Tsotsi – Light & Shade

What’s real? It’s true post-modern question, and your answer tells you a great deal about who you are and where you are, if you let it. Apply to Tsotsi, for instance, the South African winner of the 2006 Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. It tells the story of the title character, a young Johannesburg gang leader, accustomed the casual brutality whose sense of self gradually unravels as he kills a man, hits a colleague, humiliates a crippled beggar and hijacks a car all in the space of one night. The deal-breaker for him is his discovery of a baby in the back seat of the car he had hijacked. He’s shot the baby’s mother in the stomach and driven off. What’s he to do? He tries to take the baby under his care, appropriating the help of a nearby widowed mother of another young baby. Whether you consider what happens next to be real or plausible, is the heart of your reaction to the film.

We may feel his journey to redemption is an obvious one, but that does the power of this a disservice. If this was an American or British film we’d scoff at it; in South Africa, this is a story people need to read, hear and believe. For me and my tradition, gangsters are an interesting fictional construct based on a reality I am only dimly aware of. Violence is far more daily occurrence for a South African – as a country, as a people need to believe that the Tsotsis of their country can do this. Is this believable? My South African friends say yes – the commonplace nature of gang life making it ironically easier for a reformed man to blend into ‘safer’ society more easily.

This is a stark and simple film, with little that’s flashy or innovative. There is none of City Of God‘s kinetic energy, for example. In place, is beautiful photography capturing the beauty, light and shade of the city; simple and direct performances and a refreshingly measured story-telling, which brilliantly allows the the life of the characters to shine through. This, to an outsider to the country (one who lives in London’s ‘Little Jo’burg’) feels and smells like real life.

It’s not easy viewing; neither is it’s beauty of the pretty sort – it’s more honest than that. Instead it has something deeper and more profound, laced as it is with hope’s different shades.

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Forrest Gump – You Never Know What’s coming

This is just a quick thought. Inspire by Benjamin Button, which I’ve seen described as Forrest Gump for people who think they’re bright, I decided to revisit the latter. I hadn’t seen it since the first cinema release, when I took against it because it wasn’t Pulp Fiction or Shawshank Redemption. I still adore the prison movie: I haven’t seen Tarantino’s in a while, but I suspect I admire it as much but no longer feel warm towards it.

Anyway, I found it funny and charming in a way that would have shocked my student self. I’m over my Hanks-phobia, and Gary Sinise was great.

Lesson: always revisit; the joy is magnified.

U2 – No Lines, No Limits

(This is the first of the  ‘other stuff’. Occasionally I’ll branch out from films to look at something else that has got my attention. If it’s not your interest, stick with me. Back to films soon).

Let’s be clear, this is only a first impression. I’ll know more when I’ve lived with this – I think you only really grasp an album when you’ve lived with it, breathed it, let it soundtrack the stuff of life. Here, however, are a few impressions.

I come at this as an unabashed fan, but not one who doesn’t occasionally feel embarrassed by the band. All I can say, though, is that they keep resurfacing in my life. U2’s music has journeyed with me through most of the major turning points of my life. My first major memory is my sister buying Unforgettable Fire on vinyl and playing it to death. I liked them then, loved Joshua Tree but fell head over heels with Achtung Baby. That just grew and grew. It fascinated me all the more, as a Christian at university, developing my own faith, while they discovered Ecclesiastes. It always confused me why some Christians felt so let down by this masterpiece, when all I thought is that they had really broken through to something special. Through this, 4 concerts (5 if you include the BBC balcony in London) – at least one of them being one of the finest pieces of performance art you’re likely to see (Zoo TV), the other being an evening of profound depth (Elevation tour in London, as Bono’s father was dying and I experienced the beginnings of what I now know to be depression and panic attacks).

So to No Line On The Horizon. One word? Not enough, but I’ll stick with ‘spacious’. Their music was always best heard under an open sky with 60,000 others, but as Bono has said they needed to record this album remembering that most would listen to on earphones as they walked. So it was. On the first two listens, I was intrigued. On the ipod, something else happened. Reviewers had said ‘Moment of Surrender’ was a standout, one of their greatest, but until then I didn’t really get it.  In the space between my head? Extraordinary. Unlike anything they’ve done before, but also strangely reminiscent. Subtle, deep and beautiful. Quite stunning, and not a little strange that one song (and in time the whole album) makes that whole private, intimate space so open. I love ‘Breathe’ too, a stream of consciousness, feverish rambling, as a (possibly) holy man wonders through an urban nightmare straight out of CNN’s breaking-news. The closing ‘Cedars Of Lebanon’ is wondrous, a thing of sleepy, dirty, beauty, quite the opposite of what you expect of a U2 song with that title.

The whole album feels for now like Unforgettable Fire’s dark, surreal cousin. It probably will turn out to be one of their finest, but really it’s too soon for that sort of judgement. It is, though, a work of genuine depth and searching. I’m struck by so many lines, but there’s little point in listing them now. I need to live with this, grasp it and appropriate it – upcoming holiday is well-timed.

For now, it is enough to be sure of simply this: there is good sense in Bono’s insistence that they won’t go anywhere soon.