Thursday 22 December 2011

Caché (2005)

Starring: Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, Maurice Bénichou
Music: None
Director: Michael Haneke
Screenplay: Michael Haneke
Director of Photography: Christian Berger

OK, so a quick run-down of What Happens In Caché. Auteuil and Binoche (he a TV intellectual; she a book publisher) start receiving surveillance footage of their own home, and creepy drawings, in childish hand, seemingly depicting some sort of nightmare incident from the past. The police refuse to help, as the video and drawings don’t constitute a direct threat, and Auteuil clams up, though it’s clear the un-wanted materials have something to do with some past incident in which he was involved. Turns out, then, that he can track down the source of the stalker material – said source, Majid, a now forty-something Algerian man, living in subsidized housing, was adopted by Auteuil’s family as a kid, after his parents were killed in the 1961 Paris Massacre, but kicked out and sent to an orphanage when a jealous Auteuil fabricated an incident involving the beheading of a chicken. Majid proceeds to commit suicide in front of Auteuil, who is subsequently confronted by M’s (un-named) son at work. After brushing him off, and returning home, our man tries to pretend that all’s back to normal, takes two sleeping pills and falls asleep in a darkened room. Oh, and it all ends with an ambiguous and contentious final shot, but we’ll get to that in due course.

The menacing stalker tactics employed by Majid are of course meant to seem creepy; the set-up being that we’re watching a thriller, the first shot maybe signalling an ‘enemy of the state’-style surveillance-paranoia movie: you're not safe even in your own home. But this, of course, is only a tactic to draw one in, so that one takes on the middle-class intellectual family's detachment (where everything is filtered through television, through radio, through newspapers, through books – nothing at first hand, nothing material), before the rug is well and truly pulled from under the feet of both characters and audience. Let’s take that moment when a news clip covering the Iraq war is seen in un-framed full-screen, before we pull out and see it safely boxed inside the television on which the characters watch (or don’t watch) it. (Haneke: "We fixed a neutral date and chose news items on television on that date. It had nothing to do with the content. But of course, you always see images of war, and that fit with the subject of the film.") Such a removal of the framing device prevents escape, prevents us from saying ‘it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie’ – I mean, for that moment, we are watching a news report, we aren’t watching a movie, we can’t just switch the tv off and go to bed. So now we see and hear the (socio-economic) realities that really underline a comfortable middle-class existence, with books and wine and dinner parties and Rimbaud. (The latter is here understood (in the brief snippet of Auteuil's TV show that we’re shown) not as the revolutionary poet that Kristin Ross shows him to have been, but as a flamboyant individualist, a gay colonial adventurer, his work discussed, not via the Paris Commune, say, or modernism, but family problems with his censoring sister (who, appropriate to the film’s overall theme and title, ‘hid’ (Cachéd away) the poems of his that shocked her). All very much ‘épater le bourgeois’ – and now Rimbaud’s work has been recuperated by precisely those bourgeois, subsumed into the ‘sophisticated’ wing of the culture industry.) The first time we see that Iraq news clip, our immediate reaction is no doubt: 'this isn't relevant to the plot; why is this still showing while the narrative conversation between Auteuil and Binoche carries on regardless?' Of course, though, the idea is that the clip is relevant, that the sort of activity it captures (imperialist, military exploitation under the guise of ‘humanitarian intervention’) does underlie everything we do, everything we allow our governments to do, by proxy, for us.

Take, too, the scene where Binoche takes a call from Auteuil at a book launch party and her conversation is heard simultaneously, and with equal prominence to that of the drunk intellectual next to her talking about Baudrillard, Wittgenstein, &c. These figures become just names, standing in for intellectual 'engagement' (Baudrillard as the classic example of someone who went from post-68 leftist engagement to post-modernist 1990s fatalism (for more on this, see Sadie Pant’s first book, ‘The Most Radical Gesture’)). Such names can be checked merrily, and harmlessly, while the plot, the repressed past, unfolds at the same time, via Binoche's phone-call. These people aren't necessarily right-wing – indeed, they’d probably consider themselves liberal or even leftist (the book Binoche is helping to publish is about globalisation, as we learn in the conversation between Auteil and his producer) – but underneath it all lie assumptions and reliances shared with the most bigoted and comfortable of the right.

And take the encounter with the black guy going the wrong way down a one way street on his bike – in the context of the narrative 'mystery' we're still trying to piece together, we suspect him as being part of a network of malignant kidnappers or schemers, an accomplice in a conspiracy of the ethnic 'other', the revenge of this repressed other against the white middle-classes (against the failed revolutionaries of 68 perhaps, that compromised generation who have become the new neo-liberal elite, standing for the very things they fought against - racism, imperialism, interventionism, sexism (take a look at Dominique Strauss-Khan….and take a look at Richard Seymour’s ‘The Liberal Defence of Murder’ while you’re at it.)). So, like Auteuil’s character, we’re drawn into that spooked mindset which doesn’t even realize its own (hidden) racism, where every black guy on the street is a potential mugger or rapist, every Muslim a potential terrorist. It’s an encounter with obvious symbolic levels which also fits in with the notion I started with: that the film draws us into a racist/paranoid mindset to reveal our own racism and denial of the guilty secrets that underline our system, our comfortable middle-class existence – not only the secrets of the past (the 1961 massacre), but, continuing into the present, Sarkozian racism, the banning of the hijab, fears of Islamic terrorism, demonisation of Arabs and blacks, &c. (All this can, of course, be seen in the reaction to the 2005 French riots and their 2011 British equivalent (in its most extreme form, with the hideous spectacle of David Starkey’s unconcealed racism on Newsnight, his invocation of all those hoary old clichés about the damaging effect of brutal, barbaric, ‘uncivilised’ black music (he’s talking about rap, they said it about jazz in the 1920s – “Playing that bloody jungle music all night” – yo, Adolf!).

Even in broad daylight – the shoulder check, the near-collision in the street – things are still not quite out in the open. Auteuil doesn’t call the guy a ‘nigger’. Doesn’t even think that word, perhaps. Caché. Everything is hidden – no more so than in the (in)famous final shot, in which an apparently crucial plot detail (the friendly meeting between Majid’s son and Auteuil’s kid, Pierrot) is smothered behind the credits and a seemingly innocuous diurnal scene – the school, which of course is already more than innocuous, contrasting as it does with the previous scene in which the Algerian kid is taken away. This school, then, is the kind of opportunity he was denied by Auteuil’s lie; it’s also a reversal of the first, extended shot of the film (the held frame with Auteuil’s house in the middle-distance), in which we look for narrative information, perhaps suspecting that this shot will contain the seeds for the mystery to come, that we may pick up clues which will come in handy later in solving it, only to realise as the film goes on that we won't find these; so, by the time of this final shot, we assume that this will be just another example of willful alienation and expectation-frustration, and switch off (oh, credits rolling, let's leave the cinema, maybe wait for the gag roll at the end), only to miss this potentially crucial detail. Pierrot hides from his parents (and from the audience) his reason for going AWOL, the night they (erroneously) thought that he’d been kidnapped by Majid; Auteuil, at the end, literally hides in the dark, under the bed-covers, narcotized by sleeping pills. In this film, things are hidden in plain sight. There is no ‘mystery’ in the detective-drama sense – indeed, viewed from that perspective, many things may seem too obvious, too immediately apparent – oh, yeah, Majid’s the stalker, of course – but then we're not so sure, and then it doesn't matter anywhere, because that plot was itself a MacGuffin, was itself hiding the metaphorical/ allegorical notions of colonial guilt. We miss the one-sentence discussion of the FLN massacre in our desire to catch what’s happening in the ‘main plot’. As Haneke says, how could you just forget a massacre like that? There’s how.

Such forgetting is, of course, a key part of the relation between generations, which is itself a key part of the film. Take the conversation between Auteuil and his mother, in which she tells him that she doesn't think about Majid any more. Auteuil's parents were non-racist enough to travel all the way to Paris in order to collect the boy and adopt him after his parents' death in the demonstration. (OK, maybe they thought of them perhaps in a slightly patronising way (“good people, good workers”), but still, they had enough of a sense of humanism to see that these others were not fundamentally evil or barbaric, that their progeny could even become one of their own.) Yet Auteuil himself is of the next generation who, perhaps as a sense of loss at the colonial empire gone, perhaps as a result of aggression and/ at failure channelled into immigration-related paranoia after the failure of ’68 and the institutionalisation (and recuperation) of socialist politics via Matterand, have become more racist than their parents, even as they flirt with post-modernism and liberalism/leftism, adopt that vocabulary.

Given this, I think we should take Majid's death as a moment of necessary abjection, in Kristeva’s sense of the word: that moment that brings us starkly up close to the real – a corpse, a woman's body (so often stigmatised as disgusting or ‘unnatural’, even as it is fetishised or adored), the repressed memory of the (literal) shit on which our entire culture is built, our foundational anal fixation (see Adorno’s ‘Negative Dialectics’) – and in this case, the real of colonial oppression, the dead Algerian before you on the floor, his blood and his body there on the floor before you. The Algerian man literally has to die in front of the French man, not in a 1960s film, now ‘historical’, portraying events that occurred at some temporal remove in a distant country (‘The Battle of Algiers’), but in a modern flat, in front of a pair of modern eyes. So when, before the deed, Majid says, “I wanted you to be here,” he’s not offering an explanation along the lines of “this is why I’m doing this” – that wouldn’t suffice – but forcing that internal shock of recognition, that internal jolt which forces one to look, to see: look up, face it, this is it, this is reality.

Coming back, then, to that closing shot, that possible 'revelation' (or MacGuffin): Robin Wood argues in his review that the film’s pessimism is “surely…qualified by that last shot, echoing the end of Benny's Video (in which the boy betrays his own father, an act that Haneke courageously sees as justified) and suggesting the possibility of collaboration, revolution, and renewal within the younger generation." This doesn't have to mean that Pierrot, the son (the clown-related name has to be significant here, but I’m not sure in what way, exactly) was in on the deal, for some reason deciding to torment his own parents; but rather, that he can establish friendly relations with the (un-named) Algerian son, instead of treating him with contempt or fear or threats or lies, as his father does, or with convenient forgetfulness, as his grandmother does. If a crucial strain of the film has to do with generational changes in race relations – from the patronising but well-meaning attitudes of the ‘50s to a contemporary paranoia masked with an apathy that cloaks the issues at stake with a veil (uh, not a hijab) of liberalism – then perhaps this ending suggests (as does ‘La Haine’s’ central grouping, its three musketeers of the banlieues – Arab, Black and Jew) the possibility of healthier interracial relations being established by the young. (This was, after all, the betrayed dream of ’68 – the young atoning for the sins of the old, making a new world free of stagnant prejudices, of repressed and repressive institutions and the damaged social relations these generated). It's a fragile moment, if that's so, and one which most will not even notice – but perhaps that's the point: Haneke's saying, look, look - the solutions, the possibilities, the glimpses are there, if you'd only get out of your paranoia and your fear and your racist shell & see them, 'hidden' right in front of your own face. That makes him sound far too manifesto-like, of course – I’ve followed Wood's conclusion too far, perhaps, expanded that point too much.

And an interview with Bright Lights Film Journal, Haneke has this to say:

"We all take sleeping pills as does Daniel Auteuil, although it may take many different forms: it may be alcohol, a drink before we go to bed, it may be sleeping pills, or we may donate money to children in the third world. But each of us pulls the blanket over our heads and hopes that the nightmares won't be too bad. For example, I am sure you oppose strict immigration laws that have been introduced in almost every European country. And yet what would you say if I were to suggest that you take into your home an African family? I think this is the case with all of us. All of us have knowledge that tends to lead to tolerance; at the same time we have selfish interests that are contradictory to this tolerant ideal."

If that’s nowhere near as hopeful as my suggestion of comradeship or, at least, of tentative inter-racial interaction not based on mutual hostility or suspicion, then it does at least act as a problematization, a jerking out of complacency, a foregrounding of the issues at hand, putting the political back into the idea of the domestic, making a political film not as explicit Pontecorvo-style engagement ('The Battle of Algiers' is, I believe, the only French film made about the whole Algerian crisis), but by showing complicity in every area of life, stripping away the layers of insulation into a single act of insistently present violence (tho' even this is viewed thru the video camera), and creating a nagging aura, an atmosphere of unease and uncertainty throughout which is far more than just cheap effect, far more than just some cheap scary thrill or frisson, a stimulus for its own sake. Chew on this:

"How do you behave when confronted with something that you should actually admit responsibility for? These are the sort of strategies that interest me, talking yourself out of guilt. It's like this: we all believe we're so fantastically liberal. None of us want to see immigration laws tightened. Yet when someone comes to me and asks if I could take in a foreign family, then I say, well, not really. Charity begins at home with the door firmly shut. Most people are as cowardly and comfortable as I am."

(And, yeah, check this cache also.)

Tuesday 20 December 2011

John Coltrane: Selflessness / Live in Seattle

Coltrane in 1965 is what I keep coming back to. Now that all this stuff is on the you tube (see above), I've been listening to it again, taking advantage of the potential to skip back and forward in a track, to listen and re-listen to particular second-long clips without having to juggle the fast-forward function on cassette or cd player – just with mouse clicks, to listen to a ten-minute or a ten-second section three times in a row...and all that jazz. McCoy Tyner's playing was so *thick* at this time, his chordal voicings approaching clusters in their density, and his rhythmic monotony a crucial part of the dialectic between stasis and continuance/momentum that gives his playing its peculiar quality. (This is similar, I suppose, to the trance states induced by particular kinds of tribal drumming, but you're not going to go into a trance here: the rhythm is too insistent and also too broken-up (thanks to elvin jones, “gretsch freak”) – it doesn't have that swirling endlessness that makes alice coltrane's playing on, say, ‘live in japan’, ultimately boring (much as I love her harp-like-swirl and the use of the entire range of the keyboard, from lowest thud to highest tinkle - and tho' of course the boring and monotony as such are in some sense a crucial part of both pianist’s playing styles, in a way i'm not sure i've yet quite grasped or come to terms with. (Tho’ this might provide a clue:

The venerable Curt Sachs may have put his finger on what is at issue here in Rhythm and Tempo (1953), when he discovered that "rhythm" itself, to misquote Freud, is a primeval word with antithetical senses. On the one hand, rhuthmos (Greek) denoted river or flow. On the other rhythmus (Latin) denoted blockage or dam. Sachs's point is not that Greeks and Romans had different cultural coordinates (to a large extent they did) but that coiled within rhythm itself was a certain undecidability - perhaps the very same undecidability that Derrida traced in the connotative oscillations of "tympan."

John Mowitt, 'Percussion: Drumming, Beating, Striking' (Duke University Press, 2002), p.24))))

So there's this thing called 'selflessness' that coltrane recorded in ’65 - it's from those studio sessions that were included on 'the major works of john coltrane', a 2cd box set impulse released in the 90s sometime, and which i remember listening to after borrowing it from my local library (who for some reason owned this (now probably out-of-print) thing alongside art blakey and stan getz and MJQ and courtney pine (they subsequently sold off all this stuff, no idea where it went: perhaps some old-people's home now possesses 'ascension', 'om', 'selflessness' and 'kulu se mama' on two shining discs and plays it as dinner music)). that was the first time i heard 'ascension', and 'selflessness' is a side-note compared to that…but ‘side-note’ is the wrong turn of phrase entirely, this is *vital* shit. i hate it when, say, allmusicguide does one of their fucking capsule reviews where they go, 'o, this is fine, but not the best place to start if this is your first time with player x', relegating most everything to some deferred future where you're an ‘expert’ and can therefore ‘take it.’ to that I’d say, *launch yourself in*, yeah? - of course you won't fucking understand it, I still don't, coltrane himself didn't, this is at the limits, it's hard to understand when you're up in that air... - but, ok, I heard 'expression' and 'ascension' early on, and i loved the passionate melodics of the opening heads (‘ogunde’ is based on a folk song, after all), and i didn't really *understand* pharoah sanders at all, and in fact i actively disliked him, but these things take time, go on with it, get on.

('selflessness' and 'live in seattle', which are the things i'm going to write about here, both feature donald rafael garrett on bass and clarinet, which is ostensibly the reason i'm considering them both together. garrett's not someone who was much heard from, or about, but val wilmer's 'as serious as your life' posits him as one of those crucial mentor figures during the mid-60s (giuseppi logan as another), whose contributions to the music and to the scene were certainly not proportional to their scant and inadequate documentation on record. ( has some further info.)

Donald Rafael Garrett in concert in Pisa, San Zeno abbey, 1983

// now let's get on, 'selflessness' opening with one of those melodies coltrane was writing around this time, ostensibly as serene or joyous up-cry, but which turn into a kind of desperate keening -as if one wished *too much* for that transcendent, solving/dissolving joy, for that synthesis, for the one final note that would provide the answer to the thousand fractured, cycling notes played through before: coltrane himself blowing the melody strong, sanders dipping and diving around him, with some wonderful watery, rattley flutter-tonguing.

& rafael garrett's arco bass insists on being taken as a third lead melody voice, blending with the horns, rather than partaking in the strummed and thrummed deep-end accompaniment that jimmy garrison, the coltrane quartet regular, would have provided. – to illustrate this, let’s take the first ten minutes or so of 'evolution', from the 'live in seattle' recording, where Coltrane, Sanders, and Garrett (this time on bass clarinet) soar in imitative, roaring and meshing blasts and honks, while Garrison provides a solid rhythmic underpinning which seems to be going on its own separate box or booth, tethering down the 'out of this world' massed vocalised ecstasies of breath and air and metal, and essentially playing the flamenco-inflected bass solo which he then proceeds to deliver once the horns have stopped playing (this solo being a regular occurrence on Coltrane's live recordings). the absence of a drummer highlights just how 'free' the horns were capable of be(com)ing, of moving outside established licks in a flowing and melting and melding way: formally, one could describe this as ‘rhapsodic’ (in the sense that the term 'rhapsody’ comes from the Greek 'rhapsōidos', which itself comes from the combination of 'rhaptein', to sew, stitch together, and 'aidein,' to sing). & jazz itself is, perhaps, ultimately a rhapsodic form, based on fragments, breaks, discontinuities, allusions and quotations – at the same time that, as in hip-hop, *‘flow’* is central: propulsion, momentum, ‘looking ahead’. nonetheless, garrison’s desire to provide an established 'jazz' element does contrast with what the horns are doing (tho' to start off with his picked harmonics sound suitably 'exotic'); their flow reaches an extent to which it becomes *overwhelming*, dispensing with clock-checking time, with finishing a tune in ten minutes so that people can go and buy drinks, so that time itself becomes a felt, controllable thing, slowed down and speeded up at the musicians’ will – for the ultimate example of that, you’d have to look at those mammoth extended pieces by the Cecil Taylor Unit, where time itself stretches so much it almost seems to break, to fracture, to become meaningless.

well, now we’re here, hell, let’s just *listen* to the *whole* of 'evolution' – garrett's thin-reed wail on clarinet, notes bent, metallic melted to malleable shape-shift, transitioning into sanders' shronking and then that unbearably beautiful way he ends his solos with a kind of desperate lyricism, keening up-slide to notes. again, that *thin-ness,* not the full-bodied-ness we think of when we think of free jazz – say, Brotzmann or Coltrane himself – not that *filling out* of the sound-space: yeah, Sanders can do that, does do that, but what I'm talking about here is his use of *fragility*, a sense of self un-stable and breaking under the pressure and force of riots and revolutions and that late 60s belief in cosmic transformation; yeah, fucking *eschatology*, if you like, material transformation – sound is material, isn't it, it could speak another reality into being and not simply be contained within the glass-cash-register chinking register of the night-club / the record-label / the hit-parade / the culture industry. Uh, yeah, if Sanders' multiphonic explosions of simultaneous multiple notes, overtones, difference tones intend to vibrate the space into the fullest potential possible, the most filled wholeness - "every kinda chord you can hear under the fucking sun” - his solos at this time end with, say, two successive notes, the stalled beginnings of a melody, as his saxophone moves into being a voice, trying to sing a song to itself but now having to flutter-tongue burble and cry in woundedness – and it's the *transition* here that gets me, in this say, thirty seconds of music which expands out beyond itself as a non-melodic ear-worm which encapsulates for me what Coltrane could have and was constantly trying and failing to do - that failure as *built into the condition of the music*, the condition of music itself, the condition of the world itself that would not change as was wished – a desire that cannot express itself in logic, barely even in illogic, gesturing towards the "possible world," yeah, a "community of risk," someone in some other context said that.

that transition i mean is when sanders' solo is ending and suddenly, without warning on the audio version at least, coltrane, i think it is, comes out to the microphone and starts shouting, comes in roaring, 'OOOMMM' 'OORRRRHM' / 'OOOOOM' – 'OM', the primal word, the primal vocalised sound that sets the universe into being ("and god *said*, let there be light" - light and sound as one simultaneous flash, an explosion into being as the origin of the universe, some collective pre-evolutionary memory of the big bang) (see simon weil's fine article 'circling om') - that roaring is *almost* a parody of some horror-movie ‘black-magic’ voodoo roar, but it transcends that, it's not transcendent, it's a bellow of roaring animal pain outside language, outside the formal language of music, outside song - is not speech, is not song – is both – those moments when coltrane would take the horn out of his mouth; as miles davis had advised, but not to stop playing, instead to give vent to that roar of exhilaration mixed anguish…

more transitions (‘transition’ the title of a record from this year, coltrane’s music itself in transition, in creative mentor-exchange with the new thing saxophonists – sanders, shepp, carlos ward, ayler, john Gilmore – for whom he was a talismanic figure, the leader and legitimiser of the movement – tho’ he was equally influenced by their own side-slant attack; the ‘classic quartet’ splintering apart, that tension, between tyner’s static rhythmix and the way his playing cannot *help* but ratchet up in intensity and depth and drive when placed in the same physical space as coltrane’s boiling over; jones perhaps the prime force driving coltrane out into polyrhythmic ambiguity (that means, simultaneity), (*energy music*), himself frustrated (exhilarated?) by the wall of sound above and beyond him (reportedly throwing his drum-sticks at the wall at the end of ‘ascension’); garrison the one hold-over, once the transition to that final quintet was accomplished – and yet, it’s precisely that tension, that push-pull, that gives this music its power, and its *objective social content* – this the year of the watts riots – rip it up, split it up, all felt as personal upheaval, split and shatter into collectivity, that transition into new forms is *of course* painful, as any transition is, who knows where and what horror or beauty it could turn into, treading on thin ice, on air, tight rope tightened or loosening.)
so, transition, when coltrane stops shouting and the horns go triple over garrison's jazz moves, when they're wailing da-naaaaaaahhhhh-nuh, da-naaaaaaaaaaah-nuh (I can't fucking 'transcribe this', as onomatopoeia or notation or whatever - it is un-fixable in that sense, less we develop the technology to contain it - and if we did that, then we'd be in some society where our understanding of what went beyond our current grain made life liveable, where wounded cry was not just some impoliteness to be ignored, ill-advised feeling-show)); when Tyner comes in under and it's like some floor locks into place beneath the horns, and then he solos, the relief of that, there's only so much reality or surreality or irreality you can endure... 7:08 into Tyner's solo, Garrison pluck-repeating single note, the music freezing into repeated locked-record-groove stasis, like stammer-stuckness, like Coltrane repeating the head to 'confirmation' twenty times in a row, seeing it from its different angles, its different permutations, trying to reach every possible harmonic implication, to see the whole thing from all fucking angles - but different to that, I suppose, in that repetition is used in Tyner as a particular dramatic effect, whether gravity pillar-thick chord or as harp-like arpeggiated swirl with thick deep-end muscle - a space he moved into at this time, 1965, which never before or since was quite the same, had a lightness to it that this gravity-insistence - well, it's that, but at the same time it suggests that moment when everything's gonna split open - it never quite does - well, the horns come back in and thick cluster bash, is pentecost tongues to "set fire and death on whitey's ass" (if you believe amiri baraka...ok, this is not hate music – or maybe it *is* - “what we need is hatred. from it our ideas are born” (genet) – maybe it is, and maybe the critics were right (the london evening standard’s jack massarik, & his infamous off-mic “torrents of hate” jibe when some coltrane was played on one of bbc radio 3’s afternoon jazz snoozefests) – but if they were right, they were right in a strictly narrow sense that made them see that hatred as mere perversity, misanthropy, nihilism;

any hatred that there is in the music would have to be inextricably linked to love, love and hate mingled, hate motivated by love - by which i mean that there has to be a sense of what *has to be done* (perhaps *hateful* things) if change is going to be more than just a willed-for moment of religious transcendence, reliant on the intervention of an on-high god we ceaselessly invoke with or without the hope that he will finally choose *now* to intervene - it is still an in invocation then, but an invocation to action, however direct or indirect, to change systems of oppression and exploitation, bigotry and misery. of course, coltrane has an odd relation to direct action, we see this in that awkward interview where frank kofsky tries desperately to make him into a post-malcolm marxist but only succeeds in getting him to talk about the need for universal peace...archie shepp, the disciple, no doubt encouraged him to raise the political ante, there were young black men in the clubs at which he played shouting 'black power! black power!', and maybe coltrane would have become more politicised if he'd lived until the 60s - but this is the same as the 'what would malcolm have done if he'd lived' argument that those on the left still engage in from time to time. (counter-facts, counter-histories are all very well, but they never happened, did they?)

oh, ok, back to 'selflessness' again, and finally: things move on out. i'm so used to thinking of sanders' playing as undergoing a trajectory, from wild yawping, coruscating, disturbing beauties with coltrane (and those couple of blue note dates, ‘symphony for improvisers’ and ‘where is brooklyn’ w/don cherry), and then, once coltrane dies and he becomes a leader in his own right, a more controlled use of the free playing as occasional effect, climax, or 'interlude', between burbling, mellow, melodic rambles over ethnicky grooves and repeating chords...but here sanders' playing is not just the squall or blast of sound i'd remembered it as; rather, he develops rather jauntily carnivalesque rhythms (in a very distant pre-echo of Sonny Rollins, circa 'Don't Stop the Carnival'), tho' this is done, it shd be noted, thru unusual and forceful tonguings or fingerings (or however it is he gets those effects).

dig too, on these recordings (on this and 'live in seattle'), how the two main horns, sanders and coltrane, sometimes seem to swap over, coltrane adopting sanders-esque howls, sanders sliding his own melodicisms alongside coltrane's prophet-like, authoritative pronouncements. i'm not using 'prophet' here as some un-thought-through metaphor: prophets (i'm thinking in the biblical sense here) use poeticised, metaphorical, fanciful language (i mean, 'revelations' is sci-fi before the category of sci-fi, right?) to call down the abuses and corruptions and degradations of current society; to predict the calamities that will befall the society if it does not change it ways (or have those ways *changed for it*); and to posit an alternative future in which that society is healed and mended and transformed. is coltrane not doing all three of those here, as far as the limits of his instrument and his epoch and his imagination will let him?

of this kind of *total engagement* there is still need.

Saturday 5 November 2011

Timothy Thornton / Tomas Weber / November 2011 / Cambridge

Last night’s reading at the Judith E. Wilson drama studio – one of what seems right now to be a weekly embarrassment of riches down Cambridge-way – promised fine poets reading serious work, but what transpired was more than that, I think, in its totality: different writers, with different projects, each giving a reading with totally believable but different modes of delivery and intensity, each sustaining thought in critical fashion as felt engagement and as poetic investment.

Tom Weber’s mode of delivery is trembling hand on paper and head aslant as if looking at the poem out of the corner of his eye was the only way he could read it: essential that he not look at it straight. But these poems have a directness too, shorter poems, with extended or connected thought running across them – read as a piece the words recurring, like ‘heart’ again and again, celeb names or sports dates perhaps invested with something or otherwise in there as shadow puppets, ghost targets (now I think about this, that’s something that Weber and Tim Thornton do share, though in very different ways, as I’ll get onto in a minute). I don’t know how much more I can say, to do justice to these – I would like to hear them again, to read them on the page (they’re forthcoming for publication).

Interval period. And now Timothy Thornton launching ‘Jocund Day’, the inaugural publication of Mountain Press (whose difference to Grasp, from what I can gather, is its determination to print extended or book-length collections rather than just two-a-penny pamphlets: JD collects work published over the past few years in a variety of little magazines, etc, and, as Thornton explained in his introduction, has some gestation in work written as far back as 2005, when he was briefly at Cambridge). Neil Pattison’s spoken introduction had it that there are two types of poems: those you believe and those you don’t – which as a framework could have some value, I think, and Thornton’s poetry, his delivery of it, had that belief written all over it. As a musician, his poetry is concerned very much with intricacies of sound resonance and echo – but this was sound pattern not as decoration, as be-jewelled cover for lack of substance (masquerading as glittering substance in itself), but as a means of poetic thinking. Here, sound is cut or choked, rhyme (more often half-rhyme) is a texture suggesting further layers of meaning, or a kind of concealed meaning between the spaces on the page, between the words (as when, in reading, Thornton made the Freudian slip of ‘whipped’ for ‘wind’ in one of the book’s ‘Tattoos’). (Or see Mike Wallace-Hadrill’s notion that Thornton’s punctuation “bullies” the language it works with and against and alongside.)

Maybe that was a quality of the reading itself – Thornton was clearly nervous before he read, an energy which translated perfectly into the spasmodic, manically and desperately humorous modular poem/ dossier ‘TRAILS’ (as published at Deterritorial Support Group), a work-in-progress which, in this version (previously presented at this year’s Sussex Poetry Festival), combines responses to the news coverage of the April riots protesting the installation of a Tesco supermarket in the Stokes Croft area of Bristol, with visceral-political responses to the education protests of late 2010 and early 2011, and with a tactic also deployed by Keston Sutherland, in which an object unworthy of the attention given to it becomes a kind of manic focus, a phantom figure onto which all sorts of obsessions and connections are projected, under which it can not stand. (In this case, that object, or subject, is ‘Nigel Pargetter’ from the Archers, a character killed off after being on the show for a couple of decades.) I wouldn’t say that this is a smoke-screen effect, though I wouldn’t say either that I knew precisely what it was it is doing (Sutherland says (in the ‘Naked Punch’ panel discussion published earlier this year) “I like testing the capacities of poetry and my own interpretation by seizing on a very improbably specific detail of consumer society and trying to make from that some image of the whole”) – also, perhaps, the displacement of unbearable or limit-battering love mingled violence into the humorous bearability of Lenny Henry or TL61P, or Nigel Pargetter. That latter’s not quite right – these figures are not just ways of sugaring the pill, lightening the load, joke as distraction rather than as central to argumentation; yeah, I don’t think, in any case, or in Sutherland or in Thornton’s cases, that this humorous perversity betrays the urgent spirit of the rest of the poem – in fact, it heightens it –

as when activist Jody McIntyre, dragged from his wheelchair by police during the March protests in London, then savaged by a BBC journalist for ‘intimidating’ the cop into having to drag him from his dangerous, from his menacingly-wheeled wheelchair, here is conflated with housewives’ favourite darling comedian, Michael McIntyre – to whit, “I’m proud of the BBC (quote)“Hello is that Michael MacIntyre hello? Mister MacIntyre how/ did you feel about being pulled from your wheelchair” (unquote)(quote) “I thought you were a quote(uncunt)(quote)(unquote)CUNT” –

as when “PROFESSOR BRIAN COX” collapses into “Alain / de Botton or Alain ‘de’/de Botton”, twitter feeds and rolling news as the hateful levelling-out of all discourse into flat celeb-g(l)oss tv-professor banal-piety, sound-bytes biting off the heads of those running headless chicken down Stokes Croft (so the clucking news would have it), de(-ar)rangement of bodies on streets, a sex-violence fantasy-fear (those dark, sexy rioters) simultaneously enhanced by being denied and derided (hence the “cop pissing into my happiest mouth”). That kind of visceral, personal, sexualised – and satiric – reaction to riots (of which the Stokes Croft instance was an early prefiguring of August’s more widespread urban action) strikes me as a very honest and usefully aslant way of examining the current political situation without losing a sense of one’s individual body and its slotting into the cogs of the machine, or throwing itself onto that machine’s gears. This is neither knee-jerk liberal condemnation resulting from a kind of accomodationist pacifism (viz. the response of the 'official' left to destruction of private property), nor cautiously-stated liberal solidarity for some concrete action, which yet stands individually on the fringes of the crowd and its smash-heart-of-glass, nor the even more passively brutal tactic of simply ignoring what happens outside your own territory (“placidly claimed to be / a few hundred miles from other things”) - this is the night terror or the manic hysteria high of riots and smashing at limits inscribed within and without our deepest person – this is simultaneously a mind made and shaped by media and a mind that seeks to think outside that poetry of capital with its own desiring poetry, turning barbs and love and self-harm in equal measure against the flat-screening process of Auntie's news mediation. ‘TRAILS’ is a virtuoso piece in the sense that virtuosity allows you to do something, with all your resources of technique and personhood and poetic history and their intersections, that a calmer voice would not – at once going out of yourself, being swallowed in a spasming language (Thornton emphasising this in his notated stuck-judders, jack-hammer stammers (“Alain de Alain de”) and his delicious thrusting up to the limits of what he could say, as if willing himself to the border of inarticulacy), and coming from the very deepest inside-out of our hurts and wants and needs, something, some things, “that actually happened.”

Yeah, something happened in that reading too - "an actual thing: I have seen it." You better believe it.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

“And that is the nature of the historical moment...": On the London Riots, August 2011

(Click the picture to enlarge)

Saturday 6th August, 2011: family members, community activists and local residents marched from Broadwater Farm to Tottenham Police Station, to protest the police shooting of local man Mark Duggan. Demanding to speak to a senior officer, they were refused dialogue, and stayed outside the station for hours, waiting to be spoken to, waiting to be heard. The arrival of a younger crowd and what seem to have been the usual heavy-handed police tactics (there were rumours that cops had attacked a 16-year old girl) then sparked off what turned into a full-scale riot, a riot which has since spread, in the past few days, to Brixton, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Birmingham. Prime Minister David Cameron has returned from his holiday and is talking about authorising the use of water cannon and plastic bullets on protestors. Memories of Brixton and St Pauls in the 1980s come flooding back. Of course, seeing all this on the television and thru the prism of the internet is a totally different thing to seeing it on the ground – mis-information, wilful or not, confusion, rumours, outright lies, knee-jerk opinions and reactions abound, and one has to pick one’s way thru the mess. Seeing the disparity between what was being reported on ‘reputable’, ‘balanced’ news outlets, and what was actually happening in-situ, during the November 2010 education protests, is proof of that, if proof were needed. So what to make of it all?

The quotation that I’ve appropriated as a title for this post comes from Darcus Howe, being interviewed by a typically hostile and aggressive BBC journalist who, rather in the style of ‘Hard Talk’ frontman Stephen Sackur, attempts to force him into a ‘gotcha!’ endorsement of the riots. She doesn’t get that (instead, she’s deflected with the rather wonderful “I have never taken part in a single riot. I've been on demonstrations that ended up in a conflict. And have some respect for an old West Indian negro, and stop accusing me of being a rioter. You won't tickle me to get abusive, you just sound idiotic. Have some respect.”), but Howe does say: “I don't call it rioting, I call it an insurrection of the masses of the people. It is happening in Syria, it is happening in Clapham, it's happening in Liverpool, it's happening in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and that is the nature of the historical moment...” Howe is not, as I take it, arguing that the riots are genuine revolutionary action (he make it clear that he has never been a pure rioter, but a politically-motivated protestor), but he is saying that they are more than just mindless thuggery; that the political, economic, social and racial causes behind them deserve closer examination; and that the fact of these riots cannot simply be tut-tutted away by ‘non-violent’ liberals or rabid, racist conservatives.

Of course, the spark for the London riots *was* political – the shooting of Mark Duggan, which is just a single point on the edifice of racial profiling, unexplained deaths, and general brutality for which the police never do, and never are expected to answer (as if, perhaps, ‘it couldn’t happen here’ – yes, America, images of Miles Davis covered in blood outside Birdland, perhaps, or Thelonious Monk gifted years of mental trauma after an unjustified beating, or Oscar Grant, yes, how could we forget him? (ok, we'll grant you Smiley Culture, yeah, he died here, didn't he?)). But, in the transition to a full-blown riot, the original motivation becomes lost in a sea of other, individual and collective motivations – resentment at the poverty in which one finds oneself and the contempt with which one is daily treated; resentment at the lack of horizons, at the insistence that this is how it is and will always be, that *you* are the unavoidable by-product of economic policy and are regrettable but disposable, human cannon fodder/ 'collateral damage' in the worldwide war of free-market economics – anger even more personal than that, at a failed relationship or the way that is entwined with the social – losing one’s job and its personal consequences, failing to get a job, going back to the job centre to be treated with snooty derision, seeing oneself lambasted and parodied or just ignored in the news media, on the shiny televisual box that shapes how everyone thinks – maybe even a desire somehow to ape those action heroes one sees on that same box, to be a warrior, an action man, to engage in physical acts of violence as an assertion that yes, you are making a mark on the world, yes, *you are there.* It’s this super-abundance of motivations, and, at the same time, the negation this produces – the sense that one doesn’t quite know why one is doing this, why one is smashing this particular window or taking this particular object (beyond the fact that one is told all the time by big papa advertisement that it is desirable, you’ve gotta have it (the blackberry, the trainer), even if you can’t, can’t afford it, could never afford it) – that spreads, almost organically, in the riot: no programme, no specific relation between ends and means, no end(s) in sight, just this pure act, this open moment of negative possibility. The only alternative to poverty one is allowed is the spurious notion that one can somehow pull oneself out of poverty, be Alan Sugar’s apprentice, bawl out a tried-and-tested number on The X Factor, be mocked or paraded or degraded in the freak-show spectacle of Big Brother, exist in that other unreal-world of Z-list celebrity, Botox, bling, false smiles and breasts and lives – the only alternative is to be rich, to be born somewhere else, to get lucky; and the only *real* alternative, now, is to riot, to still be in the place and the situation in which one was the day before, but to transform it, yes, negatively, but still to transform it, for a few days at least, before ‘normality’ is restored by the big guns (plastic bullets, anyone?), before police sentences are slapped down (and Mark Duggan’s murderers are never touched, of course, of course), before Liberal/Tory condemnation dies down and we all forget about the temporary inconvenience of the England-Netherlands football match at Wembley being called off, or that we were worried the Olympics might be affected (O God forbid).

Hey, I’m not *celebrating* the riot: let’s face it, most of the internet commentators who seem to some extent to be sympathetic to the rioters, who, at least, don’t call them animals and scum and say ‘bring back thatcher’ and ‘this is like planet of the apes’, would be fucking terrified if it was *their* street that was on fire, *their* corner-shop window being smashed, because they don’t know what it’s like to live without horizons, without a university degree that enables you to talk about Marx and sociology and the real political causes of the violence etc etc, without the privileges they daily enjoy even as they condemn the system that extends them these. I’m not excluding myself, I’m talking about myself, in fact, what courage of convictions I possess I don’t know, it’s easy to type a few hundred words while the news unfolds on screens before you – but, yeah, let me carry on for just a moment. I’m not celebrating the riot, but neither am I going to fall into the other camp, of weak pseudo-pacifist condemnation of what those nasty urban youths are getting up to. As Chris Goode puts it in an invaluable blog-post working thru his own thoughts on the riots, the binary choice we are presented with – that Darcus Howe is presented with by that idiotic BBC journalist (does she call him ‘*Marcus* Howe’ at the beginning of the clip or am I just imagining things?) – between ‘condemning’ and ‘condoning’ what is taking place, absolutely fails to grasp the complexity of the actual situation. If the violence was motivated by an actual political programme, with specific goals in mind, then it would be truly scary for those in power, then it would be, perhaps, true *revolutionary* violence – the fact that it isn’t renders it brief, impotent, disruptive, but it still exists as an objective fact, in some sense mimetic of the latent, implicit, hidden and not-hidden violence that allows capitalism as we know it, as it infiltrates nearly every portion of our daily lives, to exist, to continue, to suppress, to exploit. One could see it, in some sense, as capitalism turned on itself – every day you are tell you can and should and must have the latest gadget or item of clothing, the latest craze invented as a distraction in a self-sustaining, never-ending circle of acquisition and consumerism – and so when you smash a window and you take that pair of trainers for yourself, without paying for it, you are at once negating the system by eliminating that all-important factor of money, and you are embodying its values, those advocated attitudes of dog-eat-dog, take-what-you-can-at-others’-expense; embodying those values and turning them against the system that spawns them. This doesn’t make ‘looting’ a revolutionary activity – not in the semi-motivated, indiscriminate sense of vague boiling rage that would seem (to this outsider) to characterise the riots currently taking place – but it does make it more than simple stupidity, more than the thuggery and hooliganism of the Bullingdon Club (we smash stuff because our privileged position in society allows us to) or the Reading Festival-goers, middle-class kids who go on a rampage at the end of three days of drink and drugs and pop music. In other words, we can *understand* the riots, understand and even be excited by the potential that is there, for genuine revolutionary ‘movement of the people’ (in Fela Kuti’s words), even as its direction into blind shop-window-smashing and building-burning remains un-channelled, its energies un-directed, un-fulfilled.

In ‘V for Vendetta’, Alan Moore’s anonymous anarchist instigator (following Robert Anton Wilson) pontificates on the difference between ‘chaos’ and ‘anarchy’.
Evey: "Is this the land of do-as-you-please?"
V: "No, this is only the land of take-what-you-want. Anarchy means ‘without leaders’, not ‘without order.’ With anarchy comes an age of true ordung, of true order, which is to say, *voluntary* order. This age of ordung will begin when the mad and incoherent cycle of verwirrung has run its course. This is not anarchy, Eve. This is chaos. Involuntary order breeds dissatisfaction, mother of disorder, parent of the guillotine. Authoritarian societies are like formation skating. Intricate, mechanically precise and above all, *precarious.* Beneath civilisation’s fragile crust, cold chaos churns. And there are places where the ice is treacherously thin."
Let’s say now that we’re witnessing chaos. But let’s say too that there is the potential for anarchy – or, if you don’t hold to that political persuasion, for that afore-mentioned revolutionary movement of the people. (The rioters are Black, Jewish, White, Men, Women.) Yes, the crack-down will begin and things will return to the way they were – but not even that, the charred buildings and the smashed windows that will take months to repair will provide a constant physical reminder of what happened – and, more importantly, tremors such as this, added to the more politically coherent protests and marches of November 2010 or March 2011, added to the Arab spring, added to everything, suggest that the earth-quake to come may be more than just a simple riot.

Friday 29 July 2011

The Tree Of Life (2011)

Starring: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn
Music: Alexandre Desplat (plus Smetana, Preisner, etc)
Director: Terrence Malick
Screenplay: Terrence Malick
Director of Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki

Given the cosmic scope of this film, some people may be surprised at how much of its power comes from its evocation of childhood and a sense of place. But this is not to reduce it to a simple ‘coming-of-age’ story; like the best of the American avant-garde – Olson’s ‘Maximus’ sequence, Stan Brakhage’s ‘Dog Star Man’ – the connection is made between locality and a wider historical and geographical scope, shading into myth the diurnal activites which many take for granted, risking overbearing over-statement, sometimes macho romanticism, but ultimately winning, through risk, through running the gauntlet between absurdity and genuine insight, a genuine respect, testing the margins of one’s art. This is not, though at times it comes close, a nostalgic romanticisation of 1950s suburban American childhood – for childhood is shown with all its little dramas and crises, its pulls and tugs in different directions, its simultaneous aimlessness and boredom and sense of unlimited wonder and unbounded excitement – a treatment of childhood that doesn’t reduce children to mini-adults, but entwines their experiences with those of the adults who raise them, which takes their experiences seriously, which recognises the universal resonances in their barely-articulated or conceived notions, musings, wonderings. There is a sense of awe at life here, a sense of palpable joy, but childhood is not an Eden, and this is not a regressive vision. Well, let’s revise that, Malick’s worst tendencies are simplistic, regressive, naïve in the worst way – it’s these that allow him his grandest moments, which could not possibly come off if they possessed even a hint of irony or lack of belief – and it’s also these that allow such mis-steps as the rather trite finale, in which Sean Penn’s architect has a vision of the after-life, wandering a beach with his family, still in their 1950s guise, thus effecting a reconciliation with the sense of loss that now plagues him in his adult life, at the peak of material success (shiny house, shiny office, the money his father always strived for but never quite made). Now he (and his mother, who had earlier mourned the death of her son and asked that age-old question of God, or the life-force, whatever you call him/her/it) can come to terms with the death of his brother and his sense of childhood as a magical time of harmony with, and exploration within, nature, which he now betrays and grows distant from in an artificial environment of glass and steel. The problem here is really the banality of the images – for a film-maker whose logic is so often visual (dialogue being reduced to whispered voice-over and half-caught mumblings, the tail-ends of conversations – one might say that dialogue takes place through glances, through the raising and lowering and moving away of eyes, the shifting dynamics of facial expressions and bodily gesture – a kind of dance, a choreography created from the way we relate to each other through movement every single day), to revert to wispy female-angel fingers and hands up-raised to the sky, to a Georgio Armani’d Penn looking constipated while circling a 1950s memory of his family, in a kind of cross between Jack Vettriano paintings and the kitschiest of Christian art, is a huge let-down. One can see exactly what he is trying to do, and it makes perfect sense in the logic of the film as a whole – the reconciliation demanded by the film’s wide questioning at the start, that questioning that led to the ultimate out-wards pan, from the grief of a specific suburban family to the creation of the universe, and back down, the intermeshing of everyday detail and wider religious/scientific considerations. We’d been prepared for this vision from the start of the film – shots of Penn wandering a desolate landscape and then preparing to make a leap (of faith) over the edge of a cliff, down a wooden pathway/bridge, set us up for it – and after the audacity of the out-Kubricking Kubrick Big Bang sequence, presenting us with a depiction of the after-life doesn’t seem too unreasonable – and yet, and yet, it just doesn’t come off. I suppose everyone has their breaking point, that point where they can say to Malick, ‘this much and no further’ – for some, in the showing I attended, this happened as early as the dinosaur sequence (able to tolerate 15-minutes of what was, essentially, avant-garde film-making, audience patience was tested by the sudden appearance of ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’-style CGI creatures). For me, then, I suppose it was the vision of the afterlife. Nonetheless, I was still able to leave the film with a sense of satisfaction, of, I suppose, wonder – the transition from grand orchestral swellings to credits unfolding over the ambient rainforest sounds, a technique also used in ‘The New World’ is one to which, if one has gone this far, one cannot help but respond to viscerally emotionally, even as, at the back of one’s mind, it seems absurd, manipulative, clunky, whichever adjective you choose to append.

I mentioned a sense of place, and, truth be told, this isn’t precise or specific in the way that Olson’s ‘Maximus’ was (or attempted to be): I don’t believe the town itself is mentioned by name, the film’s cast being pretty much limited to a single family (one of whom, the youngest son, is only sketchily defined at best); we only catch neighbours and relatives in glimpses, as figures who flit in and out, half-registered, and then disappear again (perhaps a result of Malick’s famous editing process, in which originally substantial roles are reduced to nearly-nothing). The same is true of a sense of time (hardly surprising, given the millennia covered in an early sequence): we are not presented with the familiar trope of news reports blaring out on the radio or television to give a sense of period (that sense of pleasurable semi-nostalgia present in shows like ‘Mad Men’ or the BBC’s ‘The Hour’ (which engages much more specifically with the making of the news, the way that our understanding of history is shaped by those who report it)). That said, costumes and period detail all seem to very precise, as is, apparently, the norm for Malick. Indeed, this very combination of vagueness and exactness may be what irritates a lot of the director’s harshest critics, and which certainly irked me about his previous work; ‘The New World’ betrayed any notions of historical fidelity in the way that it settled for a romanticised, colonialised Pocahontos narrative (in contrast to ‘Argall’, William T. Vollman’s revisionist re-telling), while ‘The Thin Red Line’ registered war as a kind of vague blight on nature in a way that felt like an evasion, given the way that the particular war it addressed still exists as part of our cultural consciousness and our political history. (Curiously enough, ‘TTRL’ has more ‘contextual’ detail than John Boorman’s similarly sparse ‘Hell In The Pacific’; but is precisely this opening up beyond Boorman’s claustrophobic, two-hander confines that accounts for its failure: generic back-stories and vague, meandering musings remove from the film any primal, stripped-back power, whilst remaining too vague, and too purely Americanised, in terms of historical engagement (compare Clint Eastwood’s ‘Letters From Iwo Jima’, in which Japanese soldiers are for once humanised and treated as more than faceless or silent opponents). ‘The Tree Of Life’, then, gives us a sense of place as felt and lived in, rather than apprehended from outside – and, because its central premise is to do with a more general theme (the loss of a child) than the historical settings of ‘The New World’ or ‘The Thin Red Line’, it can inhabit this space with a sensuous exactness, unworried about historical niceties or political concerns. The unpredictability of Bergsonian durée; ‘subjective’ time (though time spread across several subjects, and occasionally to non-human levels); the temporal fluidity allowed, but rarely exploited, by cinema – the way that particular objects recur again and again, with differing levels of significance, not as artistic ‘symbols’ or allegorical details but as shifting images onto which differing projections and perceptions are placed (for instance, the shots of the same trees down the road, made metaphorical or symbolic or merely atmospheric at different times; the recurrence of the yellow dump trucks in the yard, at first objects of close attention in the children’s out-door play, then left, forgotten, as they grow up: objects of memory and loss and the passing of time (their association with building – and particularly, with the architectural and housing hopes of the ‘50s, presumably no accident)).

Subtleties such as these emerge because of the way the film was shot – as Brad Pitt (acting as Malick’s mouth-piece for the publicity circuit) notes, this involved improvisation, shooting on the fly, getting actors to inhabit a space (in terms of actually renting an entire block, rather than shooting in a studio), to inhabit their costumes, wearing them all day, to be inside a certain mindset – so that the film can be stitched together from tail-ends, from glimpses, from the moments, beyond the big show-downs and speeches on which dramatists and film-makers normally focus, that actually constitute a large part of the way we interact and relate and judge others’ character.

Thus, without having to be restricted to narrative and the self-consciously dramatic, we actually get a much better insight into the way life develops as we live it, which mitigates against the heavily archetypal qualities which sometimes threaten to turn the characters into ciphers (particularly the idealised mother, who stays just the right side of the irritatingly angelic and opaque (Pocahontos fell the other side of the line in ‘The New World’)). Archetypal qualities are grounded in observable and universal detail – the mother dressing a child's wound, the father helping with first steps – to sometimes breath-taking effect: early on, we witness a scene in which a baby's face is placed right up against the screen, before focussing on a leaf blowing away across the pavement – more effective in experience than in description, perhaps, it imparts a sense of almost trance-like wonder, a pre-linguistic coming-to-consciousness, those first encounters with the world. This is what Malick is after in almost all his work (those paradisal scenes of swimming in the sea in ‘TTRL’ and lying in the grass in ‘TNW’), but here one feels that he has really succeeded in capturing it, in seeing with what Brakhage called ‘the innocent eye.’ Because all this is placed in the context of growing up, of the very early ways in which one places oneself, and is placed, in the world, it has a specificity to it that the forest or ocean idylls of those earlier films lack: and the visual puns/ correspondences within this wealth of observed detail connect to wider thematic concerns without over-burdening their freshness or reducing them to clunking metaphors. Thus, pointing to the sky is at once looking for/at God (and is explicitly described as such – “that’s where God lives”), but it is also the simple mechanics of throwing and catching a ball or climbing a tree (things that most boys do); throwing a stone through a window at once illuminates an element in the brothers’ relationship (the elder boy, taking after his more aggressive and macho father, throws the stone almost as a dare to his milder, younger sibling), part of a sequence conjuring up a sense of darkness and the possibility for violence (playing with guns, toying with war), and simply an observation of child-hood games – something that many kids will have done, at some stage. One thing can be, or suggest, many others: objects passing through consciousness, creatively perceived (in the sense that, for Merleau-Ponty, perception is creation), one thing triggering the thought of another, shifts and links and loops; the self as a part of the world, as something created from the world, rather than a self-contained observing entity, detached from it. For the most part this is done without resource to the magical realist tropes one might expect (which I’ve always found tend to rather domesticate the subversive potential of magic, irrationally arranging rather than rationally deranging the senses) – except for one particular incident, all the more powerful for being the only such occurrence: that sudden moment where, as a bed-time story the mother describes going up in a plane, we see illustrative footage of the ride, and then we see her (in her mind’s eye? in the children’s? in both?) levitating, floating, arms spread wide, next to the tree on the suburban lawn. If perception bases itself upon which is actually there – trees, lawns, roads, people – imagination allows for elaborations, variations, added to this: thus, the long loft, an attic room with a light-filled window, is seen through a child's perspective as extra-elongated, and the adult standing there with the child becomes extra tall, stretched, a giant in a vertically-confined space. Of course, that move towards ‘the light at end of tunnel’ has several connotative layers (the light one sees when one first bursts into the world as a new-born, or on opening one’s eyes in the morning – or, in this film, the occasionally-glimpsed cosmic light that might be equated with the life-force of the universe) – but it doesn't become a concrete symbol, staying instead as part of a network, a patchwork of shifting images, criss-crossing over and resonating with each other in a kind of non-linear, non-schematic dialogue. This allows the narrative structure to remain somewhat loose: we could view the entire main portion of the film as enclosed between Penn's going up and down the elevator, initially grieving for the death of his brother and the loss of his child-hood, and finally reconciling all this with a vision of his loved ones, united again in a heaven-like space. This would make the 1950s sequence the specific remembrance of a particular character, though, which is not how the film works, overall: and to try and trace particular ‘arcs’ or particular memories to particular characters will often prove a fruitless task, one that goes against Malick’s whole method in the film. As a reaction against the subjectivity of narrative or authorship, we come across this technique in ‘The Thin Red Line’, where various voices mesh and weave around each other (and in the suggestion that we are all part of a single human soul); and here, that extends to camera-work – the camera is not the (male or otherwise) gaze but the eye of a baby, a boy, an adult, a god. Though the film is very much the product of one man’s consciously grand vision – ‘this is how I see the world’, by Terrence Malick – the working methods used (improvisation, spontaneity, non-scripted interaction between actors) ensure that it remains collaborative, and the movements across consciousnesses and subjectivities and viewpoints almost bring to mind Stewart Home’s criticism of ‘bourgeois subjectivity.’ (I’ve just been reading Home, which is why he’s been slotted in here – of course, he would detest the religio-mystical quality of Malick's vision.)

This use of the camera to open up inter-subjective spaces and to move across vast spans of real and felt time is an at times dizzying affirmation of cinema’s potential – beyond genre and beyond (straight-forward, linear) narrative – and is coupled to an equally strong use of sound, the use of classical music at times suggesting something operatic, balletic. Cutting down on the now-expected Malickian voiceover (though it's still there, whispering away – “Brother. Mother. It was they that lead me to your door,” etc, etc) means that a lot of the film, though full of sound, is not dialogue-dominated. I don’t know how one would describe this: (once again) wordless opera, ballet? In fact, it’s a consciously cinematic use of sound, a real exploration of the medium’s sonic possibilities, of the conjunction of music and image – thus, scenes sweep by on bursts of musical rhythm, not as mere accompaniment or montage-style, but through a looser emotional sweep. And yet they often seem chosen for quite precise reasons: the various bits of piano music by Bach and Couperin that pop up now and again come from the father’s frustrated ambitions as a concert pianist rather than simply performing a decorative function – they exist half-way between the narrative and the ambient. Probably the most memorable musical ‘set-pieces’ involve the use of Smetana’s ‘Moldau’ from ‘Ma Vlast’ (the original piece a tone-painting of a river, and thus entirely appropriate to the film’s frequent recourse to images of water), playing alongside the exhilaration of young children running and jumping round their neighbourhood in what feels like one continuous sweep; and the ‘Lacrimosa’ from Preisner’s ‘Requiem For My Friend,’ soaring out during the Big Bang scenes. The latter, once more, fits for more than just its swelling emotions– remember that this whole sequence is framed by the mother’s cry of anguish at the death of her son, and the use of a setting of the Requiem Mass seems entirely appropriate. For some, this may seem presumptuous – the origin of the universe ‘framed’ by a single human death – and I’ve even seen it compared to the joke in Charlie Kaufmann’s ‘Adaptation’, where Kaufmann can’t decide how to open his story about orchid-hunting, and in a maniacal brain-storming session decides to go right back to the beginning of time. Yet it is that kind of framing that is crucial to Malick’s vision: in an original draft of the screenplay, the final afterlife scenes expand out to show the death and re-birth of the entire universe, only to come resting back to the apparently un-important grieving of one character.

‘The Tree of Life’ is, in part, a very loose adaptation of the Book of Job, in loose thematic content if not in overarching narrative: hence the film’s opening epigraph, God’s response to Job: "Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation...while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" I’ve tended to see that argument as a dodging of the question – ‘how could you do this to me, a good man – how could you allow the death of my family, the destruction of my possessions, the disease of my body?’ countered with, ‘well I don’t have to explain myself to you, I can create worlds and galaxies’ (though if one was in that position perhaps one might feel the same way – power corrupts, and all that…). As a statement, it possesses (doesn't it?) a rather hectoring, bullying, braggart quality. In part the problem may be that faced by Milton in ‘Paradise Lost’ – when theological arguments such as these are placed in the mouth of a personalized God, a God who functions as a quasi-human character in a story, they come to seem unfair, petty, vindictive. Malick solves this problem by refraining from presenting a personal God (he probably doesn’t believe in that kind of religion anyway), instead offering up some sense of a diffuse life force (which is why the ministering female angels in heaven, like spa attendants, is a bit of a misstep) that animates creation, a wider context which doesn't strip life of its value, but which allows us to accept things in the over-arching scheme of things, without becoming completely passive or fatalistic because of this (the obvious comparison here, for me, would be Olaf Stapledon’s ‘Starmaker’). The dinosaur scene, though it caused titters and a walk-out in the screening I attended, does succinctly illustrated Malick’s theme of ‘the state of nature’ vs. ‘the state of grace’ - here, the dinosaur chooses not to kill his prey but to love and leave to live (as, towards the end of the film, Pitt's sacking allows him to reconcile with his son and to realign his priorities). Perhaps it’s too crushingly obvious, too sentimental – Malick seems happy to attribute destructive impulses to humans, but rarely extends these out to the natural world, which remains paradisal and idyllic. And yet, as Jason Bellamy suggests, the implication that the dinosaur’s first impulse is to violence, and that the act of kindness, or curiosity, whatever motivates it, is something beautiful and unexpected – the birth of morality as a sudden, un-explained transcendence of the kill-and-be-killed struggle for survival – is more than just romantic naivety: "What I find interesting is that a filmmaker known for romanticizing nature would equate it with violence. It seems to me that Malick is implying that violence is our default setting, and that those who can rise above nature, rather than succumb to it, are extraordinary."

This choice between ‘nature’ and ‘grace’ may be laid out too baldly for some, but its weave into the film’s main, 1950s Texas segment, is generally fairly subtle – yes, the mother (grace) may be a little (more than a little) idealised, but she isn’t perfect (for instance, the suggestion that she doesn’t really stand up to the father’s disciplinarian awkwardness, working instead by stealth to educate her children along a kinder path), while the father, for all his anger and his antagonism, is capable of feeling great love for his family, and of feeling great sorrow and loss and guilt at not being able always to express this love. In part, it’s the social expectations of the time that cause him to follow ‘the way of nature’ – given the way that a combination of social Darwinism, consumer lifestyle pressures, the American dream, and imperial/ Cold War ambition would push a moderately-successful 1950s businessman into macho poses and roles (though always wedded to good ol’ family values; hence the conflict, between the love one is supposed to feel for one’s family and the suggestion that one can do and be anything one wants, superior to the inanities of this domestic sphere). Violence (as in the scene where Pitt tries to get his children to hit him, teaching them to fight and be ‘real men’), a go-getter mentality, shading over into envy (Pitt’s complaints about never having quite enough money, whilst eyeing a neighbour’s larger house and grander lawn), pushing your way to the top at other’s expense, even hate; these compete with kindness, a sense of wonder and satisfaction (rather than “find[ing] reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around[…], and love is smiling through all things”), obligation to others, love. Music might be considered as on the side of love, culture, developed emotion and sensibility, etc; thus, Pitt’s abandonment of a possible musical career is a betrayal of his better impulses (though music still allows him to commune with his son, as they play a piano and guitar duet). And yet, some element in the music – the pursuit of technical perfection, of being ‘the greatest’ – shades into the ambition of Pitt’s other career; hence, telling his eldest son a story about Toscanini’s perfectionism, recording sixty-five takes of a piece and still not being satisfied – always, “it could have been better.” Music becomes the pursuit of an elusive technical goal, rather than a communal sharing or an expression of social life – ‘culture’ that can be tucked away into the side-boards of a pristine suburban home as if it were bone china or candle-holders – the stentorian sounds of Brahms blaring out overbearingly during a family dinner. It can be possessed, locked up, compartmentalized (the son’s invention of DJ-scratching, making a record of pristine piano music turn woozy, skip and swoon out of its temporal lock-step, is at once an expression of freedom and a frustrated realisation that this world of ‘culture’ and creativity is lost to him, as it is not lost to his musical brother); similarly, that scene early on, when a young son strays over the property boundary into the neighbour’s yard – never mind that they are both part of one long, un-broken stretch of grass, that the line the father frantically points out – ‘look, see that line, see that line’ –isn’t actually there, that there are no such lines in the natural world. Property, owning things, locking them up, is something that runs completely contrary to the children’s fluid world of play, running through the neighbourhood, through the woods, over the road and into the garden, the camera swooping and diving with them (or that scene where Pitt leaves on a business trip and the children and their mother run riot through the house, chasing each other round in a kind of joyous parody of his disciplinarian bouts of fury). ‘Perfect’ suburban houses become prisons, little tins of family argument, husband vs. wife: we witness one such dispute in the family home; and then, a few moments later, a similar tiff through the windows of the next-door house; but even the wide-open spaces that one might expect to provide a liberating contrast, filled as they are with modernist light, cathedrals of technology and ‘progress’, lack something – either they are packed with stultifying industry and noise (Pitt can hardly hear the news that his son’s died over the roar of aircraft engines), or they are empty, gleaming, vacant (as in the vertiginous sky-scrapers in which Penn works). This may be overly simplistic – there is, at times, a real sense of excitement at the possibilities of technology (Pitt’s an inventor, with a long list of patents, his job allowing him to travel to China by air, and to boast of this to his children); and it’s hard not to feel awed by the shots of sky-scrapers, their glass-and-metal interfaces between open sky and light-filled interior, those exhilarating tracking shots along enclosed walk-ways, those moments when the camera assumes the position of a human, craning their neck upward at these nearly-unbelievable structures. Even having Sean Penn mope and mumble in the foreground does little to diminish the power of such spectacle, and whether this is Malick becoming enticed by what he sees at the expense of intended thematic treatment, or whether another example of his contradictory attitude towards progress, nostalgia, nature and technology, one is struck by the fact that he could just as easily turn his eye to city-scapes (à la Francis Thompson’s ‘New York, New York’), as to leaves and trees and grass and curtains blown by the wind.

Moving on – the film’s treatment of violence, appearing as it does in a context much less explicitly concerned with historical conflict (in comparison to ‘The New World’ or ‘The Thin Red Line’), comes across as that much more convincing for being ‘domesticated’; I’m thinking of the scenes in which the gang of boys go around pretending to shoot guns and launching firecracker-strapped frogs into the air ('do you think he flew to the moon?'), as a kind of innocent and naïve, though perverse, experimentation ('it was an experiment', one of the boys actually says – the way killing a fly is a mixture of sadism, curiosity and play); an implicit mirroring of a more knowing adult impulse to destruction (the cold war, the space race, the development of biological and nuclear weapons, Dr Strangelove territory). It’s crucial to the film that this is rejected (whereas, in ‘TNW’ and ‘TTRL’, natural paradises were destroyed by fire and bullets and battle) – thus, after the elder brother betrays his younger sibling by making him put his finger over the end of a BB gun, then firing it, he offers him the chance of revenge – hit me with this piece of wood – which is eventually rejected, sulking and sorrow turning to smiles (just as he refuses to hit his father earlier in the film) – anger turns to softness, distrust and confusion to reconciliation and acceptance. This worms itself into the film’s very structure: the staging of small crises and reconciliations within a larger scale – layers within layers (the ‘framing devices’ of (1) the mother coping with her son’s death, (2) the grown son coping with the death of his brother, (3) the ‘nature’/ ‘grace’ conflict, and the way all these envelop and bracket the smaller incidents of a 1950s childhood). We have levels and parallels both within the smaller narrative and the cosmic one.

This sense of the small in the large, and the large in the small (‘everything is connected’ – hence the closing shot of a bridge) is present even in the way the big bang/birth of life sequence is put together – ‘large-scale’ footage of galaxies exploding, forming, expanding, and microscopic details of single-cell organisms reproducing, both possessing a similar awe-inspiring effect – the wonder of the very large and the very small – that Blakean notion (“a world in a grain of sand”). Significantly, Doug Trumbull, who worked with Malick on the visual effects for this sequence, was consciously working with the home-made legacy of avant-garde film (even going so far as to ‘sample’ an excerpt from Scott Nyerges’ short ‘Autumnal’) – the DIY feel, the physical quality of things, like the way Stan Brakhage constructed his great meditation ‘The Text of Light’ entirely from filming through ash-trays. Trumbull:
"We worked with chemicals, paint, fluorescent dyes, smoke, liquids, CO2, flares, spin dishes, fluid dynamics, lighting and high speed photography to see how effective they might be. It was a free-wheeling opportunity to explore, something that I have found extraordinarily hard to get in the movie business. Terry didn’t have any preconceived ideas of what something should look like. We did things like pour milk through a funnel into a narrow trough and shoot it with a high-speed camera and folded lens, lighting it carefully and using a frame rate that would give the right kind of flow characteristics to look cosmic, galactic, huge and epic.”

Trumbull’s sequence is, perhaps a film-within-a-film, an avant-garde light-show which Malick has somehow managed to smuggle into an ostensibly Hollywood picture – though I would argue that it is still central to the whole picture’s philosophy and thematics. Certainly, its level of abstraction (though we do know vaguely that its images are supposed to ‘represent’ something – galaxies, nebulae, great explosions of gas and energy) is far greater than that of the 1950s sequences, which are sometimes quite rigorously put-together. Many of the details in the main part of the film cluster around particular elements – earth, air, fire and water, in fact. Thus, we have scenes of planting and burying in the soil; of gazing up to the sky, watching the wind billow out curtains and leaves; of lighting candles for the dead (as well as for a general sense of loss, of not having used life to its full potential); and, most frequently, scenes of water – spraying the lawn with a garden hose; baptism; bathing; children wading next to a local river; dinosaurs encountering one another millions of years before, perhaps on the same river; more generic shots of crashing waves; the origin of life in the oceans. If trees provide the film’s central metaphor, or image-cluster, then water is what enables trees to grow, enables life to begin and to expand and to flourish; this perhaps explains the decision to set the afterlife vision on a beach (half-way between land and sea, evocative in some sense of la creation du monde – and after all, remember: “Then he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.”) Thus, the birth scene, where we witness a boy swim out of a water-filled bedroom (home/womb) – out into the world – might seem rather clunkily metaphorical and unnecessary if subjected to subsequent scrutiny, but in the flow of things it's audacious and resonant, given the film's preoccupation with home and with environment and with dwelling; given too the way it draws out of the child-hood home a sense of first engagement with profound issues, vaguely or incompletely articulated because this is how that first engagement tends to unfold – an intuition, an inkling, an uncertain thought, subsequently elaborated, fantasized upon, speculated about.

One could say that Malick has been building towards this film, if not for the entirety of his career, at least in his most recent pair of Hollywood films – ‘The Thin Red Line’ and ‘The New World’ both share the obsession with trees and water and light – and ‘The Tree of Life’ surpasses, and synthesizes, these films, giving their obsessions an evolutionary and scientific *and* religious basis, water as there at the origin of creation, as having a deep connection with the human physical organism that is not merely pretty or fanciful or vague or simplistic. The film’s approach to science is perhaps more imaginative than rigorously scientific, but that’s to fall for the too-easily re-inforced notion of ‘the two cultures’ that still hangs over much discourse today, to the detriment of both art and science. (Similarly, the way that ‘The New Atheists’ condemn religion out of hand, blanket-brushed out of ‘rational’ discourse, the extreme end of the Enlightenment project (which, as Adorno and Horkheimer noted, concealed within itself the very barbarism it sought to overcome) – and the alliance of this approach with the right-wing politics that increasingly dominate western discourse (for instance, the way that ‘Islam’ is considered a monolithic entity in a way that Christianity never would be, and thus reduced to a simple ‘other’ or enemy (or the way that this is done with religion in general, in some circles – hence, Richard Dawkins’ proposal to exploit religious civil war in Africa as a means of promoting secularism). ‘Observable facts’, figures, statistics, impartiality, objectivity – as if these could exist absolutely, outside the realm of human interpretation and the framework of particular social and political systems and processes – as masculine certainty, as the American Cold War mentality once again, trumpeted against ‘effeminate’ questioning or uncertainty or problematisation.) Consider the work of artists like Brakhage, Jim Davis, or Jordan Belson – the way that their films could be at once ‘fanciful’, mere plays of pretty light and shadow and son-et-lumiere effects, and at the same time could get the heart of cinema itself, to image-making, shadow-play, our relation to light, notions of space and time and the nature of consciousness and perception – at once handmade and possessing much in common with the most advanced scientific hypotheses – should prove an inspiration to both artists and scientists, and a chastisement to those too-simple binary positions which seem to be many people’s default settings in the ‘educated western world.’ While Malick works in more of a ‘mainstream’, narrative mould – his films (or ‘The Tree of Life’, at least) existing, perhaps, in a happy medium between the non-linear, the abstract, the purely visual, and plot, characterisation, etc – the spirit that infuses this latest project does recall that of Brakhage, Davis, and Belson – if not while watching the film, certainly in thinking about it after – and the fact that he has managed to, not so much smuggle, but trumpet this into Hollywood (this film doesn’t pretend to be something other than it is, something easily marketable or bankable) – should thus be some cause for celebration.

The titters and the walk-out that occurred during the screening I attended – and the fact that so many critics see fit to mention the dinosaur scene as if it made the whole film fail or seem ridiculous (though that absurd/ brilliant balancing act is perhaps what makes this such a great film) indicates something important: you have to be with Malick on this one – to go with him the whole hog, to walk with him where he choose to go. Afterwards you can analyse and criticise and decide whether you do or do not want his vision (and wanting it doesn't mean that you have to agree with it or buy into it or be converted or whatever it is people are afraid of – he's not a polemicist, not an evangelist, not a preacher, but an explorer, exploring some ideas and sensations that he no doubt holds very personally, his belief system, well not system, his core beliefs, up there for you to see) – but you need to go with him for the duration of the film, for two-and-bit hours, try to do that. It's not as if I'm a total devotee; I find ‘The Thin Red Line’ and ‘The New World’ rather lacking if I'm honest – perhaps it was seeing this in the cinema that made it into such a grand and provocative thing; something about the communal experience and the sense of someone really wanting to explore important issues, and not in an overly schematic or hectoring way – yes, saying ‘these are big things’ – life, death, the rest of it – but grounding them in the mundane or the brief observed detail, in observations of life as it is lived. After the walk-outs, fairly early in the film, everyone else sat through to the end, through the credits, until the projection had completely finished, not because of any particular point of interest or polite sense of obligation, but because it felt like part of the experience, it *was* part of the experience, like those long silences at the end of a piece of improvised music, the held collective hush that film could be, the mass communion rather than the bashing into submission with noise and gizmos and sex and violence mashed and then the nervous laugh or the loud guffaw and the trooping out quick-fixed, superficially elated. Last word goes to Roger Ebert:
"Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life's experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer "to" anyone or anything, but prayer "about" everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine."