The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye

This is a novel from 1954 about Clarence, a white man who, finding himself broke and stranded in Africa, decides to approach the king and ask him for some sort of job. Clarence’s only qualification is that he is white — which admittedly was no small thing in colonial Africa — and after he fails to contact the king, he is taken under the wing of a beggar and two boys, and begins a journey south, hoping to meet the king again later when he visits that part of the country.

UNICEF’s director for West and Central Africa, Gianfranco Rotigliano, visited the office. He does not care much for meetings so we went straight out to get a better understanding of the situation of children. Over three days we drove from Conakry to Bamako in Mali. Along the way we visited schools and health centres in towns and villages. It was abundantly clear that the health system is not working and that major reform is needed. The education system also needs reform, but fortunately for that we have, with a coalition of donors, a solution.

It’s a dreamlike, sensual narrative; I’ve noticed before that novels from Francophone Africa (Guinea, in this case) seem to be more stylised than those from former British colonies. It echoes and subverts the tradition of white men’s adventures into darkest Africa. Africa seen through Clarence’s eyes is a world of fetid scents, impenetrable jungle, and the buttocks and breasts of the women; but he is completely ineffectual and naive, dependent on and manipulated by those around him.

My first impressions of this were really good; I enjoyed it for the characterisation and description, atmosphere, nuance. For me it didn’t sustain that level of excitement though to the end, but it was still a very good read.

» The photo, ‘Washday on the Niger’ is © Julien Harneis and used under a CC by-sa licence.

London Film Festival debrief, 2013

So, I saw five films this year. Some quick notes:

Story of my Death [Història de la meva mort].

The LFF said:

Albert Serra’s teasing period-piece sees Casanova and Dracula meeting as Enlightenment reason gives way to the dangerous passions of the Romantic era.

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Which sounded like it might be fun, if perhaps a bit silly. Maybe a trifle camp. In fact it was surprisingly boring.

I like the fact that artier films can allow themselves to be a bit slow-paced, and a use longer takes and longer shots: if nothing else it makes a change from the freneticness of commercial cinema. But allowing yourself to be leisurely, and give the characters room to breathe, doesn’t mean that every scene has to be like that, that every shot has to carry on for several seconds longer than necessary. And if you are going to make a film like that, and it ends up being nearly two and a half hours long, it starts to feel a little bit self-indulgent.

The director said in the Q&A afterwards that he’d never seen any genre films because he wasn’t interested in them, which explained why his handling of the Dracula scenes was so artless; artless mainly in a bad way.

On the positive side: it often looked good, and among the completely amateur Catalan cast, Casanova in particular was excellent.

Portrait of Jason

The LFF said:

Shirley Clarke’s cinéma-vérité masterpiece about a gay African-American cabaret performer and prostitute revealingly restored.

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This is a black and white documentary from 1967; Jason Holliday is interviewed in his apartment about his life as a house boy, prostitute, hustler and would-be cabaret performer as he gets steadily drunk and stoned. He is the only person we see; he replies to questions from off-camera and spins yarns which may or may not be strictly true. It’s very rough-looking; the restorer spent years looking for a good quality print before finding that what was marked as out-takes in the archive was in fact the edited film, which is complete with conversations between the director and the cameraman, moments when the screen goes black, shots out of focus and so on. But apparently there are pages and pages of editing notes to prove that this is a very carefully crafted version of roughness.

I enjoyed it, Jason is a fascinating, charming and rather tragic figure, and the style is interesting too.

My Fathers, My Mother and Me

Paul-Julien Robert’s quietly devastating documentary revisits the former residents of the experimental 1970s free-love commune in which he grew up.

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Paul-Julien Robert didn’t know who his biological father was until he was 12, in 1991, when the Friedrichshof commune was dissolved and as part of the fall-out the various children were given blood tests to determine paternity. In this documentary, he talks to his mother, to the various men who were potential fathers, and to the other children who lived there with him. It is fascinating stuff, especially because the leader of the commune, Otto Muehl, was obsessed with documenting the life there, so the interviews are intercut with lots and lots of footage of the commune in action.

It starts out seeming fun and quirky; slightly bonkers, but free-spirited, well-meaning and optimistic as well. But it gets steadily darker, as it gradually becomes clear that a free-love commune built on the eradication of the nuclear family is not in fact a great environment for raising children. Not, at least, if it is being run by a controlling egomaniac.

It’s fascinating on all sorts of levels, not least the disconnect between the adults’ experience of the commune and the children’s. Apparently it was only really when making the film that he felt able to talk openly about his childhood, and there are some particularly painful conversations with his mother.

Grigris

A Chadian street photographer’s romantic interest in a would-be model lands him in a murky criminal underworld in this smart thriller.

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To be pedantic about it, he’s not actually a ‘street photographer’ as I would understand it; he’s not taking candid shots of urban life. He takes photos for ID cards and the like. He’s also a nightclub dancer with a withered leg.

The thriller-y bits could have been edited a bit more snappily, perhaps, but basically I enjoyed this. It usually looks good, it has plenty of plot, which is sometimes a bit lacking at the kind of films I tend to go to at the festival, and the central performances are good. And a pretty girl and some good dance sequences.

The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas [Η Αιώνια Επιστροφή Του Αντώνη Παρασκευά]

A dark satire on current Greek woes that sees a failing TV personality stage his own kidnapping, only to start to unravel as he holds himself hostage.

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This is an almost silent film. Paraskevas is holed up in an empty hotel alone while the world thinks he has been kidnapped, and for most of the film the only dialogue is from the TV news and videos he is watching. He is already perhaps a little unstable to have thought this was a good idea, but the solitude pushes him further over the edge and the initially comic tone turns darker.

It’s genuinely funny in the funny bits, and the turn to the dark works as well. There are perhaps a couple of mis-steps along the way, but generally I really liked it. Christos Stergioglou is great in the central role; there’s an almost Buster Keaton quality to the way he manages to be silently expressive with a mournful and impassive face.

Rothko at Tate Modern

I went to the Rothko exhibition at Tate Modern today. The show is of his ‘late series’: the centrepiece is the Seagram Murals (i.e. the group of dark Rothkos which have been in the Tate for years, plus some related works that normally live in Japan), but there are also some other groups of works (the ‘Black-Form’, ‘Brown and Grey’ and ‘Black on Gray’ paintings) as well as related odds and ends.

'Red on Maroon Mural', Mark Rothko, Tate

It’s quite suggestive, I think, that the Seagram murals were commissioned for the Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram building in New York, and that they ‘never reached their original destination, after Rothko decided that a private dining room was an unsuitable environment to experience his paintings.’ Because with these big colour-field paintings there is always going to be a delicate path to tread between art and interior design. And indeed you can see why the restaurant might have wanted them: they would have added a touch of modernity and sophistication without actually challenging the air of hushed pomposity which is so important to an expensive restaurant.

But although they could serve as interior design, they are certainly more than that. They are seductive pieces, and they do reward patient contemplation. Partially that’s because they are much more carefully made than the simplest description of them might suggest: a painting may be, in the most reductive terms, a big maroon blob on a red background, but they have more presence than that. Apparently he painted them with many many layers of very thin paint, and they remind me slightly of fine Japanese lacquer; the way a plain red and black rice bowl can be a deeply desirable object because of the texture and way the light falls on it.

And despite what I said in my last post, and despite the funereal colour-schemes, they aren’t gloomy. They are whatever the antithesis of frivolous is — suolovirf — but half an hour spent in their company was restful rather than depressing. They are beautiful things: big, but subtle in their colours and textures.

Or at least the Seagram murals are; some of the others were less exciting, most notably the ‘Black on Gray’ works, all divided into an area of black at the top and pale grey below. Those ones managed to be exactly as boring as the description suggests.

» The painting is ‘Red on Maroon Mural’, from the Tate. I’ve taken it from the exhibition website, which as usual with the Tate, is very good, so do go and take a look.

A thought on the Olympics

While I wait anxiously to see whether London’s contribution to the closing ceremony is horribly naff, here’s a thought: since the Games are so huge and expensive to host, perhaps the future would be to split them up between lots of different places. Embrace the technology of global communication. That way, countries that could never afford to host the whole thing could bid to host just one sport.

For two weeks, there would always be some Olympic sport going on somewhere in the world; you’d be watching the boxing from Cairo, and then the broadcaster might cut to the sailing in Biarritz, or the swimming in Miami, or the cycling in Kuala Lumpur, or the gymnastics in Prague.

You’d lose something — that sense of the attention of the World all being focussed in on one spot — but it would turn it into a truly global event. And that might be quite special as well.

Read the world: a map

I’ve made an interactive map to show which countries I’ve read books from.

Short version: I’ve read books from the countries marked blue or green, but not the ones marked yellow or red.

Blue are books I had already read before starting the challenge.
Green are books read since starting the challenge. Red is for countries I haven’t read yet; a black dot means a country I have an idea for.
Yellow is for countries where I have a copy of the book waiting to be read.

Cy Twombly at Tate Modern

I went to the Twombly exhibition at Tate Modern today. What a fabulous name, btw: I tried climbing the Eiffel Tower but the height made me go all twombly.

He’s not someone I knew much about beforehand, and I don’t know how excited I would have been if I had known; he does what you might describe as scribbly abstracts. In fact with some of the the early ones, white covered with scrawly pencil marks, you wouldn’t be totally surprised if you were told they were taken from the wall of a particularly chaotic primary school. Or perhaps, given the presence of crudely-drawn genitalia and thick gobs of turd-brown paint smeared on with the fingers, a nineteenth-century lunatic asylum.

The paintings in the exhibition, which covers his whole career, are nearly all large whitish canvases with various kinds of roughly-applied scrawls, smears and squiggles. The colours, the media used, and the arrangement of the marks all vary, but there’s a clear continuity through the work. Despite the brief outbreak of genitalia they are overwhelmingly abstract; only the titles and a few scrawly bits of text give you a hint of what they are ‘about’. The two main themes seem to be classical myth and particular places, mainly I think in Italy where he works.

'Quattro Stagioni: Autunno' by Cy Twombly

When I say I might not have been excited to see the show had I known what the work was like, it’s because I find myself increasingly unsympathetic towards non-representational art. Which is a bit philistinic, I know, and I don’t want to get too Daily Mail about it — I do know there’s a baby somewhere in the bathwater — but I think it’s just a sense that when abstract art doesn’t work it’s really exceptionally dull, and I’m not sure even the most successful stuff can ever reach the heights, or have the richness, of representational work.

Having said all that, I did actually enjoy this exhibition. Twombly has the knack of producing charismatic objects. Even the paintings which appear most messy and haphazard have a kind of presence to them. I was going to say that they are more than the sum of their parts, but perhaps it’s that they don’t seem like the sum of parts at all: they come across as organic wholes. Why that is true strikes me as a deepish mystery. The sheer size of them helps give them authority: the painting above, which is perhaps 8’×5′, is typical. There’s a room of much smaller works, about 18 inches square, and although I quite liked those too, they were that much easier to ignore.

» The painting, Quattro Stagioni: Autunno, is © Cy Twombly; the picture is taken from the exhibition website.

Araf

One of the few ways that being in Wales is noticeably different to being in England is the presence of Welsh everywhere. Not spoken Welsh — there was some of that, but not much, at least in the part of Wales I was visiting — but written. Every piece of public information — every road sign, every bus timetable — is written in both Welsh and English. And although a lot of smaller businesses just run in English, the bigger organisations like banks and supermarkets are also bilingual. The result is a continual sequence of double-takes as you go to read something and stare blankly for a moment before realising that you’re looking at the wrong bit.

At times this feels more like a political statement than a vital public service: I know that the language is relatively healthy these days — apart from anything else, Welsh is now a useful career skill because of the need to produce translations of everything — but people who are so profoundly monoglot that they need SLOW to be painted on the road in Welsh as well as English must be vanishingly rare.

It is often said, in fact, and it seems plausible, that Welsh is the most heavily subsidised language in the world. That’s not just the cost of all the signage and government literature; there’s also BBC Radio Cymru and S4C, the Welsh language TV channel, for a start.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that this is a bad thing. Of all the things a government can do with its money, helping keep a language alive seems pretty benign. 

» untitled photo of a Welsh road posted to Flickr by Herr Julian.

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