Le Samuraï

September 24, 2012

Are intellectual teenagers still into existentialism? or have we exited that age? is it all about theory now? Students downing Badiou and Laruelle to the strains of Tristan Murail? If so, they’re right to. It seems more intellectually demanding, more crazy, more of a shibboleth between the old fucks and the young guns, more of an induction to the modern age than the rudimentary post-romantic shoulder-shrugging of existentialism.

But

I liked Camus a lot.

And I don’t really buy that ‘not real philosophy’ thing.

It may not be real philosophy, but it’s real something, and that something’s very appealing when you’re a teenager: a post-romantic sense of the isolated individual, indifference to conventional social mores (which in return punish that indifference or contempt), misery, nausea and anxiety as necessary corollaries of a universe without epistemological and ethical certainty. Each of these provided serious explanations. it was useful. I could do with something like it now. Nobody understands me. Life’s so unfair. They were self-help manuals, shit self-help manuals admittedly, self-help manuals for people who couldn’t help themselves, but self-help manuals nevertheless, which not only explained why you were so fucking miserable, but why in fact you were some kind of hero for being so fucking miserable. I needed that!

But I picked up The Myth of Sisyphus again recently and was bored out of my mind, so that avenue’s shut. because for a teenager existentialism wasn’t so much about truth, it was about image – how to mentally position yourself in the world, how that looked. So if there’s one thing that french existentialism can be thanked for, it’s cool french films, because that was how the theory became flesh. It reversed the unglamorous polarity of the solitary teenager.

I went to see Le Samuraï when I was 16. The old Lumiere cinema in st martin’s lane, now a gym or something god-fucking-awful like that.

It was a big screen, with lots of soft grey seats ranged in arcs. There were three people in the cinema – me, a cycle courier about five rows in front of me, and a sleeping businessman, two rows behind and about five columns to the left of me.

I remember the setting and the film vividly. the film had a big impact. I got it on dvd, watched it several times.

Anyway, I watched it again the other night. i remembered it well (I said a couple of the lines before they were delivered on screen). How did it stand up?

That’s the opening frame. anyone who’s lived by themselves in a studio flat knows how the inside of your head becomes that flat. look at that first frame again – that’s the inside of someone’s head.

What you can’t see here is that just at the end of this opening the camera moves back and forth in the room, so you get the sensation of looking in a doll’s house. it produces a sense of artificiality, we are looking into this film, as you would look into a doll’s house. By a psychological trick that I don’t really understand, when you do that – emphasise the artificiality – you widen the sense of looking at something universally applicable (we all stand outside it) and less like we’re viewing the specifics of a documentary. Does anyone else get that? I don’t know, it seems a bit rarefied. I’m not sure I’ve articulated it enough.

Once again, you get a strong  sense that the room is a psychological state. for Melville, the director, rooms are like traps. They’re where you end up. There’s a terrifying scene in another of his films, Le Cercle Rouge, where the alcoholic marksman is beset by visual hallucinations in a bout of delerium tremens. rooms are bad. rooms are cages. and to extend the parallel of course, the inside of your head is also a trap, it’s where you end up, in the end.

If we didn’t get all that, Alain Delon keeps a songbird in a cage. Throughout the film, the songbird represents the state of delon’s being. I’m calling him Delon btw because his actual name in the film is Jeff Costello, which for a modern english viewer is too laughable to use without smirking.

One of the things I didn’t pick up the first time I watched it is that delon is a dandy. He’s a dandy in the Beau Brummel sense, that is, he dresses not to stand out but to fit in, and does so with an aesthete’s minute attention to detail.

This impeccability of course makes him stand out.

Props tho to his fixer, here sporting what i’m calling his gesang der jünglinge sweater

The dandy thing comes into sharp focus at one point in the film, where, in a bid to evade police, delon takes a route to 1, rue Lord Byron. That reference immediately clicked with something Kingsley Amis had written on James Bond:

the fact is that, inside that conservative dark-blue worsted suit and under the same skin as a bearer of the hardly-earned double-0 prefix, there lurks an intruder from another age. we can identify him easily enough by adding in at this point some of the accounts of the physical impression given by Bond, his looks and what people feel they signify.

and with the warmth and humour of his eyes extinguished, his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal and cold.

the table was becoming wary of this dark englishman who played so quietly, wary of the half-smile of certitude on his rather cruel mouth. who was he? where did he come from? what did he do?

Well, he started life about 1818 as Childe Harold in the later cantos of Byron’s poem, reappeared in the novels of the Brontë sisters and was around until fairly recently in such guises as that of Maxim de Winter in Miss Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. The Byronic hero – Byron’s sentimental and humourless idealization of part of himself rather than any kind of real Byron – the Byronic hero is lonely, melancholy of fine natural physique which has become in some way ravaged, of similarly fine but ravaged countenance, dark and brooding in expression, of a cold or cynical veneer, above all enigmatic, in possession of a sinister secret.

This is delon in le samuraï, and that 1 rue Lord Byron made it easy to identify that this is how were are at least partly to view delon – as a romantic hero.

The paradoxical or absurdist idea of singular anonymity conveys itself in another aspect of delon’s appearance in this film – he never makes the slightest attempt to disguise himself:

At one stage the police ask him to swap his hat and mac with two other people in a line up. He and his dispersed pieces of clothing are identified immediately. Even in disguise he is only the image of himself. This has certain consequences for the film. he can never expect to go unnoticed and so must avoid being seen.

The film is a single action, and everything in it tends towards its completion. this spartan exclusion of the unnecessary is matched by the script: the dialogue is extraordinarily spare, even for a noir, even for a Melville noir, and all of it can be taken as both content and explication, like the passing comment to a group of poker players –

je me perdre jamais. jamais vraiment. 

(I never lose. never truly/completely)

These statements compel analysis after the final reel, for a film which is, like the expressions of the actors in it, motionlessly opaque. There are no tells. facial expressions are an attempt to engage sympathy, to encourage the belief in an outer and an inner where the apparent former can be explained by the suggested latter. even the slightest expression of feeling offers, therefore, reason, and reason has no place in this fatalistic and absurd world. once again, the spareness encourages this sort of extreme analysis, and in that sense, is cognate with Camus’ sparse algerian, sun-bleached and desert presentation of the absurd. we are presented with a singularity.

I wondered because of this, while I was watching, whether this was a reductive film, but the fecundity of speculation required by the viewer I think puts a reverse on that accusation.

There are, after all, plenty of other things to enjoy about this film. the palette is marvellous – all dull greys and washed-out blues:

It’s nearly always raining. No matter the dirigiste economic exertions of the government, the Paris represented here is the fucked up paris of the ’60s – the massacre of the algerians in ’61, the barricades in ’68, a year after Le Samuraï was made.

Some of the images have almost the appearance of a Caravaggio painting:

The film also contains one of the great chase scenes in any film, across the Paris metro:

The chase is predominantly successful because it intensifies to a point of climax the film’s two principle notions of uncertainty and visibility. for delon, a great deal apparently hangs on his ability to correctly identify people from their impassive externals (their internal or hidden life here is not a spiritual or emotional one, incidentally, but one of persecution). For the police, the singularity of delon is either visible or not. the film solves these two strands by re-encrypting an image posed in The Third Man. This keeps the audience in a state of suspense until the end of the film, but the resolution of that practical riddle only pushes the uncertainty about what was known and intended back into the labyrinth of the metro and beyond.

I’m still not sure I’ve located the decisive moments, or understood entirely the motivations of Le Samuraï, and I think that’s how it’s supposed to be – that ambiguity born of its minimalist resistance to interpretation is paradoxically its richness. And as I’ve suggested, I find it rich in other ways. It’s Melville’s best film I think, tho not his best trailer – that would be this:

It’s still a good film, I still really like it. If i call it my favourite that’s probably only for the usefulness in conversations of having a favourite, and I’m not sure that it hasn’t been surpassed for me these days by The Maltese Falcon, a very similar film in some ways, even more remarkable in those ways and others, perhaps.

But there is one thing about this film:

fuck me it makes you want to smoke.


Berberian Sound Studio

September 2, 2012

Hey, it’s me. yes me.

Summer’s over, and i’m back from sojourning in my secluded, larch-bound chalet in HELL. I started a tumblr. it’s more of a conventional microblog – what i had for tea, sub op ed ‘thoughts’, emotional overdisclosure, that sort of thing, so it’s not a replacement for this fantastically serious and heavyweight… well, ‘blog’ doesn’t really seem to do something so profound justice – it’s more like something, idk, that i goddam curate. anyway, from time to time, i’ll xpost things from there that seem to have a place here, and vice versa, because believe it or not there are still tremendously exciting things bubbling under at the idiot and the dog. anyway, here’s something cnp’d from there on BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO – GO SEE IT (unless you’re the sort of twat who gets intellectual film studies self-kudos from just going to see hollywood dreck – hey, when i went to see Charlies Angels II: Full Throttle I felt like goddam UMBERTO ECO, so fucking what?)

berberian sound studio #1

berberian sound studio is the best film i’ve seen in years. that is all.

berberian sound studio #2

no that is not all. (a lousy phrase, no better than ‘enough said’ or ‘end of’)

(+ kind of SPOILERS I guess – I hate knowing anything about a film other than the barest elements before going to see it).

berberian sound studio was the best film i’ve seen in years (and I like it even more this morning), because of

1. its spatial and physical representation of sound to create a tangible psychic landscape within which the events of the film take place.

2. the remarkable way which the film allows its sonic & psychical content to constitute the reasoning and plot of the film. yes, the clue’s in the title, but it still seems an artistically daring thing to do (the film is rather runic) and requiring exceptionally brilliant execution to work, which it gets.

3. its mapping of the whole frigid anglican male v catholic kitsch schlock v genuine evil. i did half wonder whether the whole virginal and pure anglican male thing was slightly played out or in danger of being trite (wicker man, yes, but also wolf solent by john cowper powys, arthur machen’s earnest young post-victorian men, disorientated in fin de siecle aestheticism). But for several reasons this isn’t the case. Toby Jones is great, for a start, with his mole in wind in the willows features, also, the film avoids triteness by playing the role subtly, its only an element of the film, not the point. there’s also a scene… no, that’s another point. but there is that always interesting exploration of the strength of purity against corruption, and how puritanism itself is intensely corruptible, more so than more pragmatic spiritual states.

just with regard to that point about ‘genuine evil’. by upping the tangibility of sound in the film, it also does something to the appreciation of evil, itself intangible or difficult to capture. it’s as if the viewer’s radar has been readjusted to appreciate the taste of things in a film that would not normally be portrayable. there is a subtle sense of how madness comes creeping in on the back of evil, how they work together. (incidentally, i’ve since seen reviews which say that gilderoy goes ‘mad’, i think that’s an exceptionally simplistic approach to take to this film, nevertheless, madness, or rather mental unhingeing, plays its part. it’s also taking a non-literal film very literally.)

4. the documentary of box and leith hill. a brief and wonderful scene that played straight to my heart and mind. my heart, because it’s some of the countryside i love most (was it cobbett who said that dorking was reputed to have the sweetest air in england – before the M25 of course). my head, because of the way it located the battles going on in the sound studio and in gilderoy’s head in english pastoral – it was both a moment of sweet respite, and a representation of the malign or sinister pastoral of john cowper powys, machen, also john ireland – the dismembered rural, the something nasty in the woodshed, the rustic earth as inimical to human civility.  so yes, this was pure catnip to me. maybe i’m overplaying it as a consequence, but this is a very associational film (brief memories or moments of reality flash up in gilderoy’s head, stimulated by momentary verbal or imagistic associations).

5. it being, in my experience, a very accurate portrayal of how italians and english work together.


Just Checking

August 15, 2012

Accidie’s a sin, right?


British Library – Writing Britain exhibition

July 1, 2012

[Posted this elsewhere, on a messageboard, hence the lack of the usual Jamesian poise and Flaubertian precision, but it’s RED HOT OFF THE PRESSES, I only went this morning:]

I just went to British Library exhibition, Writing Britain.

It was a bit rubbish. [<— it wasn’t THAT bad, it was meh it was ok.]

The organising principles, as represented by the groupings of works and the title they were grouped under, seemed by turns vague, unhelpful, misleading, and without any overall structure. With a subject as large as ‘Writing Britain’ there has to be some kind of argument, or underpinning set of principles. The section headings were occasionally a little weird – ‘Dark Satanic Mills’, fine, but in a section that didn’t include ANY Blake, just mainly 19th C thru Victorian novels, bleeding into some stuff about the contemporary workplace (David Lodge’s [i]Nice Work[/i] in a glass box, with a catalogue entry by it, really?).

Also, if you’re displaying books and manuscripts, you’ve really got to have a catalogue that situates them as objects. This object you are seeing before has this context, and this meaning for the subject in hand. Ok, so from time to time you’d have ‘Wordsworth wrote Tintern Abbey when he yadda yadda’, or ‘Keats wrote this letter to his brother Tom while on a walking holiday in Scotland’ (great! I enjoyed peering at Keats’ massive letter with tiny writing). But there wasn’t much more than that. Occasionally it would be as bad as ‘Disraeli wrote a book about social divisions, called Sybil, here is an edition of Sybil’. Well, maybe never quite as bad as that, but I thought it shd have worked a lot harder at making the objects talk. These are garrulous, companionable and informative objects, but they go silent under a glass case. Lots of dodging your head about trying to nix the reflection, and squinting at your enforced distance, decoding handwriting from the neatly miniscule (19th century women writers + RLS) to the formally incomprehensible (yes, you, William Dunbar).

Good things!

  • Done Keats’ letter – huge and with a sonnet in the top left-hand corner. Good letter.
  • Gerald of Wales’ 12th Century Topographia Hibernica with a marginal illustration of a werewolf asking a priest to administer last rites to his werewolf friend. At least, the catalogue note said werewolf, and indeed said they were mentioned as such in the text, but thinking about it, the normal interpretation of animals in mariginal drawings would be via fables and exemplars, although strange creatures like the anthropophagi and ape-pygmies do also appear. Anyway, good picture.
  • Manuscript of Crash with Ballard’s emendations.
  • Victorian board game, which was a map of Britain, where you had to progress from the Thames Estuary, round the country, with its various industries and back again. Looked incredibly not fun, but I don’t like board games and anyway the map was good.

BEST bit of writing was a letter written to John Betjeman complaining that one of his Metroland poems was historically inaccurate, ended with this

I remember Willesden Green station when it was lit only by oil lamps, and one left it into unlighted lanes with hedges, which is my first recollection of Walm Lane. I remember walking to Cricklewood and being so frightened of the loneliness of it all that I turned tail and scuttled back home again as fast as I could!

I quite like Cricklewood – it’s nothing like London – but for some reason that description seems to me strangely still pertinent somehow.

Most surprising thing I didn’t know – John Galsworthy was a fuckin NOBEL LAUREATE?

Most unsurprising thing I knew already – typewriters really are the only tool for creative writing. The pen is too laborious, generally, the computer too much like writing in water if you’re not careful, but the combination of permanence, clarity and immediacy of typewritten manuscripts puts them in first place for me.

Oh, couple of other things:

Wales shamefully under-represented (as was Cornwall). [<—- yeah yeah the mabinogion wotevs. Conan-Doyle half mentioned as a decent suburban writer, but no mention of Arthur Machen, also an exceptional writer of London and suburbia. I know you’re constrained by your exhibits, but not to have The Hill of Dreams anywhere is bizarre. (He was represented by a quote on a board, from his excellent autobiography Far Off Things.) Also, no Jocelyn Brooke, scant mention of the Powys clan (they could have joined them thru John Ireland – they had soundscapes and Mai Dun would have fit in nicely), Chesterton, yes, but no Belloc. YES he’s a cunt, YES he should have been in there.

Think that’s why you need an argument, because without it you become necessarily inclusive: with such a large subject, the exhibition becomes patchy and somewhat incomprehensible.

They probably could have done more with the representation of words in the landscape. Especially considering their gates were designed by the wife of David Kindersley, who proposed an effective and attractive national design for roadsigns, was himself apprenticed to Eric Gill (font+literary sculpture of Prospero and a big-willied Ariel on the front of Broadcasting House), who was a student of Edward Johnston, designer of the font used on the tube.

A bit more imagination, plus a bit more rigour might’ve produced a better exhibition. Like I’d know. I’m sure a helluva lot of work went into it.

Oh, and an entire section on London but NOTHING on Henry Mayhew (Neil Gaiman, by contrast, seems to have his grubby fingers everywhere).

Still, plenty of bits to enjoy here, just feel more could have been done with it. Wouldn’t have minded something I’d disagreed with more – it all just felt a bit nebulous.

Did make me think I must do my thing on MALIGN PASTORAL or whatever it was going to be. It got a bit unwieldy.


Feel Like I’m At A Party Where Fewer People Than Expected Have Turned Up

May 7, 2012

Still, those of us who are there are not letting that dampen the atmosphere – here’s a nice long post at The Midnight Bell. Can’t work out which bit to quote, maybe this bit, cos it starts with the main thing I’m wondering about right now, then moves on to something I hadn’t really thought that much about:

So, you’re a classic, but not much more than one at the moment, and that bothers me. You’re in the canon, but there are no festivities, no seasons of your works, no big articles in which a minor novelist or thoughtful actor tries to sell you to an indifferent public.

I don’t get it. You’re dynamite, a poet who absolutely answers to us. You know how we’re all middle class now? (HA! RIGHT!) You’re the pre-eminent English poet of the middle class, & I don’t mean how-the-middle-class-sees-themselves, because if you were you’d be popular, I mean you are the great artist of the urban bourgeoisie, the revolutionary class that Marx told us to learn from, the one that took over and transformed the world, 1688-1900, who built the hegemon we’re trapped in; you’re their/our artist (not a laureate, not telling us what we want to hear) because you are all about the doubts, the terror, the one who gets how everything is collapsing even as it is being built, the contingency of it all, Clive of India about to get a bullet through his skull in a card game, Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, a tyrant of compromise and laodicean cowardice…


HAPPY 200th BIRTHDAY ROBERT!

May 7, 2012

Happy Birthday, Robert. Even the memorials are fading. It’s almost invisibly located next to a fried chicken shop, under a junction box.

And NOTHING in the papers, apart from an okay-ish I guess bit in The Scotsman, [EDIT: to be fair, that Scotsman piece is considerably better than ‘okay-ish I guess’, esp considering the lack of anything else] and some weird aside in The Guardian that the browning variations nails here. And another bit in the Guardian, which seems on the face of it a little more sensible, but in fact barely manages to say a single thing that’s true or pertinent to Browning.

“Browning is not flashy and highly coloured, like Dickens .. But he was a great poet, and his ordinary bravery makes him a hero for all time.”

I mean seriously, what the fuck is that? No, he is, he is both of those things. He is fireworks! What the hell’s that last bit? What the fuck does it mean?

I’m glad that you like him and everything, Margaret, I really am – cos no one else is writing about Browning – but what exactly do you like him for? DON’T say his ‘ordinary bravery’ or i will vomit ALL OVER YOU.

And to echo TBV – Is that all we get?


How Do I Shot Sordello? Book II

May 7, 2012

I read Book II last week, but didn’t have time to write anything. It was one of those weeks where sportive gods shy what shit they can your way. I’m going to have to refer to my more or less haphazard notes and riff on them as I see fit.

WARNING THIS ENDS UP V LONG-WINDED, TALKING ABOUT SORDELLO’S POETIC PSYCHE. IT’S BROWNING’S FAULT.

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