Sunday, 28 February 2016

The Curious Case of the Foreign Language Film Oscar

When asked about Tristana's chances in the awards season Luis Buñuel declared “nothing would disgust me more morally than winning an Oscar.” The Academy proved themselves capable of some subtle perversity by rewarding the charmless director with a statuette three years later.

There is another twist fit for the director of Simon of the Desert. The recipient of The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie's Oscar was not Buñuel  or its producer Serge Silberman but France. For it is the quirk of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film that the film is credited to a country -sometimes determined by the origin of the film's financing, sometimes by the director's nationality. The bizarre entry process of one country, one film is more Eurovision than Eurovision (at least there is established national-level selection procedures for the song contest). Instances such as the crediting of Amour -filmed in Paris, in French, starring icons of Gallic cinema- to Austria seem intuitively wrong.

The case against the foreign category is well established. Like Buñuel's saintly Simon suffering atop of a pillar the foreign Oscar stands to express something worthy but is constantly undermined by its own absurd logic. It is token internationalism that serves to underline Oscar's parochialism. Yet to be irritated by the category is also somehow to expect more from Oscar's mandate than is perhaps fair or necessary. Since its creation the Academy has overlooked some of the most daring and innovative contributions to English language cinema. For film lovers the Oscars are at best a laproscopic viewpoint into the bowels of industrial American cinema, observing the bodies that have entered the bloodstream ('their time has come') and those that have been rejected ('snubbed', a word that is a posh for humiliation and in ancient times would have been expressed through tragedy).

It is telling that the foreign language category was officially instated in 1956. This was the year that France and Britain were dealt a humiliating blow over Suez. Although hegemony had long before shifted to the US '56 was the official climb down for the former powers and the acknowledgment of their fundamental dependence. The foreign language Oscar, in its own small way, was a gesture of American supremacy: the rest of the world is a separate category.

Accepting Oscar for who he is, the foreign language award remains a fascinating resource of insights into an industry that isn't used to looking outside of itself. While the great artists of cinema history -Fellini, Bergman, De Sica- are all quietly present in the category's hall of winners, I have the sense that they are there by virtue of their fame having reached the point of unavoidability. The Oscar tag did not affect their careers in the way that a Palm d'Or or Golden Lion would. Its currency is more like an antique coin long out of circulation. 

The Academy has tended towards films that earnestly put the national soul on trial: Official Story brought Argentina's dirty war to global attention; Black and White and Colour lacerated french colonial experience; No Man's Land's makes the Bosnian war the epic of our times; and the many films about Holocaust experience and its complicated legacy (4 winners since 1986, 5 if Son of Saul does, as expected, triumph).

It's this pull towards big themes that makes the period of the late 60s and early 70s a golden age for the foreign language Oscar. The Academy championed brilliant and brave films from Russia and the Soviet bloc- Closely Observed Trains, The Shop on Main Street, War and Peace- all by directors unknown to both audiences and critics. Politics no doubt played a part in the Academy's embracing of films that vexed the communist censors. But this wasn't the whole story. Excitably angry films such as Z and Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion rubbed up against American film culture. Many of these films had not been properly distributed in the US before their award. The statuette was their route to American screens and proof that Oscar can make a positive difference. These films were subtitled but they spoke directly to urgent times. Oscar's taste was broad ranging and daring and, more often than not, spot on.

In the late 70s and 80s something changed. As with the Best Picture category there was a move away from championing the radical to favoring the safe and prestigious. Storytellers such as Imamura, Wenders, Herzog, Pialat, Sembène (could go on...) were changing global cinema but were no where to be seen on Oscar's longlists. By losing touch with these international developments foreign Oscar slipped into obscurity. Films such as Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (1978's winner), Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (1980- perhaps the first ever Com-romcom), Dangerous Moves (1984), The Assault (1986) are not only under-seen but practically unavailable now. The fact that Oscar has failed to rescue them from the abyss demonstrates the award's lack of credibility.

This is a shame. Where the Academy's choices in the 'main' categories are so often swayed by star power -both in front and behind the camera- Oscar's foreign film choices have largely been in favour of unknowns. Dangerous Moves was Richard Dembo's first time. Like many winners of the award his subsequent career failed to match this early accolade. Think of Mike von Diem, whose wonderful 1997 winner Character was followed by over a decade away from film. Or von Donnersmarck's disappointing work to date following The Lives of Others. Or, for that matter, the CV of one Roberto Benigni post 1998.

Any award will have its share of one hit wonders; but the winners of the foreign Oscar over the last decade seem to be remarkable by their lack of staying power in the cinematic memory. For every Great Beauty there is a handful of Nowhere in Africas. Could it be that the category is cursed? Mike von Diem provides us a convincing explanation. “Hollywood gives you a Michelin star, and then invites you to come over and bake hamburgers.”I wonder what burgers Buñuel was asked to flip.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Nostalgia for Real Things

When making love she had a habit of clawing at the walls. In their first week of passion she succeeded in tearing down all his posters. To make it up, she bought him a garden gnome calendar (“I've no idea why gnomes”). This, along with many other mementos of romance past, make up the Museum of Broken Relationships's summer show at London's Southbank Centre. The Museum proper was opened 3 years ago in Zagreb and contains hundreds of objects sent from exs the world over. Since then the popularity of this archive of heartache has grown and now its curators are embarking on open relationships with multiple cities and relying in part from submissions from these host locations. As in Zagreb its travelling exhibitions are admirably unfussy, sticking to just the donated items and a description of the relationship, with start and end dates, and how the object fits into this moment. Given that as many as a quarter of the items on show at the Southbank are from London the assiduousness with which visitors approach the displays -many faces were almost rubbed up against the plastic casing- may stem from the thrill of perhaps finding a relic of one's own past romantic exploits.

Although I didn't discover anything from mine, I was surprised by how moved, tickled and intrigued I was by the whole thing. Much of what is here wouldn't even make the discarded junk of a provincial car-boot sale; so whence its power? The coupling of object and story obviously appeals to a sense that memory can be stored in a tangible form; without these physical mementos we would have little to anchor our histories. I'm reminded of Sergei Dovlatov's discovery of his suitcase after four years of his Manhattan exile. When he had fled the USSR he was allowed only one case, into which he put “all that [he] had acquired in thirty six years”. Dovlatov, “engulfed by memory”, proceeds to tell a story, in his wonderfully picaresque way, about each item inside it and in doing so realises his own history as lived through a double-breasted suit, pea-green crepe socks and a pair of stolen boots. As Dovlatov reminds us, there's a reason books are shaped like suitcases.

Perhaps in an age where so much is digitalised we are experiencing a kind of nostalgia for the tangible; not so much objet trouvé as objet redécouvert. Receiving a handwritten letter now ranks among the paragons of serious romantic expression; sacking Troy would only top that gesture. Whilst it's always been possible for a theatre ticket or a book or a mixtape to be cherished sentimentally, these days we simply have fewer of these physical items in our lives. I see the memorialising of objects through the Museum of Broken Relationships as a partial recognition that the material paper-trail that once bound us together through forms of socialising and exchange -banknotes, letters, DVDs- are disappearing, or at least transforming into less tangible incarnations.

When Walter Benjamin wrote about the aura of authenticity he wasn't thinking about butt plugs or rice cookers but the Museum of Broken Relationships succeeds in capturing for the 21st century that very Benjaminian concern for how we -whether as collectors or consumers- project ourselves through through objects and objects through us. A concern for Benjamin was the concept of ownership, particularly what happens to the phenomenon of collecting when the object loses its personal owner and becomes public. Although all the original owners of the Museum's items are anonymous we still traverse that precarious boundary between the universalism of the shared experience -haven't we all been there?- and the voyeurism of peeping into the private lives of others, with all their vulnerabilities and raw emotions on show. One item that seemed to consistently command a flock of giggling hoverers, the aforementioned butt plug (with attachable tail), is accompanied by a fetish-frenzied account of body biting in the shadowy passages of the Barbican that would make E L James (or indeed Luis Suarez) blush.

There is also the ambiguity surrounding consent; donations only come from one half of the broken relationship. Given that at the level of ownership these objects were once shared between two, is it ethically acceptable for them to be unilaterally made public? While the majority of the exhibits have the sad old tale to tell of a couple drifting apart, there are also a fair few where wounds are clearly still raw and the wrongs of the cheating partner are laid bare. Here we're not so far from the territory of revenge porn. On the donors page of the Museum's website there is a striking failure to address this concern. Anonymity of person is presumably the sine qua non of ethical reassurance. But should objects themselves not have the right to be forgotten too?

The parts of the exhibition that are most worth remembering are those that don't so obviously call into question the dubious motivations of their donors. They are the ones that really think about how an object can come to stand in, however subjectively, for emotionally involved life experiences. And as these are some of the most important experiences in our lives, do those involved, to use a Benjaminian term, come alive through the objects that emerge during these moments? One admirably self-analytical text describing a 30 year old toy still preserved in its packaging captures this curious form of objectification. The donor writes of how he gave this item to a former girlfriend and has come to see in it everything that was doomed to fail about their relationship: his controlling nature, seeking to mould things to his own will and often unable to attend to the feelings and desires of his partner. He, the same age as the toy, was not ready to open himself up or perhaps, although not said, grow up.

The received meaning of objects is so often at odds with what they have come to represent for the exs. In a brilliant instance of curatorial thwarting of expectations*, a jewellery set is exhibited alongside a banknote. In the text accompanying the jewellery we discover that the partner who gifted this set was a philanderer and repeatedly exploited the donor/author. Pretty but worthless, she concludes. The Turkish banknote tells of quite a different relationship. The setting is a first dinner date: he settles the bill and refuses to accept any contribution from her. Later on, as they are parting, she slips a note into his coat which he discovers the next day. He puts the note in his wallet with the intention of returning it but it ends up remaining there untouched and functioned as a kind of lucky charm for two years, the length of their relationship.

In using the vocabulary of mementos, notions of containing and anchoring give what I'm talking about a degree of unearned fixity. It is precisely what is so subjective about objectification that makes the exhibition such a fascinating thing. They are not symbols because they do not aspire to any universal significance; they are merely things that straddle the boundary between two specific meanings. Is there a better way to think about objects when they become tangled up in this ontological game of public/private Twister? Divorced from their original utility or purpose but through the act of being witnessed and shared taking on new meanings, the objects of the Museum have a similar quality to that of evidence in a courtroom. They testify for the time, energy and emotion that we put into relationships.They are the physical markers of this experience and it would be a tragedy if they were to vanish into the algorithmic ether along with books and films and all the other things that once were real. 

*I owe this point to a JC

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Perverse Politics Playlist

David Cameron's Spotify playlist - curated by a team of special advisers with the occasional input from Sam- is a meticulous assembly of dour 80s fare spiced up with a measure of the inoffensively new, enough to show that he listens. Like his politics. But yesterday, flying out from Brussels after a humiliating tussle with European colleagues over the nomination of “arch-federalist” Luxembourger Jean-Claude Juncker as EU Commission President, I like to think he went off-piste like a Rolling Stone. You Can't Always Get What You Want- it chimes with the mood of a proud Prime Minister who's had his Etonian sense of entitlement chastened. Those stoical lyrics -made all the more mysterious by that opening choir- perhaps afforded Mr Cameron some solace as he drifted in the clouds, leaving behind that whited sepulcher.

Mr Juncker auditions for The Spitzenkandidaten Spring 
But if you try sometimes you just might find, you get what you need. And what if the Junckernaut is exactly what Britain needs? This isn't the schadenfreude of a Eurosceptic desiring to see Cameron's efforts to sell a reformed EU to the British public crash and burn (although I'm sure some rejoicing has been going on in the Tory -and Labour- backbenches). I like the European Union. There are a bunch of really strong economic and political reasons for liking the EU (an eloquent and considered case for the benefits of membership is provided in the UK government's own Balance of Competences review, much to the frustration of many within the government). But ultimately my reasons are personal. I like borderless travel, the Erasmus Programme, a common currency. I like feeling that I belong to the same community as Dreyer and Mann and Varda and Modigliani and Havel and Marx. I feel more European than I do 'English' (whatever that is) and I even think compromise and civil discussion are rather good principles for doing politics.

But nor do I think the process through which Jean-Claude Juncker was anointed Commission president was sufficiently robust. I found the outrage in the (mainly) German media at Cameron's campaign against the Spitzenkandidaten frankly unintelligible. Juncker may be many things but a saviour of democracy he ain't. When a mandate based on a minority of a minority of EU citizens voting for parties that belong to a pan-national parliamentary grouping few had heard of, which had previously selected Juncker as a candidate in a meeting last year that even fewer knew about, is described as the will of people I say dissolve them and elect another. The differences between British and German attitudes to the selection of Juncker may in part be indicative of the distinctions between Bundestag politics and Westminster politics. For historically understandable reasons the former has had its democracy guaranteed through institutional systemisation and privileges process over personality. I like Germans but on politics I feel that we are from different planets; their politics is even more incomprehensible to me than their language or their fondness for terrible police dramas.

Nevertheless, it would have been a disaster for Cameron had he gotten his way. What's happening is a perfect example of perverse politics. The Prime Minister played a high stakes game and waged all his Brussels political capital on blocking Juncker. Despite many private sympathies among this Northern, Eastern and Central European colleagues -the Spitzenkandidaten process is generally seen as a worrying power grab by a bolshie parliament- there was little energy for rocking the Lisbon boat. If Merkel & Co had blinked and given in to the shouty Brit (just as Major and Blair had succeeded in blocking commissioner candidates, Jean-Luc Dehaene and Guy Verhofstadt respectively) Cameron's cheeks would be merrily beaming but his room for manoeuvre would henceforth be diminished and bitterness at acquiescence to British arrogance would be the plat du jour. An alternative would be hastily drawn from other spent forces on the fringes of European politics. Pascal Lamy, former WTO DG and among the Blair worshipers of the French Socialists, was mentioned by Peter Mandelson as a preferable choice. But I don't see how Lamy, whose dire leadership during the paralytic Doha Round and on-the-record integrationalist fervour, would be anymore desirable than Juncker. Indeed, it is one of the very European ironies of this whole episode that in many ways Juncker and Cameron have much in common: both are man of the centre right with records of liberal stewardship of prosperous service-based economies and favour fiscal discipline and making the EU more competitive. As a grey politician who rose from humble origins -his dad was a steel worker- there's a whiff of John Major about Jean-Claude. Hardly the most dangerous man in Europe...

But Auntie Merks didn't blink, and it's telling that even left-wing countries that are not European People's Party fellow travellers fell into line (enjoyment in seeing a British PM tumble after all that bluster? Maybe. The absence of a French contribution to the presidency debate has been one of the more curious aspects of the Cameron Vs Juncker showdown, and the FT speculates that this may point to a withdrawal of French influence in Brussels). Now the ball is in Cameron's court. Literally minutes after Van Rompuy's predictable announcement of the Council's backing of Juncker 'friends of Britain' -Reinfeldt in Sweden, Rutte in the Netherlands, Thorning-Schmidt in Denmark, Stubb in Finland, and of course Merkel- lined up to console the wound-licking PM. Out of fear of further alienating Britain there will be special efforts, it has been promised, to cater for British interests. For the first time in EU history, there was the concession that ever closer union might not suit all states and a high profile job in the commission -possibly the much-coveted single market commissioner- is surely earmarked for a Brit. What, even with President Juncker? Indeed, as we've seen throughout the Eurozone crisis the real power is wielded not by President Barrosso -as cunning a fixer as he often was- but from Berlin. The consummate pragmatist, Jean-Claude will be wise to heed his brokers and offer a reform-shaped olive branch to London.

Could Cameron have hoped for anything better? Probably not. He wins capital in Brussels and plaudits at home for standing up to dem continentals. Merkel wins praise for enforcing due process and standing up to dem islanders. Juncker gets the keys to the commission wine cellar. Everybody wins in this most European of settlements. Which begs the question, is this what Cameron and his advisers had in mind all along. Did they get both what they wanted and needed? Berated for his lack of leadership, his confrontational approach and lack of understanding of EU negotiation, is Cameron actually a true Brussels genius, a master of the dark arts of the perverse politics playlist?

The perverse politics playlist (PPP) is no Oxford PPE; it's too simple and cynical to be accepted as a legitimate modus operandi for politics. It's more poker than chess; it's rationality is seemingly irrational. It's the double bluff of aiming for the centre in a penalty kick: it works, but no one wants to be seen doing it. Think of Nixon reaching out to China, Thatcher increasing the size of the welfare state: they get away with it in a way that their ideological opposite numbers wouldn't precisely because the act is so apparently contrary to their political instincts: it must be right because it isn't ideological. Tony Blair made a whole career out of it. 

PPP is particularly helpful for considering UK-EU relations. For instance, as a Europhile Brit which party should I vote for in the next election? Miliband has said that a referendum on EU membership would be unlikely under a future Labour government and most of the Eurosceptic ideologues are conservatives. But I'd be wrong to vote Labour. Despite Miliband's caution a referendum is something that the British public overwhelmingly want, and come election time next year he will have to concede them that. Although currently, according to YouGov, 36% would vote to leave (a Harris pole has this as much as 50%), were Cameron able to secure some meaningful reform the number would drop by at least 12% (Harris). YouGov identifies the crucial swing vote as being an undecided but Yes leaning 42% whom it calls 'Worried Nationalists'. This is the group that will be most powerfully convinced if they see Cameron fight the good fight in Brussels and come home with the spoils. They are the people who are delighted to see their Prime Minister as the lone ranger stalking the halls of Berlaymont, sticking it to the Goliath Juncker. Labour has intrinsically little traction with this group and Miliband would have to play a massive blinder if he were to claw back enough powers before a 2017 referendum. And if his Brussels skills are anything like his Westminster ones, I wouldn't hold my breath. Only Nixon could go to China and only a Eurosceptic Tory PM can make the case for Britain's membership to the EU. I don't like Conservatism, but in this instance more than my own political predilections are at stake: it's about my Europeanness. And in 2014 Britain that's a joyfully perverse thing to cling to.   

Friday, 13 June 2014

A letter to Nigel Farage from Romanian Cinema

The UK Independence Party has won a national election for the first time, taking the most votes and seats in the European Parliament elections. Ukip gained ten new MEPs and finished taking 27.5 per cent of the vote and 23 MEPs (The Daily Telegraph)

Dear Nigel,

Didn't you do well. You've really stuck it to the out-of-touch metro elite, those Berlaymont bureaucrats, their Westminster cronies and of course the left wing media. Purple may be your party colour but you're no shrinking violet, so I'm sure you'll take anything I've got to say on the chin. Approximately 4 million British voters were won over by your xenophobic scaremongering and appeals to provincial sovereignty. The political establishment of Britain is failing to win the argument and ill fares the land with a party like yours. Democratically, Ukip has spread through open door inflammation.

Among all the barbarian invaders there is one group that seems to bother Ukip no end. You know who I mean. On the first page of your manifesto you describe Romanians as a devious gang of fraudsters, rapists and murderers. “28,000 are held for crimes in London” it incorrectly claims. (The figure of 28,000 -or more accurately, 27,725- is for the number of arrests made over five years from 2008 to 2012, not the number of people. One shoplifter can be arrested and re-arrested dozens of times. The nationality of a criminal is a non-robust statistic based on how the person describes themselves when arrested hence the inclusion in police records of a number of countries that no longer exist -the Irish Free State, British Central Africa- or indeed have never existed e.g. Ruritania.) Even if we put aside your dodgy data the singling out of one group is at best mean spirited and at worst tantamount to racism. Contrary to your fears accession to full EU membership in January did not lead to the Romanian conquests of your high streets and neighbourhoods. Recent figures show that there are slightly fewer Romanians working in the UK in the first quarter of this year compared to the previous quarter. You are 33 times more likely to have a Ukip voter for a neighbour than a Romanian.

Rather than hurl insults I'd like to offer a solution to your “Romanian problem”. You probably don't watch films in foreign languages; you would rather sit down to watch The Great Escape where foreign accents are little more than comedic or menacing devices to set off Anglo-American heroism. I read that your favourite film is Zulu; why couldn't you have shocked us all and said Ma Nuit Chez Maud? If you did watch world cinema you might know some of the great films that have been coming out of Romania in the last ten years. This new wave of filmmaking has been lauded by broadsheet critics and rewarded at posh European festivals, but don't let this put you off. These films have a profound understanding of humanity and much to teach us, Ukip included. And it is because of this empathy that I'm reaching out and asking you to join me on a trip through new Romanian cinema. You might be disappointed at the lack of violence -at least not of the criminal gang kind- and if you are expecting a miserabilist survey of poverty and desperation you will be surprised to discover that the Romania of films like Tuesday After Christmas and Child's Pose has all the modern comforts and consumerist tendencies of Oxford Circus.

The Happiest Girl in the World
Isn't part of your appeal Nigel that you speak for downtrodden middle Englanders neglected by the Westminster elite. Romanian cinema has a lot to say about power: it's relative rather than absolute, possessing it requires that others are powerless. The Happiest Girl in the World is a darkly comic observation of the everyday forces that bully us into submission. It's about a girl, Delia, who wins a car in a competition organised by a softdrink company and, in order to claim her prize, has to star in an advert. First criticised for not being sufficiently photogenic (“she has a moustache!”) then obliged to act out her scene a torturous number of times for an increasingly irritable director, we begin to share in Delia's pain as each take she forces a smile, gulps down the sugary drink (“drink, drink, drink!”) and speaks of her complete and utter happiness. During the filming breaks Delia's father pressures her, through emotional manipulation, to let him sell the car and use the money to convert their house into a B&B.

The Happiest Girl in the World is set in a modern, trendy Bucharest, but in many ways it could be the dark days of communism. State propaganda may have turned into consumerist advertising but the feelings of the individual are still ignored. The Cristian Mungiu-produced Tales from the Golden Age is an omnibus compilation of satirical stories about life under Ceaușescu. Each composite chapter, concise and amusing as they are, knows how to speak truth to authoritarian power. My favourite segment, 'The Legend of the Air Sellers' is Bonnie and Clyde by way of Bill Forsyth. In it a pair of bored teenagers, Bughi and Crina, attempt to make a bit of cash through posing as water inspectors and asking unsuspecting residents to hand over a bottle of tap water for testing and then exchanging the bottles for a modest return. They deploy the fear of the unknown, invisible dangers lurking in our midst, backed by statistics and the façade of respectability. Sound familiar? Ambition ultimately gets the better of them as a plan to exhort a whole tower block of bottles through an air pollution hoax raises too many suspicions.
If Air Sellers is a warning about becoming a victim of one's success, 'The Legend of the Party 
Activist' cautions us against dogma. Of course you don't do ideology do you? You claim to preach 'common sense', although as a privately educated, chauvinistic ex-banker you're neither common nor sensitive. In this segment the eponymous official takes to heart instructions from a party boss that the greatest threat to Romania is illiteracy. He heads off to a rural backwater to make enlightenment his mission. The village population tell him that, as nice as it would be to read, the need for electricity is of greater urgency, and besides they're too busy on their farms to attend classes. You'll probably laugh at the overzealous efforts of the party official, maybe his unimaginative dictates will remind you of those Brussels apparatchiks. But his talk of empowering local communities -whilst also lecturing them on what is good for them- reminds me of all your appeals to everything 'local'. The word appears 42 times in your 12-page manifesto and seems to be synonymous with democracy and empowerment. But if bad policy is when decisions are taken by the few without consulting the many why do you demand for Britain's exit of the EU when a majority of the public stand against this? You do not speak for Britain.

As for the party activist, he ends up being electrified by lightning, appropriately enough.

Your Britain, of empowered municipalities minus the wasteful executives and politically correct jobs, of grammar schools and bobbies on the beat, of low taxes and turbine-free parkland, will still have an NHS free at the point of use (although proof of Britishness may be required). But if you get rid of all those meddling managers and bureaucrats it will mean that doctors, already over-stretched and in short supply (the NHS is currently propped up by imports of foreign doctors, something that you would also presumably seek to curb), would have to shoulder the administrative burden. On that note, let me show you The Death of Mr Lazarescu. Cristi Puiu's stunning film, at times exasperating but always spot on in its commitment to the reality of its characters, tells of a lonely old man who gets sick and is ferried from hospital to hospital in search of treatment by a plain speaking but dedicated paramedic. Mr Lazarescu chose the wrong night to fall ill; Saturday is always busy and tonight there's been a bus accident. With packed out wards and little semblance of order -there's not a manager in sight- the medics that he encounters are not able to give Lazarescu the attention he requires.

What makes The Death of Mr Lazarescu an extraordinary film is its exploration of humanity. This complicates our response; rather than simply being a critique of the failure to provide adequate care to a dying man, the film finds a way to meditate on how we all, without necessarily meaning to, become cut off from empathy. In less subtle hands the doctors would have been either unfeeling and dismissive or sensitive and immediately discerning of the real problem with Mr Lazarescu. Puiu gives us neither. Take the first doctor to see Lazarescu; he is curt, on the grumpy side and responds to the sight of the hall outside his office thronged with patients requiring his attention with an unenthusiastic acceptance (as if to say, I'm really not paid enough for this). His attitude towards our suffering protagonist is seemingly dismissive- Mr Lazarescu should not have been drinking so much with his condition. “Doctor, my head hurts” says the supine patient, to which the doctor snidely remarks “Good, that means you've got one”. Yet when Lazarescu is out of earshot the doctor's tune subtly changes. He reveals to the paramedic that he is concerned for the old man and is sorry that, with the hospital inundated with bus accident patients, there's nothing he can do tonight. In light of this his earlier severe lecturing to Lazarescu takes on a new form of genuine care, mixed with the despair that hospitals are full of people like this. These subtle shifts in tone that reveal greater complexities of characters are not achieved through emotional close-ups or a sentimental soundtrack (the basic aesthetic tools of most hospital dramas). Stylistically Puiu's camera remains a neutral observer.

Worn out but committed to getting her patient seen, the stony heart of the film is the paramedic Mioara (played by the greatest of all Romanian actresses Luminita Gheorghiu). This reminds us that women are so often at the centre of Romanian cinema. Ukip, which doesn't have any female MEPs, isn't renown for its progressive attitudes towards women. Didn't your old comrade in charms Godfrey Bloom once say that no employer with a brain would hire a woman? And didn't you once brag about “so many women” you've knocked up over the years? If we are to believe your self-proclaimed virility then, as a father of three by two women, there are presumably other women that didn't follow through with furthering the Farage clan. I don't know to what degree you supported them, but it certainly doesn't strike me as something to joke about. You'd faint if you went through half of what the women of Cristian Mungiu films go through. This (male) director understands like few others the strength of empathy in women, a realm that, like Julia Kristeva's notion of semiotic expression, is an emotional field beyond language.

The face of Otilia in 4 Months, 3 weeks, 2 Days tells us everything. She has just arrived at a dinner party at her boyfriend's parent's house. They are all prominent types – cardiologists, professors- and the table is set with fancy food and foreign liquor, neither of which are especially common in the Romania of the 1980s (this is the very dark side to the tales of the golden age). What nobody knows is that she has just come from a dingy hotel room where she has been helping her friend abort a pregnancy in the company of a hired abortionist called Bebe (played with spine-tingling menace by Vlad Ivanov). Illegal abortions, common in Ceaușescu's Romania, were nonetheless extremely dangerous (at least 10,000 women died between 1966-1989) and Mungiu captures this event with grisly honesty. And thus the striking juxtaposition of the posh dinner table. For a nearly 10 minute, unedited shot we watch Otilia sit at the head of the table, wedged in between the Bucharest bourgeois and awkwardly attempting to fit in with their polite conversation. Just as with the depiction of a life-threatening abortion Mungiu's camera spares us no discomfort as he hones in on Otilia's distracted face as it tries to disguise her desperation with the appearance of social nervousness. Mungiu's style is naturalistic -no fancy sound editing or clever cuts- but the weight of Otilia's presence seems to partially mute the surrounding chatter. This may be a subtitle issue; I find it difficult in this scene to take in all the transcribed dialogue while sensing what's on Otilia's mind. Like her we're distracted, and things can't just return to as they were before.

Cornelia in  'Child's Pose'
Another great film of Romanian cinema, Calin Peter Netzer's Child's Pose, is about a woman in love. This is a powerful, unique piece; at once a story of the unequal, obsessive love of a mother for her son and a morality tale of inequalities in wealth and power that underline the fragile social structures of post-communist Romania. As the Captain says to Cool Hand Luke, what we've got here is a failure to communicate.

Cornelia (Luminita Gheorghiu, once again luminous) is an affluent interior decorator, lives in a palatial home and socialises with the great and good of Bucharest high society. All, however, is not well with her only son Barbu, a spoilt man-child who spurns his mother's affection (but not her financial support). Cornelia keeps tabs on Barbu through her housekeeper, who also cleans the son's flat, taking note of everything from how he looks to what he's reading (“I've bought him Herta Müller and Pamuk!” she exclaims, showing how her maternal nurturing extends to a diet of Nobel laureates).

When Barbu runs over a child whilst speeding and faces a sentence of manslaughter Cornelia springs into action, mobilising as much as she can of her resources and social connections to ensure that her son avoids prison. What is most striking throughout the film is how the intensity of Cornelia's efforts to secure Barbu's freedom is matched by the son's increasing degree of disgust for his mother's sacrifices. That the source of Barbu's animosity is never revealed suggests that this filial revulsion stems from something suppressed and non-communicable; an Oedipal overcompensation perhaps?

For Cornelia, despite everything, Barbu remains the apple of her eye. The warped extent of the mother's fantasy is shown in an extraordinary scene when Cornelia visits the parents of the killed child. They are poor people but proud too and will not have their own son's life so easily bought off. Cornelia proceeds to beg for Barbu's life, describing how he is such a generous, sweet boy. Her mind seems locked onto a past Barbu (perhaps entirely fictitious), one who “had two years of figure skating lessons and a very beautiful body”, a boy who was all hers. She isn't really making sense to the bereaved parents, who can barely afford to send their children to school. Like so many characters in the film she is reacting to, rather than interacting with, others. The reactive handheld style camerawork makes this especially evident; the camera lingers on Cornelia's face before a delayed lurch round to capture the other speaking characters. Even the camera is failing to communicate.

The title of Netzer's film is derived from a restful yoga pose, a wonderfully ambiguous reference. Meditation is something that a lot of Romanian films are good at. You could use some meditative moments Nigel. All this hyperactive campaigning and rushing around from podium to pub, across the “length and breadth of the country”... what a contrast to the moments of stillness and contemplation that we find in many of the films I've mentioned. One of the most carefully composed of Romanian films is Tuesday, After Christmas. It tells the simple story of man who is a having an affair with his daughter's dentist. He loves this woman but he also feels comfortable with his family life. He knows that his enjoyment of these separate moments of his life, as father and husband and as lover, cannot be maintained forever. The film is full of single shot moments. Radu Muntean's minimalist style of long static takes contains his characters, usually no more than two per scene, in the framed cinespace of our movie screens. The opening scene of a couple lying naked on a bed, entirely content in each other's embrace, is the kind of moment you wished lasted forever. Later we have another moment -Paul is telling his wife that he has been having an affair- and Muntean's static style becomes almost unbearably claustrophobic. The uncertain line between being secure and being trapped is here as visually eloquent as it is thematic.
Tuesday, After Christmas

There are plenty of new Romanian masterpieces I've not mentioned: 12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective are wry, sharp comedies like the best of Ealing, Beyond the Hills re-writes the horror genre to try our brains as well as our nerves. I could go on but I know you're a busy man and have many undeclared expenses to whitewash. So I'll end with this. There are of course more important things to consider when doing politics than films and I don't expect the existence of great cinema to neutralise the concerns of the British public for immigration -from Romania and elsewhere- or disprove the existence of delinquency among some migrants. But what great cinema does do is involve us for 90 to 120 minutes in the lives of other people. The word itself comes from the Greek Kinima, movement; we are moved out of ourselves and sometimes, after the very best films, we are never quite the same. The films of new Romanian cinema that I have written about do exactly this. They resist the unsubtle yanking of heart-strings and tear-ducts that is stock in trade for most sentimental cinema and instead reach after something more real. It's one of the ironies of this medium that only the true masters of the art of creative manipulation can achieve such a state of sheer naturalism.

See these films and then write your scaremongering lies about Romanians. You'll find it's more difficult to tar with the same dirty brush the people of a nation once you have the faces of Mr Lazaescu and Otilia staring at you. Watching these films might also open your mind a bit, your heart a bit, your soul a bit. Ukip is of course entitled to stand up for parochial conservatism, as questionable as this ideology is, but the grinning smugness and Anglo-supremacist rhetoric has to go, whether or not you see these films. If it doesn't then let me give you a warning, via another of Mungiu's tales of the golden age, 'The Legend of the Official Visit'. Once upon a time there was a village that was preparing for a visit from Ceaușescu. Local party officials, keen to impress, spend vast amounts of money and time erecting a bombastic welcome display for the visiting delegation. The night before the big day all the officials, chuffed with their success, get pissed and ride together on the children's carousel. It suddenly dawns on the inebriated officials that there is no-one around to switch off the ride and help them down. The legend goes that they were still there, going round and round, when the presidential motorcade passed through the village. I hope you're enjoying the post-election ride Nigel. When the voting public sober up come 2015 you'll still be up there going round and round.

With un certain regard,

Romanian Cinema*

*as told by Gerard

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Is Boredom the Great Beauty?

When boredom strikes, throw yourself into it. Let it squeeze you, submerge you, right to the bottom. Boredom pulls things out of their usual contexts. It can open ways up for a new configuration of things [...] by virtue of the fact that is has already deprived things of meaning (Joseph Brodsky)

 "Are you bored?" asks a targeted ad on my facebook wall. Well, I have been reading a lot about boredom today. But the accompanied link to a career in the armed forces is perhaps a rather radical remedy to my ennui. Leaving aside for this post the MoD's rather dubious recruitment strategies, channeling the video game-like thrill of military combat as a distraction from the humdrum of life on the dole, the ad reinforces a common perception. Boredom is something that constantly needs to be policed against and kept low. Metaphors of disease are common in the discourse of boredom; perusing a popular search engine revealed numerous suggestions for curing this psychical numbness. Living in a moment of historical opportunity and accessibility -particularly for myself, a relatively privileged middle-class male engineered to be out doing something, being someone- is boredom something akin to a guilt complex, a disappointment of failing to live up to oneself?

I would like to argue a more sympathetic case for boredom - not (simply) for the perversity of promoting boredom as a lifestyle choice but because I feel that we're denying something fundamental to the human condition in seeking to wish it away. It is also -as we can see from the example of La Grande Bellezza's Jep Gambardella- well nigh impossible to avoid banality, even in moments of great beauty. Thus to maintain such a strong aversion to boredom is only to set oneself up for even greater -and potentially more traumatic- disappointment.

Pascal: he took boredom very seriously indeed,
believing it to be a dangerous sensation
synonymous with extreme self-perception
and capable of killing off God 
Philosophy, great at probing aesthetically-worthy notions such as melancholy and anxiety, the sublime and the authentic, has not been so forthcoming on the more common moods that afflict humanity. A handful of thinkers -for the most part, solitary eccentrics existing on the literary fringes of their philosophical moments (Pascal, Kierkegaard, Pessoa)- have taken boredom seriously (see Lars Svenson's A Philosophy of Boredom). A tendency of this class, as exemplified by the Brodsky quotation above, is to see boredom as an opportunity for opening up a “new configuration of things”. A morality of boredom arises: to be bored is to reject the shallow diversions that seek to monopolise our cognitive space. It is to reflect on the Heideggerian fundamentals of our I-ness and strive to live in a way that is more responsive to our inner needs.

La Grande Bellezza's protagonist does not obviously rise to this moral calling. "I didn't want to just live the mundano", Jep Gambardella tells the viewer in one of the choral-backed flights into the mind of the failed writer cum modern day flaneur. "I wanted to be king of the mundani." The English subtitles translate mundano/i as 'high-life', capturing the Martini-drenched decadence of the parties through which we -along with most of the Rome's botoxed oligoi- have come to associate Jep. What is lost, as the similarities to the English mundane imply, is the sense of shallowness of these social diversions (divertimento, fun, diverting).

But the point of La Grande Bellezza is not to present Jep's awakening from all that somnambulant wandering he does down the Tiber banks and through the party train. (For a film with so many street scenes, there are few instances where a character is walking to a specific destination.) It's more about how only through becoming inured to disappointment (in ourselves, in life, in beauty) can one fully comprehend (ourselves, life, beauty). For this Jep is the archetype. At one point he jokes -or is he lamenting?- about how Flaubert failed to write a book about nothing. I'm not sure what the significance of this comment is -Jep's interlocutor isn't interested enough to quiz him on this. Is he admiring the idea of a book about nothing or rather is it the lived experience of failure – Flaubert's unsuccessful pursuit of nothing- that momentarily fires Jep's imagination? Jep could be Flaubert's double. Or, for that matter, Johann Georg Hamann who, in response to a criticism of his laziness, proclaimed that it is easy to work, whereas genuine idleness is really demanding on a human being.

For me the essence of Sorrentino's film is contained in the words of the 104 year old Sister Maria. On a
pilgrimage to Rome to climb St John Basillica's Scala Sancta steps on her knees, the masochistic missionary spurns the curiosity of the capital's chattering classes by refusing all interview requests, allowing only her face and frame, devastated by asceticism, to stand as a powerful rebuke to contemporary hedonism. After a night spent at chez Gambardella she does, however, strike up conversation with her host and grants him insight into one of the great mysteries of her humble existence, why she only eats roots: “Because roots are important”.

Sister Maria's Roman Holiday
Pithily banal. Thwarting expectations of something profound. The response not only encapsulates the film's sense of disappointment but seems to tear down all attempts to find greater meaning beyond the mundane. This is followed by that final scene where the ultimate arrival at the great beauty is remarkable if only for its sheer cliche, the memory of first love. It could be Nicholas Sparks book: that summer night on the coast, the hypnotic sloshing of the surrounding sea, the rays of a lighthouse intermittently sweeping across Jep's face -once young, now old- like the “haggard, inconsistent flashes of beauty” articulated in the course of our protagonist's discovery that he can write a new book. (“Flashes of beauty”, profound but inextricably worldly; is this not a pun on the flash of Elisa's breasts? Remember Ordet: her soul's in heaven, but I loved her body too.)

"Let me show you something"
Like everything else about La Grande Bellezza, it is both mundane and utterly beautiful. Beauty is described as “un trucco”, translated as 'a trick' but also a word for 'makeup'. It is the surface that counts, the mundano; there is no Malickian transcendence, just sex on the beach and other flashes of wonder. Through his boredom -understood as the withdrawal from the active pursuit of greatness- Jep is able to open himself to all the surface beauties of the world. Sorrentino shows us these moments that arrive and pull us out of the drama proper. Think of the erotic dancer in that florescence room at Jep's first party, dancing with such elegance, such pride, a world away from the surrounding madness. She is separate, singular, bathed in the music of Decoder Ring's 'More Than Scarlet' that washes over her like a warm melodic shower. She could be on the stage of the Bolshoi.

Damiel comes down to Earth  in Wings of Desire...
Sorrentino's distinctive visual style, where the camera lunges and swoops, drifts along surfaces and floats through walls, owes much to Wings of Desire. As we drift in and out of Jep's thoughts are we not like Wender's angels? In a way Damiel and Cassiel are a paradigm of reflective boredom: completely observant of the beauty and tragedy of human experience but utterly powerless to access it and thus lose themselves within its myriad distractions.
...could Jep be another of Wender's fallen angels? 

Sorrentino of course hasn't made a boring film, at least in the way we would usually deploy this pejorative. But he has made a film for people who are comfortable being left on their own, who do not need the distractions of heavily-laden plot to sustain interest and, like Jep, are interested in the idea of a book about nothing. I'm fully aware that to many people this is epitome of the deathly dull. So too is Ozu, and Tarr, and Kiarostami. But I love them. For much of my life, since I bought the video of Wild Strawberries at the age of 14 and began my love affair with Bergman (my gateway drug to Dreyer, to Bresson, and all the others who populate the world of cinema that I call my home), I've been aware that what I find essential, my beauty, is boring to many friends, family, housemates. Often the question is “how do you know about this film?”, but essentially what is meant is not curiosity but an expression of bafflement, verging on outright hostility, to my wanting to spend my time watching these strange films. Perhaps they are right and the life of cinephile is boring. We spend sunny days in dark rooms on our own, watching films that are uncompromising in their efforts to ask what it means to be human. But I don't know why anyone would want to do anything else than watch films, that play of image and sound. Un trucco.  

Monday, 28 March 2011

Manufacturing Dissent : The Verso Book of Dissent by way of Humphrey Jennings’s Pandaemonium

‘Hmmm the blanketty Book of Dissent. Now where have I heard that before?’ muses Michael Rosen on Verso’s online discussion board. ‘Not the Chatto Book of Dissent surely? And then its paperback edition the Vintage Book of Dissent ...edited by Michael Rosen and David Widgery.’ Rosen, it appears, was not given advance warning of the striking parallels between the anthologies; The Verso Book of Dissent does, nevertheless, acknowledge his 1991 volume as providing an ‘early inspiration’. Yet where Random House has produced a number of specialist Chatto Books Of I can’t imagine Verso producing rivals anytime soon for the Book of Botanical Verse or the Book of Cabbages and Kings. Indeed, there is something more particular in its relationship to dissent. Tariq Ali’s preface, entitled ‘In Praise of Dissent’, is as much a celebration of the publisher for its 40 years of facilitating inspired interrogation of ‘entire thought-systems and state structures’ as of those who did the interrogating.

Whilst emphasising its commitment to challenging holders of power and abusers of democracy, Ali neglects to mention Verso’s commercial success in recent years. A brief survey of the philosophy and political theory shelves of my local Waterstones found one in every four to be a Verso. Their glossily designed covers, from the minimalist chic of the Radical Thinkers series to Balibar’s Philosophy of Marx, featuring an charmingly woven lace outline of Marx’s face, are books that make Routledge look antediluvian. Critics may feel inclined to put a spin on Chomsky’s famous dictum and accuse Verso of manufacturing dissent, of packaging it into commercially desirable forms so that they slip through the conservative radar of the central managements that police their retail outlets. Yet, when one is being stacked against such titles as Great Philosophers in 30 Seconds and How Proust Can Save Your Life, it is remarkable how books that are unembarrassed by the word ‘dialectic’ manage to compete.

This ambiguous boundary between attacking the capitalist establishment and operating within the logic of its markets in a way reflects what is so Verso about this book of dissent. Editors Andrew Hsiao and Audrea Lim have gathered nearly 400 extracts, fragments and quotations from writings and speeches of a dissenting nature. Unlike the Chatto volume’s division of its material into thematic sections Verso has been arranged chronologically, running from an Egyptian peasant in 1800 BC to a Swedish mystery writer in 2010 AD. Although Ali makes a point in his preface that forms of dissent within ‘established structures whose aim is to strengthen the existing order’ were excluded from the selection, the anthology itself testifies to a more nuanced picture of a history that seems to be as much about reforming from within as overthrowing from without. Whilst it is clear that figures such as Marx and Engels in the Manifesto and the Levellers were theorising spaces outside existing orders it is less obvious how Edward Murrow’s reminder that opposition is essential to a healthy democracy conforms to a subversive mode.
Moreover, the inclusion of the Declaration of Independence and its afterlife in debates on abolition and female suffrage illustrates well this very problem of trying to “locate” dissent. What started life as a manifestation of a people’s defiance against an unconstitutional regime became the cornerstone of a new state’s identity. The Declaration was then used by subsequent critics of the governing elite as both a normative ideal with which to hold the government to account, such as abolitionist Fredrick Douglass’s appeal to its ‘great principles’, and as an index of hypocrisy with which to argue for the overturning of the entire established order, as exemplified by William Lloyd Garrison’s vitriolic editorial in The Liberator. 

Although never directly addressed by Ali or the editors, the question of what exactly it means to write dissentingly is unavoidable for a reader of this volume. The words spoken or written by someone involved in revolutionary activity, such as famous last words and manifestos, are obviously prevalent in Verso; however, in such cases the selection of the piece is due more to its source than its content. For extracts from Sappho and Bessie Head the act of a woman writing is itself revolutionary, even if the content does not necessarily adhere to any standard models of political radicalism. With the inclusion of rebels like Nguyen Quang Bich and Jose Rizal, for whom writing in their native tongue is an integral part of their dissent against colonial powers, the translation into English is one of the more awkward aspects of a book of this kind. And then there is the type of writing that makes protest its issue, one that self-consciously develops its own rhetoric of dissent.

Whilst this final “category” may seem to provide the most scope for general theory hunting it is also the most problematic. For instance, Sallust’s blunt excoriation of wealth and its corrupting powers deploys antitheses, paradiastole, paradox and other stylistic weapons from the rhetorician’s armoury; it is characteristic of what William Garrison later calls ‘the severity of language’ and is of central importance to any history of dissenting literature. Yet the editors are brave enough not to shy away from mentioning that, as governor of North Africa, Sallust was ruthless in his exploitation of the natives and the resources of their land, thus failing to act in light of his censure. The Swedish author Henning Mankell says in the book’s final extract ‘it’s the action that proves the word’, a quote that feels like a stern warning against the divorce of praxis from lexis.

Then again, given the variety of contexts from which the extracts are derived (satire, manifestos, parodies of manifestos, journals, speeches, slogans, aphorisms, novels, poems), it seems to me that Verso is also asking us to consider that there may be certain types of writing that allow for a form of dissent that doesn’t necessarily involve the strict collaboration of word and action. Satire, for instance, gives the dissenter the ability to criticise without needing to supply the kind of positive alternatives that we would expect from a manifesto. Indeed the power of James Tytler’s 1797 attack on the slave trade, ‘The Petition of the Sharks of Africa’, lies precisely in allowing wrongness to speak for itself: to what is presumably the mind of an imagined trader the improving of the safety of his vessels is unacceptable for one could ‘not suffer sharks to starve in order that negroes be happy’. And, in the case of Sallust, his censure is one of the key contributions to a type of moralistic record, later seen in Tacitus, that is critical of the hedonism of the powerful. Thus dissent lies with the genre rather than the particular author. This idea of a type of dissent transcending the actions or beliefs of its writer also helps explain the inclusion of an extract from Satan’s radical call to arms against the tyranny of God in Paradise Lost, something of which Milton would not have consciously endorsed. 
My main concern here is not so much what dissent is but how we’re to go about reading it through this book. Nick Lezard in his Guardian review of Verso describes the book as a ‘delightful anthology to dip into’, suggesting a coffee-table quality that for many would be the most obvious way of entry. Other reviewers have used ad nauseam the ‘from…to’ construction to imply that vastness is a merit in itself, that if something can go from John Milton to Marvin Gaye it must be worth £12.99, even if actually getting from the one to the other is a lot less exciting than the arbitrary coupling implies. All of this assumes that the reader of The Verso Book of Dissent doesn’t have the obligation to pore through every page from start to finish in the way she or he would when following the argument of a book of philosophy or a novel.

This reflects the way we treat anthologies as ragbags of little gems, a series of tasters that is more a survey than a work in itself. Verso, which is not usually in the business of publishing delightful anthologies, is trying to say something about the place of dissent in history beyond simply directing our attention to a catalogue of political and social radicals. Thus, rather than taking the Chatto books as the index for comparison, it may be more worthwhile to look for an alternative paradigm. One may choose to consider this through Benjamin’s ‘montage as history’ in The Arcades Project. Benjamin generates through his ‘constellation’ of fragments related to nineteenth century Paris a space for encountering history in the rich plurality of its different voices. Reading it is to be overwhelmed and disorientated by history, the desired effect of Benjamin’s reaction against traditional narratives but one that is markedly different from the experience of the judiciously edited Verso.

I would prefer to look closer to home in the form of Humphrey Jennings’s Pandaemonium: The coming of the machine as seen by contemporary observers, not least because its chronological arrangement of material is structurally closer to Verso than either Benjamin or Rosen’s works. Jennings has only recently received recognition as Britain’s pre-eminent documentarian after decades of neglect, with films such as Listen to Britain (1942), Fires Were Started (1943) and Diary for Timothy (1945) being seen to have opened up social realism to new artistic possibilities. His literary output is still largely unknown, resting mainly on his contributions, as poet and painter, to British Surrealism in the 1930s.

Finally published in 1985, 35 years after Jennings’s death, Pandaemonium is an attempt to outline how the advances in technology and the industrialisation of labour has affected the way people think -formally, casually and imaginatively- and how this manifests itself in the images and stylistic devices that gain (and lose) currency in various kinds of writing from 1660 to 1886. This isn’t simply a two cultures divide: Jennings explores imaginative expression in science writing and mechanistic tendencies in literary practice.

Beyond the publication difficulties, Pandaemonium’s neglect may also be due to certain dated theoretical penchants that, if isolated from the book, would indeed confine it to eccentric irrelevance. There is a characteristically Surrealist medley of Marxism and Jungian psychoanalysis in Jennings’s professed belief that images have a special power over us and that language is not entirely personal but bound up with various forms of ideology. Similarly, Jennings’s theory that ‘by 1750 […] poetry has been expropriated’ from ‘common language’ due to an irrevocable rift between the poet and the newly mechanised thought processes that pervade society is only a slightly more Fabian way of thinking about F. R. Leavis’s use of literature and history. Leavis, who happened to have supervised Jennings at Cambridge, proposed that the ‘organic community’ of traditional culture, identified more as an aesthetic ideal than an historical phenomenon, became cut off from high society. However, unlike Jennings, Leavis could never make up his mind on a date for this cultural diremption and, late in his career, even pushed it back as far as the time of Chaucer.

Thankfully, Pandaemonium is more interesting to us than the sum of its theoretical parts. Through the selection of 372 ‘images’ Jennings attempts to construct a narrative of history whilst also maintaining his chronological trajectory. In so doing, the book explores how a collection of parts might constitute a whole work. His avoidance of the word extract is, I think, an important indication of his attempt to get away from the idea of the individual part being defined by an absence, of being a tokenistic representative of something larger. Rather, his images are meant to be interesting in themselves and made sense of not in relation to their source material but to the other images in Pandaemonium. 

There is commentary, but it is brief, irregular and does not argue out the relationships between texts but suggests ways to go about conceptualising a unifying narrative. For instance, one note asks us to compare a piece on the souls of animals to ‘Wesley in 41 on ‘the beasts that perish’, i.e. the workers.’ Within the space of a further sentence comparisons are suggested to Locke’s image of the mind at birth as a blank slate and some lines from Wordsworth. Jennings’s mind, whilst superb at spotting obscure connections, was less tolerant of difference, of the idea that surface similarities may, on closer inspection, reveal alien details that disturb comparison. But then this objection misses the point of Pandaemonium, for it isn’t a work of probing historical analysis but of creative link making that is its own kind of myth making.

Within the constraints of the chronological arrangement Jennings structures the material so as to provoke certain interpretations, such as the opening juxtaposition of Milton’s diabolical council and a memorandum from the first meeting of the Royal Society. This witty pairing feeds into Jennings’s perception that the institutionalisation of science is partially unsound and that, in a way, resulted in the corporatisation of labour. Later the effect of formal scientific thinking on language is hinted at by a playful image from Erasmus Darwin on optical illusions that takes the word ‘BANKS’ as a test subject. The meaning of the word is unimportant, being used merely because it is ‘the right length’ for the experiment. Darwin’s inadvertent demonstration of how a word can be rendered semantically redundant for the purposes of experimentation is followed by an extract that presents the reduction of animal life to a tool for scientific investigation. This latter piece describes how a fellow of the Royal Society, on his way to visit friends, spied a frozen snake and ‘put it in his pocket to dissect’ only for it to later thaw and spring out of his coat, much to the horror of polite society.

The concern for setting up similarities isn’t anywhere near as obvious in The Verso Book of Dissent. On the contrary, the editors seem to relish disturbing the emergence of narratives for one particular type of writing. For instance, rather than setting up a tidy juxtaposition of an extract from Lenin’s 1917 The State and Revolution article and the 1918 Clause IV of the Labour party constitution, the editors have punctuated this demonstration of the international valences of socialist thought with a 1917 letter from a Somali religious leader, Mohammed Hassan, to a British colonel. Hassan’s heartfelt plea to imperialist forces to leave his home, which to them is ‘bush and stones’ but to him is worth dying for, is a striking counterpoint to the ideological conditions and abstractions within which more organisational forms of dissent operate.

Even when the pairing of similarly themed extracts does occur in Verso, the juxtaposition often serves to underline greater degrees of difference. For instance, a 1918 speech from the dock by the convicted pacifist John Maclean is immediately preceded by an extract that uses the courtroom setting for the allegory of Armenia standing trail for rising up against the Ottoman Empire. The image of old lady Armenia ‘bathed in blood’ finds a curious echo in Maclean’s description of himself as ‘dripping with blood from head to foot.’ Yet any coupling is to be taken with a fistful of irony, for the dissent of a pacifist is incommensurable with the violent resistance of the Armenians.

For Verso the chronological method is a corrective against the tendencies to subordinate extracts to an overarching narrative. Such unfortunate tendencies can, however, be observed in Pandaemonium, such as when Jennings is at pains to link Thomas Pennant’s 1772 account of the disappearance of traditional Hebridean communities to extracts from Wordsworth’s Solitary Reaper (1805) and Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale (1819). Jennings evidently thinks the point so important that, rather than allowing us to make these connections, bucks his own ordering by bringing two later texts back in time to the 1770s.

What I think this comparison with Pandaemonium affords is the acknowledgment that for both texts the arrangement of the material is not incidental but central to their arguments. In seeking to determine the ‘place of the imagination in the world today’, Jennings forms his concepts from a narrative of history and thus encourages a way of reading that sees time as being held together as if by a dialogue of images. Verso, however, points to a degree of incoherence in conflicting historical narratives so as to problematise some of our inherited concepts. Indeed, the latter volume is as much about how ideas are shaped in the appropriation and distortion of them by future generations as they are informed by the generations that came before. For instance, in following the extracts that sketch the various directions that socialism took in the twentieth century the book reminds us that the most exciting and successful attempts to organise a working class movement around Marxist and anarchic principles originated not in the hinterland of the European intelligentsia but among trades union activists in North America. It is fascinated to see much of the rhetoric of American Marxism finding a second life a decade later in the writings and slogans of the Soviet revolutionaries, such as the adoption of the IWW constitution by the rebelling Kharkov miners in 1917.

Whilst in their conceptual form we may be cognisant of feminism and socialism as complementary entities, a number of extracts show that as contextually contingent movements they were not always so mutually sympathetic. The trade unionist Mother Jones criticises ‘the whole machinery of capitalism’ on the basis that it corrupts female innocence by forcing women abandon their household duties to the labour market. Later, the editors draw out elements of chauvinism in writings of radical socialists such as the (exclusively male) leaders of the Black Power movement (‘the only position for a woman in the SNCC’, writes Stokely Carmichael, ‘is prone’) as well as elements of fascism in the feminism of Valerie Solanas’s manifesto for the Society for Cutting Up Men, or just SCUM. 

However, if the editors of Verso are familiar with Pandaemonium (I have no reason to suppose that they are) it doesn’t show. Despite their book’s many accomplishments it ultimately errs precisely where Jennings succeeds. Reading Verso one becomes increasingly conscious of the editors’ pains to cover all the major movements, struggles and causes, particularly those that crowd the twentieth century. That the material becomes somewhat tokenistic shouldn’t be surprising for a book of this kind, and nor is it a bad thing as long as the selection is representative in a sufficiently eclectic and thoughtful way. However, lazy inclusions such as Edward Carpenter as the token homosexual belittle Carpenter’s contributions as campaigner for many of the other causes represented by Verso. Jennings, as it happens, includes an extract from Carpenter’s blistering prose poem about child poverty Towards Democracy, a much neglected work that exists somewhere between Dickens and Dylan. Verso, by too often presenting figures in the forms for which they are best known, takes reputation at face value rather than seeking to question or broaden it. This results in a kind of dividing up of dissent into certain key issues, with each having its own stock representative. This runs contrary to Jennings’s belief that extracts have a life beyond their authorial context and that by including them within his narrative they become active in a unifying trans-historical conversation.

This compartmentalisation is also at odds with what the editors are trying to say about dissent. If it is plural and resists standardisation then it is not something that should be carved up and assigned iconic mouthpieces. However, this is what is likely to happen when dissent is separated from the discourses that it is reacting against. The editors of Verso have put together a book that opens up fascinating debate with itself over the conditions and forms of dissent but sidelines the more immediate debates that dissent throws out to its opponents. A history confined exclusively to complaint, injustice and vitriol inadvertently calls into question the very effectiveness of dissent as a coordinated response to wrongdoing. What does it mean that after 4000 years we are still having to operate through a variety of subversive and disruptive means to implement positive change in society? The cynical answer may be that as long as these voices of disaffection continue to be excluded from ‘entire thought-systems and state structures’ there will be some corner of free market liberalism that is forever Verso.