Andrei Tarkovsky

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Andrei Tarkovsky

By Sean Martin

Kamera Books, 2011

ISBN: 9781842433669

Andrei Tarkovsky

An excellent monograph on the great Russian director, it provides a very worthwhile overview of his work and serves also as a helpful companion to the films, which are being rereleased on DVD and Blu-ray by Curzon Artificial Eye following a short theatrical season.

The first chapter looks at Tarkovsky’s life and times and reflects on the environment in which he worked: the Soviet film industry. Tarkovsky’s aesthetic approach, the stylistic tics and recurring motifs in the films, his characteristic flourishes and ways of working, all this is the subject of chapter two. It seems that rather than theatre, painting was his art of departure: he saw cinema as primarily a visual rather than a dramatic medium. (Sean Martin mentions the Venetian Vittore Carpaccio as a significant influence.) To this, however, I would add that if his films are landscapes then they are intended to be inhabited and not merely viewed – as the levitating girl assumes the vantage point of a bird in the branch in Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow.

There are chapters devoted to each of Tarkovsky’s main films, from Ivan’s Childhood (1962) to The Sacrifice (1986), and typically these chapters contain accounts of the storyline and production history of each film before moving on to what is generally a quite free ranging discussion, touching on whatever seems germane. What else? One chapter looks at Tarkovsky’s work in media other than film (television, theatre, radio and his writings), while another looks at the films he worked on when a student. I note that he part-directed a film of Hemingway’s story ‘The Killers’ and it is interesting to speculate whether his aesthetic ‘that as little as possible has actually to be shown [on screen]‘ derives from Hemingway’s so-called ‘iceberg theory of composition’. It must do, mustn’t it?

Some comprehensive survey, then, of Andrei Tarkovsky achievement, you conclude, but Sean Martin is not only conscientious and scrupulous in his use of sources – he is nuanced and insightful when it comes to the work. An artist who set himself the task of capturing consciousness on the hoof, making tangible the fleeting qualia of phenomenal experience, Tarkovsky made things hard for himself and harder still for all directors who would follow in his footsteps. Man, he set the bar high. Even Bergman, one of the true greats, acknowledges that he is without peer. Take a look as well at the list of projects unrealised at his death, adaptations of Dostoyevsky and Thomas Mann featuring prominently, and you come to the conclusion that he was always dreaming, restless and ambitious and unsatisfied right up to the last. That is how you want it to be with your artist heroes: life a long, late adventure; death a cramped spilling of rash measures and miles. (I make due acknowledgement to Laura Riding’s ‘The Last Covenant’ for that last sentence.) Yet the seven major films are enough and anyway are all we have, and they can sustain myriad viewings.

Sean Martin’s book is an ideal starting point for learning about Tarkovsky beyond the films. It is as well a launch pad to explore further, his ‘Suggestions for Further Reading’ section including, for example, the Nostalgia website, an amazing resource which can be explored here.

The publisher’s description of Andrei Tarkovsky can be read here.

 

 

 

Hoje

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Hoje

Directed by Tata Amaral

Brazil, 2011

HOME, 24 July 2016

Hoje

The winner of the 2011 Brazilian Film Festival, Hoje (the title translates as Today) attempts to make some sort of reckoning with the country’s troubled political past.

We are shown Vera (the myriad talented Denise Fraga), a woman moving into a new flat to start a fresh life. But there appears a revenant, her husband, who turns up unannounced. A ghost from the past, he had been arrested long ago and become one of ‘the disappeared’, presumed dead.

It is a potent, harrowing study of volatile guilt and moral erosion. What strength you need in this world just to survive.

Tenderness and Temperature

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Tenderness and Temperature

By Caroline Bachmann and Stefan Banz

Edition KMD

Verlag für moderne Kunst, 2011

ISBN: 9783869842417

Tenderness and Temperature

Take up this book and inside you will see photos of various cemeteries in and around Berlin, most being Christian, of course, but with the odd Jewish and Islamic cemetery thrown in as well.

The photos are melded with and, on occasion, framed by an abstract painting. No doubt the fruit of some form of digital manipulation – and, incidentally, it is a boon for New Media artists that ‘digit’ can mean both number and finger. The photos can be seen to be juxtaposed, overlaid and (best of all) mounted one within another. In this way, the photos resemble what they depict: tombstones, many of which are overgrown. There is a profusion of vibrant foliage and verdant spectacle surrounding them. Such an abundance of life, a dazzling green, arising out of death: Mother Nature putting on a show. This display of fireworks, a panoply of panpsychic pyrotechnics, seems at odds with the idea of a Friedhof as being a place of peace (Frieden).

Yet alongside the celebration of vitality there are broken trees, their trunks bent under the burden of heaven. Moreover, many of the statues – there are statues of angels, of Christ as King and Judge and Calvary figure, of the Madonna – are also broken, are without head or hand or limbs. Sometimes, too, the surfaces of these statues have become brittle and cracked. They are as fragile as we.

Some while ago I chanced upon David Robinson’s Saving Graces (a book of photos of statues of young women in Paris cemeteries) and since then I’ve become fascinated by the iconography of cemeteries, and enamoured by those beautiful, melancholy women in diaphanous robes, their faces grave and often bowed, holding flowers. You see these mourners in Berlin too. But the statues of women who, in abandonment to sorrow, have thrown themselves upon a grave, who are distraught as though pounding on a door that cannot ever be opened, who are writhing in inconsolable agony (which could, one readily notices, be construed as ecstasy) are absent. It is a difference in culture, perhaps, between Catholic France and Protestant Germany.

Cemeteries are strange spaces, otherworldly (a gateway to the afterlife) yet of this world. You see an angel’s wings and, looking lost, a child’s teddy bear. That glint of sunlight piercing oblivion’s black veil is sacred, holy are those red and pink flowers laid by the earth in which the Dead are buried – not a uniquely human custom, for the Neanderthals buried their loved ones.

As artists’ books go, Tenderness and Temperature yields many moments of wonder and reflection; it is a haunting work yet curiously consoling.

Caroline Bachmann and Stefan Banz have their own website, which is here.

The publisher’s description of Tenderness and Temperature can be read here.

 

 

 

 

Beyond Caring

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Beyond Caring

By Alexander Zeldin

HOME, 14 July 2016

Photo by Graeme Braidwood

Photo by Graeme Braidwood

The finest play of the year so far, Alexander Zeldin’s Beyond Caring is a real play for today, a slash-and-burn portrait of Brexit Britain.

It is all about four cleaners in a meat factory, three of them agency workers, and their phone porn-peeking boss. Employment is low-paid and precarious, still it is better than nowt. We live in austere times. You are lucky to have any kind of job nowadays.

Work is dignity, or it should be. Here one person can hardly make ends meet; she steals biscuits to take home. Only, later, we see her return to the factory after her shift to bed down for the night. She no longer has a home, it seems. Another person is disabled but assessed as being fit for work. A verbal warning, that’s what she comes up against, for being clumsy and slow and tardy. These workers are, in the phrase of the moment, ‘people who have been left behind’.  They respond to their situation with fragile optimism, ovine gratitude and a simmering, bloody-minded defiance.

Trade unions are nowhere to be seen in this world. During the referendum, we were told that we needed to stay in the EU to preserve workers’ rights… for some reason, this fell on deaf ears. And as for Project Fear and Osborne’s myriad dire warnings: how can you threaten people who have nothing left to lose?

Beyond Caring is a brilliant work of theatre. There are vivid, vibrant performances from a sterling cast and dark inklings of black humour – not all tears in the beer, by any means. It feels like an authentic document of our times, fuelled as it is by a terrible anger. You fear for these people and for their future.

For Beyond Caring at HOME, click here.

Ivan’s Childhood

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Ivan’s Childhood

Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

USSR, 1962

Curzon Artificial Eye, June 2016

Ivan's Childhood

Set during the Second World War, the protagonist is Ivan, a lad loosely attached to a Red Army battalion, whose particular talent is that he can stealthily scout out German forces.

Ivan is small and lithe, gutsy and forceful, feral yet with a kind of aura, as of one marked out for martyrdom. The sanctity of childhood, you might call it, and here one naturally thinks of Andrei Rublev. There is a concern with the topography of forbidden zones, verboten territory and acts of transgression – a motif which came to fullest fruition in Stalker. The allusion to art, and specifically the art of the Northern Renaissance is present too. One recalls, from Solaris, Bruegel’s Winter Journey, while here Ivan rifles through Durer’s Apocalypse prints. How he happened to stumble upon them in the Soviet Union in wartime is never explained. What else? There is a horse eating apples; there are extended traum / trauma sequences, ending usually with Ivan’s reunion with his mother.

All of which is by way of saying that Tarkovsky’s first film is not simply a war-time drama, though it can certainly be enjoyed on that level. Rather, it is clear that his themes, iconography and cinematic stratagems were present from the start. Ivan’s Childhood is recognisably his own.

What marks the film out, perhaps, is an autobiographical element, or at any rate a direct confrontation with contemporary history, specifically a commitment to make a reckoning with the horrors of the war on the Eastern Front, that savage struggle of annihilation between the competing ideologies of Nazism and Stalinism. Later films were more allusive and opaque, altogether more distanced, and placed greater demands on the viewer.

Tarkovsky’s point of departure here may have been a photo taken by Walter Frentz, at one period Leni Riefenstahl’s cameraman,  which shows Himmler reaching out to pat the shoulder of a Belarusian boy. Three SS cronies stand by Himmler, two looking at the boy, one looking into Himmler’s blandly smiling face, eyes dead behind rounded spectacles. Sometime thereafter (the photo was taken in August 1941) Himmler would order the killing of Jewish women and children, a decision marking what Alex Kay has called the ‘transition to genocide’. Yet the Fuhrer Decrees of June-October 1941, since referred to as the Criminal Orders (verbrecherische Befehle), presaged the horrors of the Holocaust. Two of those verbrecherische Befehle, the Martial Jurisdiction Decree and the Commissar Order, required that the Wehrmacht commit murder – and they did. Civilians and prisoners of war were summarily executed. This was a war like no other.

Ivan’s Childhood, a portrait of inviolable innocence, shows us the triumph of art over horror. A Curzon Artificial Eye release, it is out now on DVD and Blu-ray, details here.

 

 

Too Darn Hot!

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Too Darn Hot!

RNCM Big Band and Singers

RNCM Theatre, 25 June 2016

It had pretty much everything you might wish for.

There were captivating performances of just short of 30 songs, the bulk of them taken from the Great American Songbook, with terrific choreography and costumes an’ all. Various RNCM singers – sopranos and baritones, a mezzo-soprano and tenor – gave it their all, ably assisted by the RNCM Big Band.

Doubt it not: Cole Porter is a poet, so too Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin. Highlight of the evening was clearly ‘A Flower is a Lovesome Thing’, Billy Strayhorn’s beauty, and when Kimberley Raw sang it the audience held its breath – as in the Frank O’Hara poem.

Somehow, there is something companionable about the sentiments in these songs; and the recognition that others have felt these sentiments too.

The best RNCM Big Band concert so far.

Colin Currie

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Colin Currie

RNCM Concert Hall, 22 June 2016

Colin Currie

There is a paradox about percussion in that while it is (of course) music, it comes closest to joyously making noise: banging drums, clashing cymbals, givin’ it to gongs.

And it is true that as your eyes rest on Colin Currie, who is perhaps the world’s greatest living percussionist, you enjoy the force of his playing, the release of energy, the sweetness of sheer aggression. He has great speed, impeccable timing and an extraordinarily acute ear when it comes to rhythm. The sounds he puts in motion put you in mind of an army on the march. Left, right, left, right…

Yet that is not the full story, by any means. Elsewhere you are aware of Colin Currie’s nuance, delicacy and musical intelligence. As vibrations slowly reverberate you have a vision of birds taking flight. A slow burn as sparks ignite. You see stars fade and fall to earth.

It was an enthralling concert, with Rolf Wallin’s Realismos Magicos, performed in the second half, being the highlight.

RNCM Piano Day: Fandango!

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RNCM Piano Day: Fandango!

RNCM, 18 June 2016

Artur Pizarro. Photo credit? If you took this photo please contact me so I can credit you.

Artur Pizarro. Photo credit? If you took this photo please contact me so I can credit you.

Even in rainy Manchester, Artur Pizarro’s performance of Isaac Albeniz’s Iberia shone with warm golden Spanish sunlight.

It consisted of several short pieces, each conjuring a Spanish scene or mood, and after a full day of Spanish and Latin American piano music it was the perfect encore, a crowning concert.

During the day, we heard from composers as inimitable as Alberto Ginastera and Enrique Granados, Federico Mompou and Manuel de Fall. On two occasions, in a couple of memorable concerts spread over the afternoon, we heard the whole of Astor Piazzolla’s tango-imbued The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires brilliantly performed by RNCM students. This was one of several free (!) concerts.

Where else, in what city in the world, could you have days like this? Not in Vienna and not in Paris, I’d vouch.

A perfect day? Nah, a perfect-plus day.

Embrace of the Serpent

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Embrace of the Serpent

Directed by Ciro Guerra

Colombia, 2015

HOME, 15 June 2016

Embrace of the Serpent

This extraordinary film is a haunting meditation on colonialism and sin, cosmology and salvation.

A shaman takes an ailing anthropologist to where a fabled plant, called the Yakruna, grows – only it can cure his illness. Some years later a botanist comes to the shaman in search of the same plant, his intentions not entirely sincere.

The quest is convoluted on both occasions. They call on a mission along the way and it is grotesque, yet also apt, to see how Christianity has taken hold. There is a lot of blood and gore in Christian iconography and sacrament (the Crucifixion and the Eucharist, all that eating of the flesh and blood of the wounded Christ), which may have been part of its appeal. It is a monstrous religion, visceral and gruesome. God alone knows what heathens make of it.

There are nods to Conrad (Heart of Darkness) and Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey), mainly in the manner of paying off debts, giving credit where credit is due, though in the end Ciro Guerra is his own man.

Gradually, your sense of dread deepens. The native peoples of the Amazon are subject to economic exploitation, missionaries, then ethnographers – always more of the same. The hollowness of western values offers no respite. We are in a world where the loss of occult knowledge, the loss of language and cultural identity, the loss ultimately of a people – for genocide is probable – all of this is in the cards. That is what is at stake.

I could happily watch Embrace of the Serpent again, it is a masterful film.

Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8

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Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8

The Halle Orchestra

The Bridgewater Hall, 15 May 2016

The Halle performing in concert. Photo by Russell Hart.

The Halle performing in concert. Photo by Russell Hart

As a summing-up of what Dvorak was all about, ‘Nature, Life and Love’, the title of the Halle’s series of concerts devoted to the composer – of which this was one – passes muster.

The concert began with a Slavonic Dance and then the excellent Gary Hoffman joined the orchestra onstage for the Cello Concerto in B minor. Under Sir Mark Elder’s briskly efficient direction and vibrant conducting these two works, together with the Symphony No 8 in G major which we heard after the interval, were exhilarating performances all around.

The courtly character – the graciousness, and gentle charm – of Dvorak’s music shone through, joyful though with perhaps just a trace, a mere smidgeon, of melancholy. Bohemian bonhomie.

Details of future Halle concerts can be found here.

 

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