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To the casual observer, Vienna is a city abundant with beauty, elegance and culture. Typical of its collective humour - known as "Schmaeh" - the Viennese smirks mischievously with a twinkle in his eye as he indulges in the sensual pleasures of food, music and flirtation, conscious of the kitsch but indulgent in it for the sake of theatre. The summers are mellow and languorous; afternoons sodden with local white wine, and a tendency for people to sink comfortably into the moment, reflecting passively on the past and thinking not of the future and its associated uncertainties. The winters are cosy and homely despite the wind that blows in off the Hungarian plains, glancing off the hills to the west and wrapping itself around the city, beer, hearty food and good company acting as a blanket against the cold.
But beneath the joie-de-vivre and the tongue-in-cheek humour is a city that is silently schizophrenic. A deep set melancholy lurks beneath the Jugendstil buildings and the lush municipal parks. Elsewhere, Vienna has been described as spectre wearing a beautiful mask over a decaying skull. For this is a janusian city of simultaneous opposites: liberal yet conservative; vibrant yet deathly; laughing whilst crying - and its history is at once tragic and inspiring to this extent.
Founded as Vindabona by the Romans - a legacy which can be felt from viewpoints in the hills and in the echoes of subterranean ruins - Vienna has always straddled the divide between west and east. Despite the joke that "the Austrians are Swiss who wandered too far east", Vienna itself was shaped by the cross-border influences that passed through it from when it was a provincial outpost to when it was the capital of an empire spanning from the Gulf of Trieste to the furthest reaches of Galicia. And although the Viennese have vacillated historically over whether they are in fact German, the character of the city is fundamentally cosmopolitan. Prior to 1938 - the year in which they made a fatal decision regarding their identity - the plethora of talent that had been attracted to the city since 1848 pioneered radical new boundaries in art, music, philosophy, law, physics, sociology, economics, architecture, cinema, psychology and language. With the exception of psychoanalysis and music, the contemporary influence of Viennese thinkers may not be immediately obvious; but it is because these ideas have become so engrained in western thought, especially in America, that we forget their origins.
All of this was due to the cultural liberalism of the Habsburg (later the Austro-Hungarian) Empire. Having emerged from the evolving character of the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg realm was an autocracy. Democracy did not exist in any meaningful way. The monarchy and imperial bureaucracy (the character of which is evoked in the angst-ridden atmosphere of Franz Kafka's writings) pursued expansionist policies of subsuming new territories into the empire's quasi-federal structure through political settlements and royal marriages. Procedure, inefficiency and corruption - "Schlamperei" - reigned, with its centre in the administrative buildings of Vienna. But for all of its disadvantages, the empire was culturally enlightened. Although German was the language of government, cultural, linguistic and religious freedoms were permitted. The ruling classes and, in Vienna, the indigenous Catholic population may have been conservative, but the monarchy acknowledged the high-risk advantages in allowing the pursuit of liberal intellectualism with minimal censorship.
This benevolent authoritarianism, combined with the indulgent lifestyle enjoyed by the bourgeoisie in the coffeehouses and taverns, ensured that the maxim coined by Karl Marx - that philosophers have sought to interpret the world when the point is to change it - bypassed the Viennese, whose revolutionary culture was resolutely centred on progressive ideas. In 1919, as the European empires collapsed and communist revolutions swept large parts of the continent, the Viennese effort flashed and died. Action was not part of their cultural vocabulary. The security that the empire consistently offered for a century made them comfortable and suspicious of change. That systemic complacency frustrated nearly every great thinker who lived in the city. Similarly, the conservative culture that begrudgingly tolerated the avant-garde dismissed and disdained every new breakthrough as indulgent trash. Indeed, the post-war playwright, Thomas Bernhard, wrote that Vienna was "the largest cemetery of fantasies and ideas" where "a thousand times more geniuses decayed, shrivelled up and were annihilated than ever emerged" - yet the Freuds, Wittgensteins and Klimts could never bring themselves to leave voluntarily.
Today, Vienna retains much of its superficial charm. But the sadness remains, albeit in a different way overall to how the great minds of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries experienced it. When the political and economic pressures of the interwar years culminated in the "rump state" of Austria semi-voluntarily submitting to union with the Third Reich in 1938, Vienna was sterilised culturally, giving the conservative establishment got what it always wanted. Principle and identity were, perhaps understandably in certain respects, traded for economic gain. Besides, the Austrians concluded, they were German really - and even though the Nazis were 'Piefke' (Prussian), it was easy for the party to reach out across the political spectrum and offer consolatory trinkets to socialists, conservatives and nationalists alike.
Many Viennese writers - especially exiled Jews - have written nostalgically of the city that was lost. When the Nazis annexed Austria, within months Vienna lost ten percent of its population, as Jews fled the country or embarked on a nightmare that led from the brutal pogroms that accompanied the annexation to the industrialised slaughter that found its apotheosis the gas chambers. Political dissidents and undesirables suffered the same fate. The forces that had shaped the Viennese identity over the century were eradicated. Ever since then, the journalist Thomas Weyr wrote, Vienna has been a setting pearl. In emerging from the war and grasping the scale of its destruction, the Viennese have reified the culture that themselves were complicit in the annihilation of. Although Nazism never sat comfortably with the Viennese after the initial giddiness that saw over 99% of the population vote "ja!" to annexation, they have never fully come to terms with their role in the holocaust that changed their city forever. It is a subject that, due to a combination of guilt and indignance, many still dare not broach. They are a product of "Waldheim's Vienna", the Vienna that snapped angrily over accusations in 1986 that its president, Kurt Waldheim, had known of mass killings whilst serving in Yugoslavia during the war; the Vienna that sweeps the unsavoury side of its past under the carpet, into its collective subconscious.
Following the war, the worry was that Vienna was becoming a provincial capital. The reification of the past, and the tourism that accompanies it, has seen Vienna become a city looking longingly backward rather than fearfully forwards. The first district, in particular, is a museum housing many museums. The restoration of the culture is warm and loving. Few cities surpass Vienna in terms of the sheer eclecticism of the culture available. But as the past is obsessively rendered, and Europe evolves, that underlying sense of decay is omnipresent. In 'The World According to Garp', John Irving - who lived in Vienna - explains through the medium of his alter-ego Garp, "A more real city might not have suited me so well. But Vienna was in its death phase; it lay still and let me look at it, and think about it, and look again. In a living city, I could never have noticed so much. Living cities don't hold still".
This is the tragic magic of Vienna, and what makes it such a compelling place to visit. To some extent, the pace of its decay has been mitigated by the disintegration of the USSR, and Austria's entry into the European Union, the structure of which retains an unmistakable continuity with the old empire. The opening up of the country's borders, and the dominance of its banking sector in the eastern bloc, has re-established Vienna as a gateway city, even if its political importance remains diminished. The inflow of immigrants from the old empire and beyond has proven controversial, and bred right-wing populism before it emerged in coherent forms elsewhere in Europe. Turkey remains a spectre which summons Ottoman demons from the deepest reaches of the Viennese psyche: "There have been two Turkish floods," a local told me, referring to the Ottoman sieges in 1529 and 1683; "Now we have the third flood," he muttered.
Perhaps an underlying conservatism is the inevitable result of being a city situated at a crossing point. Vienna has not changed in this sense. And the culture that one experiences on visiting is an idealised (and often commoditised) picture of the world that the Viennese are frightened of losing. It's undeniably seductive, and it's impossible not to miss it when away. Few things beat sitting in a coffeehouse with a newspaper whilst absorbing the surrounding buzz and exchanging barbs with the waiters in the local dialect. Gloomy jazz clubs evoke their own ethereal, fin-de-siecle atmosphere. Elsewhere, the taverns - 'Heurigen' - are the final destination (and ultimate incentive) of a lazy Sunday afternoon summer sojourn into the outer reaches of the city. The Saturday flea market - full of eccentrics - where rifling through vintage trinkets (likely belonging to the dead, knowing Vienna) with a mouth full of kebab is a staple guilty pleasure. Ambles through the innumerable variety of municipal parks; the imperial buildings converted into galleries; the unique socialist apartment complexes - it's a place where chewing the fat is a local pastime.
Despite its tangle of complexities, the city also has an undeniable purity and this consists in its immediate proximity to nature. Although it is a metropolis, one can stand in one of the industrial districts and glance the northern backdrop of the hills. The Danube, though hardly blue, is never far away, the old segment in particular now an oxbow lake in which one can take a dip in the summer. In his 1941 memoir 'The World of Yesterday', Stefan Zweig encapsulates the dynamic between nature and civilisation perfectly: "One hardly sensed where nature began and where the city: one melted into the other without opposition, without contradiction. Within, however, one felt that the city had grown like a tree that adds ring upon ring, and instead of the old fortification walls the Ringstrasse encircled the treasured core with its splendid houses". My cousin, remembering the seasonal floods which came within a few hundred yards of her childhood apartment, said that she dreamed that the river would consume the whole district, and it would be like living in (an industrial) Venice.
Perhaps it is the nostalgia that saturates Vienna which makes it a place of introspection more than anything else. This is partly because it's easy to feel like an outsider. Whether or not one is a native, there's a sense of friendly alienation. Although one enjoys Viennese comforts and ideas, there's an awareness of not quite belonging. The melancholy and "therapeutic nihilism" invoked are in themselves guilty pleasures; at once unpleasant and somehow gratifying. It's easy, whether with people or without, to drift into a reverie, reminiscing on the past and analysing it silently.
But for all of its contradictions and idiosyncrasies, and the undying interplay between illusion and reality, the fact is that Vienna is a very easy place to live. It may have taken its obsession with the past to fetishised levels, allowing cities such as Berlin to overtake it in terms of 'cutting edge' potential, but this is a city which allows one to relish its small luxuries at the same time as being completely aware of its failings. Loath as I am to finish on a personal note, Vienna is a place with which I have a complicated relationship. But it's the relationship one has with a place that really defines it on a personal level. As a tourist destination, Vienna is uniformly described as beautiful, elegant and laid back despite an aura of order. But the sheer depth of its character is taken for granted, even if the pearl has set and the former imperial capital's death knell has sounded for the umpteenth time.
Vienna, Austria and the Past -- recommended English-language reading (list by yours truly):
A Xenophobe's Guide to the Viennese: How to Masquerade (Badly) as a Native
- Disdain the provincialism of the rest of the country - but go there on holiday.
- Maintain that you speak High German: "i' spreccch a' Hoch Daaatsch!"
- Maintain a healthy scepticism of anything new or popular.
- Laugh with one eye; cry with the other.
- Give yourself a title and address everyone else by theirs, e.g. "Herr Doktor", "Herr Professor", "Herr Kellner".
- Put a negative (i.e. realistic) spin on everything: e.g. if someone comments on the wind that has cleared the humid summer air, point out that it's knocked the heads off the roses.
- Get a dog and let it crap liberally in public spaces - don't clean it up.
- Complain but take no action - you do it because it makes you feel better.
- Never venture east of the Danube - even though your ancestors were probably Czech.
- Don't praise anyone - unless they're dead.
- Erase any knowledge of 'The Sound of Music' - you don't know what it is but for some reason foreigners keep raising it.
- Learn to gossip.
- Never let your expectations get too high.
It's hard to believe that Tom Hardy and Michael Peterson - alias Charles Bronson - became good friends. Peterson as Hardy portrays him has next to no redeeming features; Britain's most famous prisoner is a psychopath through and through, a man whose ostensible charisma is simply a ploy to justify his irrepressible desire to inflict violence on others. In 'Bronson', Peterson is manipulative but not intelligent; engaging but not likable - a pure but blind force of nature. When he smirks capriciously, there's nothing behind his eyes.
Although 'Bronson' is a biopic, Nicholas Winding Refn consciously channels the spirit of 'A Clockwork Orange', and, telling the story as a stream of consciousness through Peterson's mind, injects it with speed. Surrealism is interwoven and at times blended with the events of Peterson's life, which he narrates both to a passive audience and directly to the viewer. He fancies himself a born performer, and the audience dutifully clap at his skits and gags. This is, after all, Peterson's hour, just as his whole life has been his hour. The key people in his life - his parents, his ex-wife, his child, his lover, his boxing manager, his art teacher - are really just incidental to him, props on the stage. Indeed, it's unclear if some of them even exist as he portrays them.
It's an uncompromising vision of how a psychopath sees the world, the cinematography stark and the soundtrack compulsive. "Nihilistic" and "godless", Peterson feels he can make the world bend to his raw will. But his will has no direction; it's simply manifest of his desire to perform, and his proneness to boredom - and the film implies that this is the reason why his incarceration extended from seven to thirty-four years.
-- Originally published by yours truly on Amazon in September 2012 under the alias 'M. Wenzl'
Jonathan Glover's 'Humanity' was a book ten years in the writing - and it's an impressive achievement; Glover luridly catalogues the twentieth century's worst atrocities in a hefty but accessible volume: My Lai, Cambodia, Hiroshima, Bosnia, Stalinism, Nazism; they're all there in sordid detail. Through differentiating between atrocities, he hopes to delineate the various factors which drive 'normal' human beings to forsake morality and maim their fellow man. All of it consists in psychology -- and as such Glover points to the enormous psychological pressure exerted by tribalism, belief systems based on fear, belief systems based on tribalism and fear, as well as the achievement of industrialised combat in widening and blurring the distance between the agent and their victim(s). Moreover, he points to Nietzsche's hopeful prediction that society will move beyond the Judaeo-Christian paradigm of good and evil that so constrains the creative potential of individuals, and so arrive at an ethic free of morality.
A common criticism of this commendable project has been to point to the sheer scale of the catalogue, which, relative to the size of the book, can sometimes make Glover's analyses seem superficial. Up to a point this is true: Glover generally prioritises description over analysis, and as such undermines the consistency of his argument. Often, it appears as though he uses accounts of atrocities simply for shock value, when it would have perhaps been more appropriate to deepen his analyses. However, some critics have overlooked the fact that Glover's stated aim is "to give ethics an empirical dimension" by using "ethics to pose questions to history" and using "history to give a picture of the parts of human potentiality which are relevant to ethics". In other words, Glover is trying to identify what general trends within twentieth century history are applicable to ethics, and in this he is certainly successful. Granted, his analyses can be insubstantial, but the idea is to give a general picture to stimulate debate more than anything else.
If anything, 'Humanity' would have benefitted from a little more clarity. Glover singles out Nietzsche as an ostensible inciter, pointing accusingly at the more grotesque features of Nietzschean thought as a foundation for what was to come. This holds true, similarly, for his brief assessment of Karl Marx. The easy response to this is to argue that Glover is trivialising his material, Nietzsche and Marx artisans of sophisticated, groundbreaking works that are far more elaborate and humane than Glover gives them credit for. But this isn't the point: what it seems to me that Glover is doing is formulating Nietzsche and Marx as they would have appeared to their shallow-minded, self-styled disciples, who plucked from context more incendiary passages and adapted them to their own ideologies.
More than anything, the book is a warning. Glover signposts twentieth century atrocities and identifies key trends so as to invite and invigorate debate. Perhaps 'Humanity' does prioritise shock value over analysis, but since human beings are only really moved by that which horrifies them, Glover succeeds in what he set out to do: to shock, to anger, but to also lay the foundations for the reader to rationalise and understand the dark side of human behaviour.
-- Originally published by yours truly on Amazon in February 2012 under the alias 'M. Wenzl' --
More than being a documentary about a prehistoric cave and its pristine art, Werner Herzog's 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams' is a philosophical treatise with this ancient time capsule as its case study - and what a case study it is.
In December 1994, a small band of explorers discovered a narrow shaft built into a cliff in southern France. Deep inside, they made out a tableaux of drawings submerged within the pitch dark, sketched onto the walls. These drawings are up to 32,000 years old, their astonishingly fresh condition preserved by a landfall which sealed what was originally a cave. Depicting horses, lions, goats, bison and human echoes, they are the oldest record of human art in the world.
Werner Herzog, ever audacious and inventive, secured the permission of the French government to enter the caves and film there. Herzog and his crew are among the mere dozens of scientists and historians to gain access to this delicate environment since 1994, and as they descend into its yawning depths it's as if they've entered a parallel universe, the silence of which is intoxicating.
What Herzog finds among the clusters of drawings, fossils and footprints is the innate artistic disposition of humans. The drawings, so intensely vivid, are evidence that this timeless disposition was just as sophisticated then as it is now, reflecting impressions of the circumstances and environments in which human beings found themselves at that point in time.
The film itself is a point in hand. Although these drawings seem to speak to us - not least on an emotional level - what they were intended to mean will remain a mystery; we can only use our imaginations to fill in the blanks and paint our own dreamscape. Or, as Herzog puts it, the people who frequented these caves were our doppelgangers. Over such an abyss of time, narrowed only by the refracted image we see through the porthole of the caves, all we have is the drawings to make the assumption that they were like us, living, dreaming and hoping.
This eerie reality is what makes 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams' so mysterious, haunting and elating. Herzog's decision to pad out his treatise with 3-D is a powerful complement to this, enhancing every contour and shadow. Similarly, his decision to illustrate his treatise with the backdrop of the caves is probably one of the most powerful ways in which his central argument has ever been made.
-- Originally published on http://agitatedair.wordpress.com/2012/02/ by yours truly in February 2012 --
Terra incognita: with the end of the nineteenth century, the consolidation of man's earthly discoveries rendered this expression obscure. New lands, uncharted territories, previously unknown, lay naked before the ravages of industry. Slowly, the world began to shrink; and the mystery behind the distant shores beyond the horizon lifted. Stories of the one-eyed, headless creatures in sub-Saharan Africa; Central American myths of the white gods across the ocean, in Spain; fears of Satan residing in the oily depths of the South Atlantic - the superstition and ignorance as regarded the unknown world dissipated. But history reveals that is in the nature of humanity, as a species with an insatiable hunger for knowledge, to seek out new unknowns. And so with its mastery of its immediate environment, the human eye turned to the heavens: space. Myths, beliefs, superstitions, stories - between which there are arguably only very slight distinctions - always correspond to the ideological structure of the societal epochs in which humanity finds itself. As regards the unknown, there is undeniable continuity between the beliefs of 'modern' and 'pre-modern' society. Literature reflects this; where before there was Swift, Defoe, Conrad and Shakespeare's Tempest, soon after there was Wells, Clarke and Asimov - and this is where from, I believe, science fiction emerged. It captured the public imagination, the wonder, the mystery and the fear. But the phenomena only really acquired importance during the Cold War, and the ensuing "space race". Different attitudes prevailed in the respective cultural thought of the 'imperialist' west and the Soviet east. The science fiction of this period reveals that, for the Soviets, the emphasis was on the philosophical, on the human - in other words, not what the discovery of other worlds does for humanity in terms of furthering itself, but rather what, to paraphrase Stanislaw Lem, other worlds tell humanity about itself, through the proverbial mirror they present to it. For the most part, Soviet science fiction sees communism in the mirror of space, these works serving merely as propaganda.
Indeed, the said philosophical principle is encapsulated best by Lem's masterpiece "Solaris", a book which in the context of the USSR is anomalous insofar that it conforms neither to ideology, nor to politics. It is timeless in this respect, transcendent of the time in which it was written. Since then, it has withstood two film adaptations, one Russian, the other American; the former by Andrei Tarkovsky, the latter by Steven Soderbergh; and while neither film is without merit, in neither case is complete justice done to the source material, its inner depths untouched. There is so much to be mined from this book, not just regarding the cosmos and man's fruitless attempts to understand it, but also questions concerning memory, personal identity, love, dreams - or, better put, the past.
Focusing on issues concerning the past in a novel dealing with the future of mankind may seem paradoxical in some respects; but this is what lends Solaris - on top of its many thematic layers - a haunting, poetic quality. It is the past of each individual which makes him vulnerable; and each scientist aboard the research station is lumbered with his own emotional baggage, submerged only by the mask that is his social persona. Beneath them is the titular planet's ocean; a rolling, swelling, restless infinity, glutinous, an inanimate dreamscape bathed in curious calm; but there is a feeling that it observes, that it probes. The scientists, in an effort to intellectually master this behemoth, meticulously record all observable phenomena (Lem takes great relish in the graphic, complex astrobiological descriptions), but to no avail: over the course of a century, they grapple with a plethora of proposed theories that might shed light on the nature of the planet's ocean, but their pace is that of a snail as one theory is replaced by another, the substitute only to be falsified at some later point. The inner workings of the planet are beyond human comprehension; and so science becomes increasingly redundant, human concepts unable to measure anything beyond appearances. And yet while they are unable to discover anything substantial about the planet, each scientist's subconscious, against his will, is locked in deep communication with it. There is something transcendent in the sentient ocean, something beyond physicality, and it lays bare to each scientist his past. Everything grinds to a halt; the head scientist, Gibarian, sends out a transmission begging for help, before killing himself; his friend, psychiatrist Kris Kelvin, is sent to investigate; but again, whatever scientific prowess he has is useless as a means to understanding the profound and disturbing occurrences aboard the station.
Soon, from the abscess of his past, his late wife materialises. Rheya has been dead for ten years, having committed suicide by lethal injection - but there she appears, a spectre, raised up from the platform of his dreams and assembled from the fragmented memories buried deep within Kelvin's subconscious. She is identical to the Rheya of Kelvin's past, and where he has aged, she has not. Rheya is the personification of Carl Jung's archetype of 'the shadow'; that is, a materialisation of the neglected aspects of Kelvin; the bitterness, the anger, the regret, the sadness. Since her death, her abstract has cast a presence over her widower's life, but now that abstract has taken on a material form. Curiously, she is indifferent to his environment, and to those around him: as said, she is his proverbial shadow.
At first, he wants to be rid of her; but slowly, as she is continually resurrected, he comes to accept and even become attached to this clone. But she isn't Rheya as she was; she is Rheya as Kelvin remembers her. Certain aspects about her are grotesquely enhanced, such as her emotional fragility, her depressive tendencies, perhaps even her beauty. This is one of the fascinating strands Lem raises within the book - that is, the unreliability of memory, and of our own perceptive faculties. The memory of someone immediate to us is an abstract, albeit cohesive whole. Should we, for whatever reason, become estranged from that immediate someone, over time that cohesive whole will break up into individual fragments. These fragments then grow distant from one another; continental drift provides an apt metaphor for the process. All we are ultimately left with is a residue of that person - individual memories, remembered character traits, but never a complete, rounded picture. Even the face of the person becomes flat and indistinct, as if it were submerged beneath water's translucent surface. Assemble these distorted, disproportionate fragments into a material whole, and we would be faced with something not unlike the phantom Solaris' ocean uses as a means to probing Kelvin.
What Lem especially appears to be showing, however, is that perceptions and memories of people are shaped almost entirely by the agent. We do not see them as they are; we see them as we want to see them. We do not - and cannot - love people entirely for themselves; we love them for what it is about them that fulfils certain aspects within us. And how we perceive, remember and interpret a person, be it positive or negative, somehow flatters our own vain image. To assemble a loved one in this way would leave us with a clone profoundly different from the original. Indeed, the clone would say more about our very selves than the loved one in question - and this is precisely what both puzzles and horrifies Kelvin and the scientists. At heart, the message of the novel - for me, at least - is this: how can humanity seek to understand other worlds when it scarcely understands, nor wishes to fully understand, its own inner self?
I mentioned Lem's belief that what humanity seeks are not other worlds, but mirrors, through which its own image can be flattered. In the alien world of Solaris, nothing human (nor even anything humanoid) is seen in the proverbial mirror: Kelvin's direct encounters with the planet are beyond our limited faculties. But keeping in mind our own limited understanding of our very selves, I believe there is something fundamentally human reflected in the mirror; namely, the scientists' inability to grasp this ocean reflects their same inability to grasp themselves. Our inner lives closely resemble the qualities captured by Lem's description of the ocean: infinite, probing, elusive; forever in flux. Neither can be understood purely through science, which is why in the novel humanity's attempts to make contact with the planet (on its own terms) are such dismal failures: it is rather like trying to jump on one's own shadow. Any sustained contact, imbued with any sense, is impossible - and the same more or less holds true in our relationship with the mind. It is beyond the limitations of our waking life.
Unfortunately, neither film adaptation has fully explored the vast expanse that is the novel. Philosophical ideas are traded off for admittedly rich cinematic gains: the Tarkovsky version, in particular, often resembles a painting, austere and graceful; and in both films the unsettling atmosphere of the novel - the loneliness and isolation - is evocatively realised. But the films highlight how cinema is limited in the extent to which it can fully do a story such as this justice. Indeed, Lem himself described both versions as essentially a "Love Story in Outer Space", both Tarkovsky and Soderbergh neglecting the opportunity to capitalise on this epic dreamscape of a setting. In the novel, the ocean is as much a character as Kelvin, Rheya and the scientists, whereas in the films it is more of an ominous stage. This doesn't undermine the artistic merit of Tarkovsky and Soderbergh's respective efforts; but it does highlight the unfortunate reality that they failed to replicate the novel's depth and complexity. As far as I'm concerned, this is a missed opportunity, as the novel transformed the way in which I view man's relationship with the cosmos, and by inversion, himself. Other worlds would never be so simple as to harbour life similar to our own, and it is insane arrogance on the part of humanity to assume that we will find our own image, easily manipulated, beyond our own planet. And that which does resemble us will do so in a way that we cannot possibly understand, or even recognise.
Clichéd though the term may be, Solaris is in many ways an existentialist treatise. Just as Jean-Paul Sartre dismissed science as being able to capture the essence of the world, Lem seems to be of a similar disposition: the research station's library is filled to the brim with books, reports, recordings - it is a fountain of "knowledge". But this knowledge has proven useless in understanding the Solarian Ocean. In the Tarkovsky adaptation, there is a bust of Socrates in the library, calling to mind the infamous slogan "all I know is that I know nothing". The point is that human knowledge is superficial; we have accumulated so much of it, but it has only enabled us to understand the world insofar that it is an elaborate mechanism. But the transcendental part of our selves, the immediate "living", is evasive of categorisation; human knowledge, as manifested in science, cannot capture it. Our relationship with our own planet, our own history, is called into question.
Although Solaris is actually quite anomalous in the grand scheme of Soviet literature, it bears strong similarities insofar that it is saturated in an other worldly mysticism, a certain non-religious spiritualism. Much of the contemporary Soviet popular art fused space exploration with what appears to be religious iconography; the outlook of the East was undeniably philosophical. But in certain respects, as regards Lem, a writer operating out of this context, the idea is philosophically quite subversive. This is because Marxist dogma maintained that communism, as realised by socialism, would be human society perfected. It is originally a Hegelian idea, positing that the collective consciousness of society will, over the tumultuous course of history, veer ever closer to its own completion such that it is one with itself. Conflict, both literal and figurative, will root out the contradictions inherent in every respective stage of human history, and society will thus evolve, enlightened, purified. But if man is alone in the cosmos, alienated not only from his peers but additionally himself, his perceptive faculties defective, his thoughts and ideas farcical, how could 'perfection' be anything other than an absurd ideal?
Lem's outlook is cynical, something which is unusual for science fiction. Humanity, he claims, fights and will continue to fight a Sisyphean struggle in space; something which similarly holds true for our own inner struggle. This is in stark contrast to the themes pervasive of science fiction on the other side of the iron curtain. Stanley Kubrick's and Arthur C. Clarke's "2001: A Space Odyssey", for instance, is a Nietzschean celebration of the mythical apices to which technology has raised us, and how we may even reach such bounds that we become godlike. Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep?" - better known by cinephiles as Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" - examines how the definition of "personhood" may extend beyond humans to robots, and how this line might easily become blurred. Inherent in these two examples is a confidence in the brilliance of the human mind, and how, in terms of special advancement, it is an asset rather than an obstacle. Solaris takes the opposite view; the human mind is narrow, not only because of its flawed makeup, but because of the restrictive environment in which it has evolved. It can only find itself at odds with the enigma that is the wider universe.
This is what makes Lem's sober existentialist meditation so unique; few works of science fiction, be they Western or Soviet, are so profoundly pessimistic about the discovery of new worlds, and humanity's ability to adapt to them 'spiritually'. The final note, however, is not a sour one; Lem leaves us with Kelvin, who, freed from the planet's clutches but alienated from Earth, descends to its surface while the research team prepares to leave. Rheya is gone; he vainly tried to cling to her, to that crystallisation of his mind's residue, but as the clone came to terms with what she was, she had herself destroyed so as not to be a mutant, an instrument of the ocean's mysterious will - she loves Kelvin, after all. And so Kelvin, knowing he will never be the same, snakes through the remains of an old "mimoid" protruding from the ocean - it resembles, from above, an ancient Moroccan town. It is known that mimoids are formed by the accumulation of and the friction between the crawling, glutinous waves, and that their formation is prompted by the passing of a cloud. Their function, it seems, is to process and imitate, within its textures, external objects. But this one has since died, and so Kelvin sits at its shore, gazing out to the horizon, contemplating the infinity stretching out before him: despite his endless studies of this elusive but omnipresent ocean, he has never been in such close proximity to it. He sinks his hand into it, and soon, quietly, a wave envelops his hand in an air-tight glove, as if to mimic its form, before washing away. Suddenly, through this innocuous moment, he is face-to-face with this invisible intelligence. He does not try to understand or 'know' it; he simply yields to the silent yet indelible presence of that which is beyond him. And he is changed by this.
History is the mirror which mankind holds up to itself, reflective of an oft undesirable image. It is epiphenomenal, a shadow of past doings, ignored all too often. Karl Marx described human history prior to the advent of socialism as "prehistory": true history doesn't begin until humanity has been emancipated from itself. In the case of Riga, and indeed, Latvia in general, prehistory is the ugly Soviet past that grins back at it through the mirror, and so since their 1991 rebirth, they have simmered with an insatiable urge to re-establish their culture, to preserve and nurture their national identity. It is, after all, a heritage interwoven with rich cultural influences from east and west, as well as north. Riga itself speaks for much of Latvia; a melting pot of both culture and ethnicity, this is a city which is a treasure trove of diversity.
This diversity is inseparable from the character of Riga: to neglect it is to neglect the very foundations upon which the city evolved. Situated along the Daugava River - not far from the mouth of this sprawling giant - Riga always drew in trade, even before its official establishment by the Teutonic Order in 1201. Amber, fur, timber; precious resources, ample even today, attracted merchants from all over Europe. The city, soon a member of the Hanseatic League, became a bustling hub of commerce, an industrial centre, which was once bigger than Stockholm, the popular former president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga proudly pointed out. Indeed, from 1923 to 1939 my own great-grandfather ran a saw-mill exporting timber to England, one of many foreign businessmen operating out of the Baltic centre. However, the aggressive expansion of foreign powers was inevitable, Riga flitting back and forth over the centuries between warring empires: Poland, Sweden, Tsarist Russia; forever a desirable target. The hallmarks of occupation characterise Riga's architecture and atmosphere in general, and this was no more pronounced than when the Soviets seized the city in 1940, and again in 1944, following a short but scarring Nazi tenure.
Latvia - for which Riga speaks, with some half of the country's population living in and around it - was horrifically maimed by both world wars. Where its prosperity peaked in the 20th century, the independence tasted in 1918 was snatched away in 1940, the country hurled into a cultural vacuum from which it would not emerge until 1991. This sad fact haunts Latvia, still somewhat bleary-eyed from its forced slumber, in spite of entry into the EU in 2004. There is a general feeling that Latvians had their history taken from them, and since nationalism is something of a recent discovery for the country, they have a strong if sensitive national identity. Maybe it's this which makes Latvians a very reserved people, indisposed toward anything beyond which basic social graces require. They are austere, serious, polite; readily distinguishable from their Russian other half - relatively tall, fair-skinned, either very blonde or very dark, a salad of Scandinavian, Polish and Germanic genes: quintessentially Baltic, perhaps. They are notoriously entrepreneurial, and it is with this skill that they are rebuilding themselves, with Riga at the forefront of proceedings.
Privatisation, particularly in the guise of small businesses (growing like roses out of a field of wilting nettles), has contributed enormously to the economy. Although seriously undermined during the financial crisis, generally speaking annual revenue is on a steady rise, Riga accounting for half of it with its plethora of history, culture and nightlife. In central Riga there is an indelible buzz on the streets, this part of town modernising fast, but where this is an environment which is kind to budding entrepreneurs, conversely it is cruel to the decrepit Soviet generation. I mentioned the 'Russian other half' - this substantial portion of the city populace (fifty-five percent, in fact) entered the country during the Soviet era, ushered in to man the factories and ethnically dilute the population. Today they are distinctly separate from the Latvians, those born before 1991 being refused citizenship. For the most part they get by, but skulking at the fringes of society, neglected and destitute, is a subculture of elderly Russians. Poverty-stricken, many roam the streets, be they alcohol-ridden old men, or forlorn babushkas - social welfare is virtually non-existent, Latvian society caring little for these people. But then, this attitude accounts for much of what one encounters in Riga: loving nurturance and restoration on the one hand; cruel neglect on the other.
In the Old Town (Vecriga), the city's UNESCO showpiece, this dynamic is weighted towards the former. Vast sums of money have been invested into this labyrinth of beautifully restored buildings, relics to what Latvia was in its pre-Russian days: a mercantile haven, its maritime roots betrayed by the seagulls which angle over the towering church spires and densely packed red roofs. Despite inevitable commercialisation, and being something of a museum, it feels authentic, especially in the summer when life spills out into the cobbled streets. And there are many museums within the museum, dedicated to their Armed Forces, Latvian History, and the periods of occupation, to name a few. Majestic Lutheran cathedrals pierce the sky, high above the low-rise medieval roofs. Along the streets and in the squares are restaurants, cafes, bars, shops, buskers, stalls, the nerves of the centre where the buildings are the heart. But working from here from the inside out, progressively more dilapidated buildings are to be found, purposefully neglected by the Soviets and as of yet ignored by the Latvians. Outside of the opulent centre, in the surrounding working class, generally Russian districts said flip-side to Riga is to be found. This becomes especially striking the further out one goes, culminating in communities which are little more than shanty towns, overgrown and forgotten. I mention this not to draw away from Riga; indeed, while one hopes that social welfare will improve, the juxtaposition is morbidly fascinating, melding together in what is at the very least a unique cityscape.
It's all easy to see from the city's several vantage points: the jet-setting Skyline Bar atop the Hotel Reval; the tower of Saint Peter's Basilica in Old Town; the observation deck from the Academy of Science, "Stalin's Birthday Cake"; the multi-faceted city sprawls beneath. That said, the main points of interest are within walking distance of each other, and as long as there is a map to hand, the city is easy to navigate. The 'main points of interest' shouldn't be misinterpreted as being confined to the Old Town - Vecriga is just one slice of the cake. Riga is a slow-burn experience: on first glance, especially now since it's modern, comparisons with other eastern and central European cities are easy to make, but don't be deceived because there is much that unfolds in the days spent there. In order to spread the net and see this, I would forcibly recommend that hotel accommodation be found in the 'new' town, around the region of the central train station. Here, to the south-west, beyond the canal snaking through Kronvalda Park, is the Old Town, and beyond that, the Daugava. To the south is a palpably old Soviet area, home to the heaving Central Market, a gargantuan expanse of stalls housed under a hulking complex of five old zeppelin hangars, selling meats, cheeses, fish, trinkets and (unusual) clothes. Not far away is "Stalin's Birthday Cake", the Academy of Science, one of several Soviet Empire State replicas that were erected across the communist world. Then, to the north there is the Esplanade Park, the location of the ostentatious Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which, from all points in the city looms in the distance, obscured by trees, like some glowing mirage straight out of Kublai Khan's Xanadu. The area is full of high-end bars and clubs, representative of the jet-setting side of Riga's international culture, none of which are particularly memorable apart from the fantastic Skyline Bar, perched atop the twenty-sixth floor of the Hotel Reval. Nearby is the National Gallery, home to classic Latvian art, notably that of Janis Rozenthals.
Rozenthals himself didn't live far away, namely in the northern Art Nouveau district, which, hyperbole aside, is simply astonishing. The late 19th and early 20th century saw Riga cloak itself deliriously in Art Nouveau architecture, some seven-hundred and fifty apartment buildings, ethereal, fantastical and haunting, designed by the flourishing artistic community, which included Mikhail Eisenstein, father to Sergei 'Battleship Potemkin'. Faces, from stoic medusas, to inanimate robots, to snarling goblins; figures, from fist-tailed lions, to watchful griffins, to the enigmatic characters of Greek myth; the buildings - distributed eclectically across the city but at their most concentrated in the district itself - are covered from head to toe in these timeless designs. They are like people, each structure with its own distinct identity and motifs, some mythical, others futuristic, or even a combination of the two. Not even Soviet times, which saw communal living in the apartments, could sterilise the mystical atmosphere enshrouding these buildings. Suffice to say, a leisurely stroll through here is warranted, albeit whilst gazing upward. The famous philosopher Isaiah Berlin spent much of his childhood here, whilst Janis Rozenthals lived here with his family until his death in 1916. His two-floored apartment, at the very top of a psychedelic, swirling spiral staircase is now a low-key museum, and it brims with memory, much of it untouched.
That quality of being untouched applies, similarly, to Riga in general, at least to some extent. Because it has yet to find its feet, the city is free of a lot of Western baggage - MacDonald's is the only really prominent feature in this respect. Indeed, commercialisation has occurred very much from within, since local chains take precedence: Double Coffee, Steiku restaurants and Rimi supermarkets are major players, albeit of little interest. Be that as it may, privatisation is the spine of prosperity in Latvia - that which is nationalised tends to be of poor quality. Post-Soviet restoration has occurred from the inside-out, with the focus still on the former. Infrastructure is poor: there are practically no motorways, and if the train seems like a viable alternative, it's worth nothing that Latvia home to what is officially the worst train system in Europe - everything takes twice as long; just leaving the country this way requires at least five changes . Riga, mercifully, stands on its own two feet. This is in stark contrast to, say, Lithuania, where the national infrastructure is considerably more developed but the cities have far less invested in them: Latvia, it's safe to say, is 'Riga-centric'.
Tourism, in this respect, is the prosperous future's oxygen, but without ever being particularly overbearing in anywhere other than the Old Town. That said, trendy bars and bistros are aplenty, the greater city skimming healthy profits from the debaucherous business that is the stag do. In general, the finer locales do require seeking out - restaurants especially - which isn't always easy. Latvians may have a strong sense of identity, but not of their cuisine. The old peasantry were sustained through the long winters by warming dishes, so until recently there was a prevailing apathy toward food. Pork, herring, salmon and potatoes are probably the traditional fare, but the simple nature of the Latvian kitchen is obscured if not eclipsed by the international cuisine which is steadily finding its way onto menus. The best restaurants are, perhaps obviously, those which are recommended, but even then their quality can seem ambiguous since most restaurants are empty in the evening, lunch being the prime time to eat. At heart, Latvia isn't a place geared toward gastronomy, rather towards beer, chocolate, and black balsam, the local spirit. This dark brown, syrupy concoction, made up of "herbs, flowers and medicinal roots", is best enjoyed in the many variations of cocktails in which it appears, and is something of a national trademark.
This sort of thing is all a part of the phenomenon that is 'neo-Latvia', wherein the capital markets itself to the world, as if to modestly say 'I'm here'. Riga is a city in the process of its late adolescence as it were, developed, but with much to still discover about itself, a fact currently obscured by the speed of its growth. The sad reality, however, is that in the grand scheme of things, that strong sense of national identity, that frenzied attempt to preserve the historic gene pool, will probably die out in the coming decades. Perhaps the most apt metaphor is this: the country and its capital resemble Fitzgerald's Benjamin Button - they've ended up aging backwards. To see this quietly haunting place, at once growing and decaying, with its blend of quaint medievalism, prehistoric Soviet relics, organic modernism and neo-nationalism is a unique experience unlikely to be felt anywhere else in Europe.
Translating a literary masterwork into cinema is always going to be taboo, and this could not be truer with Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita". Though maligned on its 1955 release for its paedophilic subtext, the wicked humour, the sensual tenderness of the prose, and the astonishing linguistic acrobatics is arguably unmatched by any other work of literature. Every word, every sentence, truly lives and breathes. Cliché though it may sound, the book is a cake of many layers, flawless in design. Adrian Lyne's 1998 adaptation was inevitably going to lose several of these layers; such is the sorry (and oft told) story of cinematic adaptations. But this doesn't matter. Where Stanley Kubrick captured Lolita's black humour in his 1961 classic, Lyne drew out the sensuality and the poetry, translating this to screen with a sensitive hand.
What we are left with is a simple, if unsettling, love story between Humbert Humbert (Jeremy Irons) and Dolores "Lolita" Haze (Dominique Swain). Deeply scarred by the premature loss of his adolescent love, in mind he is still fourteen: self-conscious, lumbering, repressed and scheming, he lives for the pubescent "nymphets" about him. He wanders the world, a lost soul, dreaming of satisfying his sinister carnal appetites while keeping up appearances in a conservative society. When in America, he discovers the fourteen-year-old Lolita, and he is immediately smitten. She, too, is self-conscious, lumbering and scheming (albeit not repressed), as well as obnoxious and selfish, but in Lolita Humbert believes himself to have found his Venus. But her mother, his landlady, Charlotte Haze (Glenn Close) is the key in his staying close to Lolita - but Mrs Haze fast takes a liking to this mysterious lodger. The story is perhaps deliberately soap opera, but it is deeply resonant. Irons and Swain restlessly interact in a brilliantly mismatched way, and although their respective characters doom the relationship, paradoxically there is something touching about their twisted dependence on one another. Relationships being what they are, an act of balancing, this progressive imbalance becomes more and more pronounced as they take to the road, and head into middle America.
It's undeniably a sympathetic, romanticised portrait, saturated with nostalgia, but it's an unflinching one too. There is a deeply sinister undercurrent to the film, and the way in which Lyne and Swain bring Lolita to life prompts in the viewer that same sense of wrongness in the viewer that Humbert experiences. She is sensual, fawnlike, teetering on the brink of womanhood but possessed of a fast dwindling innocence, and as the camera rests indulgently on her, the viewer is forced to be a voyeur, complicit in Humbert's crime. Somehow, we understand his predicament. We see that he is a product of unfortunate circumstance, a man, who, despite being blinded by his lust, cares more for Lolita than her own mother. For him at least, there is more to the affair than pure sex, and we see how this is true in encountering Humbert's dark counterpart, the lecherous Quilty (Frank Langella). The world that Humbert traverses is heartless, kept in check by the sickly sheen of decorum which insulates its rotten insides from full exposure. For all of his imperfections, Humbert is the twisted heart of this heartless world.
This remains faithful to the book, and the scenes often follow their original source word-for-word. The images are identical to those Freudian ones conjured by the imagination when reading the book, but there's something missing. The repressive summer humidity is there; the longing sweat; the grossly manufactured lawns, watered by sprinklers; the parasitic gnats and the barren desert; every little visual detail. But where in the original prose the words conveyed both an image and a thought simultaneously, Lyne can't get this across. The scenes may match, but they're a superficial portrayal of what lies beneath. The Humbert here isn't the same acerbic, unreliable narrator - he's a repressed anti-hero (or better still, anti-villain). His sharp, hilarious analyses of those around him are sadly lost as a result of Lyne's purely visual style. But at the same time, while the film may seem thin to Nabokov loyalists, it is very much Lyne's own vision. He wants to generate a controversy unique to the film, and as said, it's unflinching and disturbing in a way that the novel is not. Maybe that misses the point, but it's irrelevant, because the vision ultimately conveyed is a moving one, formed out of impressive performances, a dreamy colour palate and an unusual Ennio Morricone soundtrack (one which is probably his most accomplished).
Glorify the plight of a paedophile the film may do, but it is as lucid as a dream, forcing the viewer to experience it and empathise with the twisted schemes of Humbert Humbert. It isn't about casting a judgement on paedophilia; it's about living it as Humbert, the hopeless romantic, would do.
Thomas Hobbes wrote that, in the state of nature, life for the individual is "nasty, brutish and short". The world is hostile to us - and so, out of rational self-interest, we form communities, recognising the need to work together. We are able to gather resources more efficiently, strength existing in numbers. But in the deadened, ashen landscape of the Road, the world is dead, nature sterile, producing nothing. In this post-apocalyptic world, long-term sustenance is impossible. The survivors are left only the scraps of civilisation; the future is a vacuum. Primal instincts rule; it is inevitable that in such circumstances any sense of community will fade, and we will eventually turn against each other.
But it is testament to human nature that we still try, albeit pitifully, to persevere, to survive, where all else has died. Life may be nasty, brutish and short, but the Man (Viggo Mortensen) will still try to raise the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), which is reflective perhaps of an instinctive optimism peculiar to our species. That said, few others display such optimism, since many survivors, devastated by the futility of their predicament, have ended it. Death may be uncertain, but perhaps a leap of faith is prudent, given how death cannot be more uncertain than the physical world itself. Not even God has survived, assuming He ever lived. But death, an old man (Robert Duvall) says, is a luxury, and "it is foolish to ask for luxuries in times like these". Reality is the road, in all its aimless nihilism - and John Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's vision is undoubtedly nihilistic in its outlook.
Our ultimate fate is sealed, our continued presence in these skeletal remains epiphenomenal. Bleak though this may be, Hillcoat and McCarthy are saying something about our basic nature: even in our death throes, we remain endlessly creative. This is what distinguishes us from the blind activity of animals, the fact that we are keenly aware of our social existence. Even in apocalypse, we will try to rebuild, the relationship between the Man and the Boy personifying this grim determination of ours. Where others resort to cannibalism, their survivalism mindless, the Man and the Boy try to erect a jenga tower from the remains of what they once knew. It is a process that only protracts their pain, pointless and non-rational, but it speaks of the resourcefulness which our species has developed, and will exercise even in the worst of times. Epiphenomenal though the process may be, there is something reassuring about this - and it anchors the film where it would otherwise be soulless.
In many ways, though, there is no complex philosophical message at heart here. What is commendable about Hillcoat's film is that it doesn't preach or pry about the events; they simply are. What the film realises is a world so desolate it is almost beautiful, poetic in its ugliness. There is no romantic sheen, nor any omniscient narrator giving us the bigger picture. The scale of the disaster is beyond our limited perception and understanding - it doesn't matter what happened. What cripples us now isn't whatever apocalyptic scenario befell us, but the future, and our very selves. And this is what makes the Road so chilling. Hillcoat refuses to compromise McCarthy's vision for the sake of clarity. It remains up to the viewer as much as the characters to piece together roughly what transpired. Dialogue is sparse; it is from the little that we hear and see that we form our own sketch.
But what happened, exactly, isn't what matters. The message of the film transcends the need to know. Rather, what becomes apparent is that, no matter how much humanity shapes technology and manipulates nature such that its hostility is placated, the fact still remains that it's impossible to be certain about the future. Tomorrow, the sun may not rise, even though experience has taught us that it probably will, since it always has in the past. This is precisely what the Man teaches the Boy: tomorrow, either one of them may die, even though luck has been on their side up until that point. The fact is that the universe is constantly in flux, its very essence forever unpredictable - this is the only certainty, and it renders the world a limbo, though its evils are made by our own hand. It is only the latter that one can try to overcome.
Hillcoat captures this limbo - barren, washed-out, and grey - in vivid detail. It could be paralleled to the Land of Nod, sparsely populated with lone wanderers and nomads, a world straight out of the Old Testament. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' score draws out the wearied tragedy of the place, complementing said limbo with a haunting minimalism. This world is naked; it shivers. The void stretches out infinitely before it. But where the world has nothing, humanity still has something. The Man has the Boy, and the Boy the Man. Mortensen, malnourished and pasty, assumes flawlessly the stoical commitment of the Man; but it is his relationship with the Boy that it is pitch-perfect. Their survival is based on a mutual dependence, intimate and unfailing, as opposed to the stark self-interest and egoism so rampant among others - the Man and the Boy represent, perhaps, one of the last real communities on earth. The Man silently idolises the Boy as a god, an illusion sustained through the Boy's relative purity: this illusion serves to reinforce the Man's will to live.
Of course, the film is more a post-biblical parable than an apocalyptic prophecy resultant of humanity's evils. The only reason we are able to condemn the cannibals and the murderers is because the medium of the Man and the Boy retains an element of what we know. Otherwise, Hillcoat and McCarthy seem to be accepting that cannibalism is a natural and rational reaction to a cruel, doomed environment. Most of these people, have, after all, become animals. The ugly, cold truths portrayed in the Road may unsettle, but the brilliance of this story is that it is under no illusions about such scenarios. It strips the world down to its unforgiving core, casting away subjective anchors such as morality and religion, and seeing nature for what it is: unpredictable, mindless, and coreless. The most resourceful of us try to impose an order on it, and may, by chance, survive; but tomorrow the sun may not rise, and our progress will be rendered obsolete.
Note: Similarly obsolete is my star rating -- please take with a pinch of salt.
In the developed world, we have the good fortune of experiencing history only through stagnating relics of the past. In Cambodia, however, history lives and breathes, manifesting itself in everything, including the people. This tragic country, situated to the east of the Gulf of Thailand, is an interactive museum to its past. The Cambodian past belongs to the Khmer Empire, a civilisation that dominated and epitomised Indochina for six hundred years - roughly from 800 to 1431 A.D. Society was agrarian, agriculture the lifeblood of the empire, but the Khmer legacy was cemented by the architecture which even today defines the national spirit of Cambodia. Angkor Wat, the monolithic temple symbolising this prized past, takes pride of place on the Cambodian flag.
Indeed, Cambodians have much to be proud of given their roots, but while their ancestors very much made them, they inadvertently broke them. One may question how an empire so long gone could have such an impact on its descendents, though the answer is simple. The Khmer Empire may have been lost to the jungle for five hundred years, but following its rediscovery by the French, its frugal, agrarian legacy acquired a 'Marxist' interpretation by some political dissidents who would come to be known as the Khmer Rouge. Their leader, Saloth Sar (a.k.a. Pol Pot), sought to purify post-colonial Cambodia of all external influences such that the nation could 'restart', becoming an autarkic utopia. In what was then a modernising, moderate Cambodia these ideas found little sympathy, but things changed in 1969. Intending to stem North Vietnamese insurgency into the south, the Nixon administration laid waste to the border of neutral Cambodia, killing up to 600,000 peasants in a year long bombing campaign. Additionally, two million people were made homeless, and fled to the capital, Phnom Penh, in search of shelter only to find none. Bitterness mounted; the king, Sihanouk, was deposed of by the incompetent government, and fearing a loss of their national identity, the pro-monarchic Khmer Rouge found some support. By 1975, Pol Pot was able to seize power: the cities were subsequently evacuated, social undesirables (intellectuals, ethnic minorities, political enemies) rounded up, marking the advent of the 'Year Zero'.
Two million Cambodians (in a population of eight) had died by the time of the Vietnamese liberation/occupation in 1979. One million had starved or fallen ill, while a further million had been led under false pretence to execution in murder sites known as the killing fields. Despite the liberation, however, the civil strife continued until the convenient death of Pol Pot in 1998 and the official dissolution of the Khmer Rouge in 1999. But it's only now that Cambodians are in a position to administer justice for the missing generation, the remaining Khmer Rouge leaders not being captured until 2007. They are, proportionately speaking, responsible for one of the most destructive genocides in history, the architects of the mass depopulation of Cambodia.
Today, Cambodia is picking up where it left off. In the last fifteen years there has been a population boom, numbering the country at fourteen million people, fifty percent of whom are under sixteen. Those that remain of the elderly are an unusual sight, but although most Cambodians can't remember the genocide, if even the 1990s, the new 'Khmer' legacy breathes a cancerous atmosphere. Don't let this be misunderstood; Cambodia is a country rebuilding itself on tourism and the general vibe is optimistic, but the country very much resembles the thousands of maimed, limbless invalids who wander the streets trying to make a living. More than being the tourist haven that is Thailand, Cambodia is a living testament to the brutality of human nature, and they, as well as the west, are complicit in why Cambodia is as it is. Young, naïve Cambodians may have made up the Khmer Rouge, their vulnerability exploited so as to pressure them into oppressing and killing their parents, but America, sharing Vietnam as a mutual enemy, approved this genocidal regime. Likewise, China, endorsing any communist government, supported Pol Pot. Cambodia, more than anything, is a unique eye opener, a deeply touching and disturbing place which has much to offer. One needn't feel guilty about going, increasing tourism contributing to the huge economic boom that Cambodia is experiencing.
And so rich is Cambodia in history, culture and personality that its recent rediscovery as a tourist destination is understandable. With any luck, stability will only increase. My own trip took me to Siem Reap, home to Angkor, before I took a bus three hundred kilometres down a single highway to Phnom Penh, a ten dollar journey which took six hours. This, however, was just a glance into the heartland of Cambodia, allowing the experience of the old and the new capital, as well as the fertile, rural landscape which forms the nation's spine. There is more besides this; though mostly made up of rural plains, Cambodia has two mountain ranges, Dangrek lying to the north, with Cardamom to the east. But agrarian 'empires' came about here for a reason, since the landscape is fed by an endless supply of life-giving water. The mighty Mekong River, a leviathan meandering lazily through the lush landscape, gives and takes before vanishing into Vietnam in search of the ocean. It shares dominance with the native Tonlé Sap Lake, a shallow, freshwater basin which seasonally grows and shrinks across the floodplains, taking up some 25,000 square kilometres at its height. Floating fishing villages are dotted along its tributaries, whilst sailing out onto this ominous lake reveals no land on the horizon, only vast expanses of brown. The gargantuan reach of Tonlé Sap underlies all the major Cambodian provinces, and serves as a skeleton for the country's geography.
The country isn't big, its 181,000 kilometre area approximately the size of both England and Wales. Battambung, torn between Thailand and Cambodia, lies to the west of the Tonlé Sap, while Kampong Thum (the midway stop on the bus route) occupies one of the eastern tributaries. The only major town away from Tonlé Sap is Sihanoukville, Cambodia's main port and beach destination. Anywhere else untouched by the Tonlé Sap is less developed; the eastern provinces are completely rural, their only towns tiny. A northern most tributary extends to Siem Reap, a city which, given its relationship with Angkor, is probably the major tourist destination. Here is a modest town of largely unpaved roads, its palate a fusion of reds, oranges, browns and yellows, the development of the town riding very much on the coattails of the tourist trade, unlike Phnom Penh, for example. This is the town most in touch with its national identity, the atmosphere humbly optimistic, even though the destitution here can be quite severe. On the opposite of the spectrum, exclusive luxury hotels stand detached from the town, and indeed from reality. That said, besides Angkor, Siem Reap thrives on the catering and entertainment trades, the centre truly coming alive at night when weary tourists frequent the dozens of bars, clubs and restaurants. The clubs, alive with cheap but good quality alcohol (the local brew, Angkor, can be as little as fifty cents on draught), as well as a healthy mix of foreigners and locals, are a lot of fun and are the best way to experience the people. Modest, dry, hospitable and sociable, I find myself hard pressed to think of a people nicer than the Cambodians, who, especially for a developing country, are both easy and honest. Going to Cambodia and not mixing with the people would be an opportunity sorely missed as they're a chief factor in the country's appeal.
This isn't quite so much the case in Phnom Penh, a city situated on the southern most tributary of Tonlé Sap. Granted, the fact that it's a working city renders the locals somewhat reserved, but it's in the capital where memories of the genocide are most fresh. It festered following the evacuation, being left a post-colonial ghost town, inhabited only by 40,000 government administrators and soldiers, compared to the two million in 1975. Washed out by the grey of the Mekong, the capital is in stark contrast to Siem Reap, where, although it's more disorganised and the locals are more desperate, there appears to be more contentment. In Phnom Penh, the roads are better, infrastructure coming along (in some parts, the traffic lights are more advanced than in Europe), and the 'organisation' allows even many of the mine victims to make a living selling pirate DVDs. But the city is a time capsule, its numerous academic institutions curiously absent, and this feeling cannot be encapsulated more disturbingly than Tuol Sleng, the former high school utilised as the Khmer Rouge prison, S-21. Now a genocide museum, 20,000 prisoners passed through S-21 for interrogation and torture, each and every mug shot today in the facility. The killing field at Choung Ek (which today is also a genocide museum) would be their next stop. Fittingly, the latter was once a Chinese graveyard, and is the better known of the two museums, both of which are owned by the same French-Japanese company. Choung Ek, however, lying some fifteen kilometres outside of town, is oddly peaceful, the exhumation of eight thousand corpses somehow bringing it serenity. A glass stupa was erected - perhaps blasphemously given the revenue it generates - to house the eight thousand skulls. The blank-eyed skulls, their craniums cracked, are arranged by sex and age, a haunting sight but a powerful one that does justice to the victims. S-21 does no such justice. Though exhibited with the mug shots and, in one section of the prison, a comprehensive history, S-21 is untouched. Dried blood stains the tiled floors; bats loom silently; the same rusted iron beds and shackles are as the Vietnamese found them; and the same is true for the crude wooden and brick cells. Occupying floor two of building B, the wooden cells are sealed by now unlocked doors, and each one sways lazily in the stale air. Emerging then from the prison, numbed and drained, I came face to face with a beggar, holding out his hard cap, his face agelessly masked by disfigurement and mutilation. Everything around this place feels ghostly, S-21 the dark centre of Cambodia's modern history. The guides who are available to show the many tourists around aren't professionals; they're relatives and friends of the prisoners. History, Tuol Sleng and Chuong Ek tell us, is not to be a cycle.
It's difficult not to be affected by Phnom Penh. The educational value of the city, albeit bleak, is necessary and there are few other places where this education is so immediate: it extends beyond the genocide museums to the people themselves. Respite is possible. If you're feeling hypocritical, as we did (this being before seeing the museums, I hasten to add), there's a firing range on the outskirts, property of the Royal Cambodian Army. Financial inhibition is best dismissed here, magazines costing forty or fifty dollars, depending on the gun. Everywhere else is cheap, although don't underestimate the accumulative effect Cambodia can have on your wallet. In a typical family-run Khmer restaurant, it's possible to eat a substantial meal for about six dollars a head. For the three of us, three main courses and a starter, plus beer and water could come to as little as twenty dollars. Khmer cuisine itself is excellent, full of protein, blending Indian with Vietnamese, and, more recently, French. Fresh fish from the Tonlé Sap is barbequed or curried in a national dish called Amok, although beef is likewise plentiful. Wine, which, unusually for Asia, is popular, Khmer cellars filled with French Cabernets and Merlots. In bars, cocktail prices range between three and six dollars, depending on the venue and location. Phnom Penh on the riverside, for example, is full of elegant bars and bistros, but they are more expensive. A real blast from the past is the Foreign Correspondents Club, an atmospheric relic just as popular today as it was with the titular regulars then covering the effects of the bombings. Further into town it's generally cheaper, although be warned, the clubs in Phnom Penh aren't always safe, wealthy young Khmer, arrogant and aggressive, frequenting them. Accompanied by bodyguards and often armed with pistols, these unsavoury characters are best avoided. At night, it's not unusual to hear drunken gunfire in the distance.
As might be expected in a developing country, brutal petty crime can be an issue. The police are little more than gangsters themselves, their role to extort rather than assist. Because it's a working city, things are less intimate in Phnom Penh and as a general rule the people are more uptight, so when frequenting the streets caution is recommended. Motorcyclists are known to swoop by to snatch bags from gormless tourists so it's generally best to travel light. Road safety is also not of the highest standard, the main means of transport for most Cambodians being the motorbike. As a taxi driver quipped, some twenty percent of Cambodian drivers have licenses, the remaining eighty percent generally adolescent. Getting around is simple and cheap, but the roads are hectic, crammed with traffic and moreover, it's often questionable as to whether there is a specific side of the road to be driving on. For tourists trampling along in tuk-tuks, traffic is sometimes faced head-on, and on more neglected roads, potholes threaten to topple the vehicle. The corrupt Cambodian People's Party, their socialist government, are just about investing money into infrastructural improvement, but at the moment quality varies wildly.
Aside from the blue placards in the villages, government presence is minimal. The people sustain themselves, political philosophy inapplicable here, frugal survivalism the accepted way of life for Cambodians. Tourists will find themselves haggling for anything, be it a souvenir or a bottle of water. The children, who are most prevalent outside of Phnom Penh, pester tourists with photocopied history books, Lonely Planet guides, postcards, baguettes or, failing that, with their tenacious personalities. Amusing and warm as they are, they are professionals capitalising on their inherent charm, although their intentions are genuine. They're desperate to fund their educations (and are much better informed than many westerners), so buying is by no means naïve, but do expect to be accosted by others if you buy from or give alms to one. Hotspots for peddlers are around popular sites, Angkor Wat in particular, and it is to Cambodia's national symbol that I come to next.
Built over a thirty-seven year period, Angkor Wat was completed in 1150 A.D and marks the pinnacle of imperial Khmer power and excellence. It was built as a shrine to the Hindu God Vishnu, Cambodia itself a melting pot of religions, made up of Hindus, Cham Muslims and Buddhists, of whom the latter make up the official religion today (jovial, orange-robed monks hit the streets in the afternoon). The Khmer Empire was not a literary one, but its history is engraved in the epic murals that define Angkor Wat. The temple itself was intended as a symbolic piece of art, the five domes representing the five peaks of Mount Meru, home to the Hindu Gods, and the surrounding moat representative of the oceans. Any of the freelance tour guides will explain this and more, though Angkor Wat is just the centre of Angkor itself. There are more temples, most of which are being restored, but the most impressive is one thrown further back into the jungle; Ta Prohm. Unlike the others, Ta Prohm's restoration has been largely withheld so as to maintain the authenticity of the place. Possibly the most mystical and enigmatic of the temples, Ta Prohm really is world class, and, famously, was a filming location for Tomb Raider. A trip to Cambodia is quite simply not complete without a day spent traversing Angkor. Yes, there are many tourists (Koreans and Japanese in particular), but Angkor provides a bigger picture for Cambodia. This ancient city is intimately intertwined with Khmer culture, the site full of locals, a rarity for tourist hotspots. The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, however, is the opposite of Angkor, its cold austerity alienating, Cambodians seeming to care less about it. Not only that, but what interest the palace holds comes at a high price (sixteen dollars per person). Angkor may be more expensive, but the twenty dollars one pays lasts a whole day, unlike the short-lived experience the palace offers. Moreover, three day or weeklong packages are available for Angkor, which are the better value for money given the amount there is to see.
It's quick and easy to get to Angkor from Siem Reap, be it with taxi, tuk-tuk or alone by rented bike. Similarly, Cambodia is a relatively accessible country, its two international airports, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, modern, clean and organised. There are direct flights from Heathrow to both locations, although if you happen to be in Asia most budget airlines are a safe bet, Jetstar and Air Asia being the most popular. Return flights with said airlines shouldn't be more than two hundred pounds, while direct flights from Heathrow are going to be six hundred pounds if booked early enough with, say, Singapore Airlines. On arrival, visas are bought at customs, and cost twenty dollars per person, or twenty-two if you don't have a spare passport picture. There is also an exit tax of twenty-five dollars. As is probably now obvious, Cambodia's chief currency is the American dollar, but they also have Riel, the king's currency, of which there are four thousand to a dollar. Riel is used as change, next to no one using it for any substantial purchase, but it's still a good idea to have some spare. Accommodation is of a decent standard, mid-range hotels modestly priced (thirty dollars for a room). But the cheapest options are the local guest houses, which are clean, homely and full of friendly staff. Without air-con, a room can be as little as eight dollars a night, but the humid climate may render shelling out a few extra dollars a necessity for some. The climate itself is more or less constant, hovering around thirty degrees Celsius. The coolest and most popular time of year is the December-January period, whereas the hottest is April-May, when the rain is scarce. We were there during the rainy season, where morning and midday are brutalised by the sun, but come the afternoon the clouds gather and the temperature cools considerably. Rain tends to follow, cleaning the air to drown the earth.
It doesn't differ from the rest of Asia in this sense. But, besides this, Cambodia is not one with the rest of the South-East. The unworldly atmosphere and the people are unlike anything I've witnessed before, the profundity of this tragic, touching country subject to circumstance. A melting pot of cultures; a developing country in every sense of the word; a living museum to human nature, Cambodia is a gem, the surface of which has only been scratched here. It assaults the senses, the sensibilities, the intellect and the emotions, the silent ghost of the past forever omnipresent.
The objective behind Public Enemies is to discard standard cinematic convention. In doing so, Michael Mann has, artistically speaking, legitimised the HD format and, through this, brought a cutting edge project to the fore. But where other auteurs are immersing audiences through developments in computer technology, Mann is going for something altogether simpler: reality. For this reason alone, Public Enemies is commendable in its artistic accomplishment, even if literarily it lacks. What has to be borne in mind more than anything is that this is an experimental picture, and where Mann may have failed to create a compelling story, he's overwhelmingly succeeded in creating a compelling, tangible world that extends beyond the screen.
That world is 1933 Chicago, a city lost in a country that is swathed in depression. Not only has the 1929 crash has tied lead weights to the economy, but the USA has not yet even found itself. The civil war is only sixty years young, the federal system decentralised and disorganised, and the government scarcely able to aid its starving citizens. Recognising the potential in the chaos, opportunists such as Clyde Barrow, Kate Barker and, in this case, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) seized the moment, running riot in a riotous system, murdering and robbing. But the general public were empathetic, disillusioned in the system, and as such these figures, the nonchalant Dillinger in particular, fast became national icons. It was subsequently recognised that policing would likewise have to exist on a national level, legal pioneers such as J. Edgar Hoover (played here by Billy Crudup) capitalising on this need to form an organised federal task force. Stability would be achieved through control. The first task was to eliminate said fugitives, Hoover assigning southern gentleman Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to secure this goal. What followed was a frantic, brutal manhunt for Dillinger and his oft sociopathic crew, and it is this that Mann chronicles in Public Enemies. The superficial theme is one typical of Mann; two men going up against each other, trying to understand their elusive counterpart, be they fugitive and g-man, master thief and cop, psychologist and psychopath, or journalist and informant. That said, Mann's films always go deeper, and Public Enemies is probably his most ambitious project yet, given the canvas upon which he paints. Where the civil war was the awkward adolescence, the 1930s was the final phase of early maturity.
Mann's ambition, however, is double-sided. The actual cinematic technique realised here is cutting edge. History being what it is, our conception of it is warm, sepia-tinged, and, like any yellowed, faded photograph, dreamlike and distant. Mann, with his controversial HD camera, strips this skin away to reveal a world as urgent and immediate as our own. And of course, Mann being Mann, detail is microscopic, the period vivid and stark. This is history in three-dimensions, and the way in which the camera so sensually evokes detail is tangible, be it a smoking Tommy gun, or soft spring drizzle. HD being what it is - namely shaky, sharp and slightly awkward - the shooting style is deliberately erratic, but it all adds to the reality. Shots aren't framed a la Kubrick; they glide restlessly, and what's caught on camera doesn't owe itself to cinematic trickery or ostentatious flourishes, purely because it's immediate, every last detail present with razor sharp precision. Indeed, the main asset of the film doesn't lie so much in its cinematography (even though Dante Spinotti is on the mark) but in its art direction; costumes, weapons, music, setting, Mann had it all prepared in advance. The camera simply catches it all. However, this dynamic, undeniably effective style isn't without problems. Granted, everything is real, but there is one thing amongst others that Mann has to relinquish: consistency. His use of sound, for instance, is (deliberately?) sloppy, tone and pitch wildly erratic in clarity. And although this raw style is a throwback to seventies cinema in some senses, Mann's meticulous polish makes it questionable as to whether this was deliberate or not. The immediacy is there, but not without cost.
The 'immediacy' element pulses throughout the film, in Dillinger specifically. The philosophy of his character is to "live for today, not for tomorrow", his lifestyle embroiled in and for the moment. There's no dwelling on the past or the future, and this really shows in how the film deals with its characters, who, despite the uniformly excellent performances, are more expendable instruments in Mann's vision. Supporting players glide in and out of the picture, the centre of consciousness more or less always Dillinger (if not, Purvis) about whom very little is known. This isn't a problem, but literarily speaking Mann falls desperately short in the sense that there is no understanding for the characters. Clearly, Depp, Bale, Mann, et al had perfect understanding of their characters, but this doesn't translate into the film. The "live for today" element is no excuse when one considers how Heat, for instance, employed a similar philosophy but was able to simultaneously evoke an understanding for the psyche of its characters. Public Enemies doesn't achieve this, this failing owing itself not so much to the quality of the writing as it does to Mann's decision to keep character interaction to a minimum. Besides Dillinger's relationship with Billie Frechette (Marion Collitard), which is also underdeveloped, the film is curiously unemotional, relationships simply there but with next to no elaboration.
More than anything, the film is about action in every sense of the word. Characters are explained through what they do, as opposed to what they say. As such, Mann is faced with a dilemma: either cut out the important but ultimately repetitive action sequences and build on character, or, as he has done, allow the film to be literarily uninteresting. No doubt, there is a lot of quality in the writing, but more thematically, Mann himself having cited its intellectual grounding. Most intriguingly, Mann, identifying the vast divide between rich and poor in America, draws in Marxist influences in the sense that no one should be tied to their roots; everyone should have the opportunity to modify themselves such that it doesn't matter where they come from. Dillinger epitomises this ideal, even effectively expressing it at one point, being just a farm boy who, through hard work, has made something of himself. Beyond this, however, Dillinger and the rest of the characters are given minimal attention. And although the film is complex, ultimately it does feel as though Mann and Depp fell into the trap of romanticising the plight of Dillinger somewhat, and mildly condemning that of the FBI. Their passion for the former undermines the overall historical approach.
For a historical film, this breach of neutrality doesn't feel wholly appropriate, but it's forgivable. As a period picture, it's flawless, the action sequences excessive but beautiful in their crafting. The film seems prepared to accept its limitations, the bulk of its material invested in the visceral, a type of storytelling that cannot be possibly expressed through any other medium. The purity of Mann's approach, how fresh and cutting it is, makes Public Enemies one of the most interesting films in quite sometime. As a cinematic achievement, it's probably a masterpiece, even if as a literary achievement it's sloppy. History, arguably, isn't explained, but it's undeniably realised as though it were the present.
Ninety percent of films are a mixture of story, character-development and of course, the imagery. Few directors are audacious enough to actually build a film that is completely perceptually dominated. Indeed, such films are pieces of art over anything else, which limits their appeal to a wide audience. This, however, was never any concern for David Lynch, who with Eraserhead has created a film that is as beautiful as it is strange, a film that speaks through warped imagery rather than dialogue and really excels in this more than any other film.
Henry (Jack Nance) lives in a derelict neighbourhood of decrepit buildings, its streets strewn with mounds of ash and coal. Industrial smog from the monolithic factories chokes the dreamscape, a place long vegetating in this monotonous limbo. From the opening frame, Lynch immerses the viewer in this horrifically bizarre, surreal world that is so difficult to comprehend. The nightmare is palpable but unrelenting. Within it, we follow Henry's life as he craves the girl next door, meets the eccentric parents of his melodramatic girlfriend; but all of this changes with the birth of Henry's child; a mutant baby. In many ways, it's pointless to describe the plot of the Eraserhead, as there essentially is no plot. It's simply a stream of consciousness from the mind of one man, an unrelenting and unflinching one, and one that pulls the viewer in as if they themselves have faded into the nightmare. This does not mean that Eraserhead is entertaining or enjoyable viewing; Lynch aims for the opposite. The film strives to appal with the hellishness of its understated imagery, disorienting and confusing the viewer, whilst keeping it well within our comprehension. And as it gradually lags on, it remains consistent in its weirdness until the credits roll.
Everything about Eraserhead is directorially and technically perfect. Lynch films it in black and white to add to the gloom, and uses audible silences, the eerie screams of industry and the moaning of the mutant baby to create an aura of intense mental breakdown. The viewer literally feels like they have been taken out of their comfortable world and thrown into this abyss of ugliness with Henry. Time does not lapse, it merely transpires. The future is a vast, bleak expanse of emptiness, whilst the past is forgotten in the monotony of each passing hour. One does not reflect, or look ahead; one simply lives in the moments with no ambitions or hopes. Henry's world feels futuristic yet historic, the frames looking like a warped expressionist creation in the vein of Fritz Lang and Luis Bunuel. The film is packed with such eccentricity, most famously in Henry's electric-shock haircut. David Lynch skillfully creates a sense that the bizarreness of the mind has been turned inside out, so that it is densely palpable. It's clearly a very personal project, apparently a reflection of Lynch's own anxieties at one point in his life.
But Eraserhead is also a director's wet dream. It's not about the acting, or the script; dialogue is particularly sparse, but this doesn't dampen the impact of the film. The lack of emphasis on character and dialogue allows the viewer to lose themselves in the imagery, much like a dream. Jack Nance's Henry (whom he plays with an unnerving edginess) is the main instrument, rather than character, and blends into the surroundings as another prop. Yet, as Eraserhead is such an immersive film, the viewer almost becomes Henry and as would happen in a dream, one has no control over their actions. Henry has to be one of the most fascinating people in film, as it is so easy to emphasise with him; a strange attachment is formed with a man whose personality and background are not known, unlike most film characters. But the underlying feature of Henry and Eraserhead itself, are that they are representative and symbolic of so many things that are relevant so long as the viewer can relate to it. This is the trademark of David Lynch; not explaining the weirdness in his films, simply allowing his work to linger in the mind like a disease as you try and think of interpretations that will cure it. Ultimately, however, there are no right or wrong interpretations. Eraserhead is where this kind of film started, influencing the likes of Stanley Kubrick, as well as becoming a favourite of many directors. It's a film that stands completely on its own, unique from the rest of Lynch's work, laying so many foundations. For a film that was made on a budget of roughly $3,000, it truly shows David Lynch's talent in that whilst watching it, none of it seems cheap (its budget never crossed my mind even though I knew it), and its taken to such ambitious levels its a miracle that Lynch pulled it off.
However, Eraserhead does not try to be more than it is. Like the majority of Lynch's work, Eraserhead isn't a film that would appeal to a wide audience ... at all. It's something for people who will appreciate the power of the art on screen, and it's dangerous to approach it without having a vague idea of what you're in for. Furthermore, for hardcore Lynch fans, Eraserhead is an obvious must-see, but where it particularly excels is how it's actually very much its own film. Lynchian films all have their links, but Eraserhead is a lone ranger, and as you watch it, whilst it bears heavy Lynch influence, my mindset was not that I was watching a Lynch film. I viewed it simply for what it was. The result of Eraserhead is staggering, a picture that is amazing in its purity, not to mention its audacity and sheer originality it commits to screen. While it draws out, the time watching it transpires rather than passes, and ninety quickly, leaving the viewer with a wide array of emotions that build up over the 90 minutes. That said, the one viewing is enough, as the purity of the experience can never be repeated. Like a dream, it should settle over the mind like a hazy cloud.
Best watched well after midnight, Eraserhead is film at its purest; an extreme acquired taste, but a work of genius that leaves the viewer feeling disturbed and haunted by the imagery and the dreams, and, while it may be hard to swallow, is ultimately quietly touching. If it can be appreciated for what it is -- as a work of art unique from Lynch's other films -- Eraserhead will amaze.
-- Originally published on Ciao as 'harlequin21', 2006 --
In September 1982, in the midst of the Lebanese Civil War, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) fought bitterly though the concrete jungle that was Beirut. Their objective: to root out the Palestinian insurgents who were responsible for the assassination of the short-lived Christian President, Bashir Gemayel - and, more generally, to curb (with extreme prejudice) the political expansion of Islam in the Near East. Soon, however, they were found "indirectly responsible" for the brutal liquidation of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, in which a disputed figure (between 300 and 3,500) Palestinian civilians were massacred in revenge killings by the Lebanese Christian militia. The massacre prompted fierce international outcry, but the backlash was minimal. Twenty-five years later, Ari Folman, realising that he had no palpable memory of his time in the IDF, conducted a series of interviews, documenting the gradual recollection of his experiences in the Lebanon, all leading up to Sabra and Shatila, where he had been a mere few hundred yards away. This was to become Waltz with Bashir.
But Waltz with Bashir is not about the politics pervasive of the civil war, or Israel's part in it. The issues in it are personal rather than intellectual, and they reiterate a similarly controversial philosophical conundrum, one concerning personal identity - if one cannot remember specific past events, are they the same person as they were in the memories they cannot recall? The question addresses many aspects of criminal law, namely in how if a murderer cannot remember committing their crime, assuming they weren't the same person, is their responsibility absolute? Folman's documentary, pondering this, is highly analytical, chewing on the abstract nature of war, but it accomplishes more than a mere thesis. It fuses its theme with dynamic animation (live-action footage layered with a cartoonish sheen), this art form bringing Folman's forgotten experiences to life with the surreal haziness with which he probably comes to remember them. Although arguably sensationalist, the stylistic flair of the film is never inappropriate, instead enhancing the eerie mood that pulses tangibly through Folman's personal odyssey.
The influences are clear - from All Quiet on the Western Front, to Apocalypse Now, Waltz with Bashir draws from a wide range of sources but without ever losing its distinct identity. The viewer is immersed in Folman's psyche, journeying through the heart of darkness, in all its unworldly horror. And while there may be no dominant story, Folman keeps his audience hooked, the accounts given by his interviewees creatively realised with seamless eclecticism, be it a dream or a real flashback. But what Folman is particularly trying to convey is the different world in which war exists. The surreal animation serves as a vehicle for this point, the transition between dreams and reality seamless because they exist in this same oft senseless world. In war, the impossible can happen, and it's for this reason that atrocities occur, regardless of whether it's a Nazi shooting a Jew, or a Jew shooting a Palestinian. People are not themselves in these circumstances, just as they aren't in dreams, and perhaps it's for this reason that Folman cannot remember. The boundary between the real world and the dream world is blurred in war, and as such it exists in a limbo between them. Waltz with Bashir, through its animation, portrays this more effectively than any other film, even if it risks charges of sensationalism.
In many ways it's a simple film told in a complex way, its psychological and philosophical emphasis very Jewish in its academia (several academics are consulted), and all the more refreshing and unique for it. But where the film can be (and has been) criticised is its sanitising of Israeli responsibility for Sabra and Shatila and it's for the same reason that the film is so effective. The animation serves as a device for the blurring of reality, but in doing so it can be said that Folman is redirecting the guilt. He accepts indirect responsibility, but it's akin to the case of the German civilian - guilt is felt, but they maintain that they never knew of the atrocities at the time. Responsibility is redirected, placed here on the apparently fanatical Christian Phalangists, despite the IDF 'letting them off the leash' in the first place. It's ambiguous as to what Folman is getting at, but ultimately it's very clear that his experiences have left him scarred, regardless of his own personal responsibility. Soldiers, in the end, are just individuals, and often scarcely men, living in a limbo where they're oblivious to the crimes around them, even if they are committing them. It's only later - in this case twenty-five years - that the delayed guilt catches up.
The men with whom Folman shared his experiences, and now shares the film, are in some ways the most interesting aspect in the said sense. It's not to be forgotten that Waltz with Bashir isn't a drama, it's real, and it's sobering to see how these veterans have ended up. They share a cold bond, much of which is unspoken, and they range from drifters, to cold magnates, to simple working men, all of whom confront their demons in different ways. Some, like Folman, unconsciously forget, whilst others wincingly atone, or view the experience through rose-tinted glasses. Really, despite the potent anti-war message, Waltz with Bashir is about memory, and how human beings, exemplified by Folman, have many of our memories formed by those of others - quasi-memory, so to speak. And it's through the memories of others that our forgetful minds are stimulated, personal experience of war being the most fertile medium through which this happens.
This theme ties in gracefully with the film's context, forming a documentary that is both structurally and thematically sophisticated. There is much to digest, but Waltz with Bashir makes for gripping, enlightening viewing, telling so much about the Israel-Palestine conflict, and war in general, without needing to go into historical specifics. It feels especially fitting now, given the current political climate of the Near East, and though it may be too reluctant to be a controversial film, it effectively shows how war, and the Near East itself, is a cycle that hasn't changed and probably never will.
Cinema originated as an art, and since then, as it has developed, it has fused this with entertainment. At the same time, it can educate and instruct, but in many ways the purely "artistic" element has receded. Artist (not resurrected movie star) Steve McQueen remedies this in his feature debut, Hunger, shifting his stylistic emphasis into something altogether more sensual. But this sensuality doesn't find its influence in the Malicks and Lynchs, but in a unique and stark reality, one which is ugly and sordid. This sensual ugliness draws out a raw authenticity, one so ugly that it brings to the film an unsettling, dreamlike aura, one realised keenly by McQueen.
He realises this in a small but brutal snippet of the Northern Ireland conflict - that of the 1980 hunger strikes, undertaken by IRA prisoners in protest regarding the British government's refusal to grant them political status. Indeed, these men were treated as criminals (which perhaps they were), subjected to cruel treatment in Her Majesty's Prison Maze, near Belfast. Their protest was led by Bobby Sands (portrayed here by an exceptionally dedicated Michael Fassbender), who in the name of "politics" and "human rights" ended up starving himself to death. But despite its context, Hunger is focused not so much on the "where" but more on the "how", and to a lesser extent, the "why". Complex writing isn't McQueen's primary concern here - instead, the reality is evoked by an intense attention to visual detail, one so keen that the dried blood, and the dirt, and the sweat, and the shit are palpable in all their putridity. It's crafted with a sensitive hand, and brought to life in a thoroughly unconventional way.
The reason why it's unconventional is because it's real. Films are largely dominated by the nuances of script, but McQueen pushes this aside here. In Maze prison, where the protest is physical rather than verbal, dallying about the issue isn't always relevant. As such, the visuals are ambiguous, and the viewer is left to do a lot of the work for themselves. The visual details tell the story via the imagination, and when we see the prison warden (Stuart Graham) drawing fiercely on a cigarette, knuckles bloodied, demeanour troubled, no literal explanation is required. And even though the film dwells on these oft miniscule details, crawling at the pace of a slowly spreading puddle of piss, it's interactive viewing, the atmosphere immersive and all the more horrible for it.
But amidst the extreme close-ups, and the delicate use of sound that magnifies the smallest gesture, Hunger boasts some real acting clout. One conversation, caught in one single shot, between Sands and Liam Cunningham's mediating priest is the spine of the film. It's the only cohesive dialogue, but firmly establishes Sands as the anchor of the meandering story, and hovers over the moral sensitivity of the hunger strikes, defining in this distinct segment the "why". Paradoxically, this dialogue-driven piece is the most abstract moment in how it philosophises, but the added depth gives the hunger strikes meaning. It steps back and allows for a glimpse of the bigger picture without being expository. And that's why Hunger is powerful - the subtleties pulsing through the ugly, violent images say little about the political context, yet by the end there's a feeling of having learnt a lot about it on a primeval level. We've felt the aching pain and the monotony; drawn up most of the characterisation ourselves; dwelled on the moral ambiguities, and as such have come to an understanding of the shocking brutality of the situation.
However, in tapping into the largely unspoken psyche of Sands and his inmates, McQueen is unsure just to what extent his film is political. Although frank and impartial, there's a sense of animal anger pulsing through it (indicative of the IRA, most likely), and though we might grasp that the IRA were terrorists and similarly were brutal, the anger seems primarily focused on Margaret Thatcher and the British authorities. Clearly, given the conditions of the prison, parallels between Maze and Guantanamo Bay are evident - Fassbender's sickening loss of weight for the role is particularly provocative - such that one wonders how far this unintentionally sensationalises the IRA's struggle.
But perhaps more fundamentally, McQueen's painting - composed of a palette of shit and blood - is a meditation on human rights. It questions whether terrorists are criminals, considering that they commit murder. Should their human rights be relinquished in light of their transgressions? Is the state justified in sinking to their level? And, tellingly, does one breach one's own human rights in deliberately hungering? Is this suicide or indirect murder on the part of the state? These questions are left hanging - in fact they're scarcely expressed, and this is appropriate in that perhaps these questions just don't matter. When you're mopping the floor of urine, or having your naked body bludgeoned with batons, or slowly dying through starvation, politics and ideals scarcely matter. There's only the moment in which it happens, and in McQueen's ugly, unrelenting canvas politics is distant, and violence horrifyingly immediate. It's there, it's raw, and it's ugly.
Death is a funny thing. After the painful trials of life - which has been much like climbing a mountain - we fear for its end, marked by a short period of intense suffering, and, "the rest", as Shakespeare said, "is silence". And precisely because life is a mountain, youth is the perilous climb to the summit; old age, however, is the awkward climb down. David Fincher makes this his focus in the Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but, like F. Scott Fitzgerald before him, he distorts the formula such that our protagonist's journey is a backward trek. But where Fitzgerald's original short story was a wry, comedic experiment, Fincher's epic overestimates itself, employing impressive effects to veil a thin story that is, quite literally, a curious case, nothing more.
Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) himself is unremarkable, born in New Orleans on November 11th 1918, but with a grotesque physical defect; he is old. Disowned, he ends up in a care home for the elderly, and from there grows young as his mind grows old. He travels the world, experiences life and its eccentric characters, loves his childhood sweetheart, Daisy (Cate Blanchett), and gets younger, pulled backwards by the inexorability of eventual death. And that's it. Eric Roth adds little flavour to his adaptation - Benjamin is a very neutral personality (decent, humble, naïve), continually subjected to a wide array of curious happenings. But besides highlighting the symmetry between birth and death, Roth offers little insight into life. Benjamin lives just like everyone else, more or less, the only difference being that he sees the world through a curious lens. He grows and withers just like everybody else, and indeed, he isn't even particularly interesting. Benjamin is a fleeting curiosity at first, sustained purely by Fincher's inspired direction.
And where the writing is flawed, it's hard to fault Fincher here. Scenes are crafted with magical (and sometimes ethereal) beauty, and he's careful not to let the passing of history upstage his vision. But where the story loses its intrigue after the first half an hour, all we're left with is aesthetic, the sensual scenes simply grinding by. The guilty party here is Roth, whose laziness really shows in a script that just fails to be interesting - it often feels like he's recycling Forrest Gump. Granted, he's aiming for emotional punch because the people Benjamin loves inevitably die, but it's strangely underwhelming. The suffering (and fear) prior to death is scarcely conveyed, and because Roth goes to such lengths to make the story epic, the characters are paper-thin, redeemed only by some impressive character actors. Save for the occasional humour, the dialogue is uninteresting, and given the meandering pace over 166 minutes, there's little feeling that the film has really expressed anything beyond its basic meaning.
As such the fluid warmth with which Fincher shoots each frame is wasted, the atmosphere and period detail invested superfluous, because through it all the film lacks a core. Pitt is solid but has nothing to work with, Blanchett somewhat more fortunate with the arrogant Daisy, where, despite an unsure start, she manages to bring across well once the character hits maturity. But in many ways the undoubtedly cutting edge effects do a lot of the acting for our two protagonists - and again this is an example of how Fincher's skill veils the shortcomings of the script. The actors, though good, suffer from this, the characters suffering much in the same way as they did in Roth's the Good Shepherd; paper-thin but well acted (especially in light of Roth's past works). That said, it's worth stressing that in the hands of two accomplished artists such as these, this sentimental story doesn't succumb to sugary schmaltz. Indeed, the characters, Benjamin in particular, are very stoic and elegant, imbued with a quiet dignity. There's no crass loudness, the dialogue spoken softly or in whispers, but this feels quite deliberate. It feels like Roth is going for the heart-strings when the underplayed drama actually doesn't work well at all because it has no base. The epic quality takes it to a sweeping scale that, in examining his whole life, restricts character development and the quiet scenes in which such stoicism would thrive. Instead, it comes across as flat and bland.
It seems based on a strange interpretation of Fitzgerald's both witty and profound short story, twisting what is essentially a black comedy into a bland meditation on life's curiosities - growth, decay, and the mix of happy luck and missed opportunities in-between. In Benjamin Button, this doesn't work on an epic scale, most probably because there is no original slant on the issue, besides the superficial factor of age. It's a very lacklustre project, being both tepid and somewhat patronising, and there's an array of cheesy musings thrown in. The viewing experience isn't a bad or even frustrating one, and Fincher's directorial palate impresses, but one does emerge from the dark unaffected and unemotional. In trying to be epic, Benjamin Button undermines its stoic, gentle heart, and as a result there's a typical Hollywood stench, a.k.a. try-hard.
And it tries so hard with these simple themes to move. The end product is a curious experience, the artists as unsure as Benjamin as to where they are going with this curious case. It never really finds its feet because of this (perhaps this is true to life itself) and suffers for it. All the viewer is left with is Fincher's very adept technical mind, which proceeds to wow us with some fine CGI work, and there are some quite magical scenes (such as the beginning sequence). And yet, even though this is undeniably a unique film, it's nothing more than its visuals and lukewarm meaning.
If the reader is interested in getting a grasp of F. Scott Fitzgerald's original 1922 short story, then the full (and excellent) text is enclosed in the following link:
The Russian Front - viciously torn apart by bullets and ideology in the 1940s - stands as a poignant example of the sheer horror of war. A pet project of 'Mad Sam' Peckinpah, Cross of Iron is a testament to this most apocalyptic chapter in modern warfare, captured on the level of the common soldier. But it is also an example how in filmmaking, order came out of chaos, Peckinpah ending up creating a strangely slap-dash semi-masterpiece that is sadly forgotten and underrated.
The film itself is a mirror of its subject matter. By 1943, German strategies had become slap-dash and half-baked, the soldiers forgotten, consumed by the relentless crush of the Soviet offensive. By this time, ideology was but the wish of a delusional fool, abstract ramblings pushed aside by the primal need to survive. And ironically, the National Socialist ideal of the survival of the fittest was put to test more than ever before. Corporal Steiner (James Coburn) and his platoon are such creatures, men who have lost all feeling, left only with wry humour and animalistic desires. Amidst this Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell), a Prussian aristocrat, arrives from France, braving the fresh hell of the Crimea in hopes of winning the Iron Cross. Pitted against the cynicism of the highly decorated Steiner, as well as his superiors Colonel Brandt (James Mason) and Captain Kiesel (David Warner), Stransky finds himself resorting to any measure necessary to securing that "piece of worthless metal" - and all in the name of honour. Willi Heinrich's original story (based on the 1956 book 'the Willing Flesh') is in many ways is an odd one, struggling to find its feet in a war that just won't relent, and much of the time the film is actually focused on what's left of Steiner's dimly flickering humanity. At heart, Cross of Iron is an anti-war film, and one that revels in anarchy, so despite being strangely placed, the main story is an appropriate juxtaposition of the values of civilisation (i.e. awards and commendations) against the lawless fury of war. On the Eastern Front, a man pursuing a medal is alien.
Indeed, this air of oddness is what makes Cross of Iron so unique, the sense of impending doom and the threat of the oceanic Russian landscape coating the film in fear. Peckinpah, undoubtedly an oddball director, conveys this perfectly, and he brings his trademark stylistic flairs to the film. Several scenes of action (and dreamy psychological confusion) frequently pepper the screen, interwoven, occurring simultaneously, one in slow-motion, the other quick and brutal. This may seem inappropriate in a war film, but Peckinpah pulls this off, the sophisticated chaos of his editing engulfing the viewer in what is a real cinematic experience. It's a film of technical brilliance, capturing the madness, horror and futility of war in the filmmaking alone, let alone the acting talent on display here.
Although arguably too old, a stone-faced, grey-haired James Coburn becomes the nihilistic Steiner in what must've been one of his finest roles. Steiner is a shattered man, even if he doesn't know this, his existence consciously based around a war and army he hates. But it's all he knows, and his platoon (made up of unknown German character actors) are all he has, and the chemistry and dialogue here between this band of delinquents is unmatched by any other war film. There is an authentic sense of brotherhood here, though it's rarely sentimental, and whilst this may be an American film, we feel that we are watching Germans, even with regard to the non-native members of the cast. James Mason and David Warner particularly stand out as the regimental commander and his adjutant, their original belief in the party and the Wehrmacht reduced to a residue of what it once was, such that they view the opportunistic idealist Stransky with intense suspicion. And Stransky himself is as ambiguous as the rest of them, Maximilian Schell bringing across both the charm and hard-edged elitism of the Prussian. The said personalities quarrel and struggle, but they share in common one quality: disillusionment with the distant government, a concept detached from reality and largely forgotten, replaced by the savagery of the Russian shells.
But despite the interesting themes tied into some first-rate dialogue (and acted out by some of the best characters of the time), Cross of Iron is not quite a masterpiece. The problems lie primarily in the erratic nature of Mad Sam and the small budget available to him at the time. Put up by a West German porn producer, the shooting schedule was never completed (Peckinpah himself a slow worker, hampered by too much drink and drugs), and similarly, scant effort went into post-production, as is obvious in the poor sound effects and even worse dubbing. The end was largely improvised, and besides this, although some of the production values are impressive, they sometimes reek of the often cheap quality of the 1970s. After all, it was a Euro-American film, with which Peckinpah had limited resources. Clearly the film is a rough (and unfinished) diamond, but the rough edges do show, and it's slap-dash in many places, either because there are evident gaps in the narrative, or because post-production slacking is quite obvious. Peckinpah generally made a good job of what he had, but even setting these aside, the film still has problems. The opening montage that plays over the credits, although very powerful, is unashamedly kitsch, an obvious juxtaposition of war with ideology, and likewise, the film does feature a few bizarre scenes, possibly penned to meet both the original novel and studio's requirements for some nudity. This occasional gratuity and excess can seem somewhat out of place, especially when Peckinpah proves that the film can be more sophisticated, evidenced, for example, by a brief but affecting performance by Senta Berger.
Perhaps it is because of the low budget and limited distribution that Cross of Iron has been forgotten. But nonetheless, it remains an underrated cult classic, born from the post-Vietnam era that saw Apocalypse Now, the Deer Hunter and A Bridge Too Far, all top class anti-war productions. Cross of Iron is another one of these films, but it also stands alone, produced by a mad but brilliant mind, and pulled down by a low budget. As such, it's not quite a masterpiece, but it's still a classic testimony to the genius of Peckinpah and the hell that is war.