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Thursday, 31 October 2013

Öd und leer das Meer

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
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31 October

* Contains spoilers *



89 = S : 15 / A : 16 / C : 16 / M : 10 / P : 14 / F : 16


A rating and review of Nosferatu (1922)


S = script

A = acting

C = cinematography

M = music

P = pacing

F = feel

Mid-point of scale (all scores out of 17) = 9






In acknowledgement of the fine live accompaniment of Neil Brand (@NeilKBrand)

At the end of to-night’s screening, I quickly read through the music credits, some by Hans Erdmann, that had been used to try to recreate his lost score for Nosferatu (1922) : at the end, one of the (excessively ?) summery themes that had been present at the start recurs as Hutter arrives back and kisses Ellen. Not a mood that lasts, although it appeared that Hutter had raced Count Orlok’s ship to Wisborg to protect her from him, which he then (save merely being there) does not do, even when she points out Orlok’s face at the window and says that he is there night after night – or seems powerless to do.

Continuing with the music, for the moment, one piece, a frivolous one (popularly given an accompaniment in the tapping of typewriter keys ?), is used when the letter from Hutter reaches home, seemed quite out of place for anyone with a familiarity with the reception of popular classical music to use. It was then that I realized with certainty that various compositions had been compiled, for the sub-Brahmsian summery and romantic music might have been written for this film, set in 1838.

Some instruments, maybe inevitably, came to the fore in the scoring, such as the xylophone, bass-drum, double-bass, and even a bass clarinet, as did a ground-bass, a creepy series of rising intervals, and chiming effects. All in all, though the film has to have an accompaniment, I felt that Neil Brand’s live playing at Cambridge Film Festival felt as though it did far more with far less :

We are several times shown, in an intertitle, the warning not to let the shadow of Nosferatu be cast upon one, and this score, at times, felt as though it were not just casting a shadow on the film, but overpowering it. The beauty of what Brand improvised – to continue this theme of choking – is that it allowed the film space to breathe, did not overlay the visual element with too much heavy meaning.

There is much meaning to be had here, with beautiful images of The Empusa at sea, and of the waves meeting the sea at Wisborg, where (amidst the iron memorials) Ellen likes to be, looking out at the water : for sheer beauty of the cinematography, these shots deserve to be relished.

Paper communications between Knock and Orlov in alchemical, magical symbols – such as one might get by putting a page of plain text in the font of that name – are but part of what is going on, since Knock telepathically knows when The Master is on the sea, getting nearer, or is dead.

Ellen, too, receives communication at a distance. When she sits up in bed at the time when fearful Hutter (who even tries to hide under the duvet) is about to be attacked in bed, she cries out – the doctor comes, and says that it is disturbances of the blood, blood on which Orlok feeds, of course, and is about so to do on her husband’s. Later, when both men are heading for Wisborg (there must be something missing that explains how Hutter knows that he is imprisoned), there is a sense, when Ellen calls out that ‘He is coming’ and she will go to him, she may no longer mean Hutter…

At the beginning, we see Hutter’s carefree expressions, but his delight in surprising Ellen and swirling her around before presenting her with the bouquet that he has picked is balanced by her asking why he killed the pretty flowers, suggesting a disposition to the melancholic, as may her appearance, her hair.

Hutter may not later choose the best language, by saying that he is going to the land of thieves and spectres, to make her feel assured of his safety (one feels that he is playing, although perhaps knowing that he plays with what he does not understand : his dashing the book to the ground after the night at the inn suggests denial), but he seems apt to rush off and leave her just like that. However, not just, one feels, that no woman in those times would be left alone, she is put in the care of the Harding couple, where she turns out to be a sleepwalker, who could have come to grief, if Harding had not caught her when she falls.


So, Ellen’s case maybe is not be taken superficially, and maybe the connection that Orlov, admiring her neck in Hutter’s cameo, makes with Ellen is some sort of unholy triangle of lust, where blood is not just sustenance (and he has tasted Hutter’s) : he wrote to Knock in the first place, because he desired a desolate property there – and where more desolate than these deserted warehouses, into which he can import his pest-laden coffins ?

He desired the property, he desired Hutter at his castle (just so that he could first feed on him, then lock him up away from Ellen ? Hutter’s papers, signifiying his agreement to the transaction, are never going to be returned, if Hutter does not leave), and he desired to be near Ellen and infect Wisborg. If Orlok has Hutter and Ellen behave according to his plans, then those plans have taken insufficient account of the fact that, in ein ganz sundlos Weyb, he desires what can destroy him.

The book from the inn, which Hutter finds with him at the castle, he tells Ellen not to read, but she does, of course, read it, and finds her fate. Struggling with it – and, importantly, not acknowledging that she has accepted it by symbolically throwing open the window facing Orlok – she disturbs Hutter, who has not even been able to offer the protection of staying awake to watch (which may signify that Orlok subdued him by taking his blood).

Significantly, he is sent not for an ordinary medical man, but for Bulwer, the Paracelsian professor (who has earlier been demonstrating the wonders of the Venus fly-trap and the like), and Hutter does not hesitate to follow the instructions. It is that he, of all people, will understand the nature of the struggle in which Ellen has been, not that she expects to survive it ? Of the triangle, Hutter is the survivor, and we have no sense of whether he can resume any life, as we are shown the destroyed castle of Orlok.

This is where I ended with my thinking in the other review – that there is, somehow, a sympathy for the vampyr, who poetically seeks out what is most likely to destroy him, in Ellen as the sinless sacrifice (the translation mistranslates ‘Weyb’ as ‘virgin’). His stiff, occasionally slightly hesitant demeanour, the doors, hatches and coffin-lids that open and close at his command, and the true horror as his form becomes upright in the hold of the ship, and he emerges from its hatch : he has so much power, and yet risks so much to feast on the bewitching Ellen.

A truly poetical meditation on the self-destructive impulse, which disguises itself from its possessor in the form of an obsessively thought- and carried-out plan.




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Authentic calculation

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31 October

Whatever anyone else was drooling over in teenage years, for me it was the Deutsche Grammophon (DG) catalogue, marvelling at these discs (they were LPs) of Anne-Sophie Mutter and Maurizio Pollini, and seeing recordings of Luciano Berio or Steve Reich, with their stylish covers (or boxes).

And there was the distinctive look of the Archiv series - made, I now realize, to resemble icons - and the notion of, say, baroque technique and practice, along with the names of the recording artists and the repertoire.

Even with a score, though, one can only notate so much (but, by studying performance, one can spot where what is usually played differs from scores, or the composer's MS), so to recreate, when bowing, what happened 150 years or more ago from reading written accounts is bound to involve an element of interpretation.

The risk of it all : ending up with authentic-performance groups that, because of using (reconstructions of) older instruments, with their differing construction, bows and mouthpieces, may sound much like each other, but not, maybe - for having abandoned modern instruments and technique - very much more like what the original audience heard.

We probably do not know in some cases, but we can gauge the riskiness of some wind-playing from how - compared with, for example, a modern trumpet or horn - the note sounds. Curious that, in a way, music played in this way should have turned its back on valves, whereas technology is always building on previous invention, and only discarding what no longer works.

Can I imagine someone not only being told that, by saying a wyfe was buxom, Chaucer did not mean comely, but obedient, but also trying to speak Middle English (as some will Latin) ? Can I imagine the exercise of someone carrying out recreated operations, limited to the surgical instruments and procedures of Lister's day ? Do I imagine that I would have a greater feel for how mathematics and engineering of the 1950s were perceived and practised, if I had to use a slide-rule... ?




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

A scale for rating documentaries

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30 October

Following publication of a scale, with six variables rated out of 17 (so giving a maximum total rating of 102), for feature films, I have now developed one with more suitable criteria for documentaries, which I exhibit below.


The following example is a rating for The Lebanese Rocket Society (2012) :


54 = N : 10 / M : 8 / C1 : 11 / C2 : 7 / E : 11 / F : 7


N = narration / script

M = material / use of material

C1 = cinematography

C2 = cohesiveness

E = effects / music

F = feel


Mid-point of scale (all scores out of 17) = 9



For comparison, here is the scale for rating feature films in use :



97 = S : 16 / A : 17 / C : 15 / M : 17 / P : 16 / F : 16

A rating and review of Blue Jasmine (2013)



S = script
A = acting
C = cinematography
M = music
P = pacing
F = feel

Mid-point of scale (all out of 17) = 9




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Duelling and Eugene Onegin

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29 October

In the Wikipedia® entry on Pushkin's Eugene Ongein, someone has gone to great trouble to show that the duel, despite Onegin's second Zaretski being (according to Pushkin's narrator) classical and pedantic in duels (chapter 6, stanza XXVI), should have ended with Lenski declared the winner, because Onegin was supposed to be there within fifteen minutes of the appointed hour.

As it is, the opera is what it is, and maybe all that we can learn is that (a) Onegin, from what the poem goes on to say, should not have relied on Zaretski in these matters. For us to imagine (b) that Onegin willingly acquiesced in the breaches of the rules to get Lenski killed, or (c) that Pushkin wrote about a duel without knowing the rules is unneedful.

Curious, though, that the moral inertia of these times is reflected in the lack of care in the arrangements for the duel, with all that stems from in for Olga, her sister Tatiana, and both families...


These thoughts stem from a recent live broadcast from The Metropolitan Opera, in Screen 1 at @CamPicturehouse, of Tchaikovksy's opera. (But there is also Ralph Fiennes in a film version, Onegin (1999), that seemed interminable.)


The Met's programme notes have things thus :

Lenski's second finds Onegin's late arrival and his choice of a second insulting. Although Both Lenski and Onegin are full of remorse, neither stops the duel. Lenski is killed.


On the interpretation of the duel above, there should have, at least, been an offer for Onegin to make an apology.


In this production, Onegin was played by Mariusz Kwiecień, Lenski by Piotr Beczala :



Alexei Tanovitski played Prince Gremin, Anna Netrebko Tatiana :














Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Rocket-launchers and The Middle East

A rating / Festival review of The Lebanese Rocket Society (2012)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
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54 = N : 10 / M : 8 / C1 : 11 / C2 : 7 / E : 11 / F : 7

A rating / Festival review of The Lebanese Rocket Society (2012)


N = narration / script

M = material / use of material

C1 = cinematography

C2 = cohesiveness

E = effects / music

F = feel


9 = mid-point of scale (all  scores out of 17, 17 x 6 = 102)



The Lebanese Rocket Society (2012) is a curious film : as if it were not enough to have the achievements of that society commemorated in the film by a scale-model erected at Haigazian University (formerly College), it goes on to end (Disjunction 4) with an animation, which imagines (counterfactually) that the society went on, and continued where the Voyager mission left off, with gold discs sent into space. (Reasons are given why the society became part of the military, and was later closed down : an international incident concerning Cyprus; an accident when propellant was being mixed; and pressure from the French government, amongst others.)

Maybe this animation did not originally belong with the film (I can easily conceive of it as a quite separate celebratory screening on Lebanese t.v.), or maybe it would have been better as a fantasy beginning to the film, rather than the voice of the film-makers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, saying, in a puzzled voice, that they were born in the months either side of the Apollo Moon landings, so how did they never hear about this rocket society ?

In fact, I am told, they said to Professor Manoug Marougian (who led the society until he went back to Texas in 1968, not wishing, he said, to be drawn in by other interested powers) that they had first seen the commemorative postage-stamps (only mentioned later, and not, as I recall, shown), and had wanted to find out more. At the outset, then, these seemed something dressed up about visits to archives that had empty film-cans, and very little footage, and about the whole notion of just tracking down Professor Manougian (in Tampa, Florida) and forthwith going to see him (Disjunction 1).

If you can bear that they would have been in contact after Google and before going, and so would have known already what he had kept and handed over to them, then so good, but it seems a bit too much like a telling a story to an uninqusitive child. On the other hand, showing that what Google Images came up for 'Lebanese rocket' were not space rockets did make the point that no one was remembering rockets in those terms. What Manougian did not appear to have to hand over was all the footage that had been absent so far, and the film simply abandoned the idea of looking for the materials for simply presenting and explaining them as if it were self evident how Joreige and Hadjithomas had come by them (Disjunction 2).

At the time when the chronological story has been more or less told (Disjunction 3), we learn of the scale-model, and that the owner of the factory making it is nervous, in case permissions were needed to create something that looks like a rocket. In terms of us watching the film, we have no notion of how it has not been thought to obtain these permissions (not least if others had been funding it), and again, feeling a little false, we are shown top government officials (before the government falls) agreeing on screen to grant them (or that they are not needed).

Then the very impressive installation of the model rocket, which was supposed to be carried to the former launch-site on the coast and from there to the university (but of which, with no explanation, we only see the latter), and the final disjunction (already mentioned). The film did not need all these stages, but it seemed unwilling to tell any part of the story slowly and in full, and concentrated too much information - too much intense reading of subtitles - in the short period after the film-makers have met Professor Manougian.




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Dangerous Mozart pleases audiences

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23 October



The Academy of Ancient Music’s (@AAMorchestra’s) concert at West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge (@WestRoadCH) fell into a half of early to mid-period Haydn (a concerto, then a symphony – Haydn was apparently unable to compose beyond 1802, but lived until 1809) and one of very early Mozart (symphony, concerto), opening in a stately Allegro moderato under violinist Alina Ibragimova’s direction in Haydn's Violin Concerto No. 1 in C Major Hob. VIIA : 1 (which the programme variously dates to (contents page) c. 1769 and (notes by Stephen Rose) the early 1760s).

Haydn, as with many a composer, sounds different when writing a concerto from a symphony, and this work reminded me of one of his Cello Concertos (No. 1 in C Major (Hob. VIIB : 1, which seems to be thought written between 1761 and 1765)) for its spacious character. At any rate, the notes tell us that Luigi Tomasini, leader of the orchestra at the Esterházy court, was the soloist for whom the concerto for violin was written, but it could have been written for Ibragimova, who made an imperious gesture in the opening phrase of her solo part, which then gave way to a sublime graciousness that pervaded the first movement.

In pieces from this period, we almost have, in sonata form, the same delight as in the da capo aria, of being reminded music from earlier on, and hearing it anew in its thematic context (although the programme notes tell me that this is more like a Baroque ritornello) : the effect was, at any rate, of somehow simultaneously slowing down and accelerating our sense of progression under Ibragimova’s direction, and she appeared not to be using written-out cadenzas, but gently meditating on the foregoing material.

In the slow movement, Ibragimova was given a full chance to demonstrate her singing string-tone, and the strings had a clockwork-like pizzicato, reminiscent of Vivaldi (those concertos), and brilliantly executed. Exploiting the purity of the upper register of her instrument, and using a lovely piano contrast, Haydn and she charmed us in this Adagio, and prepared us for the Presto finale, which, seemingly with a cognate theme to that of the first movement, had a pleasing sense of inevitability as it worked its way through to a sonorous close.

That same quality of togetherness, under the directorship from the violin of Pavlo Beznosiuk, marked the opening theme of Haydn’s Symphony No. 45 in F Sharp Major, to which the account attaches that it was his protest on behalf of the court musicians at the prospect, in late 1772, of the court at Esterházy staying there beyond the usual October till December. There are momentary bars of repose from that theme’s demands, but they are only momentary, and they built up a sense of longing.

We were then brought, in the long Adagio, to what seemed the emotional heart of the piece, with its well-captured reflective mood seeming to evoke a place for cognition, and subtle horn tones that enhanced this impression. In the shorter Menuet and Trio, a falling four-note motif was evident, which again gave an emotional pull to the music, as it moved towards the finale, marked Presto – Adagio.

The sonority that marked the first tempo was gradually waning in that of the second, since, in pairs, the instrumentalists were leaving the stage (say, second horn with principal oboe), enacting what happened at the first performance, until just Tomasini and Haydn were left : Haydn has a reputation both for his sense of humour (his ‘Surprise’ symphony, for example, or that string quartet that always catches me out), and for having influence with his royal master, but one does not know what risk he had been taking. AAM took none, only prisoners for its sensitive playing.


After the interval, a work of teenage years by Mozart (from 1770), was paired with one of his later - but still early - violin concertos, proving that we are wrong to match one of these concerto works with a later symphony. Hearing the Symphony No. 1 in G Major was not just an educational exercise, but helped reveal the building-blocks from which, more seamlessly, the composer was to construct his more mature style, such as a four-note motif in which the next note went up, then back, then down.

Listening to the thought-out playing of these two movements, again under the direction of Beznosiuk, there were hints of what was to come in the concerto, with a gesture of a heavily accented note on the strings, and then repeated notes. It came across wonderfully as a different sound-world already from that of ‘Papa’ Haydn, though written at the same time as his works.

  • Alina Ibragimova : a mixture of total abandonment and total control that is in no way contradictory (The Times)


I thought that I knew Mozart’s co-called Turkish concerto, the Concerto for Violin No. 5 in A Major (1775, when Mozart was but 19, Haydn 43) but this interpretation caused me to experience it anew. After the preceding symphony, as I have said, I was better placed to spot the use of pairs of falling notes, noticing the structural elements, but finding how the music is much more than them, and it does not hurt to know that they are there.

At times bending towards the music-stand, and seeming usually to be in motion between the divided first and second violins, there was a physical feeling of freedom in Ibragimova and her flowing dress that matched her musical inventiveness, and the impression that the orchestra had really warmed to her leadership and performance. In the Adagio, an initial geniality of mood gave way to a sense of things becoming fluid, but, concurrently, of time standing still, as if the music were flowing directly from Mozart’s own bow.

In the Rondeau finale, she gave us ‘slapped’ notes in the strings that would not have been out of place in Bartók’s middle quartets (which, of course, she plays, but I do not know about techniques contemporary to Haydn), and a barbarity and a rawness of tone in the Turkish theme that made it feel fresh and new. In the true nature of such a movement, we also had a sense of play in not knowing where we were at an end, with its familiar unflashy ending, but the audience was in no doubt about how this piece was received :

Ibragimova came back for an encore, which I am told by AAM’s Michael Garvey, its chief executive, was the slow movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 6 in D Major (nicknamed ‘Le Matin’), which not only had a note of leave-taking about it, but also a phrase of wildly abundant expression from our soloist, only matched by the reception from those around me.

Garvey tells me that, after three performances in Italy, AAM is at a new venue for it in London, Milton Court Concert Hall, and then off for a fortnight to tour Australia. A good chance for many others to hear this nicely put-together programme !




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Mental-health in-fighting

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
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22 October

There is a well-worn claim that a person with an experience of schizophrenia is called a schizophrenic, whereas a person who has cancer is not called a cancerist.

But we do call people diabeticshaemophiliacs, coeliacshypochondriacs, hysterics, alcoholics, etc., and half of those nouns relate to physical conditions.

Yes, it is nicer not 'to define someone' by reference to their health, but the cancer argument employed is a bogus one, not least since I believe that people do sometimes relate to hearing that someone has cancer on an irrational level, of its being karma / punishment, or as if the cancer is infectious, or the person can no longer be related to as a person, but as only a substrate for a deadly disease : dehumanizing the person, by only seeing him or her in terms of the spread - or remission - of the cancer(s). (In another posting, I suggested how mental ill-health is not different from, but exactly like, a broken leg.)

Some people object to the term service-user, saying that they did not choose to have mental-health services (they were cajoled, coerced, sectioned, medicated against their will, mistreated (when they were supposed, ironically, to be treated in the system's own terms)), others simply do not care, even if they have had the same experiences, and are not worried about a need to challenge use of the word.

In similar ways, some have a diagnosis thrust upon them, and struggle to feel content with someone else defining their experience in that way, whereas others, refused a service unless they have a diagnosis, embrace one, and feel that it validates.

Of course, that sense of validation, of finally being believed, could relate just as much to the situation of someone with what turns out to be a brain tumour, who succeeds in persuading someone to carry out a scan and whose findings account for their bizarre or troubling symptoms, previously discounted on supposed medical grounds.

Or there could be a person who is happy with his or her body-shape at 22 stone, and who rejects the notion of being obese - and, if it is not interpreted as a mental-health issue (with implications for a forced admission), but, say, as a lifestyle choice, he or she is free (subject to these irritating medical promptings) to do as he or she pleases with his or her body.

So, returning to the question of diagnosis, one person might be able to get help, because of a diagnosis, whereas a person, supported with a diagnosis of bi-polar disorder, might then be denied support, if it is claimed that it was a misdiagnosis and that he or she has borderline personality disorder (and vice versa, the latter likely to be a case where he or she is pleased with the new diagnosis, which he or she has probably been fighting to have recognized as 'a better fit').

And then there is so-called depression (because I believe that the word has outlived its usefulness - unless it can be 'reclaimed' - when too many people think that it just means being a bit sad, that the person described as being depressed is lazy, shamming, not trying as they would, and that they know what it means, when they do not). I took issue with @StephenFry likening depression to a meteorological cold front, which, like the wind, rain or snow, just is until it is over :

I honestly thought that having that debate might make people question whether low mood and negativity really just are, or whether some people might be helped - some of the time - by psychological intervention, as practitioners and writers such as Paul Gilbert want to say (e.g. Gilbert's self-help book, Overcoming Depression). Fry's message of waiting for the good days to come may work at one level, where crashing for two or three days may allow one to regroup and feel restored / revived, but what if that crashing could be avoided, or, at least, postponed to a less critical time ?

It is this polarity of the discussions in mental-health circles that frustrates me : Fry was no doubt wishing to be helpful, but seemed didactic in his statement, as if to the exclusion of the possibility that sessions with a psychologist might make an improvement such as described. Likewise, those 'saddled with' a diagnosis (and, maybe, poor or no treatment) seem to be at odds with those who, as suggested, might have had their beliefs about themselves confirmed by one.

When one person, wanting to feel safe from impulses to commit suicide (which I maintain is an acceptable expression), might benefit from feeling safe on an acute psychiatric ward, someone who is at a level of depression not just to be numbed to what is happening might equally experience it as too lively, too fuelled by the activity of those whose mood is at the opposite extreme to be a therapeutic environment - and they, too, might find each other's psychotic assertions frightening and disturbing, which is hardly likely to lead to peace and a lowering of anxiety.

Is a ward such as that, then, a microcosm of the flare-ups that the mental-health element of Twitter seems to accommodate, perhaps even invite or spark ? Or is it no different from any topic where feelings are running high on both sides ?




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Monday, 21 October 2013

I was looking forward to the sheep... !

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21 October (updated 23 October)


62 = S : 11 / A : 13 / C : 10 / M : 13 / P : 8 / F : 7 

A rating / review of Killer of Sheep (1977)


S = script
A = acting
C = cinematography
M = music
P = pacing
F = feel

Mid-point of scale (all scores out of 17) = 9


If I were told that Killer of Sheep (1977) came to be made because its director and cinematographer had been working on a commissioned documentary about an abattoir, and thought of weaving a human story around that of the sheep, I would readily believe it. They might also have had some unstaged footage of black children playing, which they could supplement.

One could almost jump mentally straight from there to Dinah Washington singing over the closing shots of massed sheep being herded up a ramp. The sheep have been far more alive than the adults talking to each other, encouraging action or belief, or heavily making a mess of an engine that they have troubled to bring down an exterior staircase and put on the back of a pick-up – though it must be said that this latter sequence, concerned as the abattoir is with motion and process, is nicely shot and put together.

Where life is utterly lacking is in reaction-shots, where it is abundant that what we have just seen is not what was being looked at, or where Stan’s wife (Kaycee Moore, seeking to allure), in an excruciatingly slow dance that feels like sleepwalking or involuntary movement during a coma set to a blues, touches his bare torso in a way that looks so forced that it is no wonder that it does not arouse Stan (Henry G. Sanders).

Some scenes of those children playing feel the same, and as fake as when two guys lug a t.v. over a back fence, but none of this has the ring of artifice that would have us know it as such, because one would not, at the same time, have a boy hiding behind a piece of panel, and only artfully reveal that the projectiles hitting it are part of a big military game, where positions are besieged or stormed. The film is, essentially, very uneven, and too rooted in the manners and behaviour of its time, as if, in themselves, they provide interest.



At one point, we suddenly hear Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 4, at another the unmistakeable voice of Louis Armstrong with a fine clarinettist (‘West End Blues’), but both just steal from what is on screen, rather than adding to it – fine music cannot simply build up what has been filmed, if one is suddenly more aware of and drawn to those sounds and into identifying them.

There are a few nice touches, such as when Moore comes into the kitchen where Sanders and a friend are playing dominoes, and we have both heads momentarily telescoped together as if it were her point of view, but the camerawork only generally comes alive with action such as the engine, and hence the feeling that the parts of the film and their styles do not belong together.

Yes, the film wants to say something to us through the meaning of the Washington song ‘This Bitter Earth’ and the sheep (and Samsara (2011) could have its roots here, as Cloud Atlas (2012) might), but it has taken too much strain to get here, and it is simply a source of gratitude that, in some form, the end has now come.


Put another way (not to seem so hard on the film) :

Maybe the film is deeply clever, but it still seems like a one-trick pony : nice interchanges about the cousin, the uncle, the woman rubbing cream on her leg, but all just leading up to the sight-gag of the engine falling off the back - Laurel and Hardy with no laughs, no infuriated recriminations, just sheep-like acceptance.




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Let the little children...

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15 October



Not every statistic in this film – there are numerous quoted, many of them quite shocking – is stencilled onto a wall for us to read (the writing is literally on the wall), but those that are actually appeared to be, to judge from a long, angled shot, which leaves two children playing beneath it :

How take in that one in six children in poor families have thought of suicide, for example, or the effects on asthma and other conditions, or on mortality, of living in poor housing ?

We took it in more easily through the eyes, and prematurely wise words*, of Paige [Page ?], living in a horribly damp apartment that, rightly, we see demolished, condemning the high-rise solution, and, as Paige tells us, the dust carried as far as Argos. We see how she has trimmed the blind, affected by mould, and hear from her how humiliating it is, even though she keeps clothes away from the window, to be told that she smells of it. She is a sensitive girl, adapted to these hard ways of living, and we can see her joy when her mother is given a property half-an-hour away, out of the Gorbals. Seeing her playing in the snow in their garden gives us hope.

The most shocking thing is how these children have to take on financial constraints. One subject, who had eczema on her legs (until repeated applications of cream cured her), chillingly told us, in a throw-away remark, how she had picked her legs until they bled as a way of feeling a sense of release. Self-harm is little understood in society, least of all that there are various, very different reasons, why people harm themselves, not all related to harming in itself – some, who feel numb, do it to feel something, whereas someone else might, through feeling in control (even only of what he or she is doing to her body), balance the sense that everything else is beyond their power.

Sam’s sister Kaylie (?) also told us, I think, that she had attempted suicide, and had suicidal thoughts. Although Sam was the subject in her family (in Leicester), we could see through Sam and her (Sam had to wear his sister’s blouse as a shirt (and her blazer) for school, and that was hardly going to go unnoticed) how they sought to support and understand the pressures on their out-of-work father, including the fact that Child Benefit for her had wrongly been stopped, and he was having to survive until the mistake got remedied. We saw him produce meals for them to eat that looked very nice, but which he said that cost almost for ingredients.

Empty fridges, children going without lunch, or having to be put onto free school meals, and meters for electricity or even t.v. – these things were the stuff of the lives that these children (and their parents) had allowed us to look into. And, as film-maker Jezza Neumann was at pains to point out in the Q&A, this film, had been made for t.v. two years ago, and yet people were still watching it – not a world that suddenly came into existence with The Coalition, but carrying over from the Brown years, and those of Blair before.

We were told that, not surprisingly after the screening, Sam had some two hundred donations of school uniform (and a vicar donated to set up a second-hand uniform facility), Page (I think that it was Page) an offer of riding lessons (she had wanted to try), and numerous other kindnesses from people whom the film had touched. Neumann’s take was that, when areas become those where the poor live, and no one is in any better position than anyone else to help a neighbour, that kindness cannot operate so easily as it might have done, when someone lost a job, and those near them could tide them over.

The film is extremely well made, and Neumann told us how those who had seen it in the States, prior to making the US version, had been through it almost frame by frame, before reporting that they had been unable to see how he had prompted these words from the featured children - he said that the only way to make such a film is to be honest, and that he had known, with Page’s mother, that people would query her apparently manicured nails, whereas she had cut them from Coke cans and superglued them on.

The snobbery between cinema and t.v. films apart, this film conveys its message effectively, economically, and with an emotional force.


End-notes

* We hear children, in this film, troubled with adult concerns, such as debt, how their presents can be afforded




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

A fairy tale within a fairy tale

A rating and review of For Those in Peril (2013)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)


20 October


91 = S : 15 / A : 16 / C : 16 / M : 15 / P : 14 / F : 15


A rating and review of For Those in Peril (2013)



S = script
A = acting
C = cinematography
M = music
P = pacing
F = feel

Mid-point of scale (all scores out of 17) = 9


For Those in Peril (2013) is a very powerful, intense drama, set on the southern Aberdeenshire coast, and both very well acted by George MacKay (Aaron) and Kate Dickie (Cathy), and carefully brought to life by Paul Wright (in his first feature). It is not the sort of film that some might choose to see, and perhaps one could liken it to an Amour in what it demands of us, for no one will stay the course without accepting its emotional pull.

The story that, towards the end of the film, Aaron asks his mother Cathy to tell him (we do not know his age, but MacKay is 21), about the devil, the sea and the people*, is one that we have heard – snatches of – throughout. She declines to tell it, saying that she does not remember, but then, without saying more, just starts – and maybe finds the words in the telling, itself a sort of metaphor in the whole piece.

That story, because we finally hear the ending (which Aaron may have actually forgotten, and so is asking for the story) takes us to the surprising closing shots - and suddenly brings home how it is more than that Aaron identifies it with this place where he lives, but that the story somehow is about these people and this place. Aaron, his mother and his brother Michael, lost (with four others) the first time that Aaron goes out to sea, feel that they might be better not living here, and that Cathy could have had enough to keep them going in some less exacting community, but then there would be no story – the story that ambiguously resolves with the film serves to keep them there.



Younger brothers of a similar age, problems with those living around, but the conception is quite different : there are some interesting elements in Blackbird, but they in no way coalesce, and remain jutting out, whereas here song, the story, Aaron’s mental life, and the Peter-Grimes-like gossip and hostility of the community are a whole, and brought to us by mixing in a whole variety of home-filmed footages and images to represent their past, their history.

On another level, with one film one can ponder long and hard what might have happened to Michael and to Aaron (resented as the only survivor), but there is really nothing to reflect on in the other, save (as done in this review) what diagnosis might fit Ruadhan’s behaviour – which is actually the last thing that one wants to do with Aaron, so careful is the film (as, we were told, Wright intended) to look at his experience in it social context.

Nonetheless, the film is about where mental health resides, and the ambiguities help us meditate on the nature of loss, guilt, blame and separation, both for Cathy and for Aaron, as well as for Jane (?) (Nichola Burley), Michael’s fiancée, and the tentative support that Aaron and she find in each other. Watch this film, but heed the words of this year’s Cambridge Film Festival programme :

[A]n engaging plurality of filmmaking styles [serve] to emphasise the growing disjunction between Aaron’s reality and his subconscious


End-notes

* Another Scottish tradition has a tale of wolves descending on a town, but they are really less wolves than Viking raiders.




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Who is Woody Allen in Blue Jasmine ?

This is a review of Blue Jasmine (2013)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)


19 October (updated, with a 102-point rating, 20 October; Tweet added 1 January 2015)

This is a review of Blue Jasmine (2013)

I was waiting for something to happen - and it never did


Obviously, what is revealed about Jasmine (and to her) in the last ten or so minutes did not count for the person who made this comment - what sort of film was this meant to be in which this elusive 'something' might eventuate ?

Having seen Blue Jasmine (2013) exactly a month ago, on the opening night of Cambridge Film Festival, I was pleased to have watched it again, and pleased for Woody Allen that Screen 2 this Saturday night was sold out. Do I vainly hope for some of those people to go back and see some of the fifty or so other Allen films, whether or not they missed them before ?


If so, I would commend, in addition to the well enough known Annie Hall and Manhattan, these personal favourites :


Interiors (1978)

Stardust Memories (1980)

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Deconstructing Harry (1997)

Love and Death (1975)



Back at the film, and the question posed, I have heard it suggested that Dr Flicker is the person closest to Allen himself (i.e. the parts that he writes for himself to play), and I watched him with that in mind. No, he is not Allen - Allen is, I think, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett).

Tuned to Allen, knowing almost all of his films, and having seen this one before, I could hear his cadences, his little excited rages in this role – not exactly, but Jasmine is the one who approaches his self-expression, his fluidity, his vocabulary and assurance. Listen for him, and I think that you will find his voice in Blanchett’s.


97 = S : 16 / A : 17 / C : 15 / M : 17 / P : 16 / F : 16


A rating and review of Blue Jasmine (2013)


S = script

A = acting

C = cinematography

M = music

P = pacing

F = feel

9 = mid-point of scale (all scored out of 17, 17 x 6 = 102)


Meanwhile, back at the nub, the film is not as dark as Interiors, but it is a drama, and I hope that it is being appreciated for that, though one with the humour that Interiors almost entirely lacks : there are themes in common here, and the Allen who cut up footage of Charlotte Rampling for a vivid portrayal of her distressed state of mind (as Dorrie) in hospital in Stardust has long had, if not themes of mental health, then hints at it, and I respect him immensely for that.

Blanchett almost cannot fail to win something big for this performance, because, for me, it is so easily convincing, so true to the psychology of her life (explored more here) and to the experiences that she has, but I am, if anything, even more delighted at a peach of a role like this for the tremendous Sally Hawkins, who really shows what a versatile actor she is at playing a character who has a capacity to delight in the smaller things and be radiant – Allen had cast her in Cassandra’s Dream, and this new part she carries off perfectly.

As to the story, no, there is no big something, and I did not have to absorb two previous films as at the time of the previous viewing, but I am very pleased to run this one through again and see how beautifully it holds together. When Allen crafts a screenplay, as in Hannah (or Harry, or Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), there is nothing that one would change with it – when, for me, he does not, in Match Point (2005) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), it is hard to know where and how one would rescue it.

So my hope is for people to be patient with Jasmine’s story, and the choices that she has made – when she meets Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), she clicks into a fantasy where she has always been called Jasmine, etc., etc., and I could see her entering into straightaway believing things, just because she was saying them and wanted them to be true. We can reach back into the story, and see how much – and, at the same time, how little – she knew about what was happening and what she was doing, and how, as we see her doing all along with prioritizing her needs, she hurts her stepson and husband.

I also hope that they will look out some other Allen, not Midnight in Paris (2011), really, but maybe some of the ones that I have listed; that Hawkins now has the recognition that she deserves; that Allen keeps on with his film every year; and that good film-making like this will be taken to people’s hearts, and cherished.






Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

George MacKay Q&A

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)


19 October


When George MacKay answered questions at @CamPicturehouse yesterday afternoon, it was after a screening of one of his latest, For Those in Peril (2013) - guarding against the peril of forgetting, here is a work in progress to record the main points...



* Non-spoilery answers *


NB This will be a link to a review (in progress)


MacKay worked on three films last summer, which, in order, were How I Live Now, For Those in Peril and Sunshine on Leith.

He said that, as he had most involvement with the director in this film, he had found it a more involving experience, whereas he might have relied more on the cast on other projects.

I asked about the voice that he had used for the voiceover, and how it had been arrived at - it sounded like a complex process, not just of director Paul Wright making it sound more breathy in post-production, but of MacKay working with Wright in a studio, trying being himself, being his character Aaron, etc.

I also asked whether MacKay thought that, given that Aaron sees through Michael Smiley's character (Jane's father), he would have taken in what the people in the town were saying about him, or was too absorbed in trying to get his brother Michael back to pay attention - MacKay thought that it would have affected him, but that he knows what he thinks

Host Jack Toye, Marketing Manager at @CamPicturehouse, asked where MacKay saw himself going in twenty years' time - Toye asked if he would be a Hugh Grant by then, but MacKay said that it was not for him to comment

It was also commented that, despite appearing in this film and Leith with an accent, Mackay is not Scottish - I am not so sure that those who do not sound Scottish do not call themselves Scottish, but am assured that MacKay is from London.

Regarding those fellow citizens' derogatory comments, we were told that they had a script for them, but improvised with Wright, who then processed the results in post-production

As to the arduous nature of the part / story, MacKay said that the support from Wright had made it not difficult, but an enjoyable experience

He had not researched mental health much, and his work with Wright had always been to see where the roots to what was happening to his character lay in events, rather than approaching the film as if it were about mental ill-health as such - the status of the doctor whom he sees was left deliberately imprecise regarding being a psychiatrist


At the end, the irrepressible Rosy Hunt from TAKE ONE presented MacKay with two gingerbread figures, the traditional gesture of welcome in these parts




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Friday, 18 October 2013

Where’s the main verb ?

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)


18 October

The Verb, on a Friday night on @BBCRadio3, has changed. It needed to change, but it has not changed for the better.

I do not recall when I last heard it, but 9.45 used to be a convenient time to listen, and manage most of it before closing-time drinks at the local called, and I had been a regular for several years.

It needed to change, because, incessantly calling it the cabaret of the word, Professor Ian McMillan had become little better than Hughie Green, by which I mean the flowery introductions, larded with compliments for him for being there, us for joining him, and for guests who were never less than monstrously excellent, talented, and guaranteed to be worth our time…

Not to mention the same old people from whom the guests seemed to come, for example Toby Litt – he was back again, because we liked him, and we liked him, because he was back again, or some such self-reinforcing logic – and what ‘we’ had commissioned him to write. But there were, of course, gems, such as learning about Italian ice-cream in Oban from Janice Galloway, or Paul Griffiths (better known as a writer about (twentieth-century) music), with his short novel Let Me Tell You, where he had amazingly limited himself to a vocabulary identical to that of Shakespeare’s Ophelia :

I read that book, because of The Verb, and was stunned by its invention through limitation, telling a story of around a dozen chapters that had to circumvent having no word ‘mother’, or by using a noun as a verb, or an adjective as a noun.
That was its high point, before the guests became routine, the enthusiasm forced, the praise after everything read excessive - I loved the way that you xyz, and the surprise of the abc really caught me unawares. So what made you think of that moment when you say def ?


But what’s wrong now ? Well, on to-night’s showing, the floor-to-ceiling congratulation has gone, but it’s too much the questions / things that McMillan thinks that we might like to ask / comment :

Why did you write that as a fairy-tale ?

Is it very different, after working on a novel, to write a short story ?

When I get to the end of a short story, I’m turning the page, wanting it to continue. [Do people read a short story without looking to see how long it will take, and isn’t it a bad story (or your mistake), if you can’t tell that it’s ended ?]

That piece [an extract from awork in progress] sounded very self contained [which turned out to be because it had been made to be].


None of these sounded as though the words coming out of the authors’ mouths on these meagre cues had not merely been prepared, but rehearsed to death. The best of the programme, that the questions insulted no one, but just were too self congratulatory (I can only ask these questions, because I am a Professor of English Literature), and too much buttering up the writer, has gone, and the questions are banal – I can too easily credit that I did not need to be a Professor to conceive them, so why have one present the show.


So not :

Why have two of you written about wolves ?

What do you think about Orwell’s four stated reasons for writing, and does any of them weigh with you? [Pretty pointless to tell us these four things without doing something with them ?]

You have given ways in which novels are different from short stories – even accepting those, are the similarities greater than the differences?

You say that a writer of short stories has to be multi-disciplinary, dealing with, amongst other things, history and politics, but why are they not the concerns of a novelist?


Plus ça change, plus ç’est la même chose…





Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)