El Sur

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El Sur

Directed by Victor Erice

Spain, 1983

HOME, 21 September 2016

El Sur

A young woman, overcome with love and dread for her father’s fate, decides to journey to the South, seeking the key to his existence.

It ends right then, this precious and elliptical film, after presenting an array of strangely beautiful fragments.

One learns that the father is a Republican in Fascist Spain, living in a sort of exile in a small provincial town.  In time even his marriage, a dowdy confection, feels like a sort of exile.  He is unhappy, pining for a film actress he had known in the days of his youth. A woman changed, as he has changed. It is all hopeless. His life, or at any rate another, perhaps an authentic life, lies elsewhere.

It is a lovely film, which put me in mind at times of Shadow of a Doubt  – though as filtered through, let’s say, Goytisolo’s delicate sensibility.

Andrew Wilde, Celebrity Piano Recital

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Andrew Wilde, Celebrity Piano Recital

RNCM Concert Hall, 18 September 2016

Andrew Wilde, Celebrity Piano Recital

In one sense the programme of Andrew Wilde’s recital was quite simple: Beethoven in the first half, Chopin in the second.

We heard three sonatas by Beethoven, the last of them being the ‘Pathetique’, and they were followed by a selection of works by Chopin, including nocturnes, mazurkas, waltzes and the Scherzo in B minor. After hearing Chopin’s nocturnes, the Moonlight Sonata made for a perfect encore and alongside this came the realisation – for in truth, the penny took a long time to drop – that the programme, rather than being simple and straightforward, had an underlying thesis.

Wilde’s scintillating performances of these works – each one deeply and complexly pleasurable in and of itself – brought out the affinities between these two great composers in a rare, demonstrable way. How many others, I wonder, among those who gave Wilde such a rapturous welcome on his return to his old college – and, at the end, a warm fare-thee-well – how many when they now listen to Chopin will hear echoes, small fragments, of Beethoven too, like pebbles embedded in glass? It was brave as well for this artist to choose for recital such familiar works.

This fine concert was heard on a warm September afternoon and early evening in Manchester.

Captain Fantastic

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Captain Fantastic

Directed by Matt Ross

USA, 2016

HOME, 17 September 2016

Captain Fantastic

Apropos Chomsky: a good title for a book, an efficacious way to open a conversation.

And an apt title for this film as well.

It is about a father (Viggo Mortensen, attractive and abrasive) who raises his children in a forest. They are survivalist folk, anti-establishment, hyper-intelligent and (incidentally) they revere Noam Chomsky, even going so far as to celebrate his birthday. Yet these children are not prepared for the real world, such as it is, a world of fat people (this is America) and phone zombies and quaint, social conventions.

Family values are questioned and in the end reaffirmed – as in all American films. There is a fine performance of ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ – not the best song in the world, but OK. I enjoyed the film despite its incoherence, maybe because of it. Good.

A Streetcar Named Desire @ the Royal Exchange Theatre

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A Streetcar Named Desire

By Tennessee Williams

Royal Exchange Theatre, 13 September 2016

Maxine Peake as Blanche DuBois in the Royal Exchange Theatre production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo by ?

Maxine Peake as Blanche DuBois in the Royal Exchange Theatre production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo by ?

The driving rain, the rollicking thunder, the flashing lightening, the dark Autumnal Manchester skyline, the pooled pavements where (no choice) you had to wade forward ankle-deep: all that was outside, a preamble (or so it seemed) to the main event.

Inside there was an emotional storm just as fierce, with this welcome production of Williams’ well known play, and Maxine Peake being Blanche DuBois.

There were a few additions and deletions, some meaningful (the presence of ghostly black women alongside the suggestion that Belle Reve had been a plantation – there is no evidence for this in the text, mind), others perplexing (The Pina Colada Song made an appearance: say what?). It ended with Blanche’s hackneyed line, ‘I have always depended on the kindness of strangers’, so the text had been truncated a little.

The dramatic structure of the play, what makes it work so well, was however intact. We see Blanche achieve happiness, or at any rate safety, with Mitch’s declaration of something like love: ‘You need somebody. And I need somebody, too. Could it be – you and me, Blanche?’ And then we see it taken away from her, a slow unravelling as her facade of lies – that anxious, fragile pose – crumbles into dust.

Peake’s performance is a play of smoke and mirrors, trickery and illusion. She shows us a Blanche who is never quite open and true; there is a pretension right up until the end (like the EU, kinda). At the end we realise that Blanche will never escape her loneliness; she is so lost that she has no heart, no centre, no values, and will never deliver on her promises (again, like the EU, kinda).

A Streetcar Named Desire is a cruel play, at root a Grand Guignol piece, and in my opinion Williams’ later, more experimental plays are his best or certainly his most interesting. It is anyway showing at the Royal Exchange until 15 October, further details can be found here.

 

 

 

 

The Blue Room

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The Blue Room

Directed by Mathieu Amalric

France, 2014

HOME, 10 September 2016

The Blue Room

You are confused yet compelled to watch.

There is too little information to make sense of the events that flicker by on screen, everything happens hyper-fast. With time, however, a pattern emerges; the fragments form a portrait. We see a weak man and a powerful, possessive (if perhaps not quite sane) woman: Julien (Mathieu Amalric: yes, he stars and directs) and his mistress. Before the heady poison of her forceful sexual passion he is a helpless pawn.

Simenon wrote the source story and while the film has been updated and looks wholly contemporary, still it bears his birthmark: the indelible stain of human sin. First principle: there is no escape and no mercy for anyone. You can see that everyone here is hunted or captive, caught in a trap. At the end it is Julien’s weakness, his malleable impressionability and lack of a strong moral centre that damns him.

Is weakness then a vice?

Hell or High Water

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Hell or High Water

Directed by David MacKenzie

USA, 2016

HOME, 11 September 2016

Hell or High Water

This one is a crime drama set in the contemporary West, with Jeff Bridges a Texas Ranger on the trail of two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who rob banks.

It has a powerful narrative pull and it provides as well a stringent critique of those banks that prey on the poor and the down-at-heel. Some activities that rake in the cash are legitimate (loans with extortionate interest rates, say), while others are against the law. If you are poor you are powerless, that’s the bottom line – and in America that is the worst thing to be.

The presence of Jeff Bridges gives what is a good film that added, extra ounce of class. What more is there to say about this fine actor? He is brilliant, once again, his nuanced performance another arrow in the quiver. That response of his when he kills the man who killed his partner is cinematic poetry: a boyish delight followed by sudden anguish. It put me in mind of what Wellington said of war, that the only thing worse than a battle lost is a battle won. War, violence, is the vocation of men yet is a terrible thing always.

Hell or High Water is well crafted and intelligent, effortless – not laboured – in the points it makes about contemporary America. But… Trump or Clinton, how did the choice ever get to be so dire? That question is not answered.

The Abecedarium of the Artist’s Death

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The Abecedarium of the Artist’s Death

By Moussa Kone

Verlag für moderne Kunst, 2014

ISBN: 9783869845272

The Abecedarium of the Artist’s Death

Yes, I know what you are wondering.

My best guess is that the word is pronounced ‘ABC-darium’, with the book – which is nicely designed, by the way, kind of like an index file – consisting of drawings of 26 artists and a summary of the various fates, deaths real and metaphorical, that befall them. In our opening drawing, we make the acquaintance of Anna (‘A is for Anna who was struck by her work…’) and we close by saying farewell to Zacharias. You get the picture: the alphabet acts as an organising principle.

At the end Moussa Kone describes her book as a homage to Edward Gorey and it owes most perhaps to The Gashlycrum Tinies (tales of 26 tiny tots’ tragic terminations). Kone’s drawings are beautifully composed and are not without a healthy dollop of black humour (e.g. ‘I is for Ingrid who trusted her friends…’) but for the most part they are quirky and amusing rather than disquieting, as is almost always the case with Gorey. They will raise a wry smile, certainly, but they won’t put you on edge as Gorey’s drawings are wont to do.

As a small aside, let me correct a statement made by Alexander Theroux in his otherwise excellent monograph, The Strange Case of Edward Gorey. In his discussion of The Loathsome Couple, a book inspired by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley’s depraved crimes, Theroux states that the Moors Murders occurred in Yorkshire. Not so, I am afraid, as those of us who live in this part of the world know only too well. The bodies of the children killed by Brady and Hindley were buried on Saddleworth Moor, not the Yorkshire Moors. And The Moors Murderers, rotten as they were, were Manchester-made.

Moussa Kone’s website is here.

The publisher’s description of The Abecedarium of the Artist’s Death can be read here.

 

The Neon Demon

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The Neon Demon

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

USA, 2016

HOME, 26 July 2016

The Neon Demon

A beautiful young woman comes to LA, looking to forge a career as a model.

She arouses envy and desire, love and hate and an amalgam of both, in those around her. Everyone is on edge. Men want her, women want her (lesbian seduction alert) and they want to be her too. They want what she has: beauty, innocence, youth…

It is a stylish film and it put me in mind of Rosemary’s Baby. A curious comparison, perhaps, but it’s one that struck me because of the way the film went from being a tightly wound psychological thriller to a full-blown horror fest, LA ablaze with a gory and gaudy grandeur.

We get to see what’s under the skin, what’s behind that ersatz cerise smile and it ain’t pretty.

An intriguing film but whether it amounts to anything other than surface glamour is an open question.

Panic Attack

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Panic Attack

By  Jason Starr

No Exit Press, 2016

ISBN: 9781843447092

Panic Attack

Why do needless accidents happen to thoughtless people?

When Adam Bloom shoots off his gun he kills one burglar but the other escapes. Adam then goes on to act like a big hero before the assembled media: he is the man of the house, protecting his family from harm. This winds up Johnny Long, the burglar who got away, a guy who happens to be a sleazy, creepy, nasty piece of work. Johnny comes after Adam big-time, his wife and daughter an’ all. Everybody has to pay in blood.

Starr’s novel is wholly contemporary – we are in twenty first century New York, no question – but it also harks back to post-war noir and Jacobin revenge dramas of yore. Sin is indelible, so too self-delusion and self-justification. These people – Adam and Johnny, Dana the wife and Marissa the daughter – cannot become better. They are shiny and shallow automata, each with the odd blindspot. In this respect, it is interesting how Starr will sometimes run through the same scene twice, from different characters’ perspectives.

You feel as though these people (by which I probably mean ‘we’) are dislocated, not present, in their own lives. They are elsewhere, always missing something. On the phone or off with the faeries. And violence, even death, when it comes is always a shock to the victim, wholly unexpected, a matter of disbelief right up until the end: Starr gets this down straight, you feel. Wittgenstein wrote that death is not an event in the world, since we do not live to experience death. True enough, but dying is another matter.

I read Starr’s fine novel while sitting in the Stiegen Wirt restaurant in Kirchberg, in between attending the plenary lectures and afternoon sessions of the 39th International Wittgenstein Symposium. They serve wholesome Austrian food and, a big plus, Wolfbrau beer there.

The publisher’s description of Panic Attack can be read here.

Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser

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Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser

Directed by Charlotte Zwerin

Canada, 1988

HOME, 26 July 2016

Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser

This film gives a compelling portrait of the great man in the late summer of his career; it also serves as a summation of his achievement.

We learn as well that he seemed to have had a habit of whirling around very fast and then suddenly stopping: a child’s way of getting high, eclipsing memory, making the world wondrous strange. The best moment here is an exhilarating performance of ‘Well, You Needn’t’, Monk’s composition a casual reminder, almost an insouciant aside, that your life is your own and you don’t have to play by anyone’s rules. A tune that makes you feel happy and empowered and justified all at once. You smile, again and again.

Monk’s music is a gift: accept.

There is a performance of ‘Well, You Needn’t’ online here: