Late March, more correctly. Fewer entries next time, to compensate for the fact that 2 weeks of every month are consumed by Wire commitments.

[1] Lisandro Alonso [dir] Liverpool [Second Run DVD]
continues a loose strand of contemporary film ­– if “contemporary” means made within the past five years – running through Second Run’s recent output, from Maria Saakyan’s The Lighthouse and Miguel Gomes’s Our Beloved Month Of August (both released in 2011) back to Pia Marais’s The Unpolished (2010). I saw Liverpool at the BFI a couple of years ago and fell asleep for about 40 minutes at about the 30-minute mark – in my defence I plead an 8.30pm screening and small child-induced sleep deprivation. This nap timing meant I missed the film’s defining moment, a beautifully understated narrative sleight-of-hand which occurs three-quarters of the way through, when the feckless idiot of a merchant seaman we’ve been following for the better part of an hour walks off into the snowy distance, never to be seen again (a durational-prologue-as-red-herring device it shares with Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia). At which point our attention is gently directed to his daughter. The remaining 20 minutes make subtle but telling points about familial bonds, which endure despite lengthy absences, lack of reciprocation and inhospitable landscapes.

[2] Sven Augustijnen Spectres [15 October 2011 – 4 March 2012, de Appel Arts Centre, Amsterdam]

de Appel is (was – it relocates to new premises in May) housed in a former school, an appropriate setting for an exhibition which often feels like a history lesson. Or, more correctly, a lesson in contested history: the 1961 assassination of Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba, and colonial Belgium’s complicity in the act. The centrepiece of Sceptres is an eponymous 100-minute film which follows Belgian mandarin Jacques Brassinne as he visits former political colleagues and the relatives of Moïse Tshombe (one-time president of the secessionist Katanga State, where Lumumba was killed) to discuss the episode. He then journeys to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he ingratiatingly pays his respects to Lumumba’s surviving relatives, then journeys to the location of the murder.

Augustijnen has chosen Brassinne (Chevalier Jacques Brassinne de la Buissière, to give him his full, knighted name) because of the complicated historical debate in which he has become involved. Brassinne spent decades researching Lumumba’s murder, compiling his findings into a dissertation which absolved the Belgian government and people of any blame. His account was challenged by revisionist historian Ludo de Witte in 1999. The Belgian government then set up the Lumumba Commission to investigate the circumstances of his death; they eventually validated Brassinne’s conclusion.

Sceptres hinges on Augustijnen’s ambivalent relationship with Brassinne. The film indulges Brassinne, allowing him to tell his story at length, but at intervals supplies contextual information which undermines his account or flatly contradicts it. Augustijnen has also borrowed much of Brassinne’s archival material for the exhibition – books, tapes, magazines, dozens of photographs (the chunky bi-lingual catalogue has hundreds more), even a Katanga State flag. Elsewhere there are copies of Panorama, an 8pp tabloid Augustijnen created for insertion into Belgian financial newspaper Die Tijd; and a series of photos of Congolese immigrant women, working as prostitutes in Brussels, striking provocative poses in front of various historical locations in the city.

Augustijnen is understandably fascinated by the way Belgium’s colonial conscience has absolved itself of any culpability, and by how Brassinne – not so much an apologist for the colonial project as its walking personification – can be so comprehensively knowledgeable about every details of a chain of events, yet remain so wilfully blind to the symbolism of their narrative. The film’s two most powerfully resonant moments both occur near its end, in the Katanga savannah. The first when a villager reminds Brassinne that “What you think is the opposite of what exists”. The second, painful and absurd, when Brassinne drives to the area of the Katanga savannah where Lumumba was murdered and proceeds to reconstruct the event in painstaking detail. His concluding comment, of the Belgian military who were present at the scene, “standing to one side, away from it all”: “They have nothing to do with the execution”.

[3] Nanni Balestrini The Unseen [Verso pbk]
Any time is a good time for a new translation of a Nanni Balestrini novel. It’s not hard to see why Verso have chosen to publish The Unseen at this particular moment in the 21st century. Its urgent chronicle of the rise and fall of the Autonomia movement in early/mid-70s – early 80s Italy seems especially resonant for these times of uncertainty and popular protest. The Unseen shares its structure with Sandokan, the only other of Balestrini’s books currently in English translation. Its account of the relentless rise of the Camorra mafia provides a helpful counterpoint to Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah (Saviano in fact worked as Balestrini’s research assistant on Sandokan). In both, chapters are divided into discrete paragraph chunks, typically between 150 and 200 words long, run together without commas or full stops. Sandokan reads like a blend of confessional and transcribed interview; The Unseen is more direct and urgent, combining in-the-moment breathlessness with uncensored and unmediated stream of consciousness accounts.

It also universalises the story, told in the first person from the perspective of one of the movement’s members, who remains unnamed. Linear chronology is folded in half – the novel’s first quarter juxtaposes an account of a school occupation with an account of a prison revolt which must have taken place about a decade later. We learn of the narrator’s impoverished background, the development of his political consciousness, his move to radical activism and militancy, and the movement’s disintegration into in-fighting and betrayal in the face of an appallingly brutal state suppression. Balestrini briefly acknowledges its weaknesses and faults – at one point its female members depart en masse in protest at their male comrades’ sexism. Otherwise The Unseen’s persistent sense of immediacy allows little time for reflection or rhetoric. A single instance of the latter appears just past the halfway mark –

– but is notable by its presence. This is a novel of experience rather than ideology.

[4] Siegfried A Frauhauf Exposed [Index DVD]
Index 037. This an awful lot of fun – playful conceptualism in the tradition of Martin Arnold and Peter Tscherkassky, updated with digital treatments and mostly non-annoying electronic soundtracks. All of its 11 succinct pieces (the longest runs for 9 minutes) are executed with a beautifully light touch. Several are wittily politicised –La Sortie (1998) puns cleverly on the notion of capitalist progress, Mountain Trip (1999) creates an endless, perfect landscape from Austrian picture postcards, and Palmes D’Or (2009) collages 800 images from the Cannes film festival into an unrecognisable monochrome blur. My favourites are three which allude to various antecedents but avoid formalist pastiche: Structural Filmwaste. Dissolution I (2003) references the 60s avant-garde, applying digital mutations to exposures of darkroom waste material.

 Exposed (2001), which obscures a scene from an old feature film with a strip of film, its perforations forming keyholes which incrementally multiply and blur.

And Mirror Mechanics (2005), in which a shots of a woman (wiping a bathroom mirror with her hand; swimming; and walking on a beach are subjected to a range of laterally sliding effects – doublings, reflections and multiple overlays.

[5] Lars Iyer Dogma [Melville House pbk]
More or less a repurposing of 2011’s Spurious, and equally hilarious. As previously, Lars faithfully notates W.’s endless catalogue of taunts and dyspeptic rants on his failing career, capitalism, religion, the end times and the surely imminent apocalypse. We learn more biographical details about Lars – his Hindu beliefs and the rat infestation in his flat – and W. moves in with his girlfriend Sal. Iyer sends the pair on a farcical speaking tour of the Deep South of America, as well as to Liverpool and to an ATP-esque festival to see Josh T Pearson. They also attempt to start a would-be philosophical movement (Dogma), whose tenets are blatantly lifted from Dogme, the mid-90s Danish manifesto for cinema; it’s a predictably short-lived failure.

Lars and W. are given several new cultural referents to obsess over and feel inferior to: Walser, Celan, Mandelstam, Leibniz, Krasznahorkai. And we discover that Lars is, ludicrously, a devoted fan of Jandek, one of whose best lines (“I don’t care about philosophy / Even if it’s right”) gets quoted, and all of whose albums are loathed by Sal and mercilessly derided by W., inspiring him to some of his finest insults. Much of the novel’s appeal lies in this combination of high learning and low banter, exchanged by two stupid men who happen to have very high IQs – and are so crippled by their accumulated learning they’ve convinced themselves they’re too stupid to understand the true extent of their idiocy. Iyer’s breezy prose, smoothly organised into concise chunks, ventilates the dialogue, conveying the relationship as a mixture of mutual dependency and inverted bromance.

[6] Ben Marcus The Flame Alphabet [Knopf hbk]
We’re a lot of years and a long way from Notable American Women. The plot is a haphazard patchwork, with attention pointedly drawn to the joins: part Ballard/Dick waking nightmare, part schlocky B-movie horror scenario, part post-apocalyptic dystopian fable. As parents across America fall mysteriously ill, it gradually becomes apparent that the speech of children and teenagers is harmful to adults. Suspicion initially falls on the progeny of Jewish families, until it’s realised that not just language but any form of communication whatsoever, between people of any age at all, is potentially lethal. The narrator is Sam, who with his wife Claire flees their daughter Esther, an expertly rebarbative 14-year-old. The two are soon separated, and Sam makes his way to a treatment facility run by heretic scientist LeBov. Sam then fruitlessly attempts to create a new and harmless form of alphabet based in Hebrew letter forms; LeBov, meanwhile, manages to create a safe form of communication using a serum concocted from fluid drained out of children’s bodies.

Appropriately enough for a novel which addresses the toxic potential of language, the narrative tone is wounded and prickly, shot through with hateful thoughts, nasty ripostes and cutting asides. There aren’t many conversations – in the novel’s second half just a few between Sam and LeBov – and most that do occur bristle with hostility and distrust. Marcus’s primary concern is communication and its myriad attendant complications, though the difficulties and delusions of human relationships (adult/adult and parent/child) under different kinds of strain are also ruthlessly dissected. He conjures witty riffs and clever allegories from systems of belief (religious or otherwise), mythology and control, spinning a viciously perceptive parable which both laments and reinforces the dubious power of language – a paradox which is unlikely to be accidental.

[7] Mara Mattuschka/Chris Haring Burning Down The Palace [Index DVD]
Index 038. This isn’t quite as much fun – three performance films with a strong contemporary dance leaning (Haring is a choreographer). Filmed in an empty apartment block in Vienna, Part Time Heroes dwells archly on celebrity and sexuality. A group of four performers twist and vamp their way through a series of monologues, which is followed by a contorted group scenario, playing on blurring of identities and gender roles. I could have done with Running Sushi, a rather painful and overlong pastiche of cartoon violence and manga, filmed against a synthetic backdrop, with interludes of orange-eating and clichéd movie-style dialogue. Burning Palace explores a range of erotic scenarios, with plenty of roleplay and shots of people getting dressed, and is more than a little bit painful to sit through.

[8] Cristi Puiu [dir] Aurora [Cinema Guild DVD]
“Ranks among the greatest works of cinematic humanism of our time” blares a Times encomium plastered across the DVD case for The Death Of Mr Lazarescu, a reading so off the mark it’s almost perverse – none of the few humanist gestures in the film go unpunished, whether by the process-riddled health service’s bureaucratic machine, or the thinly-veiled enmity it generates amongst those who populate it. The film is also surely concerned with the long-term effects of communist rule on social relations and notions of community ­– someone who knows more about the reality of life in post-Ceaucescu Romania will be able to speak with more authority than me. A couple of characters from Lazarescu appear in Aurora, which is equally short on empathy or human warmth – in the DVD insert Puiu comments that he wanted to “render the toxic climate reigning in post-communist Bucharest as accurately as possible”.

Puiu the actor turns in a superbly inscrutable performance in the lead role of Viorel, an maladjusted divorcee, painstakingly plotting murderous schemes. Puiu the director generates dramatic tension simply by withholding information. The structure is as meandering as it is elliptical, with a variety of subplots very gradually becoming somewhat less opaque. Considering that about 90% of the film is exposition, we learn remarkably little about its protagonist before the distinctly anticlimactic finale. We’re not told his name until the 97th minute, it’s never made entirely clear what his relationship is to the other characters, and for some or much of the film we can only guess or deduce what he’s doing or why he’s doing it. Humanism is again noticeable by its absence. What dialogue there is (remarkably little for a 180-minute film) is distrustful or outright hostile in tone. It ends with a 20-minute scene in a police station, after a remorseless Viorel has turned himself in – a conclusion as enervating as that of Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective, if not quite so crushingly pedantic.

[9] JJ Murphy Print Generation [de Baile, Amsterdam, Sunday 26 February]
Part of Sonic Acts XIV. This forgotten delight, dating from the early 70s era of US structuralism, deserves to be a lot better-known than it is. It applies a degenerative process – whose approximate musical equivalent would be Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room – to a sequence of 60 second-long images, some of them static shots, others shots of photographs. Murphy made 50 contact print copies of each of them, in two sets of 25, so that that the images degrade along the way – the third print would be a copy of the second image rather than the first, the fourth a copy of the third, and so on, so that by the 25th print, the images are barely recognisable patterns of red and blue dots, in negative forms. In their original form the images are innocuous, generic-looking portraits of domestic and everyday life in a small coastal American town: a child sitting on a lawn, a man sawing wood, a footprint in mud, clothes on a washing line; trees, bushes, flowers, fields; shopfronts, traffic lights, neon lights, a flag waving in the wind.

Murphy deploys an inverted structure, so that in the films first half (“A-Wind”), we first see the images in their most degraded state. Over the course of 25 minutes they gradually coalesce and revert to their original state. Once the process is complete, Murphy repeats it backwards in the second half (“B-Wind”), with what I suspect is a second, slightly different sequence of contact print copies. These structural opposites and the reversal of the aging process they allow alters our relationship with the images in simple but profound way. The film becomes an elegant, multi-layered meditation on the decay and mortality, as well as on the interlinked processes of emotional association, memory construction and visual interpretation – a richly-textured series of resonances for a series of images which, in and of themselves, are completely meaningless.

[10] Paul Sharits Shutter Interface [Paradiso, Amsterdam, 23–26 February]
Also Sonic Acts. The older I get, the more I find myself repulsed by any manifestation – visual, musical or ideological – of the psychedelic. This astonishing work, highly psychedelic in intent, and best described as a structuralist colourfield flicker film, completely demolished my defences. How it works is: a line of four projectors, um… project continuous sequences of colour frames, all more or less within the ROYGBIV spectrum, and each separated by single frames of black, which fly past so quickly you don’t consciously register them. The projections overlap, forming a line of three vertical rectangles, evenly spaced across the screen. What this all adds up to is sustained rhythms of colour strobing at high-speed, continually overlaying, chain-reacting and recombining.

Photos hardly do it justice, but viewed from the left it looks a bit like this:

And from the front, a bit like this:

YouTube footage here.

Admittedly I was predisposed not to find it psychedelic (or “hypnotic”, or “mesmerising”), and I didn’t. Zoning out is nearly impossible due to the racket made by the projectors and the noisy soundtrack – high-pitched tones oscillating at a rate comparable to, but not in synch with, the movements of the colours. During two hour-long sittings (its official length is 32:15, though it was screening on a continuous loop), I experienced a range of mental states: actively engrossed and engaged; blurred concentration and/or heightened spatial awareness; mild perceptual distortion. No ecstatic transcendence.