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Saturday, 30 January 2016

I have to believe everything in order to make things up ~ Mick Boyle¹

This is a review of Youth (2015)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

30 January (link substituted, 19 May)

This is a review of Youth (La giovinezza) (2015)

The film is dedicated to director Francesco Rosi (who died on 10 January 2015)

The list of key-words below had probably been noted before, in white capitals, the title Youth appeared [above a division of the screen, as if in a colour-field painting, comprising the colour of a low partition-wall, its rail, and the wall behind it], and then the sky, above an Alpine view (which, one estimates, was 10-15 minutes in – it was not quick, because, by the time that it arrived, one had forgotten not having seen the film’s name [the BBFC (@BBFC) certificate does not count]) :

* Light = use of, and our awareness of, light [Luca Bigazzi is Sorrentino's cinematographer again²]
* Fluidity, of the image, and how it changed with the camera’s movement
* Composition, i.e. of shots, and the Viewpoint from which they were taken
* Transition between shots
* Tactility, in that (as did its predecessor²) it has and conveys a keen sense of our physicality / our corporeality

All of these impressed one with the film’s quality, and the care of its making : as one expected², and hoped would be so.

Points of cinematic comparison are, sadly, not hard to find, even at this time of the year, i.e. despite what worth it might be reasonable to assume that nominations for awards recognize, whereas films Based on a true story seem sufficient unto themselves (as with Tim Burton's Big Eyes (2014), at this time last year), without speech, for example, seemingly needing to sound as if anyone might have uttered it :

* This paragraph contains Spoilers (if intending to watch Trumbo) *
The choice of film is not irrelevant (even if the relevance was in someone else’s mind, in devising the trailers to show) in that Youth (La giovinezza) (2015) has Harvey Keitel as a writer / director (Mick Boyle), whereas Trumbo (2015) purports to save us the trouble of finding out why Dalton Trumbo was not credited, say, with the screenplay for Roman Holiday (1953) (and it was only forty years later that the Academy Award for ‘Best Writing, Motion Picture Story’ was credited to him). (Whereas, in 2 hrs 4 mins, one could watch Roman Holiday instead, and, on IMDb (@IMDb), there is what seems a very full biography of Trumbo (it is staggeringly longer than usual), just for the reading.)

Youth most clearly does reference both (1963) and, more fleetingly, both The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), and even Metropolis (1927). However, director Paolo Sorrentino is not being derivative of Federico Fellini, Wes Anderson, Fritz Lang ; rather, he is showing us his reverence for these films and, albeit with playfulness, asking us to share his appreciation. (Likewise, Stardust Memories (1980) - which Sorrentino clearly values - is a massive tribute to European cinema, hardly least also to [Fellini is an acknowledged inspiration to Woody Allen and his work], but it sees those films / that film through another director’s eyes (but as if through the eyes of his character, Sandy Bates). (It is sad [dare one say, simplistic on their part ?] that contemporary critics and audiences, feeling insulted, insultingly mistook Sandy Bates, and his opinions, for Allen and his.))

When it comes to The Lobster (2015), a film that achieves far less, but with far more effort, the link between Lanthimos’ film and Sorrentino’s is, as well as in the type of location (and in a first film scripted in English), in the person of Rachel Weisz : here, Fred Ballinger’s (Michael Caine’s) daughter Lena ; there as a form of emotional outlaw, without a name (but, significantly, narrating the story, one has to feel - please see the next paragraph). (If the films were, more than superficially, so irremediably different, one might have asked in whose film Weisz seemed ‘a spy in the camp’ (for, according to Wikipedia® (citing dates in Cineuropa and ScreenDaily, respectively), principal photography for The Lobster ‘began on 24 March 2014, and concluded on 9 May 2014’, and that for Youth started in Flims, Switzerland, in May [also according to Wikipedia®].)

The true point of connection is in Rachel Weisz’s very distinctive voice and the rhythms of her way of speaking. Here, she makes a striking speech as to whose status, immediately afterwards, we are (or should be) uncertain : for, literally from the first visuals to the last (and not just when it is patent), this feeling of uncertainty is built into the fabric of the film - as with Allen in Stardust Memories (or, equally, with Deconstructing Harry (1997)), or Fellini, whom Allen had used as his model. It is suggested that, in The Lobster (as has been argued at the conclusion of the review on these pages), we ought to have been watching throughout with a view to what this use of the device of a voice-over actually signifies (and not just take it for granted). (Are we meant, say, to take that element simply as read in American Beauty (1999), or even Sunset Blvd. (1950)?)

Grand Hotel Waldhaus Flims

But the connection with where Sorrentino filmed proves to be a quite different one, in that Wikipedia® tells us that the primary location was the nineteenth-century five-star Grand Hotel Waldhaus Flims, but that filming also took place in Davos (in Switzlerland), particularly at The Hotel Schatzalp - where the novel Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) is set. That novel is is highly relevant to a setting in a spa (although its characters are more unwell, e.g. tuberculosis), but it is also a link with another novel by Thomas Mann, which one thereby sees confirmed as having been in Sorrentino’s mind, Dr Faustus (published in 1947, more than twenty years later). This later work is more allusive and, even though it is considerably shorter, its subject-matter makes it feel more dense : albeit an extreme one, Mann’s composer-character Adrian Leverkühn seems a perfect reference for a character-type such as Fred Ballinger’s (Michael Caine’s)³.

Having had a prominent piece at the opening of La grande bellezza, David Lang scored Youth, and, amongst his work (particularly ‘just’), we hear such musical touch-stones as, three or four times over, excerpts from Triste et lent (number 6 from Book I of Debussy’s Préludes [the occurrences are considered further in another posting), and the Berceuse from Stravinsky’s The Firebird, with their clear associations for those who know them. With other allusions, there is a set-piece, which is reminiscent of the ‘friendly’ and wholly ‘well-meant’ honesty of Arsinoé towards Célimène (and then vice versa) in Molière’s Le misanthrope (which has been described as a ‘a fencing-match’ (of sorts)), between Keitel and Jane Fonda⁴.

Of course, we know, on the surface, that there is a film within a film, and that, as with the scene with flamingos on the balcony (for example) in La grande bellezza, there is another dimension to reality. (In fact, there is more than one film, but Paul Dano, as Jimmy Tree (developing his film-character), amounts to a sub-plot (if a major one).) In the development of the main film (the relevance of whose title cannot be overlooked, but which is not stated within this review), with Harvey Keitel (Mick Boyle) and his collaborators, Boyle demonstrates, as an analogy for Time, how a telescope (depending on at which end one looks into it) can make objects look nearer or farther :

Does that second film not seem to zoom in on the first (in which Caine and Keitel exist, and the second film is a project), right in the closing shot⁵... ? [That question is now considered, at length, in another posting.]


¹ When trying to recall the name of Harvey Keitel's character (a film-maker), one was not totally erroneously led to the name Frank Boyle...

² Having seen La grande bellezza (2013) three times [which it seems better to translate not as The Great Beauty, but as Immense Beauty] :

In Youth, we not only hear the line You understand everything with your hands, don’t you ? (spoken to a young masseuse [with whom we recurrently spend moments off duty]), but it also (as Albrecht Dürer or Godfrey Reggio may do in Visitors (2013), or some of the films that Youth references) reminds of the very tangible nature of our mortal form.

³ As does that of Daniel Auteuil’s Stéphane in Un Cœur en Hiver (1992).

* Contains spoilers ? * Finally appearing as Brenda Morel, after audaciously referred to for much screen-time – not unlike the very slow appearance of the film’s title, perhaps willing us to forget that Fonda is still absent ? (As Barry Norman once said about Henry Fonda, in The Hollywood Greats : Fonda made the heart grow absent.)

* Contains spoilers * After we have been put much in mind of the opening of Stardust Memories, with (again referencing ) what we initially see turning out to be in a screening-room - where the end of Sandy Bates’ film, much to his dismay, has been outrageously changed by the studio without his knowledge so that the characters all end up in Jazz Heaven...

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

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The questioner hadn't seen Peter Greenaway's film (but Greenaway didn't listen to the questions anyway)

When Peter Greenaway came as a guest, with Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015)…

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

24 January

When Peter Greenaway was a guest, and his film Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015) was his platform…

For Rocketina - a kind and thoughtful editor, and supreme encourager - in fondest memory of Charlie

Some propositions :

1. It is ‘possible’ that Peter Greenaway (‘PG’) spoke at some length, when introducing Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015) ('EiG')

2. Possibly, at such length that the screening that followed EiG had to be delayed by around thirty minutes

3. The questioner (so called for reasons that one may guess at) (‘AJD’) could be known to the present writer (@THEAGENTAPSLEY)

4. It is conceivable that AJD may not have watched any significant part of EiG, other than, say, the last ten minutes (less significant, one might imagine, without the rest of it ?)

5. During the ensuing Q&A (hosted by Bill Lawrence (‘BL’ / @Billlawrence)), it might have seemed that PG was, again, talking at those who (with the possible exception of AJD) had just seen EiG - apparently simultaneously inciting, and condescending to, those who had chosen to be there by saying (in the manner of these propositions) that they might have seen his film The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) ?

6. Some might assert that, whereas PG could have seemed, just before AJD's engagement in the Q&A, to bait his audience for not embracing a revolutionary form of cinema that employed more than the field of view occupied by the screen¹, and for not doing more than sitting immobile in front of it, EiG itself was, even by PG’s unusual standards of - and approaches to - story-telling and marshalling of cinematic material, a largely conventional film

7. When, at around this point, BL noticed AJD’s hand raised, he could have interpreted it as someone who was rising to the invitation that he had put out for people to respond to PG’s directly challenging words to those there - as to whether the time for watching films in this way had passed, and they should be embracing the type of new cinema that PG was strenuously urging on them

8. AJD may well have apologized to BL, clarifying that he had not been intending to offer such a response, but, if so, simply wished to ask who would come to such a cinema (to which, perhaps, no one else added anything - even if that might not have implied tacit assent ?)

9. If so, well knowing where he was (some guests, being much in demand and often tired from travel, do not immediately recall the present location), PG indicated that, for that reason, he had expected more of the people there - this, maybe, in several minutes further of urging for his thesis ?

10. At this time, it is likely that AJD took the opportunity to put his substantive question to PG, probably :

Q1 If, as one suspects, you are having a conversation with Mark Cousins², in this film, what is the nature or content of that conversation ?

11. When he started, PG seemed to be replying, for he immediately agreed, and without reservation, that he was having a conversation with Mark Cousins : yet, since he apparently turned this locution into a list of people (including Borges³) with whom he was ‘having a conversation’, and (in a long answer) never went near the question again, AJD would rapidly have had to draw the conclusion that PG either chose not to address what had been put to him, or did not even comprehend the reason for being asked it²

12. Despite perhaps not having seen very much of EiG, would AJD not have been intrigued by this mention of Borges³, a writer whom AJD much respected, and would he have been able to resist testing whether there was any substance behind PG's mentioning Borges' name ? :

Q2 Since you mentioned Borges, are you willing to tell us in what way his work informs your film, and so how it should be part of our understanding of it ?

13. One could possibly reinterpret proposition 11 (above) to guess what answer anyone present derived, to this new enquiry, from what PG went on lengthily to assert - and whether AJD, renouncing the struggle⁴, collapsed in despair…


¹ PG repeatedly referred to a specific angle of view as that in front of the spectator : was it 110 degrees ? (If so, the residual angle, to make a complete rotation, is 250 degrees.)

² In 2012, Mark Cousins (@markcousinsfilm) had given a Q&A after his film What is This Film Called Love ? (2012), made by Cousins on the spur of the moment (and with the resources available) in homage to Sergei Eisenstein (and his time in Mexico), when unexpectedly in Mexico City for a few extra days.

³ Jorge Luis Borges (24 August 1899 to 14 June 1986) is an Argentinian author, poet, literary critic, editor, and translator. He writes in Spanish, and, from 1955 to 1973, served as Director of The National Library of The Argentine Republic (Biblioteca Nacional de la República Argentina).

⁴ A phrase that always brings Kafka much to mind : 'Beschreibung eines Kampfes' ('Description of a Struggle') was one of the few works published in his life-time (in Betrachtung (1912)).

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

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Why would one want to wait for a film's end-credits ? (work in progress)

Reasons to stay until the film's end-credits have rolled

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

23 January

Reasons for even those who are not intending / supposed to review a film to stay until the end-credits have rolled

As a guest at BAFTA last year, one was told by the inviting member of BAFTA (@BAFTA) that it is forbidden to do anything else – of which prohibition there indeed appeared to be highly persuasive evidence, even in a packed evening screening of The Martian (2015).

Despite the disruption, usual elsewhere, of almost everyone else trying to leave, and not infrequently doing so noisily and clumsily (as if their lives depended on not staying for two or three minutes longer¹ - which then means that one must often shuffle into the aisle to let them out and so that one can best see what is visible on the screen around people's heads), there is a rationale behind staying until the credits are through. [Effectively, this is a companion-piece to some comments, made about what people often enough do during a film, when also writing about The Tree (Drevo) (2014).]

The elements of that rationale are given here, in no particular order, and to justify, Milton like², this approach to those who - since they are in the majority - clearly do not appreciate them (or who may even, if one has not watched a film with them before, think that they have grounds for teasing about such ‘a quaint practice’) :

1. Seeing archive material that amplifies what the film showed (whether or not its story, or just its setting, was factually based), e.g. as shown within the credits for The Railway Man (2013), or what is best called The Harbour Bar (El Cafè de la Marina) (2014)

2. To hear reprised principal elements of the score, which acts as a summation of what one heard en route, and so of what one saw at each point, and is rarely unrewarding (despite people milling past) - particularly worthwhile, say, with that of films such as The Matrix (1999)

3. Occasionally, there is extra footage of another kind (whether right at the end of the credits, or inserted in the sequence), and which often gives some new dimension (depending on the film) : maybe just a final laugh [not recalling with certainty, but one suspects so – and of an insightful nature – for Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip (2010) and / or The Trip to Italy (2014)], or even a different take on the film and what it meant, of which The Great Beauty (2013) (La grande bellezza / #LaGrandeBellezza) is an excellent example, with both a long sequence along The River Tiber embedded in the credits³, and a reprise of the score (please see point 2, above)

4. An important closing track, not used in the film, but just played over part of the credits, and (if one were there to hear it…) actually the aural equivalent of footage in the credits (please see point 3, above) in making part of the feel of the film as a whole : probably so with Hope Springs (2012), and almost always true of Woody Allen’s films, e.g. Stardust Memories (1980)

5. Of course, not everyone will be bothered about the pieces of music that are used (as against the original score⁴), but, if one is, it may be one’s only chance to find out easily what that song / piece was called, and / or who wrote / performed it, unless one buys the soundtrack or DVD, etc., because even IMDb (@IMDb) is, as noted previously, certainly not without its faults, and largely does not extend to giving complete music-credits (here is what it lists for Youth (2015), and here, despite the credits that one saw roll, it gives none for the person who translated the screenplay) - so one’s easiest way to confirm, say, the singer or the name of some song has gone, when one leaves the cinema-screen too early to read the answer

6. Or one might want to know where that building was, and whether the interior was from the same one as shown as its exterior : the first clue [assuming, again, that one does not try to set about the task after leaving the cinema (and, even with the DVD and a large t.v. screen, the credits can end up minuscule] is to see the members of different units, e.g. Italy Unit or France Unit. It does depend much on the choices made by the film itself what information it then gives about locations, and also where it is to be found, so one’s eyes need to be nimble, because the credits will not always state Filmed on location at xyz, but there may just be mention of the premises in a list of thanks (or special thanks)



¹ Maybe people did not have respect for Macbeth (2015), and it must necessarily be taken for granted that they have little for those who choose to watch the credits (who also, willy-nilly, had to hear their curt pronouncements) : however, despite the very thoughtful atmosphere at the conclusion of the film, their desire to be out was just as strong as it must have been to be there, in the first place, in one of the first screenings in Screen 1 at The Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge (@CamPicturehouse).

² I.e. stated, early in Book I of Paradise Lost, Milton's aim to justifie the ways of God to men (on the question whether he did so, a writer in The Guardian (@guardian) dilated in 2011...).

³ In The Great Beauty (probably better thought of as Immense Beauty), the whole titles ran over the beauty and calm of Rome in the closing sequence, whereas, with writer / director Paolo Sorrentino’s new release, Youth (2015), it is just the main name-credits (through to and Jane Fonda, though we have flitted, for a while, to another venue by the time that her name appears). Then over the remaining end-credits, conventionally presented, an affecting reprise of David Lang’s ‘just (after song of songs)’ (which we do not hear in full (it runs to fifteen minutes), but Lang has, after his impressive contribution to the previous film, scored the film.

⁴ Whereas with, say, The Danish Girl (2015), one can very easily find out afterwards (if that theme is stil haunting) that Alexandre Desplat wrote the score and / or what other films he composed for : for one, it is there in the IMDb (@IMDb) listing for the film, and thence from Desplat’s entry.

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

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Beforehand, one had jokingly called it such things as The Danish Whirl

This is a review of The Danish Girl (2015)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

21 January (addition to first end-note, 25 January)

This is a review of The Danish Girl (2015)

For my fellow film-goer, Karen Goddard

One has blogged elsewhere [in a review of Qu’Allah bénisse la France ! (May Allah bless France !) (2014)] about when in films, if at all, the title proves to show its relevance – with the classic example of that of Frances Ha (2012), which leaves it to the very last moment, when we are no longer bothered about it (whereas that of Mistress America (2015), another collaboration between Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, is explained fairly swiftly, yet not so as to be out of the way, but giving connotations to the unfolding film).

Here, there is, on the face of what we are told, no good reason why this film is called The Danish Girl*. (Possibly, as with The English Patient (1996), we are in doubt whether the nationality or the noun is the word to stress, but, in the latter case, one not only argues that the word ‘Patient’ is the more important one (in need of a slight accent), but also points out that Count Laszlo de Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) is not English (though taken for it now, when it matters least to him, because of what he lost on account of patently not passing for English**).)

Really, if we do not search out more about the film and its subject beforehand, the title tells us no more than the film’s publicity visuals, because we know from the start that the central married couple (Gerda Wegener (née Gottlieb) (Alicia Vikander) and her husband Einar (Eddie Redmayne)) live in Copenhagen, and we gather that they are Danish. The film’s one caption locates us, in Denmark, in 1926 : with a story such as this one, one can on one level understand wishing to be light on demarcating the effluxion of time*** (albeit telling not what one might imagine, for its time, to be fantasy****), and where there appeared to be layers of reality subtly in operation :

(1) The opening shots of the natural world chose to disappoint a little, by eschewing being strikingly cinematographic (for truly gorgeous shots of that kind can just wow one, e.g. giving the eye treats in The Hunter (2011) [distinguished from other films in that year as IV in IMDb’s listing (@IMDb)]), but in that way setting up memories for the other end of the film.

(2) Principally with the visual treatment of Copenhagen, the feel of what the external world of that period must have been like, reminiscent, say, of that of Babette’s Feast (1987) (or, probably also, Fanny and Alexander (1982)) and Buddenbrooks (2008)*****.

(3) Finally (though not to say that there might not have been other gradations of depiction at play), and again principally in the home interiors in Copenhagen, where Einar and Gerda are co-conspirators in a game that develops in its own way, without them, and defying them [when Gerda says, of the game, This is not how it goes, one is reminded not a little of Agent Smith’s puzzlement in the key scene at the end of Matrix Revolutions (2003)] – the way in which we telescope in and out of the space in and between the rooms, almost as if, suggestive of undreamt possibility, volume, space and the world itself are flexible, malleable.

It is on the last of these levels, though, that we cinematically veer between the banal handling of cross-dressing of Hugo Weaving’s character in The Dressmaker (2015) [even if, as Lili Elbe appears to have claimed, some may truly be drawn to something that they first come to experience for wholly other reasons ? (whereas, if Gerda does then need a model, she seems to manage perfectly well to produce several finished works of Lili without one)], and the more enigmatic challenges and mysteries of Eyes Wide Shut (1999) (Stanley Kubrick, interpreting Arthur Schnitzler’s work Traumnovelle from 1926, the year in which The Danish Girl begins).

As mentioned****, despite the fact that the film concerns two artists, it is almost deliberately divorced from its milieu in art, literature, and music (in 1922 (before the film starts), Ulysses and ‘The Waste Land’ had both been published) - with the only variety of opinion and experiment that is shown, in telling short consultations, being in the spheres of medicine, psychiatry and psychoanalysis. (In a visit to the library, we even touch upon referencing Philadelphia (1993), or Lorenzo’s Oil (1992).)

Whether that artificial limitation is effective must be a matter for the individual, and what he or she knows (or is prepared to forget) about that period. That said, and also as referred to***, the crux of the film’s success for a viewer may depend on whether he or she knows that there is basis in fact (even if it has been changed) for what we see in terms of what happens to Lili Elbe, and how we might relate that to experiences shown in a modern film such as 52 Tuesdays (2013). (From the psychological point of view, also, we seem dangerously close to invoking the diagnosis – more respected in the States than in the UK – of multiple personality disorder, beloved of Psycho (1960), not to mention Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but perhaps never better deployed, as a narrative tool, than with Kevin Spacey in K-PAX (2001) ?)


* At one point, at best, Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) is calling on Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), and he ends the telephone call that is occupying him by saying that a Danish girl (woman ?) is waiting to see him (presumably, because he is not Danish). Gerda then swiftly acquaints him with her being the wife of Einar, a childhood friend. However or where exactly (Norway ?) Hans and Einar knew each other (and whether, as it seems, Hans is German), it is actually immaterial to what happens whether Einar was also Danish (as is the case).

It is now seen, in a review by a colleague at TAKE ONE (@TakeOneCinema), that David Ebershoff published a novel of this name in 2000 - though it remains unclear whether it and / or history are the film's basis.

** In transgender terms, what one does, or does not, pass for also seems to be highly relevant.

*** That said, the pitfall was that there were moments when one was caught by aspects of the seamlessness, and unhelpfully wrong-footed, supposing Oh, they must be back from Paris, then, only to realize that the person to whom Einar or Gerda is talking, thought to be in Denmark, is now in France, too... Maybe that was, in a film that was fairly sparing with overt challenges to mainstream cinematic conventions, not a useful feature, when simple use of establishing dialogue could have avoided the confusion ?

**** * Spoilers * If one had not read the words, on the publicity shot, Inspired by the extraordinary true story, the brief closing captions (white on black) do serve to bring around one’s notions of what the film depicts, and why it did so, and so confounding one’s beliefs as to what was medically possible when it is set (though the level of medical misunderstanding, and the barbarities that resulted from it, surprise less).

An article in The Daily Telegraph, from 8 December 2015, purports to talk about the question of the film’s rootedness in fact. Of course, having one’s assumptions challenged may be no bad thing, but, without wishing to say that The Danish Girl drags as such, the running-time of 120 minutes to get to that point is not a trim one, and it seems not unlikely both that it would fail to benefit from being at around 100 minutes, or that the reduction could only be achieved through unnecessary sacrifices.

***** Even if, in European art-historical terms alone, we had also seen Der Blaue Reiter, Cubism and Dada, and, to name but a few, this was the time of Surrealism, The Bauhaus, Futurism, and with Picasso going in and out of his ‘Blue Period’, let alone (as evidenced above) Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy. But the film perhaps wisely keeps the art of Einar and Gerda (and what else we see) rather neutral and unadventurous (although, as shown in The Daily Telegraph, Gerda painted in Art Deco style) – just as, without intending disrespect to Alexandre Desplat (in a film in which much skilful use is made of silence), the score is of a fairly predictable nature (compared with what he has composed, for example, for Wes Anderson's films).

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

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

At Lunch 2 : Arrangements, augmentations, and other versions [Full Ligeti version]

This is a review of Britten Sinfonia in At Lunch 2 on 19 January 2016

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

20 January

This is a review of At Lunch 2, given by Britten Sinfonia at West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, on Tuesday 19 January 2016 at 1.00 p.m.

NB This is the original version, but, now that the review is complete, there is an edited one

Britten Sinfonia’s (@BrittenSinfonia’s) programme for At Lunch 2, heard at West Road Concert Hall (@WestRoadCH), mixed the eighteenth century (with three arias from cantatas by Bach, and two re-workings of ones by Alessandro Scarlatti¹) with the twentieth (Ligeti and Pärt) and a new commission (Anna Clyne) – one theme being arrangements and other versions, and with the concert’s own running-order altered and augmented (the original place in the order, if different, in shown in parenthesis) :

1 (4) Aria Seufzer, Tränen, Kummer, Not [with its preceding Sinfonia] ~ Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)

2 Due arie notturne dal campo ~ Alessandro Scarlatti (1660–1725*) arranged by Salvatore Sciarrino (1947–)

3 Fratres (version for string quartet) ~ Arvo Pärt (1935–)

4 (1) Aria Gott versorget alles Leben ~ Bach

5 Continuum ~ György Ligeti (1923–2006)

6 (7) Aria Tief gebückt und voller Reue ~ Bach

7 (6) This Lunar Beauty ~ Anna Clyne (1980–)

* * * * *

Dating from Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (BWV 21), a Cantata written by Bach in Weimar (in 1714), the aria that we heard, (1) Seufzer, Tränen, Kummer, Not, was a good opening choice : its accompanying Sinfonia introduced Marios Argiros to us on obbligato oboe, and, as we listened to the aria, the plangent tone of that instrument, beloved of Bach’s later sacred works², was weaving in and out of the texture (as, also, Jacqueline Shave on first violin).

When soprano Julia Doyle made her entry, leaning into the monosyllables of this short text (e.g., in the first two lines, Not, Furcht, and Tod (respectively ‘need’ (or, in that sense, ‘want’), ‘fear’, and ‘death’)), it was with an uncluttered vocal-style. Around all this, giving a stately, steady feel, was Maggie Cole’s harpsichord continuo (and also from Caroline Dearnley on cello, adding weight to the ensemble). As Jo Kirkbride’s programme-notes comment, regarding the last Bach aria in the hour-long sequence, the accompanying instruments ‘suggest a level of torment beneath the calm surface’, so here there were suspensions and mini-cadenzas that punctuated the vocal line.

It is with the initial words, in reference to which the aria borrows its title, that Bach is most concerned, and to which he will have us return : after a moment of attack on Schmerz (‘pain’), the final word in the four-line text, Doyle had to go very high, in re-visiting the opening line, and we ended, as we began, with oboe, and a very definite close.

In Alessandro Scarlatti’s (2) Due arie notturne dal campo (as arranged by Salvatore Sciarrino), possibly pre-dating the Bach work*, Doyle brought out warmer, stronger tone-colours, better suited to Italian than to German.

The setting was built around accents and a falling scale (other works in the programme were to do the latter), and each half-line of Dove sta / la mia pace was repeated for emphasis. We could see, as well as hear, string-effects being passed from viola (Clare Finnimore) to cello (Caroline Dearnley), and, at the last line of the text, we doubled back for a da capo finish.

The second, shorter, aria fitted a lighter tone, and Doyle’s ornamentation was bright and easy, as exemplified by the portamento on the significant word curo in the first line : Non ti curo, o libertà. On cello, Caroline Dearnley’s playing was vibrant, and (on viola) Clare Finnimore could be heard bringing out the resonance.

Lamentably, the review of The Sinfonia at Saffron Hall (@SaffronHall) [with Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho (1960), played with a simultaneous screening] is still not finished (and is unmanageably overlong already). However, it says what was as true of hearing Arvo Pärt’s version of (3) Fratres (1977) for string quartet (from 1985) : watching performers as they play can bring out what one might otherwise overlook [but please see 5, below], or take for granted, by not being conscious of what they are doing - here, the initial two clusters of pizzicato gestures on the cello, which act as a sort of punctuation before each of nine variations, but by no means invariantly (please see below).

Here, those opening gestures led in a disembodied, echoing tone (also described above), and seeing Dearnley’s spread hand for playing harmonics helped one hear the sounds that she was producing. In the programme-notes, which are the link to (2) the Scarlatti / Sciarrino, it is observed that Pärt ‘employs just a simple scale’ [in Italian, the word just means ladder], and he also had Miranda Dale (second violin) much occupied with a continuous note, to act as a drone - virtually the polar opposite of the plucked, and so almost necessarily brief, notes on the cello ?

Not that Pärt intends to hypnotize us, or the string-players, but it proves harder than one might imagine to keep track of the variations, at important points in each of which (by no means to stay out from under the piece’s influence) the performers ensured that they were together by nods. By around the fifth section, which now sounded uncannily like Russian Orthodox chant, the feeling had become far less aetherial, and spoke rather of richness, with the succeeding pizzicato notes on cello being notably different in tone (all of which, somehow, is presumably indicated by notation ?).

The next section added even greater resonance, and it and what followed much more resembled a conventional string-sound, before a variation that was again contemplative – with a slight diminuendo, and a more quiet cello pizzicato. Now, right at the end of the work, the section that followed was softer, and with Pärt achieving a very striking spiritual effect on us, through a little rallentando, which then combined with a diminuendo. In the final pizzicato, one could see Caroline Dearnley’s other hand, holding the string (to shorten the duration of the note, one assumed).

For the second Bach aria (originally to have been the first number in the hour-long concert), (4) Gott versorget alles Leben [from the Cantata Es wartet alles auf dich (BWV 187)], the date of composition (1726) is twelve years later (and in the period of works by Bach already referred to²), but what links it is the beautiful writing for obbligato oboe, which leads into that for voice.

To this setting of a longer passage of verse, accompanied this time just by harpsichord, oboe and cello³, Julia Doyle gave, in her delivery, both clear vocal-tone, and a quality of ‘reaching out’ from - and with - the given text, which made the change in mood at the mid-point, as well as feeling natural, touch us with the sentiment Worries, be gone !, as from the words of another person.

After the concert, someone remarked to the effect that (5) Continuum (1968) was the first piece by Ligeti that she had liked : not only is that comment, in retrospect, actually ambiguous, but there was not time to enquire what others of his compositions she had heard. Besides which, Ligeti was such a varied composer that it might be anything (with works, say, ranging from his Chamber Concerto (1969–1970) (with its important part for harpsichord) to Aventures (1962) and Nouvelles Aventures (1962–1965)). However, this still seemed surprising to learn, possibly because not everyone would have welcomed this aural experience on, as one maybe wrongly gathered (please see above), the first occasion…

If this level of detail is too much (it continues), there is now an edited version, which shortens the time taken on this piece

It had been noticed, earlier on, that the harpsichord had been set up with a microphone above the strings, and what looked like a feedback monitor, underneath it, and pointing towards the strings upstage of it : one knew too little about Continuum (beyond having reminded oneself of it via the link in the above Tweet) to know what, if anything, this might signify in relation to a live performance.

What did quickly become apparent, though, was that – when principal harpsichordist Maggie Cole had started playing – one least wanted to be aware, beyond the sound, of what was happening on stage (or in the auditorium as a whole) : for it appeared that one could only give listening one’s best by, with one’s gaze directed upwards, actually least trying to concentrate on it. Not wishing to labour what might resemble some Zen paradox, but Less can be more [as in a Sinfonia concert, at Saffron Hall (@SaffronHallSW), with, first, Frank Zappa's The Perfect Stranger] : to have one’s attention not on the instant moment, and rather on absorbing the overall patterns and impressions (from which it felt that the mechanical aspects, revealed visually, served too much as a distraction).

In a book published not long before Ligeti's death, Richard Steinitz (in the couple of pages devoted to Continuum (1968)⁴) starts by telling how it was one of thirty-eight pieces that were commissioned by Antoinette Vischer for her instrument (which, over time, seems to have eclipsed those by the likes of Cage, Berio and Henze), and that it was written for the sturdy ‘modern’ two-manual harpsichord with 16’, 8’ and 4’ stops (specifically not the type since used in period performance). In summary, Steinitz says that, at the correct tempo for the piece, each hand (one on each manual) depresses 16-17 keys per second⁵, and that its genesis was in Goffried Michael Koenig's discoveries in the electronic studio in Cologne : he became Ligeti's mentor (and Ligeti assisted with his electronic work Essay (1957-1958)). The new understanding from which Continuum derived was having found a rate at (and above) which a succession of pitches coalesces as chords, and the pitches are then not distinguishable as a line of melody.

Steinitz then goes on to describe, in general terms (and before talking about the harmonic progressions, and how and in what way they operate), how rhythm operates on three levels (the first being what he characterizes as the incessant ‘clatter’ of the foreground pulses) – it was precisely by being open to the music, and letting it come through (without, as described above, trying to focus overly on it), that what Steinitz analyses in two further paragraphs (which are well worth reading, in context⁶) was audible at the two levels beyond that of 'clatter', one (the second) being the rate at which patterns repeat in the piece, and the other (the third) that at which the choice of pitch changes. (These brief comments had been written after the concert, but before consulting Steinitz's book : Perhaps the piece exists, in this way, in the cycles between and within the cycles : not quite as with a work by Steve Reich, with whose approach one hears different things and in a different way, but as with other works by Ligeti.)

In preparation for hearing Continuum some other time, then, it might be best to practise (or remember, at any rate, to exercise) that relaxation of active awareness, and also to leave reacquaintance with the work until the event. This is on the basis that one can have Too much of a good thing, whereas the less-concentrated, but no less powerful, effects of Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto [including the use of harpsichord in the third and fourth movements, marked, respectively, Movimento preciso e maccanico and Presto] make it more susceptible to repeated listening : in tribute to Pierre Boulez (26 March 1925 to 5 January 2016), the link is to his recording with The Ensemble Intercontemporain.

Whatever others were hearing, and how they chose to listen and what to watch, one necessarily did not know, but the conclusion of the piece brought Maggie Cole a tremendously appreciative round of applause, which saw her return for a further bow.

Finally, after the inordinate amount of space taken on a piece that lasted four minutes… With the reversal that had been announced of the order of the final two vocal pieces, we heard the third Bach aria, before the new commission by Anna Clyne (at the mid-point of a world-premiere tour).

(6) Tief gebückt und voller Reue [from the Cantata Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (BWV 199)], again, as with the first aria in the revised order (Seufzer, Tränen, Kummer, Not), from 1714, seemed reminiscent of the sound-world of The Brandenburg Concertos (BWV 1046–1051), especially - as explained in the next paragraph - No. 3 (in G Major) : as is well known, the six instrumental works are so called, because, in 1721 (although they are thought to have been composed earlier), they were presented to the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt.

The opening bar of BWV 1048 (as we might call it), which the Sinfonia will be bringing to Saffron Hall in a concert on 15 May, contains just two semi-quavers (as one can see above). They, with the first note of the next bar (a quaver), form a rhythmic and tonal three-note motif (and then, further down the treble stave, it immediately repeats, for the first of numerous times – taking it next up the stave once more, and then down). Although the aria also has, as an obvious feature to the cello part, such a semi-tone ‘dip and back’, it does not have the Concerto’s insistence, albeit a gentle one – as of links in a chain, and making for a higher level of patterning [not wholly dissimilar, dare one say, to the effect of the various levels, as Steinitz calls them (please see above), of rhythmicity that one could discern within Continuum ?].

To how this five-line text had been set, and the honest metaphysics of its words, the Sinfonia instrumentalists assisted Julia Doyle in bringing poise of vocal expression, so that (in the third line) Ich bekenne meine Schuld then balanced against both of the lines that followed (in fact, all of them against each other) : Aber habe doch Geduld / Habe doch Geduld mit mir !. Here, catching Bach’s intention, there was a feint of simply finishing there, with a soft ending, till our hearing a ritornello signalled beginning da capo, and then closing, so that we were plunged back into the words after which it is titled, Tief gebückt und voller Reue.

These three arias, and the company that they kept, worked very well together - as did our soprano and her fellow musicians !

Concluding the hour of music with (7) Anna Clyne’s This Lunar Beauty (2015), setting W. H. Auden’s poem of that name [the text is here], must have been the right thing to do with the programme, and Anna Clyne is not a stranger to having works appearing in Sinfonia concerts. (She can be heard here, in a pre-concert talk with The University of Cambridge’s Kate Kennedy (@DrKKenney), from the final At Lunch 2 concert, at The Wigmore Hall (@wigmore_hall), on the following day.)

The composition felt to have a Scottish ring to it at times, e.g. with the use of a drone on the viola, but also more generally, in its landscape (which perhaps fits with what Clyne says, in that talk, about having studied music at university in Scotland), and it seemed Nymanesque in a vague way (not inconsistently with using a high soprano voice towards the end). We started with oboe, which had been a linking element in these pieces, then Marios Argiros was joined by Clare Finnimore (viola), and next the two violinists, until all were playing.

One can think of works from the Classical period that did likewise, but, in the last hundred years, it has often enough been a feature in neoclassical and modernist works, too : one purpose that it served was to draw attention to the various instruments (for, whilst we cannot be unaware of Bach’s use of obbligato oboe, the role of the cello or harpsichord is much less prominent, and more subtly part of the voice’s accompaniment). Again (hardly for the first time), Clyne makes the soprano seem more part of the ensemble’s range of voices, which we hear from at various times, such as harpsichord figurations with cello and violin.

Except for the Ligeti [for quite other reasons, already very sufficiently given above], This Lunar Beauty was unlike everything else on the programme, and, on a first hearing, a feat to try to take in - not least because of its unfamiliar text, which (despite its simple appearance) is both densely poetical as well as outright difficult to construe in places, even with later quiet reflection (for example, the second half of the second stanza : the text is here). Amidst a lively part for oboe, which at times was up and down scales / parts of them (which is where Michael Nyman somehow first seemed present ?), or elements of pounding from the harpsichord, and definite in their company, the unhurried, tranquil voice (as of The Moon ?) of Julia Doyle, complete with impressively leaping into the higher register before, with some bending of notes, the work came to close.


¹ The dates for Scarlatti (2 May 1660 to 22 October 1725) are wrongly given in the programme as 1685–1757 : the latter are those of Aleesandro Scarlatti's son Domenico (now much more famous ?).

² E.g., towards the end of Part I, in the aria for tenor with Chorus Ich will bein meinem Jesu wachen, in the St Matthew Passion (original version 1727) (BWV 244). (Or the Quia respexit from the Magnificat in D Major (from 1733, after the version (from 1723) in E Flat Major) (BWV 243).)

³ In the continuo, one could hear how Bach gave the oboe part shorter note-values than for harpsichord and cello.

⁴ Faber & Faber, London (2003). György Ligeti : Music of the Imagination, pp. 164-166.

⁵ The video of Continuum on YouTube (@YouTube) [where it is called Continuum für Cembalo], to which Britten Sinfonia (@BrittenSinfonia) linked in its Tweet (above, after the introductory paragraph on Continuum), and which simultaneously shows the progress of a piano-roll across the screen, is three minutes and fifty-two seconds, but the actual recording runs to around 3:47 (and is credited as being played by Antoinette Vischer herself – for whom it was written, please see above).

In the last paragraph of his chapter (op. cit., p. 166)), Steinitz talks about Pierre Charial’s adaptation of the piece for barrel-organ (from 1988). According to him, its recorded performance [in the 1997 Ligeti edition] takes just 3:22 (which is faster than Maggie Cole could possibly have played it), because of ‘the superhuman speed with which it can read the perforated rolls’ : the duration for the piece as heard on YouTube, then, is intermediate between that for the version for barrel-organ and what was likely when Cole played it (Steinitz says that four minutes [are] allowed for human players).

In a quicker performance (he is referring to Charial’s mechanical adaptation, but the same would tend to be true when heard played, not in around 4 minutes, but on YouTube in 3:42), Steinitz describes two effects (which would, for those who had heard the recording, have put Cole at a relative disadvantage) in his concluding sentence : The headlong tempo creates a splendid ‘coalescing’, whilst the shifting patterns of second-level rhythm are actually clearer.

⁶ One does have a slight hesitation, though, if one carefully reads what Steinitz writes to describe, in percentage terms, what happens to the slowing in the rate at which notes repeat when the score has the player move from alternating between a pair of notes to repetitively playing them (or other notes ?) with a third note. For he writes (ibid., p. 165), When the opening two-note ostinato of G and B flat acquires an additional F, the rate of repetition automatically slows down by fifty per cent. Lovely to see an author / copy-editor at Faber adhering to ‘per cent’, but is the mathematics behind the statistic itself not awry ?

For, with the initial G and B flat, do the notes not play 50 : 50, but, with the F added, that changes to 33.33 : 33.33 : 33.33 ? Accordingly, unless one mistakes much, is the change in the percentage rate at which either of B flat or G is heard (before and after the F joins them) not by fifty per cent, but, rather from fifty per cent, the calculation of the rate of change being given by : 50 minus 33.33, all divided by 50, then multiplied by 100 (which gives us 33.33 again)... ? Whereas a slowing of 'the rate of repetition [...] by fifty per cent' would surely require the piece to go directly from an alternating pair of notes to a repeating four-note pattern ?

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

Monday, 4 January 2016

We hate him, because he’s immortal* (work in progress)

This is a review of Let’s Get Lost (1988)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

20 November

This is a review of Let’s Get Lost (1988)

Referenced in a review of Orion : The Man Who Would Be King (2015) - to help to demonstrate that film's superiority (in telling a musician's life and handling the conflicts of pursuing a career) - Let’s Get Lost (1988) is a film about jazz trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker. (It appears not to have been screened in the UK until 6 June 2008 (at Cambridge Film Festival).)

It can hardly be accused of being over adulatory, in the way that Iris (2014) or Mavis ! (2015) easily appear to be, but it had the luxury of working with a subject who was no longer living, but whom it had shot in the year before his death. Yet one probably thinks too much of its possible influence, if one conceives that its portrayal of him as a bad cat could have affected people in the way that his music (or recordings of it) did and have continued to do.

For reasons that seem questionable (and in footage not obviously falsified by its context), it dished up to us images of Baker, then 58, being schmoozed by two attractive women, seemingly fans, in the back of an open-topped car, or on the dodgems. If one did not know of his life, this proved not to be candid documentary-filming of a jazzer’s celebrity life-style, but a directorially conceived treat for Baker – in reference to which, much later on, we hear him sounding unduly thankful :

It is as if ‘treating’ him in this way, when he is open that he likes getting stoned** (which may indicate a suggestible personality ?), licenses other footage where, for example, he is patently on camera with the film-makers, but is, for no very good reason, shown glamour shots of naked (or near-naked) women, and invited to comment. One feels for Baker, involved in some sort of tribute to him that does not seem very bothered about whether it even appears to be exploiting him, but he does have enough composure simply to remark nice-looking ladies : maybe, more than twenty-five years later, ethical considerations are different about one’s documentary subject, but it is not as if one does not hear the film-makers (they are good enough to allow us) talking to Baker in a way where one must reasonably doubt that they can be unaware where the balance of power lies.

In reviewing Orion, the laboured artiness of this film’s look was critiqued, but it even extends to mimicking what Hitchcock does, after Norman Bates’ (Anthony Perkins’) attack in Psycho (1960), with Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh’s) eye, taking us right up to it, and then rotating it, so that it resembles less an eye than a vulva. A victory of form over significant content ? Well, in those terms (even if that reference seems gratuitous, it is momentary), its ‘style’ is not the worst of the excesses of the film :

For no apparent reason (other than that, amongst everyone else, he eventually mentions Baker ?), screen-time is taken with a rambling interview with actor Lawrence Trimble, name-dropping in a slow way about when he was in Paris and drifting around the jazz-club Le Chat Qui Pêche, and the likes of Bud Powell. On one level, by being allowed to go on so long, Trimble hangs himself, but so could, probably, any of the others in Chet Baker’s life – and except that, unlike with them, neither the film, nor Trimble seems to trouble to establish what connection he had with Baker (except as another name). Writers have their treasured phrases / sentences, but they sooner or later refuse, however delightful they are, to find a place where they fit, and have to go : this interview, for similar reasons, should never have made this self-indulgent cut, where one did not take long to start hoping that there was less of it, not more, to see.

The discussion of this film in the review of Orion wants to point up how Let’s Get Lost also keeps ringing the changes on the message in what one interviewee has said (Diane Vavra, as one recalls ?) : You’ll never really know when Chet is being sincere. So, rather than considering, in equivalent depth, other matters such as the super footage (courtesy of Pathé) of Baker’s appearance at Cannes Film Festival in 1987 (the year before his death), it hops around - guiding you, in these juxtapositions, only by how he looks at any time – from young Baker, to much younger, to older (though, during a recording session, we do hear much of the song ‘Imagination is funny’). Just because it can (?), it interweaves these moments with critiques of him as a person, from those who want to say what , beneath a surface, he was ‘really like’.

As with the arty appearance, the film may be of its time in that it presents a male friend who tells how Baker supplanted him in his fractional absence from sexual intercourse, and, consequently, how that satisfied partner (still having thought that it was he) always wants to go to bed with him, but the story, if it even sounded plausible, is obviously of a double-edged variety : although Baker is thereby credited as a titanic lover, it is in the context of being painted as unscrupulous and opportunistic, and only fortuitously ‘benefiting’ the persons whom he had wronged (one of whom, somehow (?), remained unaware). Yet were we watching this ‘account’ to be Baker’s moral judge, or to learn something relevant to his trumpet-playing and singing ?

The review of Orion touched on the status of Jacqueline du Pré as a musician versus what we are required to concentrate on in Hilary and Jackie (1998), where Emily Watson plays her in the role of being the sister of Hilary du Pré-Finzi (Rachel Griffiths) - with all that is entailed for their relationships, both with each other, and with others : quite in tune with the story about Chet Baker jumping into bed with a woman and assuming the narrator’s place...

Rather strenuously, with what Let’s Get Lost chooses to show, almost no stone seemed to have been left unturned to say that, with Baker performing a song, the experiences that resulted from the occasion were not felt by him in that moment, but were a calculated and manipulative act. In this respect, though, when we hear ‘eager’ questions - such as asking how many wives he has had - from those surrounding him, as he is being filmed for this project, we know that they already know, and that they are just ‘acting dumb’ in the enquiry and with their responses. Or, when Bruce Weber and his editor are deciding to give us a moment that has been caught where Baker says I’m always looking for my lighter, placing it*** in such a way in the film so that it sounds ‘significant’ and noteworthy, not just banal : if Baker was pretending to feel an emotion in a song, film itself is an even bigger constructed reality.



* What is that (song ?) reference ?

** One interviewee talks about when Baker and she ‘got lost on a sail-boat’, thereby explicating the film’s title.

*** Both at what point (how far in / in what other company) in the film, and how the scene is contextualized within itself (what came before the remark, to frame it, and how is it allowed to hang in the air)...

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

Saturday, 2 January 2016

The Replicated Screenplay : A Fable

The Replicated Screenplay : A Fable

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

2 January

The Replicated Screenplay : A Fable

In thanks to Thurber for the pleasure given by his Fables for Our Time

In the hush-hush days of Hollywood, it is well past the point of no return before what has somehow happened comes to light. Through some staggering implausibility, the screenplay that has been developed in one studio is, word for word, identical with that worked on by another*, and they each had gone into production with it.

When the studio heads eventually come to believe (which is not easy for them to do) that this is truly not the result of espionage or collusion, and that litigating the matter will not get them nowhere, they accept the situation for whatever cosmic quirk it is. They agree different names for each film, and that they will battle it out at the box office, relying on the distinction brought to the screenplay of their producers, directors, stars, directors of photography, film editors, wardrobe, make-up, hair, set-design...

When the films are released, though, what amazes them most is that no one includes both films in their reviews, let alone praising one over the other : seemingly, no one has noticed.

From then on, as other studios watched in surprise, Hollywood learnt a lesson, realizing that they had been giving cinema-goers and critics too much credit. They have never looked back.


* Many will not be unaware that one is, of course, also indebted here to Jorge Luis Borges, for his story (in essay form) that re-creates the writings of Miguel de Cervantes, 'Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ (‘Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote’) (and for having had the opportunity to refer to it a preview, for Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (#CamFF), of Othello (Otel.lo) (2012)).

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

Friday, 1 January 2016

Mont Blanc Sings The Blues

This is a review of Alps (Alpeis) (2011)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

1 January

This is a review of Alps (Alpeis) (2011)

Not intending, in these first paragraphs, to tell the film, but indicate its significance, one can say that Alps (Alpeis) (2011) opens in the same place, and way, as it closes. Shortly afterwards, there are terrible, very specific threats made to the young gymnast whom we have seen performing (Ariane Labed*), if she ever doubts again her coach’s (Johnny Vekris’) judgement that she is not ready to dance to pop yet. It is an overt and watchful assertion of assumed power (which is not directly challenged, but through underground measures of a certain naivety** – please see below).

Perhaps not best characterized to ourselves, in naturalistic terms, as the clumsy attempt of the coach, as an egocentric and proud man, to deal with losing face by putting the other three present in fear of reprisals – the fact that they are out of all proportion is the given undercurrent to what happens in this film : the ever-present possibility that one might be found to be in disfavour is what gives an edge of almost Pinteresque proportions to much of the dialogue.

Shortly after confronting the gymnast, the coach puts forward the fatuous suggestion that all four of them should collectively be Alps, and invites the others to say which one they want to be. As well as dealing straight off with the question of the title, this moment is a microcosm, as one chooses Monte Rosa (they are well versed in mountains), and so on. Maybe more by luck than judgement, this leaves him to stake a claim to Mont Blanc, and dominate by his comments about its – and so his – status.

One emphasis in what is expected of them, as with training the body in gymnastics to perform seamless and exact sequences of movements, is on repetition, on getting the words (one’s part) right, otherwise menaces have been made that may be realized – they may not be hanging offences, but we perceive that they could be hanging upside-down offences. Or can one buck the trend or current by pretending to comply** ? That is what Angeliki Papoulia – a nurse and the main character of the four whom we follow*** - tries, and one thing that she succeeds in doing is by buying, apparently through sex, the agreement of the ambulance man (Aris Servetalis) that the young gymnast should be allowed to perform to pop.

The idea and practice of play-acting goes back long before recorded Time, with European examples in the tradition of the Feast of Fools (especially in France) and The Lord of Misrule (also Abbot or King) in late-mediaeval and early-Tudor England. For some, in a film such as [ ] Holy Motors (2012), play-acting is something new (and not, heavily reliant on dazzling with what is little more than make-up and prosthetics, a slender conceit on which a whole film desires to found itself), whereas Alps takes it in its stride, and does not try hanging a film on it.)

What form play-acting takes in the film will not be told, but, as we start with a gymnast, one could think mysteriously in terms of a sporting substitution in a team game. The how and why of that, and the significance of who the substitute is, are what the film revolves at its heart, as is the continuing disquiet that the workplace is another nexus of domination : in a way that suggests menace, we hear an enquiry about coffee-mugs, where it seems that something less everyday and innocent is actually being talked about. More effective than The Lobster, for its opacity and lasting registration in the memory, Alps challenges as the best of cinema, theatre and prose can.


* She also appears in The Lobster (2015), which this film’s director, Yorgos Lanthimos, likewise co-wrote with Efthymis Filippou.

** Which The Lobster* makes an even larger part of its remit.

*** Although this blog’s review of The Lobster effectively suggests that we may be mistaken about the person whom we are following, there is the same principle there as to the point of view in the film’s being predominantly one person’s.

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