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Tuesday, 29 July 2014

These are some of my favourite things… (with apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein – let alone John Coltrane)

An overview of favourite films from Cambridge Film Festival in 2011, 2012 and 2013

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

28 July

An overview of favourite films from Cambridge Film Festival in 2011, 2012 and 2013

A month before Cambridge Film Festival starts, and following last month’s survey of What is Catalan cinema ? (550 page-views), we take another dive for strings of pearls, linked by their preoccupations, this time into the archive that is Fifteen fine festival films (now, seemingly, with the improbable more than 19,000 page-views…).

Put another way, what follows is a teasing-apart of strands in the best of (largely) subtitled festival cinema, the pick of what has been seen at Cambridge Film Festival between 2011 and 2013. They are not themes, by any means, unique to these films, for we can find them in The Matrix (1999) and its trilogy, Good Will Hunting (1997), or The Truman Show (1998), or ones that reductively sum up the films in either case – since, of course, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – but, rather, they are touchstones to what may evoke a response in others.

And themes that, in any case, interlink (as the classic circles do, demonstrating colour-mixing, of red, green and blue) : finding the hidden truth is another aspect of being corrupted, yet of seeking renewal…

Our themes for this posting :

1. Innocence corrupted – and yet…

2. Knowing the beginning for the first time

3. Finding the truth behind the appearance

* * * * *

1. Innocence corrupted – and yet…

The selected films :

As if I am not There (2010) - from 2011

Premise : Samira, a newly started primary teacher, is caught up in the cruelty and selfishness of war, and used for sex, even if latterly with greater tenderness

Postcards from the Zoo (Kebun binatang) (2012) (Festival review) - from 2012

Premise : Threatened with expulsion from her paradisiacal life in the zoo, Lana leaves for a better life, but it vanishes, and she becomes prey

The Taste of Money (Do-nui mat) (2012) - from 2013

Premise : Lightly mocked for his gaucheness, Joo Young-Jak (‘Mr Joo’) seems immune to money’s attractions, but he sees how wealth changes status

In each film, a way back is offered or found, (which, using the language of money, we also symbolically call ‘changed fortunes’) – often both found and offered, for it is with and through the company chairman’s daughter’s changed perspective on her family in The Taste of Money that Joo Young-Jak (Kang-woo Kim) has the courage to act differently and selflessly at the close of the film, and, in Postcards from the Zoo, Lana (Ladya Cheryl ?) feels to be reaching out for her past life as a place that she loves, and where its inhabitants love her.

In between, we have Samira (Natasa Petrovic) in As if I am not There, who, rather as Lana also seems to do, disassociates from her oppressive present : when we first see Samira, she finds herself – unintentionally, in these terms – left to reflect on what went before. War has been unkind to her, and now she is in another country, with no home to which to return. She chooses to face what happened, just as we viewers in part live through it with her, and acts with kindness.

Engaging with her experience allows Samira a different perspective on what life in all its fullness can be for her now, just as Lana has lost what was maybe complacence about her home (and her place in the world), and can gratefully embrace what it offers. In the case of Joo Young-Jak, the film brings us to a more enigmatic close, but one where his companion and he have acted with thought and decency, to right the wrongs of the dynasty of which they have been part.

There is a fourth film that links with this theme, and which was shown at the opening of the Festival in 2012, when director Robert Guediguian took part in a Q&A : The Snows of Kilimanjaro (2011) (Festival review). There, Marie-Claire (Ariane Ascaride) and Michel (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) do not so much lose sight of their principles, as get enmeshed in a judicial process that pushes them in directions that cause them not to share their instincts for good. Nonetheless, they separately act on those instincts, and so reaffirm their beliefs in the meaning of life and in each other.

2. Knowing the beginning for the first time

The selected films :

The Idiot (Idioot) (2011) (Estonia) - from 2012

Premise : A stylized, but sympathetic, retelling of Dostoyevsky’s novel about the saintly ‘fool’ Prince Myshkin, who disarms others even as he harms himself

Kosmos (2010) - from 2011

Premise : Along with Myshkin, another man who, when not looked at in the round, is in danger of being misunderstood (by being over-praised)

Upstream Color (2013) (Young Americans) - from 2013
Premise : Most definitely another film not to be understood naturalistically, it shows the eye of faith seeing connections that their maker intended broken

Starting with the last of these, in the chance meeting and awkward understanding between Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Shane Carruth, the writer and director of Upstream Color) we see evoked a feeling that would have one not only seek a sense of safety, snuggled with an unquestioning other in an unlikely confined space, but also, when no longer frightened, would break through into another reality.

No more so than The Taste of Money, this is not really a revenge tale, or about paranoia or conspiracy (though it entertains or employs these aspects), yet it shows / finds literal roots for what has happened. In a circularity that characterizes these narratives, it goes back to the place where those roots once grew freely, again – as with Postcards from the Zoo – with an Eden-like notion, in the vividness of the blooms, of the potential for beauty and for nurture gets subverted. Kosmos, too, has a highly spiritual dimension, which envisages, in its ending shot, a transcendent quality to life and to what we experience :

It embodies, through the unexplained character, power, and actions of a stranger come to town, a challenge to us as to the nature of generosity, a holy way of life, and ‘organized’ religion. Named Kosmos by the young woman whom he likewise describes by calling her Neptün (Türkü Turan), and played by the almost ceaselessly present Sermet Yesil, we do not know whether he is blessed or cursed by the attention that he receives for the act that he performs as soon as he arrives, of saving her brother, and which is inconveniently treated as heroism: for, even at the start, the expectations of – and upon – this Kosmos seem immense and crushing.

However, it is largely only in moments of quiet and isolation, often with Neptün (who both hides from and seeks him), that we see that Kosmos is truly not limited by human constraints. Yet not seeing himself in relation to them when they are in the form of mores, he makes us ask when and to whom the rules can / do apply – not least in relation to Dostoyevsky again, this time with Raskolinkov in the novel Crime and Punishment (from 1866). The Idiot was published soon after (by instalment, between 1868 and 1869), and, if we look at Myshkin alongside Kosmos, we more easily see how our conception of the good person, or of the life well lived, can enslave us to all-or-nothing perfectionist thinking about others (often enough), who may then be seen as capable of no wrongdoing, or, as the case may be, disappoint us.

By contrast, Reha Erdem (the writer / director of Kosmos) seems to want to shatter such a conception, which contrariwise puts the hypocrisy I could never do something dreadful like that ! onto our lips, and thereby creates (if only in our own denied image) the archetype of ‘the bad person’. We will have the same problems relating to Myshkin, but this time because what can be characterized as his extreme passivity, which Risto Kübar has the knack of making seem both irritatingly real and yet otherworldly.

Unlike Kosmos, who maybe finds some better resting-place (or might have to keep going), Myshkin is mentally delivered back to where he began. We must ask, and ask carefully – heeding any faint reply : In whose terms, though, does it make sense to ask whether either man failed – or succeeded ?

In both films, we see lives taken, which different actions might have prevented, and we see love having the power to intoxicate and destroy. Its usual emblem is symbolized to Myshkin by the display of a bleeding heart, gaudy and neon, which transfixes him, and we then see him proceed to be powerless to ignore it. Yet philosophy or religion aside, and just in terms of the making of this film, it creates moods within different ecclesiastical interiors in the Aleksandri kirik (Narva, Estonia), from this evocation of an ikon in a shrine, to a railway-carriage, to a garden, or lapping water…

By contrast, Upstream Color’s looping on itself seems a little different (with at least one hurtful cycle broken). Yet the film’s ending feels exemplary, if not in a didactic way, of the patterns in films such as Leviathan (as screened at last year’s Festival) or Samsara. Or, equally and in common with other of the Fifteen fine festival films, such as Dimensions (2011) (which premiered at the Festival in 2011) or Formentera (2012) (UK premiere, from 2012), of that sensation that Eliot describes in Four Quartets :

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

'Little Gidding', v, 26-29

3. Finding the truth behind the appearance

The selected films :

The Night Elvis Died (La nit que va morir Elvis) (2010) (Catalan) - from 2012

Premise : See the paragraph, in italics, quoted below from What is Catalan cinema ?

The Redemption of the Fish (La redempció dels peixos) (2013) (Catalan) – UK premiere, from 2013

Premise : Likewise, see the paragraph, in italics, quoted below from What is Catalan cinema ?

Tirza (2010) - from 2011

Premise : A university teacher who has recently lost his job waves his favourite daughter off on a flight to Namibia – then, when there is no news, goes off in search of her

To cut this longish posting a little shorter, we take a detour to What is Catalan cinema ?, from which we lift the following paragraph, where two of these films have been talked about before :

On another level, and in Venice, we again have finding the truth in The Redemption of The Fish (La redempció dels peixos) (2013), as Marc tracks down his past, and is seduced and misled by the shapes, shadows and reflections of La Serenissima : so many of these films revolve historical and familial disputes and allegiances in a rich and productive way. In V.O.S. (2009), we have that theme translated into the playful and malleable notion of relation and relationships, in and out of making a film that crosses the barrier between ‘life’ and ‘film’ in a way as inventive and thought-provoking as Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). And - but one might need to read further, with the links below to reviews on this blog - The Night Elvis Died (La Nit Que Va Morir L’Elvis) (2010) teases apart the layers of reality (not least with its quiet homage to Paris, Texas (1984))…

In The Night Elvis Died – whose title refers to when, during the production of the town’s passion-play, Aureli Mercader’s (Blai Llopis’) life unravelled, and what we now see is a man who has forgotten everything but the broad thrust of what happened – the amnesia is our link to Tirza. A feature of film construction that takes us back beyond Hitchcock’s famous use, when he collaborated with a self-celebrated master-of-dreams in Salvador Dalí for Spellbound (1945), we see another man, becoming as ragged, run down and lost as Aureli is, in Jörgen Hofmeester. He only finds out, as he voyages, what his own story is, travelling in the company of Kaisa, a young girl who works as a prostitute, far into the striking territories of Namibia.

With Jörgen (Gijs Scholten von Aschat) both confronting, yet at the same time avoiding, his attitudes to the country’s Dutch colonial past (and other matters) and what those global connections mean, Arnon Grunberg co-adapted his novel in such a way that Jörgen’s involuntary strings of revelation to Kaisa (Keitumetse Matlabo), sometimes drifting from English into Dutch, leads us to the heart of who he is – and the void within him that he has hidden from himself. His narration tips us over into the muddle of our emotions about the man whom he plays, and into the twisted mess of family that has been the genesis of so much torture, violence, degradation, and pain.

When, in The Night Elvis Died, Aureli finds out his truth, the film nigh on destructs with the intensity of the experience, almost fully as much for us as for him, and we are brought before staggering images and insights – which leave Dalí’s role, in dream-imagery, for Hitchcock far behind (albeit his were for the purposes of dream-interpretation). (One is reminded, though in a very different way, of the disintegration in, and the dislocations in the narration of, Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man ! (1973) (itself rescreened at a recent Festival).)

Much more quiet than this is the realization that steals upon Marc in the shimmering Venice of The Redemption of The Fish – perhaps attuned, in tribute, to the shifting sensations of David Lean’s seemingly personal favourite film Summertime (1955), with Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi, but, in parallel, to those of Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). Yet it is not Marc (Miquel Quer) who is the one here with the tendencies to retelling / reformulating (if not to actual amnesia), but the one because of whom he has gone there to find out more :

One is curiously reminded of ‘the closing reveal’ in another Catalan film, the Festival favourite of 2012 that was Black Bread (Pa Negre) (2010). Yet, compared with the younger Andreu (and what he gains, which What is Catalan cinema ? characterizes roughly as ‘A naturalistic, but haunted, story of a child’s perspective on betrayal, sex and anger’), Marc experiences so many varied things during his short trip.

Not only a host of reactions and feelings (and – with them – a rush and self-realization of maturity), but : relaxed lunches by the canal-side, the Commedia dell’Arte, the under-surface sound made by the waters of the lagoon, moonlight on The Lido, and plumbing the loneliness and emptiness of the quiet corners of the city, as well as books and artefacts, and what they reveal. In closing, and acknowledging again that recognizing the beginning for what it is and penetrating to the truth are not always discrete descriptions, one last paragraph from Whatis Catalan cinema ?, which leads into talking about a film that links, in a profoundly moving way, a Dante scholar, graffiti-encrusted former gun-emplacements, a confused man in hospital, and the history of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War :

Directors such as Ken Loach, working with screenwriter Jim Allen in Land and Freedom (1995), have brought a British perspective on seeking to fight pro-fascist Nationalist forces, but Jesús Garay’s Eyes on the Sky (Mirant al Cel) (2008) delves less into the politics and the pointlessness of brother against brother, but rather, and very movingly, into the ‘visceralness’ of what it means to tick down to something that changes individual lives for ever : although Garay is from Santander, not Catalunya, again this is in the very North of Spain.

Closing note :

Since Cambridge Film Festival 2013, Eyes on the Sky has had a special screening (plus Q&A) at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (@ICA), as did another of its Catalan films, The Forest (El bosc), which What is Catalan cinema ? characterized by the key-words Magical realism – Twisted love – Collectivization – Other worlds – Symbolism – Unreal feast, and the short phrase An account of a civil war through how the hated better-off classes fared.

On 23 August 2014, the ICA screens a third one of these films, The Redemption of the Fish, with a Q&A…

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Sellinger's Round (so people say...)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

29 Juky (?)

Fresh from The Fields of Whimsy, @THEAGENTAPSLEY brings you a few Tweets, with some commentary...

Maybe, as it is repeated, the slumbering complacency of the majority of Londoners (around fifteen, in those days), into whose sleep this message creeps, and so sounding in a dreamy way ?

Even without the shrill woodwind additions, the note here - which we have twice over - is wholly unexpected on the basis of what preceded it : perhaps piercing through that smug unconsciousness to a realization of the threatened loss of livelihood, liberty, and even life ?

The water is poured, though, with a dismal fatality, going through the motions, as if trying to resuscitate a crisply dried-out plant, yet this one has been dried out with fierce force, and is smoking and smouldering.

And what does it come down to, this primary-school musical picture ?

Maybe realizing too late that appeasement does not work - and that this bogus austerity is just a titanic excuse for greater oppression than Thatcher ever dared, politically beaten back as she proved to be by the events of one 31 March...

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Friday, 25 July 2014

Return to sender, address unknown

This is a review of Return to Homs (2013) (as screened with a Q&A)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

25 July

This is a review of Return to Homs (2013), as screened before a Q&A at The Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge (@Campicturehouse), on Tuesday 8 July 2014, when producer Orwa Nyrabia substituted for Talal Derki, the film’s writer / director

It might well have helped if one’s well-being and state of mind allowed one ‘to follow’ news’ stories (as we seem to say) : understandably, producer Orwa Nyrabia and others shown in the film felt – and even sang – that the world had, specifically, betrayed people in Syria, since the subject of the film (unlike the discussion in the Q&A) was just Syria and where Homs lay in what has happened since the popular uprising in 2011.

However, that is an assertion that needs to be looked at in context – and, with tempers running high at times in the Q&A, that did not happen there. That said, one questioner / speaker berated the film for not giving voice to the protagonists’ opposing fellow Syrians (although the film had plainly never been intended to be the type of documentary that asks those implicated on the government side for a statement or comment, and then, as the case may be, includes it, or reports that giving one had been declined).

Another questioner / interjecter, irritated by what the representative present from Amnesty International had been saying about the lack of reporting on Syria in the West and in the UK, wanted to tell her that John Simpson is on the t.v. every night, broadcasting from Iraq and Syria. That may be true – although it would be taxing, not to say confusing, for Simpson to be reporting from both countries with any regularity – but there will always be differences of opinion whether there is enough, too much, or too little reporting.

Yet Nyrabia’s direct challenge to those present was that there had not been protest-marches in the UK about Syria, and about the pounding of Homs, a city where people had been trapped, trying to live and to defend themselves*. The film and he claimed that the situation was unprecedented, and therefore demanded worldwide attention (at a better level, at any rate, than that of The United Nations, where failing to secure agreement within The Security Council (as it is called) can stymie any proper military or humanitarian response (although we do eventually see the latter in the film)).

Whether or not it was unprecedented since the post-war establishment of the UN is open to question, but probably the question is a red herring : what was happening was, of course, very bad by anyone’s standards, but the UN (and NATO, to whom the defenders also looked for help) has, as we all know, often enough shown itself to act erratically. Or for reasons that have subverted the notion that, as lodestones, UN member nations act solely and absolutely in support of legality and justice – let alone when a member of The Security Council interprets a Mandate to justify taking action outside the umbrella of the UN per se.

In terms of popular protest, though, it is well known that the Stop The War march in London on 15 February 2003, seeking to prevent / protest the second invasion of Iraq, did not achieve its nominal aim. Since then, London’s Parliament Square has even been cleared of legal demonstrations : in its day, if one wanted to see and understand more of issues concerning human rights, atrocity or war crime, Westminster had been the place for it. For, there, hardy souls camped out in shelters, advertising for how long they had done so (in what is conventionally called a sea of placards or faces**).

People may or may not have held similar rallies or marches about Syria, or made smaller, static protests (none of this necessarily in London), but perhaps they were not highly publicized / televised : at any rate, what the people of Syria felt (and those whom we see in Homs) was that they were being overlooked and ignored. Their frustration and anger are a current in the film – alongside defiance, taunting, pleading, and despair (to which emotions we return later).

In the Q&A, there was also strong feeling from Nyrabia that directing large, armed forces against the initially peaceful demonstrators had mistakenly (or falsely) come to be described as a civil war, whereas he asserted, with the film, that it was a government suppressing its struggling people using violence : as the film depicts it, the resistance seemed to have resorted to arms when the brutality and intensity of the repression became apparent, and not to everyone’s satisfaction (not least when the narrator sensed, with sorrow, that an element of gunlust had taken over).

It was here that the defenders of Homs saw themselves, if not in so many words, naked and alone, because of both the ferocity of the attack against which they tried to defend themselves (and, more importantly for them, the lives of those whom they loved), and of what they saw as the lack of intervention – or will to intervene – from the outside world. One is tempted to quote some words from the Gospels (though they hardly speak uniquely to this situation) :

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee ? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee ?

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
Matthew 25 : 34-40
(King James’ Version)

Be that as it may. Afterwards (not having been invited to pose the question in the Q&A), @THEAGENTAPSLEY asked Nyrabia if it had always been obvious that what would cement the disparate moods, which one could briefly characterize as Enthusiasm / Joy / Loss / Grief / Resignation, were Humour, Music and Poetry (the poetry is in the narrative tone and style). Largely ignoring the thrust of the question, and saying that this was just the process of editing, Nyrabia said that the film is linear***.

Yet, if so, the story did not seem as if it had sufficient contextualization and explanation. At one point, for example, a map showing Homs as a besieged enclave did not seem to specify its orientation, so it was only later that one found the city to be actually on the opposite side of the country from what one had gathered : for the convention of North being towards the top (unless shown otherwise) had not been followed, and one had no notion of what – if anything – stopped those there from making for and crossing the border as refugees (actually that between Syria and Lebanon ?)

For, if the claim is that the world has not given heed to what had happened in Syria, can a film such as Return to Homs tell it, by following a group of people, and taking for granted that everyone knows the topography / geography, or that it will simply become clear, by watching and listening to what is said [sc. reading in translation], that Khaledya and Bayada are parts or districts of Homs (as they seemed to be, and as research on the Internet, such as at, proves to be the case) ?

It would have assisted, if, at the beginning of the film, the relation between these places had been less unclear, which was around the time when the narration talks about what appears to have become a closed corridor between them – and when we were shown an obstruction / low-level blockade between the carriageways in each direction on a road running at right-angles to the lens. We then see some men attempting to remove blocks, to make a gap in it, until the authorities notice what they are doing, and appear on the scene.

So, a crossing-point, but one had fairly little notion between where and where, or what the significance could be, of blocking the main route between them, in real or absolute terms : one never did find out from the film what these places mean, culturally or in other terms, to each other, and for them thus to be separated. Even when, at night, a car is driven at speed, and without lights, over a crossing-point (to avoid snipers), we might assume that it is at a point on this route, but it could have been somewhere else, as this information was not apparent.

It is less material that, as the film develops, we have to come to gather that Abdul Basset Saroot, a former football goalkeeper and a charismatic protester, is the person whom the narrative is referring to right at the beginning : a documentary, after all, needs to make one work at some level, at gaining understanding, rather than simply unfolding before its intended audience – if it is to take the best of what feature films do and engage one, by the process of active viewing itself.

Basset and who he turned out to be is one matter (which starts to unfold as Abu Adnan films him), whereas getting some notion of how Homs is set out, and what the destruction that we see implies for communication within the city, is another, and the lack of detail felt detrimental to telling the story of Homs. (Film editor Martin Reymers, and the Schnittbüro (in Munich ?) were both credited, so they presumably should bear some responsibility, on the German side of the production, for how the finished film ‘reads’ in this sense.)

In that telling, we come very close to Basset, hearing him exclaim with relief Thank God I did not shoot – it was a woman !, because he had been pointing his automatic weapon through a gun-slot, or, at a time when he loses heart, I no longer have it in me to do this. His faith is integral to what he believes that he is doing by fighting back, and, when he also says that God’s greatest gift to humans is oblivion, it is with a heartfelt sense of humanity’s place before divine authority and wisdom.

Before the return of which the title talks, which is hardly seen to be without danger to all involved (not least to Nyrabia as cinematographer, who had seemed quite matter of fact in saying, by way of introduction to the screening, that others and he had risked their lives to make it), there is a tranquil moment. In a sort of rural idyll, Basset is seen relaxing with, seemingly, members of his family, some female members of whom (his sister and his mother ?) wish that they could go with him.

One who could not go was Ossama al Homsi, of whose capture (and likely torture) we learnt in the film. No one asked in the Q&A why his face had been pixellated, but, it was not, even so, probable that it had been done in order to protect him from incrimination****: so perhaps it was out of respect, religious or otherwise, for his family or friends not to show his face, protecting his memory or his spirit, rather than literally shielding him…

As to whether Basset, and what we see him undergo, makes Return to Homs cohere except on a spiritual or symbolic plane, rather than as hard fact, must be down to the individual. However, when a recent map such as at indicates that there are still factions / tensions within Homs, one comes back to the question raised of the one-sidedness of what we see, though one might hope – depending on where one places reliance – that the presence of a representative of Amnesty gave some assurance.

As to the film qua film, there was momentary interest in the nature of the filming / representation at the outset, but room was never given to the only other question that wanted to explore the cinematic construction of the film (outlined above). Likewise, screen a film such as The Look of Love (2013), and the questions tend shy away from the fact that one has just watched a film, in a cinema no less, to questions about Paul Raymond’s real life. As if film is not a specific type of potentially persuasive artefact.

But forget that a film is an artefact – and what have you fallen in love with, through ignoring the medium, except what its makers want to tell you… ?


* All of which we see in the film, with corridors punched through the buildings so that defenders could travel from one side of the city to another, despite snipers and bombardment - oddly passing through spaces in this way, which were once someone’s quiet living-room or kitchen, full of aromas…

** Although the marine reference does not obviously make sense, maybe deriving from the fanciful notion that many faces, in intimate proximity, make one large thing from many small ones, with nary a fissure…

*** Nyrabia had also ended up as a significant cinematographer for the film, because of lack of people willing to hazard trying to penetrate back into Homs. When he was asked about the ending being foregrounded at the beginning, he sought to minimize the relevance of this aspect in his overall claim that the unfolding against time is linear.

**** Since, pixellated or not (and sometimes he was not, when one actually saw the side of his face), he was named in the film, and one knew that it was he, each time, because of how the image had been processed.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Monday, 14 July 2014

You need a Grand Budapest sticker to go abroad...

This is a follow-up piece to a review of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

14 July

Isn't he superb, @WaterbabyFlower @Saffronscreen ! My second time, but his own timing is grand, and Anderson's script / detail nigh perfect

This follow-up piece to a review of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) was written on watching it again at Saffron Screen (@SaffronScreen) : it is less in the nature of a second review, than a rumination on the film's themes and ultimate import

That deft substitution, of a clean ashtray for a dirty one, is only a moment, but it says what's at the heart of The Grand Budapest Hotel ->

The ashtray is mentioned because, at the bottom of the fresh ashtray, we see – which were effaced by butts, ash, soot¹ (if only as temporary deposits) in the dirty one – the essentials of The Grand Budapest Hotel : the crest, and the ‘GB’ within its swirls, its initials.

-> That moment and when GustaveH. trivializes Zero as a migrant, before realizing what he fled as a refugee and apologizing in remorse / GB

Throughout the film, we are reminded that Gustave H. (personified by the words, manner and decorum of Ralph Fiennes – abruptly swearing like a trooper, but with a heart and caring attitude of gold) is a creature of the past, a man who wants to preserve the things that not only matter to him, but which he also believes do (or, at any rate, should) matter in absolute terms². Yet, as he travels both to, and back from, Schloß Lutz with Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), he realizes that the future is coming, and, rather than intending to keep the utterly fictitious³ Boy with Apple for the rest of his life (as he first states), he quickly revises his plan to have them sell it and run away to The Maltese Riviera.

Gustave H. offers a share in this to Zero, who tries to haggle before they agree on a deal, which (as an element in Anderson’s mockery of legality during the film⁴), he dictates to Zero, as if something noted on the back of a cocktail menu suffices for a binding contract – as such a man of his word might, if only to safeguard the interests of the other party (who need only, if memory fails, produce the memorandum of agreement (as, with good reason, such a document is called)).

The deal is to include inheriting from Gustave H., but it is only later – at the other crucial Tweeted moment – that they come to see each other as brothers. More interestingly still, they become equals, with Gustave deferring to Zero with his proposal to escape on the motorbike (just after Zero has saved his life), for which the trigger was Gustave’s heartfelt remorse, having realized how he has maligned Zero by imagining insulting reasons for his originally leaving his homeland. (And, if we are honest, we have all allowed ourselves, through disappointment, envy and the like, to judge wrongly by appearances – we trusted that we know the story from what we [thought that we] saw, only to be proved quite wrong.) :

The second time, near the end of our nest of stories, that Gustave sticks up for Zero, there is a different feel to the confrontation that we see. Which is not just because the ZZ militia are menacing⁵, on whose black uniform Gustave commented unfavourably just before (and which we can easily construe as the SS, with the formerly independent Zubrowka (the brand-name of a Polish vodka), maybe masquerading for The Sudetenland, if not more likely for Austro-Hungary, hence Budapest ? – there is further consideration, below, in an Epilogue).

The two other elements in this scene, which are intimately related to each other, are how close our awareness is of the point of view of the narrator, older Zero (having dinner with the younger Author (Jude Law)), which is on the surface of the story at around this point, and also the much greater esteem in which Zero, travelling with his bride Agatha, is held by Gustave, and vice versa (as long as Gustave does not flirt with Agatha !). Gustave is no longer instinctively protecting Zero as a lobby-boy (in training), but altogether as a friend, brother, and former refugee from violence (and we maybe sense that Gustave himself could be the last of these, too).

We know quite clearly that Gustave has his foibles, such as self-interestedly courting and bedding the wealthy female guests, but it is humanity, and his charming mix of naivety and streetwise cunning, that shines through. Right at the outset, with just baldly calling Author the person through whose words and eyes, as Tom Wilkinson (and then Jude Law), Wes Anderson wildly abstracts the story, he challenges us as to whether we are going to believe all this.

Of course, by the end, Gustave and the whole cast is indelible (with Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and others taking star turns), even if refracted through Zero, and through him as he ages, and what (according to older Author) older Zero then tells younger Author – of course, none of this ever happened (as we may sense with Stefan Zweig’s writings), but it feels as though it could have done, on some level - where Mendl’s is a make of cake (apparently, the principal confection is a Courtesan au Chocolat).

Is the film just Andersonian entertainment, or is it saying more to us amongst the sight-gags (such as that cheeky Schiele painting, or the rib-tickling skiing / sledding sequence) ? As with Moonrise Kingdom (2012), there are patent depths amongst the humour – the pairs of young lovers have the same frank awkwardness (e.g. Zero giving Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) the gift, in which we have another ‘Z’, with his having dedicated it ‘From Z to A’), which in no way detracts from their love, but the sense of doom that is in the earlier film (and lifts (somewhat)) only enters in earnest with the ZZ. At the same time, the trigger-happy firefight with the ZZ set off by Dmitri (Adrien Brody) reminds of easy-spirited boneheaded moments in films such as Westerns from the 1960s, or skits on them by the likes of Mel Brooks or Woody Allen (all looking back to the era of The Keystone Cops / Kops), and is part of making this grand hotel seem utterly real (with that shot of the glass ceiling, amazingly unscathed by gunfire !).

The hotel, though, and the other-worldly, old-fashioned decency and good manners of its concierge, what about them… ? When older Zero says, effectively, that Gustave had been, even then, fighting a rear-guard action for such principles, are we not reminded a little by the initials GB in that ashtray of our own Great Britain ? Billy Bragg, on the album England, Half English (especially in the song ‘Take Down The Union Jack’), certainly wants to pose questions about the ‘greatness’ of Britain (and such honours as Orders of the British Empire), but is it possible that Anderson is being as political with this film – that his ‘bloody immigrant’, as Gustave first really sees Zero, is our refugee, our asylum-seeker, condemned for years by an element of the British press, and mocked along with human rights ?

Well, Anderson’s non-specific / generic ‘Author’ is British, and his younger self, at the end (and as if ashamed of himself, and how he came by the basis for writing a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel, which we see at the beginning with the Author's young fan), relates how he did not ever see Zero again (after nerving himself to ask, through curiosity, what he thinks an impolite question, just before M. Moustafa and he part that night), and how he continued ‘his cure’ for a long time elsewhere in the world – whereupon the layers of narration promptly unwind again.

Put crudely, he came to this hotel that smacks of The Eastern Bloc, and, having what he wants (and which gets a statue erected to him in due course, and admiring hotel-key-bearing fans), casually absents himself : at times, M. Moustafa feels as though he has told too much, whereas, for young Author, it is the standard British mode (more so perhaps in that era than now) of getting away from feelings that are ‘near the knuckle’ by just suddenly closing down.

Anderson would hardly be the first writer / director to get our attention on issues such as what makes a refugee by setting the film / play / novel somewhere else : we see it in Ken Loach / Paul Laverty’s Jimmy’s Hall (2014), just as we did in the former’s Land and Freedom (1995) (collaborating with screenwriter Jim Allen), and we equally see it in Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, tackling in Philomena (2013) issues that are not unique to that time or that Irish setting. (It is perhaps, there, too easy to get riled and identify with the fictionalized reactions of Steve Coogan as Sixsmith, whereas the film, as The Railway Man (2013) also desires, seeks for us to identify with the response that Philomena, and Eric Lomax, find within them.)

But, of course, the fantastic Fiennes is overflowing with lusciously camp aristocratic British manners, but breaking into hilarious coarseness when he cannot quite see the point of maintaining the illusion : Anderson’s gives him, and us, hope in The Order of The Cross Keys, which embraces everyone, and is a lifeline that feeds both the plot (with the elaborate arrangements to meet doomed Serge (Mathieu Amalric – an actor with a perpetual look of surprise)), and restores Gustave’s bonhomie, aided by puffs of his precious Air de Panache (the joke / clue is in the name) – as he said to Zero at the sewage-exit and with mortified self-disgust, I smell ! (and Zero, with a sniff, concurs).

Perhaps an appeal to the fair-mindedness that once mattered about being British. For, in this film, if Gustave had not saved Zero, Zero could not, in return, have saved him – and been around to tell the tale… In Gustave H., and despite the brilliant humour and wonderful high jinks, cannot Anderson be seen to be asking the British (amongst others) a question ? :

Gustave, in his decency and striving to put people at his ease, embodies a notion of Britishness that, if not gone already, is soon to disappear – are we happy to lose it, if we do not look beyond our stereotypes of immigrants, and our ostrich-like (it-is-not-my-business) failure to stand up for our fellow human-beings when we can (as we also see exemplified in Loach and Laverty’s portrayal of the real-life Jimmy Gralton…) ?


Finally, it is mentioned above that Zubrowka, which is clearly stated to be an independent republic (so there is an act of war by the invading ZZ forces), shares its name with that of a brand of Polish vodka.

Here, Anderson is certainly playing with us, just as he is by ending with a grand sequence for balalaika orchestra over the closing credits (he usually dispenses with opening ones) – which suggests, despite all the Germanic names, that maybe we are further into Eastern Europe – and likewise by having Vivaldi transposed for mandolins as a stately musical accompaniment to when we are ‘getting to know’ the GB.

To close, here are some hints at what is recollected of a few other ways in which Anderson has laid little jokes or clues (beyond such running jokes as Gustave quite casually saying Uh-huh every time that he is asked if he is who he is, until he finally and superbly loses his rag and magnificently swears in exasperation !) :

* The resort where the GB is appears to be called Nebelstadt, which crudely translates as Fogtown – we see the fog at the observatory, and earlier when the stag-statue is introduced with the first sight of the hotel's façade

* Why are we stopping by a barley-field ?, asks Gustave on the train to Lutz (also called fucking Lutz) : which begs the question how, when the ground is covered with snow, Gustave knows what sort of field it is, or calls it that :

Well, die Gerste is German for ‘barley’, so a field might be Gerstenfeld – or, as der Acker also means ‘field’ (our word 'acre', plural die Äcker), one might be reminded of Gerstäcker, a character who is part of K.’s maddening experience in Kafka’s unfinished novel Das Schloß (The Castle - a link here for those to whom it is unfamiliar, despite Michael Haneke’s excellent film), as well as the fascinating life of Friedrich Gerstäcker, one-time proprietor of a hotel in Louisiana during his first travels in the States.

* Made by Mendl’s, though Gustave has little time for Mendl himself, we see a confection that is at the root of much gleeful mischief, as cakes bribe Agatha’s - then Zero and Gustave’s - way into anything (despite an iron-heeled regime, whose forces just end up shooting at each other), and also provide the way out of confinement, too, as well as being a soft landing for Agatha and Zero (just as, in Moonrise, Suzy and Sam are faced with plummeting, but spared) :

The friar Gregor Mendel is the most famous bearer of the name, as the man who experimented with pea plants and discovered something about inheritance between different generations – the contraction to Mendl is a habit of alpine regions (amongst other places), and so the name itself appears to be a diminutive of die Mandel, meaning ‘almond’ (a significant ingredient in marzipan, of course)

* We go to a Schloß, Schloß Lutz, where Gustave pays his respects to an Anderson regular in Tilda Swinton (the embodiment of the functional and largely soulless Social Services in Moonrise, pushing papers, etc., and just doing a job) :

The jokes at the coffin (and on the train to Lutz) aside, Swinton is splendid as this 84-year-old with zest – maybe that name Lutz reminds us, deep down of the jump in figure-skating of that name, and thus prepares us for the snowy antics / acrobatics to come (as we are unlikely to see it as a short-form of Ludwig, with the connection to Ludwig of Bavaria’s fairytale Rhineland castles, of which the GB is, of course, reminiscent) ?

* Last, we have Gabelmeister's Peak, which translates as Forkmaster's, since the place-setting in German is das Messer (knife), die Gabel (fork), and der Löffel (spoon) (one of each gender)

As if all that were not enough, there is an interesting piece about the film's locations from The National Geographic...


¹ As we know, through having seen it, crushing the cigarette to extinguish it produces the former, and with it, that sooty residue, unlike true grey ash.

² A film such as The Way Way Back (2013), through Sam Rockwell as the attractive Owen, shows a similarly encouraging father-figure to a slightly younger equivalent of Zero in Duncan (Liam James). Or The Book Thief (2013) has Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) as a new, kind father to the very much younger Liesel (Sophie Nélisse). (One could go on and on, with ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) in The Color of Money (1986), or Pacino as Lt Col. Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman (1992), etc.)

³ Model and artist are named (separately), as those who stay to read credits – and therefore see and hear the balalaikas (one with a boar within a boar, another people by chimneys of industry) – will know… This state of affairs is quite as we would expect of an Anderson film, and of this world, because of what he created in and for Moonrise Kingdom (2012), but employing the just as real Noye’s Fludde (Benjamin Britten, Op. 59) (and many other Britten works), alongside (as here) a score by Alexandre Desplat : the Wikipedia® entry for the film says more about why Britten is important to Anderson...

⁴ Both in the person of Jeff Goldblum as Deputy Kovacs, with the attempts that makes to get Dmitri (Adrien Brody) to come to heel (the second of which is more costly), and when, for example, Gustave insists on interviewing not only Zero (a sly little echo of Beckettt’s Endgame with all those zeroes ?), but also Agatha - or when he tries to tell the same thuggish Dmitri that the legal nicety is that his mother’s house is not his until after probate.

⁵ This, though, without the physical brutality – and the first pair of bloody noses – of the earlier encounter with authority (until Henckels, played by Edward Norton, intervenes, which he does on Gustave’s customary personal level of grace, courtesy, and gratitude).

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Responses to Metzger [means 'Butcher']

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

9 July

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

At Aldeburgh Festival 2014 : The Humphrey and Andy Show

This is a review of the t.v. documentary Benjamin Britten on Camera

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

2 July

This is a review of the t.v. documentary Benjamin Britten on Camera shown at - and as shown at - Aldeburgh Festival on Monday 23 June 2014

Also on Aldeburgh...

A swaying, snarling, even spitting Schubert for our times

Ever-ambitious Aimard wows with authenticity

Humphrey Burton, of course, needed no introduction. When, having nonetheless been introduced (as, with his intense tan, we might otherwise have struggled to recognize him), Burton – in all seriousness – said something like I’m Humphrey, and this is Andy, it felt as though it was going to be Round the Horne, rather than the gentle parries of Sir Humphrey Appleby and Sir Jim Hacker (in the late but immortal Nigel Hawthorne and Paul Eddington)…

The Humphrey and Andy Show proved to be one feeding the other prompts for what they had decided to say earlier, with the just slightly better hidden impression of news front-people, supposedly chatting casually to each other on a couch. Except that they were standing, had no notes / prompt-cards, and it had more class than with those typical presenters. Yet there was no challenge to Andy from Humphrey to say anything unprepared, but a united front to present this – well, what was it ?

We were in a nice cinema, with good sight-lines, but this was not Aldeburgh Documentary Festival, and Benjamin Britten on Camera was not a film (in the way that Rafea and The Great Hip Hop Hoax are, even though both were commissioned for BBC’s Storyville). And we had not, Humphrey, imagined for one moment that making this piece was just a matter of ‘splicing together’ material ‘in an edit-suite’ (even if we could easily credit that some do rarely see their finished piece on a screen such as this one) !

Even so, what was being screened did not have, much of the time, the aesthetics and approach of the powerful documentaries on the cinema circuit : they may then transfer very well to home-viewing, but those that are made for it will not always stand the test of this sort of public screening (as Poor Kids, for one, does). For the best of cinema demands greater rigour, and even greater attention to detail, than when such material is seen via its intended medium : the scrutiny that is given is necessarily more concentrated than at home, with its distractions, or even the scope for pausing a live programme to take a phone-call (or of recording it, and then introducing pauses when watching).

One critiques these two down at the front simply because Andy King-Dabbs, the documentary’s producer / director, might just as well have presented it himself. Needless to say, he did not (and never would), because he is not the draw at an event of this kind, and also because he has given a lot of screen-time in his programme to Burton, who is the draw – partly since he played (along with David Attenborough) an important part in the story of Benjamin Britten, BBC Television, and how they came to work together.

However, as Burton was quick to point out (by way, one supposes, of managing our expectations) – and as King-Dabbs cheerily and readily agreed – the story of Britten on ITV was not being told. Indeed, King-Dabbs additionally apologized that clips of musical performances cut away, when some might have wanted to stay longer with them, because the emphasis of the piece was on making these productions, rather than individual performance : this observation, perhaps unnecessarily even in the context of the title Benjamin Britten on Camera, served as a further elaboration of what this screened work was, and what it was not.

Simply put, introducing the screening without Burton would have been less interesting as an event, even to those of the same age-group as composer / conductor Oliver Knussen (born in 1952), let alone that of Britten and Burton themselves (born, respectively, in 1913 and 1931, respectively) – Knussen, because he had been allowed the most important contribution, that of talking in detail about how Britten’s compositions worked, which he did with concrete, thought-out examples (please see the foot of this posting, in the form of a question put to King-Dabbs).

And, naturally, we had Burton and David Attenborough, as movers and facilitators of the time, encouraging Britten to engage with t.v. as a way of sharing his music with Britons – for, not having a television-set of his own (but having acquired one to see the televised Owen Wingrave (or Billy Budd ?), he had not even been a (regular) viewer, and (as we saw, and were told) had to learn ways of working and engaging with what it is. As much as anything, this work considered how he came to grips with it, and it with him.

Therefore, it is a tribute to the BBC and to Attenborough and Burton that they helped Britten see the worth of this collaboration (even if, because of what we were told the cost of video-tape had been then, some recorded programmes ended up overwritten, and so lost to us) : when King-Dabbs was asked about the quality of the footage from Britten’s War Requiem, he candidly told us how what we saw, horizontal lines and all, had been produced simply by pointing a camera at a t.v. screen on which it was being received.

In complete contrast, technically, it was a ravishing Billy Budd for which we have, in part, to thank David Attenborough, crisply filmed, and full of tension and passion. Even so, it felt as though that achievement were gratuitously being undermined, by someone telling tales out of school concerning the recording : we heard how Peter Glossop, the singer playing Budd, when being led up to face his fate, and in take after take, kept missing the note, and so ended up having it hummed in his ear :

For, although this anecdote relates to preparing Britten’s work for broadcast, it effectively had nothing to do with Britten, and just diminished Glossop as a singer / performer, since it was not as if we were not told that this was done at his instigation. Whereas the story regarding the singer in Owen Wingrave, needing prompting about the lyrics (pistols and other weapons of war – and by way of signals, not with the note), at least seemed to show that BB had been in his own world as conductor, for he had apparently been unaware of these tricks of t.v.

That said, too much time was spent with footage and accompanying narration* on just the latter point, which surely could have been put to better use : here, t.v. showed its current leaning in the direction of entertainment, rather than educational purposes, as it also did by making a curiosity, an eccentric, of the already eccentric percussionist James Blades, with his drums, beaters, and thimbles. The effect of using this clip was, by association, to seem to trivialize the serious point about the interaction, between performer and composer, concerning the sound-world that the latter had envisaged when writing his score : in exploiting the person[ality] of Blades, the programme seemed too frothy, just to laugh about, Britten’s concerns for the use of drums in his ‘church parable’ The Burning Fiery Furnace.

The quick opening montage of scenes and shots from Britten in public had been on a different timescale and using another dimension, including much in a moment, and gave the impression that the programme was going to be a build-up to the recording of Peter Grimes at The Maltings, Snape, where Britten had founded his Festival, and which seemed presented as a unique requirement for agreeing to the project (which, since – as we had been told - Naughtie had written his own narration*, must have been down to him). Instead, Wingrave had equally been captured at Snape, and we had bypassed Grimes, whether we knew that it came first or second to Wingrave (presumably second, since the former had not been a BBC commission), and on to Britten’s burial, and to how that moment had been shared with the nation.

In between, for our modern audience, Britten and Pears were stated to have lived almost openly as a couple (probably defying society as Grimes defies The Borough’s mean conventions and morals, and Wingrave his family’s notion of military honour). Yet we had reserved to when Britten’s War Requiem was fleetingly featured any mention of his pacifism, with none of its consequences for him**.

In terms, then, only of its story-telling, this was no documentary worthy of a cinema, and, as to interpreting material to its viewer, did one have more than a scant sense of real curatorship ? One almost felt that someone had only just held back the question of whether PP & BB would, if living now, have done as Sir Elton John and David Furnish, and have a civil partnership and attempted to adopt a child, rather than addressing what it really meant to be gay at their time, prior to the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1956. Britten’s sexual orientation was included (as the extent of his pacifism was not**), but it might just as well not have been – it was not even obvious that it had any bearing on the BBC and Britten at all.

It was good to have the merest appearance of Sir Michael Tippett, a composer at least as much in need of our attention (along with Ralph Vaughan Williams, to name but one other), but it was just two or three sentences from a compilation concert, under Sir Henry Wood, to honour Britten. We had an even more meagre inclusion of some others, one of whom (Tom Service) had, much more recently than when Britten had been fêted ten years ago (and from when footage of a younger-looking Service had been taken), presented a long Radio 3 broadcast about the War Requiem :

So, a question was asked (one of only two, as Burton quickly decided, following the query about the quality of some of the footage – and on no immediate show of hands – to adjourn to the sunshine (or, rather, to being lionized in the foyer), this on the assumption that everyone had been satisfied…

Q : I am sure that people will agree that many of the contributions in the film were excellent, particularly those from Oliver Knussen, but blink and you missed Tom Service, and only a little less so for Charles Hazlewood, although these are the people on Radio 3, broadcasting about and interpreting Britten now – why was it worth including them, but giving them so little time ?

A : Burton opined that ‘Tom Service says a lot in a little while’ (and made no comment on Hazlewood’s appearance), whereas King-Dabbs elucidated that the footage of Service (and Hazlewood) had been from Celebrating Britten (around ten years ago). Moving swiftly on from why there had actually been so little from
Service (and nothing contemporary***), he told us that there had been good reason to include an academic from King’s College, London, as a cultural commentator who talked about Britten’s place in English life, but not what that reason was.

Reading between the lines, King-Dabbs appeared to be admitting that the programme had had to have popular appeal, and so featured Attenborough and Burton in priority over those now regularly broadcasting on the BBC’s own classical radio channel, and, perhaps for his authoritativeness and stature, giving over so much of the musical interpretation to Knussen, as a fellow composer.

Also on Aldeburgh...

A swaying, snarling, even spitting Schubert for our times

Ever-ambitious Aimard wows with authenticity


* James Naughtie was supposed to be the documentary’s narrator, but, for want of an overarching role, he might as well not have been.

** Going to the States with Pears, for three years from April 1939, and then, on their return, not immediately (and only on appeal) gaining exemption from military service (as a non-combatant). (By contrast, Tippett rejected even being allocated non-combatant duties, and served two months out of a term of imprisonment of three.)

*** At one point, it was mentioned in a caption that Knussen had been ‘Speaking in 2010’, but not flagging up, in that way, that Hazlewood and Service had been recorded earlier still.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)