Ashes and Diamonds

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Ashes and Diamonds

Directed by Andrzej Wajda

Poland, 1958

HOME, 23 August 2015

A portrait of post-war Poland, at the point in time when the Germans had been defeated but the communists had not yet managed to establish complete control.

Partisans still fight for a free country. A large-scale portrait of Stalin lays in a rubble-strewn street. The name of Katyn is unspoken, but it is present in every frame of the film somehow. As a fear, as something known.

The film is richly complex and even the minor characters – a hotel porter, a cleaning lady – are fully alive. Myriad memorable scenes throughout. There is one scene in a bombed-out church, the altar demolished and a large crucifix broken in two, the nimbus about Christ’s head shattered so that it seems as though spikes have been driven into his head. We look through Christ in agony at the two lovers who converse. A stained white radiance indeed. Another: when making love, close ups (taking up all of the screen) of the lovers’ faces. Another: the bloody hand of a fatally wounded man appearing from behind a white sheet, smearing blood upon it.

What the film is about above all, perhaps, is unfulfilment. Dreams and schemes going awry. No one gets what they want or manages to escape unharmed. Everyone pays a cost.

A great, great film.

Threads of Power @ the Kunsthistorisches Museum

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Threads of Power

Sixteenth Century Tapestries from the Kunsthistorisches Museum

Vienna, August 2015

Threads of Power

For the first of a series of rough and ready guides to the museums of Vienna, let’s take a look at the Kunsthistorisches Museum and their current exhibition, Threads of Power.

Threads of Power is on show until 20 September and it offers a rare opportunity to see some of the museum’s sixteenth century tapestries. Due to the fragility of the material, extremely susceptible to erosion, they cannot be placed on permanent display.

There is a splendour and opulence – of colour, of detail, of composition – to these tapestries which cannot be captured by an image on a webpage. But let me make the attempt. Consider, for the moment, the tapestry, ‘An Unsuccessful Turkish Sally from La Goleta’:

An Unsuccessful Turkish Sally from La Goleta

An Unsuccessful Turkish Sally from La Goleta (1.7 MB)
Tapestry from the series “The Tunis Campaign of Emperor Charles V”
design: Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen (c. 1500 – 1559), 1545/46
produced under Jodocus de Vos, Brussels, between 1712 and 1721
wool, silk, metal threads,; 520 x 850 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer
© KHM-Museumsverband

This tapestry measures 520 x 850 cm, dimensions which are not uncommon, and is part of a series entitled ‘The Tunis Campaign of Emperor Charles V’.  They are so immense in scale, these tapestries, because they were intended to be displayed on ceremonial occasions, at banquets, coronations, weddings and other events of state. And frequently several tapestries will form a series, such as say months or seasons of the year, The Seven Virtues or The Seven Deadly Sins. Other themes might be taken from Greek or Roman mythology or the books of the Bible. Closer to home, tapestries might detail events in the life of the court or (as here) celebrate important military victories. As one might well imagine, there’s a narrative or ‘graphic novel’ feel to many of them. Now consider this detail, taken from the lower left quarter of the tapestry above:

An Unsuccessful Turkish Sally from La Goleta

An Unsuccessful Turkish Sally from La Goleta (1.6 MB)
Tapestry from the series “The Tunis Campaign of Emperor Charles V” (detail)
design: Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen (c. 1500 – 1559), 1545/46
produced under Jodocus de Vos, Brussels, between 1712 and 1721
wool, silk, metal threads,; 520 x 850 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer
© KHM-Museumsverband

We see frantic fighting but in the lower right, to pick up on just one detail,  a soldier is nursing a wounded comrade:

An Unsuccessful Turkish Sally from La Goleta

An Unsuccessful Turkish Sally from La Goleta (2.3 MB)
Tapestry from the series “The Tunis Campaign of Emperor Charles V” (detail)
design: Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen (c. 1500 – 1559), 1545/46
produced under Jodocus de Vos, Brussels, between 1712 and 1721
wool, silk, metal threads,; 520 x 850 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer
© KHM-Museumsverband

The attention to detail and the craftsmanship required to pull it off is astounding; and every tapestry in the exhibition is as richly detailed as this, as deserving of examination.  In the exhibition, as well as the tapestries themselves, you also see designs for them in the form of woodcuts, engravings, and pen and ink drawings. Incidentally, I was interested to learn that most tapestries were produced in Brussels, since this tallied with what Lisa Pon said in her talk, ‘Raphael in the Sistine Chapel’, at the John Rylands Library back in May. Raphael’s tapestries, originally displayed in the Sistine Chapel, were also produced in Brussels.

Threads of Power is a spectacular exhibition, more details of which can be found here.

On show elsewhere in the Kunsthistorisches Museum there’s a vast array of art and precious artefacts accumulated over several centuries, including in the Picture Gallery masterpieces by Titian, Rembrandt, Vermeer and of course Brueghel. The Brueghel room is undoubtedly the jewel, the inspiration for Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’ and the film Museum Hours. There are Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities and a coin collection. Some Klimt frescoes can be seen in the staircase from the first floor landing.

However, the most magical space, to my mind, is the Kunstkammer on the ground floor. It is a treasure trove, containing many objects made out of gold and precious jewels. Clocks and automata (not unlike those that can be seen out at the Prater today) feature in one room, a model of a Roman Amphitheatre in another. There is a Winged Altarpiece from the workshop of Heinrich Fullmaurer (made in about 1540), consisting of 156 panels, which easily eats up the hours.

Even if you spend a whole day in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, you would walk away feeling that you missed something essential, skipped over a painting or sculpture that you should really have paid more attention to. Which is why, if you live in Vienna or are a frequent visitor to the city, the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s annual ticket is incredibly good value. This is one of the world’s great museums and art galleries and an essential experience for art lovers.  More details of the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s exhibitions and collections can be found here.

The President

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The President

Directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf

Georgia, 2014

HOME, 22 August 2015

The President

On the surface, it is a film about what happens to a country when a dictator is toppled and order (albeit repressive order) breaks down.

How base instinct and casual violence become routine as chaos ensues.

He flees, the president of this failed state, along with his young grandson, and in time he comes to see for himself the ravages of his rule, the consequences of his cruelty. Had he been less authoritarian, kinder, things may have been different, but maybe not. Who knows?

The film is fraught with fear, its picaresque structure allowing us a moveable vantage on terror and despair, whether we want it or not. And the awful scene where a raped woman demands to be shot is one you might not want to witness. But it can’t be wished away.

I admire this film greatly and wondered afterwards whether there might not be a Christ incognito motif somewhere. The president is only recognised when he assumes the form of a scarecrow, which is to say the form of the crucified Christ. Other aspects in the film tally with this interpretation (there’s a prostitute called Maria, for example). No miracles, mind.

Marshland

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Marshland

Directed by Alberto Rodríguez

Spain, 2014

HOME, 24 August 2015

Marshland

Spain, 1980: a country in transition.

Two detectives are sent to a provincial town to investigate the abduction, maybe murder of two teenage sisters. To dig down to the truth, they must deal with the powers that be and their hands must become both bloody and dirty.

The detectives are a mismatched pair (Javier Gutiérrez and Raúl Arévalo, terrific actors) and that’s the chief factor that makes the film so watchable. One is young, career-orientated, keen to use the new political freedoms offered him. His partner is one of Franco’s old henchmen, unable to sleep nights because of all he has done and witnessed, fatally afflicted. Predator and prey, but which is which?

It’s a very decent crime film. The scenes in the marshes brought to mind the denouement in The Mean Season, that old (and also excellent) Kurt Russell film.

The Legend of Barney Thomson

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The Legend of Barney Thomson

Directed by Robert Carlyle

UK, 2015

HOME, 26 July 2015

The Legend of Barney Thomson

The film has a definite sense of  style,  quotidian, gaudy and ever so slightly gothic, due to the locales and the colouring and the story, which  holds your attention, no worries.

Then there is Robert Carlyle’s lead performance, his portrait of a sad bastard who’s a spectator in his own life, poor sod. Things just happen to him. A fellow by name of Ray Winstone gives a good showing an’ all – as a London cop who’s up North, not from round here, here being the city of Glasgow. It is Emma Thompson as Barney’s mum who astounds most, mind. She is so good, so convincing, so on the money, I didn’t realise even that it was her until the credits came at the end. ‘What the fuck?’ I thought , in character and keeping with the film. For there is an awful lot of profanity here – should you give a fuck, that is.

Despite all the pleasure that the film gave me – and it is a black, black comedy and I laughed a fair bit of the time – I felt it could have been even better. Some of it was sit-com material, while other scenes made one think of Hogg or Stevenson.That allusion to Taggart, for example, is an indication of small ambition. Will people pick up on it in 50 years’time? And this could have been a film that people will want to see 50 years from now; who knows, maybe they will.

Anyway, this is a good (could have been great, in my opinion) debut from Robert Carlyle as director. He should do more.

Chimes at Midnight

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Chimes at Midnight

Directed by Orson Welles

France, 1965

HOME, 26 July 2015

Chimes at Midnight

As is well known, Orson Welles had an immense regard for Shakespeare. He remarked one time, when working on Macbeth or Othello or perhaps another play, that it was salutary to be confronted with material that was better than you were.

The restoration of Chimes at Midnight, a film about Falstaff that uses the texts of several Shakespeare plays, shows that Welles’s appreciation was grounded on a profound understanding of the Bard’s art. This film has it all. There is bawdy and battle scenes, noble sentiment and callous intrigue, splendour and squalor, wit and pity and terror, and even a play within a play, with Falstaff taking the part of the king. All is wondrous: John Gielgud is here and Welles’s Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s two greatest characters according to Harold Bloom (the other being Hamlet), is his equal.

A masterpiece.

Chimes at Midnight is showing again at HOME today and tomorrow, further details here.

Private Gym

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Private Gym

Private Gym

So, a tale of a man and his penis. Yes, another one. I’ll try to make it, well, not too tall.

And the story begins when I receive an intriguing product called Private Gym, which is described as a ‘pelvic muscle system for men’. What’s a pelvic muscle? Well, when you next have a piss, consciously slow or stop the flow of urine. You’re doing so by usiing your pelvic muscles. The pelvic muscles support the penis.

Private Gym as a package includes an instruction booklet, an interactive DVD and two items of exercise equipment: a ‘resistance ring’ to be placed around the penis and a magnetic weight, the purpose of the weight being to attach it to the ring. More about these two items in a possible sequel, for now, however, one can make the observation that it is clearly envisioned that your penis will be up for some heavy lifting in the days and weeks to come…

Two exercise programs are outlined – basic training and an advanced form of what’s called resistance training – and I’ve been following the first of these (not involving ring or weight) for a month or so. By briefly contracting the pelvic muscles, you can condition and strengthen them over time. This may lead to an improvement in sexual health and anyway it is helpful for what my doctor calls ‘the waterworks’, the bladder and prostate too. I found the exercises to be easy to do, taking less than 10 minutes a day, and while the results were not spectacular (to reiterate, this is not a tall tale) I enjoyed definite benefits in terms of performance, and that in only a month.

An attraction of Private Gym for me was that it involved no little blue pills or otherwise dodgy pharmaceuticals, but rather a practical, evidence-based, no-nonsense program of simple exercises – and, as I say, it yielded tangible results. The evidence comes from the work of Andrew Siegel, author of Male Pelvic Fitness, who played a part in developing the program. Moreover, the medical panel overseeing the program includes the renowned Grace Dorey.

While carrying out the exercises this past month, I’d often call to mind the passage in The Unbearable Lightness of Being where Milan Kundera describes Johannes Scotus Erigena’s thoughts concerning what the experience of Paradise was like for the First Man: ‘He [Erigena] believed, moreover, that Adam’s virile member could be made to rise like an arm or a leg, when and as its owner wished…’ These exercises won’t deliver quite this level of control, but then again, would you really want them to? That fantasy – and it is a fantasy, albeit a theological one – as with many, may be best not realised. For as Kundera adds: ‘If it were possible to raise the penis by means of a simple command, then sexual excitement would have no place in the world.’ (Quotes taken from page 246 of the Faber edition).

Properly followed, the exercise program outlined in Private Gym is effective and worthwhile and can do much good. If interested enough to research further, my advice would be to google ‘pelvic exercises for men’ and to look as well at the work of Andrew Siegel and Grace Dorey. You can find more details of the Private Gym program itself by visiting their website here.

Now to start on the ring and its attendant weight…

13 Minutes

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13 Minutes

Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel

Germany, 2015

HOME, 19 July 2015

13 Minutes

The story of Georg Elser, a man who, in 1939, attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

He was an ethnic German, an artisan / musician from a mountain village, and so one would have thought a person who’d have been attracted to National Socialism. Yet he rejected their coercive and racist ideology outright.

It is a substantive film, engrossing and thought-provoking throughout, though there are one or two unpleasant scenes: an interrogation by the Gestapo (not exactly a genteel picnic of smoked salmon and pink champagne) and, later on, an execution for high treason which seemed to go on forever (it is a silent death, hanging, but it is by no means instantaneous or sudden, to put it mildly).

Christian Friedel gave another accomplished performance, following on from his appearance as Kleist in Amour fou; he is clearly an actor to look out for in future.

There are no Jews in this film, the emphasis being on the German resistance to Hitler’s reign. National Socialism  was a tragedy for Germany, a betrayal of her history – that’s the take-home message. And in this respect the film is of a piece with, for example, recent historical reconstructions of the von Stauffenberg plot and the revival of interest in the work of Hans Fallada.

A fine film.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

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Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Directed by Alex Gibney

USA, 2015

HOME, 15 July 2015

A film about the Church of Scientology, the brainchild of L. Ron Hubbard, a minor science-fiction writer.

This is as though a Horace McCoy novel were being played out in real time in present day California. Are they for real, John Travolta and Tom Cruise, when they speak up for this cult?

There’s a lot to get through here: the absurd ‘creation myth’, so-called (actually: crazy, unconvincing science-fiction nonsense, not to say poorly written), that lies at the heart of the ‘church’ (the IRS of the US government may recognise Scientology as a religion, but we don’t have to) and its teachings ; the salacious way in which its practices collect the intimate details of its members’ sex lives; the uncompromising way in which it deals with dissenters and backsliders. Most of the testimony comes from ex-members and therefore has an authenticity to it.

For myself, I was struck by the contrast between Hubbard, the church’s founder, and the current head, one David Miscavige, Tom Cruise’s bosom buddy. Acting like your typical chancer, Hubbard can be seen peddling a weird system of beliefs, trying his luck, seeing how many gullible fish he can snare. A neat, medium-term con – at any rate, it worked. Then Hubbard dies and Miscavige takes over: what is he to do with it? Well, he consolidates and plans for the future. Miscavige comes across as your typical American CEO, what with his business suit and tie, his unctuous manner and weak, unfunny jokes. You sense a ruthlessness too, mind, and some sinister accusations are thrown at him here. But basically it is that old go-getter imperative of ‘If you’ve got a lemon, make lemonade.’ Miscavige is selling the sizzle, working the tired con he’s been left with as best he can.

An enlightening film.

Love & Mercy

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Love & Mercy

Directed by Bill Pohlad

USA, 2014

HOME, 15 July 2015

Love & Mercy

It works well, this film based on the life of Brian Wilson, not least because of the two fine actors who play him, Paul Dano and John Cusack.

We see Wilson at two periods of his life: when discovering his artistic voice and coming up with Pet Sounds, an album where he attempted to ‘play the studio’, as he says here. And later when reaching out to a woman (played by Elizabeth Banks: excellent) and trying to escape the control of a domineering quack psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti: ditto). The psychiatrist is not unlike his father – cruel, abusive, cowardly – and in a curious way it is the insight and feeling of Brian’s youth, as expressed in songs such as the sublime ‘God Only Knows’, that save him later. He need only realise what he always knew – easy, huh?

More music would have been nice, but honestly this is a captivating portrait of a fine human being and a great artist. And as for that avant-garde (or specifically: musique concrete) notion that the studio might be an instrument too: absolute genius.

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