Sunday, May 27, 2012

L'amour en fuite - Francois Truffaut

L'amour en fuite n'est ni un chant à Paris, ni une ode à l'amour, ni  la culmination que le saga d'Antoine Doinel mérite. L'amour en fuite, est, selon Francois Truffaut, une connerie.

L'amour en fuite présente 65 flashbacks des autres films sur Antoine Doinel et une histoire pas très accomplie.  Comme fin de saga, L'amour en fuite est encore plus pathétique que Rocky V, ou Friday 13th part 18,000. Il est évident que Francois Truffaut a décidé de tourner ce film pour se faire un peu de l'argent.

En général, l'histoire d'Antoine Doinel est une métaphore du cinéma francais entre les années 50 et 80. Ce qui a commencé comme un souffle d'air frais dans le cinéma mondial (Les 400 coups) est bientôt devenu une histoire franco-francaise (Domicile Conjugal) qui a été conclu avec une histoire médiocre qui se parlait à elle même. Le cinéma francais reste dans cet état de postration et auto-complaisance depuis 30 ans, comme en témoigne le manque de succès au niveau international.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Ruleta rusa - Joaquín Sabina

Pobre Joaquín Sabina.

Pocas de las canciones que lo hicieron famoso en España envejecieron bien. En el caso de Ruleta rusa, la única canción que Sabina sigue interpretando es "Ocupen su localidad" (aquí está la interpretación que hizo con Serrat en su penúltima gira).

El resto de las canciones de Ruleta rusa, al igual que pasa con álbumes como Malas compañías, son fenomenales como documento histórico, como referencia de un Madrid y una España que ya no son: el Madrid y la España de los 80, cuando todo era euforia por descubrir un mundo nuevo y una forma de ser que estaba prohibida hasta la muerte de Franco. Así tenemos, por ejemplo, "Telespañolito", que es un excelente homenaje a Joan Manuel Serrat y a Antonio Machado, y es, al mismo tiempo, una premonición de lo que sería la tele-basura en España. "Negra noche" es una descripción de lo que fue (¿es?) la noche madrileña, y "Juana la loca" sirve para recordarnos, en una España en la que el matrimonio entre homosexuales es legal, lo difícil que era salir del clóset hace 30 años. En general, la música y los arreglos de este disco son totalmente eighties.

No sé si a Sabina le gustaría ver a sus primeros discos como un documento histórico y no como  una obra artísitca, pero poco importa: esa es la realidad. Al hacer himnos a la melancolía (ver "Peces de ciudad" o "Paisanaje", o "Menos dos alas"), y dejar de interpretar las canciones de sus primeros discos, Sabina se ha convertido en un artista que se puede leer por épocas. El hecho de que se haya quedado sin voz en los úlitmos años quizá acentúa esta percepción: el "Sabina con voz" hizo canciones optimistas y que se pueden identificar con los años 80 de España, y el "Sabina sin voz" se dedicó a grabar canciones inmortales que nos hacen reflexionar sobre el paso del tiempo y las miserias de la vida.

Sic transit gloria mundi...

Marabou Stork Nightmares - Irvine Welsh

"A very big thanks to my family for not being the one in this book."
-Irvine Welsh, in the foreword

In its review about Marabou Stork Nightmares, The Guardian says that Irvine Welsh displays an "incendiary talent" but "doesn't yet know what to do with his terrifying fatalism." I disagree. Marabou Stork Nightmares is a book where Welshian violence actually serves a purpose. This is a book about the sexual violence cycle: the main character, Roy Strang, was abused by his uncle while he was a child, turns into a hooligan, and participates in a gang rape. At the end of the book, the reader discover herself with  mixed emotions for Strang: pity, disgust, and sometimes empathy. This book also promoted the work of Zero Tolerance, a Scottish NGO aimed to fight violence against women. Marabou Stork Nightmares is not, as The Guardian implies, senseless gore and violence: it is a howl against sexual abuse.

The fact that this book talks about sexual violence so crudely and the way British justice used to deal with it 20 years ago was also a landmark. Back in 1995, when this book was published, mainstream books didn't talk about raping. Welsh broke that taboo. And Just to give you an idea of how the so-called modern and liberal Britain thought about sexual violence against women one generation ago, I quote the following excerpt of an interrogation manual published by the British Police in 1975, also quoted in Marabou Stork Nightmares:
It should be borne in mind except in cases of a very small child, the offence of rape is extremely unlikely to have been committed against a woman who does not show signs of extreme violence. If a woman walks into a police station and complains of rape with no signs of violence she must be closely interrogated. Allow her to make a statement to a policewoman and then drive a horse and a cart through it. It is always advisable if there is any doubt of the truthfulness of her allegations to call her an outright liar... watch out for the girl who is pregnant or late getting home at night; such persons are notorious for alleging rape or indecent assault. Do not give here sympathy. If she is not lying, after the interrogator has upset her by accusing her of it, then at least the truth is verified... the good interrogator is very rarely loved by his subject." (the quotation can also be found in this e-book about rape and women credibility)
In his official website, Welsh mentions that Marabou Stork Nightmares is the book he is the most pleased with, even if it will never make it to Hollywood -a movie about this book would have to be rated XXX. From a technical perspective, this book is a monologue in three states of consciousness. Making this formula work and seem credible to the reader is very complicated. The result achieved by Welsh is superb, and it has extra points for being written in a more intelligible English than Trainspotting.

One last comment: after reading this book and Trainspotting, it is clear that Edinburgh is a shithole. Scots hope it will improve when and if the referendum on Scottish independence has more yeas than nays, but I doubt it. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Burden of Responsiblity - Tony Judt

This is a book about three Frenchmen: Léon Blum, Albert Camus, and Raymond Aron. What these three men have in common is, according to Tony Judt:
 (...) their shared quality of moral (and, as it happens, physical) courage, their willingness to take a stand not against their political or intellectual opponents-everyone did that, all too often-but against their "own" side. They paid a price for this in loneliness, in reduced influence (at least for much of their life), and in their local reputation, which rarely matched the one they had gained among friends and admirers abroad (p. 20).
The example of a non-moral intellectual is, according  to Judt, Jean-Paul Sartre, that favorite of the progressive crowd. This is what Judt has to say about him:
According to Jean-Paul Sartres own version, in his notebooks from the "phony war" period, he spent the interwar years culpably unaware of what was happening around him, clinging to the apolitical pacifism born of World War I. Hence his later hyperengagement, a reaction above all to the risk of once again missing the vessel of History as it steamed past him in the night. Sartres motives may have been personal, but the pattern was widespread. Adrift and uncertain in the storms of the thirties, some intellectuals and public figures avoided or neglected to cast in their lot with the defense of democracy; some made choices, but the "wrong" ones; others made the "right" choices, but late (p. 15).
The Burden of Responsiblity is a a good introduction to the ideas of the three characters of the book. A basic knowledge of French modern history is required, though.

Scribble, Scribble, Scribble - Simon Schama

Simon Schama is a British historian at Columbia University. He writes regularly for The Guardian, The New York Times, The FT, Vogue, The New Yorker, and a bunch of other newspapers. Scribble, Scribble, Scribble is a collection of his essays written since the late nineties.

This book contains a lot of definitions are descriptions about a lot of places and persons. Here are some of them:

About Washington DC:

  • Are there any city avenues more inhumanly broad than those of Washington DC¿
  • (...) most of the young people who make up the clientele and who come to love the place aren't there because of the romance in the city, but because they need to live in an idea made architecturally visible: the idea of democratic government.
  • (...) when the cherry blossom is doing its shameless thing, and the streets of Adams Morgan are warming to the kids on the block, it 's entirely possible to see Washington as not just DC, not just ideology made visible, but as an American community; and a good one at that.
About the Korean War:
  • The Korean question is both relic and omen.
About 9/11:
  • (...) if the script of Bloody Tuesday had been offered to a studio, it would have been turned down not for the scale of the horror, but for its failure to supply identifiable villains.
About Democracy:
  • The first and greatest weapon a democracy has for its own defence is the assumption of common equity; of shared sacrifice.
About George W. Bush:
  • Prayers (like vacations) are the default mode for this president, who knows how to chuckle and bow the head in the midst of disaster but not, when it counts, how to govern or to command.
About Isaiah Berlin:
  • Though he genuinely admired American energy and forthrightness, the mistaken conviction that exhaustive iteration was the same thing as understanding depressed him.
  • [he was] that unlikely thing: a seriously happy Jew.
About Winston Churchill:
  • No leader who made jokes against himself was in much danger of turning dictator.
  • Thrice he was the impassioned advocate of reduced arms expenditure, as Tory, Liberal and Tory again, and thrice again (in the naval arms race immediately before the First World War, in the 1930s and in the Cold War) he was gung-ho for rearmament.
  • [it was] Churchill's fundamental decency, the quality that made Orwell forgive him his anti-socialism and and his sentimental imperialism. Though limited in education and social experience, Churchill nonetheless had no difficulty translating his own romantic feeling for nationality to the aspirations of other cultures. It was natural, then, for him to end up the friend of Michael Collins as well as F. E. Smith, Chaim Weizmann as well as Emir (later King) Abdullah, and to see that a two-state solution in both Ireland and Palestine was the only way to satisfy equally legitimate longings for homeland.
About Gérard Depardieu:
  • Gérard Depardieu (...) must have worn the clothes of every generation after the Black Death.
About Pablo Picasso:
  • Picasso regcognised in Rembrandt an ancestor of his own dangerous visual intelligence, which could move freely between the aesthetic convenience of the nude and the messier, sexier reality of the naked model: etched images of half-dressed women warming themselves by the stove. Nothing like that stripping truth would happen again until Manet and Degas.
About Bolognese sauce:
  • Bolognese sauce isn't fast food.
About small children:
  • Small children are nature's little conservatives. They are warmed by fulfilled expectations. They have favourites in the kitchen - and why deny them¿
About stews:
  • Stews are bringers of contentment to a discontented world. I don't know of any other kind of food, except perhaps freshly baked bread and cakes, guaranteed to fill a kitchen with such a sense of abundance. They violate all the cool modern conventions, for they demand fat and time and copious carbs - mashed potatoes or parsnips, pasta or bread  to soak up the juicy mess.

But in general, this book is mostly aimed to the the Oxbridge / Ivy League Humanities crowd. For the rest of the World population, this book is a coin-toss: some bits are interesting, but most of it contains praises to artists and historians mostly unknown, at least to me (for instance: J. H. PlumbCharlotte RamplingAnselm KieferJohn VirtueRuskin).

The book is also extremely verbose -or "eloquent", if you are British. British verbosity is something Americans love, which why they forgave Christopher Hitchens' atheism. But for the rest of the World, especially non-native English speakers, this book is a painful read.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Colores santos - Gustavo Cerati y Daniel Melero

Gran colaboración entre Gustavo Cerati y Daniel Melero. Se siente el olor a Soda Stereo (el disco fue grabado en 1992 y es considerado un preludio a Dynamo).

Todos los ambientes están cubiertos en este disco: chill out, playa, romance, nostalgia, y lo mejor: chicas malas y chicas buenas:

Cerati nunca defraudó. Pocos músicos son capaces de hacer cosas de calidad constantemente por tanto tiempo.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Santa Evita - Tomás Eloy Martínez

A diferencia de La novela de Perón, Santa Evita es un gran libro en el sentido amplio del término. Ojo: Al igual que La Novela de Perón, Santa Evita también peca de verboso, pero qué le vamos a hacer: Tomás Eloy Martínez es argentino; el parlar es algo que llevaba en la sangre.

Me parece que la diferencia entre los dos libros está en dos cosas: en primer lugar, la historia del cadáver de Evita se presta mejor a la idea de un thriller que la historia de un dictador (o caudillo, o líder, según la sensibilidad polítca del momento) a punto de regresar a casa. Al contar las memorias de Perón La novela de Perón aspira, cuando mucho, a ser la versión argentinizada de El Otoño del Patriarca. Y, al añadir un componente periodístico y de análisis psicológico de los textos escritos por el propio Perón, el libro es un engrudo a medio hacer.

La segunda razón es que, al admitir su dificultad para escribir este libro apenas en el capítulo 3, Martínez se vuelve, interesantemente, en un personaje más de la trama. En general, hay tres tramas que el lector puede seguir: en primer lugar, la de la vida de Evita, contada a través de flashbacks y de las entrevistas (no sabemos si ficticias o reales) de Martínez con una serie de personajes; la del cadáver de Evita, digno de un thriller policiaco de primer nivel; y la del propio Martínez intentando descifrar qué fue lo que pasó con el cadáver entre 1955, cuando Evita murió, y 1971, cuando le fue regresado a Perón. Martínez organiza así un arriesgado juego de espejos en el que recuerda constantemente al lector que la verdad es esquiva. Martínez recuerda al lector que todos sus testigos son partes interesadas, por lo que la trama del libro puede ser una absoluta patraña, pero en realidad eso sólo hace que el lector se vuelva también un personaje de la trama al intentar descubrir quién dice la verdad.

En una entrada publicada por, que presenta fragmentos de un final alternativo al libro, se incluye también partes de una entrevista con Martínez, quien considera que Evita fue el primer desaparecido político por las dictaduras militares que asolaron a Argentina. Ciertamente, el objetivo de los militares era desaparecer el cadáver de Evita, pero hay una diferencia entre lo que querían hacer con ella y lo que hicieron las juntas a partir de finales de los sesenta con los activistas políticos: a Evita se le quería dar "cristiana sepultura"; a los militantes se les arrojó al mar con pesos de concreto o se les metió en sacos con cal viva. Desde un punto de vista práctico, lo mejor que se puede hacer con un icono es tirarlo al mar, y si no creen, pregúntenle a los gringos por bin Laden. El hecho de que los militares se hayan tomado tantas molestias y hayan corrido tantos riesgos con el cadáver de Evita habla de cierto sentido del honor por parte de la milicia que se fue perdiendo conforme los miembros más jóvenes de la milicia fueron subiendo en rango y también a medida que el ambiente político en Argentina se fue deteriorando y polarizando.

Para cerrar:

"Cuando llega el momento de votar, los nietos piensan en Evita. Aunque algunos digan que los sucesores de Perón han saqueado a la Argentina que Perón mismo los traicionó antes de morir, de todos modos entregarán sus votos en el altar de los sacrificios. Porque me lo pidió el abuelo antes de morir. Porque el ajuar de mi madre fue un regalo de Evita. Uno busca, lleno de esperanzas, el camino que los sueños prometieron a sus ansias."

Por suerte, siempre tendremos a Mozart para que nos levante el ánimo:

Saturday, May 12, 2012

La novela de Perón - Tomás Eloy Martínez

La novela de Perón es recomendada como una de las mejores fuentes para entender a la Argentina del siglo XX. Eso nada más demuestra la mediocridad de los historiadores argentinos y latinoamericanos, inmersos en sus fútiles debates teóricos y en las redes de la microhistoria, que es una excelente forma de mamar del presupuesto pero una pésima forma de hacer investigación de auténtica calidad.

A medio camino entre periodismo, biografía, investigación científica, análisis de las Memorias del propio Perón, narrativa, y cuento, La novela de Perón no termina de cuajar. Para acabar, se requiere conocimiento previo de Historia argentina para realmente entender lo que está pasando.

Si la gente respeta este trabajo es porque su autor, Tomás Eloy Martínez, tuvo la fortuna de escribirlo poco después del boom latinoamericano; es decir, cuando la literatura latinoamericana gozaba de fama y prestigio mundial, y todavía no había la suficiente masa crítica de escritores como para hacer una selección rigurosa.

A ratos entretenida, y a veces cansina, La novela de Perón es un buen libro para quien sabe de antemano lo que va a encontrar. Néofitos absténganse o prepárense leyendo biografías hechas por autores anglosajones.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Ahí vamos - Gustavo Cerati

Penúltimo disco de la carrera de Gustavo Cerati como solista. Como siempre, las críticas fueron abrumadoramente positivas y el éxito comercial estuvo fuera de toda discusión.

Cerati era, en verdad, 1 entre 1000.

A Moveable Feast - Ernest Hemingway

"(...) this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy."

Woody Allen has released a movie on Ernest Hemingway's Paris. I haven't seen the movie, so I don't know until what extent the movie is faithful to the experience of Hemingway in Paris. It probably isn't. Beyond romanticism, life in Paris was hard for Hemingway and his first wife Hadley. A sweetened version of Paris'  bohème in the 1920s has more chances to be a commercial success than a story about poverty, Hemingway's addiction to gambling, and the breakup of his first marriage.

The true story, at least from Hemingway's perspective, is available in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway's posthumous book. This is a great book for three audiences:

Hemingway's groupies (no need to elaborate on this, since groupies usually know more and better than anybody else).

Paris' groupies. There are a lot of kinds of Paris groupies: the ones who know a lot about the city, and the ones who pretend. Both groups will find the book very interesting. Did you know, for instance, that up until the mid 1920s there were goatherds in the nowadays prestigious and chic Quartier Latin¿ Oh, yes, there were:
"The goatherd came blowing his pipes and a woman who lived on the floor above us came out onto the sidewalk with a big pot. The goatherd chose one of the heavy-bagged, black milk-goats and milked her into the pot while his dog pushed the others onto the sidewalk. The goats looked around, turning their necks like sight-seers. The goatherd took the money from the woman and thanked her and went on up the street piping and the dog herded the goats on ahead, their horns bobbing. I went back to writing and the woman came up the stairs with the goat milk. She wore her felt-soled cleaning shoes and I only heard her breathing as she stopped on the stairs outside our door and then the shutting of her door. She was the only customer for goat milk in our building. (taken from  'A False Spring')"
American literature majors. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Hemingway... all of them were there at the same time. If you want to know how they got along with each other, this is the place to start.

There is a fourth audience for this book: people who want to learn how to write professionally. The latest edition of A Moveable Feast contains a lot of material rejected by Hemingway, one of which is a text called "On Writing in the First Person", highly recommended.

But probably the value of this book lies in its appeal to readers that don't belong to any constituency. Hemingway deals with two topics in a very elegant way: one is poverty. Hemingway shows that he was basically starving without complaining, which is very hard to say or write about:
"I learned to understand Cézanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry. I used to wonder if he were hungry too when he painted; but I thought it was possibly only that he had forgotten to eat. (taken from 'Hunger Was Good Discipline')"
 The second one is the breakup of his first marriage. Biographers argue that Hemingway's first divorce represented the beginning of a long depression and decay. The following paragraph suggests there is some reason to believe so:
"I loved her and I loved no one else and we had a lovely magic time while we were alone. I worked well and we made great trips, and it wasn't until  we were out of the mountains in late spring, and back in Paris that the other thing started again. Remorse was a fine good thing and with a little luck and if I'd been a better man it might have saved me for something worse probably instead of being my true and constant companion for the next three years. (taken from 'The Pilot Fish and the Rich')

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Pearl - John Steinbeck

"Kino had found the Pearl of the World."

A couple of months ago, I wrote about The Pearl, adaptation by Alfredo Zacarias of the book written by John Steinbeck. The movie is probably the worst movie I have ever seen.

The book is not terrible, but is quite unremarkable, which is probably why it is a required in most American high schools. This is the plot: Kino, a Mexican-Indian pearl diver finds a huge pearl. He tries to sell it to finance a wedding with his wife, a rifle to hunt, a bigger boat, and education for his child. But suddenly, all the town becomes jealous and tries to steal the pearl from him, so Kino ends up killing four people, beating his wife, and getting hurt. His son dies at the end of the story.

The way Steinbeck tells the story makes the diver look like a greedy investment banker.

The morale of the story is: be happy to be poor. If, by any chance, you find anything that can help you improve your life, just throw it to your sea.

Gringos in Mexico...

Thursday, May 3, 2012

13 Bankers - Simon Johnson and James Kwak

"Never before has so much taxpayer money been dedicated to save an industry from the consequences of its own mistakes. In the ultimate irony, it went to an industry that had insisted for decades that it had no use for the government and would be better off regulating itself--and it was overseen by a group of policymakers who agreed that government should play little role in the financial sector."

13 Bankers is one more book of the post-2007 financial crisis cohort. This is, along with This Time is Different, by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Roggoff, the "must-have" book on financial crises. The authors of 13 Bankers are Simon Johnson, former Chief Economist at the IMF, and James Kwak, former consultant at McKenzie, and both of them are co-authors of the blog The Baseline Scenario, created in September 2008 with the objective of explaining what the mess was all about. The Baseline Scenario is now one of the most widely read blogs on economics in the World.

With such a background, one might think that the authors would blame the crisis on supply-side explanations, but that is far from being the case. The main argument of the book is that banks are too large and have a tremendous leverage over Washington, in addition to having imposed the ideology that markets are self-regulating across the political spectrum. All this has resulted in a lack of effective regulation which, added to financial institutions whose failure brings the economy to its knees, has resulted in the worst crisis since the Great Depression. The solution to prevent future crises is, according to the authors, to break up banks that are considered "too big to fail" and cap and weight the size of their assets. The limit for a retail banking institution would be 4% and that for an investment bank would be 2.5% of US GDP (to give you an idea, the assets of Bank of America are equivalent to 17% of US GDP today). Comparing the policy recommendations of this book with those presented by Hank Paulson is striking: while Simon Johnson and James Kwak are under no illusion about the effectiveness of financial regulation, Paulson remains a convinced proponent of a market-based financial system with tougher rules.

The authors argue, rather successfully, that the crisis of 2008 is similar to the ones originated in emerging markets in the 1980s and 1990s, and which the United States tried to solve from the outside. Most of my American colleagues get offended when they read this. They even get offended when I refer to the 2007-08 financial collapse as "the Big Mac Crisis", just like the refer to 1994-Mexico as the Tequila Crisis, 1998-Brazil as the Samba Crisis, 1998-Russia as the Vodka Crisis, and so on. The reality, in any case, is that the quality of governance in the United States has decreased considerably over the last 30 years, basically since Reagan said that the government is the source of all problems in the World: reaching deals in Congress is harder, the budget of regulating agencies gets cut regularly in real terms, and so on.

The authors also argue, rightly, that the decision to break down the banks, or in fact any decision aimed to prevent a financial crisis, is political. Technocrats can only take you too far: regulations affect the balance of power between government and market participants, which has political implications. The authors say it better than I will ever be able to do it:
"while occasional libertarian academics and politicians have favored deregulation in its pure form, real companies see regulatory or deregulatory policies simply as a way to improve their market position or profit-making potential." 
Therefore the calculation to take any given policy measure must be taken using political parameters into account. Recognizing that this is Marxism would have made this book unsellable in the United States; but that's what it is: Marx's ideology applied to the rescue of markets.

At the time of its release, the media campaign around 13 Bankers was tremendous: building on the previous success of their blog, the authors created a website for the book where they uploaded all the reviews and material related to it. Kwak even authored an article for the Huffington Post that summarizes the book in one page (less than this post) and 4 charts!

As I said, this is one of the two books about the 2007-08 financial crisis that a person must have. The first added value of this book is that it collects a lot of material (press, other books, academic journals) around the subject; the second is that it makes complicated terms and definitions easy to understand (disclosure: the NYT agrees with this statement up to an extent, while the San Francisco Chronicle thinks that 13 Bankers is actually a tough read). Last but not least, 13 Bankers brings the Jeffersonian anti-finance populism back to the political arena.

Malas compañías - Joaquín Sabina

Malas compañías es el segundo disco de Joaquín Sabina. Coincido con este blog que señala que, salvo "Calle Melancolía", ninguna de las canciones del disco envejeció bien: todas reflejan el ambiente festivo, eufórico y apestoso a champán y cocaína del Madrid de La Movida. En el contexto actual, en el que España se está cayendo a pedazos, este disco se antoja, además de viejo, obsoleto.

Para los escuchas jóvenes que descubrieron a Sabina en los últimos 10 años, Malas compañías es, además raro: el cantante tiene voz y puede cantar.