Month: February 2010


Roberto Caston :: Spain :: 2009 :: 2h08

Deep in the forgotten countryside of the Spanish Basque country, Ander (Joxean Bengoetxea), a balding forty-something, lives with his mother and sister on their family farm. If he’s not working the hilly land, running errands or doing chores, he’s at the factory nearby. His monotonous life is cut up by random meetings with a brutish neighbour with whom he can get drunk and visit the village prostitute Reme.

In a bid to keep up their traditional way if life, Ander’s austere mother shames him for not getting married. She does this not so much for concern for his happiness, but rather to bring in a helping hand on the farm. It has become even more of an issue when his sister announced she getting married. So, not only will she marry before him, but she will move out, leaving him all alone to tend to the business of the farm. To make matters worse, Ander breaks his leg in an accident. His brother-in-law introduces them to Peruvian labourer Jose, to help out while he’s down. The good-looking, gentle, perfectly mannered hard working young man fits in perfectly. Maybe even a little too perfectly.

Ander is thrilled by Jose’s company, not realising that he is falling in love with him. A sexual incident occurs sparking what could be the beginning of a relationship. Ander is consumed with fear and confusion. Attraction, rejection and frustration then battle it out in an internal conflict. And then, Ii his simple life was not already shaken up enough, his mother dies.

The story could be classed an unconventional homosexual coming of age drama, but the film offers much more. It is also a rare glimpse into a traditional rural Basque life, which may not be around that much longer. The film takes you through to the slow decline of a way of life, without regrets but without much accusation either. As the modern world permeates into the countryside, the old ways erode. Society changes – factory work complements farm incomes, the infiltration of drug issues, depopulation, traditional family structures and values change. Even language changes. While Ander’s mother spoke only Basque, her children are perfectly bilingual Spanish. And their children… may actually have trouble speaking Basque at all. There is a certain sadness in the ending of an old way of life, but it is also clear that the new way – more open to other family constructs, centred around feelings and desire rather than custom, speaking an international language rather than a local one – have their merits too.

The film manages to trace the developments of both Ander and the traditional rural culture around him without too much stereotyping. There are, however, some weaknesses too: Jose is too perfect to be real, manoeuvring his way through the cultural minefield better than a native and the brutish neighbour appears too brutish, even for a brute. These two imperfections cumulate in one of the last scenes which just crop up too suddenly in a film which has taken such care to be thorough. A pity, but I can forgive the blemish.

It has been a pleasure to watch a film which manages to portray Basque rural life so credibly, taking us through the challenges they face in the persona of Ander. An excellent first feature film for Roberto Caston. You can be sure that this is not the last time you are hearing of him.


Publishing democratically

PARIS – Say you have written a book. It has been lying on your desk for a few months now and you are ready for the plunge: you decide to send it off to a publishing house. Big brown envelope. 300 pages inside. And then wait. For a month. Perhaps two. Perhaps more. No matter how grand the merits of your book, you know that  your chances are low. But on the other hand, if it is picked up, they will really help promote your work, getting it out there. And then, hopefully, it will win over an audience.

A young Dutch company from The Hague is changing the game. They are proposing a new and simpler approach: getting the readers to vote for their favourite (unpublished) works. If a book manages to obtain 250 votes by its readers, it will be published (by their publishing house Het Tweede Gezicht). Isn’t that exciting? Publishing what the readers love, rather than what the publishing house think is good. After all, it is the readers who buy the books if they’re published. Sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? If you think about it, then… no, not really. I will show you why.

This company is tapping into a HUGE market, even for a small country. In the Netherlands, an estimated 1 in 15 adults has literary ambitions – that is a million people! We can safely assume that these people like reading too, which would not exclude them from playing judge to the works of others. There are so many writers, that there are bound to be some who pick up on this idea. But then what? Should the author send out messages to all his Facebook friends to get them to vote for him?

The author probably should call up his friends, but the company charges 5€ a vote, so people will not be voting willy-nilly. If ‘their’ book has gathered enough votes (the 250), they will receive a copy of the book personalized with their name in it. But is this worth the 5€ vote? Would people not just vote for the book which is closing in on the tipping point of being published? This is more like a stock market than literary criticism. Again other people will not care for the personalized copy (after all, they have already read the book), in which case they will not be too thrilled to pay 5€ for a vote. It does not sound like it would work, and even more so if we consider the arrival of more and more ebook readers on the market which are pushing aside printed books.

If we take a step back, what attracts authors to traditional publishing houses is two fold – the prestige of being published by an old and respected house and their ability to promote the work. Even in the unlikely case that many books in the future never see a paper version, the attraction of the prestigious house remains. Imagine an author defrauding the Dutch company, and forking out the 5€ for each of the 250 votes required for publication (i.e. 1250€). Would the publishing house then foot the bill for the promotion of his book, get it distributed to the shops if they did not really believe in the project? I don’t think so. It is worth reminding ourselves, that the attraction of the house for an author is minimal, after all, they have no glorious publishing history with big names, in fact, they have no visible experience in the field at all. If an author would be willing to go with them, he should also be considering self-publishing. It is more likely that this book-voting concept is inherently doomed to failure.

If readers-voting is to have a future, it would have to be organized by a respectable old-school publishing house, for a book a year, and offering the voting readers a trip to come and visit them in Paris or London or where ever they are based, and meet their favourite authors over lunch. That is an exciting motivation to vote for people who like reading. It is also a way for a prestigious house to take a bite out of a ever-growing market of unpublished works (blogs included!) but remaining faithful to their calling of promoting books they believe in. It is an idea to consider. Anyone at Hachette or at Pearson out there?

Why you want to keep that fireplace

PARIS – Say you have always been dreaming of your own place in the centre of Paris. And let us say that fortune is kind with you, and you find yourself standing on the parquet  flooring, with light coming in through the high windows from the boulevard outside. Happiness. You look around to see the decorated ceiling, wood paneled walls and the fireplace. Ah, the fireplace. Doesn’t that make you feel at home straight away? But there is something strange going on with the fireplace.

Although they are no longer used for heating, most of the apartments you will have seen in the city will have them. And not just one of them, but perhaps even one in every room. It looks great, of course, but do you need it? If you are wondering why this question even needs answering, you are probably not paying rent in Paris. Say your apartment covers 55 square meters, subdivided into 3 rooms – the Parisian average. You will presumably be moving in there with your girl(/boy)friend and perhaps a baby (2.2 average household size), or perhaps a friend who still can’t find his own place. This makes the apartment relatively small. So that fireplace, which admittedly looks great in the bedroom, is now actually taking the place of a cupboard or a side table. This may make you wish it away, but grant me a few moments to delve into the archeology of the matter, to see if I can make you see it differently.

Let us start by establishing that the fireplace, anywhere other than the living room (and even there!), is indeed in the way. You do not need it, and the precious space could have been used for more useful purposes in your day-to-day life. But try to think of it differently. The fireplace is a relic of the past. Of a past when there was no central heating. Of a past when life was different for whoever was living in the place. It is a link between your existence and other people who lived there before you. Same place, but another time and life. In the other direction this works too, as one day, you will no longer be living in that apartment, and someone else will be there. Accepting to live with a relic in your midst is accepting a place, or your role, in the development of your culture. You take care of something that was passed on to you, and which you in your turn will pass on to the next. Someone you may or may not even know.

If this all sounds like a lot of thought emanating from a fireplace, I am convinced that it does have that effect. It works because the fireplace no longer serves its purpose. A huge block of marble to support the cards your friends sent you is clearly not an optimal use of your precious space. That is exactly why it can remind you that the world is not completely moulded around you, to suit your needs. The fireplace, as the city, was already there before you and still has its own future independently of you. It increases your consciousness of your place. Conscious about your role in life, your relation to others, and your relationship to the world around you. It helps to make you a better person, to take better decisions. To be happier person. To feel at home. And surely that’s what you wanted, when you dreamt of your own place. And as an added bonus, you might even light that fireplace one day.

Tyre tracks in black paint

Soulages :: Centre Pompidou :: Paris :: 14 October 2009 – 8 March 2010

The Centre Pompidou presents a retrospective of the work of one of major players in the post-war abstract movement, Pierre Soulages. The exposition spans 60 years of activity, with more than 100 works on display, all set-up with the help of Soulages himself. The latter is important for an artist who dedicated his life to the analysis of light bouncing off black canvas. This black light, or outrenoir (“other-black”) as he calls it, varies greatly with your position in relation to the work. A quick search on Google will show you some his paintings, should you not already know them, but you might as well know that they are quite meaningless on a screen. To experience Soulages’ work, it is essential to face the work yourself. If you give them the chance to speak to you,  which they may or may not do, you will find out whether or not it means anything to you at all. Or have had the chance to experience first hand a major contemporary artist.

As you walk around the exposition, you will initially see works resembling graphical-design abstract characters painted in thick strokes of black paint. The canvas material is still visible through the paint, reminding the viewer of the reality of the work as an object. As Soulages’ interest seems to be more and more focussed on the colour and its intuitively-contradictory capacity to reflect light, the character-type forms are slowly replaced by more abstract structure of vertical and horizontal lines. There is a 1984 wallpaper-effect painting, created through an image of black homogeneous wood, cut up with a horizontally structured vertical lines. It is all black, but the reflection suggests an abstract version of trees in a forest which light up in an illusionary lighter grey. The effect comes out perhaps even better in a 1997 bamboo-ish painting in black with the thick vertical strokes conjuring up the image of a mangrove in glowing blue in the night.

In the heart of the exposition, it is these dark textured paintings which dominate. There are wide strokes of paint which at times (as in the 2007 work) are so thickly put on that the painter managed to carve into it, giving it a 3D effect. As you move around the paintings, the light bounces off different parts of the work, changing the image. In effect, the space around you is also being changed, as you move.

As the lighting is so important to the experience of the works, you might be surprised to hear that the exposition’s lighting is a common museum mixture of spotlight and white ambient lighting. You may also be surprised to hear that the walls and floors are plain white too. In a lot of his work, Soulages emphasized the black he used by contrasting it with a white -or sometimes a yellowish or other- hue. I can not help but wonder why he did not go that one step further to darken the walls and the floors and paint directly on to the wall to maximize the effect. Soulage does break the mould with a step over into a black on black room (1990 onwards), which shows three of his paintings in a black room with ambient style lighting from behind. The emphasis is on the lined texture. It is abstract without the letter-type motifs, giving that grey-tone effect despite being pure black.

For an artist who has been so fascinated with blackness and light, it is surprising that his work did not take a more object or experience orientated turn. The black-on-black room still had one white wall and featured real paintings. It seems but a step in the direction of “experience art”, where the artist gives the visitor an ephemeral aesthetic experience. Why not go all the way? After all, light is an ephemeral experience. The same feeling returned with the lighting, when we move around to see the light reflect off the paintings, why not allow for a room with changing light or even allow for an audience to manipulate the light or a movement of the work itself? Or is this all a little too playful for such a serious colour? Monochrome (or nearly monochrome) does, after all, command respect. Or perhaps even black could just, you know, lighten up a bit. /