According to the hospital, Nete’s father has three weeks or so to live. Nete insists he leaves his flat and comes to live out his life with her – although they don’t get on – her husband Kristian and their daughter Kathrine in their crowded flat.
If this sounds grim, it isn’t. Okay is a beautifully acted drama of family relationships with nice ironies and comic touches. Nete’s father gives up his flat and moves in, but doesn’t die. He seems to get stronger by the day, which leads to tensions – and unexpected comedy. Caustic, when Nete complains to the doctor that he got it wrong and Kristian grouses about three weeks stretching out to eight. And touching, when the old man, a retired carpenter, visits the undertaker and chooses a beautifully crafted coffin in his favourite oak.
Paprika Steen is riveting as the peppery Nete. She’s tough-minded, witty and perceptive about others, but not about herself. She’s controlling, and dominates Kristian, a very wifely husband who works part-time, cooks – very well – and rarely asserts himself. Nete is determined to reconcile her gay brother Martin with their father, whom he’s not spoken to for eight years. Steen brilliantly shows how her inflexibility is the flipside of vulnerability.
You’ll rarely see a film with such well-defined characters and relationships, in even the smallest roles. The hospital doctor, for example, struggling with his natural decency and reticence when breaking the news of imminent death. And Martin’s lesbian friend coping with erupting emotions during pregnancy. Okay is a fine ensemble film that shows serious doesn’t have to mean heavy.
Singing toads, bottomless holes and haunted shops may not be typical topics for the average country duo, but then The Handsome Family – now living in New Mexico – are very far from being average. It’s part of their unique charm. Singing Bones is the sixth album from basso profundo singer Brett Sparks and his darkly talented lyricist wife, Rennie. Like previous work, its songs focus on the undertow of life. If this is because, as they readily admit, country songs are famously miserable, it yields their songs a rich vein of humour. Death is something that has a siren-like lure. A soldier drifts into the afterlife under a peach tree; on the gorgeously mariachi-tinged ‘Far From Any Road’ a lost traveller doesn’t die so much as merge with the starlit night; and on ‘Song of a Hundred Toads’ the creatures sing to a man abandoned in the mountains.
In fact, one of the striking features of Singing Bones, is that the music gets prettier as the subject matter gets scarier. It takes several listens to penetrate the dreaminess of ‘Sleepy’ to its theme of alien abduction.
The Handsomes’ modern fairytales occupy a strain of music that has a direct lineage to folk song and ghost stories. More pertinently, the pair have a way of pinpointing, with unerring accuracy, the simple poignant moments in life: personal and global apocalypses are all part of the parcel.
‘The love song,’ writes Nick Cave, and he should know, ‘is the noise of sorrow itself.’ The quote comes from a lecture in which he tackles the saudade, or deep longing, that infuses fado with its bitter sweetness. Cave’s words offer a pithy summation of this distinctive popular genre, devoted to both love and, yes, the concomitant suffering that follows in its wake.
It’s something to hold in mind when listening to Fado Curvo. Its sweetness is deceptive or, if you prefer, transitory. Mariza – the single name signifies that this young Portuguese woman has already achieved diva status – is a singer who’s busy reinventing fado for new audiences. Her 2001 debut, Fado Em Mim, presented a stripped-down sound and Fado Curvo is an album that builds on this, its unhurried style adding a subtle drama to her voice.
In this, Mariza is aided by the talents of keyboard player Carlos Maria Trindade from Madredeus and pianist Tiago Machado. Other arrangements – simple strings, a little guitar – are employed, but their unobtrusive manner only heightens the intimacy of the songs themselves. It’s a technique that works perfectly on ‘O Deserto’ – which has an almost poetic reach – before twisting itself to the dance-like nature of the album’s title track. But Fado Curvo works best in its most unadorned moments: when Mariza sounds as if she’s singing to herself, she captures the sound of, yes, sorrow itself.
Vive La Revolution
Mark Steel is probably best known for his BBC radio programmes ‘The Mark Steel Lectures’ in which he dismantles what we think we know about major figures such as Napoleon, Marx or Da Vinci. Using satire and topical comparisons, he constructs an alternative view of historical events which manages to be both funny and left-wing.
In Vive La Revolution, his racy account of French history from the storming of the Bastille to the rise of Napoleon, he has expanded this approach to book length in an attempt to rescue the French Revolution from hostile academics and reactionary opponents who have portrayed the uprising as nothing but chaos and carnage. For Steel, the Revolution was an affirmation of human possibilities; a movement which should continue to inspire and enthuse us. All the revolt lacked was better jokes, which Steel sets about rectifying!
In a refreshingly straightforward approach, Steel traces the course of the Revolution through individual lives; both the well-known figures and the ordinary citizens. Funny and acerbic pen portraits of Robespierre, Danton, Marat and Tom Paine are interspersed with passages of broadbrush social history which show how the Revolution turned the whole world order on its head.
It has to be said that, for an account of the French Revolution, this is a very British-centred book in which the events described are constantly cross-referenced with contemporary British culture, politics and society. This, together with Steel’s relentlessly ‘blokeish’ style would rapidly become wearisome were his observations and anecdotes not so accurate, astute and, above all, hilariously funny.
We are living in the ‘liquid modern’ age and it’s wreaking havoc on our ability to love ourselves, our partners and our neighbours, according to sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. In his latest book, Liquid Love: on the frailty of human bonds, Bauman paints a picture of a world in which our relationships are becoming as ‘flexible’ as our jobs, producing ever-increasing levels of insecurity. Encouraged to keep our options open, just in case a new and better opportunity comes our way, we have begun to fear the very things we crave most – profound love and humane relations with the people around us. ‘In lasting commitment, liquid modern reason spies out oppression; in durable engagement, it sees incapacitating dependency,’ writes Bauman.
As priority is given to ‘networks’ between people that can be easily formed and just as easily dismantled – often involving little or no face-to-face contact – we are no longer developing the skills necessary to sustain long-term bonds. It is not just our love lives and family ties that are suffering, but our capacity to treat neighbours and strangers humanely. Examining the crises in immigration policy currently facing several European Union states, Bauman argues that modern communications, frequent business travel and the financial resources to move home – or even country – at the drop of a hat make it all too easy for members of the wired, globe-trotting élite to ignore the way society’s rising fears are unloaded on to the backs of refugees. Liquid Love is bleak, yet its thoughtful examination of our predicament is invigorating – like a cold shower.
Reclaim The State
Hilary Wainwright has been a stalwart of the alternative movement since she emerged as one of the leading figures in ‘Beyond the Fragments’, an attempt in the 1970s to unite the disparate elements of Left, feminist and ecological thinking. This ecumenical approach has always been one Wainwright has favoured and Red Pepper, the magazine she edits, is a loud voice in favour of internationalism and the global justice movement. In Reclaim The State she has set out to discover how the widespread protests against globalization have translated into positive action and how community empowerment is working at a grassroots level. Her search takes her from Newcastle-upon-Tyne to Doha and Luzon to Seattle where she finds numerous ambitious attempts to resist centralization and privatization and set up genuinely functioning local democracy. In the keynote section of the book Wainwright investigates the ‘participatory budgeting’ schemes set up in Brazil by the Workers Party, to give local people control over the decisions which affect their lives.
There are starrier names and flashier writers in the anti-globalization camp than Hilary Wainwright, but there are few with her track record of commitment to original and innovative thinking. Reclaim The State challenges the lie that neoliberalism, privatization and deregulation are the only options. Those who say that protesters against capitalism can only say ‘no’ should read this book. It provides solid and practical evidence of the incremental ways in which ordinary people are taking back the levers of power from corrupt élites bankrupt of both ideas and trust.
In her foreword to this excellent guide to Calcutta, Anita Desai writes of the city as a place where one confronts, ‘the face of reality at its most physical and ferocious’. Condemned as the ‘graveyard of the British Empire’, dubbed ‘City of Dreadful Night’ by Kipling, and long regarded as ungovernable and presenting myriad intractable problems, Calcutta in its three centuries of existence has stood as a paradigm of urban misery.
To Krishna Dutta, this stereotypical view of Calcutta (which was renamed Kolkata in 2001) is both infuriating and untrue and she has set out to redress the balance a little and explain the relevance and importance to modern India of this ‘city of extremes’.
Dutta begins her book with an historical overview of how Calcutta, founded on the banks of the Hugli River by the East India Company in 1690, grew to become the capital of colonial India and the second city of the British Empire. She draws a vivid portrait of a city which nurtured artistic talents as diverse as Rabindranath Tagore and the filmmaker Satyajit Ray and she is justifiably harsh on those Westerners – Claude Leví-Strauss and Günter Grass for example – who come to Calcutta and view the city through a prism of preformed prejudice.
This is an admirable and in-depth guide to a city rich in traditions and contradictions; as vibrant and quirky as the place it celebrates, the book is a first-rate primer for those who wish to explore both Calcutta’s history and its modern identity.
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