, the essay was made up entirely of stills which through brilliant cutting bled and faded one into another, while the voiceover on English by Fiona Tan and in Japanese by Hiroki Hasegawa told stories about the mountain, and recorded the thoughts of a Western artist and a male writer who had personal relationship with Mount Fuji. The soundscape and the music added another level of beauty and depth.

It was also a Westerner’s threnody to a lost Japanese friend, someone who had been much valued and loved and who had sent some of the images by way of a message about himself and the mountain. This was the emotional axis of the film, haunting, arresting, mysterious like Mount Fuji – changeable, distant and photogenic.

Although this does not yet have a fixed agreement for UK distribution, it is to be hoped that this will be forthcoming soon. You would have to see the film to fully appreciate the wonder and delight that can be achieved in this brave and experimental manner.

 

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