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Sunday, 31 March 2013

A cloudy prospect

This is a review of Cloud Atlas (2012)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
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31 March

This is a review of Cloud Atlas (2012)

In his review of Cloud Atlas (2012), Philip French – not at all showing off – seems to give every example that he can think of in films where actors play more than one role. (Thankfully, he did not trouble us with Alec Guinness’ eightfold cameos as members of the d’Ascoyne family.) To French, that historical view may be important, but I agree with the person (was it he ?) who said that one might be too bothered working out which actor / actress is on screen to pay attention to other things.

For me, trying to think of Hugo Weaving’s name (by reminding myself of The Matrix (1999) and its Agent Smith) was not too much for my poor little brain (not, that is, in the way that some of the intense stretches of action were, acting as some sort of overload). Having thought of some counter-examples, I cannot think that the following Tweet is correct in alleging a significance, other than damn’ good fun on the part of cast and crew (Weaving as a nurse to put Ratched in the shade ! ), in these multiple roles (which is properly the stuff of The Hours (2002)) :

As far as I am concerned, the territory that the futuristic parts of the film occupies is that before the time of the trilogy that began with The Matrix, and whose antecedents were ‘filled’ in by the collection of short works that make up The Animatrix (2003). It may be that, with his novel Cloud Atlas (published in 2004), David Mitchell was aware of this material, and has an interest in the ethics, possibilities and implications of AI (Artificial Intelligence) – I almost cannot believe otherwise, rather than that it is a layering on the book from the Wachowskis, who co-wrote and co-directed the film with Tom Tykwer (who was also one of its three composers).

We are shown an agent from Union (Hae-Joo Chang, played by Jim Sturgess) who is seeking to recruit Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), very much in the same way that Trinity recruits Neo in The Matrix and introduces him to Morpheus : the aim in both cases is to tell the truth about the situation that fellow ‘fabricants’ and humans, respectively, are in, when they are deluded as to the reality of their existence and purpose.

Neo, before he is ‘awoken’, is in one small pod of a huge human power-source for the machine world, but, believing otherwise because of the stimuli provided to his inert, supine body (which generate the matrix in which he seems to be alive), has to be shown the truth, which shocks him. Even more shocking, in a way, is for him to be told that he is the chosen one, just as Sonmi-451 is. In her case, the lies that fabricants such as she have been told, when unmasked, cause her to engage with Union’s cause and to seek to broadcast the truth. (One is almost reminded of the closing scene of The Matrix, where Neo is making the sort of ‘wake-up call’ that was made to him by Trinity at the other end of the film.)

In another era, that of the continuing slave trade in the States, Doona Bae is Adam Ewing’s (Sturgess’) wife Tilda, to whom he returns from the colonies a changed man because of having his life saved by Autua (David Gyasi), a black slave who had stowed away : we do not learn more of it, but Adam and Tilda intend to head eastwards to campaign for the abolition of slavery. Is the multiple-character aspect significant here ? Well, yes, Bae plays both Tilda and Sonmi-451, but, in the former role and in those times, she would probably have been no more visible as a force for change than as Adam’s supporter.

There is thus a link between the mid-nineteenth century and the mid-twenty-first century in terms of seeking freedom and helping others in that search. Dr Henry Goose (Tom Hanks) would have prevented the latter, but, as Zachry, he helps, rather than hinders, escaping a stricken place, so it would appear that any pattern is not one of direct correspondence, and, if not dictated by logistics, may be little more than fortuitous.

Continued as In the clouds

Sunday, 24 March 2013

A working document : Silver Linings Playbook and its pros and cons with mental-health issues

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25 March

First thoughts after just seeing the film, to be added to, revised, etc., as time and reading other comments permit

* NB Contains spoilers *

Preamble : I do not know about US mental-health or criminal law, but I do know about sections 37 and 41 of the Mental Health Act 1983 (as amended), where it used to be that, before the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office would receive psychiatric reports and decide whether someone could fully or conditionally be discharged from section. Such people had been found to have committed a criminal offence, but, because of their mental-health condition, were being held in hospital, not in prison.

What we are shown seems similar, though it is implausible that Pat’s mother could just turn up, sign a document, and take him home there and then (or, equally, that it would not be known beforehand that police officer Keogh had been allocated to supervise Pat (Bradley Cooper) in the community) : in the UK, the 1983 Act would only allow Pat’s mother to take him off even a non-criminal section by giving 72 hours in which the consultant could object to it on the basis that he would be a danger to himself or others.

As I suggest, a far cry - even if perhaps necessary to a plot where Pat's father does not even know that it is happening - from seemingly just 'bowling up' and getting Pat signed over...

Pros :

1. Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal (as Tiffany Maxwell) of someone with mental-health issues as straightforward and open, genuine, and not excusing what, in Pat, did not have to be that way.

2. That Pat (Bradley Cooper) responds to her, albeit just initially just by talking about medication at her sister's dinner table, because they share something.

3. That Tiffany is shown throwing back in Pat's face his hierarchy of craziness, where she is ‘worse than’ he, because she ended up being highly promiscuous for a while (after her husband has been killed when helping another driver), and where, as she tells him, he throws back in her face what she has trusted him with in friendship.

Cons :

1. Bradley Cooper’s portrayal (as Pat) of someone with mental-health issues who cannot control himself, and lacks compassion, tact and understanding, because he is the one with the history of undiagnosed bi-polar disorder, and the implication might be that those traits or behaviours are part and parcel of the diagnosis.

2. The notion that regular therapy would not only be available, but provided, in a medical culture so rooted to medication. (The therapy gets conveniently forgotten, once Pat encounters Dr Patel at a football game, as do the charges and consequences of what happens there, because the film presents him as doing nothing other than rehearsing with Tiffany and collapsing.)

3. The suggestion from Pat that he can recognize OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder*) in his father Patrizio just because he likes the remote-controllers in a certain arrangement, which is a regression even on Jack Nicholson's character in As Good as it Gets. Pat has been in a psychiatric unit for eight months, and so should know better, because (as suggested at point 5) he has got close enough to people to understand how they tick and feel.

4. The whole film, of course, has a bit of a feel that, just as Jack Nicholson in that other film 'just needed the love of a good woman to take him out of himself' (i.e. Helen Hunt), so Pat just needs to accept that he loves Tiffany and wants to care for her.

5. Danny (Chris Tucker) is shown as engaging, but with recurrent fixed thought-patterns that prevent his engagement with others. Nonetheless, Pat and he have a friendship, which must mean that Pat is capable of getting beyond his self-centredness(contrary to what point 1 in this list suggests. Danny has a pretty understandable desire to escape from the unit at Baltimore, but, when he is legitimately out (prior to which Pat, somehow, has been finding time to write to him), he is suddenly transformed into a with-it guy, making Pat jealous by demonstrating dance-moves with Tiffany - the transformation would have been interesting to know more of.

6. Putting points 4 and 5 in this list together, the message appears to be that mental ill-health arises from self-obsession, and that learning to focus one's attention on the needs and feelings of another is all that is needed as a cure. Which is about as true to the world of such conditions as bi-polar disorder as films like Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) are to psychiatric practice or Marnie (1964) is to breaking through a neurosis by finding 'the key'.

Watch this space !


* Some people seriously believe, as someone with the condition once told me, that it stood for Obsessive Cleaning Disorder.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Kristin at the Harold Pinter Theatre I

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24 March

I admit that I went to see Old Times, not because of Rufus Sewell, or because of Lia Williams, but Kristin Scott Thomas, who played Emma so beautifully in the same director’s, Ian Rickson’s, production a few years ago (since when The Comedy has become The Harold Pinter Theatre). (Quite apart, even if IMDb ratings disagree, from her striking roles in In Your Hands (2010), Leaving (2009), In Your Hands (2010), The Woman in the Fifth (2011), and I’ve Loved You So Long (2008)*.)

I have seen this play before, and the role of Kate has its difficulties. Moreover, Williams and she have their work cut out by a schedule that has them alternating who will play it, and who her friend Anna, from one performance to another – even, when there is a matinee, within one day, and, on a few days, ‘the actresses playing the roles of Kate and Anna will be decided on the night of the performance with a coin toss’ ! I’m not sure whether it’s gimmickry, but it will have me seeking a time to see KST as Anna.

Anna is the part that Pinter’s first wife, Vivien Merchant**, played – I knew that she had appeared in it, her last of his, but had assumed / misremembered her being Kate – and, to my eye, there are facial similarities between her and KST. (Likewise, I found a still of Pinter appearing in the play as Deeley, and his Kate was Nicola Pagett.) Getting back to the actresses swapping the roles, they obviously aren’t a pair, being mistaken one for the other, in the way of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, but it is an interesting thing for the freshness, the dynamics, of the staging to do it.

Talking, before the performance, to some people sitting near me, I explained about how Old Times confuses or blends memory, imagination and reality, and how alliances are tacitly proposed by one to another against the third. However, they shift, so that the characters also employ challenges to each other’s recollection, status, even the words that they use, and sometimes outright intimidate. These skeletal remembrances of my last encounter with the play were to hand, but not, even if it had been wanted, the detail of the unfolding.

Afterwards, waiting at the stage door, I talked to a couple who had not known the play before, but read good reviews, knew some of the films, and wanted to see KST. As we chatted about it, there was a convenient centre-ground that what really happened is down to interpretation***, resulting from my clarifying that the silent tableau acted out at the end is what Anna told us about earlier, with the unknown man in Kate's and her shared room, and his head in Kate's lap, etc.****.

As our discussion progressed, the intriguing suggestion arose that Kate and Anna are perhaps the same person : what if they were, with the visit of Anna as some sort of psychological way of interpreting the things in Kate that Deeley could relate to better, if she took the form of Anna ? The play was first put on in 1971, and Pinter had had that affair with Bakewell in the decade before, so maybe he knew all about, as the case might be, splitting up his affections between two women, or having a publicly visible wife and another with whom he had an unacknowledged intimacy.

If so, I cannot see the situation with Merchant, Pinter and Bakewell, although credited as the origins of the later play Betrayal, being any more than the germ of it or (of Old Times) : this is not Pinter working out his angst and anguish, and actually puts me more in mind of Beckettt’s aptly titled Play, another two women and a man, seemingly being tortured or interrogated about their past. Play was from 1963, and Beckettt and Pinter not only knew each other, but were friends (with a shared love of cricket, too).

The text supports this notion, because, at the close of a long speech towards the end of Act Two, Deeley says (talking to Kate about Anna) :

She thought she was you, said little, so little. Maybe she was you. Maybe it was you, having coffee with me, saying little, so little.

He wants both women, now as then (if there really ever was a then), so much is clear, and there he resembles Man in Play. Beckettt achieves a distillation of the essence of an affair by having the three voices speak parts of each of their story, one at a time and seemingly unaware of the others, literally disembodied (they are in urns), and, in the way that they are presented to us as spirits, compelled for eternity to tell their wrongs, they remind of the Inferno of Dante (beloved of Beckettt). In Pinter’s play, he muses on the uncertainties of memory, of identity, of remembering – or thinking to remember – another person and / or an event, and this production does justice to that aim.

I have already mentioned that Kate is on stage often enough with nothing to do. Scott Thomas did this perfectly, embodying this Kate who gets talked about, and who seems, if not other worldly, sometimes a bit emotionally distant – so much more dramatically stirring the flare-up, when she talks, in several chunks of text separated by silences and pauses, about Anna (who has no further words in the script), seems to gel with this notion that Anna is no more than she, killed off by having Deeley come to her room.

But perhaps Deeley, too, is Anna / Deeley, because Kate first describes Anna :

Your face was dirty. You lay dead, your face scrawled with dirt, all kinds of earnest inscriptions, but unblotted, so that they had run, all over your face, down to your throat.

Then, after a pause marked, in the same speech, she continues addressing Anna, but talks about Deeley :

I dug about in the windowbox, where you had planted our pretty pansies, scooped, filled the bowl, and plastered his face with dirt. He was bemused, aghast, resisted, resisted with force. He would not let me dirty his face, or smudge it, he wouldn’t let me.

The unclean face, the repetition of ‘dirty’ (albeit as a verb), and the vivid reminder of the description of Anna’s in ‘smudge’, they all suggest some link. Anna is said to be ‘lying dead’, with its finality, and Deeley’s response in the immediately succeeding words, proposes a solution to Anna and being in London (the explanation of the apparent opening present day) :

He suggested a wedding instead, and a change of environment.

Slight pause

Neither mattered.

The succeeding, closing words of the play, still from Kate, amount to a denial of Anna’s ever having existed :

He asked me once, about that time, who had slept in that bed before him. I told him no one. No one at all.

There has been a fair amount of barbed comment from Deeley to her, such as this exchange (about Anna’s possibly fanciful claims regarding her home and husband) :

Anna : He’s not a vegetarian. In fact he’s something of a gourmet. We live in a rather fine villa and have done so for many years. It’s very high up, on the cliffs.

Deeley : You eat well up there, eh ?

Anna : I would say so, yes.

Kate related (if Anna weren’t the side of Kate that she killed to become Deeley’s wife) Anna being dead, then, in almost magically-sounding way abouttaking Deeley to where she lived, ‘When I brought him into the room your body of course had gone’, then putting on his face, and his proposal : Deeley has substituted for / become Anna.

Seen from his perspective, the closing tableau of a sobbing Deeley, seeking attention or comfort from the women in turn, then, as Kate sits on her bed and Anna lies on hers, sitting in the armchair embodies a possible, but difficult, choice between the quiet Kate, who likes to go for walks, and the Anna who says (again, not convincingly) that she likes parties, the Tate and concerts.

As if as a provocation to Deeley, who claims to have been watching a film in an empty cinema in when he first saw Kate and spoke to her outside, Anna asserts that Kate hustled her out to ‘some totally unfamiliar district and, almost alone, saw a wonderful film called Odd Man Out’(the same film). After these words, a silence is marked, and then Deeley abruptly says ‘Yes, I do quite a bit of travelling in my job’, which Sewell reinforced by an angry look at Anna and tone.

We will never know what is going on amongst this apparent three any more than they, if they are three, do themselves, or what Deeley’s job and travelling are really about. As with all good art, what matters is how this play makes us think about what we see, remembering what Anna said :

There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened. There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place.

Three slight hesitations with the performance. First, when Deeley takes a second brandy, what Sewell is (meant to be) doing with his gyrations across the sofa on which Anna is sitting from behind it was beyond me. Later, I felt that he allowed the pace to go a little too slack in, I think, the long speech where he confuses the women, or in a sustained exchange with one of the others, when he is centre stage. And, finally, there is supposed to be a long silence, after lying across Kate’s lap, and before very slowly sitting up (the sitting up was not slow either), but that may be Rickson’s direction.

Now on the blog : when KST played Anna instead


* I throw a veil over Bel Ami (2012), not because KST isn’t good, but because she had been miscast as an older woman, who, through childlike desire and infatuation, gains a glow of someone more the real age of the actress.

** Curiously, to judge from the write-up of Pinter in the back pages of the programme, you’d have thought that he lived with Antonia Fraser for a while before marrying her, not that he’d already been married and a father, let alone had an affair with Joan Bakewell…

*** Perhaps one of the starting-points for Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen, precisely about interpretation, with (in the production that I saw) another three characters, Nils Bohr, his wife, and Werner Heisenberg, circling each other - and their relationships - like particles in an atom.

**** That speech, in context, shows what I first thought about the play when I read it, because there are pages of script leading up this point when just Deeley and Anna are talking (usually about Kate), and some stage business is needed for the listening Kate. (Between them, Rickson and Scott Thomas (and, no doubt, Williams) did this immensely well.) As she remarks, it’s almost as if she is dead or cannot hear them, an intensified form of what happens – as here – when some long-lost friend of one partner is being asked by the other what he or she was like then.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Woody took me with him, money or no

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22 March

Starting out, and even with Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allen collaborated with Mickey Rose, as he did on the screenplay of Take the Money and Run (1969) (though not the direction). He has talked about working with Rose and also Marshall Brickman, and said that he liked the variety doing so gave him (Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) is a later piece of co-authorship with Brickman).

Stardust Memories (1980), coming after the ill-received sombre drama that was Interiors (1978) and Manhattan (1979) (co-written with Brickman), almost mercilessly mocks these ‘early funny films’, but here we can see how well elements work, such as faultless delivery of the punch-line and of the joke built on leading up to incongruity. The recent film documentary of Allen drew the attention of those who did not know to how he began, as a gag-writer, and Rose and he know how to construct them : after 15 minutes, Virgil Starkwell (Allen in a voice-over) was in love with Louise; after 30 minutes, he had decided not to steal her handbag.

But there are many other things in play, with references both to cinema literacy, and even James Joyce (with 16 June, the Bloomsday featured in Ulysses, the date of a big bank robbery cum fake film, complete with a sort of, if possible, even more crazy Erich von Stroheim) : Allen effortlessly makes films that come afterwards, such as Stir Crazy (1980) or O Brother, Where Art Thou ? (2000), seem just lumbering, keeping in one groove, whereas Rose and Allen have leapt on to a new theme and feel for that part of the film.

In this his, if you include the strange film that is What’s Up, Tiger Lily ? (1966), second feature, his camera angles are already inventive, he as his own leading man and Janet Margolin as Louise parody their own domesticity as gangster and moll (Louise saying ‘You know, he never made the ten most-wanted list. It’s very unfair voting – it’s who you know’), and a quick moment when the side-effect of a drug-trial has Virgil turn into a rabbi for a few hours, with clever cutting between the onlookers and the subject, is – along with the mock-documentary story-telling (Virgil’s parents being interviewed about him, both disguised with Groucho glasses that sport bushy eyebrows and moustache, plus a patently plastic beak-like nose) – where he comes back to, in 1983, with Zelig.

The film is funny and fresh, and it was a delight to catch up with Allen and his cynical take on romance, where the love is in the early days of fascination and attraction, and irritating habits and silly misunderstandings make it wear thin. We simply do not ask whether Louise, an unlikely laundress, would seek out Virgil, who turns out not to be a cellist with the Philharmonic (but a failed bank-robber), because we are having too much fun !

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Bonding ? Schmonding !

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9 March

Time for a rant - a rantlet, for lack of time...

Yes, I am happy to originate a term, but I will not adopt one that makes no connection with - no sense to - me, such as male bonding:

1. 'Bonding' was what superglue was supposed to do, when one bought an expensive, fiddly little tube of stuff that did precious little for one's sanity, when it went everywhere but the target, made one fear for sticking one's fingers together for eternity, and ultimately stuck nothing to nothing.

2. Moreover, there is no such thing - as far as I am aware - as female bonding, so the implication is that men are just useless at opening up to each other on any real or emotional level, and need special sessions.

3. There's the Pratter hashtag (God knows why they are called that !) #EverydaySexism - is referring to 'male bonding' that ? Yes, just like man flu, it is.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Morten and Eric

This piece is about Shining Night : A Portrait of Composer Morten Lauridsen (2012)

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3 March

This piece is about Shining Night : A Portrait of Composer Morten Lauridsen (2012)

Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen are huge names in the sacred choral music tradition in America.

To-day, on a Sunday afternoon, the latter is in Cambridge, conducting a rehearsal just now before a screening of Shining Night (2012), a new film about him at 4.00, complete with a Q&A with the director and him. (Later, the concert for which the rehearsal.)

There may be more relevant and compelling things to ask in the wake of the film, but my question, as presently envisaged, is:

If you agree that certain composers have a distinctive voice or sound, is it fair to characterize that as their harmonic language, and, if so, what are the elements in your harmonic language are of which you are aware, and, if not, how would you describe what makes your compositions yours ?

Michael Stillwater's film gave an affectionate appreciation of Lauridsen the man, the composer, and the participant in rehearsals where his work is being performed, as well as of Waldron Island in Washington, where he lives part of each year, looking across to Canada. Certain messages, apart from the power and cohesiveness of the work, came across very clearly :

* Lauridsen is almost a poet in his approach to composition, as well as a sociological and historical scholar in putting the texts that he sets in context

* Indeed, as he revealed in the Q&A, he reads poetry every day, and begins every class at university with a poem (and the opportunity for others to share poetry)

* He is quite aware of musical language, and so, in setting O magnum mysterium, says that he did not want anything to interpose itself between the text and the hearer

* He alluded to a wealth of notes 'discarded' to get 'the right ones'

* The natural world and the silence of where he chooses to live are supremely important to him

* The sense, as he later confirmed, of being a private person, but one who feels deeply for history, for those who will hear his compositions, and for those who sing them, having deliberately made Lux Aeterna within the capability of choirs of competent singers, rather than just highly skilled ensembles

* Having to pawn one of his two instruments or his typewriter to get by, he had not had things easy in early days

Initially, Lauridsen answered questions from two members of the music society at Queens' (his hosts that day).

When I got to ask a question, I asked whether being front of the camera and talking about himself had felt intrusive - in a very long answer, he was quick to say (and quite defensive in saying so) that he is used to talking in public as a university teacher. However, the fact remains that there was at least one moment that Michael Stillwater had caught on camera in his documentary where Lauridsen looked choked by what he was remembering or talking about.

What I had wanted to know was whether Stillwater had had to do anything to make the experience easier for Lauridsen, especially at those moments, but he wanted to suggest that he was not even aware of the camera.

He said that, when he had responded to Stillwater's approach to make a film, he had freely invited Stillwater to film him in rehearsals and performances, first in California, then in Scotland, but it sounded as though he hoped that he would not have to be filmed on his retreat in Washington, in an unquestionably beautiful location that Stillwater's cinematography showed to good effect (despite the limitations of the digital capture of certain qualities and characters of light).

Stillwater was equally clear that he had felt - rightly - that, in effect, the heart of the film would have been missing without Waldron. Good for overcoming both Lauridsen's reluctance, and for making the presence of the crew a happy one for other residents !

As for whether one is with those such as Giles Swayne who do not regard Lauridsen as 'a real composer', I believe that how one views his work is a matter of opinion, but that his conviction and integrity when it comes to what he views as important in life and in his work (inseparable as they may be) come across and deserve not to be denied.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Am I celebrating Royal Assent for the Mental Health (Discrimination) Act 2013 ?

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1 March (updated with Tweets, 2017)

Well, no...

Despite the mental-health charities waving flags, I do not think that it has changed very much - or in the right way - for most people, and this is why :

1. How many people will ever be a company director, and is just removing bars relating to mental health, without regard to safeguarding shareholders and those with whom the company may do business or interact, the right approach ? Limitations on being fit to act as a director that do not stereotype mental ill-health, but reflect the fact that it and many other criteria might make staying a director inappropriate, should have been considered.

2. Some can now serve on a jury, itself not an everyday calling (many enough are never asked), but - across the board - not someone on a Community Treatment Order. That is still wildly discriminatory.

3. Of the groundbreaking areas, being an MP is the thing anyone is least likely to do. Rather than just doing away with the previous law, the law should have been revised, so that an MP is as capable of carrying out parliamentary and constituency duties over time as a company director.

Three roles that affect almost no one in ordinary life, and this is a triumph ? No, it is just repealing legislation, rather than considering what should have been passed in its place ! It paves the way for no new and better legislation to deal with the real issue of discrimination in mental health in the slightest.