I have to admit to a certain addiction to American feelgood movies. Recently, Love is Strange left me ambivalent, because too formulaic. But Chef was a delight – written, produced and starring the great Jon Favreau (reminiscent of the much missed James Gandolfini) – a film about a restaurant chef who, on getting sacked, works from a food truck donated by his ex-wife’s new lover. Through this work, he re-c0nnects with his son. The film is witty, exhilarating and endless fun, not least because it stars two dangerously live wires among American actresses – Scarlett Johannson and Sofia Vegara (of Modern Family fame). I loved this film, because everything works – and you can feel that all the actors are having a whale of a time. It also testifies to the fact that watching people making food is compulsive viewing!
Yes, here I am recommending a documentary again!
The beautiful 2010 film Nostalgia for the Light is a profound meditation on the past and memory.
The Atacama desert in Chile is entirely without moisture, like the surface of Mars. Hence its use as the location for sophisticated optical and radio telescopes. From here, astronomers peer into the origins of the universe and the calcium signals from distant stars. Meanwhile, roaming the desert, women who lost loved ones in the Pinochet regime scour the earth for signs of burial of human remains, with occasional success, and the calcium from their bones provides some evidence of who they were.
The documentary explores the refusal of these women to forget the thousands of “disappeared” and draws fascinating parallels with the work of the astronomers and archaeologists who also peer into the past in this desolate place. The film explores what the past is – according to one astronomer, and rightly, everything that we observe reaches us from the past, even milliseconds away (we literally live in the past) – and creates a sense of cosmic continuity that transcends the evils of particular societies and their attempts to hide the atrocities that they have committed. In other words, this documentary goes way beyond being a critique of the Pinochet regime and invests life – and loss of life – with meaning in extraordinary ways. It is also a supreme recommendation of the pursuit of astronomy as a means of putting our sublunary concerns into total perspective.
If ever a documentary can be at once aesthetically, intellectually, philosophically and politically stunning, this is it.
Astronomy was my childhood passion and I held a lengthy correspondence with dear old Patrick Moore when I was eleven years old, who answered all my questions on his old typewriter with sticky keys, and invited me down to his personal observatory at Lizard Point in Cornwall – a meeting that sadly never happened because at the last moment he was called away by the BBC to meet the Apollo 8 astronauts at Cape Canaveral.
In May 2015 I shall be attending a four-day astronomical extravaganza at my local rural observatory, of which more anon.
From Grey Gardens (1975) or Marwencol (2010) to Finding Vivian Meier (2013), America has a strong portfolio of documentaries about eccentric and often highly gifted people. The truly wonderful Art and Crafts (2014) is up there with the best.
It tells the story of Mark Landis, an art forger whose fake paintings and drawings ended up in dozens of art museums across the USA. Landis tried his hand at everything, from Picasso to Russian icons, from the French artist Signac to Charles Schulz and Dr Seuss. A slight, stooped, balding figure with gentle eyes, poorly shaven cheeks and chin, and sticky-out ears, he would use one of four different aliases to approach the museums with his fakes. Yet no legal action has ever been taken against him because he never sought to make money out of his venture. In his own words “I decided to be a philanthropist” and, as the film proceeds, it becomes clear that this action was a curious posthumous offering to his idolised father and mother. At the age of 17, when his father died, he had a nervous breakdown and one of the many droll moments in the film is his humour on reading his psychological report from this period when the psychologists ticked the boxes for nearly all psychoses known to man (“Got that… Got that… Got that…”).
Aside from his painterly talents, Landis is a born actor. One of his aliases was a Jesuit priest, Father Arthur Scott. Landis clearly loves TV, and this character was inspired by the Father Brown series: “You can learn everything you need about how to be a priest from the Father Brown Kenneth Moore series,” he says. Another is that of a man from a family with old money, with an imaginary sister called Emily who lives in Paris and wants to disband her art collection, asking her sibling to take care of it for her.
The art materials used by Landis were bought at Wal-Mart and other cheap retail stores, the wooden backboards for some paintings being age-stained with instant coffee. The frames were cheap supermarket frames, aged with everyday household products. Yet despite his crass amateurism for decades he got away with it. His Nemesis was a lacklustre individual called Matt Meininger at the Cincinnati Art Museum who noticed on the Internet that almost identical works had been bought by sister museums around the country. This is really the tale of two obsessives, because Meininger launched a vendetta against Landis that became so excessive that it resulted in his own redundancy, and the end of this documentary – when the two men meet, post-revelation, when a special exhibition of Landis’s art is launched in Cincinnati – is one of the hilarious high points of this engaging, astonishing and touching tale. “Anything I can do for you, you just let me know,” says Landis, who can’t recall even having met Meininger before, even though he has. Pathetically, Meininger imagines that Landis must also be obsessed with him, though in fact he couldn’t give a damn.
With his quiet, slightly creepy voice, Landis is a non-stop talker, with a sense of irony that often goes right over the heads of the social workers and art curators who interrogate him. A few quotes to whet your appetite, or test your powers of sourcing:
“I’m worried that I’m going to be looked at as a crook and a drinker and a smoker, which is all pretty negative.”
“Necessity is the mother of invention, and sometimes the stepmother of deception. That pretty much takes care of things.”
“We all like to feel useful whatever ability we happen to have.”
“People would be better off if they could be real Vulcans, and not have emotions, then you wouldn’t get so upset by things.”
“So everyone’s different, and everyone’s the same, and there are three million stories in the naked city, and this has been one of them, and that’s kind of the best way I can put it.”
The best quote, which gives the documentary its title, is “I’m not really an artist. I just like to do Art and Crafts when I’m watching TV”. The odd thing is that this is true. By the end of the film, one feels sad that Landis can’t continue with his “philanthropy”, following his exposure to the press and the art world. But then comes the surprise revelation that he has found a whole new way of channelling his extraordinary talent.
Ultimately, this film is about eccentricity and the puzzled failure of the unimaginative to wrap their minds around a way of being that they cannot comprehend. Orson Welles would have loved it. So would my father, who was also an eccentric and a painter who, like Landis, lived modestly and worked in his bedroom using whatever materials came to hand.
By hook or by crook, make sure you see this documentary! Click here for the trailer.
What follows is an unashamed plug…
In 2005, my friend the French documentary filmmaker Sylvestre Chatenay suggested I visit his neighbour’s farm to buy some goat’s cheese and to meet Yvette. Dropping in on Yvette was like entering a time capsule from another era. In her 70s, she had lived all her life with her elderly mother and two brothers on this smallholding with crops, livestock and dairy farming – the father was long dead. None of the children had married, in accordance with their mother’s orders. Yvette had wanted to in her youth. She obeyed her mother’s unreasonable demand but, as a sign of protest, announced that she would not cut her hair for the rest of her life, a promise she has kept to this day. Their way of life seemed and seems the last glimmer of a dying flame, an eccentric vision of rural France that is on the cusp of extinction.
With the family’s somewhat puzzled permission, Sylvestre spent a year filming life on the farm and capturing this waning world through four seasons and the death of the mother. It is an intensely parochial, self-contained world, but not without surprises. Chatting to one of Yvette’s brothers, I discovered that he had been to England to study pig farming techniques on a local cooperative grant. It turned out that, on similar grants, he had travelled the world and was a mine of agricultural information.
Today, when the garage collection truck arrives on their rural road, it roars past the farm because there is nothing to collect. Everything is used, or recycled. The end-of-the-line family is almost entirely self-sufficient. And above all, this is a world that centres on the lively, alert, informed and ever-active personality of Yvette. On the first day of snow, she emerges into her courtyard exclaiming “Ah, the snow has fallen! And it’s white this year!”
Sylvestre’s film, Yvette, bon dieu !, is a little masterpiece of documentary making that combines sensitivity, humour, hardship, visual beauty, pathos and poetry. It has appeared in several French film festivals to great acclaim, and deserves an airing elsewhere (any film festival organisers listening?). The trailer can be viewed here.
Following a TV film about the socialist minister Marisol Touraine, Sylvestre’s most recent documentary is Un costume de maire pour Caroline. Remaining in the quiet pastoral world of southern Touraine, he documents the day-to-day life of Caroline, a woman mayor in the village of Sennevières who, in common with Yvette, is larger than life. Whether preparing the village play or discussing how and when potholes in a country road are going to be plugged, once again we are drawn into an affectionately detailed world which, without the slightest sentimentalism, captures another facet of what may one day be the stuff of memories. The trailer for this film can be seen here.
Sylvestre Chatenay has a special gift for finding the richest subject matter right under his nose.
I’d just like to say to those who object to photos and videos of cats and kittens on YouTube, Facebook and other social media, that they have missed the entire point. The single overriding purpose of these sites is to promote cat worship on a planetary scale. This would be entirely obvious to any aliens studying the Great Chain of Being on Earth: the felines are at the top of the chain and, having need of beings with opposable thumbs to do useful things like opening cans, at the Dawn of Time they elected them to be their vassals and votaries. In the words of the late Terry Pratchett, “In ancient times, cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this.” Nor indeed have we, and there is substantial evidence that cat worship is now at its apogee, a global phenomenon rather than one limited to certain ancient civilisations such as the Egyptians, the Peruvians and the Chinese.
It was announced yesterday that three new books are to be published this year, compiled from the posthumous papers of Charles Bukowski. One of these, scheduled for September 2015, is On Cats. “If you’re feeling bad, you just look at the cats; you’ll feel better, because they know everything is, just as it is,” Bukowski once said, adding: “The more cats you have, the longer you live. If you have a hundred cats, you’ll live ten times longer than if you have ten. Someday this will be discovered, and people will have a thousand cats and live forever.”
Whether called Cat (Holly Golightly’s pet in Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Tobermory, Skimbleshanks or Tabitha Twitchit, cats have always had a special place in literature, beloved by the likes of Mark Twain, T. S. Eliot, Hemingway, Samuel Johnson, Yeats, and Patricia Highsmith. In the words of Charles Dickens, “What greater gift than the love of a cat?”
My favourite encomium to our furry overlords is “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry” – an extract from “Jubilate Agno” – by the 18th-century English poet Christopher Smart, written when he was confined for seven years to a lunatic asylum and the eponymous cat was his only companion. Here it is in full, for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with it:
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For First he looks upon his fore-paws to see if they are clean.
For Secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For Thirdly he works it upon stretch with the fore-paws extended.
For Fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For Fifthly he washes himself.
For Sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For Seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For Eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For Ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For Tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incompleat without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his fore-paws of any quadrupede.
For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord’s poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually – Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in compleat cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in musick.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is affraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly,
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Ichneumon-rat very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroaking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadrupede.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the musick.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.
Christopher Smart (1722-71)
Thus begins Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. Olga, a 39-year-old woman, with two children and a dog, is left by her husband Mario for a younger woman. What follows is her attempt to cope with this abandonment, day in, day out, and the increasing probability with time that there will be no return. A banal premise for a novel? Not here. From the outset, we are in the hands of a magisterial writer who takes us through every detail and depth of Olga’s inner and outer life with an intimacy, candour and emotional power that cannot leave you unmoved. At times the writing reminded me of Amos Oz, at other times of Ivan Klima or Javier Marias. In other words, Elena Ferrante is clearly in the front rank of international writers today.
But who is Ferrante? The name is a pseudonym and, though theories exist, no-one is really sure who she – or possibly he – is, beyond a Neapolitan background. Ferrante is also the author of Troubling Love and The Lost Daughter, and a four-book series of Neapolitan novels, to be concluded later this year. The Days of Abandonment was published in Italy in 2002 and remained a bestseller there for over a year. It was warmly recommended to me by friends, and I recommend it in turn and with equal warmth. Each page felt like striking gold, the thrill of discovering a contemporary writer with a unique and complex insight into what makes people tick, coming from a direction that was least expected. Any other Elena Ferrantes out there?