Ex Libris: The New York Public Library

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Ex Libris: The New York Public Library

Directed by Frederick Wiseman

USA, 2017

HOME, 19 July 2018

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library

Clocking in at over three hours, this is a documentary of Tolstoyan dimensions.

As with Frederick Wiseman’s other films, there is no voiceover narration, which is not to say that his camera simply observes. Rather the camera is an intelligent device which picks up on each tiny, telling detail; a consciousness ‘on which nothing is lost’, in Henry James’s famous formulation.

So we look in on managerial meetings where funding priorities and direction of policy are debated and decided. We spy a homeless guy (and not only one) fast asleep before a book. We listen to authors (Richard Dawkins, Patti Smith) talk before a genteel audience of likeminded souls, while a reader’s group lays into Love in the Time of Cholera: the book is not so much dog-eared as voraciously dog-chewed, metaphorically speaking, at the end. Nor do we evade the contrast between the grand library building in the centre of New York City and the homely, run-down branches in the wider community. Mind, the range of activities and resources we are presented with – dance classes, concerts, lessons in mathematics and programming (boys manipulating robots), facilities for research, usable archives, the provision of e-books and internet – is impressive.

Overall, Ex Libris is a very fine, very full portrait of an invaluable institution that serves its community, its various users and stakeholders (not least children), well.

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Racer and the Jailbird

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Racer and the Jailbird

Directed by Michael R. Roskam

Belgium, 2018

HOME, 19 July 2018

Racer and the Jailbird

This is a curious, though it has to be said effective, hybrid of heist thriller and tragic love story.

Gigi (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a guy who robs banks with a gang of mates he has known since childhood. Of course he presents himself to the world as legit, a businessman who imports and exports cars. Bibi (Adele Exarchopoulos) is a young woman who works for her father (it’s a job) but otherwise relaxes by racing fast cars around a track. That’s how Gigi and Bibi meet. And fall in love.

It is an unexpected, unsettling journey with a lot going for it, and well worth the price of the ticket. You get exciting set-pieces: the gang storming into a bank, later holding up an armoured car. You get beautiful Belgium: gothic churches, streamlined buildings, verdant countryside. And beyond this, for the film is not simply a series of cinematic postcards, the cruel economic landscape of a New Europe where business deals segue into extortion and corruption. And somewhere in all of this there are two damaged people, Gigi and Bibi, attempting to forge a life together.

What I especially like about this film is that it is slick but not superficial: a difficult trick to pull off.

The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick

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The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick

Directed by Wim Wenders

Austria, 1972

HOME, 18 July 2018
The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick

It is a truth universally acknowledged that all goalkeepers are crazy, bonkers, mad as the proverbial hatter.

And no wonder, for just consider their predicament. For most of a football match, they stand between their goalposts, far from the action. Watching the on-field players on the ball, in the thick of the action, while they are unable to intervene. Goalkeepers become detached from the goings-on that embroil the supporters (how could they not?), yet always they must be alert, for if the opposing team should score, the responsibility, the the final crucial mistake (even if initially it was the flashy striker, dizzy from a goal celebration or a hangover of the night before, who gave away the ball at the other end) belongs to them alone. They will be the guilty party in the eyes of the supporters. Goalkeepers are on edge all the time, aware of a ball (a fatal, game changing shot) that is mostly absent.

This early Wim Wenders / Peter Handke collaboration places a down-at-heel goalkeeper in the world (to be precise, in Vienna and Lower Austria: there is a nice shot of the Reisenrad in the Prater, perhaps the young Wenders’ homage to Orson Welles) and the result is a film that looks a little like an adaptation of Albert Camus’ The Outsider, with a smidgen of Frenzy, late Alfred Hitchcock, thrown in. Joseph Bloch (Arthur Brauss), the goalkeeper, is not a team player in life, to say the least. His capacity for empathy, fellow feeling, is severely limited. He is a danger to himself and others.

An intriguing early effort by both Wenders and Handke, there is plenty here to keep you interested. It is pretty patchy, mind, not at all a masterpiece. Still, you can glean themes that will recur in both artists’ later work.

RNCM Piano Day

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RNCM Piano Day

RNCM, 16 June 2018

RNCM Piano Day

Another wonderful and eventful day!

While it was a pity that the masterclass with Murray Perahia was cancelled (and what an extraordinary experience that would have been, to see the great pianist teaching close up), there was still plenty going on during this year’s Piano Day at the RNCM.

In the afternoon and early evening we heard lyric works by Chopin, Mendelssohn and Schumann, which was followed by two Mozart sonatas and a trio of Schubert works in the closing concert. The final performance of Schubert’s ‘Fantasy in F minor’, a work full of tenderness yet also with feral outbursts of bombastic passion, was glorious.

He felt things deeply, did that Schubert bloke. No doubt about it.

First Reformed

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First Reformed

Directed by Paul Schrader

USA, 2017

HOME, 18 July 2018

First Reformed

It has a compelling performance by Ethan Hawke as Toller, a priest wrestling with despair, damaged because of the death of a son in Iraq and desertion by his wife.

Moreover, it is a compelling film withal. We see Christianity struggling to make sense of apocalypse – failing even to recognise it. Apocalypse is upon us in the form of massive environmental destruction. You cannot really argue with the view that the natural world is fatally damaged, destruction occurring through urbanisation and industrialisation in emerging economies and the compulsion to meet the needs of rapacious consumers in the developed world. This will decimate eco-systems, lead to the (further) genocide of non-human species and tear asunder human communities. Then what?

Toller as a character is a bit extreme, perhaps, and the symbolism is sometimes a bit heavy-handed (Toller’s saviour is Mary, a young woman with child), but this is nonetheless a powerful and important film. It has an urgent, excoriating quality; it is about something. And I love the autumnal and wintry landscapes, the stark colours, the trees bare of branch.

RNCM Session Orchestra

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RNCM Session Orchestra

RNCM Theatre, 9 June 2018
RNCM Session Orchestra

This was yet another fiery concert from the RNCM Session Orchestra, with an incendiary chain of songs following fleet as wildfire.

On a rough count, we heard twenty four songs, all told. Some were ballads (‘Handbags and Gladrags’), some were pop (‘Dancing Queen’), some were joyous R’n’B (‘Crazy in Love’), some were Disco (‘I’m so Excited’). Though, in truth, The Pointer Sisters were always superior disco fare. Terrific singing, outstanding musicianship with Andy Stott, fire-starter extraordinaire, at the centre of it all, conducting.

The brisk tempo that has become a characteristic of these concerts was very much in evidence throughout. It is song after song after song, relentlessly. Maximum bang for your buck. Once one song ends then, hey up, there is another one right after. We are off again. And here is another. Next.

Entertainment reloaded.

In the Fade

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In the Fade

Directed by Fatih Akin

Germany, 2017

HOME, 24 June 2018

King of Hearts

When Katja’s husband and son are killed by a bomb left outside his office, her world falls apart.

Diane Kruger is dazzling as the grieving mother and her extraordinary performance transforms what is an OK thriller into something that (sporadically) has the grandeur of Greek tragedy. After the deaths are confirmed, she asks to see her loved ones. And is told that they no longer exist, they are just body parts. A harrowing moment – one of several.

There is a nice irony in that whilst Katja’s lawyer (Kurdish, like her husband) accepts the rule of law and pursues justice through prosecution, Katja herself (an ethnic German) has recourse to more extreme measures. In the end, she realises that she cannot continue to live. The suffering is unbearable.

A tightly directed, briskly paced thriller and Diane Kruger is mesmeric. Go see.

McQueen

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McQueen

Directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui

UK, 2018

HOME, 24 June 2018

McQueen

Another variation on a well-trodden theme: how England lays waste to her best talent.

The subject of the documentary is Alexander McQueen, an extraordinary designer and undoubted genius, one of those wild flowers (or fabulist weeds) that the working class periodically spews out. Myriad people talk of their astonishment at his conceptions: ‘Where the fuck did that come from?’ being a common response. McQueen’s clothes are sui-generis, unimaginable even after they’ve come into existence. Myself, I remember a few summers ago coming across one of his designs (a suit of armour, it looked like) at the Celebration! exhibition at the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna and being awestruck. Realising that, Yep, this guy’s work belongs there. It’s classic. It will outlast our age.

In the film we hear from family, friends and lovers. And McQueen himself as well. Sometimes he talks about the ideas behind the clothes and his ‘darkness’ (etc) but there is a self- promoting vibe to much of the spiel, the interviews probably originally conducted in conjunction with a fashion show, and they strike me as misleading. What is undeniable, however, is that his magical, quicksilver touch was able to transform even his superficial ideas into something sensational.

Mind, one of his statements had the ring of truth – the bitterness was so palpable it could hardly have been otherwise. He talked about signing on the dole while trying to put together a fashion collection, spending all his money on fabric and not having anything left for food… You wonder: was this sacrifice, or stupidity? My guess is that McQueen probably didn’t have a choice in the matter: he had to make clothes.

King of Hearts

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King of Hearts

Directed by Philippe de Broca

France, 1966

HOME, 24 June 2018

King of Hearts

The Great War and a French city under siege.

The Germans leave, the British forces are yet to arrive, so we have an interregnum period where the lunatics are let out of the asylum and the King of Hearts, Alan Bates’ bookish pigeon fancier, reigns. All is carnival: joy and pleasure and good manners, parties and games and salons.

It is a film with a feather-light touch; not a blunt anti-war message in sight. But the question is clear: who are the real lunatics?

In the final scene the nobles (lunatics) look down upon the world from their tower. Who would want to go out and actually live there? Best let their servants do the living for them. Whether this is integrity or bad faith – well, we could discuss that at length.

An intriguing film, full of vivacity, but curiously naive.

 

The Ciambra

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The Ciambra

Directed by Jonas Carpignano

Italy, 2017

HOME, 23 June 2018

L’amant double

A fine coming-of-age drama, co-produced by one Martin Scorsese.

There is a lad, Pio Amato, part of a Romani community in Italy. He is involved in petty crime, like his father and brother before him. The police are the enemy and then you have the Mafia (‘the Italians’), who often call by to make their presence felt and lay down another sort of law. At times, Pio hangs out with some African guys, part of a loose community of,you would suppose, illegal migrants. He feels a kinship toward them.

It is a brilliantly observed film. We watch as Pio learns where power resides in this strange, perplexing, given world. He looks on as an alien (nomadic) outsider. In the best scene, barely bearable for the viewer, he is forced to betray a friend to show his allegiance to a tribe: a hard, hard fall. Your heart becomes a stone after that.

Well worth a watch.