The Duke of Burgundy

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The Duke of Burgundy

Directed by Peter Strickland

UK, 2014

Cornerhouse, 21 February 2015

The Duke of Burgundy

Set in a world like yet unlike our own, The Duke of Burgundy is a study of a BDSM relationship threatened by love: Cynthia and Evelyn are mistress and maid, and lovers too.

She, Evelyn, the younger woman and ostensibly the submissive partner, is the one who is actually directing their role play.  And Cynthia begins to feel that Evelyn loves the things they do rather than she herself.  Being worshipped can be darned dehumanising at times.

There are no men in the film at all (are they extinct?) and the two women belong to an Institute that studies butterflies; women young and old attend lectures comparing the attributes of different species.  In the women’s home butterflies occupy a prominent place too, displayed under glass and in frames on the walls of Cynthia’s study.  And there are no computers either: Cynthia types her papers on an old-style manual typewriter.  All of which makes for a steampunk/slipstream feel, evoking a world as strange and disquieting as can be found in Nina Allan’s A Thread of Truth or Nike Sulway’s Rupetta.

By the end, Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship is stagnant but for the moment intact.  However, strains are beginning to show.

A beautiful and enigmatic film.

Duck Soup

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Duck Soup

Directed by Leo McCarey

USA, 1933

Cornerhouse, 22 February 2015

Duck Soup

Groucho takes over a country.  Chaos and carnival become the order of the day.  And Margaret Dumont’s decorous equilibrium is placed under severe pressure.

As Marx Brothers’ films go, this is not one of their best.  It’s composed of sketches sown together piecemeal, as is all too apparent.  But, hey, it’s the Marx Brothers – collectively, the missing link between Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen – and they’re always good enough.  Philosophy of a sort; wisecracks aplenty; slapstick violence; outlandish behaviour – it’s all here.

Duck Soup is showing again tomorrow as part of Matinee Classics, further details here.

Between Worlds

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Between Worlds

Manchester Chamber Concerts Society

RNCM Concert Hall, 16 February 2015

A delightful concert, yes, yet also enlightening and eye-opening, transforming your understanding of what music is or can be.

With ‘Between Worlds’ Avi Avital (mandolin), Ksenija Sidorova (accordion) and Itamar Doari (percussion) set out to explore the space where classical and traditional (or folk) music meet.  It had Bach, Bartok and Bloch (the latter’s Nigun movement from Baal-Shem) along with traditional music from several lands, including Turkey, Bulgaria and Georgia.  Manuel de Falla’s Seven Spanish Folk Songs was a highlight, though in truth it was a concert jam-packed with highlights.

Reflecting a little on why it worked so well and had the impact it did, one reason was undoubtedly that the musicians showed a good understanding, having performed together for this kind of concert over 40 times.  Another reason: they play unusual instruments with great virtuosity and are clearly familiar with the classical repertoire: a rare combination.  It was only afterwards that I learnt that Avi Avital had recorded a CD of Bach’s music – on mandolin.  And, in addition, the choice of music here was wildly unexpected, a jolt.  How often do you hear Nikolai Budashkin’s Concerto in A minor, or any of Heitor Villa Lobos’s Bachianas brasileiras, or Sulkhan Tsintsadze’s Three Miniatures?  All of these factors, taken together (and others too, no doubt), created a concert at once revelatory and resplendent with beauty.

A pity Ralph went home early.  Who’s Ralph?

Avi Avital’s website is here.

Details of the final MCCS concert, which features the Endellion Quartet, can be found here.

 

 

Amour fou

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Amour fou

Directed by Jessica Hausner

Germany, 2014

Cornerhouse, 15 February 2015

Amour fou

When Heinrich, middling poet and minor aristocrat, proposes a suicide pact, one woman demurs while another is a reluctant taker.  You get the sense that if he’d had two refusals, he would have asked a third woman.

It is an interesting film, loosely following events in the last year of Kleist’s life.  Here he’s a poet who is out of tune with his age, an age of great social change.  (Kleist wrote little or no poetry, as far as I know, and his story The Marquise of O- is here described as a poem.)  Peasants are being given the vote, aristocrats are about to be taxed.  Heinrich is self-absorbed, precious about his feelings.  His mother is cutting his allowance, which threatens his livelihood and his sense of himself.

If Kleist is the presiding figure, one can also detect the influence of Schnitzler’s Dying (a novella written in light of the suicide craze in Vienna following Crown Prince Rudolph’s death); hardly surprising, perhaps, since Hausner is Austrian.  With Schnitzler she shares as well an analytical, almost a forensic interest in human behaviour.  She is a director who would dissect these people if she could, you feel.

Are these people spurred on by mysterious passions?  Not likely, they are automata, puppets in a puppet theatre – which is what one character describes herself as feeling like.  Incidentally, one wonders whether and how Kleist’s essay on the puppet theatre influenced the look of the film and the way the actors approached it.

An anti-romantic film, but one I could easily watch again, with renewed interest.

Bizet, Elgar, Mozart

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Bizet, Elgar, Mozart

Manchester Camerata

RNCM Concert Hall, 11 February 2015

Gabor Takacs-Nagy took up the conductor’s reins once more for this very enjoyable concert of stellar music.

From my seat high in the upper balcony – one of the new additions to the recently refurbished RNCM Concert Hall – I could see that on each page of his score there were patches of pink and green markings.  These may be standard – or did they denote a notation of the conductor’s own devising?

With Bizet’s Symphony in C major, discovered among the composer’s papers only some years after his death, that’s where we began: picture a fleet of steampunk dirigibles, polymorphous and bold of colour, flying in formation.  It conjured up something of that sort.  A flamboyant spectacle, anyway.  Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor followed, Hannah Roberts taking the cello: a masterwork, masterfully performed.  And we ended with Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 (he wrote so many!) and one of his dances, incomplete at his death, as an encore.  An excellent evening.

View details of Manchester Camerata’s forthcoming concerts here.

Selma

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Selma

Directed by Ava DuVernay

UK, 2014

Cornerhouse, 8 February 2015

After receiving the Nobel peace prize in 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. returned to the South, to the city of Selma, to fight for the right to vote for the black people there.

Selma is the story of that brutal and bloody struggle, and of what it cost King and his followers.  He, King, is portrayed as a man of courage and deep feeling yet also as a cool and clear-thinking political strategist.  When King says that the sheriff of Selma will make mistakes, you know what he means: the protests will result in black people being injured, perhaps killed, on camera, for all the world to see.  His methods worked.

David Oyelowo delivers a powerful central performance, and it’s a powerful film overall.  I do wonder, mind, whether we’ll ever see a mainstream film about Bayard Rustin, and whether he’ll ever come to be as celebrated and revered by the African-American community as King.  Certainly, he was as significant a figure in the civil rights movement.  But he was also gay.

The Last of the Unjust

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The Last of the Unjust

Directed by Claude Lanzmann

France, 2013

Cornerhouse, 1 February 2015

The Last of the Unjust

An important document of record, The Last of the Unjust is probably best seen as an addendum or an additional chapter to the monumental Shoah (1985).

That earlier film, an oral history of the Holocaust, ran to over nine hours, whereas this one, focusing in the main on Terezin, comes in at close to four hours.  At the centre of The Last of the Unjust is an interview with Benjamin Murmelstein which Claude Lanzmann conducted in 1975 – so a decade before the release of the earlier film.  The interview wasn’t included in Shoah because (on my understanding, based on remarks made by Murmelstein here) the agreement was that it would not be made public, although Murmelstein did clearly consent to be filmed.

Addressing Lanzmann sometimes as though he were a prosecutor, Murmelstein talks about Terezin, a supposed paradisiac ghetto, where he was on the Jewish Council (a Nazi construct), eventually becoming its Elder; about his dealings with Eichmann when he was a rabbi in Vienna and of how he saw Eichmann on Kristallnacht, orchestrating the violence, testimony that was not accepted at Eichmann’s trial.  And Murmelstein voices disagreement with Arendt (her ‘banality of evil’ line) and Gershom Scholem and talks about his difficulties with the state of Israel itself.  Many Jews would have liked to have seen him executed as a collaborator by the Czechs at the end of the war, but he was released without charge.

In the interview Lanzmann pushes him on what he knew about the death camps at the time: nothing at all, he says.  Or very little.  Hints and indications, which became significant only in retrospect.  (Incidentally, I’ve been told by my companion that the English translation in the film is suspect at certain crucial points – and around this point in particular.)  One thing about Murmelstein which needs emphasising: he chose to stay in Austria despite his fears and the very real danger of dealing with the Nazis.  He could have emigrated to Britain or America, but he stayed put.  He was there as witness and survivor (aren’t they one and the same, as Carlo Ginzburg intimates?) and he did demonstrably do good.

Lanzmann, now somewhat older, visits Terezin and Nisko, and sets Murmelstein’s testimony in context.  Certainly, there was a paradox and a dark (ink-black) farce at work here, for as Germany expanded in the East, annexing countries for various spurious reasons, it acquired populations with more Jews, so creating problems for itself, given its ideology.  What was it to do with all these Jews?  What is apparent from Lanzmann’s narrative is that he still sees (for this was apparent also in Shoah) Poland’s (and other nation’s) role in the policy of the Final Solution as problematic.  Anti-Semitism was more virulent in Austria than in Germany (George Clare’s Last Waltz in Vienna makes this clear), and in Eastern Europe it was more virulent still.  It was therefore no accident (so the argument would run) that the death camps were located in the East.

It is a contentious point of view, of course.  Anyway, this is an important  film.

 

Denis Zhdanov

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Denis Zhdanov

Carole Nash Recital Room, RNCM

29 January 2014

Denis Zhdanov

Denis Zhdanov

A pianist who seemed utterly relaxed throughout, even while tackling the explosive Firebird at the close.

Agosti’s arrangement for piano of Stravinsky’s pyrotechnic masterpiece sounded like an army of instruments still, its bold, lurid colours conjuring flaming visions in a night sky.

By that time we had already heard Liszt’s arrangement of various Schubert lieder followed by Schubert’s own Piano Sonata in G major and Debussy’s evocative Images, Books 1 and 2.  These works were technically demanding, yes, yet as well grand affairs all, works where a listener can lose himself and a musician can give something, much, of his own.

Denis Zhdanov did not disappoint.

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