In the second part of our readers and writers’ reviews of art which has moved them in 2016 we present theatre, film, music and two very different novels.
Railing against corporate greed and individualism: Train to Busan
Horror films are at their best when they look at how people deal with being in circumstances they really would not have chosen to be in. Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan is the best I’ve seen this year – an intelligent, emotional and entertaining rollercoaster of a ride. The central characters provide the opposites that allow this film to grow on you. Stockbroker Seok-wu puts himself and making money above all – and as a result his marriage has broken down. His last connections to humanity are through his attempt to maintain a relationship with his young daughter Su-an – but she seems to want little to do with him, and insists that for her birthday she wants to visit her mum in Busan which forces Seok-wu to take her by train from Soeul. Through the film it is Su-an that provides the pole of solidarity and compassion for others. Meanwhile – against the background of labour unrest, environment disasters, riots and military clampdown – a virus infects, and spreads… causing the affected to rapidly succumb. As the train prepares to pull out of the station a young woman manages to clamber aboard the KTX high speed train to Busan… but, just like South Korea, all is not well… Is it a fight for individual survival, or is there another way?
Life of Pi
Having watched the film upon its arrival to DVD, Life of Pi had been a book resting in the back of my subconscious for some time, just waiting to be first in line after the myriad of school books and classics I promised myself I would read. But when I found myself in the intoxicating setting of a 50p charity shop book sale, desperate to grab anything I could to satisfy both my craving to spend and save money, a copy of the Life of Pi satiated the craving and consequently jumped straight to the front of my reading list.
My complete enamour for this book originated largely from its descriptions, as although its plotline is something to be admired, the improbability of the narrative is firmly grounded and given credibility by descriptions so vivid, yet un-arduous, that you wonder how such events could not be true. And, at the risk of sounding very much like a cliché, another aspect that struck me about Martel’s writing was that he most certainly ‘wrote about what he knew’ and so I can honestly say that I learnt things about the narrator’s home town in India, his family business of zoo keeping and other things such as the technicalities of tasks he undertook during his trip.
If I haven’t swayed you with any of this I will say, in a last ditch attempt, that you should read this book for no other reason than to experience the intense effect that the twist of an ending will have on you for hours, weeks, months and years (most probably, I have yet for a year to pass since reading) after the event, gradually reducing in shock, but never leaving you entirely.
Now in its fourth season, Orphan Black plunges viewers into a complex, and often fairly violent, world of clones. The series begins with Sarah Manning witnessing the suicide of a woman who looks identical to her, and eventually discovering that she is one of several clones made as part of ‘Project Leda’ in the 1980s. Throughout the series she meets more of her fellow clones. These include the prim soccer mom, the biochemist grad student, the ruthless head of a corporation, who has been aware she was a clone throughout her life, the reclusive hacker, the clone intent on killing all of the other clones. Tatiana Maslany is an immensely talented actor to manage to play such a diverse range of characters in such a way that you forget that the same person is behind all of them.
Orphan Black was recommended to me by Sherrl Yanowitz, and I’m glad I followed her suggestion. It is science fiction, albeit not of spaceships, and manages to be tense, tender and humorous. In each of the seasons the clones find themselves facing people who want to kill, control, or exploit them: corporations, military, religious groups, at the same time as trying to live out ‘normal’ lives. In order to protect themselves and their families and friends uneasy alliances and compromises are made, and by the fourth season several of the characters have been on a variety of sides. Unsurprisingly there are many social issues that it manages to raise. One key one is the question of the degree to which our genes determine our lives. While all of the clones share (essentially) the same genetics their personalities, what they have done with their lives, their sexualities, and, in one case, their genders, differ. This seems to me to be making an argument against genes having a dominant role in who we are as people. Those who seek to harm the clones are often those trying to manipulate genes as a way to make a perfect person, soldier or baby, and profit along the way.
The Plough and the Stars
This summer the National Theatre staged the third of Sean O’Casey’s plays about the Irish revolutionary period to coincide with the centenary of its subject, the 1916 Easter Rising. When the play was first performed in Dublin in 1926 the eager anticipation of the public gave way to outrage at the play’s perceived lack of patriotism and respect for the martyrs of the Rising.
Set in a working class neighbourhood before, during and after the Rising, the play follows the residents of a tenement house as their complex of relationships become increasingly determined by the battle raging across the city.
The drama reflects O’Casey’s ambivalent attitude to the Rising as the culmination of a movement of both the social and national aspirations of the Irish people. O’Casey, a socialist and founder of the Irish Citizen’s Army, found himself at odds with his comrades who sought an alliance with nationalists in order to take the fight to the British. He took no part in the Easter events, yet his sympathy in The Plough and the Stars is unequivocally with the rebels.
Many readings of the play have focused on O’Casey’s portrayal of working class people caught up in the tumult. This production brought out a further aspect: the double affliction of the women characters, who are both excluded from a share in the glory (though women did participate in the Rising) and have to support those left broken by the conflict. The character of Bessie Burgess at first appears to be a stereotypically drunken house naysayer. Worse still, she supports British rule. Yet as the play progresses we see that her attitude represents a defence mechanism against the disasters she forsees for herself and her neighbours.
The play was initially lambasted for failing to portray the British in a sufficiently negative light, but it appears to me that in the cool, businesslike attitude of the British soldiers we meet in the final scene, who stop for tea whilst they round up escaping rebels and sing as they sip from their cups, we see a subtle condemnation of British imperialism as visited on the people of Ireland.
Elvis Costello live in Macau
When people used to ask me about the first gig I attended I would tell them it was The Jam (they were actually the second one). That seemed way cooler than the real answer to me for a long time and that real answer was Dave Edmunds. He doesn’t seem to uncool to me now – being in a band with Nick Lowe is pretty cool (producing The Damned and even The Redskins). But of course Dave’s best single was written by none other than Elvis Costello.
Girls Talk was one of many classics that Elvis could afford to leave out of his solo gig at The Cultural Centre in Macau in September this year. He played a decently long set and has the songs to play another two equally good sets with no overlap in songs. It was a special night for me, especially because it was my six year old daughter’s first ever gig. On the tickets it had said ‘aged six and over’ and we took them at their word.
Highlights were numerous – Shipbuilding, Oliver’s Army (was he going to chicken out of the line “Hong Kong is up for grabs” or the even more controversial line… no). Elvis has made a few slip-ups but we all know what side of the fence he stands on. His voice is better than I remember and his repartee excellent. I can even forgive him when he introduces Everyday I Write The Book (I love it) as the worst song he’s ever written. The biggest highlight though is when Elvis gives my daughter a wide grin and a high five. Hopefully she won’t be lying about this being her first gig in the future.
High Rise by J.G. Ballard
Barbecued Alsatians, corpses floating in swimming pools of piss, inter floor war… We have the dystopian deterioration of society, within the architectural constraint of a ‘High-Rise‘ block of flats.
As readers we feel the manifestation of the story from the perspectives of occupants from different floors in the flats. This includes seeing through the eyes of the architect of the building living in his penthouse at the top of the block.
The novel shows the descent of the occupants from well-to-do tea parties into full blown warfare and sabotage between floors. A hierarchy within the constraint of this city-in-the-sky proves to have clear parallels to that in everyday society. The architectural choice of a high rise provides an incredibly claustrophobic and more visible class system as the occupants want to rise to the higher floors and those at the top try and prevent these attempts at all costs to maintain their ‘superiority’.
Not to be clichéd, but this novel is not for the faint hearted. The deterioration of the society within the flats is coupled with the deterioration of human morality and psychological constraint until some characters have spiralled into animalism. Food, sexual pleasure and exertion of power upon others becomes their reason to live.
If you want a story of savagery, mentality, brutality, starvation, success, hedonism, violence, love, spirit, hope and despair then you have come to the right block of flats. Enjoy your stay, if you can.
I’m no football fan, and I thought I understood all I needed to about the Hillsborough disaster. The death of the 96 Liverpool fans has become part of not only football history, but also social history – the appalling tragedy itself, the systematic cover-up by a venal police force, the Murdoch press smear campaign, and the families’ shattering 27-year fight for justice.
But when I caught Hillsborough – Daniel Gordon’s feature-length documentary about the disaster and its shameful aftermath – on TV this summer, it felt like a watershed, a moment where the whole country was forced to sit up and hear the record set straight by this powerful, irrevocable account.
It was the film’s first airing in the UK, and came shortly after the historic inquest that ruled the victims were unlawfully killed – although previously shown overseas, the documentary had been banned from broadcast here while legal proceedings continued.
The film painstakingly reconstructs the events that unfolded on the afternoon of Saturday 15 April 1989, and then over the following months and years, with moving testimonies interwoven with an often chilling narrative detailing the series of catastrophic police failures that sealed the fans’ fates that day – and the jaw-droppingly callous manoeuvres that were employed to cover-up those failures.
The horrors of those testimonies – of crushed and soiled bodies on makeshift stretchers, a gym full of corpses under guard, a grief-stricken mother told she cannot hold her son’s body because it was ‘the property of the coroner’ – are compounded by the shock of hearing, for example, how lies were being fed to the media and broadcast on air even as lifeless bodies were still being desperately pulled out of the crush onto the pitch.
The film’s descent into the darkest of revelations offers a disturbing insight into the way senior officers of South Yorkshire police were prepared to act without any trace of decency in order to cover their tracks and protect their ranks – a legacy of their politicised role in the 1984-85 miners’ strike.
The documentary also sharply exposes the prejudices of a society divided by a savagely authoritarian Tory government, led by Margaret Thatcher, which allowed the Sun newspaper to portray not just Liverpool fans but the whole city of Liverpool and the entire working class as scroungers and scumbags who had brought their own victimhood upon themselves.
Yet throughout the director manages to convey with great tenderness the tremendous dignity, courage and determination of the families and campaigners who steadfastly kept up their fight for justice against seemingly insurmountable odds.
As Professor Phil Scraton – on whose forensically gathered evidence much of the film is centred – said: “The price of Hillsborough is not reducible to 96 people dying. The price of Hillsborough is the price of institutionalised injustice, the appalling treatment by some of the media of the good reputations of innocent people – the cavalier way in which wonderful people were vilified.”
Hillsborough offers a powerful record of the heavy price those good people paid, but also of the extraordinary collective resilience and strength campaigners found to fight back and win justice for the 96.
William Kentridge’s Thick Time
The nature of time and its passage, is the theme of the exhibition Thick Time by South African artist William Kentridge currently at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.
The Refusal of Time is a breathtaking installation. It centres around a huge wooden sculpture, a ‘breathing machine’, which moves with the relentless rhythm of a factory machine. A collage of images take us from slapstick domestic scenes to the stark shadows of the ‘procession of the dispossessed’, figures both suffering and defiant.
Descending from a family of anti-apartheid Lawyers, the landscape of apartheid and its aftermath imbue Kentridge’s work.
The speculative piece grapples with the urge to master space and time through scientific measurement and sees in this the drive to exploitation and domination. The theory of relativity introduces instability and suggests that another outcome is possible in human history.
His familiar stop-motion animations feature, where he captures a drawing, erases then rephotographs, compiling the resulting images into a film. Second Hand Reading shows this approach beautifully, a smudge of charcoal transforms into a bird. The work of art as permanent and linear is questioned.
There is a playful love for the absurd and utopian. Journey to the Moon is an imaginative film where everyday objects have magical properties. The Nose (with Strawberries) is a tapestry drawing on the montage style of Russian Constructivism. O Sentimental Machine is an exploration of utopia featuring Kentridge impersonating Leon Trotsky.
Kentridge is a rare artist whose exceptional aesthetic achievement in experimental forms also offers an incisive critique of social and political structures.
The approach to artistic representation as fragile and changeable is where Kentridge communicates a ‘political idea’ about humanity. At root, human activity involves shaping and transforming the world around us. It is this radical possibility that Kentridge finds both terrifyingly dangerous and full of hope.