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Tuesday, 22 June 2010

You Don’t Speak Spanish, Do You?

Recently I watched Jim Jarmusch’s film The Limits of Control, an enigmatic, dream-like play on the adventure of a hitman. I liked it very much indeed. There are many allusions in the film – to John Boorman’s Point Blank, Jean- Pierre Melville films like Le Samourai and a lot more - and many jokes, such as the running matchbox McGuffin, where the main character – the Lone Man (none of the characters have a name) - receives a matchbox, reads the small note inside and then swallows it; at his next meeting he hands the empty box to the next person and receives another with a small note inside,
and so on. We never get to see the note, but he does get to throw away the last matchbox.

His recognition sign at the venue of each meeting is that he orders two small cups of espresso coffee; the password for the meeting is ‘Usted no habla español, ¿verdad?’ (see the title of this post).The shifts in the film are marked by the protagonist’s change of the colour of his clothes from one iridescent sharkskin suit to the next. There are three. One for Madrid, another for Seville and a third for the countryside, particularly Almeria.

But here I want to talk about one of the things that most struck me about the film: probably the best series of snapshots of Spain I have ever seen. It is pitch perfect - unsentimental, charming and accurate. In Madrid, Jarmusch uses the extraordinary Torres Blancas (White Towers, see first photo) by the architect Sáenz de Oiza, a block built in the late sixties of the so-called ‘organic’ school. The building is supposed to be some sort of socialised tree in reinforced concrete without pillars blocking the interior spaces. The problem is that the builder of the White Towers ran out of money before the white cladding could be put on. Age and traffic fumes have worked their dingy magic on the concrete so that it now resembles a tall cement factory, the kilns placed upright.

Another building Jarmusch uses in Madrid is the ‘Reina Sofia’ – the national art gallery containing works by Picasso and after. It is a restored and fairly austere palacio with modern adjuncts, now showing a little damp. Some of the paintings (Juan Gris, Tàpies) are apparently used to convey information to the protagonist.

His third main use of Madrid is a small square, which is even more restored now, but in the film is seen aspiring to the kind of public space folksiness municipalities everywhere favour. Naturally, there are some examples of graffiti on the walls.

The old quarter he uses in Seville is a marvel. Graffiti is everywhere and - one of the film’s best touches - so is the noise. I once read a report saying that, after Japan, Spain is the noisiest country in the world. If they say so. I’d say the Spanish are noisier. There is one scene where the protagonist lies down (he never sleeps), while the sounds of cooking, singing and speaking from the surrounding houses go on and on.

Then there are the images of the countryside. Several Spaniards have told me that Britain’s countryside is strange because it has no great stretches of land without people or with any sign of human influence. Parts of Spain are big enough and barren enough to show human activity simply as scars or stark impositions, and there are houses that look either abandoned or absurdly protected and small against the space around them.

And finally there is flamenco. Many years ago an old lady in Andalusia told me that she never heard flamenco as a child. It had risen ‘for the tourists’. White horses, black bulls, girls in Sevillana dresses, and flamenco. Tourist Board folklore. This is, of course, not entirely fair but I feel I have done my quota of listening to and seeing stamping feet and wailing voices.

Of course it depends who is performing.

One very old form of flamenco which is used in the film is the petenera – it is like ‘the Scottish Play’ of flamenco music, in that it is considered to bring bad luck. The password of Jim Jarmusch’s film, ‘Usted no habla español, ¿verdad?’ and the title of this, was apparently Mr Jarmusch’s case. But this is the flamenco form he asked for and got. It is quiet and beautifully done.

If you would like to listen to a version of it, you can click here. You will hear echoes of the 14th century through the lute to La Celestina, the great novel by Fernando de Rojas.

As with the film, you will love it or hate it.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Amazon Is Not The ACME Corporation

From time to time, writers leave their books and indulge in, sometimes furiously one-sided, spats. Wordsworth’s poetic injunction – tranquility – disappears as fast as the Road Runner in Loony Tunes cartoons.

Sometimes the difficulties of the job, a writer’s reaction to a particular set of them and to his or her relations with the buying public (see sales) and other writers and critics, goes public and postal.

Recent examples include Alain de Botton who responded vehemently (“I will hate you until the day I die”) to the writer of a poor review of his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, and Orlando Figes (a rather wider self-placement.)

Some simply do not transcend. I don’t remember seeing Donna Leon’s remarks on Stieg Larsson’s work in Santander last year making it into English at all. That may have been because she was being interviewed rather than writing for herself, and because she was not speaking in Spanish but being translated into Spanish.

Today, the Scotsman reports an apparent spat between someone using the name Philip Kerr and Allan Massie. Massie is a novelist and reviewer of many years’ experience. One Philip Kerr is well-known for his Bernie Gunther novels. Possibly another Philip Kerr took the time to write an Amazon review of 813 words lambasting Massie’s latest book, on the Stuarts.

Outsiders (Allan Massie himself is quoted as saying he is ‘amused’) are thus faced with one of two problems. The first is that the real Philip Kerr has had his name usurped. The second is that a professional writer has reviewed another professional writer on Amazon.

While Figes also used Amazon’s review service to decry people he considered as his rivals, this doesn’t seem to be the case here. The review, now withdrawn, specifically mentions what the reviewer considers to be unfavourable reviews by Allan Massie of the reviewer’s last two books.

Naturally, the Scotsman prints excerpts of those two reviews of novels. They suggest a falling off from earlier books. That’s Allan Massie’s opinion. In the not very widely read Scotsman.

Point? Irritation, annoyance and even hurt happen. But doing something about it has a habit of making the doer into the Coyote – a much loved cartoon character but one who relies too much on explosive products from the Acme Corporation, and invariably blows himself up. Nothing too grand. He survives.

Meep meep.