To Read the Commedia Undaunted


Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity by Prue Shaw (Liveright)

There is a vast amount of history contained in Dante’s Commedia. I refer not only to those events and lives that came before the poem’s composition and helped to shape it but also to its status as a wellspring of ideas and lines that found their way into some of the most accomplished writing that flowed afterwards – much of which readers today are likely to be more familiar with than they are with Dante’s poetry. That this history can be conveyed in such a relatively short volume as Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity, with clarity and close attention paid to significant contextual details and the nuances of literary technique, appealing both to a non-specialist reader and those familiar with the Commedia, is astonishing.

One prompt for writing Reading Dante, according to author Prue Shaw, was a conversation with two well-read friends:

‘Two writers I know, liberal humanists both, on being asked if they had read Dante, answered almost in unison: why would I bother? In this book I try to show why they should bother.’

A scholar of Dante’s work for decades, currently Emeritus Reader of Italian studies at University College London, the editor of an authoritative edition of the Monarchia and of an online Commedia manuscript resource, Shaw has achieved with this book a wonderful balance of critical depth and intelligibility. Intent on encouraging readers with scant knowledge of the poem, rather than merely adding another exegetical thesis on a detail of Dante’s work to a towering pile of scholarship, Shaw’s book will no doubt impress her fellow academics for its integration of the historical literature around the Commedia and the scrutiny towards the precise metre and varied vernacular elements of the poem.

Some reviewers have drawn a comparison between Virgil’s role in the Commedia as Dante’s guide and Shaw’s role as the author of Reading Dante, leading us through episodes of Florence’s complex political history, of that little of Dante’s life that is known from the few relevant documents that survive, and through the specific structure and thematic content of the poem, its allusions and those echoes found in later works of literature. But there is a deeper sense in which Shaw’s book reflects her subject, in the simple chapter headings: familiar abstract concepts that admit of myriad particular experiences, such as Friendship, Love and Power, reminiscent of the ordering of Dante’s universe according to moral types. The schematic of Dante’s afterlife, Shaw admits, ‘projects a view of the moral universe – of good and bad actions, of virtue and sin – that can be described (and not unfairly) as hierarchical and judgmental: two adjectives not best designed to arouse interest or sympathy’. Sins, punishments and angels grouped neatly and hinting at a religious stricture might be one of the reasons that more readers are not drawn to the Commedia. But as Shaw makes clear, this organisational clarity belies the complexity of the work:

‘The poem may embody moral certainties in its design, but the telling of the tale confronts us with the ambiguities, the reticences, and the self-deceptions of real human behaviour in a real human world.’

Shaw’s thematic structure allows her to range freely through the poem and the history around the poem, to highlight recurring images, draw connections between details that are spaced far apart, all to give a better sense of the intricacy of Dante’s art, which itself takes real events and figures into a timeline and architectural structure of its own:

‘The interweaving of past, present and future becomes a part of the poem’s fabric and fashioning, handled with great virtuosity as Dante moves between these different planes, orchestrating his various themes.’

Published in three cantiche, or parts – Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso – the Commedia was written between 1307-1308 and 1320 in political exile, but it is set in 1300. It features Dante himself as the central figure, a pilgrim led by the classical poet Virgil into Hell, up Mount Purgatory and finally towards Paradise and an encounter with the love of his life, Beatrice and finally his creator. Along the way Dante encounters many people familiar to him from his past – some of whom were still living in 1300 – and from literary history. Their discussions explore the spectrum of human relations, desires and errors. In Hell and Purgatory, specific instances of wrongdoing in the world are echoed in the punishments that Dante observes.

Each chapter, indeed every page of Shaw’s book brings our attention to another aspect of this apparently inexhaustible poem, considers the major aspects of Dante’s religious and political worldview, the depth of his infatuation with Beatrice and also the smaller, but no less insightful, details:

‘[E]ach section of the poem ends with the word stelle (“stars”). Each occurrence of the word marks the completion of a stage in the protagonist’s journey.’

There are helpful repetitions throughout, Shaw returning to certain points to remind and clarify. Again, this mark of a fine teacher bringing the learner along also seems to reflect the expertly woven fabric of Dante’s poem, with its terza rima scheme balancing forward motion and reference back:

‘The first and third lines of the tercet rhyme, but the middle line introduces a new rhyme, which will then become the paired rhyme of the following tercet.’

Shaw considers the politics of Italy in the Middle Ages, of the conflict between the anti-imperial Guelfs and anti-papal Ghibellines in thirteenth-century Italy – and the later split between Black Guelfs and White Guelfs, and the corruption of Pope Boniface VIII – on Dante’s life and writing. With equal brilliance, Shaw unpacks the history of two types of allegory in European and Biblical literature and the way in which allegory is manifested in particular in the Commedia. Shaw’s text is also complemented by several of Botticelli’s drawings, among other selected illustrations, offering perceptive comments on the art relating to her subject as well.


In the chapter on Numbers, Shaw shows a self-awareness as enthusiastic scholar, in her discussion of trinitarian conceptions in the Commedia and wider literature. A convincing case is made for the centrality of the idea of ‘three-in-one’ – from the cantiche focusing on the three realms of the afterlife, to the form of the terza rima. But Shaw admits that it is easy to get carried away with such patterns, finding instances in ever more places, within or beyond the margins of the poem:

‘While it is wise to be wary of the literal-mindedness that detects a trinitarian allusion in every instance of the number three in the Commedia, it remains true that the resonance of the number enriches the poem by connecting it meaningfully with the view of the world it celebrates.’

Still, Shaw’s reference to codons, part of the human genetic code, adds to the sense that Dante’s vision of a cosmic order finds a mirror not only in human psychology but also at the deepest level of modern scientific research:

‘Dante would surely have felt awe and delight had he lived to hear what molecular biologists discovered as recently as 1959 – that a principle of three-in-one is the very basis of life itself at the molecular level. The unit of meaning in the genetic code is a triplet – a sequence of three base pairs which specifies a particular amino acid.’

The pair who had the biggest influence on the Commedia are Virgil and Beatrice, ‘the one a literary passion, the other an enigmatic, elusive real-life relationship.’ Shaw also considers how Dante’s friendships with two contemporaries, Guido Cavalcanti and Guido Guinizzelli also fed into the Commedia’s conception of love, and how he pondered two metaphorical approaches to life, represented as a ‘journey’, as expressed by Ovid in the story of Ulysses and Virgil, in that of Aeneas.

In the final chapter, on Words, perhaps the most illuminating of all the chapters – again, just as the Commedia ends in the heavens – the richness of Dante’s language is confirmed, especially in the skill with which he drew on a range of Italian dialects, including the Tuscan songs of troubadour Arnaut Daniel, as well as Biblical and Latin references, all transformed within the confines of a strict poetic metre to express fundamental aspects of humanity. Shaw’s analysis of an early line when the pilgrim calls for help using the word Miserere is masterful:

‘Only by keeping it in Latin can he preserve the double allusiveness, to the Bible and to the Aeneid. But it is fitted here into a vernacular context: Miserere di me, where di me is Italian and where the hybrid phrase forms a perfect first half of a 6, 10 hendecasyllable. The Latin form Miserere mei would not have worked here metrically.’

Shaw explains, as well as anyone might, why Dante is considered to have invented the Italian language as it is today. The ways in which his words have echoed down the ages is also addressed by Shaw, by reference to the work of the Romantic poets, Tennyson, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound, Primo Levi and more recently Seamus Heaney. Far from being unappreciated in his time, though, Shaw draws attention to examples of verses from the Commedia written on legal documents in the fourteenth-century:

‘Lawyers at the time took pains to avoid leaving any blank space in legal documents, in order to prevent the amending of the documents by the addition of codicils. Fragments of poetic text, probably cited from memory, were often used as a space filler. In 1317 and again in 1319, while Dante was still alive and well before he had finished writing the Paradiso, we find lines from the Inferno quoted for this purpose in Bolognese documents. We can safely conclude that the Inferno had been released to the public before the poem was complete, and that it was widely popular.’

I finished Reading Dante with a sense that there is perhaps no more finely crafted work of literature in existence, one which is both drawn from a very specific historical context whilst exploring universal questions and emotions; one in which use of language and musicality are interwoven so precisely with thematic content, and which has found its way into the everyday language of modern Europe and underpinned some of the finest poetry written since. Shaw has won me over, for certain. Her book will leave any reader prepared to go forward, or back, to Dante’s masterpiece.


2001: A Space Odyssey – in 2001 characters (with spaces)


Written for the catalogue to accompany the 2018 Il Cinema Ritrovato film festival in Bologna. The character limit was 2000 characters (with spaces) – I have made it 2001, to echo the film’s title. The text did not appear in print because the screening was cancelled, due to a rights issue with the 70mm print.

With space exploration, videophones and voice commanded computers now commonplace, the negative potential of technological breakthroughs and extraterrestrial endeavours are still downplayed in favour of blind optimism, making Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece as vital as ever.

Working in close collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke, taking us from 4 million years BC to an exploration of Jupiter’s moons in the early third millennium, Kubrick achieved some of the most stunning cinematic moments to date, and touched on fundamental questions.

The film set the stylistic and thematic template for much of his subsequent work. Note how 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Dawn of Man sequence prefigures the gang violence of A Clockwork Orange – here as an evolutionary necessity.

Despite Kubrick’s influence on contemporary filmmakers, no inheritor has constructed similarly indelible images. The attention to sound too, as in all of Kubrick’s later films, is masterful. Not only the use of source music by Strauss, Strauss, Khachaturian and Ligeti – which spawned a thousand parodies and clichés – but also the restricted focus to breath and silence for long passages.

The invention and choreography, wonder and terror are so richly balanced, with both sensual and cerebral aspects. The Star Gate may have turned on spaced out hippies but the sense of menace and emptiness is unavoidable. Just as Kubrick posits that attempts to transcend Kantian human understanding are by definition bound to run into a big black block – with the director shrewdly avoiding little green men – the transposition of human intelligence into artificial technology is shown to intensify both man’s ingenuity and destructive capability.

Simple ideas of chronology and progress are powerfully disrupted. HAL’s final, low singsong approximates the grunts of the apes. The dawn of a new civilisation is the known writ larger. While humankind reaches forward for the ungraspable, it is brought back to the memory and trauma of its origins.



The Future Tense


It was only after I had finished reading Christine Brooke-Rose’s short experimental novel Amalgamemnon that I noted its original year of publication: 1984, shorthand for dystopia. While George Orwell’s 1949 book of that name is often referred to nowadays to describe not some imagined future but aspects of the present, proof of that writer’s ‘prescience’, I wondered to what extent writers creating fiction in 1984 reflected on Orwell’s vision, and whether they sought to confirm or challenge it.

Despite the inclusion of Orwellian phrases in everyday English, I’m reluctant to grant Orwell the all-encompassing foresight that he is sometimes credited with, especially since Nineteen Eighty-Four was concerned with criticisms of the ideologies of his own time, transposed to a fictionalised future. Nevertheless I found myself reacting to Amalgamemnon with a shock of recognition. Its fictional world seems to catch something of the texture of the contemporary era – and it is entirely distinct from Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare. The game of Which Author Can Best Foresee The Future falters.

Amalgamemnon’s predictive quality is the necessary result of a stylistic constraint on the part of the author, a constraint grounded in what Brooke-Rose saw as a specific  characteristic of public and private communication in 1984.

As the author explained in an interview with Ellen G Friedman and Miriam Fuchs,

“in Amalgamemnon I decided to use only non-realizing tenses and moods like the future, the conditional, the imperative.” [1]

Brooke-Rose continues:

“The future is theoretically impossible over a whole narrative; it occurs only in a mini-narrative such as a prophecy or a marching order. Even SF is written in the past and post-dated, so is the Apocalypse. This is because the reader needs to know that the story he is reading has happened or is happening. So that was a challenge, a purely technical one. But the more I explored narrative in the future tense the more I realized that we’re all living in the future. I don’t mean an actual event that hasn’t happened yet, but there’s a tremendous amount of speculation like, ‘Tomorrow the Prime Minister will meet the President of . . . and they will probably discuss . . .’ By the time they’ve met and discussed it, it’s gone, and they’re speculating about something else, when will the summit be, and so on. We’re always living in this kind of future so that when a thing happens, it’s always a big letdown, not to mention THE future of the death of the planet, which is hovering over all of us. This is something new that I wanted to explore, the sort of predictability of discourse in private situations.”

Amalgamemnon, then, has much to say about how language is used, how it changes and what it is possible to do with it. The ‘predictability’ Brooke-Rose identifies might even go some way to explaining the endless comparisons of the tense present to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. But Brooke-Rose does not simply use the present as a basis from which to project forward, away from the past. A deeper sense of historical disorientation is created by drawing on Greek myths in Amalgamemnon, as indicated by the novel’s title.

Brooke-Rose’s tense future is conveyed in writing that is by turns puzzling, playful and caustic. Deeply allusive, surreal and given to puns, its 144 pages are amalgams of parable, bureaucratese, media rhetoric, conspiracy and (un)romantic drama, all interleaved across multiple narratives that leave open to the reader how many characters are but aspects or alter egos of the novel’s protagonist, Mira Enketei. Mira is a classical scholar and college professor who foretells the time when there will be no call, no social utility, for her specialist knowledge.

‘I shall soon be quite redundant at last despite of all, as redundant as you after queue and as totally predictable, information-content zero.’

This, Brooke-Rose’s opening line, immediately gives the reader a sense of the multivalent effects of a single sentence. Ordinarily one might read ‘despite’ or ‘in spite of’. ‘Despite of’ seems, well, redundant. An internet language forum cites several examples from Shakespeare. One in particular resonates with Brooke-Rose’s anticipation of an authority out of the job:

‘Deposed he shall be, in despite of all.’ (William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part III)

Then there’s Brooke-Rose’s first pun, ‘you after queue’. Not only does the author confirm her attention to the linguistic features that have developed within the English language, with which she can experiment even as she questions their use function; she is also giving us the sense of Mira’s character, a teacher steeped in Greek and Latin. The same words also point towards a narrative episode that will soon be described, involving Mira in the queue at the Job Centre, where she is to first encounter the figure known variously throughout the novel as Wally and Amalgamemnon. The fact that the identity of ‘you’ cannot be limited to Mira, the reader or the soon-to-appear Wally also establishes the  possibilities for figural gameplay that Brooke-Rose revels in.

As Mira predicts her coming redundancy, ‘information-content zero’, Brooke-Rose compresses such allusion, wordplay, narrative foreshadowing and characterisation into one opening line as if in resistance to that fate. There is much that is waiting for the reader in this line.

The book proceeds by following Mira’s anticipation of a fraudulent relationship, of feigned love for an overweight administrator of the new technological age – a relationship not only lacking sexual passion but also intellectual communion. As Mira carries this line of thought, Cassandra like, to its almost misandrist endpoint, Brooke-Rose develops, until Amalgamemnon’s last pages, a scathing commentary on the failure of relations between men and women in a society that still will not grant women the joys of their own intelligence and self-sufficiency. One of Brooke-Rose’s memorable phrases comes as she describes the consolation that Mira finds in her solitude and reverie, and the ‘utterly other discourse’ that is to be found there – a discourse unconstrained by the mores and hang-ups of wider society.

Interpolated between these extrapolations of Mira’s coming loveless life on a smallholding are imagined chat show discussions about Third World poverty, radio call-ins, a rock singer contriving his latest hit in the studio, scenes from the political frontline as beamed in via television, with accompanying rumours denied, spokesmen obfuscating. There is a also a lengthy tale of the efforts of gallants attempting to liberate a princess from the clutches of a dragon, a kidnap plot involving Mira and a band of subversives led by a German called Gisela, and the love story of an English officer and a Somali woman in wartime. The reader is left to fathom the echoes, linkages, mirrorings and transformations that hold these images, characters, voices and myths together, if there is any holding on to them at all in the electronic age to come:

‘When the magic cycle of genuine shit will have been replaced by the chemicycle of pure electronic thought ever expanding, more and more unbiodegradable, the heart of the earth will stop, shrivel to a curled up foetus to be ejected lifeless and wither to a moon without even the attracting planet to encircle except the distant sungod dead because unseen unfelt by anyone.’

I do not claim to be familiar with all of the classical allusions that run through Amalgamemnon, from the title onwards. There is evidently far more going on here than even two readings would yield up to an attentive reader, even one steeped in Greek myth, linguistics and post-structuralism. Still, the dizzying, breathless passages often have a phantasmagorical power that captivates and baffles, and the most trenchant lines are not in the slightest undermined by playful puns: ‘fidgetal’, ‘direlogue’ and ‘daytaunt’ among them, that again one cannot help associating with habits of social media and failures of political diplomacy today.

Shortly after I had finished reading Amalgamemnon I turned to the writings of visual artist and writer Hito Steyerl, who maps the uneven contours of the current digital era with marvellous perception and whose style blends technical insight and wit, with an awareness of the myriad forces behind the disruption of artistic, political and technological paradigms. Reading Amalgamemnon alongside Steyerl’s recent essay collection Duty Free Art reveals curious overlaps,

‘Spam’s takeover transforms a pseudo-scientific account of history (and its “progress”) into a performative chaos in which actors, consumers, spam and service workers become indistinguishable. The linear and teleological progression of history, complete with its narration by academic administrators, is discontinued. The unity created by the frontal address of class is gone. The mood shifts from education to celebration.’ (Hito Steyerl, Duty Free Art)

Steyerl’s predictions being similarly dispiriting:

‘But you too might get trapped in your own singular hell of a future repeating invented pasts, with one part of the population hell-bent on getting rid of another. People will peer in from afar, conclude they can’t understand what’s going on, and keep watching cat videos.’

Does Steyerl here indicate a clairvoyance on the part of Brooke-Rose? Has the contemporary world of communications, media, economy and politics modulated in ways that now make the inscrutable, the anachronistic and the disruptive – qualities of much experimental writing – a more faithful ‘mirror’ of daily experience than Orwell’s Oceania? In Amalgamemnon a teacher is harangued by a student. Terrorists conspire. Men patronise women. Europe is in trouble. The media spew rumours that spokespersons deny. This all sounds familiar. But then a cold reading can always give us what we want, confirm what we always suspected would be the case.

Brooke-Rose will need a more astute reader, one willing to read back and forth, to pay witness to all the sonic, graphic and allusive aspects of Amalgamemnon, which is foremost a work of literary experiment. Whether there will soon be any enthusiastic, capable readers left qualified for that undertaking, whether there will be any place left for them, is another matter. As Brooke-Rose has it,

‘[W]e shall all become oracular computers, Draculas sucking endless information from the napetrough of a wavelength…’

The future still sucks. But literature need not face redundancy just yet.



[1] A Conversation with Christine Brooke-Rose By Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1989, Vol. 9.3. Published online at



The Long and Windy Road


This essay was first published in Underline Issue 2, February 2018. The theme of the issue was ‘Journeys’.

In terms of the geographical space covered, one might not readily consider Willow and Wind (Beed-o baad, 1999) to be a film about a journey – the action being restricted to a sparsely populated Iranian village. But in its protagonist’s race against time to get from point A to point B, in its exploration of locale, its visual emphasis on the distances travelled between a few local landmarks, and the emotional shifts experienced in between, Mohammad-Ali Talebi’s children’s tale plays like a road movie of sorts – with several roadblocks along the way, and an eventual return.

It follows an unnamed young boy’s attempt to source a pane of glass, with which he must glaze a window at his school that he broke during a football game. He is pressed for time. Having left the task unattended for two weeks, hoping his father would make amends on his behalf, he faces expulsion. Unaided by his teacher, who does not accept his excuses and expectations of help, the boy must find money, reach the glazier’s shop before closing, and then carry the glass frame back precariously through his home village, in the midst of howling winds, making sure not to break it.

Two other boys become involved in the task. They each have a practical sense of what must be done, who can help and how to manage priorities. Moreover, there is an acceptance that all one’s efforts might be in vain, as the film’s final moments underscore. Willow and Wind could be viewed as a children’s take on William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), a gruelling, atmospheric cinematic realisation of Georges Arnaud’s novel Le salaire de la peur about the joint efforts of four men in undertaking a potentially fatal transportation through jungle terrain.

The film was written by Abbas Kiarostami. As with several of his own films, particularly Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987) and the sombre and philosophical Taste of Cherry (1997), the movements made to complete a task are foregrounded, so as to go places even within a restricted context. This movement is often slow, or even circular – typically roaming a single Iranian city or village by car or on foot. But what is also conveyed is the sense of an emotional trajectory. Resolutions are not guaranteed, however, or else may be accompanied by unexpected negative consequences. The same elements are found in other Iranian filmmakers’ works, a more recent example being Jafar Panahi’s Taxi Tehran (2015), a film determined by the director’s own legal restrictions on movement, in which the end of the cab driver’s journey is soured by a theft, witnessed only by the viewer.

In English speaking cultures today, the metaphorical sense conveyed by the word ‘journey’ is increasingly common. Especially in the UK, one is used to hearing of the journeys undergone by others. Not recollections of recent trips but rather accounts of personal experiences and particular difficulties overcome. This tendency, a side effect of important campaigns to lessen any stigma surrounding mental health problems by promoting awareness of acute psychological conditions and encouraging sufferers to seek help for stresses and strains, regularly gives the impression of a whole society lacking will and resilience; having little or no sense of another, stoical attitude. It has come to seem an expectation to account for even relatively commonplace matters of life in terms usually reserved for a mythical story, with a premium placed by publishers and broadcasters on conveying the most ordinary experiences of loss, regret and pain as having been uniquely felt, and heroically overcome. How much many grown-ups could learn from the experiences of the children in Willow and Wind.

Of course, in the context of the film’s production in Iran, such an attitude might be read as an internalisation of a sense of invisibility, powerlessness, or hopelessness. And there are likely to be those who, in keeping with the turn described above, see in Willow and Wind only neglect and cruelty – from an uncaring adult world that instils a fear of failure in youngsters. References to the boys’ fathers are characterised by a sense of absence, or of limited time spent with their sons owing to work obligations. But consider the way in which the school teacher allows newcomer Ardakani to leave his mathematics class to watch the rain, which he has never seen before. Talebi gives us a moment, too, to revel in the physicality and sensation of the rain – more distracting because of the broken window – before the boys move off. Ardakini’s father is happy to assist when he is asked for money, although he is busy on an engineering project. And the glazier treats his customer with fairness.

Talebi’s film encourages a necessary practicality, responsibility and self-reliance in the face of difficulties that ought to appeal to many audiences, young and old. For a national film industry diminished by problems of censorship, much of Iranian cinema, including its children’s cinema, is unsparing in its view of the travails of living and the need to find ways forward in the most testing circumstances. The young boys in Talebi’s film must negotiate their own contracts, resolve their own problems, make reparations. “True the rain is beautiful,” the maths teacher tells his students. “But everything must be done in its proper time.” Even the other schoolchildren, whose studies are being disrupted, have their say: “Glaze the window!”

Certainly, one’s sympathies are sharpened when the realisation dawns on the protagonist that he has the wrong piece of paper, after he has sought out the measurements his father has written down. And one frets with him as he is carried unsteadily on the back of a fellow boy’s motorcycle, terrified that the successfully acquired glass is going to shatter. His attempts to get the attention of a teacher in the school grounds while he is struggling to install the glass is also moving. But despite everything there is admiration – at the unwillingness to abandon the task, and the instinct and empathy the boys show to one another.

Talebi here also gives us a powerful metaphor for the difficulties of the creative process in general, and filmmaking in Iran in particular: the necessity of carrying a frame through which the world can be viewed, undamaged, through numerous trials and obstacles; to secure it, and to share it with others.

As the director told film writer and researcher Neil McGlone in an interview in 2014:

‘Filmmaking in Iran today is like carrying that piece of glass on an uneven landscape… If you want to make a film in Iran, you will see some old men who talk very slowly and make long speeches, and the bureaucracy, which becomes insane. You have to be patient for every shot you shoot. That’s why I think Iranian filmmakers are the most patient, stubborn filmmakers in the world. Only after finishing the film, like bringing the piece of glass to the classroom, the main troubles begin, such as not being able to distribute the film or problems with censorship and that’s when they have to start all over again.’ [1]

The sense of a resolution that is sought in all accounts of personal journeys is not a given here. The journey of the filmmaker, and of the boy whose task remains incomplete at the end of Talebi’s film, just as with the personal experiences that we each face, is if anything without end. Willow and Wind reminds us of this truth in a visceral, simple way.


[1] Neil McGlone, ‘To the Wonder’ in Vérité, July 2014. Available to read online at

The current issue of Underline is available to download for free via the British Council.

Bonjintan – Giovanni Di Domenico interview extra

In recent years, Giovanni Di Domenico has recorded and performed in numerous contexts, in duos and ensembles, with Akira Sakata, Tatsuhisa Yamamoto and Jim O’Rourke. A new jazz quartet, Bonjintan, features all four musicians playing compositions written and arranged by Sakata. Following two tours of Japan in two years, a first CD has been released which contains a live performance, recorded in January 2017 at Pit Inn, Tokyo.

Inspired at a young age by John Coltrane, whom he saw perform in Japan in 1966, Sakata’s own activities as a saxophonist flow from his early connections with Kaoru Abe and his involvement with the Yosuke Yamashita Trio in the 1970s. In a recent interview with Lasse Marhaug for Personal Best, Sakata describes how a hiatus from performing in the 1990s was in large part ended because of the energy and encouragement he found among O’Rourke and other younger players, such as Chris Corsano, who were then playing in Japan, in the 2000s.

O’Rourke, resident in Japan for the past eleven years, has his own extensive background of playing in free improvisational contexts in the US, Europe and Japan since the 1990s, with collaborators including Eddie Prévost, Han Bennink, Peter Brötzmann and Mats Gustafsson  among countless others. The Bonjintan quartet is the first time that he has exclusively played upright bass.

Yamamoto, the youngest member of the quartet has kept a relentless schedule of concerts and recording over the past several years, including tours with Di Domenico outside of Japan, and with O’Rourke and Eiko Ishibashi in the group Kafka’s Ibiki. Domenico, Yamamoto and O’Rourke have also recorded and released two albums as a trio, Delivery Health.

Bonjintan’s self-titled album is released on Sakata’s own Daphnia label. Along with two originals, ‘Dance’ and ‘Nosagyo’, the concert includes ‘Ondo no Hunauta’, a folk song from Sakata’s home city Hiroshima –previously recorded in a distinctly different, electronic funk version on his solo album (2000) – as well Ornette Coleman’s ‘Lonely Woman’. Sakata’s fiery sax, his silences and impassioned vocal passages are here complemented by Di Domenico’s expansive piano explorations, flowing from relentless, melodic flurries to agitated, staccato accents; Yamamoto’s textured, eruptive percussion and O’Rourke’s articulate, anchoring bass.

Di Domenico explains that “Bonjintan means The Diary (Tan) of the ‘Bon’ Man (where ‘Jin’ is man, ‘Bon’ is an almost untranslatable kanji – it is deep, spiritual, totally Japanese in feeling…).”

Below he shares a diary of his own, from the most recent tour of northern Japan in June 2017.


“The first stage we played on the 2017 tour. It’s a Buddhist temple, close to the city of Sendai. I am not at all for religion, nor churches, so the ‘holy’ feeling did not affect me so much – but it was nice to receive a cup of extremely good tea the morning after. We were shown into a special room for that, everything was very ceremonial and so ‘wabi’, it can’t fail to affect you somehow. I love that side of Japan, the care they take to be good hosts and the kindness (even if sometimes it’s just a matter of etiquette) they show you.”


“Our ‘tour van’ at one of the dozens of rest stations we stopped by. Since the 2016 Bonjintan tour, I have started to travel Japan by car. Previously, I only travelled the country by bus, slow train, extra slow train and fast train (a couple of times). By car it was something else. We covered close to 6,000km across the two tours, from north to south and west. And it’s wonderful to do that with Sakata, Jim and Tatsuhisa. I had the ‘older’ guy’s vision, the younger man’s and the ‘expat’ (albeit almost Japanese now!) and western eye on things. Having Jim there helped also in terms of translating and just chatting in English. He made me discover ways of seeing Japan that I could have not have done without him. In general, touring with Sakata in Japan made me discover a whole lot of things about the country and its customs, something I cherish a lot.”


“Warning: birds shitting. Outside the gas station. The Japanese are very concerned about everybody.”



“These two pictures were taken in the 2011 tsunami region. The wall is intended to stop the next tsunamis (all comments are superfluous, obviously…). The factory was torn down as a result of the disaster.”


“The trio behind Sakata is already a band, Delivery Health. So for me all this is really a dream! As a trio we have a sound that we had to put at the service of Sakata’s sound. It was at times difficult but I think in doing it we discovered how to make these two worlds work together. Jim on double bass is just as you would imagine him to be. He might not have the ‘chops’ and technique of Dave Holland or Gary Peacock, but his musical mind makes him do things that not even those bass gods would do. He thinks as a musician and producer of music – and he actually has pretty damn good timing!”


“A session of CD-R making (and signing) just before a show. In Japan, people like to have a souvenir from a particular place or moment of their life. After the first shows the CDs had all sold out, so we had to make new CD-Rs featuring a previous show from the tour. This was mixed in the car by Jim. The over the top, lo-fi cover was printed at a 7-Eleven! That was great fun, having to be a CD factory. Thanks to this we sold over 50 of these CD-Rs.”


“A ‘Soapland’ opposite the club we played in Niigata. Soaplands are ostensibly massage parlours – in reality they are brothels. During the two times we have toured Japan, we played all sorts of concerts spaces: big halls, jazz clubs, rock clubs, sake breweries, Buddhist temples, private houses (of eccentric scientists, friends of Sakata who is a marine biologist), hotels… So I had the chance to see the very different ways of occupying oneself as a musician in Japan. Depending on the place, the audience would also change. In big halls (generally in smaller towns) the audience was almost all over 60. Some of the towns we visited looked like ghost cities. You feel enormously the aging of the townsfolk and the fact that almost everybody moved to Tokyo or other large cities in the last 20-30 years or more. Some places had a somewhat dark and sad feel to them. But then we also played big city clubs, often full of youngsters with a much more ‘urban’ feel.”



“This is one of the coolest places we played, a jazz kissa called Basie. The owner (the guy with the sunglasses) is a real figure of the jazz scene of Tohoku (northern Japan). He befriended a lot of jazz greats and has a record collection and a hi-fi system that people all over the world come to listen to. It is really something amazing. The whole place just feels so ‘jazz’, but the kind of jazz feel you find in Japan; this type of bar was where you would go to listen to music in the ’50s/’60s/’70s when it was too expensive to buy records. The bar owner would buy it and you’d go there to listen. After our show they put the chairs into the ‘listening’ position, in front of the speakers, as if they were a band – fantastic!”


“The ‘forest bed’, on a walk I took on one of our days off. The forests in Japan look beautiful from the outside and are mesmerising on the inside.”


“A mega screen in the lobby of one of the hotels.”


“The advertising of yaki soba in a restaurant. I liked the metaphysical aspect of it, flying chopsticks and all…”



“Sakata is one gem of a musician, that I knew already. But doing these two tours with him made this belief even stronger. Having previously toured with him only outside of Japan, I feel I understand something more about his unique personality when he is in his home country, putting his story and musicianship into a new perspective. It is a wonderful experience for me to be able to play with these fabulous musicians.”


All images courtesy of Giovanni Di Domenico.

Bonjintan’s first CD is released by Daphnia. For orders outside Japan, contact

Insalata Statica – Giovanni Di Domenico Interview

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Autoportraits by Giovanni Di Domenico (2017) – used with permission

Born in Rome in 1977, pianist Giovanni Di Domenico spent much of his youth in Africa as well as Italy, absorbing a multitude of musical styles – with folk traditions, opera, prayer calls, classical repertoire, jazz and punk all shaping his expansive approach to sound. In his twenties Di Domenico enrolled in the prestigious Santa Cecilia music conservatory in Rome and later the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, undertaking piano studies with a free-spirited, rebellious ethic. Now resident in Brussels, he has garnered much respect for his energetic, inventive musicality – in recent years he has honed his talents in solo and group playing contexts with Akira Sakata, Jim O’Rourke, Tatsuhisa Yamamoto, John Edwards, Alexandra Grimal, Keiji Haino, Manuel Mota and Chris Corsano among others. Through his label Silent Water, he has showcased the work of frequent collaborators including Norberto Lobo, Pak Yan Lau and João Lobo as well as the Japan based trio Delivery Health – comprising Domenico, O’Rourke and Yamamoto.

A new LP, Insalata Statica, pushes Di Domenico’s capabilities as a composer into the foreground. It also reflects a hitherto under-acknowledged pop sensibility. Written and performed almost in its entirety by Di Domenico, the album takes listeners from passages of melancholic introspection through to fuzz-laden melodic exuberance. Those who have witnessed Di Domenico in a live performance setting recognise the expansive variety of tonalities and voices he is able to express across a range of keyboard based instruments, including Rhodes, Hammond and grand piano – all of which feature on the album. But Insalata Statica also sees Di Domenico returning to his first instrument, the guitar, as well as calling on guests to lend extra elements to the kaleidoscopic sound – with Niels Van Heertum on euphonium, João Lobo on drums, Jordi Grognard on clarinets, harpist Vera Cavallin and Ananta Roosens on trumpet.

Insalata Statica’s flowing, shifting harmonies, rhythms and textures are deftly arranged – often blurring lines between a wide variety of acoustic and electronic instrumentation. While largely recorded in the studio in his current city of residence, it seems only fitting that for a peripatetic musician such as Di Domenico the album should suggest the experience of travel throughout its ever shifting movements. Listening to Insalata Statica, one can imagine the character of different landscapes – and their effect on mood and energy. The music seems to convey the haze of early departure; the romance of new climates; sleepy intervals and the hectic rush of transit; the feeling of sudden inspiration and the lasting traces of memory.

Moving through delicate motifs for horns, woodwind, percussion, harp, guitar and electronics into more stately piano-led choruses and even hectic, Hammond-led jazz sections, there are evocations of Franco Battiato’s 70s albums, Brazilian folk flourishes, the spacious, harmonically rich jazz of ECM recordings and oddball pop. Ushering such influences into a vibrant whole, revealing a skilful ear and an ability to blend instrumental timbres and melodic lines in surprising ways, Insalata Statica has a charm all its own.

I spoke with Di Domenico about his musical activities over the years and the process of writing and recording Insalata Statica.

Insalata Statica was five years in the making. Was there a specific compositional idea behind it from the beginning that you were interested in exploring?

I did not have a specific idea before writing the music for it. I was actually writing for another band at that point, and was planning on using that material for them. Then things changed and it made sense to me to use that material as a whole, for a single piece. The actual music, six different ‘tunes’, were written in a couple of days, then it took me five years, to arrange, record and edit everything and to turn it into an album. Insalata Statica means ‘static salad’ in Italian. It’s like I prepared the musical salad in no time and then took a long time to dress it.

Was the length of time it took a matter of figuring the transitions ­– were there different versions with those original tunes ordered differently? Or was it a more linear process that other demands and travelling simply took you away from for extended periods?

I guess it was a bit of both: a lack of time, that without my wanting it to, ended up lengthening the process of arranging and recording – but also way too many ideas during the same process. In the end I had to stop, or else I felt it could have gone on forever.

Basically, when I wrote the material and then decided what to do with it, I knew it could work but did not know quite how – making the songs separate entities or else try to make it into a whole. I think the order of the different passages came pretty easily and quickly. Then I thought about calling it Insalata Statica. The name comes from a joke made by an old friend: he was always saying that I was preparing ‘static’ salads. I thought that was a brilliant name and I had to use it! I thought it was ideal to have a more static beginning that slowly unfolds, taking different twists and turns, to reach a much less static ending. In reality the record isn’t static at all, it moves a lot and has a lot of rhythmical and harmonic layers. I was, and still am really, a lot into Jim O’Rourke’s The Visitor during that period, which certainly helped shape my approach.

I’m interested in how the piece transformed and how your thinking may have changed throughout that long a period.

I usually worked for several days on it, then let some days pass, then listened to it again to see what could be changed, added, or thrown away. I was hearing too many different things and at times I could not make up my mind. I knew, with the way I was approaching the whole thing, that a very simple idea could take me very far, if I could just give the right weight to that idea.

Sometimes other records I was into at that moment, or other stuff I was doing would give me other ideas and I had to hold them till the moment I was sure what to do with them. Other times I would just start to ‘jam’ with the tracks that were already there and something just right came up that had to be used no matter what. But I had to stick at this. At times I got fed up with it and wanted to throw everything in the garbage. I then left it for a couple of months unattended and went straight back to it. I could not leave it, it had to be finished.

As with much of your work, you are exploring an array of approaches to keyboard instruments – electronic textures, Rhodes, organ drones, Hammond, reflective interludes, all weaved together without a jarring effect. Not an easy feat. But there’s a whole orchestra here. I can also hear guitar. At first I thought some technique applied to the inside of the piano might have been behind some of the pizzicato sounds because some of the instrumentation blurs wonderfully in timbre and colour. Did you play most of the instruments on the record?

I played almost everything, except euphonium, clarinet, harp and some drum parts. Yes it’s a guitar! I am actually glad that you thought it was plucked piano, that’s a great idea you have given me – albeit quite difficult to make it sound like a guitar should sound, I guess.

Me and the guitar have a long history, actually. That’s the first instrument I learned to play, and I left it behind as I was discovering the piano, the drums and everything else I could put my hands on. But it stayed a very important instrument for me, although I never dared to play it again, until the point when I was in Japan playing with Jim [O’Rourke] and Tatsu [Yamamoto] and all. Jim asked me ‘Do you play guitar? You should!’ This was a kind of revelation, in the sense that it gave me the guts to do it, and although I am not a very good guitar player I regained the thrill of playing it and I liked it a lot. This happiness led me to want to do this record, that’s why I think it sounds like it does. I was really having fun!

The tactile aspects of the instrumentation seem very important to you – I can’t picture you using midi controls with computer software. When I’ve seen you play live, you are often moving between piano and Rhodes, between the outside and the inside of the piano.

In the beginning, while I was writing the music, I just had piano, Rhodes, Hammond, other keyboards and also electric guitar and electric bass – all within reaching distance. I would just pass from one to the other in a very simple but deep way, sometimes not caring too much about the precision and cleanness of things. That is why at times it sounds ‘loose’. You are right, I have never used any midi or software based computer thing. I am not able to do so. I need this tactility, which you mention. I need to put my hands on the instruments and try to do everything that I ‘hear’ through actual manipulation.

But another part of the process that excites me more than words can say is the editing and mixing side of things. I really like to sit down and listen to things while just imagining sounds changing their colour, contrast and weight – a bit like Photoshopping a picture. And through that a lot of the qualities of a single instrument can change. For me it is important that this production process is a vital part of the compositional development of the music.

di domenico autoportrait 2

You have said that the album encompasses most of your strongest influences. Rather than simply ask what those are, I’m interested in how easily or otherwise you found that you could weave them together into something distinctly your own. Do you think there is a common denominator among those, apparently various, influences that allows them to combine? Or connections between things that only occurred to you after some time?

There’s a fundamental thing that connects those ‘influences’  – not the specific influences but the act of thinking about them – and the fact that this is my first solo LP: I passed beyond any sense of pressure I might have felt before, of having to stick to one style, to put it crudely. I said to myself that I had to do what I like most – that is, to put all that I hear into organised sounds. Although, if I had to enumerate all those influences and styles I’d still find that there are some very significant ones that are missing from this record. For example, the most radical and fierce ways of playing, like I do with Akira Sakata – and the more extreme sounding ones. That stuff I like to listen to and make my own as well.

I did what I had to do and it came so easily that soon I forgot about all the doubts and insecurities that have been lingering since, basically, always.

Where do you think those particular doubts come from?

I’ve taken kind of a strange path in music. I haven’t done anything else since I was 12 but I’ve moved along, taking many different roads, constantly immersing myself of course but not quite finding my own voice, or voices. Now if I go backwards I am happy with all of this but some time ago I found myself getting frustrated for not having discovered something before – that same something, which at that precise moment was freaking me out because of its beauty!

When making this record, it was not difficult to combine everything. It all made a lot of sense to me finally. Of course, it might be that I’m saying all this because I just turned 40, and perhaps I finally feel mature! These things took time to find their shape, but once they did all the rest came pretty quickly and easily.

This is your first solo album under your own name, made largely in isolation. Despite the obvious pleasure that editing and mixing has given you, do you still prefer to be playing amongst other musicians?

I don’t really treat it all that differently – playing alone, composing, recording and staying in the studio as much as I can by myself, and playing with others. I mean Bonjintan [jazz quartet with Akira Sakata, O’Rourke and Yamamoto] is great. Playing is always great when it’s with great people, it gives me a lot and I would never drop it. But I’ve gotten more and more picky in choosing my musical pals and I don’t have a problem with saying no to something that I just don’t ‘hear’.

I have done other solo albums, but I always used a pseudonym. I wanted them to be only electroacoustic and in keeping with a certain niche, or style, or whatever. I don’t hate them but I clearly feel that they were part of this research and I can hear that they are very naïve in a way. Now I probably would not release them.

Tell me a bit about your experiences of going to school to study piano and what your feelings were/are about the value of that – as opposed to the learning you continue to do in the context of relentless live performance and collaboration. I know some musicians are not keen on studying music in an academic sense.

I didn’t go to music school until I was 24. I went to the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, where I studied jazz piano. That conservatory is famous for its adherence to jazz tradition, especially bebop. Before that I spent one year at the Santa Cecilia conservatory in Rome where I studied composition. That was 1998, but I only lasted a year, as I was not really keen on doing solfège. I was always very rebellious when it came to academia. I don’t even have a high school degree. And so they kicked me out, I was expelled. But during this time I was playing in all sorts of punk, surf and hardcore bands in Rome. There was quite a scene back then, a lot of groups that didn’t go anywhere really but that shaped me a great deal – although I didn’t realise that until much later.

As I was telling you before, for a long time I felt frustrated for having taken what I see as a somewhat tortuous path through music. When I arrived at the conservatory in Holland, I remember being so angry at myself because I was hearing very young musicians of 18 or so playing their asses off. I thought I’d lost so much time. And in The Hague there is the amazing Sonology department, but at that time I was not really aware of what it is. If I were there now, I would spend more time in that facility than practising scales and chords!

But I got over all that as I continued, discovering that all the things I had in me came from that same path. I accepted it and started to like it and make it my strength. Of course I feel it’s still in progress, it will never end. The most important thing I gained from those academic years was some of my very best ‘musical’ friends  – and overall just friends – having grown up together, having tried so many different things and learned things about producing/recording etc.

The resources in that place were really amazing. But I also remember having an instant allergy to courses dealing with the business side of the profession. I just thought that was total crap, that I should not get even close to that sort of thing, I still think so! I have the feeling that my aversion to ‘business’ comes from my aversion to ‘being there’, to exposing myself to the infinite tentacles of the culture of promotion. I mean I am already doing a job that exposes me: I create something that people are supposed to consume and enjoy, but I’d rather be known and, if fortunate enough, appreciated for my music, not for how much it sells or anything like that. I know there’s a contradiction in all this, but I just can’t get too much into the social media culture, even for promoting my work. I would certainly not put anything of my private life out there. I feel my music would be affected if I did so. I absolutely cannot compromise on that.

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Yet you do run your own label, Silent Water, which is putting out releases fairly regularly. What was the impetus for doing that and what are some of the difficulties and benefits you have experienced?

The idea of having a label has always been there. But the timing to set up Silent Water was a bit of a coincidence. I always had the idea that I would set up ‘my label’ with my first ‘solo’ record, then in 2012 I had a disagreement with another label owner about the release of one of my LPs. So I decided, ‘Fuck it, I am going to do it myself’. I was not prepared for that, though, so that LP had the SW002 catalogue number!

It just makes everything easier for me to have my own label to put out my own music. For a period I was thinking that it would have been the worst idea to put out things on my own label – it seems too ‘simple’. Then I would think of all the great musicians since the ’70s who have started their own record companies, and also see the freedom that being your own boss brings you. I think it’s a great way to push yourself, to always go further and feed your ideas and projects. Of course I was lucky enough to have some money to put into it, and to have folks around me who agreed to paying something when it was needed – and understood that the profitability of all this was going to be almost non-existent. Neither I nor we will get rich from Silent Water, but that’s exactly what I like about it. I just want to be able to pay for the next record. Now, with 15 releases in five years, I have to say it has gone much further then I could ever expect.

You are now planning to do live shows around Insalata Statica with an eight-piece band. How do you think you might approach it in this different context?

After all the time I spent on Insalata Statica, I thought it would be a shame not to tour it around, and the first thing that was clear to me was that it had to be with a band. For technical reasons: the fact that some parts of the record have over 100 layers makes it impossible to play it live by myself, at least without using samples and pre-recorded tracks. But I can’t do that! Insalata Statica is a very ‘lived’ piece. I simply can’t think about having it be played by a software. So I decided I was going to put together a band for it, with the same people that helped me do the record – and the addition of a bass player and a guitar player. That prospect excites me a lot, as I have to rewrite or at least rethink many of the parts, to be able to make it sound like it should. In any case it will sound somewhat different. I’ve realised I will have to change certain parts of the orchestration but I’m curious and looking forward to hearing it. After having been ‘inside’ this music for so long, I want to get ‘outside’ of it, and to share it with others. There is the social reason too: I want to give something back to the great musicians that helped me so much. Although it’s going to be a financial disaster, travelling with eight people with instruments in Europe, I don’t care and I want to do it no matter what.

insalata sleeve

Insalata Statica is released by Silent Water (

Down in the Flood – Housekeeping (1987)

For Notebook at MUBI, I wrote about Bill Forsyth’s adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping. The full article text is reproduced below.


On first viewing Bill Forsyth’s film Housekeeping (1987) I was somewhat unimpressed by its low-key television-movie feel; a small town family drama lacking cinematic spectacle, featuring relatively unknown actors. It seemed thrifty, in keeping with the unfussiness of the story’s central character, Sylvie. By contrast, Marilynne Robinson’s novel, on which the film is based, describes moments of fantastical prophecy, strengthened by the author’s knowledge of Scripture, in images of dead souls recovered from a deep lake resonant of the Bible’s account of the Flood and Apocalypse. Forsyth’s better-known Local Hero (1983), a comedy set in a remote Scottish village, gives viewers a meteor shower, the Northern Lights and Burt Lancaster descending from the sky, so the director’s use of Robinson’s text could certainly have reached for very different effects.

Though the film retains the perspective of the book’s youthful narrator, Ruth, inclined to the imaginings of childhood, Forsyth makes no attempt to visualise these poetic evocations, and divests the township of Fingerbone of any overt religious associations, preferring to let the natural landscape present a majesty of its own, and working on the delicate personal bonds between the three protagonists. On closer inspection, though, Housekeeping belies an eloquent audiovisual arrangement, submerging profound aspects of the original material in an unpretentious style, leaving them to rise to the surface of their own accord.

Sylvie, a young itinerant woman, returns to her hometown of Fingerbone to become the primary carer of her two nieces, Ruth (Sara Walker) and Lucille (Andrea Burchill), following the suicide of their mother. Like Robinson’s novel, and contrary to the melodramatics of the average ‘real life issues’ soap opera, Forsyth’s film makes no explicit reference to the mental health of Sylvie. But the history of spectacular death in the family, the symbolism of the lake which claimed the bodies of both Sylvie’s father and her sister—the former in the train accident that has become the town’s most famous episode—and the increasingly manifest unconventionality of Sylvie’s behaviour (with actress Christine Lahti skillfully revealing layer beneath layer of her character, from untroubled eccentricity to painful self-awareness and misgivings about her relationships) suggest a shadowy realm populated by ghosts of the past that threatens to encompass the young girls. Lucille senses it, expressing her discomfort primarily in relation to the embarrassment it brings to her as a typical high schooler, and the townsfolk sense it.


Water and flooding are here more simply but subtly associated with the irruption of different currents—of emotion; of memories of events, images and sounds—that risk pulling the characters into their undertow. While Ruth remarks that the family have always been comforted by the fact that their home was built on a hill and so less liable to floodwaters, they are nevertheless inextricably tied to the lake and continually drawn to it. Ruth and Sylvie spend days playing truant, idling down by the water, near the railroad bridge off which their grandfather’s train slipped “like a weasel sliding off a rock.”

Sylvie is eager to show Ruth a valley unknown to many among the mountainous surroundings, and accessible only by boat, which sees the pair staying out all night on the lake in a leaking vessel. This striking image is an intensification of a more humorous early scene when the family home is first flooded by several inches of water. Ruth’s relative acceptance of these commonly disruptive circumstances and her growing fascination with her aunt—whom we come to see, with both empathy and concern, as a reflection of her and her own mother—is transformed into the image of the two women on the perilous waters, under the railway tracks in the dead of night.

It is in this scene, too, that the evocative use of sound is made more apparent, and creates an ambiguity that is not suggested in Robinson’s novel. When Sylvie pulls herself up, hugging the rickety skeleton of the railway bridge, we loudly hear the cross-country locomotive shuttling through Fingerbone. But we don’t see it. The sound of clanking metal on the bridge and the lapping currents against the boat are, again, a kind of amplification of the earlier scene, where the gentle bumping of metal tins and other household items bobbing in the flood water is heard as Lucille tries to sweep them into a closet to no avail.

The passing train is also suggested by the use of intermittent light, to simulate the illuminated carriage windows at night, but perhaps owing to nothing more than budget limitations and/or logistics, this key symbol of the town’s identity and the family’s history is at this moment invisible. It is now that we might question whether Ruth and Sylvie have seen a train at all, or rather if we are aware finally of a folie á deux—or less dramatically, a shared poetic sense—that has been deepening throughout the film. And then one recalls that in the novel, too, Ruth tells us that nobody in Fingerbone actually saw the famous crash.


Robinson’s prose, too, emphasises the auditory, with descriptions of the sloshes of water, and the distant sound of the ice on the lake breaking in thunderous cracks. The latter phenomenon is again presented in the film only as something beyond the screen, beyond the window of the girls’ bedroom. Lucille worries that the sound is like that of a train crashing off the bridge. Ruth assures her that it is only the ice. By now, Ruth is growing comfortable with her unusual lifestyle, living with her aunt, in a house of compulsively stacked newspapers and food cans, growing used to Sylvie’s odd habits.

The sound of ice breaking is, then, both comforting and unsettling. Getting to know their wayward aunt, uncovering some of the mysteries of their past, learning more about themselves and the women they are starting to become places new stresses on the girls’ precarious young lives. The way in which the past haunts the present and the consequent difficulties of intimacy between people are ideas that Robinson would return to in her following three novels, GileadHome and Lila, all set in the town of Gilead. In these stories, everyday gestures, words and apparently unremarkable objects are again invested with a miraculous quality. In doing this, Robinson avoids the prophetic visions of her first novel, and brings the books closer in feel to Forsyth’s subtle, moving adaptation—suggesting that Forsyth had indeed grasped from the start the underlying poetic qualities that make Robinson’s prose so affecting.

Echoes Across LA

Five film connections in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA

Warning: This article contains graphic images


Following the protests and critical reception surrounding his 1980 masterpiece Cruising, and the disappointing arms dealer comedy Deal of the Century (1983), William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA (1985) marked a return to the energetic, stylistically thrilling crime genre filmmaking that first made the director’s name. While its expansive, sunlit, West Coast take on shadowy, claustrophic film noir – soundtracked by the lush, pulsing pop music of Wang Chung – refuses many readymade clichés, the film retains striking, sometimes unexpected connections to the cinematic past.

Friedkin has always professed the influence of a number of stylistically and formally innovative European films of the 1950s and 1960s – notably those of Clouzot, Melville, Resnais and Buñuel – on his own creative blend of documentary, genre tropes and expressionism, best realised in The Exorcist (1973) and Sorcerer (1977). The director has also confirmed the profound influence of Costa-Gavras. The films noir of the 1940s evidently informed Friedkin’s approach to the film that first made his name, The French Connection (1971). But To Live and Die in LA also carries in it less obvious echoes, and ones which function in somewhat different ways to the type of conscious homages to beloved filmmakers one can often find amid the works of Hollywood studio directors of the era. Each of these echoes make the film a richer, more mysterious experience than it might first appear – even presaging one indelible image that was to follow in the work of another groundbreaking filmmaker only two years later.

The Friedkin connection: The director has avowed on numerous occasions that he is not an auteur, in the sense in which that word has been used to discuss the unique, identifiable styles and themes of filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard – all of whom Friedkin has expressed admiration for. Despite these claims, one can find throughout Friedkin’s films from the 1960s to the present, certain distinctive, recurring images; a potent fatalism and a creative play with genre and filmic structure.

Chance drive

Popeye drive

Above all, To Live and Die in LA is a mirror image of sorts to the earlier The French Connection. Where the latter gives viewers an unromantic glimpse of New York in the Seventies, To Live and Die in LA treads the fetid terrain of the often romanticised City of Angels. As critic Kent Jones writes in his book Physical Evidence, ‘like Abel Ferrara, Friedkin films only in places that Woody Allen would never dream of visiting’. The plots are not dissimilar: a loose cannon cop vows to bust a master criminal. One crucial link is the mesmerising dynamism of the films’ respective car chases, with Friedkin seemingly intent on taking the already iconic chase of the earlier film to an even more nauseating, technically stunning new level in To Live and Die in LA. In keeping with the tone of noir, both films elicit a sense of pessimism, dread and uncertainty; a sense of paranoia that clouds any easy resolutions.

A premonition: Chance (William Petersen) and Vukovich (John Pankow) return to the station, after the failed stakeout that has resulted in the murder of attorney Max Waxman, to sign their firearms back in. Vukovich realises that Chance has lifted a notebook of Waxman’s from the scene of the crime and warns him about the risks he is running and how he is threatening to jeopardise not only the investigation into counterfeiter Rick Masters but also their careers as federal agents. This is a fulcrum point that will determine how the rest of the drama will unravel, a point at which Vukovich hesitates in following Chance any further on his reckless course.



Only briefly glimpsed as the two agents are pacing through the station, at a moment when the pair are seen to literally make a turn, is a lifesize cardboard cutout of a traffic cop in uniform, boots, helmet and sunglasses. The figure is one of four that originally featured in a promotional poster for the 1973 film Electra Glide in Blue, the only film to be directed by James William Guercio. More than simply a connection to an earlier police film, the cutout serves as a subtle premonition of what is to come.

In the final moments of Guercio’s film the protagonist Wintergreen, played by Robert Blake, is killed suddenly and brutally. The shocking effect of this moment comes as the character – whose initial, unswerving commitment to protocol has by the film’s end shifted towards a more sympathetic outlook – gives those he has pulled over the benefit of the doubt. Chance, on the other hand, ventures ever further from legality and crosses ever more moral boundaries throughout To Live and Die in LA. Yet, in keeping with the pessimism that characterises many of Friedkin’s films, notably The Birthday Party (based on the play by Harold Pinter), The French Connection, Sorcerer, Cruising and Bug (adapted from a play by Tracy Letts), the endgame would seem to be inevitable, whatever the moves taken to reach it. Wintergreen and Chance meet the same fate.

Blurring identities: The end of To Live and Die in LA sees Vukovich paying a visit to the home of Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel), the parolee and informant with whom Chance has had a longstanding controlling, sexual relationship. Finally feeling herself free of Chance’s threats after his death, she is confronted by Vukovich, now more closely resembling Chance in appearance and with a colder persona. In this way, the surviving agent – used to taking on false identities in undercover work – seems to have absorbed the personality of his former partner. This blurring of one identity into another is familiar from many of Friedkin’s films – the demon Pazazu possessing both Regan and Father Karras in The Exorcist; the fake IDs of the fugitives in Sorcerer; the wild casting of multiple actors as both perpetrator and victims in Cruising – and in To Live and Die in LA an episode of mistaken identity results in the killing of federal agent Thomas Ling.

Such slippages and transferences of identity, suggesting a worldview based around fundamental instability, are realised in more or less enigmatic ways. The most unusual in To Live and Die in LA comes as Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) is seen greeting members of his girlfriend’s dance company backstage following a show, he is approached by an apparently male performer shown only from behind and begins to kiss him. A reverse shot and as the lovers pull away from one another, the other person is now revealed to be Masters’ girlfriend, Bianca (Debra Feuer). Despite his criminal activities, Masters is shown to exist in a world of sexual free play, aesthetic refinement and bold artistic expression – as against Chance’s rampant machismo. The moment is described in the original script for the film, in which the stage performance featuring Bianca is said to feature women dressed as men and vice versa. The decision to use a different actor briefly to achieve the effect is certainly uncommon.

But in fact, the effect is identical to one used in Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance (1970). Here identities and gender are similarly untethered within the psychosexual circle into which the criminal Chas (James Fox) is drawn, when he is forced into hiding and arrives at the home of the reclusive musician Turner (Mick Jagger). Eventually drawn far from the blunt certainties of his thuggish, former life in London, in one scene Chas is seen lying in bed with Turner resting beside him. As the figure of Turner turns over to embrace and kiss Chas, he magically transforms into Lucy (Michèle Breton), one of Turner’s two live-in women friends.

A cinema of symbiosis: There are few humorous moments in To Live and Die in LA but one is undoubted. As Chance and Vukovich take to running after two men they suspect of moving Masters’ counterfeit money, one of the men yells behind him to Vukovich: ‘Why you chasin’ me?’ to which Vukovich calls back: ‘Why you runnin’?’, only for the suspect to reply, ‘Cos you’re chasin’ me.’

The same logical loop of dialogue also features in The Laughing Policeman (1973) loosely based on a novel by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, which shares a similar plot to Friedkin’s film. The death of a police officer’s partner leads the officer – played by Walther Matthau – to pursue those responsible, with the help of a new partner (Bruce Dern), tossing out the law enforcement rulebook along the way to make their bust. If this is little more than a direct lift on Friedkin’s part, it is somewhat justified since, as critic Brad Stevens has remarked, director Stuart Rosenberg was clearly influenced by Friedkin’s The French Connection.

LA bust

laughing policeman

A sudden shot of inspiration: A longtime admirer of the films of Stanley Kubrick, Friedkin would end up providing the template for one of the older director’s most indelible images of violence. As recounted in the audiobook version of Matthew Modine’s diary of the shooting of Full Metal Jacket (1987), Kubrick enquired after a ‘really good head wound’ that might be used as a reference point for staging Private Pyle’s suicide in the bootcamp ‘head’:

Modine (narrating): ‘Stanley looks at the video of the head wound experiments. He too is disappointed. He wants something big, something that will put a period on bootcamp and send us off to Vietnam. We go for a walk and he asks me if I’ve ever seen a really good head wound in a film. I say I have.

Modine: Yeah, there’s an incredibly violent head shot in To Live and Die in LA.

I tell him how a guy walks into a room with a shotgun, sticks it in another guy’s face and shoots. The man’s face explodes into a mass of blood and bone.

Kubrick (writing in his notepad): I’ll get a print, and we’ll see how they did it.

Time: Shortly after. Stanley is excited.

Kubrick: I got the print.

Stanley agrees that the head wound in To Live and Die in LA is incredible. He wants me to see it. He takes me to a large truck and we climb into the back. Inside is a huge Steenbeck editing machine. I’ve seen a lot of them. But never in the back of a truck. Amazing. Stanley has the scene cued up and he shows me the film at the normal 24 frames a second.

Kubrick: Is this the scene?

We watch the scene and it is just as I remembered it.

Modine:  That’s the one. It’s great isn’t it?

Kubrick: Now, watch it again.

Stanley slows the speed to about five five frames a second. At this speed, everything becomes surreal. It’s the speed at which things move when something violent is happening to you. The actor enters the room and raises a shotgun into another actor’s face. We watch without sound so there isn’t the magic, the sleight of hand, the added illusion that sound can provide. There is no bang when there should have been a gunshot. And there isn’t the flash of gunpowder I was sure I’d seen. There is only a big wad of red and white mush flying from off-camera right. We stop the Steenbeck and look at each other. Stanley is smiling. We talk about how it might have been done and figure it was some special effects guys with a catapult, flinging guts into this poor actor’s face. We watch a couple of more times at speed and in slow motion.

Kubrick:  It’s really good. But I know how I can make it better. I’ll find a way to throw the blood and guts faster. And the moment it enters frame until it hits Vince’s face will only be about 2 frames of film. I’ll cut them out.

Modine: A jump cut?

Kubrick: Yeah but you won’t notice. It’s too fast, too violent. And the rifle shot will fool you into not noticing.

I’m happy that he’s happy. I’m happy that I was able to help. Working toward a common goal and all that crap. It’s cool when it works out.’

Chance shot


A filmmaker whose work has been shaped by innovators of the cinematic past, Friedkin ended up providing inspiration for the work of a visionary artist whom he admired. All the while, with To Live and Die in LA, Friedkin reignited his own aesthetic, pushing images and themes that had preoccupied him for many years into a feverish, chaotic new dimension.

These intertextual linkages, peculiar resonances and mirrorings in To Live and Die in LA form a map of receptivity, revision and feedback – an ‘intrahistory’ of cinema as worked out by films and filmmakers themselves.

On Running Wild

running wild

Running Wild by JG Ballard

Published by Fourth Estate

It says a lot about the sociological and pathological commonplaces that have emerged in my lifetime that I should not be able to suspend disbelief while reading JG Ballard’s novella Running Wild. It is not that the mass killing incident that is at the centre of the book is just too unbelievable and therefore a hindrance to immersing oneself in the story; it is only too predictable – such that, to read this story, first published in 1988, is rather to be unable to comprehend the unwillingness of the experts working on the case to attribute the crime to a group of privileged youngsters.

In the 1980s, comparable attacks would not have been as familiar to readers, with perhaps only the apparently motiveless Hungerford killings haunting recent British memory (these are referred to in Running Wild). This only reinforces the widely held view of the novelist as an eerily reliable forecaster of the heavy weather to come.

Investigating the near simultaneous murder of thirty-two adult residents of a gated community and the subsequent disappearance of their children, psychiatrist Richard Greville raises the possibility of the teenagers as perpetrators only as a brief footnote amid a litany of possible causes being bandied about by the police and media. Early readers of the book who might well have been surprised and shocked by the conclusion that Greville eventually draws, might have thought Ballard to be working in a grimly hysterical, speculative mode. For those of us who have spent adolescence and adulthood with the names ‘Columbine’ and ‘Isla Vista’ signalling a depressing shift towards deadly assaults on large numbers of people; the era of 9/11, Raoul Moat, Jihadi John, school killers, suicide bombers, countless ‘lone wolves’ – the children are all too readily pointed to.

This was my own experience reading Running Wild in 2016. To beat the characters to the punch in identifying the culprits so quickly – on page three no less – may spoil the book as far as it is intended to function as a mystery thriller. But one does not approach Ballard like one might a book by Agatha Christie. Being short on length, there would be little chance for Ballard to take us through multiple twists and turns until throwing us a curveball and closing the case. What Running Wild allows contemporary readers the opportunity to reflect more deeply on is the conditions and mentality that might contribute towards such devastating incidents.

These questions are as urgent as ever, and despite the repeated recourse to the phrase ‘unimaginable’ among TV panellists and onlookers, and the desperate incomprehension of journalists unable to find any clear – or readily admissible – causal link, recent works of philosophy and memoir have treated such horrific attacks with more insight. Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi in his book Heroes has attempted to diagnose the rise in mass shootings, bombings and suicides in the loneliness, narcissism and humiliation that have arisen in the technologically driven, ruthlessly capitalistic, internet age in western societies. More pertinent to Ballard’s focus in Running Wild, Sue Klebold, the mother of Columbine high school student Dylan Klebold has recently published an account of the infamous school shooting that saw her son and his friend Eric Harris mercilessly kill numerous classmates and staff – from the point of view of the parent who feels that they have provided a supportive, ‘normal’ middle class upbringing.

The question that torments family, community and society alike, the question that fuels newspaper editorials, pundits’ prattling, social media messages and organises the clinical business of criminal investigations is: why? In the aftermath of such events, it is understandable that the instincts of many will be to imagine a world in which such shocking and murderous acts might be erased. But while answers might not be easy to come by, or welcome, it will not do to ‘unimagine’ that which has happened, can happen, will happen again. With Running Wild, Ballard was willing to run his imagination along the harder edges of human existence and use them to sharpen his artistic vision and his social commentary in the process.

Delayed Flight – Wings (1966)

Nadezhda Petrukhina, a former Second World War pilot and now a city council deputy and head of a civil engineering school in the postwar Soviet Union, studies an exhibition board at the local museum that celebrates the achievements of her youth. The photograph of herself, radiant, decorated, ready to defend her nation, conveys a vitality and pride that has noticeably ebbed, as life has changed around Nadya.

Wings Fig 1

She recalls her wartime experiences daily, with fondness, in particular her love for her late comrade Mitya; yet the duties and manner demanded of Nadya then seem to be complicating the present. The discipline, self-reliance and duty that Nadya expects of herself and others gain her much respect but little warmth. The difficulty she finds in expressing her passions and fears – the aborted letters to old friends, the relayed telephone calls from her newlywed daughter – and the uncertainty about the way a young journalist has described her in an article, leave her isolated and lead her to retreat into her memories time and again.

Nadya is the central character of Larisa Shepitko’s film Wings (1966), an understated and rich portrait of a woman forced to reconsider her values and the place of her past in the personal and social circumstances in which she now finds herself. Set over a period of several days, it represents an interval in its protagonist’s life when, as the director herself described it, “the harmony of living is destroyed…when a deep feeling of dissatisfaction forces one to look back critically at one’s life”.

Shepitko uses recurrent, lyrical images of aircraft gliding across a clear sky, a manifestation of Nadya’s interior life. This might suggest a commonplace desire to get away from life’s troubles, to “slip the surly bonds of Earth” in a purely felt elation of flight, such as was described by the poet John Gillespie Magee Jr. But these flashes cannot simply be seen as a longed-for escape, unconstrained by care. Nadya’s past was one of proud, resolute commitment to her country in the midst of conflict. Personal responsibility, strong relationships of intimacy and trust, and solidarity are the very things of which Nadya’s recollections of wartime remind her. Her insistence to her daughter that she does not understand the words “Let someone else do it,” when encouraged to give up some of her workplace undertakings, confirms the importance that Nadya places on accounting for oneself; of not flying in the face of what duty requires, despite the threats and losses that they might bring about.

The discipline of military life, however, offer no practical solutions to Nadya’s current, unreconciled emotional life – her strained relationship with her daughter Tanya; her reluctance to commit herself to her male intimate, Pasha, the museum curator. Her effort to welcome her son-in-law into her life; her struggle to maintain discipline among her teenage students whose tempestuous, desiring natures threaten the order of her school; and her eventual offer to marry Pasha, all signal the importance that Nadya sees in grounding herself and building a family, in spite of her flights of imagination. But these desires are hindered, not helped, by the rigour and seriousness that characterises Nadya’s interactions with others, shaped by the past to which she still clings to, which the younger generation did not know.

Nadya’s memories are darkened, too, by a devastating personal loss; that of her lover Mitya, shot down in his plane, recoverable now only in the remembrance of moments shared together as young soldiers, as they wandered from the field hospital in which they were both treated during the war. Both a flight from the past and a flight towards the past bring no true consolation. The empty roads and empty corridors down which Nadya is seen walking are so many possible runways, if only they might lead her somewhere. Shepitko again finds the perfect visual schema in these scenes to convey Nadya’s inner life, while maintaining a social realism characteristic of the Soviet era’s filmmaking.

Wings Fig 2

Wings Fig 3

Nadya’s attempts to maintain her stoicism while yearning to reconnect with the world around her, are movingly suggested in the exquisite performance of actress Maya Bulgakova. Unable to articulate her feelings in a way that brings true conciliation with those closest to her, and increasingly uncertain of her authoritarian attitude towards her young students, we are left to read Nadya’s subtle physical gestures for what they may reveal to us. The way she hesitatingly throws her suit jacket off her shoulders and unbuttons her blouse as she walks out in the sunlit streets. The moment she stays stock still in deep thought on a packed tram, as the other passengers turn their heads in unison at the sight of a dog. The repeated digs of the heel of her shoe into the concrete underfoot – a lack of firm footing made literal; and still more literally, a glimpse of the weak foundations of the Soviet Union. In this ground-level close-up image is a reminder that, despite the universal subject matter of Wings, the film is set in a very specific context.

Wings Fig 6

Struggling to let her guard down, and to admit the effects of her behaviour on those around her, there are still small pleasures that Nadya allows for herself. Bulgakova skilfully discloses a confluence of feelings and transformative sensations; the tenderness and vulnerability beneath Nadya’s stern posture: a longing glance at a man cooling himself in the heat, who averts his eyes and walks away; a glass of beer and a sausage relished; an impromptu waltz with a local waitress as they remember a song of their youth; and a handful of fruit bought from a street vendor, held out to be washed in the rain. Though her public roles demand rectitude, it is clear in these moments that Nadya has so much passion still to give.

Wings Fig 7

Wings Fig 8

Wings Fig 9

Nadya does not have to look far to see that her identity as a woman need not be so deeply constrained by the dictates of the past. Nadya’s own expectations, experience and judgment are countered strongly by other, very different women around her: the schoolgirl Yermaloeva, whose dignity Nadya seeks to protect after she is hit by a male pupil, is resentful that Nadya has ruined her chances of romance; Tanya, who doesn’t feel particularly beholden to her mother, unaware of her real parentage, and wishing to live independently with her older husband; and the young journalist who grows quickly impatient when Nadya is asked to proof the copy of an interview she has agreed to give. ‘Beginning’ is a word that does not sound right to Nadya.

But it is a beginning that she eventually resolves to make, alone. Declining the comforting hand of the man to whom she has unsuccessfully offered her own hand in marriage, Nadya must find a new path to take. This moment is one of incredible poignancy, as Bulgakova keeps her hand held up over her own shoulder as she backs away from Pasha and announces that she is to turn her life around. Her manner suggests an uncertain optimism, the sense that she is not altogether convinced that she can do it.

Wings Fig 11

Wings Fig 12

There is then, eventually, a change in Nadya. While early in the film we see Nadya reprimanding an insolent student, Vostriakov, for his misbehaviour, Nadya now helps a young boy who has sneakily slipped away from his classmates and teacher during a school trip – where the children are being shown the exhibit of Nadya’s wartime achievements. The previous rules are no longer imposed. Past commitments are no longer what they were. Presumed loyalties cannot be relied upon. Vostriakov bluntly admits to Nadya when called into her office after having run away from school: “I despise you.”

Nadya cannot be free of the past, she must carry its weight. Visiting the local airfield, Nadya is irresistibly drawn to a parked aircraft, and to the possibilities of recovering a feeling long absent; of bringing the emotions long preserved in the local museum back into her life. The trainee flyers are soon pushing her, cheering Nadya along the runway.

Wings Fig 13

Then suddenly comes Nadya’s high flight, as she backs up from the hangar into which the plane is directed; this is the culmination of Nadya’s crisis, which sees her spin away from the men on the airfield and take off. It is a thrilling moment, a determination to change, to lift oneself above the pain and the uncertainty. But it too might only be in Nadya’s imagination, as suggested by the sudden cut from stationary aircraft to engines and propeller fully engaged. Is this another subtle merging of the figurative and the literal; an image of a spirit lifting itself above that which would ground it?

Wings offers, finally, a vision that expresses individual will, but Shepitko is keenly aware that we are bound – by that which came before, by the circumstances in which we find ourselves, by our inability to shape the future exactly how we would wish to. It is an admission by a clear-eyed filmmaker that while we may alter our direction of flight as events around us do, there is no changing our point of departure, and no certainty of where we shall next land.

First published by Fandor ( – 2016