These are choppy times for what used to be called, without any recourse to air-mimed quotation marks, the high arts. The UK’s new culture secretary, Sajid Javid, was in confessional mode when he made his first keynote speech in the job recently. He was, he confessed, a Star Trek fan. He loved, he confessed, the music of U2. He was proud, he confessed most sensationally of all, to have a picture of Baroness Thatcher on his office wall.
There followed a range of fashionably eclectic references to prove that he genuinely believed in multi-layered multi-culture: Bollywood, Haydn, Virginia Woolf. But we know where his sympathies lie. “I want you to make what you do accessible to everyone,” was his message to the creative community, in something of the demotic spirit that one can imagine coming from Javid’s hero, Jean-Luc Picard.
The USS Enterprise captain’s near-namesake, Jean-Luc Godard, once expressed a very different view. “One of the most striking signs of the decay of art is when we see its separate forms jumbled together,” he said, in a spirit of zero tolerance towards the kind of cultural mash-up that wins such widespread approval today.
What do we do, in all seriousness, with art that is proudly inaccessible? That wears its integrity with such determination that it defies the gaze of the casually interested onlooker? How do we justify work that goes beyond the homilies of interplanetary detente or the coruscating rock riff? Does it, indeed, need any justification at all?
In Life May Be, a new film that receives its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival next Saturday, the signs are promising, or ominous, according to point of view, right from the start. There is that portentous title. And then the opening credits, highlighting the shamelessly titled Hibrow Productions, a “free, curatorial, digital arts platform”, founded by Don Boyd, the guiding spirit behind such uncompromising works as Scum, Aria and War Requiem. The film is written and directed by two figures of immaculate cultural provenance. Mark Cousins is a critic and film-maker who made the masterly documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey, a series that was assembled with such imagination and erudition that it managed to make light of its title’s Homeric aspirations. Mania Akbari is the Iranian director who came to prominence in the work of her compatriot mentor Abbas Kiarostami, and who has herself directed a succession of terse commentaries on the plight of relationships in her native country.
The most ambitious art takes us to places we would not have imagined
Neither artist is likely to be standing next to Captain Picard on the bridge rooting guilelessly for galactic peace. Not because they don’t believe in it; but out of an innate scepticism towards the banal answering of obvious questions.
Life May Be is not a film for everyone. It plays with form, unravelling as a series of film letters between the two directors, eloquent in both their written exchanges and their quiet, ravishing images. It is poetic, allusive, demanding. It is sure to prompt, on its release, some withering responses from those who will find it wilfully self-indulgent.
Cousins started the exchange, having been asked to write an essay on Akbari, whose work he had admired. “But I try to avoid writing about people, I prefer to write to them,” he tells me in a telephone conversation, “even when they are dead.” (He has also written to Sergei Eisenstein, Orson Welles and John Ford.) In his first missive, he compared Akbari with Virginia Woolf. To his “amazement”, Akbari wrote back. It was the idea of an Iranian film critic that the two should commit their exchanges to film. At no stage, says Cousins, did the two meet (nor have they since the film’s completion). “It was so exciting, we were egging each other on, trying to stretch each other,” he says.
I tell him I worry about the future of films such as this, intensely personal, oneiric works that don’t have a hope of capturing anything but a cult following, but he brushes my concerns aside.
Right from cinema’s first days, he says, the art form was a mixture of poetry and prose, “both a window and a mirror”. Although the potential rewards in commercial cinema have become an overwhelming force for cultural conservatism, “the poetry won’t go away”. Technology means that films such as Life May Be can be made “for zero money, just out of love for cinema”. He declares himself to be optimistic. “There is such amazing stuff out there, really pushing the boundaries, from Thailand, the Philippines, Hungary, Romania … ” He stops only because we both know that he is about to run through most of the nations of the world.
Watching the film, I was intrigued by a tattoo on Cousins’s arm, consisting simply of the name “Forough”. I found out, during the course of his conversation with Akbari, that this was in tribute to the Iranian poet and film director Forough Farrokhzad, who worked in the 1950s and 1960s, and who died in a car accident at the age of 32 in 1967. I didn’t know her work and have, since seeing the film, immersed myself in her beautiful, melancholy writings.
And isn’t this the point of the most ambitious art, that it seeks to open doors and make lateral connections with the work of other artists, continuously stretching us, and taking us to places we would not have imagined? Farrokhzad wrote about the tyranny of convention in one of her most celebrated poems, “Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season”: “I will seek refuge from the mob/ of finite measured forms/ In the sensitive planes of expanse.”
That’s probably not where you will meet Sajid Javid any time soon, too busy setting Klingon poetry to Bono’s catchiest melodies. Let’s agree with him that art needs to be for everyone; but that it should, on occasion, ask us to reach up to it, rather than bending down to make it too easy. Please, make it so.
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