Monday, February 28, 2005

Álvaro Barrera

Architecture as top end cinematography Posted by Hello

Cartagena has it all. Serious History with struggles of conquistadores & Indians and evidence of colonial power collapse in the face of Bonaparte-inspired emancipation; childhood standard Adventure with treasure islands and gold-filled galleons; emerald Seas with Caribe blowing gentle breezes; merengue-salsa colourful auditive cocktails; old Churches of Jerez-Andalusian roots, "Colonial" and "Republican" amazing houses. Soft smiling people. And a towering Architect, Álvaro Barrera, who is doing with old delerict houses of past magnificence what amounts to non-invasive esthetics surgery. The unsurpassed bone-structure was there all along, the already present beauty has only to be allowed to shine. If only renovation in historical centers in Europe could be of this quality...

Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Women in top multinational managerial posts have enormous balls.. Posted by Hello

I read Pérez-Reverte's "The Queen of the South" in a finca not far from (Santa Fé de) Bogotá, in a very comfortable four-poster bed in the sanctuary-room to an Abuela who's history is mixed up with Colombia's political history. Many old black and white photos on the room walls show a tale of family pride and achievement. Among others, a picture of a State banquet in honour of an Argentinean visitor where alongside a Cardinal, the Grandmother, and both Presidents, one can see Evita herself...

Jet-lagged induced early morning insomnia enabled me to read 'La Reina del Sur' in three successive installments. I finished it while enduring a reasonably sustained hangover, after a celebratory night at "Andrès Carne de Rès", the "in" "it" place, the hip, more-cool-than-this-and-you're-dead, restaurant cum salsa bar of Great Bogotá. The book is indeed, as quoted in the front, "Le Carré meets Garcia Marquez". It's becoming self-evident that the Narco-novel is the new cold war thriller. Le Carré himself got there first (with its international arms trade sub-species, "The Night Manager"). The ideological baddies who never came in from the Cold no longer make us tremble or shiver, their near-humane executions seem tame by comparison with "clean slate" narco-massacres.. But, wait a minute, it's not this depiction of the hyper-violent world of the global drugs trade in the same dubious league of hyper-gory cinema? It doesn't matter how talented the writer (or director) is, neither how effective is the plot (or film script) nor how powerful the characters/actors' performance can be, the end result, very unfortunately, is the glorification of criminal sociopaths. I read somewhere that Brando at first didn't want to do "The Godfather" because he refused to get into what could be taken as a glorification of the Mafia. See what happened in the end. I know that the highly complex and corrupted world of drugs is such a tempting canvass for today's thriller writer but the trend to glorify either cold-murderers (gang lords or drug barons) or serial killers (engaged or not in cannibalism) is worrisome. I'm not trying to make a moral point here, merely a psycho-physiological one, of unknown consequences: the fact remains that the trigger-level of revulsion in the face of violent imagery or behaviour has been steadily rising in the last decades. A typical symptom of addiction, in fact. The dose has to be increasingly larger in order to induce the same response. The book is good, though. And the Colombians in the plot are almost non-existent, which is a good thing. Colombia must have one of the worst instant-recognition reputations attached to the naming of a country. How unfair when one visits the charming streets of the Candelaria, talks with gentle Colombians with a glass of Rum Viejo in one's hand, and stares in awe at Cartagena's balconies...

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

On the road to Noqaima, from Bogota, a small restaurant is called Macondo... Tomorrow Cartagena and the Caribe.. I hope I´ll understand better Gabo´s world.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Marlon Brando

Brando better than Brad.. Posted by Hello

Russkaya, like every girl of her generation, believes that nothing better than Brad Pitt has ever happened in cinema. She was transfixed, not believing her eyes, yesterday, when Marlon Brando invaded the screen in his first appearance on Elia Kazan's "A Streetcar Named Desire". She confessed, as the film went on, that Brando was really on a different league. Poor Brad, he tries so hard and then comes an old black and white copy of the "Streetcar" and an Oldie like Brando snatches the crown, the scepter and the gasping admiring smiles of young viewers.

(The film was part of a cycle of fashion-related films exhibited at the "Circulo de Belas Artes", in the Gran Via, to acknowledge the current Madrid Fashion shows ("Pasarela Cibeles").. Blanche Dubois as a fashion icon..Now, that is a refreshing new viewpoint on Uncle Tennessee's play!)

Michael Winterbottom

"L'Amour physique est sans issue" Posted by Hello

A couple of weeks ago I took the Russkaya to a cinephile movietheatre in calle Princesa to see "Nine Songs" by Michael Winterbottom. During its first screening at the Cannes film festival it was described as the most sexually explicit British film presented there containing unsimulated sex scenes with fellatio, ejaculation, and cunnilingus appearing on the screen. I had read some reviews and comments from the Director beforehand so I had adapted my viewing mode accordingly. I armed myself with the kind of cold, intellectualized, high-culture glasses one uses to see relevant contemporary art. Most of the times it won't be either a aesthetically satisfactory experience or a necessarily pleasant emotional experience but, then again, if you can see the point the artist is trying to make and if that point seems in resonance with one's curiosity and awareness of the world around, that will be good enough. From that somewhat minimalist viewpoint, "Nine Songs" did the trick. I can see Michael Winterbottom's point. Why can a writer engage in sexual imagery with no restrictions and a film author cannot do the same? There is also, I think, a honest experimental tone in all the film. Something like "Let's see if it works to ask the actors to go all the way. Let's see if we can stay inside serious film making and not cross the line, not adding an item to the already increasingly inflated porn film list." I think MW managed to sail through. Yes, it can be done (but, at what a price for the actors, it reamins to be seen); yes, it's definitely miles away from porn. But, as to if this incursion into real sex in the picture is as effective as explicit sex in literature, I'm afraid that MW is no Houellebecq. Sex in the daring novels of Michel Houllebecq retain a kind of legitimacy because at the center of the plot there is a couple where love between two people is expressing itself (although fed by some rather non-conventional sexual behavior). Sex in Sade or in other libertine writers was deliberately taboo-breaking and liberating in a way. The extremely good quality of the writing (both in Houellebecq and Sade) is a crucial element in allowing the authors who engage in such edgy fields to get away with it. In "Nine Songs" the couple fails to touch us, there is no love there (not even the good chemistry of sexual love), and the "writing" in film terms is not that impressive. It resembles more a documentary, which in fact it is ("How to introduce explicit live sex in mainstream cinema"). We end up leaving the screening room with the frustrating sense that an opportunity was lost. Like a piece of rather cold contemporary art, it challenges you, it makes you engage in argument with your friends, it might make you wish to post a blog about it. But we want to enjoy good cinema, and not merely to relate to it. Enjoyment is not there.

(Only six of us in the cinema room, and a member of the staff, with the help of a small stool, felt free to change a light bulb in the aisle, while the screening was taking place..)

Antonio Lobo Antunes

Damn!.. Not Praia Grande but Praia das Maças! Posted by Hello

A writer whom I met a couple of times, and respect and love, wins a prize in a City I met several times, which I respect and love/hate. António Lobo Antunes gets the Jerusalem Prize and is right now at the place I used to go once a week for more than two years. ( Either to the City itself, to events in Yerushalem or meetings in Israeli official buildings, or to restaurants, on both sides, or to meet people from "the other side" in Al~Quds; or taking the Jerusalem ring roads on the way to Ramallah or Jericho, or Al~Khalil (Hebron).

What comes to my mind, in quick succession, besides Jerusalem, is writers-doctors; Praia Grande/Praia das Maçãs and Céline ( Out of obvious politically correct reasons not too many writers acknowledge the importance of the supreme French writer of the XX century. I think I've heard that a very young Lobo Antunes and Céline exchanged letters, but it might be apocryphal).

António is a member of that distinguished line of great writers who happened to have either studied Medicine or studied and practiced Medicine. To mention only the more resounding names: Rabelais, Schiller, Ibsen, Chekhov, Bulgakov, Céline. It feels good when one sees gentle and honorable traditions maintained. Every generation or so, a Medical School delivers to humanity a future great writer. Medicine, smiling, is proud of it. Literature graciously acknowledges that gift.

Lobo Antunes is also a member of another very exclusive club. Six members only, with shared DNA. He and his brothers are in themselves a novel to be written someday, a Work in Progress. And the villa of their mother and father (a dear Professor of mine I feel like saying a secular pray for) at Praia das Maçãs will undoubtedly feature on that novel. António was a tremendous seducer and although maybe not the most strikingly attractive of the older brothers he was, I am told from very reliable sources, the most successful with women. Is that important? Of course it is. Would Camões have written his sonnets if he was not the engaged swashbuckling lover of almond-eyed court ladies? But, hélas!, Praia das Maças is not Praia Grande. Even if both beaches are very close to each other and even if the L-A family, during Summer holidays, now dives at Praia Grande rather than Maçãs, it will be the "Beach of Apples" which will have attained Glory, through Antonio Lobo Antunes.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Michael Haag II

The City of Cavafy, Foster and Durell (but also of Youssef Chahine, and of Nafhouz's "Miramar") Posted by Hello

Michael Haag

Alexandria Revisited...

After New Year's trip to Marrakesh I quickly finished "Alexandria - City of Memory" by Michael Haag. I have been collecting Alexandria bibliography for ages ( I'll say more about it one of these afternoons) but this is a precious item. Besides quite the usual stuff about Cavafy and Foster, Haag provides the ultimate key/clue to Durrell's "Alexandria Quartet". In particular, he eloquently describes how the real-life family of Uncle Lawrence's third wife (Jewish) was turned into the literary (Copt) family of Nessim.

Main buzz for me, after this revisiting of Alexandria: is an open-mind old sea port in the Mediterranean, with corresponding multicultural trade and cosmopolitanism plus rich historical context, the climax of human civilization?

But, in the case of Alexandria, what about the Arab/Egyptian viewpoint? Is the nostalgia for the "loss" of cosmopolitan Alexandria, after the exodus of non-Egyptian populations following Nasser policies around 1956, a form of covert white-colonialism? Or is Alexandria such an icon of the shared cultural patrimony of the Greek-Latin world that a sense of "loss" can and should indeed be felt?

Katie Hickman II

XIX century Call Girl Posted by Hello

Luxury AND good taste! Makes one wonder...

Thomas Grünfeld II

sad chimera Posted by Hello

A better photo of Grünfeld's "Misfit" at ARCO 05.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Thomas Grünfeld

"Misfit" at ARCO 2005 Posted by Hello

I took Wesendonck, a friend of hers, and the Russkaya to ARCO, the big Contemporary Art Fair of Madrid. What really stroke a chord was a piece by Thomas Grünfeld, one of a series he has been making for the last fifteen years, called "Misfit". The picture (above) is eloquent. Imagine a taxidermist trying his hand, in a frankensteinian experiment, at creating an hybrid from the head and long neck of a giraffe, the wings and torso of an ostrich and the lower body, including legs, of a horse..

Cloning and genetic engineering, gene manipulation, Dolly the Sheep, HG Wells' Dr. Moreau - all comes to mind. Two links here, for me, in particular: the misfit would be perfect on my "cabinet of curiosities" at the Calle . (It could join, if only the gallery from Cologne was not asking 150 000 USD, my other stuffed pets. Ysmail, the penguin, Medvedev, the Siberian bear, Un-named, the Volga eagle; Un-named, the Don badger; Un-named, the Marrakshish iguana; Un-named, the Kamchatka squirrel; Un-named, the Urals mink. And the fur skins of an Angolan Lynx, a Sudan Zebra plus and old Leopard fur coat). The other link is the building of a "chimera" itself. Nature's "impossibilities" but that research in immunogenetics made after all possible. Grünfeld's "Misfits" are chimeras. But would those chimeras be necessarily misfits? Are we not guilty here of the traditional sin of attributing human emotions to non-humans? Is the giraffe-ostrich-horse aware of its singularity? Is it aware of being a misfit? Is it sad about it? Of course, a good title is supposed to make us ask questions. This time round its the concept ("misfit") rather than the object (chimeric stuffed bird-mammal) that remains stronger in our minds. Do all of us, misfits one way or the other, have wings that do not square with our long necks? Heads that seemed unrelated to our torsos and legs? Are we aware of that? Are we sad about it?

Giaccomo Casanova as a puppet

Manipulator of feelings or freedom fighter? Posted by Hello

Monday, February 14, 2005

Ian McEwan

Neurosurgeon as literary hero...
Last weekend enabled me to quickly read "Saturday", Ian McEwan's latest novel. In this association game that a blog often is, what bells has the book rung? The main characher is a brain surgeon and when he's performing an intervention to deal with a sub-dural hematoma I could not fail to remember my own experience, fresh from graduating Medical School, helping a neurosurgeon who happened to have been an assistant to the Professor. Maybe because of that family link, he told me to sign the logbook of the operating room as an internee, because "This way, if you ever decide to specialise in Neurosurgery your role in this intervention will be included in your curriculum". But, as I allways say, Medicine is a "previous life", not my current one.. The novel, set in the day of the million people anti-Irak demonstration which culminated in Hyde Park, took me also (kanieshno!) to my own Irak story. (I could have been in Bagdhah by now, happy to do non-boring stuff, if only the European Council would have decided to choose someone else to lead the Commission). Quite interesting to follow the argument about the war in Irak, through the father(grey pro-) and daughter (black and white anti-) discussion. What do I think myself of the war? Who's opinion, the blogger's or the one from a professional of foreign stuff? The latter cannot be called an opinion. We are a depositary of a "line" to argue and defend to the best of our abilities. Our Government's line. That's what we have been paid for for centuries. The professional cannot indulge in a private blogger's opinion on something about what there's an approved line. About Irak then, I would only say that Bagdhad, as a mytical capital, (like Damascus or Cordova) has a resonance for the Arab world that can only be compared to Paris or Rome for western ears.We tend to forget that a bit too easyly.

And what about Mr McEwan himself, what associations are quick-started by reading him again? Top of it all must surely be that after-lunch lecture on writing and cinema, under - for Wales - exceptional 30º C in a white tent in the Hay on Wye Festival. McEwan's speech was getting more and more sluggish (dehydration foretelling sign) and the whole auditorium was gently diving into near-sleep. He told us about "The Moment" that every supporting character in a Holywood film must have, and how restless, anxious actresses kept asking him, the script-writer, about when and how their respective "Moments" would finaly arrive.

I'll return to Uncle Ian one of these days, no good discussion about evilness is completed without a short revisiting of the "The Black Dogs". In the mean time, do read "Saturday", please.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Dennis Potter

Casanova vs Don Juan...

I brought Dennis Potter's "Casanova" in DVD, a 6-part BBC TV drama, from the book shop of the Royal National Theatre a couple of weeks ago. During my Thurloe Square years I only saw one of Potter's TV plays, "Lipstick on Your Collar" , but if I ever have to explain the Suez Crisis to freshly recruited foreign service professionals (in the Library of King Dom Pedro, perhaps? Royal ghost and all...) I would go for that TV film rather than lecturing or provide further boring reading on the subject. And I remember his last year, struggling with cancer and sharing with solomonic justice his last two plays between BBC and C4 (how so very English!).

So the Russkaya spotted "Casanova" in the Southbank shelves, and knowing my interests and obsessions, pointed it out to me. We have been reserving its viewing as closing-of-the-day entertainment, at most two episodes in a row, before retiring to respective beauty sleeps. What can I say about what I've seen so far? What do I really want to say? The crucial thing, whenever one deals with Casanova, is to avoid mixing up Giaccomo and D. Juan. The former, in my view, loved women, while D. Juan was a misogynist, and, deep down, hated them, and wanted them to pay for whatever flaws he could not even begin to confess to himself. D. Juan is tragic first and foremost while tragic features are just a small part of the complexity of Casanova. Why then did Potter made Casanova say the words "I hate women" which, although everybody can express it at one moment or the other, in the heat of an argument, puts Giaccomo dangerously in the same basket of D. Juan? Potter redeems himself by positing that Casanova's central quest in life was the quest for freedom (albeit most of the times freedom expressed in sexual terms). The cry for liberty .. that's what makes the libertine, not the supposed behavior of an "impious, devilish, wicked" man in whom "sacrilege, lasciviousness, voluptuousness, imposture, fraud and heresy was so evilly mixed" (as his Judges in Venice put it).

I have in the red sofa room a puppet of Casanova, in full foppish regalia, bought in a small shop in Castello, during my recent Venice Revisited. Handling "Him" as a puppet is almost sacrilegious. Manipulating a manipulator... Dennis Potter did the same.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Katie Hickman

Libertine Ladies..
Spent some time with "The Courtesans" by Katie Hickman. Having read many "libertines", starting with Uncle Giaccomo himself, it's a refreshing change to see how a female writer deals with that other clog of the libertine machinery, the Courtesan, the XVIIIth century Call Girl... I'm quite enjoying the book as it's almost like finding the missing link between a royal mistress (like La Pompadour) and a superbe inhabitant of a high-class brothel.. In the demi-monde (which Leelooh might have had a glimpse watching "Moulin Rouge" and its lead female character ) we have alternate sovereigns.. Status, style, luxury goods and sexual proficiency combine in a real unique cocktail.. These famous London "cocottes" were all quite beautiful, we are told.. Beauty, the hardcurrency of libertine practicioners...

Mark Vestey

At Home..

It felt like in Old Times Thurloe Square. Pleasant chat in the language equivalent to Mozartian clarity: the English spoken by less than 1% of the English-speaking population. Neither the pseudo-toff sort, when the greediness for status can be spotted, nor the arrogant supercilious variation of Academia (with long black gowns and, at times, funny hats) but the effortless U-English spoken with grace. The Liverpool-born Vestey Empire was, at the turn of the century, quite a case study example of a global business. Catlle, abattoirs, refrigeration, merchant fleet - all was world-wide. The managers of that business were doing "globalization" stuff long before the concept became such a cliché.. An Englishman who likes his Port and has been visiting Brazil regularly for decades but has never set foot in Lisbon. Reminds one of unpleasant realities. Like the fact HM's Government elevated the status of HM's Diplomatic Mission in Rio de Janeiro to full Embassy before it did to their 400 years old ally. Oh, yes...They had already an Ambassador in Rio while in Lisbon a Minister would still do for.. Leelooh was happy, as she was spoken to like an equal, as Englishmen do towards adolescent children, in a dinner context, at least.. The food was great. Black caviar, which travelled safely through the squalid controls at Sheremetevo, with small home-made pancakes and Prince Dolgoruki triple-distilled vodka. Traditional Uzbek pilau rice (they call it "Plof") with a 14.5º Alentejo red.. The Russkaya cooked it all and pulled it off with flying colours. Tastes and stories from three empires. British, Russian, Portuguese. Now, that could have been a globalized empire... But what do we have in common?... Defeating Napoleon?

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Max Stafford Clark

I took Leeloo to an obscure theatre in calle Pradillo. Max Stafford Clark lecturing about Caryl Churchill. I poked him into coming clean on his view on the dilemna "director vs playwriter who's god after all'". Russian theatre aknowledges that directors have studied under masters and are the ones who interpret reality through carefully coded nuances of long known texts. In Britain reality is given by the text itself so writers come first. MSC makes the point that successful engagés playwriters like Pinter or Hare or Churchill are frustrated and ambivalent about their writing because it didn't change the world as they had set out to do. Almost implying a disapointement that theatre has not revealed itself as a tool for raising the awareness of class conscience! MSc later on notes thetre has completed holes in his education, has completed his knowlegde of things he had just a superficial idea. Theatre, he says, does not compete with TV but with journalism. Is that the theatre I fell for? Theatre as journalism (what would have Chekov make of it?). A good supper at an italian restaurant followed. The menu has the famous black and white photo of Sophia Loren side looking in desbelief at the size and exposure of Ms. Jane Mansfield's mamary features.
The whole dinner turned into some kind of people's court judging one's shortcomings as both father and lover. Pretty much group-analysis stuff. They were seated in front of me, and I had to lob answers and counter-arguments, volleying to the other side of the risotto line the acusatory shots. Very theatrical. Emotions overflowing but with the director keeping a firm grip on the actors. After the malevolous grapa, returning home and resisting the tempation to get the first available taxi, we come across a alternative live music cafe. Ska music with a lead singer as self-assured as Manu Chao. The gig to present their new CD ends up being an almost full live version of the said CD. But the question of what's theatre for you kept lurking in the horizon of consciousness. I want to think of theater as the ultimate intelectual challenge to your sense of know thouself. Interaction of real bodies carrying ideas and emotions we have to be aware of and deal with. Leeloo might end up studying acting in Rada or the Guildhall, she will be able to tell me more about all that. But first she will have to come to terms with her daughter-father disappointements. Curtain falls.