A Monster Calls

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A Monster Calls

Directed by J.A. Bayona

Spain, 2016

HOME, 4 January 2017

A Monster Calls

There is a genuine emotional kick here.

It is a great film: moving, realistic, non-sentimental; and altogether satisfying. That out of the way, a few thoughts follow:

  • The monster (Liam Neeson again, though this time only in voice) is well fierce and embodies Conor’s (played by the accomplished young actor Lewis MacDougall) rage and anger, yet also the hope (being made out of the medicinal yew tree) that his mother will be cured.
  • At the end Conor is alone but safe. For it is a truism that monsters always get away. They cannot be captured or domesticated or killed.
  • It is a freak, a hybrid of man and tree and wilderness, but when Conor’s crisis is resolved – well, the monster‘s face can be read.
  • Now, how is Conor finally able to see that face, those eyes? Is it by smashing his grandmother’s furniture and his tormentor’s face in? By becoming a monster himself? And so realising that they are kindred spirits?
  • You cannot will a meeting with a monster; they don’t come when you whistle. Because Conor is asked to do too much, is stressed out and close to collapse at the start, that is why the monster calls. It arrives with a mission: to keep Conor human.
  • Such strength the monster has, and no reluctance about using it either. We fear the monster but, really, wouldn’t we want to be it? You are powerful, super-vital, terrifying to others: what’s not to like?
  • That question that the monster asked of Frankenstein: ‘Why did you make me?’ It tells us that Conor created the monster; it came from him. He needed help to forge a future and the monster – an Other that is of the Self – gave him that.

With due acknowledgement to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Seven Theses. See his Monster Theory (1996).

Silence

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Silence

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Japan, 2016

HOME, 3 January 2017

Silence

Apparently Martin Scorsese has long wanted to make this film.

It has been on his mind for a decade or more, so we should be grateful that he has finally got it out of his system. While the actual execution is sometimes laboured – sporadically, it drags – and certain scenes are distressing – there is bloodshed and beheading – it is a serious film, of that there is no doubt.

Two young Jesuit priests go to Japan in search of Father Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson), their former mentor. Reports have reached Rome that Ferreira has apostatised – that is: denied the faith – but they don’t believe it. They, the two priests, want to find Ferreira, speak with him and learn the truth. As you watch Silence, you think of Apocalypse Now, for Ferreira is a kind of Kurtz figure and the quest to find him drives the narrative, and it is close in spirit as well to The Last Temptation of Christ, another film where Scorsese tackles Catholicism head-on. Here, though, the central figure (albeit incognito) is not Christ but Peter, the rock on which the church was built, and to a lesser degree Judas: the apostles who denied and betrayed Christ. Although not, curiously enough, Thomas: for while there is an agony in not understanding God’s Will, His existence is never doubted.

This was a film that Scorsese probably needed to make and it is useful in getting a grip on what he is about. But I don’t feel a desire to watch it again in a hurry. An adaptation of a John Fante novel, mind; that would be plenty sweet.

And as for apostasy: if the priests were lying, like Peter, then that was a venial and not a mortal sin. So they will go to purgatory (not hell), and can still be saved. As any Catholic schoolboy knows…

Night Of The Demon

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Night Of The Demon

Directed by Jacques Tourneur

UK, 1957

HOME, 30 December 2016

Night Of The Demon

Dana Andrews, the femme fatale-blighted detective of Laura, is an American parapsychologist called Holden in this classic British horror flick.

He comes to London a decade after the Blitz for a conference on the occult; dirty and damp grey atmospherics still yet a young woman can drive around in an open-top sports car. At one point we see Holden stepping from a taxi and walking through the gates of the British Museum, enroute to research some esoteric grimoires. While there, he comes into conflict with Karswell, Niall MacGinnis’s plumby-voiced, extravagantly goateed magician.

There is a curse placed on Holden and it places both his and Karswell’s life at risk. At first Holden is skeptical about its effects: he is a scientist and has no truck with occult mumbo-jumbo. But his subjective experience leaves residual feelings of dread that cannot be entirely explained away by reference to auto-suggestion and the like. They leave him troubled and, in the end, he acts ‘as-if’ the curse were real: without in any way succumbing to credulity, certainly not. So he takes prudent steps to protect himself, seeking out Karswell on a train bound for the coast, and finds a devious way (using sleight of hand and misdirection, the magician’s friend) to reverse the curse.

The final scene is telling: the scientist chooses not to know what he has unleashed. Curiosity, that great scientific virtue (wonder is another), is absent. His ploy has worked, that’s the important thing. Any danger that might have arisen has passed and Holden’s existential journey, from naïve realist to nuanced pragmatist, is at an end.

A minor masterpiece.

Paterson

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Paterson

Directed by Jim Jarmusch

USA, 2016

HOME, 28 December 2016

Paterson

There are a fair number of twins in Jim Jarmusch’s film – an embarrassment of twins, in fact.

It is a film about a bus driver called Paterson who drives a bus in Paterson, New Jersey, the town where William Carlos Williams lived and Allen Ginsberg grew up. Literary allusions abound, whether it be to the aforementioned couple or Emily Dickenson and Frank O’Hara or Melville and Robert Walser. We see a copy of The Walk, probably because Paterson regularly takes his dog Marvin for a walk to the local bar. No copy of The Bus Conductor Hines, though: maybe Jarmusch hasn’t read it. Mind, bus conductors are long gone now.

The keynote struck sounds a little like this: the everyday, the quotidian, is a source of poetry (true enough, but not exclusively so). Adam Driver, the actor who plays Paterson, has one of those American faces that you tend to trust. Think Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck – a face like theirs.

To be frank, it’s a film that was sometimes a bit too quirky for my liking (consider, as an instance, the flighty wife with a penchant for monochrome). But there’s a lot of world in it, a lot of life and humanity. And it doesn’t have its head up its arse, a pose that art films are sometimes wont to assume. I was surprised to realise at the end that I had enjoyed it quite as much as I did.

Indignation

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Indignation

Directed by James Schamus

USA, 2016

HOME, 23 December 2016

Indignation

This is a brilliant adaptation of Philip Roth’s coming-of-age (and then some) novel.

Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) is a Jewish lad from New Jersey (like Roth himself) who wins a scholarship to attend an Ohio college, thereby escaping the draft for the Korean War. At college he dates Olivia (Sarah Gadon), a beautiful but emotionally turbulent girl with a history of self-harming. He is puzzled when she gives him a blowjob and wonders whether she has done it before and who with. An highlight of the film is Marcus’s conversations with Dean Hawes Caudwell (Tracy Letts), the head of the college. These conversations are intense fencing matches that continually swerve from the virulent towards the absurd. His parents telephone Marcus long distance and are anxious about his welfare, but they cannot save him from the world no matter how hard they try.

What I liked best about the film is that it realised a recognisable version of Roth’s world, a world that’s an amalgam of Fitzgerald and Kafka and much else besides. The bleak take-home message is that no one can be saved. We exist for a short while after our death in other people’s memories but they ultimately will perish too. Our last, best hope is art – and that includes films like this.

The Eagle Huntress

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The Eagle Huntress

Directed by Otto Bell

Mongolia, 2016

HOME, 23 December 2016

The Eagle Huntress

The people in this documentary film are wonderful, in particular the protagonist, a teenage girl who wants to raise an eagle and train and hunt with it. She loves her father and wants to follow in his footsteps.

The landscapes, the icy steppes and mountains of Mongolia, are wonderful as well, thrilling in their majesty.

What lets the film down is the threadbare, predictable narrative – you always somehow know where it is heading. The contrivance of certain scenes – you don’t entirely believe what you are seeing – is a problem too. And the voice-over, a patronising voice speaking a script which panders to identity politics (look, a girl in a man’s world), prodding you and telling you what to think rather than showing you interesting, complicated stuff and letting you come to your own conclusions – well, that’s another let down.

And in the tussle at the end between an eagle and a fox, why should I be rooting for the eagle? For the predator, rather than the prey? Clearly, a fox has as urgent a claim to precious life as any other creature.

Very worthy and all that, but really this is a very poor film.

The Dreamed Ones

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The Dreamed Ones

Directed by Ruth Beckermann

Austria, 2016

HOME, 27 December 2016

The Dreamed Ones

This is a curious, difficult to pigeonhole film, neither a feature nor a documentary, rather a vital hybrid of both.

Two young people, who are in fact Laurence Rupp, an actor, and Anja Plaschg, a singer-songwriter, gather in Studio 3 at the Funkhaus in Vienna – you can see Hilda Jesser’s paintings arrayed along the panelled walls – to record the letters written between Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann. In between speaking and responding to the letters, they do various banal stuff: smoke cigarettes, play about with a phone (listening to James Brown, appropriately enough), show off tattoos…

Very accomplished and possessed of a sure, confident touch, The Dreamed Ones (Die Geträumten in German, an epithet used by both correspondents) is a moving film, and this due mainly to the quality of the texts: Celan, the great poet of the Holocaust, and Bachmann, another intense, fragile, painfully authentic soul too. A very worthwhile watch, though you will get most out of it if you have a good working knowledge of German, I would say.

Anja Plaschg’s website is here.

Ruth Beckermann’s  body of work is worth exploring. Lookee here.

 

RNCM James Mottram International Piano Competition Concerto Final

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RNCM James Mottram International Piano Competition Concerto Final

RNCM Concert Hall, 3 December 2016

Clement Lefebvre

Our departure from Europe has been much exaggerated.

Clement Lefebvre won the competition, taking first prize from the international jury and the audience prize as well. Florian Mitrea came second and Daumants Liepins took third.

The concert itself, wherein each of the three finalists played alongside the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, was a dazzling affair. We heard Mozart’s Piano Concertos 20 and 21 (from Daumants Liepins and Florian Mitrea respectively) and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 (Clement Lefebvre). Each performance was received with fulsome, fraternal enthusiasm.

This Concerto Final was the climax of the fifth James Mottram International Piano Competition, a week-long event which attracted and showcased the talents of the best young pianists on the planet. They came from all over, including from Europe, as was plain to see. Long may it continue, until Brexit and beyond.

Love’s Labour’s Lost

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Love’s Labour’s Lost

By William Shakespeare

Royal Shakespeare Company & Chichester Festival Theatre

Opera House, Manchester

29 November 2016

Love’s Labour’s Lost

This, the first of the comedies (see Much Ado About Nothing), is set in 1914, a ludic and light hearted Arcadian Age.

Berowne (Edward Bennett) woos Rosaline (Lisa Dillon) with insouciance and mock ardour: as though he has all the time in the world. Don Armado (John Hodgkinson) is a grand figure – an Italian Falstaff, he by right belongs in an opera – and it is interesting to observe the response of the Academy’s dry Latin scholars (who’re pedantic, precise and just a sprinkle prissy) to an actual, rude as life, gross Italian. They cannot escape from Don Armado’s attentions; there are no safe spaces on stage.

The end of this play always has an elegiac feel (the marriages have likely been scuppered not deferred) but with the intrusion of war this is more pronounced still. ‘We’ll meet again’? No, these lovers have been cast asunder forever. Rosaline’s expressed desire to ‘choke a gibing spirit’ (she is taking aim at Berowne’s care-free wit) seems eerily prescient in this regard, a shadow before darkness (think of the gas attack at Ypres on 22 April 1915) descends.

If this all sounds very gloomy, I apologise! It is actually a very enjoyable play and there are deft comic touches throughout. There is the display of ‘vocal magnificence’ and exuberance (poesy and rhetoric are its subject as much as courtship) that made it Harold Bloom’s favourite play. In a sense, there are two plays here: an Edwardian comedy, as you experience it in real time, and a tragedy in retrospect.

As an aside, I have always found the backstory romance between Berowne and Rosaline intriguing (‘Did I not dance with you at Brabant once?’ and all that) and wish someone (ideally, Tom Stoppard) could be encouraged to build a play, a prequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost, around it.

Much Ado about Nothing and Love’s Labour’s Lost are at the Opera House in Manchester until 3 December, then they play at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London until March 2017. Details here.

Coyote

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Coyote

By Colin Winnette

No Exit Press, 2016

ISBN: 9781843448426

 Coyote

This story is told in the voice of a woman whose daughter has been abducted.

As she tells it,  we learn all about her marriage, an abusive – reciprocally abusive, let us be plain about that – relationship, and come to realise the nature of the world into which her daughter was thrown. It is a fraught, mistrustful, edgy world; a claustrophobic purgatory where souls gleam darkly.

Throughout, it is the voice that holds you fast and Colin Winnette captures its despair and bewilderment and rage. As a writer he evokes Dennis Cooper, the Denis Johnson of Jesus’ Son, the inviolable truth of Breece D’J Pancake: he inhabits their America, he’s in that kind of league. For me, he was a real discovery.

Just thinking on the loss of a child: the consequences couldn’t be anything other than tragic and violent, and so it proves. Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.

The publisher’s description of Coyote can be read here.