Books

Gail Jones' 'Five Bells' Is a Slow, Satisfying Meditation on Memory and Moving Forward

Five Bells makes beautiful work of showing how our preoccupations with our pasts can usurp the place of the meaning that is inherent to new experiences.


Five Bells

Publisher: Picador
Length: 209 pages
Author: Gail Jones
Price: $15.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2012-02
Amazon

At the beginning of Five Bells, the four main characters separately wander Sydney’s Circular Quay and contemplate the famous opera house. To each character, the opera house symbolizes something different: to Ellie, who is there to meet her childhood lover, James, the building seems to represent the passive bowing of the present to the future, the flow of music and water; to James, it is white teeth that remind him of a shark’s jaw he saw in a museum as a child; to Pei Xing, a survivor of China’s Cultural Revolution, it is harmony itself; and to Catherine, it is both a bowl of white roses just past full-bloom, and her own body.

Each of these characters is obsessed with some element of his or her past, and the way they envision the opera house foreshadows how they will cope with “waking into the visionary present.” Though it is thinly plotted, Five Bells makes beautiful work of showing how our preoccupations with our pasts can usurp the place of the meaning inherent to new experiences. The characters are looking for something new without realizing that nothing can ever really be new.

Though Ellie, James, Pei Xing, and Catherine are each held captive by different elements of their pasts, they seize on the same elements of symbolism throughout, as containers for their shared desires. Because of something they feel was missing from their earlier lives, they seek both acceptance and a sense of finally being here and now or, as Jones repeatedly refers to it, here-now.

Ellie cannot forget the sexual relationship she had with James when they were just 14, and her sense of having failed him when he needed her. James holds himself responsible for the death of a child and seems to hope that a reunion with Ellie will stand in for the forgiveness he seeks. Pei Xing, as a young woman, was imprisoned, beaten, and put to hard labor during the Cultural Revolution, and is forced to reconcile her past and present when her former prison guard surfaces and begs forgiveness. Catherine, the least compelling of the four, struggles with memories of her dead brother, her disappointments with the field of journalism, and her break with her Irish Catholic family. The shared symbolism demonstrates the sense of belonging each character desires, when it crops up in various forms of the image of the Madonna and Christ, or the bodies of their past lovers, or music as a means of temporarily anchoring oneself in the present moment.

This flow of symbolism becomes a plot thread in itself, one which I found more compelling than the when/where/why of what physically takes place in the story. Though Jones makes frequent reference to Russian writers (Gogol, Pasternak), her most obvious literary cousin is Virginia Woolf, who also dealt in metaphors of time and water, and who relegated plot to secondary status in order to give stream of consciousness and internal development leeway.

The material itself, then, because it is the stuff of thought and not always of action, draws comparison to time and water whether the author chooses to articulate the similarity or not. In the hands of a less talented writer, the book might become as shapeless as water itself. But Jones keeps all the events of the story to one day, so that we sense a build toward resolution even as we’re unable to predict what form that resolution might take.

The book’s weakness is the aforementioned character, Catherine, whose troubles are a bit too loosely gathered together. James and Ellie have an inherent element of interest because they are the only characters who interact with one another for any length of time, and because their connection is romantic in nature. Pei Xing’s story is the most naturally compelling, because of its historical context and the truly tragic nature of her suffering. But Catherine remained vague and strangely inaccessible to me, as she seems to experience all the longing the other characters do without as exact a locus for her obsession.

Five Bells is not a book for everyone, and that’s a good thing. It was not written to appeal to a broad audience, it was not written to titillate, and it does not even seem calculated to touch the reader on a very deep emotional level. The effect of its poetic prose is, ironically, to stimulate the reader intellectually. It does one thing, and it does it very well: it explores the feeling we have of never being quite present, and whether it is possible to move forward by moving backwards. It is precise and effective, and deserves to be taken for what it is, for us to read it meditatively, not looking ahead to guess what will happen, but finding where it resonates with us here and now.

6

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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