Wednesday, 30 July 2008

material imagination


"Direct images of matter. Vision names them, but the hand knows them. A dynamic joy touches them, kneads them, makes them lighter. One dreams these images of matter substantially, intimately, rejecting forms—perishable forms—and vain images, the becoming of surfaces. They have weight, they are a heart” (Gaston Bachelard)

In a cavernous iron warehouse at the back of the old Brunswick brickworks, behind the vertiginous chimneys of the kilns and the blackened skeletons of derelict machinery, an island of moist white sand floats in a sea of powdery grey brickdust and rubble. Prefiguring its future performance space in the city, the rehearsal space for To Run—Sand has been installed in the bowels of an abandoned industrial workplace—a site still palpably ghosted by its former function, and by those that worked and sweated and dreamed there. The only sounds now are the muffled wingbeats and cucurucus of pigeons far overhead. Until the digging starts.

Every session begins with digging. The island of sand, both setting and generative source for this dance-theatre performance, is on the move again. The impact of footfalls and bodies disperses the sand, it flows outwards, a slo-mo crystalline liquid. We rebuild two mounds, one as conical as a Hokusai Fuji, the other slightly flattened, volcanic. Our digging is punctuated with jokes about (im)possible careers with Vicroads. The remaining sand is raked, and the rehearsal begins.

Heraclitus suggested that one could never bathe in the same river twice; similarly, every time the performers return to the sand its reality shifts, literally and metaphorically. It possesses the pulsional mutability and discontinuity Gaston Bachelard called “intimate immensity”. At moments it suggests a pocket of coastal dune or beach, a lovers’ retreat, a children’s playground, or an island of enchantment and imprisonment, like Prospero’s; at others, it becomes battlefield, labour camp, post-industrial wasteland, mountain range, moonscape—or desert, that core postmodern metaphor for the nomadic and the dis/appearing. And it is the fluidity of the sand’s topographic referentiality that allows the performers (and those watching them) a remarkable associational freedom in narratives enacted and images inhabited.

Material is generated primarily through games, tasks, structured improvisations and free play; once Alison has set up an activity, she rarely intervenes. Images cluster around primordial transformations of status in the flux of inter-relations: playing, working, running, fighting, falling, burying, birthing. The three performers are developing quite different relationships with the sand, each one contradictory and polyvalent. And it is the materiality of these relationships that generates narratives, images and ‘characters’. Today Evelyn’s actions suggest elegant entrapment, a kind of perky buoyancy against all the odds, like Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days. Adrian is both ever playful and consumed by reverie, encumbered by the gravity of possibility; with the smile of Sisyphus, he moulds his desires and memories in the sand. Yumi is explosive, she leaps and digs with an energy that irradiates far beyond the outer edge of the sand—but her contact with it is consistently light, she touches and brushes with quiet patience and focus.

In many ways, the group’s recognition of the sand’s active role as trigger and co-performer celebrates Bachelard’s “material imagination”, which, “going beyond the attractions of the imagination of forms, thinks matter, dreams in it, lives in it, or, in other words, materialises the imaginary”. In Bachelard’s phenomenological poetics of the elements, matter (“the unconscious of form”, the “mother-substance” of dreams) reverberates to become “the mirror of our energy”, producing images “incapable of repose”.

In rehearsal the sand becomes a register of the actions and emotions that it has elicited from the performers; it mirrors their energy. Intimate, substantial afterimages of what was are retained within what is, although these trace impressions of the contours and gravities of presences-now-absent are always temporary, fleeting. Like memories, like identities, the marks in the sand are continuously overwritten or partially erased. But in the materiality of the instant, for those that work and sweat and dream there, they have weight, they are a heart.


To Run—Sand, by Alison Halit, was performed by Adrian Nunes, Evelyn Switajewski and Yumi Umiumare at the Economiser Building, Spencer Street Power Station, Melbourne, April-May 1997. Article originally published in RealTime issue #18, April-May 1997, p. 33. Photo: Brad Hick (Evelyn Switajewski in rehearsal)

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

not ours anymore

For the first time in the ten years that I have lived in Devon, this summer there have been swifts roosting under the roof of my house. Three pairs, I think. Imagine those small white eggs - up there. After a while, tiny cries from under the slates in the evenings. Soft scuffling in the ceiling above my desk. Then one evening we see an adult bird peel off from the shrieking hunting party to deliver food - the high-speed flight directly at the wall, the last-minute throwing back of its wings and head, and forward of its body, an air-brake to stall its momentum in the last few feet before the wall; and then the sudden plunging disappearance into the tiniest of gaps in the building. All of this in a flash. What a choreography. It looks like an outrageous parking manoeuvre in a black feathery sports car into an imperceptibly minute garage at 70 mph. We set up chairs on the grass below to watch these flashing disappearances and re-appearances: far better than TV (although an episode of The World's Ugliest Pets or Can Fat Teens Hunt? is weirdly tempting).

When the fledglings first leave the nest, they may not touch the earth again for several years ...

Imagine that initial drop-dive into the air, never having experienced the world 'out there' before. Take nothing with you. Just fall into the air, and within a micro-second somehow know how to fly. Imagine.

The common swift (apus apus). Every May I look forward to the arrival of the swifts from Africa, and when they finally appear I feel honoured, wide-eyed, lifted up - and at the same time clumsy, a gravity-bound blob. Hours spent in the evenings watching their intoxicating fly-pasts, neck straining in the dusk. Reckless energy, precision flying, joyous screams. Speed, intensity and exactitude. A swift is a genius at being a swift. It drinks and eats and mates and sometimes sleeps on the wing. It builds nests from feathers and fragments of dry grasses in the air, glueing them together in layers with its spit. It harvests insects like aerial plankton. It drifts and spirals effortlessly at unimaginable heights (up to 10,000 feet), then roars through the upper reaches of 'our world' like a tiny jet. Their experience of the topography of rooftops, telegraph poles, aerials and trees is so utterly different from any human sense of this village. How do they slow down perception to take in the mass of information coming at them? What is the function of their cries - territorial expression? in-flight communication and orientation? echolocation in relation to the complexity of the architectures they pass through? sonic blasts to stun or somehow confuse their prey? And what do they make of us humans on the ground, staring dumb-struck and bewildered at the sky, our eyes always too slow to see much more than the blur of their passage? Every year I'm deflated and humbled when they leave on their extraordinary journey.

Swifts remain deeply mysterious to us; there’s such a huge amount we don’t know about them. We do know the broad shape of their epic migratory odysseys to and from Southern Africa, above holiday destinations and chronic war zones and banks of gunmen and through dusty thermals, but we know almost nothing of the particulars of this magnetic trail. We know that they move clockwise around low-pressure systems in huge arcs of up to 1,200 miles. In England, they fly towards the unstable air at the rear of a depression, into the insect-rich, warm rising air as the front departs. Young birds roost on the wing, circling at high altitude through the night until dawn. It is thought that they don't touch ground to roost until their 4th year, remaining in flight throughout their early lives. We know that they can fly enormous distances, an estimated average of 500 miles a day; so a 20-year old swift will have flown more than 3.5 million miles ...

They are only here in England for about 16 weeks a year; and they have become an emblem of summer. ‘They’ve made it again, which means the globe’s still working’ (Ted Hughes).

Our most common encounter is as witnesses to their wild, high-speed displays and their screaming passes (part of what ornithologists call 'social screaming-parties'). That black sickle, sky-trawling flight silhouette that looks, in Edward Thomas’s words in his poem 'Haymaking', ‘as if the bow had flown off with the arrow’ …

"And here they are, here they are again
Erupting across yard stones

Shrapnel-scatter terror ...

They swat past, hard-fletched,

Veer on the hard air, toss up over the roof,

And are gone again …

Their lunatic limber scramming frenzy

And their whirling blades
sparkle out into blue – not ours any more” (Ted Hughes, ‘Swifts’)

And now it seems the young birds have left the loft of the house. They must have set off four or five days ago and we never saw them go. Too slow. I look for them in the sky, and listen. Lots of jackdaws and housemartins, but not a sign of the swifts. It's too early, surely, they're too young, too small, too fragile to leave - and it's not even the end of July. Did they somehow pick up a whiff of the change in the weather, days before the storm clouds rolled in? How did they conceive of what lies ahead? How could they conceive of it? How did they know when, and where, to go?

They must have been ready, but I'm not ...

© David Williams




Monday, 28 July 2008

season of glass


Walking down the hill through the middle of Totnes today, I encountered a stalled lorry blocking the road. It had obviously wheezed its way up most of the hill, and expired. The trailer read ASSORTED GLASS. As I passed by, I noticed a stream of milk pouring out of a gap under its rear doors, then trickling into the gutter. Gallons of it. A river of split milk coursing through Totnes. Like a long liquid finger tracing a luminous line through the traffic to the River Dart.



black-and-white
I have a photograph in front of me, taken from the interior of an unknown room in New York.

Through the window, the downtown city skyline is a faded grey blur in the middle distance, afternoon shadows there and not there. Could be a forest. Could be a water stain. Could be a mirage.

On the windowsill inside the room, much more imposing than the fugitive city, a glass of water, half empty or half full: a lens that quietly distorts the spectres in the distance.

Beside it, a pair of glasses balanced on the frame and arms, staring unseeing towards the viewer. The left-hand lens offers a perfectly focused miniature of the window sill’s rim and the skyline beyond, a tiny framed world. The right-hand lens is splashed with a dark liquid, an impenetrable blur like spilt paint. Or blood. An obstacle to seeing. One eye maimed, the left eye.

The photograph, called ‘Season of Glass’, was taken by Yoko Ono. The glasses were worn by John Lennon when he was shot. So. New York. Central Park. The Dakota Building. December 1980.

The memory of glass.
The glass of memory.

Everything is still.
Everything moves.


into sand
As fragile as a dragonfly’s wings, a reflection in water, a promise. As brittle as a web of caramel, a pencil tip, a confidence. As transparent as the blue soup of the sky, as silence. Can be fashioned through fire into any shape and size and colour: a tiny crimson chimera, an imposing gold wave, a shimmering periwinkle veil. Can be used to contain, to frame, to enlighten, to focus, to build, to decorate, to stimulate, to protect, to obstruct, to warn, to pierce, to cut. Can be broken by dropping, throwing, crushing, colliding, the shock of water too hot, water too cold, polishing, touching, the clumsy fingers of forgetting. If left for long enough, will eventually break down into particles of sand.


shatter
once there was a girl called shatter and she lived in a glass house full of glass things and she had learnt to be careful learnt the hard way to watch her step her hands her clothes her every move and she moved like a cat all balance and listening and aware and eyes-all-over and breathing stillness and her rhythms were tight and right and all was shiney and transparent and in its place

everything was glass glass cutlery glass plates glass bed (a hammock of glass fibres suspended between glass posts) glass bath glass doors glass walls glass plants glass books glass dust

there was glass music and glass sighs glass giggles and glass light glass tears and glass dreams

the windows were glass spheres that turned everything outside upside down and made it smaller

the ceilings were lenses that magnified the sky the clouds the stars and made them bigger

the floors were mirrors that reflected the sky

when the sun shone everything glistened and sparked and refracted and hummed and when the night came and the wind and the rain the house chinked and swayed and danced like slow water inside and out and shatter chinked and swayed and danced with it

one day a small crack appeared in the living room ceiling only small but getting bigger and then the sky split in two and then the crack forked and then there were three skies with black rivers separating them and shatter could only watch as they grew and grew and jump over their reflections in the floor

then when the night came and the wind and the rain all three dripped through the cracks and onto the floor until the room was knee-deep in night and wind and rain then chest deep and shatter had to navigate from room to room in her glass bath first paddling with a glass bed post then rigging her hammock as a sail as the storm picked up and the house clanked and staggered and moaned inside and out and shatter clanked and staggered and moaned with it

at dawn the night level dropped and the wind eased and shatter slept and dreamt she was leaking and drowning in her own watery flow dreamt she was dissolving liquefying dispersing disappearing and when she woke up she felt refreshed

sitting up she saw the bath was beached high on a glass cupboard the damp floor a network of dark lines and fissures the walls stained by the water the windows murky and blurred

like a cat she climbed down the shelves
like a cat she walked across the floor and out of the glass door

outside everything was less shiney, slightly larger and the right way up

it would take her a while to get used to it


© David Williams, April 2007

Thursday, 24 July 2008

daniel

‘The work of hope: notes on Daniel Hit By A Train'

‘Health to you, and don’t forget that flowers, like hope, are harvested’
Subcommandante Marcos, Our Word is Our Weapon (2001)

For this new collaboratively devised work by Lone Twin Theatre, Daniel Hit By A Train, the second in a trilogy of narrative-based performances directed by Gregg Whelan and Gary Winters with the company of five performers, once again we started with material that seemed a little surprising for artists who have so often articulated their commitment to optimism and practices of hope. While the first performance Alice Bell (2006) was triggered in large part by the group’s process of sharing stories of displacement, separation and loss, for Daniel Hit By A Train we drew on a little-known 19th-century London memorial to people who lost their lives attempting to save others.

The ‘Watts Memorial of Heroic Deeds’, in Postman’s Park in the City of London, contains 53 plaques recording acts of impulsive bravery; and these became the focus of our improvisations, the lens through which we looked for forms, languages and rhythms. Taken together, the plaques comprise a catalogue of small disasters in the everyday, with momentous implications for the protagonists. Each plaque contains the bare bones of a story and of a collapsed, elliptical life: a name, a brief description of an action, a date. Some have the stark economy of an expressionist woodcut, for example: ‘THOMAS SIMPSON, DIED OF EXHAUSTION AFTER SAVING MANY LIVES FROM THE BREAKING ICE AT HIGHGATE POND, JAN 25 1885’. Others are small songs of impetuous selflessness; a few are disarmingly comic. Each of these cryptic fragments endeavours to remember the forgotten and to honour the attempt to intervene. And perhaps that’s one link with hope, and with Lone Twin’s work; they have consistently tried to honour the attempt.

Collectively these texts constitute a list, a form that Lone Twin has mined repeatedly and inventively over the past 11 years. The list as conjunction without continuity, as provisional and partial map hinting at lives and worlds, a kind of ruptured and unfinishable historiography that traces the contours and feels of lives and worlds. The list as resonant debris of the everyday, residual particles of the storm from paradise as we edge backwards into the future, like the ‘angel of history’. The Postman’s Park texts are in some ways reminiscent of other cumulative, serial texts that deal with everyday catastrophes – the anarchist Félix Fénéon’s remarkable Novels in Three Lines, for example, or the snatches of Berliners’ thoughts overheard by the angels in Wim Wenders/Peter Handke’s Wings of Desire. There are connections too with Andy Warhol’s obsessive engagement with the iconography and instruments of mortality in his Death and Disaster series. Perhaps above all I am reminded of a much-discussed passage in Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, a book awash with drownings, near-drownings and savings from the murky waters of the Thames. A much disliked character, Riderhood, is plucked unconscious from the river, then laid out in a nearby pub. “No one has the least regard for the man”, Dickens wrote, “with them all, he has been the object of avoidance, suspicion and aversion: but the spark of life within him is curiously separable from himself now, and they have a deep interest in it, probably because it is life, and they are living and must die”. In this way, Dickens suggests the mysterious allure of the ‘Life’ in life - life itself, beyond the particular individual – and his perception generates a complex, grained hope.

Lone Twin Theatre’s approach, however, combines a compassionate regard for the bottom-line human predicaments in these tragic stories, with a recognition that the most telling forms of respect and re-membering are often irreverent. True seriousness admits laughter and contradiction, and the task is to track the ‘Life’ in life to its lair, even in death. As a company, we have found some background stimulus in this regard in the forms and irreverent idioms of the medieval mystery play, the ‘dance-of-death’, the carnival procession, music hall, the village play, and other structures of popular community event. Memory in such contexts is the domain of hopeful and playful re-invention, rather than melancholy; irreverence is a sign of creative curiosity and experimental re-working. The rehearsing of 53 deaths here both admits to the fragility and contingency of human life, and celebrates our capacity to create multiple, temporary and provisional lives and worlds, and to share stories about them. So, theatre itself as a practice of hope.

In The Principle of Hope (1959), Ernst Bloch suggested that: ‘The work of hope requires people who throw themselves actively into what is becoming, to which they themselves belong’. What is the nature of the impulse to act at the moment of catastrophic accident? What drives someone into the fire, the path of the train or runaway horse, the sinking ship, the toxic pit, the sea/canal/pond/lake/river? What is at play in this instinctive self-forgetting? The triggers for action remain unknowable here. This list’s reiteration of selfless, active intervention and failure suggests something fundamental is at work here, another ‘story’ we hadn’t bargained for - and I’m not referring to some clumsily Freudian realisation of a suppressed ‘death drive’: quite the opposite. Some people seem to experience an unconscious compassion in the face of vulnerability and distress, a recognition that overrides conscious self-preservation. There is hopefulness at the heart of this recognition, in the attentive openness to the ‘becoming to which they belong’ (and Bloch’s phrase might well characterise Lone Twin’s body of work as a duo, as well as the ensemble work of Lone Twin Theatre). Such hopefulness is not betrayed by contingency and failure. For in the work of hope something of life is affirmed even in the dying - as it is in theatre, that most mortal of forms, forever hovering at the cusp of appearance and disappearance.

In her book Hope in the Dark (2005), Rebecca Solnit outlines her own pedagogy of hope, with hope conceived proactively, as an ‘act of defiance’: “Hopefulness is risky, since it is after all a form of trust, trust in the unknown and the possible, even in discontinuity. To be hopeful is to take on a different persona, one that risks disappointment, betrayal …Hope is not about what we expect. It is an embrace of the essential unknowability of the world, of the breaks with the present, the surprises … Expect to be astonished, expect that we don’t know. And this is grounds to act”. Solnit’s credo is one that might be applied to Lone Twin Theatre’s two performances thus far, both the single narrative arc of Alice Bell and the proliferative accumulation of stories in Daniel Hit By A Train. For here is a social practice that seeks, playfully and defiantly, to rub up against the unknowable and the impossible, the mortality of things and their ghosts, in search of sparks of life and other unforeseeable surprises. And always, at the very least, to honour the attempt.

Programme notes for Lone Twin Theatre's Daniel Hit By a Train: premiered at the Brut im Künstlerhaus as part of the Vienna Festival (Wiener Festwochen), May 2008. Co-produced by Vienna Festival, ACE, British Council, Barbican/BITE, Leeds Met -
© David Williams
. Lone Twin Theatre is Gregg Whelan, Gary Winters, Kate Houlden, Guy Dartnell, Antoine Fraval, Paul Gazzola, Molly Haslund, Nina Tecklenburg, Cynthia Whelan and David Williams

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

alice

In recent years, I have worked as a dramaturg with old friends Gregg Whelan, Gary Winters and their company Lone Twin Theatre, on the creation of a trilogy of performances. Two of those performances now exist: Alice Bell, which has toured extensively throughout Europe since its Brussels premiere in 2006, and Daniel Hit By A Train (2008), which premiered earlier this year in Vienna and will tour the UK in the autumn. The third and final part of the trilogy will be premiered in the autumn of 2009. The following two posts (23 and 24 July 2009) are programme notes written for the tours of Alice and Daniel: fragmentary maps of processes I still haven't fully digested, but am happy to linger with ...
______________________________________________

‘A falling together of accomplices’: Notes on the making of Alice Bell

* A story is fashioned in the wake of events, this is central to how human beings synthesise the chaotic multiplicity of lived experience; an examined life is a life recounted, a ‘life-story’. And yet the telling itself can be an event in itself - the fashioning, staging and communicating of a world here now. This is what we dance around repeatedly and uncertainly, finding our way, then losing it again. ’How to get the real into the made-up? Ask me an easier one’ (Seamus Heaney).

* Looking back over Lone Twin’s performance work, it seems there are recurrent principles or propositions at play, and they have an unspoken matter for us in what we are trying to make here in Alice Bell. So, for example, in each Lone Twin performance something simple is made strange, unfamiliar or difficult, then worked through in order to reach a sense of accomplishment. Each work is an ‘act of folly’, and yet somehow hope-ful and joy-ful, a ‘labour of love’ as Barry Laing has described it. For every work is a structure to make contact with people and to seek their help. The invitation implicit in these practices of hope asks: walk with me, talk with me, dance with me, meet me, be my accomplice for a while, share this with me, it will help me. Love requires effort and an acceptance of vulnerability. Be here with me now. Maybe it will help you too. There is always the possibility of joy.

* I’ve been reading Richard Kearney’s On Stories (2002), and his articulation of an ethics of storytelling and of inter-subjective imagination is compelling in the face of those millennial anti-humanists who declared the ‘end of narrative’ (as well as of history and ideology). ‘The story is not confined to the mind of its author alone’, he writes. ‘Nor is it confined to the mind of its reader. Nor indeed to the action of its narrated actors. Every story is a play of at least three persons (author/actor/addressee) whose outcome is never final. That is why narrative is an open-ended invitation to ethical and political responsiveness. Storytelling invites us to become not just agents of our own lives, but narrators and readers as well. It shows us that the untold life is not worth living. There will always be someone there to say, “tell me a story”, and someone there to respond. Were this not so, we would no longer be fully human’.

* Graffiti seen today on Berlin walls: ‘I’d rather laugh, all day’. And: ’My mother taught me well, so I rebel’. Also, alongside a stencilled banana: ‘One glass of water illuminates the world’.

* The politics and ethics of collaboration – everything is at stake in how we meet, listen, respond, how we are there with and for each other. How to live with others, loving something of their difference, their elsewhere? How to make the friction of difference part of the grain of a collective articulation? And how to invent the conditions for invention? How to invite people and forms and languages to come into conjunction, creating the time and space for them to co-exist? How to care for what we inject into the collective bloodstream, and to enable it to reverberate in ways that are more than the sum of its parts? How to be responsible for this story of love, transformation, betrayal and forgiveness, and to wear it on our sleeves with compassion and generosity rather than nudge-nudging and winking through the lens of a world-weary cynicism?

* Gathered around a laptop in a stairwell in Berlin, the only place we find to pick up a wi-fi signal on a Sunday afternoon, we watch online videos of the Gillian Welch/David Rawlings band, and of Bruce Springsteen with the E Street Band. These serve as points of reference in terms of investment, attitude, energy, presence. Something is palpably at stake in the work of it. As Gregg says, something is ‘crucial’, it’s not just a relaxed good time. Something has to be made to happen, and we recognise the engagement, the quality of attention and of listening. And we root for them, just as we do for Tim and Dawn in the final episode of The Office (another point of reference here). ‘You have to step it up out of the familiar’, Gregg says, ‘you have to step up to the plate’.

* In Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, one of the central characters Patrick proposes a kind of dramaturgy of the band, where the interweavings of self and others within musical structures offer a model for dynamic, connective relations between the individual and the collective. Cornet, saxophone and drum ‘chased each other across solos and then suddenly fell together and rose within a chorus’. Patrick recognises how ‘each one of them was carried by the strength of something more than themselves’. Here the collaborative meeting place of the band is ‘perfect company, with an ending full of embraces after the solos had made everyone stronger, more delineated. His own life was no longer a single story but part of a mural, which was a falling together of accomplices … a wondrous night web’. This is a metaphorical mapping of possible inter-relations in the construction of both narratives and identities. Although we have long since left Ondaatje’s novel behind, nonetheless this musical ideal lingers on to ghost so much of what we seek as a company in this performance.

* In discussions about the speaking of texts Gregg and Gary talk of sentences as sculptural ‘objects’, each one an entity of a particular shape and weight to be placed alongside each other in a public space as if they were components of a ‘report’. Molly Haslund, who plays Alice Bell, describes her score as a performer as being made up of structures like karate ‘kata’, tasks of a particular form and rhythm to be embodied and fulfilled. I think of the poet Alice Oswald talking of each line in a poem as a stone, and of the poem as a ‘dry-stone wall’: a composite or aggregate entity, hand-made from found materials, within which each component has a certain self-sufficiency, a certain suchness, to be encountered and contemplated in relation to the whole.

* Peter Brook once said that, when his international group first started performing in Paris in the mid-1970s, people often asked them if they were amateurs. Although the performers were slightly miffed, Brook was delighted. He was after a kind of sophisticated children’s theatre comprising diverse, legible, storytelling forms and performers whose differences flared into visibility. ‘Amateurs’ in the old sense of the word: lovers of stories coming together to meet in the telling, each of them implicated in making it take (a) place in the present. This relates to something at the heart of my pleasure in working with Gregg and Gary, and now with this new company; here too ‘naivety’ and the ‘amateur’ are qualities to be worked and affirmed and celebrated, and it’s often uncomfortable in terms of my own received ideas. It’s like hanging out with two disarmingly smart (and hilarious) kids whose perceptions unsettle and surprise, and invite me into elsewhere and otherwise. An encouragement to think and re-think through shifting position and unexpected contradiction, rather than the surface rearranging of prejudices that so often passes for thinking.

(Extracts from rehearsal journal, Berlin, March 2006)

Programme notes for Lone Twin Theatre's Alice Bell. World premiere: Beurrsschouwburg Centre for the Arts, Brussels, as part of the Künsten Festival des Arts, May 2006. Co-commissioned by Sophiensaele, Berlin; Künsten Festival des Arts, Brussels; The Maltings, Farnham; and Nuffield Theatre, Lancaster. Supported by ACE, German Federal Cultural Foundation, Tron Theatre Glasgow - © David Williams

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

secrets and tears


'Without Sicily, Italy leaves no clear and lasting impression; this place is the key to everything' (Goethe, Italian Journey: Palermo, 13 April 1787).

‘Psyche chooses its geography’ (James Hillman).


The reasons why Sicily so inhabits my psyche remain mysterious to me. Why is my dream life so animated and intense when I am there? Why do I feel so 'at home' in this place of extremes? The following text & images - a version of a presentation at a Lone Twin symposium in Lancaster, 2007 - stem from a number of journeys to Sicily since 2002, a period that overlaps with my collaborations with Lone Twin (in particular during the preparation of Alice Bell). I had talked in a bantery way with Gregg & Gary about my fascination with Sicily, but had never really begun to articulate its complexity. This presentation endeavoured to touch on more personal interests.

Perhaps there's a circuitous link with Lone Twin insofar as these materials touch on the relations between travelling & stories, and on travel as a machine for generating stories. Perhaps there are other connections of sorts in some of the paradoxes & ambiguities of Sicily: in the spaces between generosity, compassion,
sumptuous beauty and poverty, damage, dereliction, cruelty, suffering; between a celebratory joie de vivre and infinite sadness & tears; between wonder and horror; between unashamed & miraculous revelation and the repressive silencings of enforced secrets - so much of what happens there is invisible, half-glimpsed, or it cannot be spoken about, it is ‘unspeakable’; and in particular between hope (an action, a thing you 'do' in Sicily) and loss or even despair.
 _______________________________________

secrets and tears

In the noise of Sicily there are many different kinds of silence, and at least three gestures for a silence that is also a silencing:

1) Sew the lips together ('Cusitti la vucca') - 'Acqua in bocca' - 'Bouche cousue' - 'My lips are sealed'

2) Two fingers over the lips, slightly pushing up the nose ('Spiuni, muffuttu, cascittuni, sbirru') - 'As well as referring to a policeman, the gesture defines the informer, and all those who break the code of silence. When such a person appears, people say he stinks. The stink is due to the custom, in the past, of shoving such a person’s head into the toilet in the cell …'

3) Hands up, palms forward, leaning back ('Nenti sacciu, nenti haiu dittu, e se dittu e chiddu c'haiu dittu, nun l'haiu dittu') - 'Niente so, niente ho detto, e se detto e cio che ho detto, non l’ho detto' - 'Je ne sais rien, je n’ai rien dit, et si j’ai dit ce que j’ai dit, c’est comme si je ne l’avais pas dit' - 'I know nothing I have said nothing, and if what I said is said, I didn’t say it'

There’s an exquisite novel called The Leopard, by Lampedusa, about a Sicily in perpetual transition. In the novel Lampedusa describes the instability of truth in Sicily: ‘Nowhere has truth so short a life as in Sicily: a fact has scarcely happened five minutes before its genuine kernel has vanished, been camouflaged, embellished, disfigured, annihilated by imagination and self-interest: shame, fear, generosity, malice, opportunism, charity, all the passions, good as well as evil, fling themselves on the fact and tear it to pieces; very soon it has vanished altogether’ (216).


Perhaps I could try to tell you about the hot breezes – the sea – the sky – the smell of rain on the burnt earth.

Or some of the mythical stories about Sicily. The island is said to be supported above sea level by three huge marble columns, one of them broken. And Etna is the ‘forge of Vulcan’ – the Titans are said to be trapped under the volcano belching sulphur and rock.

Or Sicily's complex cultural layerings from a succession of invasions and occupations: Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Muslim Arabs, Normans, Spanish Bourbons, Fascists in the 2nd world war, Americans in the wake of WW2. A composite, a palimpsest, a contradiction: it seems closer to North Africa than to Rome (or indeed to Europe), and perhaps inevitably so many people remain suspicious of outsiders.

Or some of its place names: there are towns called Pachino, Rossollino, Cinisi, Cimino – all of these mafia towns – and a ‘Coppola’ is a hat traditionally worn by rural mafiosi.

Or the graffiti – in this culture of silences, disallowed agendas and beliefs seep out proliferatively into these anonymous textual interventions: ‘HOW COULD HELL BE WORSE THAN THIS PLACE’ / ‘MUSSOLINI LIVES’ / ‘NEVER GIVE UP, NEVER CONFESS, NEVER COOPERATE’ / 'ANDREOTTI = MAFIA' / ‘THANK YOU FALCONE’

Or the recent ‘t-shirt wars’ (another textual outlet): Last year, t-shirts with the slogan La Mafia: Made in Sicily were on sale in Palermo markets & shops – there were huge sales, particularly in the wake of the arrest of the then boss of bosses, Bernardo Provenzano, found in a hut very close to his home town of Corleone. The shirts generated political outrage, and there were unsuccessful attempts to ban them. Particularly vocal was a man called Salvatore Cuffaro the Governor of Sicily (who was himself, ironically, under investigation for aiding & abetting the Mafia).

Then in the UEFA Cup, West Ham were drawn against Palermo: in London, before the first of the 2 matches, unlicensed vendors were selling t-shirts with the slogan The Hammers v. the Mafia, with the marionette strings logo from the Godfather films. Great offence was caused among Sicilians & politicians, including Cuffaro again. West Ham lost 1-0. At the return match in Palermo, free t-shirts were distributed outside the ground in the local team colours (pink) with the slogan La Mafia fa schifo (is disgusting): la liberta e la cosa nostra (freedom is our thing). After their team’s first goal, Palermo fans hummed the theme tune from The Godfather ... Palermo won 3-0 … Almost inevitably, there was some rioting after the match.

Then last summer (2006), the Corleone town council, as part of a re-branding of this most notorious Mafia town in Sicily, produced a festival called ’I love (heart) Corleone’, with t-shirts to match. The money raised was to be used to fund projects to turn confiscated Mafia properties into schools and farming co-ops. However – get this - the town council is being sued by the daughter of the former Mafia ‘boss of bosses’ Salvatore Riina (now serving a life sentence); the Riina family owns a clothing company called Mania Max, who claim a copyright on the slogan; they have been producing their own ‘I love Corleone’ t-shirts for a number of years …

Or perhaps I could tell you about the astonishing food and the markets - ‘a hungry person’s dream’, according to the great Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia: 'a market is more than a market, it's a vision, a dream, a mirage'. Lemons, figs, peaches, grapes, melons, always sprigs of leaves around the fruit: cartoon perfect vegetables; fish – tuna, swordfish, octopus, squid aglow under the red tented canopies; vats of olives, cheeses, almonds, pistachios – more often than not the markets are a kind of vision, a fantasy of plenty … and a sensory overload. Flayed goat’s heads hanging over the meat stalls. A chicken’s head in the gutter. The wind-scattered trash in the market’s wake.

Or the weddings you see everywhere in the summer months: one in particular I remember, in Piazza Armerina, where the bride seemed to be so much more in love with the photographer than with her new husband.

Or perhaps I could tell you about Paul, the father of a friend Daniel: a Dutch hippy walking along the Alcantara river valley in the 1980s, through the plain and into the gorges, eventually finding a cave to live in; he believed he had found his dream river/valley, and he has been there ever since.

Or the places I love: the white shell beach in the Zingaro park; the tonnara at Scopello, and the view over the bay from Vito's; the waves and sand of Calamosche, near Noto; Siracusa, and in particular the streets and baroque tufo buildings of the adjoining island Ortigia; the crumbling old city around La Kalsa in Palermo; the hills around Palermo's conca d'oro, with its ghosts of Salvatore Giuliano; the Catania fish market; Castiglione di Sicilia; the Alcantara valley; Leonardo's abundant orchards, and the woods near Pantalemi; the luminous baroque beauty of Noto; the road through the mountains past Novara di Sicilia towards the coast at Tindari; Cefalu; the blue water at Favignana ...

Or the birds everywhere ... The swifts Hannah filmed flocking & swooping around the facade of the Banco di Sicilia in Palermo, en route to Africa for the winter – catching & drinking water droplets from the condensation coming from the air conditioning units. Then the thousands of startled birds that scattered from a grove of trees in Noto when the fireworks started during the fiesta ... Then there’s the hunting season: gunshot echoing around the valley, any bird seemingly a potential target: the tension in your spine ...

Or the wild dogs everywhere ... moving slowly from pocket of shade to pocket of shade during the summer months - scavenging around the edges of the markets - or the dog I saw asleep on the steps of the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, re-enacting Al Pacino’s death scene at the end of Godfather 3 - or the wild dogs running on the pitch during rioting at a Catania v. Palermo football match in early February 2007, the local derby match that led to the temporary suspension of all football in Italy. There were pictures on the news of players with their shirts over their heads to protect themselves against the tear gas as the match was abandoned and the dogs ran free …

Or - football - calcio - everywhere: oh the bewilderingly troubled state of Italian football ... The world cup triumph, high-level corruption, match fixing, demotions from Serie A including Juventus, etc. But what of the football itself, and the Italian aesthetics of football? Of the three vital ingredients required for the best football players and teams, Italians say the unruly passion of British football lacks all three: fantasia (the ability to do unpredictable things with the ball, surprising inspired instinct, imagination, flair); furbizia (cunning, slyness, tactical bending of the rules, all aspects of gamesmanship: all those things that offend and frustrate English fans so much); and tecnica (technique, skill). Surprise – cunning – skill ...

Or perhaps I could tell you about getting lost with Sue in the backstreets of Corleone, a little panicked, abandoning the car on some impossible vertical cobbled surface heading for some impossibly narrow gap between the houses. Meeting a sparkling-eyed man, telling him ‘Siamo perduto’ ('we are lost', I thought; in fact, 'we are desperate') – he laughs and says, ‘How can you be desperate when you can see the Madonna on the hillside?’

Or the countless Madonnas in little niches everywhere: votive candles, flowers, often in states of some disrepair, with dead flowers propped up in cans & coke bottles. The Madonna carrying a skull in her hand in the wall of Palermo’s Ucciardone Prison, the so-called ‘Mafia University’. Or the 'Weeping Madonna' (‘Madonna delle Lacrime’) in Syracusa: a ceramic Madonna who ‘wept’ for five days in 1953. Her tears are kept in a tiny glass phial in an ornate gilded centrepiece inside a giant dome built to resemble a tear drop. Or the Black Madonna at Tindari in the north of Sicily – La Madonna Nera, with her Latin plaque underneath her: Negra sum, sed formosa - 'I am black, but beautiful’. When this icon first appeared mysteriously ‘from the East’ a series of miracles occurred: for example, when a child fell from the cliffs towards the crashing sea below, the Black Madonna emptied the sea from the beach and cushioned the child’s landing with the soft sand. Since that time that stretch of beach has never been covered by the sea …

Or the roadside memorial in Alcantara to the young man whose body was thrown from a bridge into the gorge below in May 1950 during a car accident: somehow, miraculously, he survived … He was caught by St Antony, the memorial suggests.

Or my friend Leonardo telling me about his son-in-law, tragically killed when he fell backwards off building site scaffolding onto rocks: his tearful description of his young grandson asking about his disappeared father – ‘Why can’t he come down from the sky?’

Or Etna - the attitude of people living under the volcano: a mix of living in the moment and a kind of philosophical indifference. Its snow-covered peak: hundreds of years ago, ice was collected by the Arabs in great slabs from the summit, covered in ash, transported as far afield as Palermo and the mainland of Italy, for refrigeration.

Perhaps I could tell you about Empedocles, a hermit philosopher and early volcanologist who lived in an observatory near Etna’s summit, and studied it closely. Finally, in 433 BC he dived into the main crater (‘La Bocca Grande’) in attempt to prove that the gases spurting from the volcano would support his body weight and that he would float …

Or the lava sculptures on sale at stalls in the midst of the surreal lunar landscape near the mouth of the volcano: a row of Mussolinis and a row of Scottish Terriers ('scotties') amongst the Madonnas ...

Or perhaps the virgin martyr Saint Agatha, the patron saint of Catania and becalmer of Etna. She was put to death under the Roman regime in the 3rd century for refusing the sexual advances of the local Roman magistrate; she was imprisoned, beaten, tortured, and her breasts were crushed and cut off. Later canonised by Catholic Church for her miraculous intervention in the 17th century, her veil was carried from her tomb in Catania towards the eruptions, and the volcano stopped - saving the city from complete destruction by the lava flows. Agatha is still invoked against volcanic eruptions, as well as fire and lightning. Every February on her feast day, the bejewelled reliquary (purportedly) containing her breasts and various sinews is taken from the cathedral in Catania and paraded through the streets.

Or Pio Padre, pictures of whom are everywhere, on most motorbikes, cabs, shops. Known to all modern Italian Catholics, the Capuccin monk ‘received stigmata’ - bleeding wounds on his hands, feet and abdomen – and then performed miracles until his death until the late 1960s; there were inexplicable cures with his bandaged hands, instant conversions, visions & prophecies …

Or the African migrants illegally landing their boats on the beaches of Lampedusa (south of Sicily) every summer. There have been thousands of these economic migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa in recent years; over 2000 have died in the sea en route to a new life. Many of the survivors are held in detention camps near Siracusa.

Or the storms: A nocturnal electrical storm over the bay of Castellamare, west of Palermo, burning ephemeral images of coast and sea and sky onto our retinas - and our failed attempts to photograph the lightning.

Or the nocturnal fires apparently out of control in the olive groves on the hills; no one seems to notice as they burn through the night ...

Or 17 year old Rita Atria, daughter of a Mafia family whose father and brother had been murdered, who broke the vow of omerta/silence and went to the police. Denounced and threatened by her mother, she was given a safe house in Rome where she befriended the Mafia investigator Paolo Borsellino; he treated her like one of his own daughters and he became her one trusted link to home and the outside world. In 1992 a week after Borsellino was killed in a car-bombing in Palermo, Rita threw herself off the balcony. In a suicide note, she wrote: ‘There is no one left to protect me’ … Three months after her funeral, on the Day of the Dead, Rita’s mother smashed her headstone and obliterated the photo attached to it.

Yes, perhaps I should try to talk about the Mafia: Cosa Nostra, 'The Octopus', 'The Organisation', the State-within-the-State. Cusitti la vucca!

The complex hierarchies and codes of honour and respect, each family structure called a cosca, an artichoke, a unit with inter-folded leaves. The initiation rituals for becoming a ‘made man’ or ‘a friend of the friends’: a pricked finger, blood on the picture of saint, the image set on fire, the flames held in the hands, the oath sworn on pain of death. The connections with party politics, secret histories beneath the surface of Italian democracy: covert associations and conspiracies. The close links with the Christian Democrats (in their common horror of the Communists, like the Catholic Church – in 1948 voters were threatened with excommunication if they voted Communist). The particularly close links with seven-times prime minister Giulio Andreotti, and with members of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia - a party named after a football chant: 'Go Italy!' The murky rise of 'il Cavaliere' Berlusconi, from sleazey cruise-ship crooner to media monopolist, owner of AC Milan, three-time president in alliances with nationalists and fascists, always one step ahead of the law ... The protection money, pizzo, a word for the beak of a small bird - and an estimated 80% of businesses in Palermo are still thought to be paying the pizzo. The heroin refineries. The money laundered in real estate contracts, disastrous totalitarian-style housing development and unfinished public works projects – blocks of flats that collapse, roads that suddenly stop, flyovers in the middle of nowhere. The Mafia’s word for the Law – la sonnambula (the somnambulist, and it’s a female sleepwalker). The apartment in Palermo found by police in the mid 1980s, its rooms stacked floor to ceiling with bank notes. The illegal horse racing, closing off the roads in Palermo & Messina. The coded actions: the look, the gesture, the entry-phone button covered in glue (a common warning), the silent phone call, the threatening note, the poisoned dog, the dead fish sent through the post, the banker hanging off Blackfriars bridge with bricks & stones in his pockets, the body with money stuffed in its mouth, the precise coding of floral tributes at funerals ... The Corleonese psychopaths Luciano Liggio (the so-called ‘Black Knight’, although he preferred to be called ’The Professor’) and Toto ‘the Beast’ Riina, AKA Uncle Toto or Shorty - although you wouldn’t call him that to his face - he was responsible directly or indirectly for over 800 murders; Bernardo ‘The Tractor’ Provenzano in hiding for over 40 years (‘he shoots like an angel, but has the brains of a chicken’, according to his boss Liggio, who was reading Kant and Freud in Ucciardone prison, the ‘Mafia University’) - Provenzano was finally arrested in April 2006; and now probably the new capo di tutti capi, the Porsche-loving, computer operating, Latin speaking, playboy killer from Trapani, Matteo Messina Denaro, ‘Matthew Money’, who once strangled a rival’s pregnant girlfriend – ‘I filled a cemetery all by myself’, he once bragged; he has been in hiding since 1992 ... The massacres of the 1970s and 1980s, a systematic ‘terror’ engineered by Toto Riina, the psycopath from Corleone who just loves Corleone ... The killings, hundred & hundreds of people. The victims were rival Mafiosi, local and government politicians, judges, investigators, policemen, journalists, doctors, businessmen, the so-called ‘excellent cadavers’ or ‘distinguished corpses’: one lawyer’s severed head was found on the front seat of his car in Naples, the rest of his body had disappeared ... And then there were hundreds of other people simply in the wrong place at the wrong time – knives, garrottes, strychnine, sawn-off shotguns, kalashnikovs, grenades, acid vats, even a bazooka was once found; and then the bombs, there were lots of bombs …

Those that were murdered included: Giuseppe Russo - Michele Reina - Giorgio Ambrosoli - Boris Giuliano - Cesare Terranova - Piersanti Mattarella - Emanuele Basili - Gaetano Costa - Pio la Torre - Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa - Rocco Chinnici - the pentito Leonardo Vitale - Ninni Casara - Antonio Saetta - Giovanni Buonsignore - Giuseppe Insalaco - Rosario Livatino - Antonio Scopelliti -

These were all resisters – and I’d like to mention just a few remarkable others here:

In particular, prosecuting magistrates Giovanni Falconi and Paolo Borsellino – who recognised the ‘highly refined minds’ of some of the Mafiosi, and said the octopus was first of all inside all of us. They were responsible for bringing hundreds of core figures in organised crime to trial. Top Mafia enemies, extraordinary figureheads in exposing the structures and key players – both were murdered within a few weeks of each other, both with car bombs in the early summer of 1992 – Falcone on the way from the airport to Palermo with his wife and bodyguards, Borsellino while visiting his mother in Palermo on a Sunday afternoon.

Earlier on, Peppino Impastato: the son of a Mafioso who witnessed the death of his uncle (a local Mafia boss & heroin trafficker) in a car bomb when he was 15. Peppino refused to become Mafioso, broke off relations with his father, and became a left-wing activist. He started a community radio station (Radio Aut) that derided the local Mafia bosses in satirical & grotesque sketches; his radio programme ‘Onda Pazza’ (‘Crazy Waves’) used the cash registers in Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’ as an intro theme tune. A year after his father was ‘accidentally’ killed by a passing car, and on the same day in 1978 when former Prime Minister Aldo Moro’s body was found in the boot of a Fiat in Rome, dumped by the Red Brigades, Impastato was shot, his body was dumped on a railway line near Cinisi, explosives tied to his chest were detonated – a death designed to look like the suicide of a terrorist. Two days after his death he was elected as a local councillor. His murderers were only convicted in 2002, mainly due to the persistence of his mother & brother.

Libero Grassi, the shopkeeper who in August 1991 went on TV to signal his refusal to pay protection money (the pizzo): he was shot two days later ...

The seven students who one night in 2005 plastered the streets of Palermo with stickers demanding an end to protection payments, the pizzo: ‘A people that pays pizzo is a people without dignity’. Local pressure forced the city council to come on board and support this campaign, which continues today. So far over 7000 shoppers have been encouraged only to use retailers who refuse to cooperate with the Mafia; more than 150 local businesses are now involved in this grassroots ‘addiopizzo/consumo critico’ movement (‘Goodbye to protection/critical consumption’).

Letizia Battaglia, photographer/documenter of Mafia killings, community activist, local politician, who took to the streets to clean up needles and plant trees.

Perhaps above all, Rosaria Schifani. Live on television, the young wife of one of Giovanni Falcone’s bodyguards, killed in the same explosion at Carpaci, was one of the first 'ordinary' people (i.e. not in public office) to speak out to a mass audience against the Mafia and its connections to the State. The first words she spoke were: ‘My beautiful Vito. He had such beautiful legs’. She went on:

'I, Rosaria Costa, wife of police escort Vito Schifani, in the name of all those who have given their lives for the state – the state – I ask first of all that justice be done, now. I’m speaking to the men of the mafia who are here among us. You can ask for forgiveness. I will forgive you but you must get on your knees, if you have the courage to change. But they don’t want to change – they won’t change! … I ask, on behalf of the city of Palermo, Lord, which you have turned into a city of blood, too much blood, I ask you to work for peace, for justice, for hope, for love – love for everyone – but there is no love here … there is no love here … there is no love here …'

This final outrage, and her tears and her words, changed a lot of people’s hearts. Her public grief - and accusations - helped bring huge public pressure for change, and encouraged the growth of a popular anti-mafia movement throughout Sicily. Her words remind me of Carlo Levi’s description of the mother of a murdered communist peasant speaking out at the trial of her son’s killers in the 1950s: ‘And so this woman created herself, in the course of a day: tears are no longer tears, they are words now, and words are stones’.






(Extracts from 'Secrets and tears', a presentation as part of ‘I Can’t Go On Like This: a Lone Twin symposium', Nuffield Theatre, Lancaster University, February 2007 - © David Williams).

Monday, 21 July 2008

darwin's nightmare

L’Incubo de Darwin (Darwin’s Nightmare) – dir. Hubert Sauper, 2004

I have just watched a DVD of Hubert Sauper’s film, which details a genuinely horrifying web of connectivities, exchanges and inequities in a particular context of globalisation: on the shores of Lake Victoria in Tanzania. The lake has become an ecologically ‘dead’ environment due to the introduction of a non-native predator, the Nile perch, a voracious consumer of all other aquatic life: the legacy of a 'minor' scientific experiment gone awry (and a fiercely critical analogy for the brutal impact of rogue colonialism). Mammoth Russian Ilyushin planes, their pilots complicit in illegal international arms trade, roar in to deliver crates of munitions to be smuggled into war zones in Africa, before then taking white fish fillets to Europe for additional profits. One Russian pilot describes a job he’s about to undertake: delivering tanks to Angola, then on to Johannesburg to pick up a shipment of grapes to take back to Europe. He relays his friend’s words: ‘So the children of Angola receive guns for Christmas, while kids in Europe get grapes’. Wearily, he goes on: ‘”That’s business” … I would like all of the world’s children to be happy, but I don’t know how to do it … So many mothers …’

Meanwhile, as the film attests, entire lake-side communities are ravaged by HIV/AIDS, food shortages, the most abject poverty imaginable. In one place the grim by-product of the fish processing plants - stripped carcasses with only the eyeless heads intact – are sold to local people by the lorry-load, dumped in the mud, crawling with maggots. Young prostitutes, dependent on the pilots for work, smoke forlornly in deserted bars, then watch planes come and go across the water; in the course of the film, one of these young women is murdered. Street kids in ‘Fish Town’ (Mwanza) fight over handfuls of rice. Fish carcases are boiled by these kids to make glue for sniffing, to allow them to sleep as insentient as stones.

The film explores the terrible contradictions and consequences of one instance of a European exploitation of Africa’s ‘natural resources’, including its most vulnerable people, and details the emergence of a dysfunctional, toxic ‘eco-system’ on the shores of the lake. In Hubert Sauper’s words, “an ungodly globalized alliance on the shores of the world’s biggest tropical lake: an army of local fishermen, World bank agents, homeless children, African ministers, EU-commissioners, Tanzanian prostitutes and Russian pilots”. The ghosts of colonialism linger tenaciously in this most extreme arse end of international capitalism. This is globalisation’s ‘heart of darkness’, a ‘bare life’ reality which one might characterise by its ‘moral oblivion’, its impossible double-binds, its proliferative inequities and suffering, the blind-spots it encourages in those who 'benefit' in various ways. The ‘survival of the fittest’ here means those with resources, primarily the Europeans, and secondarily the short-term survivalist tactics of ordinary people with little real chance of self-reinvention and escape. The film records the shadow of entrepreneurial ‘success’, its disenfranchised, utterly unaccommodated ‘others’: what liberal capitalism denies and at the same time absolutely requires, its insidious 'underbelly'. Effectively a state of war is prolonged here by the machinations of rogue capitalism, perpetuating a relentless loop of poverty, disease, ecological disaster and conflict - so that in the end war itself is hoped for by some as a ‘job opportunity’, a potential source of money and food, a way out ...

After the film, I find further details about Lake Victoria and the pre-history of its ecological collapse in Verena Andermatt Conley's book Ecopolitics: The Environment in Poststructuralist Thought (London: Routledge, 1997). Conley writes:

"Lake Victoria [...] has fed millions of Africans for centuries on its diverse group of fish known as cichlids. Millions of Africans depended on the fish for their major source of protein. In the 1960s, the colonial administration of Uganda introduced the fast-growing Nile perch. Released into the lake, the perch ate all the cichlids and grew rapidly into marketable fish. One scientist likened the experiment to that of clear-cutting the rain forest and replacing it with fast-growing timbers. The cichlids fell from 80% to 2% of the fish in Lake Victoria within a decade. While countries around the lake now export 200,000 ton of Nile perch, its demand has driven prices beyond the means of tens of thousands of local people. Unlike cichlids, perch must be smoked, and which further diminishes the short supply of trees around the lake. Once again, the benefits of industrialization - that is, of export - have bypassed the poor. While a few Africans have grown wealthy, pressure put on the government by the European Community and the US to repay the debt have further impoverished the poor. In addition, the perch fishery is declining. The perch have eaten the cichlids and now have only each other to feed on. Cannibalism has become another link in the food chain, as adults feed on young fish. Millions of people are affected. Snails (schisotosoma) that transmit disease used to be eaten by cichlids. They are now developing undisturbed and threaten to spread disease. The loss of herbivorous cichlids has contributed to the spread of algae that such oxygen from the water and create hypoxic zones [...] Edward O. Wilson, author of The Diversity of Life (1992) [says that] never before has man in a single ill-advised step placed so many vertebrate species simultaneously at risk of extinction and also, in doing so, threatened a food source and a traditional way of life of riparian dwellers" (pp. 161-2).


Sunday, 20 July 2008

black dog, white dog

Amores Perros (film). Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2000

‘Deliver my soul from the sword: my darling from the power of the dog’ (Psalms xxii, 16)

The Spanish title of the Mexican film Amores Perros translates as ‘lousy love affairs’ or more literally, ‘dog loves’ (Smith 2003: 9): ‘amor es perros’, ‘love is dogs’. In English-speaking countries internationally, where the film’s representations of dog fighting were controversial, it was released with the subtitle ‘Love’s a bitch’. Set in Mexico City, the film interweaves three narratives of love, desire, betrayal and loss, each of its three ‘chapters’ connected by an explosive car crash that implicates the central characters. In each episode, extreme situations are fueled by aberrant, destructive (‘animal’) behaviour, and violence simply serves to generate violence.

The working title of Guillermo Arriago Jordán’s original script was ‘Black Dog/White Dog’ (‘Perro negro/perro blanco’, quoted in Smith 2003: 32), and the tripartite narrative structure is informed by a complex web of doublings, in particular between rich and poor, and human and animal. This somewhat Manichean structure (which owes a great deal to television melodrama) is undercut by the ambiguous moral status of the characters – both human and animal - and the interpenetration of narratives, with some formal repetition of the same sequence from differing perspectives: the car crash, in particular. Although the meanings of events become unstable and proliferative, nonetheless a particular moralistic vision resides, a poetic justice of ‘pride before a fall’ and of violence revisiting its perpetrators and ‘biting them back’.

A core component in the construction of this contemporary morality tale of troubled mexicanidad lies in its representation of dogs. For they are centrally involved in all three episodes, and numerous parallels are established between human protagonists and their canine companions. All of them are imbricated in dog-eat-dog economic systems and their attendant anomie and violence. All of their identities are fragile and damaged, and they transform and unravel in the reiterated narrative arc of an enforced reversal of status (existential, moral, economic, and so on).

The first dog we encounter is the ambivalent Cofi, a black mongrel with more than a hint of Rottweiler: a devoted pet, a vicious killer, and, as an indomitable fighter, a meal ticket for Octavio (Gael García). He exploits the dog’s ferocious fighting abilities for financial gain before Cofi is shot during an illegal fight in an abandoned swimming pool by the aggrieved owner of his opponent. In the film’s opening scene, a high-speed chase sequence that culminates in the first of four perspectives on the car crash, Octavio’s friend Jorge desperately tends to the wounded dog in the back seat of Octavio’s speeding car with a group of gun-toting gangsters in pursuit.

Then there is Richi, the white poodle of model Valeria (Goya Toledo), the beautiful mistress of unfaithful, married advertising executive Daniel. Richi is utterly infantilised by Valeria who confers on him the surrogate child role that Deleuze and Guattari disdainfully dismissed as that of ‘the Oedipal family animal, a mere poodle’ (Deleuze & Guattari 1987: 250). There are evident metaphorical echoes in the fates of the model and her pampered lapdog as both of them fall dramatically from ‘grace’. Valeria’s demise is prefigured in her initial, innocuous, high-heeled trip on a hole in the shiny parquet floor of the new ‘dream home’ apartment Daniel has bought for her. In the wake of her car crash and subsequent surgery, eventually a gangrenous leg is amputated, and she is callously abandoned by her advertising company as the model-of-choice for a perfume called ‘Enchant’. Then with the swift and self-destructive collapse of her relationship with Daniel, she falls out of the world into devastated isolation as an invalid. Similarly Richi the poodle disappears into the hole in the floorboards, a ‘wound’ in the polished and orderly surface that has now spread, like Valeria’s gangrene. In turn, the dog falls into an ‘underworld’ of darkness, disorientation, horror and abjection. His scuffling subterranean whimpers as he tries to escape the rats proliferating just below the surface parallel Valeria’s psychic state, her slide into dismembered inarticulacy in a black hole of despair, buried alive with no possibility of escape. In Arriaga’s script, although not in the finished film, Valeria has terminated a pregnancy fathered by Daniel, and the loss of her ickle poodle represents another child, another ‘limb’ lost.

Finally, an itinerant loner, hitman and former guerrilla El Chivo (‘The Goat’: Emilio Echevarría) moves through the city with his entourage of stray dogs, a makeshift ‘family’ of mongrels including Flor (‘Flower’), Frijol (‘Bean’) and Gringuita: his ‘babies’. For much of the film, his attentive and generous co-existence with this ragged assortment of dogs sits in stark opposition to the dispassionate brutality of his work as a contract killer, and their interdependent companionship as outsiders lends frail dignity to Roger Grenier’s perception that: ‘A pet is a protection against life’s insults, a defence against the world, the somewhat vain conviction of being truly loved, a way of being both less alone and more alone’ (Grenier 2000: 23).

The fourth and final version of the car crash is seen from El Chivo’s perspective, and it is the only scene in the film in which the central characters from all three narratives coincide (or ‘collide’). It is also the trigger for a proliferation of parallels between narratives. Octavio is dragged bleeding and broken from the wreck of his car, leaving a trail of blood on the ground like so many of the dogs we have seen hauled from the dog fights. While his friend Jorge lies bloodied and dead in the front seat, Valeria screams and smears blood on her car window as her shattered body flails to break free from its entrapment in her shattered car. These most vulnerable, animal moments of ‘bare life’ are staged in public. The dog Cofi is dumped on the street with his open gun-shot wounds, then retrieved by El Chivo who carries him home and nurses him back to health: an echo of Daniel caring for the crippled Valeria. Finally El Chivo’s entire ‘family’ of dogs is slaughtered by Cofi, a horrifying massacre of the innocents that constitutes a traumatic turning point for the Lear-like vagrant: a transitional moment of reckoning en route to some sort of redemption. Ultimately he spares Cofi, renounces his life as a contract killer, and at the end of the film walks away with the loping dog into a parched, grey, featureless wasteland, an old man and his dog setting off towards a symbolic desert and an uncertain future beyond the city.

In a documentary supplement to the DVD about the making of Amores Perros, director Alejandro González Iñárritu reaffirms the metaphorical parallels and moralities enacted in the film’s narratives: ‘In this film, love and relationships with dogs are very deep. Dogs slowly resemble their owners, all owners look like their dogs and vice versa, and here dogs redeem humans, as in El Chivo’s case. There is a grand lesson in that sense’ (‘Behind the Scenes’, Amores Perros DVD 2001). He also discusses the controversial dog fighting sequences, an entirely masculine domain in the film, a theatre of harrowing, excessive machismo in which human beings fight vicariously through their canine stand-ins, then literally with each other. Each encounter is like a car crash in miniature, its impact substantially heightened by Martín Hernández’s soundtrack which interweaves ambient traffic noises, dog barks, and music. In his insistence on the humane nature of the treatment of the dogs in the filming of the fight sequences, González Iñárritu foregrounds the illusionist capacities of framing, shooting and editing, and the actual safety of those involved : ‘the same way I’d avoid hurting somebody in a car accident’ (quoted in Romney 2000). In this way, he forges a conscious connection between the dog fights and central car-crash. Perhaps inevitably, González Iñárritu tried to downplay the attention the fight sequences attracted internationally: ‘I wanted to make a film about Mexico City, where there are millions of dogs. The dogfight is a cruel reality. But more than the fights, we were interested in the relations between dogs and people’ (in Romney 2000).

As Smith points out in his monograph about Amores Perros (2003: 59 ff), critical responses varied enormously, reflecting national emphases and obsessions. So, for example, in dog-loving Britain, censors, critics and the RSPCA tended to focus centrally on the brutality of the dog fights, locating them as the purported ‘content’ of the film (a response that González Iñárritu was at pains to deny), thereby displacing the fictional instances of human suffering represented. There are contesting realities at play in the exchanges between the director and his British critics, who questioned the relationship between what is represented as ‘real’ and the reality of processes and actions on the film set; the bottom-line reality for them related to the apparent baiting or goading of live animals.

In the face of the initial misgivings of the British Board of Film Classification, González Iñárritu insisted it was all make-believe, simply an illusionist construction of the real: ‘the camera lies’, he reminded his knockers, ‘we used hand-held cameras to make it look a lot more dramatic. The dogs were just playing’ (quoted in Smith 2003: 60). In the recording of the fight sequences, animal combatants reportedly wore clear plastic gumshields to protect themselves and prevent them from hurting each other. Other dogs were sedated and made-up to ‘play dead’. The documentary supplement on the DVD includes a startling sequence that perhaps lends some support to the director’s play-ful perspective; two snarling dogs hurtle at each other in what seems to be unbridled, pent-up aggression, then as they meet one of them immediately mounts the other from behind and tries to have hurried, animated sex with it. Yet it’s hard to tell whether this is libidinous play or utter confusion on the dog’s part; it seems somewhat disoriented and fried by the heat of the situation.

Further ambiguities abound. According to González Iñárritu, the film’s dog trainers Larry Casanova and Ernesto Aparicio are ‘respected in animal welfare circles’ (Romney 2000), and used their own animals. However in the same interview he admits: ‘Thirty per cent of the people in the movie are real people from the dogfighting world, and we used some real fighting dogs. It’s shown the way they do it […] The people can be dangerous […] but I don’t judge them. For them it’s like bullfighting or going fishing – for them it’s natural, something you do on a Sunday’ (ibid). Furthermore, González Iñárritu admits that he was afraid of handling the dogs himself, for some of them were all too obviously dangerous: ‘These dogs are real motherfuckers’ (ibid). As opposed to make-believe motherfuckers, I guess. It seems he was not wholly convinced that all of the dogs on the film set were ‘just playing’ …

References
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (trans. Brian Massumi), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Grenier, Roger (2000). The Difficulty of Being a Dog (trans. Alice Kaplan), Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Romney, Jonathan (2000). ‘Going to the dogs’ (interview with Alejandro González Iñárritu), The Guardian, 22 August
Smith, Paul Julian (2003). Amores Perros, London: British Film Institute (BFI Modern Classics)