Ken Loach turns down an award

The director shows solidarity with film festival workers.

Some decisions hit hard, tearing down the wall of polite hypocrisy behind which the film community often hide. Ken Loach’s decision to turn down an award from the Turin Film Festival in solidarity with outsourced festival workers made for encouraging news. It appears that his political convictions are not confined to celluloid; lights can sometimes be lit off the set. When economic recession hits hard, political opportunism becomes a palatable option, but not for Ken Loach it seems. In the press statement issued to the Turin Film Festival, the director of Bread and Roses said that to "accept the Award and make a few critical comments would be weak and hypocritical. We cannot say one thing on screen and betray that in our actions”.

The dispute, which had been brewing for a while, came to public attention on the eve of the festival when representatives of a grassroots union started picketing the main festival venue. Slogans such as “shame on you!” and “these are the people who make culture”, sarcastically referring to the festival organisers, "welcomed" Turin's centre-left mayor, Piero Fassino. The leaflets union organisers and activists handed out read, “I love you Ken”, and explained the dispute that brought them on the streets and led Loach to decline his award. According to the union, workers’ rights have been progressively eroded by outsourcing and temporary contracts that prevent the amelioration of working conditions. The Museum of Cinema in Turin, which is in charge of the film festival, has outsourced cleaning and security services for the past 12 years to a company called Coop Rear. “A wage cut was followed by allegations of intimidation and harassment. A number of people have been dismissed, Loach’s statement read. “The fact that it is happening throughout Europe does not make it acceptable." The director had been contacted directly by union representatives prior to his arrival in Turin for the 30th edition of the festival. Romolo Marcella, regional secretary of the USB (Confederation of Grassroots Unions), said that they got in touch with Loach back in August with documents detailing their claims. Without being urged to do so by the union, Loach made his decision not to pick up the award official early last week.

The festival organisers claimed that Loach was ill-informed and that they cannot be held responsible, neither directly nor indirectly, for the behaviour and employment practices of a third party (in this case, Coop Rear). Alberto Barbera, the president of the Museum of Cinema as well as the Venice Film Festival's new artistic director, added that the festival is renowned for its commitment to the fair and just treatment of workers. According to Italian press reports, Coop Rear, whose president is also a local town councillor, has decided to take legal action against the Loach. The festival organisers have retaliated by withdrawing Loach’s latest film, The Angels Share, which was due to be screened at the festival later this week. That the whole affaire took place in Turin is significant since the northern industrial city has witnessed in the past massive industrial action and widespread militancy. The festival itself, widely regarded as a left-wing event, has in the past had sections of its programme dedicated to labour-related issues. One of its prizes, the Cipputi award, which Loach was given in 1998, takes its name from a blue-collar character created by the celebrated Italian cartoonist, Altan.

Turin has invested heavily in culture as its industrial infrastructure withered. Home to the main FIAT car manufacturing plant and formerly home to a large working-class population, Turin is also Italy’s main literary centre. TFF artistic director, the filmmaker Gianni Amelio, after having put Loach's decision to renounce the award down to his temperament, stated his respect for the director's choice while at the same time deeming it inappropriate. As the Italian cultural establishment walks the tightrope of diplomacy, Loach has decided to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who can barely afford to buy a festival ticket.

Director Ken Loach (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era