Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Lawrence Osborne – Bangkok Days (2009)

For a country which has been a Mecca for tourism, it’s surprising how little literary travel writing there is about Thailand (particularly on the part of Australians, for whom Bangkok is a likely stopover on the way to, gosh, nearly anywhere else). But perhaps that relates to the reasons many go to the country (sex tourism, backpacker parties or beaches), or to the cultural capital that it holds in Western discourse (very little in comparison to France or Tuscany). While the shelves hold Bangkok Babylons and jail memoirs, quality travel writing on Thailand remains a niche crying out to be explored – as I found when I became interested in the topic. Lawrence Osborne’s work bears an interesting relationship to this subject – his prose is accessible and not always a triumph of style (though on the other hand, he avoids floridity, a frequent danger in travel writing), but at the same time he has a gift for the arresting and original image or metaphor which elevates the work above its already-mentioned peers, while still dealing with salacious material – sex, drugs, and the expat life.

Osborne arrived in Bangkok in pursuit of affordable dental treatment, and, beguiled by the city, ended up drifting around for long enough that he eventually made it his home. Essentially a flâneur, it is his melancholy relationship with the city and its seamier denizens, Thai and farang, which form the nucleus of the work. Like Osborne himself, the narrative drifts from subject to subject, but this aimlessness reflects the expat life and the interaction Osborne has with his adopted home – if he can decide whether, indeed, this is his relationship to Bangkok. While there are evocative descriptions of the city, the book is better considered as a reflection on the West and the Orientalist image of the East (although this is generally reflected, rather than reflectively considered, in the text) – Osborne has few if any meaningful interactions with Thai people, and doesn’t give deep consideration to their perspective. Rather, it is the ageing farang’s place in (usually) his own culture, and the way that that shapes the relationship with Thailand as a cut-price pleasure garden combined with an understrata of poverty and desperation, which is the central issue in focus (Osborne's lack of knowledge of Buddhism, given the use that he tries to make of it as a theme of analysis, is also problematic).

While these points are certainly worth criticising – in particular, there is little consideration of the systemic dynamics and personal empowerment, or lack thereof, of Thai sex workers and the trade, but rather a typically Western valorization of a culture of sexual freedom and lack of shame (combined with an unfortunate anti-feminist rant) – the question of intercultural understanding per se is, in any case, not really the focus of a work which is more concerned with surfaces and with introspection. Osborne alternates between detached observer and hedonistic participant in the tawdry or kitschy bacchanalia on offer, and this combination also lends interest to his book. A flawed but fascinating exploration – literally and metaphorically – of a labyrinthine and contradictory metropolis.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Suspiria (1977)
Profondo Rosso ('Deep Red', 1975)
Tenebrae (1982)

There’s probably little new to add to the vast reams of commentary on Argento’s work – but here am I, here you are - or, to put it another way, Dario where all men have gone before... I must admit, to my chagrin, that I’ve started watching Dario Argento films a number of times on DVD and turned them off. But I thought that a big screen festival might present the perfect setting to challenge my déclassé tendencies (not that all culturally acclaimed works are deserving of their status – Radiohead, Animal Collective, oh and Stephen Sondheim, I’m looking at you). And it was. The two great strengths of Argento’s classic films – visual and sonic aesthetics – mean that they demand to be appreciated in an immersive environment to have their full impact – while the faults of the less realized aspects of his work, plot and character, fade into the background.

In balancing these elements, Tenebrae was the most impressive of this trilogy (having already mis-spent some time with it, I gave the unfortunate Phenomena/Creepers a miss, despite the involvement of the divine Jennifer Connelly), inasmuch as the dialogue achieves a depth of B-grade camp which contributes to the perfervid atmosphere – my favourite line being that delivered by the conflicted femme fatale: ‘I feel so … sleazy.’ While the decadent fin-de-siecle atmosphere of Suspiria (the first in Argento’s ‘Three Mother Trilogy’) is beautifully achieved, it savoured just a little too much of the flocked wallpaper and overstuffed furniture so redolent of less iconic ‘70s B movies – whereas the modernist chic of Tenebrae, combined with Goblin’s synth soundtrack which, for my taste at least (I am a diehard fan of the synthesizers of the 80s), hit the spot just a little more closely than the admitted masterpiece produced by Goblin for Suspiria, and worked more perfectly with the overall aesthetic. Indeed, Argento himself intended the film as a ‘step into the world of tomorrow,’ set in a futuristic city a few years in the future, and while this isn’t clear from the film itself, the mood that this intention has created is clearly apparent.

Suspiria is renowned for its set pieces, which are indeed the strongest of this trilogy, but Deep Red, a strange mix of horror and comedy (but not quite a horror-comedy) which is otherwise the weakest of the three (though dealing with some interesting social issues – the artist through a Marxist lens, and homosexuality, even if the plot workings related to the aforementioned ultimately plays to homophobic stereotypes) also has some deeply memorable, and deeply creepy, tableaux: while the evil puppet is a masterful moment, for me it is perhaps the ‘eye in the wardrobe’ which is the most memorable and arresting scene in a film very much concerned with the gaze, the close-up as an inquisitorial device, one which transforms the everyday into the sinister and mysterious. Indeed, the relationship between the gaze (directed at the fictional text), and the film itself as an object, is one which is made manifest in both Tenebrae, where the murders follow those described by a thriller writer, and in Deep Red’s obsession with the ocular. A flaw in the latter is the language, however, which jumps from English to Italian (and even German) from sentence to sentence - at least in the print I watched - a device which never quite gels.

Of course, we should perhaps consider Deep Red and Tenebrae separately, as examples of gialli as opposed to Suspiria’s horror supernaturalism, but this distinction is somewhat nebulous given the supernaturalism which sets the plot of Tenebrae in motion, and the horrific deaths which are central to all three. Argento, as has often been noted, knew how to give his audience grue without making this the defining characteristic of his work – but, although the majority of victims are female, to my mind charges of misogyny are unjustified, except in the context of the comparison between the gender politics of the times and our own, as well as the masculinist themes of the hard-boiled detective, as embodied in the unsuccessfully comedic ‘sex war’ between Deep Red’s protagonists.

Apart from the audio qualities of Argento’s films – which includes not only Goblin’s soundtrack work but also, in particular, the precise employment of cuts between diegetic and exegetic sound – the colour is perhaps the most impressive achievement, drenching the works in lurid and glistening sheens which are not only deeply beautiful, but which are a highly effective tool, in creating the film as a self-contained world, another facet which tends to detract from their flaws (apparently this is a result of the use of imbibition Technicolor, if that means anything to you, gentle reader – to me it conjures only visions of overindulging film technicians).

While we may have Argento to thank for the unfortunate rise of the slasher flick, the present works, for all their flaws, are not only hugely influential and enjoyable – to return to my original point, they remain paradigmatic embodiments of the cinematic (in all senses) in film, a timely reminder in an age in which, as far as the cult film is concerned, we have traded the embodied experience represented by the arthouse cinema for the widespread choice and availability offered by DVD and the internet – a process with elements of the democratization of taste which I certainly wouldn’t want to sniff at, but nonetheless in some ways a pyrrhic triumph of the market.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Colin MacInnes – City of Spades (1957)

My interest in City of Spades was initially inspired by a growing fascination with mod subculture. MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners is considered to be a classic evocation of the mod era, but CoS was the work that I managed to pick up secondhand, and also the first in the London Trilogy, of which AB is the second. And it was certainly absolutely worthwhile, particularly but not only if one has an interest in the Caribbean and African diasporas in London (for me, initially a function of a serious obsession with reggae, again tying us back to the ‘60s and the overlap between skinhead and mod culture – both characterised by a fascination with black music, in particular early ska, reggae & northern soul).

The text is experimental around the edges, using contemporary argot and some startling and original descriptive and metaphorical language, but the narrative is essentially straightforward – the misadventures of Johnny Fortune, a charismatic Nigerian in 1950s London. The first-person voice alternates between that of Fortune himself (an interesting technique which today might be more controversial, the emulation of a black voice by a white writer) and that of his increasingly exasperated friend Montgomery Pew, a white man caught between the slatternly iniquities of English racism, bureaucracy and the colonial mindset (some refrains of which, unfortunately, remains all too familiar), and the black world, in relation to which he feels desire, ambiguity and exclusion. The subjects with which the novel deals are deeply controversial (and must have been even more so at the time), including drug taking, prostitution, abortion, homosexuality (perhaps the ‘otherness’ least sympathetically dealt with, though nonetheless not completely viewed through the eyes of prejudice), and inter-racial sexual relationships.

In today’s milieu, some of the views expressed (though certainly appropriate to the characters) which seem to hold a certain amount of authorial sympathy would be considered problematic, but for the period this is an astonishingly nuanced representation of race and race relations, and, although I would be the last to decry political correctness in the way which is such a fashionable catch-all condemnation, there is a freshness to this writing which reflects an era in which these questions of representation were still in the embryonic phases of being picked over and examined. On the note of race and literature, Caryl Phillips has written an excellent and considered reflection on the absence of black characters in canonical 1950s London novels (a period when that society was changing deeply and indelibly as a result of black immigration), which deals in depth with CoS as an exception (which, incidentally, also mentions Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, a play I first came across as a foundational work for Morrissey). One aspect of the intercultural situation well-captured by the novel is the deep desire felt by the white characters for the black Other (particularly in relation to sexuality and authenticity), a desire which may form the only real basis of agency graspable by the black subject in order to speak back to the centre. This desire in itself may be an issue for the modern reader– an aspect explored by Phillips – one made particularly manifest, for this reader, in a growing frustration with the seeming inexhaustibility of Johnny’s allure, sexual and otherwise, in the face of his increasingly cruel and manipulative behaviour (though perhaps there is a touch of realism in this connection). However, apart from anything else, the underculture in which the novel immerses the reader, along with the beguiling kitchen-sink quality of the drama and the purposefully unresolved notes of intertwined hopelessness and hope which the novel sounds make not only for an immersive socio-historical document, but also a deeply vital and arresting read.