‘The Thief’s Journal’ by Jean Genet

‘The Thief’s Journey’ is the journey into the strange and unique mind of Jean Genete; itinerant tramp and erstwhile novelist, the poetry of his prose beautifies the banality and brutality of its subject, of theft, violence, betrayal and murder, the depraved world of thieves, pimps and would-be murderers which Genete feels drawn to and is able to find beauty in-or rather, Genet is able to transmute his life and ideas, which upend and contradict normal concepts of herosim, love and beauty, via his art;

“I refused to live for any other end than the one which I found to contain the first misfortune: that my life must be  a legend, in other words legible, and must give birth to a certain new emotions which I call poetry. I am no longer anything, only a pretext”
Genet therefore ends up becoming a symbol, a blunt instrument to weave the untold stories of the men who Genet met and loved during his perambulations around Europe, but at the same time art is able to give meaning to his ideas and life. Indeed the beauty of Genet’s style saves the novel from the inspidity of the subject matter, transforms the violence of the world around him into something  beautiful and eternal:

“The purple of sunsets, according to physicists, is the result of a greater thickness of air which is cross only by short waves. At mid-day, when nothing is happening in the sky, and apparition of this kind would disturb us less; the wonder is that is occurs in the evening, at the most poignant time of the day, when the sun sets, when it disappears to pursue some mysterious destiny, where perhaps it dies. The physical phenomenon that fills the sky with such pomp is possible only at the moment that most exalts the imagination; at the setting of the most brilliant of heavenly bodies.”

Genet has now political or social axe to grind in ‘The Thief’s Journal’, his sole goal is to render the world of deprivation he involved himself in into something ever-lasting, something ethereal and touching. It is not my favourite Genet, but it represents what is probably the purest essence of his life and art.

“Parissiene” by Danielle Arbid

 

Parisienne is a story about a the trials and travails of a hauntingly beautiful young girl, Lina, and her attempts to acclimatise to life in Paris. During her art class, Lina writes “Right now, everything seems ugly” and it is easy to see why-isolated in a country which frequently seeks to dehumanise her for her race or use her for her beauty, life is a constant struggle to survive and find a sense of belonging.

The film references Jean Genet, and his raw and honest view of the world is echoed in the film-the films does not sugar-coat and explores concepts of female sexuality and love with an authenticity that is refreshing-especially as it is coming from the perspective of a young Arab girl. One of Lina’s suitors mentions that his favourite painter is Manet and his sensuality is constantly referenced in Lina’s love scenes with the men she meets. However, Lina is able to overcome all of the impediments she faces and gain a sense of belonging in the world. Parissiene is an authentic and compelling story about the immigrant experience, about the struggle to gain a sense of humanity and discover your place in the world.

“Moonlight” by Barry Jenkins

On the surface ‘Moonlight’ is a film which defies many tropes; the lead character is Chiron, a gay African-American, his father figure, Juan, is a drug dealer who tries his best to help, but at the same time supplying Chiron’s mother with drugs-yet although defying character tropes, particularity around race and sexuality, are core themes on the film, it is the deeply human themes of the film, of love, belonging and friendship which elevate ‘Moonlight’ into one of the most beautiful and poignant films of the year.

Chiron carries a sense of shame around him, not just around his incipient feelings of homosexuality, but also of his introspective and sensitive nature, of his deep-seated grief and loneliness and tears which, if Chiron gave feeling to, would drown Chiron in the deepest depths of the ocean. There is something vulnerable about Chiron which either causes derision-as with the bullies who hound him throughout the film, or which touches character such as Juan and his girlfriend Teresa or of the one person who made Chiron feel anything, Kevin. It is not for nothing that upon meeting Chiron as an adult and finding out that he is now a muscle-bound drug-dealer, that there is a tinge of disappointment in Kevin’s voice-yet the masculine front is just a façade, an extension of societal expectations about black masculinity which Chiron feels he needs to conform to-but this disappointment disappears once Kevin notices the vulnerability which still exists in Chiron’s eyes-behind the mask, Chiron is still the gentle, sensitive and sad young boy whose vulnerability so touched Kevin and whose is only able to belong by conforming to the expectations which society places upon him.

The film itself is bathed in moonlight, the luminescence of the moon shines upon the most visceral aspects of the film-such as the scene between Kevin and Chiron on the beach, the power of the moon to transform and transmogrify, to beautify the otherwise disconsolate lives of the characters, the moon is vehicle by which the viewer gains pathos for the characters. It’s softness flickers on the faces of Kevin and Chiron as they are able to perhaps find the affection which life had deprived them of in one another.

‘Brideshead Revisited’ by Evelyn Waugh

‘Brideshead Revisited’ is the story of Charles Ryder and his relationship with the aristocratic Flyte family; the whimsical yet troubled Sebastian, the glacial and remote Julia and the austere older brother Bridey.

The novel in many ways reflects Charles’s eventual vocation as a (utterly mediocre) painter of aristocratic buildings and domiciles which will soon be consigned to the vestiges of history, so Charles attempts to capture the fading aristocracy before their inevitable decline. However the reader is constantly left wondering whether the indolent, selfish and ultimately shallow lives of the Flyte family is worth capturing or remembering remembering-clearly Waugh is of the opinion that the refined world of aristocracy was about to be taken over by the vulgar and vapid world of the bourgeoisie-their perceived quirks and eccentricities which so seduce Charles mask the insipidity of their inner lives and the tediousness of their self-absorption.

Charles, however, is able to paint some pretty little images throughout the novel, capturing the indolence and effervescence of his time with Sebastian in Venice;

On some days life kept pace with the gondola, as we nosed through the side-canals and the boatman uttered his plaintive musical bird-cry of warning; on other days with the speed-boat bouncing over the lagoon in a stream of sun-lit foam; it left a confused memory of fierce sunlight on the sand and cool marble interiors, of water everywhere, lapping on smooth stone, reflected in the dapple of light on painted ceilings”

Or of the incandescent and unreachable beauty of Julia;

There Julia sat, in a tight little golden tunic and white gown, one hand in the water idly turning an emerald ring to catch the fire of the sunset; the carved animals mounted over her dark head in a cumulus of green moss and glowing stone and dense shadow, and the waters round them flashed and bubbled into broken flames”

Yet there is hollowness behind the feeling of emptiness which pervades the novel, the love which Charles feels for the different members of the Flyte family fail to resonate very far outside the echo chamber of the narrator’s head.

‘A Man Escaped’ by Robert Bresson

The apparent simplicity of ‘A Man Escaped’ belies the profundity and sense of hope which the story of the protagonist Fontaine, a Resistance fighter who managed to escape from impenetrable Nazi prison. Fontaine’s stubbornness and sense of dignity stand in stark contrast with the desire of Nazism to strip men of their humanity. Bresson’s minimalism, the mechanical perfection of his actors, often amateurs who Bresson demanded re-take the scene until their actions were as natural as breathing, imbues the film with a sense of tenseness and excitement which leaves the viewer on the edges of the seat, despite the emotionless acting-as Roger Ebert said “Because the actors didn’t act out the emotions, the audience could internalize them.” Even the prison scarcely feels like a POW camp where prisoners are regularly shot and tortured-aside from the intermittent sound of gun-fire, the viewer would be hard pressed to determine whether the film is set in a monastery or prison. Yet this build the tension even more-instead of depicting the Nazi’s as evil, Bresson depicts them as they were-men who were part of a machine which dehumanized them along with the people it oppressed.

Fontaine acts as a beacon of hope (or despair) for the cowed inmates, his desire and attempt and refusal to be cowed demonstrating that there is a way to escape the remorseless machine if Nazism and a chance for salvation.

‘The Conformist’ by Bernardo Bertolucci

In ‘The Conformist’ Bertolucci is able to transform a middling novel by a mediocre author, Alberto Moravia into an artistic masterpiece. He imbues Italy with a hallucinatory bloom, the bilious life of the pathetic Fascist protagonist Marcello is the path via which we explore the mendacious and mediocre world of fascist Italy-the faintly ridiculous secret service, the insipid bureaucratic machine and shallow populism of Fascism, with it’s insatiable desire for conformity are all major themes within ‘The Conformist’ yet the beautiful expressionist cinematography, matched only by Mallick’s ‘Days of Heaven’ and Antonioni’s ‘L’eclisse’ is the true triumph of the film. Few films have been as influential as ‘The Conformist’, whose style was central to the development of the American New Wave-Bertolucci constantly shifts from the surreal, just as the artificial sunset in the train when Marcello and his fiance make love, to the sombre murder of Quadri and Anna, ‘The Conformist’ awakened the imagination of Scorcese and Coppola, with its muted violence, effervescent colours and dour anti-hero.

The story follows the life of Marcello Clerici, a man whose obsession with conforming and normalcy blind him to his many idiosyncracies, from his holy fool father and morphine addicted mother, to his vapid wife, who enjoy making love on the carpet, Marcello’s life is a never-ending series of absurdities. The root cause of Marcello’s desire to appear normal is an incident in which he apparently shot and killed a young chauffeur who sexually abused him, Marcello believes that conforming to whatever the common belief is at the time will disguise the feeling of desolation and isolation which haunts him.

Bertolucci not only captures the decadence of desolation of fascist Italy, the irascible ignorance of fascism and the hatred it creates, but he is re-creates the inanity and banality of fascist architecture, his use of wide shots emphasising the emptiness behind the rhetoric of fascism, in fact the whole film often feels like a (beautiful) nightmare from which we the viewer is perpetually at the point of waking up from.

‘Days of Heaven’ by Terrence Mallick

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Francois Truffaut was fiercely critical of directors who were overly-subservient to other genres-such as, for example literature or art. For Truffaut, the facile of artificiality of these films denigrated the power of film as an art-form-‘Days of Heaven’ on the other hand is obviously a film which is deeply rooted and influenced by great American landscape painters, such as Hopper and Wyeth, but which is also able to  break free of its influences and create something as, or even more beautiful and original than its artistic forebears. The film resembles a visual poem, a the scenes are permeated with at times muted and other times vivid beauty of nature. Along with Nestor Almendros, Mallick was  visual pioneer, utilising natural light and wide focus lens to capture nature via the camera in ways in which had never been capture before; blue skies are transmuted into white and pink, the sun from deep azure to a faded, haunted orange and the liquid-ink of the sky is transformed by the hellish glow of the fire in the wheat-burning scene. As Linda says, she had never noticed the pale, ghostly sun-light of the river mists and so the viewer too is introduce to the myriad of colours which shimmer and sparkle in the dusk-like the impressionists did with art, Mallick and Almendros allowed us to view the world with new eyes via the medium of film.

In many ways the film is concentrated with capturing the ephemeral-not just in it’s cinematography,  but also in the dialogue with is often fragmented, with the film frequently cutting mid-dialogue. The film is often mistakenly criticised for being emotionally vapid and superficial-the love triangle, for example, never feels fully fleshed out and the character’s passions seem muted. This is disregarding the fact that the narrator of the film is a young girl, and for her the emotional interplay of the human characters, which she doesn’t yet fully understand, plays second fiddle to the wondrous beauty of nature (she does want to become a mud doctor after all) and the film itself is suffused with a kind of child-like wonder and innocence, with the ethereal beauty of the film masking the tragedy which is shimmering beneath.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Ivan’s Childhood’ by Andrei Tarkovsky

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A film of staggering poetic beauty, ‘Ivan’s Childhood’ is almost like the inverse of an impressionist masterpiece; whilst, like impressionism, the film is concerned with light and colour, ‘Ivan’s Childhood’ explores darkness and the flicker of shadows, of the interplay between monochrome-only Antonioni is able to imbue the colour black with so much beauty and variety, but whereas Antonioni sought to explore the emptiness of the world we live in, Tarkovsky’s themes are far darker and more concerned with the loss of childhood innocence and hope via the brutality of war.

Ivan is a young scout whose family were murdered by Nazi soldiers and the film opens with a dream sequence in which Ivan reminiscences about his childhood, which is bathed in light and hope in comparison the lachrymose present. In many ways the opening dream sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film; the entire film alternates between a kind of Goya-esque nightmare of Ivan’s present the ethereal beauty of his past. ‘Ivan’s Childhood’ it not concerned with the classical tropes of war films; there are no battle scenes, no heroic soldiers or stirring speeches, the film is more concerned with the effect war has on men, children and also the natural world. The symbol of the tree is an important one in the film, as demonstrated by the final scene when the soldier Galtsev imagines Ivan’s idyllic past, suffused with sunlight, until he runs into a dead tree on the beach.

Some of the scenes, such as the scene where we see shadows of the despairing Ivan are astonishingly beautiful and recall the silent films of Dreyer and ‘Sunrise’ by Marnau and just like Ivan trying to grasp the reflection of a star in the water of a well, so the viewer is left trying to grasp the childhood of Ivan before it is taken out of his grasp and replaced by the darkness and degradation of war.

‘Dreams of my Russian Summers’ by Andrei Makine

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Andrei Makine’s beautifully dappled style, the conflagration of colours which leap from the page and the obsession with memory and the past recalls Proust (who makes an appearance in the novel); Makine lacks Proust’s genius, yet ‘Dreams of My Russian Summers’ reverberates with beauty and pathos.

The story follows the story of a young Russian who is torn between the exoticism, grace and individuality of French culture, as represented by his French grandmother, Charlotte, and the autocracy and brutality of Soviet Russia, which sought to do away with individualism in favour of collectivism-gone was the idiosyncratic genius of Tolstoy and Chekhov, in its place was the cruelty of the Soviet state and the promotion of the collective will and shallow populism. The narrator’s French grandmother, Charlotte, is the light with which he is able to gain his sense identity outside of the shackles of the Soviet state.

The narrator coalesces photos and anecdotes of his grandmother with the vibrancy of his own imagination, to re-imagine France as his grandmother would have experienced it; from the libidinous President to the picture of three mysterious women, his re-imagining of his grandmother’s past is they key to unlocking his own sense of individuality, of re-discovering something outside of the mundaneness of his life;

The second memory was do distant that it could not be dated. There was not even a precise me in its nebulousness. Just the intense sensation of light, the aromatic scent of plants and silvery lines crossing the blue density of air, which many years later I would identify as gossamer threads….for in my grandmother’s stories I was to rediscover all the elements of this memory; the autumn sun of a journey she made to Provence, the scent of those fields of lavender and even those gossamers floating in perfumed air.”

The narrator eventually moves to France, his search for his grandmother’s past becomes fully realised as a journey of self-discovery as he finds the France of his imagination does not correspond to the reality, that it was not France, or Russia or any other tangible object that he was seeking, but rather the wonders of the imagination and memory which allow him to recreate and re-live the past of his grandmother.

‘Mansfield Park’ by Jane Austen

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‘Mansfield Park’ in the story of the sensitive and somewhat prudish ward Fanny Price and of her relationship with her rich relatives, the Bertram family. For some reason, despite being the most emotionally and artistically satisfying of all Austen’s novels, Mansfield Park is probably the least popular Austen novel; perhaps because the serene and sensible heroine, Fanny, lacks the spirit and vivacity of Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Woodhouse or perhaps because on the surface, the romantic hero, Edmund could be considered to be dull and one-note. Yet perhaps this is rather myopic reading of the characters. Edmund is perhaps no duller than the austere Mr Knightley and is certainly preferable to the socially awkward yet morally rigid Mr Darcy and Fanny has an emotional intelligence and sensitivity with Elizbaeth and Emma lack.

Indeed from a structural perspective, ‘Mansfield Park’ is perhaps by some distance Austen’s most complex novel; from the play within a boom theme of the risqué ‘Lovers Vows’, in which the choice of characters mirrors the situations which the actors find themselves in, ‘Mansfield Park’ is a novel which is rich in symbolism, such as Fanny’s palfrey and William’s chain. The story also contains, as Nabokov notes, a series of Dickensian characters, from the grotesque Mrs Norris to the common and coarse Price family, whose vulgarity so upsets Fanny, to the spectre of slavery which haunts the novel.

Readers who find Fanny dull are perhaps missing the fact that, although she lacks the spirit of Austen’s other heroines, she makes up for it with her perceptiveness and intelligence-indeed whereas, for example, ‘Emma’ is about the vivacious heroine gradually realising the error of her ways under the guidance of men, Fanny is able to see through the superficial and glib charm of the Crawfords, whilst the other characters flounder beneath the murky waters of the Crawford family, Fanny is the one who is able rescue them and save them from floundering. Indeed, the situation of Edmund, who falls in love with the duplicitous and superficial Mary Crawford is in many ways a gender reversal of the role which the female characters often find themselves in most Austen novels, in that they often fall for the dashing rake but end up realising the error of their ways and marry the solid and respectable alternative.

Mansfield Park doesn’t diverge greatly from the standard format of Austen’s novels, yet it is probably her most well structured and perfectly realised novel in the style and format she helped create and popularize.