Thursday, December 05, 2013

My Interview with Author Susana Medina in 3:AM Magazine

debunking the anxiety of influence

Joanna Pocock and Susana Medina in conversation.

Joanna Pocock‘s sagacious review of Susana Medina‘s Red Tales appeared recently in Litro. Here’s a conversation between the two writers about Medina’s recently published collection of short stories.

Joanna Pocock: I see elements of Virginia Woolf (particularly Orlando), Anaïs Nin, Jean Rhys, Marguerite Duras, and Borges in your work. People have also compared you to JG Ballard. Do you see any of these influences? Do you think of your writing as being part of a linear collective of writers?

Susana Medina: Not so much a linear collective of writers, but a cluster of different literary traditions as well as other fields. We are all clusters of everything we’ve encountered and within these clusters there are points or areas of density because there’s something there that concerns us on some level or other. What I see are affinities, friends. Through the work of others you’re mapping your own DNA. I have read most of the writers you mention though I haven’t read Anaïs Nin, although, of course, I know of her work. And of Rhys I’d love to read more because I’ve read so little of her.

JP: Tell me more about your processes and influences when it comes to your writing.

SM:  As far as I’m concerned every book has its own process. The process for Red Tales was to first gather a large collection of weird experiences to draw from. It was a way of entering different realities and having fun. I was drawn to extreme people at the time and some of my characters are partly an extension of what I imagined these people could have done or said. So, I would say my main influence was life. A large part of the work consisted in substantial daydreaming. To listen, to look at things and details and follow the logic of the landscape; to look at puddles, at ashtrays, at interesting objects.
Deep memory is a polyphony of voices. If you’re talking about literary influences, everything you read might end up in your work whether you’re aware of it or not. At the same time the reader brings their own readings into the reading of a new work and might identify echoes the writer never interacted directly with. When you read an author, let’s say author X, you might be reading so many other authors indirectly, and all these authors were in turn reading other authors that you as a reader might too have read. So, you, as a reader, find these echoes there that perhaps author X never intended. It’s all really promiscuous and confusing; an orgy of voices making up a unique voice. Reading might be one of the most promiscuous activities as you get to be intimate with all these voices replayed in your head with your own voice.

JP: I particularly sensed traces of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, with her gender-neutral hero/heroine who time-travels as a male and female character.

SM: I suppose you’re talking mainly about ‘The Space of the Tangible Hallucination’.  It’s interesting: you see elements of Orlando that would never have occurred to me. Orlando is a work I really enjoyed and I first read it in English, then in a Spanish translation by Borges. It’s so remote in my mind. It’s a great work, I’m glad you mention it. The film is good too. I wonder whether the elements you see are more related to the translation than to the original. Rosie Marteu, the translator, might have brought in all these other voices. There are always blind spots when it comes to seeing your own work objectively. Of course, some of the concerns voiced in Orlando were also my concerns. Maybe forgetting is as good as remembering when it comes to writing. At the time of writing Red Tales I was really interested in gender issues; androgyny as a way of bypassing gender, and I was attracted to androgynous people. If there was something I wanted to be as an adolescent it was to be androgynous, biologically speaking, which was impossible. I think this came via Patti Smith and David Bowie. And so I became interested in androgyny as a way of being in the world; as politics.

JP: That is really interesting. In some ways you are taking Woolf’s work further. She was interested in looking at the limits of our gender; in seeing what was open or closed to men and women. Whereas you are coming at gender more as something to be transcended: that we can go beyond male/female into an androgyny or even another gender altogether. As a young woman I wanted to be a man and I shopped in the boys’ department of stores. I lived in boys’ clothes until I was in my mid-twenties.

SM: It’s lucky to be able to pass off as whatever gender; it opens up new realms.

JP: We’ve gone off track. Tell me more about your influences and how they shape your work.

SM: A writer is always a great reader and when you look for echoes, there might be hundreds and hundreds, but then there’s the presence of psyches that somewhere echo your own. I find so many writers inspiring. Marguerite Duras is a good friend, I’ve re-read her work several times; I should think the authors that matter in the end are the ones you re-read. Duras is the writing master of desire; Red Tales was very much about the chaos of desire. In this respect, the work of Kathy Acker was an eye-opener for me. She might have been into Anaïs Nin, which I then surreptitiously and unknowingly inherited. The Angela Carter of The Bloody Chamber was a revelation. Deborah Levy is also fascinating on desire; I came across her work a long time ago and she’s remained a favourite. At the time I was really into female visual artists. In ‘Kafka and his Precursors’ Borges said: “The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors”. Borges was, as usual, so clever. It’s true.

JP: And there is much Borges in your book. I thought of him immediately when I read the ‘Note’ that opens your collection. As for Anaïs Nin, I suppose it was the unquenchable desires in the book that reminded me of her and also the epistolary format you use in ‘The Farewell Letter.’ She was a mistress of letter-writing and diaries.

SM: ‘Note’, the introductory note at the beginning of Red Tales, which was written recently as opposed to most of the rest of the book, was a homage of sorts to Borges’s antics. He used to write prefaces to all his books speaking about all these other writers, a hilarious and playful modesty that was another way of his of creating a labyrinth. I spent many years writing about Borges’s stories so he’s more than welcome to turn up whenever he wants. In ‘Note’ I wrote about the book’s avatars and tried to place my work because I felt some readers might not know where I was coming from. After I’d written it I thought that I could have also mentioned Beckett, Julio Cortázar – who I think was a much better reader of Virginia Woolf than I have been – and of course, Marguerite Duras (I probably didn’t because I had already mentioned them elsewhere);  and Calvino, for the spirit of adventure and narrative swiftness, and Lynch; and Walt Whitman because he was the poet who turned me into a writer. In the end I would have liked to have mentioned all these writers whose work gave me so much. It’s like having a party; you want to invite all your best friends. In relation to the tradition of the fragment, I was really interested in the truisms of Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger. I’m not sure I’d read Antonin Artaud’s Les Cahiers de Rodez at the time, where he deals with the unsayable, but this book is a very interesting example of the fragment conveying inner chaos.

JP: Funnily enough Artaud’s first published work was a collection of letters between himself and Jacques Rivière, the editor of the French literary magazine La Nouvelle Revue Française. Artaud had sent him some stories, which Rivière never published. Instead he wrote to Artaud asking him to explain his work and a wonderful correspondence eventually turned into a book. Writers and editors should do more of this!

SM: Definitely, though editors seem so overworked these days. The blogosphere might be a good place for that kind of exchange.

JP: Tell me more about your fascination with the fragment.

SM: The point of departure for my first novel, an anti-novel, was the most minimalist Beckett; it was largely made out of fragments. So I started tuning into writers who had turned the fragment into a genre. I felt the fragment was more capable of conveying interiority; of grasping the timelessness of interiority. Blanchot’s The Writing of Disaster was right at the inception of Red Tales. I was discovering so many writers of fragments, like Pessoa, a poet of extreme interiority, and the Handke diaries and the Handke of Wings of Desire; and Iain Sinclair.  There should be a section in bookshops called ‘Fragment’. Red Tales was a continuation of my insistence on the fragment, but also a reconciliation with narrative.

JP: When discussing the fragment one must not forget the Queen of fragments: Sappho herself. There is a wonderful translation of her work by the Canadian poet Anne Carson. It’s a must-read for all lovers of the fragment.
Back to Red Tales. Before I’d read it I’d seen Steward Home’s comparison of you and JG Ballard. Do you see this in your work? I personally wouldn’t have thought of it, but I can see it now.

SM: Ballard’s work fascinates me and I often speak and post about it; so many people associate me with Ballard. I hadn’t read Ballard when I wrote Red Tales, which doesn’t preclude it from being Ballardian because there are elements there; like sexuality displaced into weird situations, objects or architecture, which are there in my work. Let’s say we’re both interested in the psychopathology of everyday life; in psychoanalysis and surrealism. Also, in many of his stories Ballard happens to describe the landscape of my childhood: sand dunes and modern architecture. And that’s why I became so interested in his work and he’s such a good friend.

JP: How important is character to you? I was wondering as I read these stories whether you start with a character and extrapolate from there. Or whether the ideas for your stories come more from situations, or even abstract ideas.

SM: I thought character wasn’t that important but the characters are obviously there in my work and they contain the kernels of images that lead to abstract ideas. Red Tales was fundamentally about the image; entering ideas through the image. I wanted to push the story into a different direction. I had this idea of interweaving fragments and narrative; of poetry and narrative and the image coming to the forefront. I was fascinated by art and installations and even saw writing as a cheaper way of building these spaces. It was also very much about processing experiences.
As a child I loved this TV series, which wasn’t shown in the UK: Pippi Longstocking (dreamt up by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren). She was a proto-punk girl so strong she could lift her own horse. She was eccentric and fun; she was definitively a formative experience. The tradition of the picaresque, which is a very Spanish tradition, is also something that I’m very pleased to have inherited.

JP: Yes, we had that series in Canada, where I grew up and I also had the books, which I adored. I just read it to my daughter who is five and was amazed at its anarchy. I hadn’t remembered it being so extreme: such a call to arms! It’s wonderful. From Pippi Longstocking back to Red Tales.

SM: There are a few puns and jokes that are untranslatable, and that is just the way it is. Going back to androgyny, when I wrote about Pink Panther as the symbol for the next millennium, in Spanish it’s called La Pantera Rosa, so, it’s a feminine name and that is lost in the English translation. Pink Panther is a male character who happens to be pink and who in Latin languages has a feminine name. So, for me it was a symbol of androgyny itself.

JP: That’s interesting. I didn’t know that. In some ways the untranslatability of this image/icon is a metaphor for some of what is in the stories themselves.

SM: Yes, it’s interesting. We’ll have to make sure a lot of people read this exchange.

JP: I forgot to say in my last email to you that I see some of Slavenca Drakulić in your work. Have you read The Taste of a Man? It is a remarkable book about unquenchable passions and love as a consuming, elemental force. There is nothing ‘safe’ about the sex in this book, which was something I also noted in your stories. Drakulić was accused of being a ‘witch’ – I am not making this up – by the government in her native Croatia and moved to Sweden for some time. Her book As If I Am Not There about the rape of women during the Bosnian war is almost too harrowing to read. She also writes non-fiction. You would love her!

SM: This is the first time I’ve heard of her; would love to read her. You seem very strong on female writers, are there any writers who you feel have shaped your work?
JP: Oh goodness. My turn is it? Well, as this exchange is about your book Red Tales, I will keep my answer brief. Growing up in the seventies in the Canadian suburbs I felt a lot of anger about the treatment of the women I saw around me. I once asked my English Professor – the incredibly named Milton Wilson – who taught Renaissance English at the University of Toronto, what sort of work I could do once I got my degree. He looked at me as if I was insane and said that after I graduated I would of course get my ‘MRS’. It took me a few moments to understand what he was saying: I would end up getting married anyway and becoming an MRS, so frankly it didn’t matter what I studied. I was furious. But in the early eighties you just had to take this stuff. So, I naturally gravitated towards writers who were as angry as I was.
Virginia Woolf was paramount to me as she managed to channel her anger into the most challenging and formally inventive art. Charlotte Brontë and many of the Victorians, such as Mrs Gaskell and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were also very important to me as women and writers. One cannot really call George Sand a ‘Victorian’ but she was someone I looked to as a model for how to live and write; Colette as well. As you say, the writers one loves become friends. All these women informed not simply my writing but the decisions I made as a woman travelling through a world I felt was antagonistic towards me and my desires. I looked to them as role models. George Sand was a cross-dressing bisexual, never wanted to marry and when she did have a child she abandoned it. Elizabeth Barrett Browning didn’t have a child until she was forty-three, and Mrs Gaskell championed the rights of prostitutes. And of course there was George Eliot living in sin with a married man. These were the women I looked to for advice. We think we are so ‘modern’ and forward-looking but the Victorians did it all!
And, yes, Kathy Acker was someone I admired greatly. I once saw her read with William Burroughs at the University of Toronto. It was amazing such a conservative and misogynistic institution could have scheduled such an event. It was truly an evening to remember. I almost felt there was a sense of the baton being passed from the elderly Burroughs to the spiky young female writer before my very eyes. She is missed.

SM: Yes, anger.  We’ll have to do a more general exchange about how centuries of sexism has affected women’s concerns when it comes to writing and the arts.  I was really angry when I came across The Vida Count, as there’s still a glaring problem when it comes to women writers being reviewed and fairly represented.

JP: I have really enjoyed this exchange. Thank you, Susana. May there be many more such exchanges between writers.


Joanna Pocock has a Masters in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. She has been shortlisted for the 2013 Bath short story award, the 2012 Mslexia short story competition and the Lightship International first novel award. In 2010 she won joint first place in the Segora short story competition, which she went on to judge in 2011. Some of her stories have appeared in Riptide and Cooldog. Her story ‘The Road to Napanee’ will be published in Love on the Road, an anthology of short stories, which will be appearing in November 2013. ‘The Woman in the Cupboard’ will be appearing in an anthology of new writing published by Hearst Magazines. She teaches creative writing at Central St. Martins and also works as a freelance copy-editor for a variety of publishers.

Susana Medina is the author of Red Tales (bilingual edition, 2012, co-translated with Rosie Marteau) and Philosophical Toys (Dalkey Archive Press, 2014) – offspring of which are the praised short films Buñuel’s Philosophical Toys and Leather-bound Stories (co-directed with Derek Ogbourne). Her other books are the poetry and aphorisms collection Souvenirs del Accidente (2004) and BorgeslandA voyage through the infinite, imaginary places, labyrinths, Buenos Aires and other psychogeographies and figments of space (2006). She has been awarded The Max Aub International Short Story Prize and is the recipient of a writing grant from the Arts Council of England, for her novel Spinning Days of Night.  Her story ‘Oestrogen’, translated by Rosie Marteau, will be featured in Best European Fiction, 2014, Dalkey Archive. Medina has published a number of essays on literature, art, cinema and photography, and curated various well-received international art shows in abandoned spaces.

For the real virtual piece go to: 

Why I Write: Article for Good Housekeeping

Joanna Pocock, one of our writers from the Bath Short Story Award asks the question, 'Why do I write?'

I didn’t ask myself this question when I picked up a pen and scribbled my first poem at the age of eight. As a child I wrote because it was fun and it passed the time. I was the youngest of seven children, but there was a five-year age gap between myself and the sister above me, so I was often alone. The characters in the stories I created kept me company. Now however, I write in order to make sense of the world. I write because it is the only way for me to know what I think about anything. My own thoughts surprise me when I unscramble them onto the page. After reading something I have written, I often say to myself, 'Oh, so that’s what I think.' The writing gives shape to the idea.
For me there is little difference between writing fiction and non-fiction. Both require discipline, the moulding of a story, strong characters and both need a solid formal framework. Every fiction contains reality and every piece of non-fiction contains elements of pure fiction. This is unavoidable because writers like to tell stories, and not one writer I know (myself included) would ever let something as boring as the truth get in the way of a good story.
I don’t try and change the world through writing. Journalism does a better job of this. So, I try and entertain my readers rather than lecture them, although some issues burn so deeply within, that they can’t help but come out. Feminism for instance probably shines through every word I have ever written. If it weren’t for the women before me demanding equality and emancipation, I would be peeling potatoes and darning socks right now (I do both of these things, but thankfully not exclusively).
I write also because I like a challenge. Being a writer is not easy: there is little to no money in it, and it requires time, a lot of it. The average novel takes seven years to write, and those seven years are guaranteed to be lonely. One has to be content eating lots of potatoes and wearing darned socks (see above). The thing with being a writer is that everything works against you, so you need to be stubborn. You need to be one of those people who opens the door you have been told to keep closed. You have to be curious and willing to make mistakes that can land you in trouble. To be a writer you need to feel you have no alternative. Writing for me is like holding an ice cube onto a bruised forehead: it heals the hurt with a new kind of pain, but ultimately it gets rid of that darned pounding in your skull.

Joanna Pocock has a Masters in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. She teaches creative writing at Central St Martin’s and works as a freelance book editor.

to see the article in full go to: 

Monday, December 02, 2013

The Road to Napanee

When they stopped to pick her up, Ray was surprised Stephanie didn’t give him one of her lectures about responsibility. She never did approve of Ray’s habit of taking in strays. It wasn’t so much the weirdoes that Stephanie disliked, it was the fact that Ray made no effort to hide his kinship to them. He felt closer to the misfits and drunks than he did to his own wife and child.
    But tonight Ray was not about to drive past a woman alone on a highway in minus thirty-degree weather, with nothing but a rucksack and a cardboard sign saying NAPANEE. The tires skidded as he came to a stop.
    Stephanie turned sharply to look at him, “what the hell … ?” But her question was cut short as the woman jumped in.
    “Thanks,” the stranger said, tucking her bag by her feet. She rubbed her hands together and blew on them. “It’s fucking cold out there.”
    Stephanie said, “hey watch it.” And looked down meaningfully at the small girl sleeping on her lap.
    “She’s out cold,” Ray said in the hitchhiker’s defence. “She can’t hear a thing.”
    “Oh, sorry,” the hitchhiker said.
    Stephanie told the hitchhiker their names and then asked for hers.
    “Karl,” came the reply.
    In his rear view mirror Ray noticed the dark patches under her eyes. A pretty panda, he thought.
     “Karl. Isn’t that a boy’s name?” Stephanie had her schoolteacher’s voice on.
     “Yeah, my dad wanted a boy but all he got was me.” Karl laughed.
     “Oh, I see.” Stephanie turned back to face the front and was about to say something else when Ray switched the radio to the one station his car could pick up. He felt Karl tapping in time to the music against the back of his seat. Snow fell softly on the road ahead. He was taking it extra slow.
    “You should have got snow tires before we left. We’d be in Toronto by now if you had.” Why Stephanie had to bring this up just at this moment with the beautiful fresh snow, the music, the sleeping child and the stranger in the back was beyond Ray. He glanced at Karl in the rearview mirror. She was staring out the window.
     “Everyone is passing us,” Stephanie added.
     And it was true. Cars were zooming past theirs.
     “Well, I didn’t get snow tires so that’s that.” Ray shot an embarrassed smile at Karl who gave him a startled look in return, as if she knew more than he did.
     “Don’t you just love all this snow?” Karl said. “It’s so clean and quiet. It covers up all the shit everywhere. It even makes Napanee look pretty.”
     “Is that where you’re from then?” Stephanie still faced forward, shifting Emily on her lap. Ray thought four was too old to be sleeping on your mother’s lap, not to mention the safety issue. Forget snow tires, if they were in an accident Emily’s little body would be flung around like a rag doll. He tried not to think about it. 
     “Yup. Napanee,” Karl replied wearily. Then out came a productive chesty cough. With one hand shielding Emily’s face, Stephanie gave Ray a ‘Do You Think It’s Contagious’? look. The little girl carried on peacefully in a very deep sleep.
     The hitchhiker recovered her voice. “You wouldn’t think so, but even a town as small as Napanee gets dirty. You find shit all over the place when the snow melts.” Karl cleared her throat again. “Even my dad’s toenails got dirt under them. The guy never even went outside. But when I used to cut them I couldn’t believe how much was crusted in there.”
     Ray spotted a gas station up ahead, its lights shining through the early dusk. “How ‘bout a coffee?” He said with exaggerated uplift. What he was really gasping for was a drink, but he’d been dry for a month now and with Christmas coming he was trying hard. Coloured lights flashed around the windows splattered with fake snow. He turned the radio off and stopped the car.
     “So anyone for coffee?” he repeated.
     “No thanks. It’ll come in one of those Styrofoam cups. Do you know that those plastic cups are giving us all cancer? The chemicals from them have been found in the breast milk of polar bears. Those cups and the people who drink from them are killing polar bears and everything else on this fucking planet.”
     Ray pretended to ignore Karl. Opening his door a crack, he turned to his wife. “Anything for you Steph?”
     She looked out over the dashboard and Ray recognised her calorie-counting expression.
     “A hot chocolate with marshmallows, if they’ve got any. And an apple juice for Emily.”
     He asked Karl one more time if she wanted anything, and she shook her head. Ray stepped out, and before shutting the door he leaned in and asked Stephanie if she’d be OK.
     “Fine.” She said. “I need to pee though. So be quick.”
     Ray crossed the forecourt and while he was paying he looked back at the car. The windows were fogged up and all he could make out were the fuzzy outlines of the two women. They looked like dolls. Not moving just sitting. Stephanie was probably worrying about pneumonia, TB, or the imagined dagger in Karl’s sock. She excelled at imagining catastrophes which disappointed her by never occurring. He wondered what Karl saw, whether she could make out the shreds of what they had, or if it was too late to see even the shreds.
     As he approached the car both women looked at him. Stephanie said she was going for her pee. She slipped Emily from her lap and got out of the car. “If she wakes up can you give her some juice?” she asked Ray.
     “Yup, sure thing.” He knew he was sounding lighter and brighter for the sake of the stranger. He then offered Karl a butter tart, which she refused.
     “They came free with the coffee. Christmas cheer and all that.” He held up the bag printed with red, white and green snowmen.
     “You know they’re poisoning us with all that refined sugar.”
     “Who’s they?” Ray asked.
     “Oh you know, the bankers, large companies, corporations, all those fat cats taking advantage of us little people.”
     “What have they got to do with sugar?”
     “Oh, it’s all linked. Nobody sees it though. Well not people like you.” Karl was fired up and suddenly took on the expression of a zealot. “You see if you get everyone hooked on sugar and make them fat then they can’t do anything. They sit all day watching TV and hey presto you have an instant audience you can beam your advertising to. Oh what the fuck. You would never understand.”
     She was right. Ray didn’t have a clue what she was on about. He wanted to ask her if she was one of those conspiracy theorists but Stephanie was already back.  
     She awkwardly manoeuvred herself into the car placing Emily’s little body onto her lap. “What are those?” she asked pointing to the bag on Ray’s knee.
     “Butter tarts,” Ray said. He looked nervously at Karl who was blankly staring out at the forecourt.
     “May I?” Stephanie asked.
     Ray stuck the bag on the dashboard, “Help yourself.”
     Stephanie took a bite, and bits of pastry fell onto Emily’s hair. Ray reached over to brush them off.
    “So have you two been married long?” The question came at the couple after another fit of coughing. Karl’s lips were unnaturally red and thin, and her pale face and large grey eyes made Ray think of the pre-Raphaelite poster Stephanie had up in her bedroom when they first met.
      “Almost five years,” Stephanie said. Ray stared at his daughter’s chest rising and falling and her face unmarked by worry.
      Karl continued, “I don’t get to meet too many married people. So what’s the deal? Are you guys happy?” Ray was wishing he were sitting across a table from her talking through the merits of single life. A cigarette. A beer. A dance. And a hand on a hip.
      “That’s a funny question! I don’t know. Ray what do you say? Are we happy?” Stephanie was trying to sound light as if she were teasing him.
      He reached into the bag of butter tarts. “Of course we are honey. I wouldn’t be here if I weren’t happy.”
      “There, does that answer your question?” Stephanie seemed satisfied that this conversation was coming to an end.
      “Sort of. I mean the only people I know who have stuck together went past the happy stage into something else, like a sort of zombie stage. My folks didn’t though. My mom up and left when I was five. I don’t hate her for it. She just was never meant to have kids. Some people shouldn’t.”
      Stephanie blew on her hot chocolate. Ray wanted to know about Karl’s mother but Stephanie got in there and asked if she had any plans to get married.
      “Are you crazy?” A hoarse high laugh erupted.
      “Why’s that then?” Stephanie asked.
      “It’s like sugar. It’s just another way of getting people where you want them. Of keeping them in check. No way José. Not for me. I want to be free. No sugar in my bowl.”
      Stephanie looked at Ray, “Sugar?”
      “Yeah, don’t worry about it. Karl and I had a little chat about sugar while you were in the John.”
      Stephanie tapped Ray on the thigh and frowned. It was her code to let him know she was worried. He ignored her and sipped his coffee. He wanted to get going again but Emily began to stir.
      “I’m thirsty,” A tired voice rose from Stephanie’s lap.
      Stephanie got the apple juice out. “Ray I’m going to have to put Emily in the back seat. She’s getting too heavy.” She looked at him meaningfully.
      “OK,” he said oblivious.
      “But do you think it is OK with all that coughing?” Stephanie lowered her voice for the last word, and angling her head towards the back seat she looked hard at Ray.
      “Oh that. Yeah, it’ll be fine,” he said glancing in the mirror at Karl to see if she had clocked his wife’s comment. A pair of grey heavy-lashed eyes looked back at him knowingly. He wanted to say sorry to those eyes.
      “C’mon honey in the back you go.” Stephanie twisted around and helped Emily through the two front seats. “Now here’s your juice.”
      “No.” Emily squirmed and held onto her mother.
      “But there isn’t enough room up here. And you can’t sit on mommy’s lap all the way home. It’s illegal. Now in the back you go.” Stephanie unhooked Emily’s chubby hands from her arm and eventually got the girl sitting in her car seat with her pink blanket.
      Karl stared out the window ignoring the little girl next to her.
      “Mommy,” Emily wailed.
      “Emily, you’re alright. Now drink your juice.” Stephanie handed her the small square box with its straw poking out. The girl knocked it to the floor.
      The wailing continued. It soon became crying.
      Over the noise Ray said, “Stephanie, why don’t you go sit with her?” He would have suggested anything for some peace and quiet.
      Stephanie shot him an angry glance. “Oh all right then.” The two women got out of the car and swapped places.
      It seemed to Ray that Karl was looking a bit smug. She took off her jacket to put her seatbelt on, and at that moment he caught a breath of her scent. It reminded him of the smell that came up from the ground when he raked the leaves in the Fall. Earth and Sun and just enough decay to start making life again.
      “Karl can you pass me my hot chocolate?” There was a touch of anger in Stephanie’s voice. “And the butter tarts.”
      Ray knew that later on he’d get the blame for making her go over her allotted number of calories for the day. The fat on her hips would be his fault.
      Karl turned towards Stephanie, the leather jacket on her lap making a crisp twisting sound, and handed her the bag and the hot chocolate.
      “So are we ready?” Ray took a final sip of coffee and put it back into the mug holder on the dashboard. He glanced at Karl’s legs and noticed her jeans were worn over her knees. They looked bonier than he would have liked.
      He cranked up the radio, and sang along to ‘After the Fire is Gone’.
      “It’s crazy isn’t it? I mean this is why two people should never get together in the first place. Tammy Wynette, Patsy Cline, and all the rest of them, they knew a thing or two.”  Karl had a renewed confidence about her and shook her head with emphasis as she spoke. He snatched a look out of the corner of his eye. She had a surprisingly fine profile.
      Stephanie spoke over the singing. “I can’t hear anything you two are saying with that music blaring away up there.”
      “We weren’t saying anything,” Ray said, brusquely turning the radio down. He let out an exasperated sigh. Karl looked over at him and smiled. He hoped Stephanie hadn’t seen. God she was pretty. If only he’d listened to Stephanie and gone up north on his own this weekend, he’d be alone with this girl. For once he had convinced Stephanie to shield him from his crazy family and it had completely backfired.  
      With Karl sitting next to him, he felt he had committed some crime, when all he had wanted was for Emily to stop crying. He tried to catch Stephanie’s eye in the mirror but she was staring hard at the hills of snow, which had become simple outlines in the dusk. He couldn’t see his daughter but imagined she was now happily sipping her juice next to her mother, his wife.

After an hour or so of driving they arrived in Napanee. The snowplow hadn’t passed through, and there was waist high snow on the roads. The car crept through the centre of town, keeping to the tracks made by the wheels of previous vehicles.
     Then Emily piped up, “have you got a best friend?”
     Karl was taken by surprise. “Um, yeah, I guess so.”
     “My best friend is Freya.” Emily said. “She broke her arm and went to the hospital.”
     Ray intervened, “Honey, I don’t think Karl needs to hear about Freya.”
     “Ray, don’t get angry. It’s not like she’s doing anything wrong,” Stephanie argued.
     “I know, it’s just that….” Ray didn’t know what it was exactly. Was he embarrassed at the mundanity of his child? What seemed to him her pointless preoccupations.
     “Anywhere here is fine,” Karl said as they drove through the quiet streets.
     Ray thought Karl sounded sad, but he often heard things that weren’t there.
     “Will you be alright? Everything looks pretty closed.” He strained to see out the iced up windows.
     “Yup. Fine. I’ve got a room with a friend just over there.” Karl cleared her throat and pointed at a squat red brick building.
     “Can we go into your house?” Emily asked.
     “No, honey I don’t think so,” Stephanie said. 
     Karl held her hand out for Ray to shake, “well it was nice meeting you.”
     Ray shook her hand, feeling the fragile bones. Her skin was warm and softer than he expected. She turned to Stephanie who was explaining to Emily why you can’t invite yourself into strange people’s houses.
     “You can have your seat back now,” Karl said as she undid her seatbelt.
     She got out of the car and pulled her leather jacket tight around her thin body. Stephanie was busy reasoning with Emily about going into the front seat without having her on her lap while Karl walked around to the driver’s side. She leaned into the open window. Ray was convinced she was going to kiss him.
     “Don’t go listening to too many of those bleeding heart songs. They’re not good for your health. And stay away from sugar. It’ll kill you.” She smiled and he saw her teeth for the first time. They were small and square like a child’s.
     Stephanie was now in the passenger seat doing an exaggerated shiver. “God it’s freezing.”
     Karl stepped aside and Ray pulled the car away from where she was standing. He put his arm out the window and waved.
    “God what a weirdo!” Stephanie pushed the buttons on the radio until she came to a phone-in show. She turned up the volume and Ray felt her hand on his thigh.
    “How about dinner. Are you hungry yet?” Her voice had gone from school-teacher to wife almost instantly.
    “I guess I could eat. We’ll stop at the next town.”
Ray was back on the highway, driving through the darkness. On the radio a woman was talking about the belly dancing classes she’d taken to lose weight, spice up her sex life and make her more confident. They worked so well, she ended up dumping her husband, leaving her children, and marrying the teacher. Ray could imagine what she looked like just from the voice. It surprised him how much he hated this woman. He wanted to smash her face. Then he hated himself for thinking like this. The radio audience clapped and Stephanie laughed.
    “Imagine that.”
    “What mommy?”
    Ray sped up wishing he’d paid the extra for snow tires. Stephanie was explaining to Emily the difference between belly dancing and ballet dancing and Ray caught a glimpse of his daughter nodding sagely at this information. He couldn’t wait to get to the next town and out of the car and away from that radio and all those voices. He closed his eyes for a split second and swore he could smell that earthy scent. There was no snow at all for that second, just grass and leaves, a long, fine Fall evening and the beginning of something new, something like life.

Published and available in this beautiful anthology:

Also available on Amazon with some five-star reviews to its credit:

Also published in Cooldog, 2010.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Review of 'Stop the Pounding Heart'

LFF: Stop the Pounding Heart

The third of Roberto Minervini’s Texas Trilogy, Stop the Pounding Heart, is a subtle, fragmented piece about rural Christian America
The third instalment of Roberto Minervini’s Texas Trilogy, Stop the Pounding Heart, is a detached Bressonian look at a rural Christian community. Minervini’s hybrid documentary-fictions, which he calls “observations”, are shot using natural light and non-actors whom he follows as they go about their daily chores. The film’s integrity and formal style echo the purity of the lives he films, lending his work a timeless quality. Cinemagoers who require a strong narrative and characters who develop over time might find Minervini’s meditative, languid films hard going. But for those with patience, there are rewards.

The film’s focus is Sara Carlson, a devout fourteen-year-old Christian struggling with her budding womanhood and its potential interference with her relationship to God. Sara and her ten siblings spend their days tending and milking the family’s goats, making cheese, and praying. The quotidian rituals are hypnotic and some of the best scenes in the film. By getting up close to a family who avoid outside contamination by home-schooling their children and who live literally according to the Scriptures, Minervini shows us a world we rarely come into contact with. And to his credit he portrays this family with deep respect. It would be easy to fall into the trap of poking fun at the Carlsons for being just another bunch of crazy, rightwing, weirdo Americans. In resisting this temptation Minervini highlights the beauty, joy and solemnity inherent in the Carlson’s contemplative life.

While Sara and her mother are out selling their goat’s cheese to a family of local rodeo riders, the teenager comes into contact with a strapping young bull-rider called Colby. It is not made clear whether Sara and Colby have met before but a spark appears to be ignited. Because the physical vocabulary among Minervini’s subjects is so limited, the smallest gesture, a shy look or a wander together, speaks volumes. Therefore when Sara and Colby occupy the same shot, both of them looking at Colby’s bulls in near-silence, it comes across as intimate and meaningful even though very little dialogue is exchanged. This kind of subtlety is divisive. Some will find its minimalism elegant and others will be frustrated.

The highlight of the film comes towards the end in a gentle and moving scene between Sara and her mother LeeAnne. Sara, in a moment of weakness, is questioning her faith and she begs her mother for guidance and prayer. LeeAnne takes her daughter in her arms and asks God to cherish every one of her daughter’s footsteps and to “stop the pounding heart”. At that moment the film is pulled into focus. We become aware not only of Sara’s struggles with her faith, but with the idea of doubt as an existential component of life. There is a deep humanity in the filmmaking and in the mother’s loving response to her daughter’s pain. Rather than interpreting the faith that underpins this family as something solid, unshakeable and zealous, we see it as a constant dialogue – something alive and open to questioning. I wished Minervini could have given us more moments like this.
Minervini directed his cast of locals, farmers and bull riders to simply be themselves. This adds an ethnographic layer to Stop the Pounding Heart as we watch cowboys praying before they straddle their bucking steers, girls dressing up for tea parties in anachronistic pre-Raphaelite outfits, pregnant women firing shotguns, and even a live home birth. These images are elemental, startling and unforgettable. However, instead of using these fragments — which are perfect in and of themselves — towards building a narrative, Minervini threads them together in an unconnected manner so that they never quite add up to more than the sum of their individual parts. The rigorous constraints with which Minervini approaches his subjects, while worthy and admirable, are hurdles to the storytelling and the characters. Murky sound recording makes conversations hard to hear, and characters are kept at arm’s length making them often difficult to connect with.
Despite these reservations, Stop the Pounding Heart is worth seeing for its formal invention and single-minded vision. It is a joy watching a filmmaker work with such a pure and original methodology. However, with a bit more sculpting of his material in order to build towards some sense of drama, Stop the Pounding Heart would be a perfect gem of a film. As it stands, drained of dramatic tension, these cool but stunning shots don’t quite add up to the great film it comes close to being.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Review of 'Night Moves'

LFF: Night Moves

The futility of political activism - Kelly Reichardt delivers a compelling movie about a difficult subject, a group of eco-activists who commit an extreme act for a noble cause
Night Moves, Kelly Reichardt’s fifth feature, is as formally audacious and visually compelling as any of her previous offerings, with the bonus of being a white-knuckle ride. The subject she mines here is that of the shady underworld of eco-activism, and true to her cool yet utterly engaged eye, Reichardt seeks no easy answers.
The film’s backstory is given to us in laconic dialogue with the economy and elegance that has become the trademark of the scripts she creates with Jon Raymond. She tantalisingly drip-feeds us information, and every scrap is crucial to the development of story and character. In this case, the characters being three disparate and clashing eco-activists who display more mistrust than affection for each other, but who are linked by a commitment to blow up a hydroelectric dam they believe is destroying the marine ecosystem in Oregon.
Josh (played by a wonderfully nervy Jesse Eisenberg) is the central activist. He dryly notes at the start of the film that the dam is “killing all these salmon so we can run our fucking ipods every second of our lives”. This is the closest we get to his motives and it is all we need. An alienated loner, Josh works on an organic communal farm. He is not likeable, but totally compelling and somewhat reminiscent of Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï – both of them cool, detached anti-heroes with no past, only an eternal present. In an early scene we see Josh, walking alone in the woods, picking up a fallen bird’s nest and placing it delicately onto a branch. He is sensitive to nature but recognises the futility of his struggle – it’ll take more than saving a bird’s nest to fix the planet’s ills.
Josh’s accomplice, Dena (Dakota Fanning) is a slyly naïve middle-class college dropout who funds their actions by forking out ten grand for a boat and more again for the fertiliser needed to turn it into a floating bomb. The trio is rounded off with Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a sardonic ex-marine who lives in hiding deep in the woods. He has spent time in jail and his insouciance hints that his part in the eco-activist cause stems more from a desire to live outside the law than from a deep love of nature. In one exchange with Dena he extols the virtues of fishing. She is clearly not interested in killing animals for sport and he tells her she should “try it before all the fish are gone”. There is a streak of nihilism to his position, which stealthily infects the rest of the film.
The first half of Night Moves is pure procedure. We are shown in obsessive detail the procuring of ingredients, the creation of a viable explosive and the rigorous but flawed planning. There is minimal talking, minimal action and huge amounts of tension. As the film builds to its inevitable climax, I couldn’t help wonder how Reichardt with her limited budget would film it. How would these characters blow up a dam? Reichardt constructs the build-up to this scene perfectly by using sound as much as image. On the way to their act of terror, Josh, Dena and Harmon float wordlessly through an apocalyptic Robert Adams landscape of dead, sunken trees to the sound of Jeff Grace’s haunting, hypnotic score. The moment in which the three activists realise they have done what they set out to do is expressed in their faces not in the action. It is a stunning piece of film-making.
The second half of the film shifts from procedural to psychological as we witness the repercussions of the trio’s destructive act. For me this shift was problematic. Up until the midway point, Josh, Dena and Harmon are mysterious, existential beings, but as their act of violence forces them to face their guilt, Reichardt asks us to read them in more conventional terms. I didn’t believe the extremes to which Josh is pushed in the second half, nor did I feel they were necessary.
Reichardt redeems this minor weakness however by providing an ending that is as odd as it is surprising. Josh escapes to California where he wanders into an outdoor store piled high with every imaginable tent, sleeping bag and camping stove. He is looking for a job and is given an application to fill out, but his hand hovers over the boxes in which he is expected to fill in his personal details. His personal details have escaped him along with his identity. The atmosphere of the store, despite its pretence as a place where one can prepare for the wilderness, is one of soulless consumption. The dream of escape becomes just another pleasant shopping experience.
Night Moves is a dark film. All the action takes place in low light, which echoes the murkiness of the characters’ morals and actions, and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt conveys this grainy undercover world with a gorgeous, noir-like elegance. Just as Meek’s Cutoff is an anti-Western and Old Joy upends the idea of the ‘buddy movie’, so Night Moves plays with the thriller genre. At its heart is the question of terrorism as an essential, angry and raw act. To what lengths should you go to make your point? And at what point does political action become theatre? Reichardt does not attempt to answer these questions; she allows them to inform her characters and their decisions. The farmer for which Josh works has his own answer: “Look out the window,” he says, “It’s a lot slower but it works”. You can blow up dams or you can grow organic vegetables. Neither position feels very much like a solution. If I were to sum up the one overriding feeling I am left with after watching Night Moves, it is of sheer futility.
With intense performances as tightly coiled as the story, this film continues to unravel inside you long after the house lights have come up. It is beautiful in its precision and detail and disturbing in its ideas. Kelly Reichardt is an artist in total control of her medium and has delivered a piece of work that is not afraid to ask the big questions and equally unafraid to leave the answers hanging.