Just Maybe, A Flash of Joy

Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur);  2017 / France; a film by Claire Denis; with Juliette Binoche, Gérard Depardieu; inspired by Roland Barthes' 'A Lover's Discourse’; Curzon Soho

Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida: names to conjure with, a decade or two ago, spreading panic in the souls of undergraduates everywhere, and not just those attempting fairy floss degrees of Literature or Philosophy. Their heresies emerged like a kind of holy fire, Deconstruction, Semiotics, Post-Structuralism, burning corruption into every field of the Humanities: Linguistics, History, Gender Studies, and horror of horrors, Politics and Economics. Nothing was as it had formerly seemed. The only place you could look, from now on, was inside. There was no longer any external power that wasn’t tainted, rotten, coloured by suspect motivation, ruled secretly via manipulation and mendacity. The answer: look inside yourself for liberation. Inward lay freedom.

Looked at another way, from another standpoint, one occupied by those eager to believe, what’s more exciting than a bonfire? Sweep it all away, the ridiculous canon of accepted writers and thinkers, the discredited and outdated gospel of a dead and decomposing social, political, economic, artistic creed. Why wouldn’t the baby boomer generation wholeheartedly embrace something so utterly new and inherently destructive; after all, in destruction lay true creativity, no?

It seems such a little while ago that someone declared the end of history; someone else the end of the generation gap; someone else the end of boom and bust. The end of the age of the baby boomers seems not to have been so blithely predicted by its constituents. So far. The book which inspired this film perhaps, in its self-satirical tone, predicted its end as early as 1978, maybe, in retrospect, at the zenith of the age. Fragment d’un discours amoureux, translated as A Lover’s Discourse, Fragments, (a translation that is perhaps as unsatisfying as the English translation of this film’s title, which even to my poor French tends to suggest some kind of inner sun, a personal sunlight, rather than opening up to an outside source of sunlight*) isn’t specifically about a particular lover, is rather about those kinds of fragments, or figures, as in the movements of a skater or the shapes of a dancer, fragments of love speak, bits and pieces of the multiple ways anyone who fancies being in love can torture themselves. 

Barthes arranges these fragments alphabetically. This is in an attempt to avoid a random ordering, because, as he says, chance may have unwittingly produced logical sequences and the corollary of that might be meaning and what follows meaning as night follows day is: philosophy! The last thing he wanted to suggest was a philosophy of love or of a lover’s self-laceration.

It should be noted now that the book is a lot of fun. As is the film. Claire Denis and her collaborators get the intense seriousness, the source of the humour, exactly as the book, just right. Love is a solo sport, mais non? Everything is random, and nothing is. One love affair has nothing to do with and no connection to any other, non sequitur after cul-de-sac after wrong turning. I am the only source of all my heartache and happiness. Everyone is a mystery, simply existing to cause me grief or, just maybe, a flash of joy.

It seems a truism that the lover exists (or ought to) to offer love and happiness to another. That to focus on their own experience is somehow a little embarrassing, a bit too much information. And yet, there’s also something unhealthy, feeble, unsound about the too, too unselfish lover, the endless supplication, the sacrifice, the surrender. One inward landscape is in danger of looking just like another.

It’s another truism that no one predicted the internet, or Facebook, and yet everyone did. It seemed, all those years ago, not such a stretch that the evil corporation could find a way to reach into your home, your bedroom, your very soul, to sell you stuff, stuff the baby boomers of 1978 yearned for; that a turning inward was nothing so much as a challenge to evil commerce as it was a leap for freedom.

In the age of the machine, of the factory and of factory politics, everything outside looked malevolent and out of control. The only thing that was true, that could be relied upon, was inside, the landscape of the inner life, where all certainty resided. (It’s remarkable that Facebook, ostensibly a friend to the personal, should turn out to be so malevolent.)

I guess what Barthes, and Claire Denis, is hinting at is that love, conversely, concerns a turn away from the personal to a concern for building something separate from both lovers. An external force over which we have no control is threatening. Building something external together can connect us in ways that are beyond the binary of me good, out there bad.

The work of these philosophers, their ideas, have entered the mainstream in such a pervasive way that it’s almost impossible not to know, secondhand, at least, that they stood for a kind of courage, that it was everyone’s responsibility to keep looking, searching, weighing up; that all received wisdom is suspect and something which is free, or free spirited, is the most suspect of all.

Is Barthes’ satire just a little too clever for its own good? But who could possibly miss the humour in lovers’ agony alphabetised? Those in love with love, maybe? And the film? Could Isabelle’s (Juliet Binoche) serial search for love be taken seriously? If you didn’t know the book maybe; and the idea that love is now something which has to provide a personal, private return, as though it was somehow listed on the stock exchange, is becoming so pervasive in our culture that anything’s possible. But the film really is very funny, and ultimately, a wonderful take on the work of a great writer and philosopher.

* Claire Denis herself, in discussing the film, uses the phrases, ‘beautiful inner light, the soul’s radiant blaze’.

Paul Corcoran

Will This Be The Last War On Earth?

Close-Up on Andrei Tarkovsky; Close-Up Film Centre, London. 7 November - 22 December 2017.

Close-up cinema’s exhibition of Tarkovsky's seven masterpieces is not an easily digestible affair. Perhaps more so in the present world, as we become comfortable with the immediacy of smart phones and online content. Slow moving camera movements combined with epic run times (Andrei Rublev is over three hours long) are truly a world apart from the attention required to consume a snapchat video or scroll through Facebook. The most challenging aspect in entering Tarkovsky’s world is time itself, letting go of it as one might ordinarily experience it is the key to gaining insight into the meanings installed. Tarkovsky wants the audience to experience the world he’s created and sometimes even instructs the audience on how to to access it. In Stalker during the first scene the wife acts as his messenger "Why did you take my watch?” Tarkovsky may have been prominent over 30 years ago but it would appear that with regrettable events such as Brexit and the appointment of Mr 45 to the Whitehouse, Tarkovsky’s ideas of time and the world may still be relevant today. 

Growing up in Soviet Russia during the Second World War, Tarkovsky experienced first hand the horror of warfare, Ivan's Childhood is perhaps the most potent reflection of this. We follow Ivan, a young boy who seeks revenge for his family who were slaughtered in a Nazi raid. He is determined to do his part in the war as a spy for the Red Army in daring top secret missions. As Ivan becomes increasingly absorbed by the mechanics of warfare it becomes eerily comparable to present day conflicts in the Middle East and the innocence which has become entangled. Slow, long tracking movements through stunning yet surreal natural environments, provide stark contrasts to mankind’s so called progression which results in much destruction during Ivan’s childhood.  

Tarkovsky’s weariness of humanity’s impatience is seen across his filmmaking, often transported by unlikely yet wise characters who comment on how we use time “Everybody’s rushing, no one’s got any time” (Mirror) yet these words more often than not fall on deaf ears. In Stalker we are presented with a zone, an area of land contaminated by extraterrestrials. It becomes apparent that even the stalker himself knows little about the true purpose of the zone and its room which promises what your heart desires, yet they continue before fully understanding what they are pursuing. Set in an eerie post apocalyptic landscape, the setting is reminiscent of Chernobyl’s lifeless aftermath which still haunts the ongoing quest for nuclear power to this day, and is a symbol of mankind’s desire to push forward at all costs.  

Tarkovsky’s response to the Cold War comes in the form of The Sacrifice. Making use of delicate tracking camera movements, immersing our interest in the environment which later becomes threatened by man’s impatience. An imminent nuclear threat is announced over a television set whilst the shrill scream of jets can be heard thundering overhead. The terrified faces of the family as the news strikes are revealed slowly one after another, each with their own horror which resonates within you. Alexander eventually strikes a deal with God to destroy his own life in return for the mercy of the world which sees him spectacularly setting fire to his own home. A warning from Tarkovsky that for our own longevity we must make sacrifice, existence must come before progress. 

Tarkovsky uses time and often explains how we can use it to question ourselves about our own morality. Perhaps this is something we should be performing more frequently to help prevent us from repeating failures of the past.

Willow Sanders

What’s Needed is a Culture Shift

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a new English version by Robin Norton-Hale, new orchestration by Alison Holford, OperaUpClose, directed by Lucy Bradley, musical director Sonia Ben Santamaria, Arcola Theatre, Monday, 4th December, 7.30pm

Opera is the greatest of the performance arts. But there’s no doubt it has a perception problem. Money. Opera is rolling in it. Or so it seems to the casual observer of, say, Glyndebourne. Entertainment for rich people with the right clothes. Attendance at the opera is a social signifier of some very specific characteristics. You are the right sort. You went to the right school. You know when to wear white tie. It’s a great place to network if you know the right thing to say. In other words, you know how to behave as a member of the ruling class. 

Opera isn’t usually connected with rebellion, with transgressive, anti-social behaviour, with the new. It’s the ultimate insider art form, a prop, a support, a fortification of the status quo. Opera lovers know who they are. It’s a secret society, with arcane rules and traditions, catnip to the cognoscenti.

But we need some traditional art forms, don’t we? Some kind of continuity? All this obsession with the new, where is that leading? To chaos, surely? What’s wrong with spending an evening having my delusions massaged?

Where did this kind of feudal, imperial, hierarchical, flat out filthy rich face of opera come from?

I guess operas like Eugene Onegin (in its original form) don’t help. Russian aristocrats hanging around extensive estates getting excited about their sensibilities, about things that they’ve read in books, mostly by Byron, that scoundrel, while their serfs get on with the work, largely out of sight, except when they are singing or dancing, the whole accompanied by a sumptuous soundtrack. Little did they know what history had in store, a signal lesson to all of us with a lot to lose.

The ultimate question is: is opera, shorn of its extravagant wealth, of its aristocratic characters and settings, of its enormous orchestras, of its plush theatres, is it still the greatest?

Unquestionably yes. Opera can deal with the largest concepts, the most complex themes, whatever the context, whatever the subject. No other form comes close. Perhaps it’s not so much wealth that’s the problem (now he tells us) but opera’s sheer scale.

And we all know what scale means: large scale, individualistic, competitive and, yes, say it, masculine. The opera isn’t called Eugene Onegin for nothing.

But, transgressively, the buzz word for today, for now, is ‘disruptive’. Tech, the industry quartered in Silicon Valley, California, loves ‘disruptive’. Tech, too, is individualistic, inward looking, competitive, isolationist; in a word, masculine. No wonder tech, just like opera, has a perception problem; it’s unfriendly to women. A bit like Eugene Onegin.

What’s needed, clearly, is a culture shift. For tech, that’s a lot to ask, but for opera?

There are, out there somewhere, fixed ideas that are very hard to budge: a country’s economy is just like a household’s; poor people are less valuable than rich people; art can make you a better person; men are more important than women; girls should be taught to be more like boys but boys should never, never be like girls. This is just a short selection.

The shock of the new. How hackneyed that phrase sounds. When it does come along your (my) response often is: this doesn’t work. Yet, in fact, it’s confronting. You don’t want it to work.

Theatre, in its obsession with the inner life, with intense emotion, seems to have driven itself into a cul-de-sac from which it can’t find the exit. Opera’s sheer power, contained in its form, means it can’t be constrained in this way. Opera is always larger than the sum of its parts, concerned with a fundamental, central imperative, which is probably why money and power was attracted to it in the first place.

Others productions, adaptations of Eugene Onegin have taken the focus away from the eponymous hero. John Cranko’s ballet of the same name inevitably puts the emphasis on the prima ballerina dancing the role of Tatiana, the man simply partnering. But in traditional ballet the central female role is often the slave of circumstance, flung to and fro by events out of her control.

This adaptation of the opera takes a different and, ultimately, radical approach. The men, the males roles, are almost irrelevant. This isn’t the tale of a man following his honest, creatively destructive path, hacking a way through life’s temptations no matter what the cost. (Onegin might end up alone at the end but there’s something suggestively heroic in the subtext somewhere that has always been just a bit unpleasant.)

Here the men can do what they like, kill each other according to some obscure social norm, and it makes not the slightest difference. The drama resides somewhere else altogether.

The drama is found in the interactions of the female characters. And given how male focused this story, whether Pushkin novel or Tchaikovsky opera, this is some achievement. More importantly, it isn’t about replacing like with like, women substituting for men battling over the spoils, a zero sum game. Somehow this production hints at a new kind of of dramatic contract, one which involves a kind of outward looking, collaborative, ‘if one wins we all win’ approach which somehow doesn’t lessen the stakes.

It isn’t just that the production considers the relationship between the sisters, Olga and Tatiana, but it successfully broadens the subject to involve even the minor characters, that the issues have repercussions and reverberations beyond the central imperative. The drama is cumulative, rather than reductive, as is the original.

This is a very difficult, confronting production, both to watch and to write about. More power to CloseUpOpera for taking a courageous approach to re-working a classic. It seems only right that if there is to be a cultural revolution, it should begin with an art form so closely associated with holding firmly to the traditions of the past, but which, at the same time, has the cultural clout to really make a difference.

Paul Corcoran