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Sunday, 17 May 2015

Kafka, killing, and punishment

This is a Festival review of A Short Film about Killing (1988)

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

17 May

This is a Festival review of A Short Film about Killing (Krótki film o zabijaniu) (1988), as screened at Saffron Screen’s (@Saffronscreen’s) Polish Film Festival on Saturday 16 May 2015 (which is held to celebrate ten years of establishing community cinema in Saffron Walden ?)

The film was introduced by Dr Stanley Bill, from the Faculty of Modern and Mediaeval Languages at the University of Cambridge, who drew attention to two people who had been instrumental in its making : its cinematographer (Slawomir Idziak) and composer (Zbegniew Preisner, who has written for other films by Krzysztof Kieślowski*), the former for his use of filters in front of the lens, the latter for his self-taught style and beautiful melodies.

After A Short Film about Killing, some conversation took place with Dr Bill (and Andrew Atter) about the death penalty**. It appears that there is no definitive version of the film’s relevance to what happened in Poland : in one, it may have done no more than fitting in with the Zeitgeist, whereas, in the other (reported in the Festival’s leaflet), it was instrumental in creating it, first through a moratorium, then as part of a post-Soviet identification with, and desire to join, the EU.

Be that as it may… but is any perceived weakness in the film’s juxtaposition of state and individual killing just because one might assume that Jacek should previously have told Piotr what he does in the prison cell (as if it would, or could, have made a difference, as an exculpation for what had been done please see below), whereas the fact is that (although the trial judge praises the speech) we do not ever hear what the latter said, in the former’s defence and against the death penalty, and for the failure to avoid the latter of which Piotr blames himself ?

If one knows about the law (as Kieślowski’s co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz also did), although we are told (by the prosecutor, in his narrative prior to the judgement being carried out ?) that the case had gone to appeal, and that a higher authority had not granted a pardon, it is extremely unlikely that a fledgling barrister such as such as Piotr (Krzysztof Globisz) would have handled those further stages : in fact, everything is consistent with what Jacek (Miroslaw Baka) tells him, that he asked for Piotr to be present, because the sole part of the judicial process that had registered with Jacek was his name being called from the court building just before he was driven away. A dual purpose is served, of course, not only that Piotr hears Jacek out, and wants to defy the inevitable, but that his being there point up the inhumanity and the horrible reality of the sentence : his opposition is symbolic, but what, when seeking admission as a barrister, he had said to the Bar committee about criminal penalties (not least capital ones) not being a deterrent is borne out by Jacek Łazar’s own case [does the name denote the word for ‘leper’, connote Lazarus in the New Testament ?].

The film, not just polemically (for we are free to make our own mind up), juxtaposes our notions of crime and punishment : as Dr Bill agrees, we are not a little reminded of Dostoyevsky (even if there seems to be more redemption in pre-Soviet Siberia than in Soviet-era Poland), and opinions may differ about what ‘sentimental’ means as a description. Piotr Balicki’s stance against the judicial machine may be emotional / polemical, but his defiance (as Christ’s is, before Pilate ?) is in words, not actions maybe, on reflection, we are reminded of, and hope for, what happens in Kafka’s ‘In der Strafkolonie’, where the Explorer’s not so much disagreeing with as failing to endorse*** the Officer’s justification for fitting the punishment to the crime upsets the regime, albeit bloodily and crudely.

In handling and taking as its text Thou shalt not kill [better rendered as ‘murder’ ?], the film is tied to two dates, 17 March [1986 ?] and 27 April 1987, both of which link Jacek and Piotr or, as we see him in his celebrations on that day, Piotrek (the diminutive by which his girlfriend calls him). With a different, though not wholly dissimilar, aesthetic of connectedness to that of James Joyce, commemorating 16 June 1904 in Ulysses****, A Short Film about Killing shows how, at the moment when Piotr’s reflections over coffee are being coloured by negativity at the thought of what he might have to bear in his professional life, Jacek, who has been cursed by the gypsy woman whom (in a catalogue of bad-mindedness, by him and others) he had rudely rejected, turns his mind to murder (heralded by sinister tones in Preisner’s score) :

The word ‘reflection’ is where we began the film, with the confusing image of a building seeming to rotate and twist as we see it in the glass of the door that Waldemar Rekowski (Jan Tesarz) opens and closes (maybe as Jacek’s own heart and soul are shown doing, as work is found around town for his idle hands, be it frightening the pigeons, or edging a stone forward, as if were just obeying gravity in an accident ?). And, as Dr Bill had mentioned that we might notice, in the cinematography can be seen occlusions of part of the frame*****, but also how the light on the buildings, even of the housing estate, becomes a sort of golden sepia, and the sky, particularly, seems perpetually that of sunset culminating, after the killing, in a halo of bright sunlight, as if of some unholy transfiguration (in which we might identify Georg Büchner and his revolutionary play Woyzeck ?), before the sombre, washed tones of court-room and prison.

There are hints, here, at Jacek’s mental state, but maybe knowing of the events that had led to the death of his younger sister Marysia would not, as the law stood then in Poland, have afforded him the help of pleading diminished responsibility : Kieślowski does not dwell on the moment, but, when Jacek finds Beatka [with a name that seems to connote blessedness / saintliness, just coincidentally the girl who interested Waldemar and to whom he made a suggestive offer ?], his ideas about what they can do, now that he has acquired a car (and whoever exactly they are to each other), may have lucidity, but they betray that it is in fantasy that he has found a solution to their problems.

Think of capital punishment as a fit one as one may, or as a deterrent, but it may not have been a fit one here, where no one in Jacek’s place would have been contemplating the actual consequences of his actions.


* As well as the Dies Irae for The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) (2013).

** Only abolished in the UK, and in living memory, by the efforts of Victor Gollancz, Arthur Koestler and other campaigners – however well known it may be that Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be hanged, relatively few seem to know that this cessation was not merely something that happened (and by no means overnight).

*** Respectively, they are der Reisende and der Offizier : well Kafka knew how (as also in, for example, ‘Das Urteil’) to portray ego-states in all their fragility. So much so, that we almost easily credit that his own personality was of this kind, or else that he was always foreseeing crushing bureaucracies as if, despite what Alan Bennett wishes to tell us in The Insurance Man, Kafka did not work as a lawyer for The Workers’ Accident Insurance Office. Or even foreshadowing Nazi horrors (as if what The Third Reich resorted to was scarcely unfamiliar to Eastern Europe ?).

**** Albeit one which is more akin to that of Michael Haneke’s films from The Seventh Continent (1989) onwards, or to that of Cloud Atlas (2012).

***** Over coffee with his girlfriend, and when she carries out a palm-reading (the service offered by the gypsy woman, but rejected), we see Piotr’s and her brows shielded by a dark bar at the top of the frame, as he tries to contemplate the future.

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

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Soprano and conductor : Barbara Hannigan at Saffron Hall (Part I)

This is a review of Britten Sinfonia with conductor / soloist Barbara Hannigan

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

9 May (updated / completed in draft 12 May)

This is a review (in progress) of a concert given at Saffron Hall (@SaffronHallSW) by Britten Sinfonia (@BrittenSinfonia), conducted by and with soprano solos from Barbara Hannigan, on Saturday 9 May at 7.30 p.m.

In this concert, the two halves had a strange symmetry : an overture (by Mozart), timed at five minutes, an aria lasting nine minutes, and two works for full orchestra of twenty-four minutes, which yield prime factors of 2, 3 and 5…

Part I :

* Mozart ~ Overture to Idomeneo

* Stravinsky ~ Excerpt from The Rake’s Progress (Act 1, Scene 3 : Anne’s scene)

* Haydn ~ Symphony No. 49 in F Minor (nicknamed La Passione)

We began excitingly with Mozart, in the overture to Idomeneo, where right from the opening conductor Barbara Hannigan gave us a sense of delayed gratification by using suspension, holding back on the grandeur that we were to come to, complete with a Mozartian trill. Those who know Britten Sinfonia (@BrittenSinfonia), and its principal bassoonist Sarah Burnett, will not have been surprised at how effortlessly she contributed to the texture, and when her playing came effortlessly forward for a little solo passage, which caught the mood nicely.

All in all, Hannigan brought out an explosive quality in Mozart, but also a brittleness, not least in the restatement of the opening material, when we had shrill tones from the twin flutes (and we were to hear quite a bit more, and fully as skilfully, from Claire Wickes and Sarah O’Flynn). In the closing cadences, and for full effect, Hannigan held back, but also, with arm aloft, allowed the Sinfonia, polished as ever, to step straight into the operatic excerpt that followed, and make it all of a piece* :

This provided, amidst the woodwind sonorities and Sarah Burnett’s beautiful presence and tone-quality, a pleasant sudden welcome into Stravinsky’s asiatically influenced sound-world and a moment of contrast before Hannigan entered as soloist in this libretto (co-written by Auden with Chester Kallman). Charged words, which, as Hannigan utters them, seek a status both for her as Anne, and inter-relatedly for her relations with Tom (absent, but whom she feels obliged to contemplate and address).

Momentarily (and most like his ‘appropriations’), Stravinsky seems to echo Copland’s incidental music for Quiet City (typically known as reduced in a discrete composition for trumpet, cor anglais and string orchestra). This, just before, and to devastating effect, we were brought to the point of Hannigan’s voice alone, and with the pivotal words thou art a colder moon, where Anne’s mood, and convictions, change : which (we surely know, even without knowing the piece as a whole) are likely to threaten her future.

The strings become active again, with an evocation of the night, and as Hannigan gave us I go, I go to him, whose repeated words both stressed determination, and making resolute a hesitant spirit a gentle parp from the brass. By the time of the closing sentiments, we had the full effect of the massed desks of woodwind and brass at the rear (twelve players in an orchestra of around two score), and, as Hannigan meditated on the words that self-reinforcingly locked Anne into her course of action, there was an invocation of earlier settings about the unconditionality of love, such as John Hilton’s of ‘If it be love’. Even as we had these words, the scene concluded with a vigorous up-beat :

Love cannot falter, cannot desert.
It will not alter a loving heart
It cannot alter an ever loving heart

Haydn’s Symphony No. 49 in F Minor is not only, if not much performed, at least recently much broadcast on Radio 3 (@BBCRadio3), and one, of all works in a minor key, to wear it relatively easily, albeit starting with a slow movement :

1. Adagio
2. Allegro di molto
3. Menuet e Trio
4. Finale : Presto

That said, and even including a live transmission by this line-up earlier in the week, it is a work that can easily sound safely repeatable, almost homogeneously generic**. Not so at Saffron Hall on Saturday night !

The first movement, described by Jo Kirkbride in her programme-notes as in the style of sonata di chiesa, was characterized in Hannigan’s interpretation as quiet and inward, with a refreshingly sparing use of accents. When the horns came in, gloriously, the watchword was still restraint, and, by breathing with the music (as if with the flow of an aria) and being true to the calling of the heart, she had us wanting more, with a yearning for how the music next unfolded.

As yet, the central performer literally, in the form of Maggie Cole (at the harpsichord keyboard), facing forward from within the ensemble had not figured, but, when she made her entry, its unforced naturalness, and the way in which Hannigan was responsive to the tone and style of Cole’s cadences, brought us to the point where though still deliberately kept a little separate from the full underlying feeling we were feelingly aware of its closeness, and ready when the lovely sonorities of woodwind and brass came through.

This is one of those pieces where, ideally subtly altered (as with a da capo aria working with whose form is not, of course, an inessential part of Hannigan’s métier), the material comes back, again and again : did we feel elegance, which maybe subsumed desire (needing to stay hidden), and, next, that feelings have come to a point of being tempted to believe in themselves ? Perhaps, for such words are, at best, indications of what the best of music will sometimes only hint at. What one can state, though, is that Cole’s playing evoked the beauty of the ensemble-writing, through her contributions to the texture.

Right from the opening gesture of the Allegro di molto, Hannigan made a feature of the cross-accents that came prior to the rich, full sound of the orchestra at large, and making a link to the preceding Mozart the lightness and brightness of the writing : all of this, necessarily, had been set up by the careful handling of the Adagio. For, many versions of this symphony turn it into terrace dynamics, but Hannigan showed us a more complex angularity in the score, and it worked so well just to see, and catch, string-entries, made very slightly ahead of each other, by divided first and second violins.

This is another movement that goes around and around, but one that allowed Cole, once again, to enter in a way that was essential to the whole, letting us sense ‘the opening up’ of the Allegro, more and more. Thus, Cole first brought to the harpsichord part subtle variations in her attack, and, at other times, an impression that it was aswirl (but mixed in with a woodwind and brass that were more measured), and then fed that latter sensation into the sharpness with which we revisited earlier matter.

With a superbly rendered bassoon-line from Burnett, Barbara Hanningan set the Menuet’s sustained notes in the realm of stateliness, but with Cole then emphasizing the tender detail in the continuo writing. In this movement, what was particularly noticeable was that, in passing from woodwind to strings, there was no loss in transmission : not just that we heard a smooth transfer of the material, but that the line within the music was part of the communication, or itself, in some way, was the communication.

And, if we truly heard, there was the care with which the performance was heightened by maintaining us, through the well-executed precision of the Sinfonia players, slightly apart from what might have been (and all too often is) simply overt and immediate in the sound and emotion of this work. Almost inevitably, Maggie Cole’s voiced keyboard-playing continued to be integral to the experience, with a sense that one note was speaking to, and informed by, the next just as with communication of musical lines within the orchestra, but at a level beyond even phrasing, or shaping, to why each note was there, had to be there***.

When we came into the Trio section, Cole approached her part with a quality as of recitative, with the whole movement very balanced : elements of ebb and flow in the continuo were carefully juxtaposed with the rest of the ensemble, and we had an overall sense of both a pulse within the music, and of its gracefulness.

Although the Finale had been described rather differently by Tom Redmond, hosting the Radio 3 live broadcast, Hannigan imbued the Presto with what sounded like impatience, but tempered by tutti that were determined to present themselves as much more matter of fact (again, that sort of face saving from earlier ?). Amidst all of which, we had snatches of the real feeling, beneath the nerve-laden energy : this playing and conducting of Haydn came across, unlike what had been heard broadcast, as having understood the work anew.

Indeed, one had little desire to watch what Hannigan was doing as, with some conducting, one can be drawn into thinking important so much as to be aware of what was brought forth from the instrumentalists, and also of the gradations, inflexions and tone-colours given (not least by Maggie Cole) to this familiar score. Whether it was using the power in the sustained oboe and bassoon notes, or having clearly worked with Cole to make the continuo role a living and emergent one, this was the insightful conclusion of three works that had spoken to each other (as is by no means unusual to find in Britten Sinfonia’s concerts) :

In fact, such was the engagement with the meaning of the work (rather than its mere form) that being at the end actually came almost as a surprise, as well as a welcome time to be able to show one’s appreciation.

A concluding part of the review, in a separate posting, to come…


* Respected by the audience at this point, by not starting to applaud, whereas it sadly was not after the second Mozart overture, which obliged Hannigan to take a bow, and go off stage, when one sensed that, in this same way, she had wanted to show us something by linking it, mood for mood, with one of his concert arias (from later in that decade) :

** Of course, being in the auditorium would have made some difference, but that performance just did not have a spark of the especial kind that would have one picture oneself there to hear it : actually, it gave one trepidation about what one might hear four days later…

*** Somewhere, there is a link (to come) to the masterclass, with The Doric Quartet, that Murray Perahia gave for CRASSH in Cambridge (@CRASSHlive, the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities), where he talked about how one chord relates to the next in Beethoven's writing for string quartet : for the moment, this blog posting must suffice.

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

Friday, 8 May 2015

We close every Thursday afternoon [Emma ~ 1975, Scene Three]

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

8 May

With them...

A 150-word story for Mark Brown
[and all that he and so many do for mental-health difficulty]

Whatever it was that they did have, what was almost more important with them, for their story had been 'non-events'. Then, spirits of impossibility and inopportunity had been accorded oversight : 

Their not kissing (when, hurriedly, they first might have kissed)... before that (through fright at what might be ?), choosing not to be there at all (when first they could have met)... even before that, The Fates intervening (to prevent what should have been a less-knowing meeting just as 'awkward' for being so ?)...

Painting oneself into a corner ? Hardly a lyrical, poetic image (redolent more of Stan and Ollie ?) of them and theirs yet is it one that speaks of, and into, the implausibility, the notion of the unimaginable, made solid by words, by the voice ?

Made too fleshly solid (for their co-produced impracticability, unreality ?) for the first real event, though booked, to evade the intractability of being a last non-event.

© Belston Night Works 2015

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

Monday, 4 May 2015

The Izzie Poems (Part V*)

This is : A Poem for Izzie and Iggy

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

4 May (Postlude added, 4 October ; plus, from a Tweet, two haikus, 13 October)

A Poem for Izzie and Iggy

What you devoutly shared,
You might
have shared
Not as lovers’ secrets,
But as thoughts, open
And showing your care

A clear communion,
As between one speck
From another world and
One more, made kindred
By shared origin ?

Or do ‘the poets pipe
Of love’ childishly ? :
, elevating
His slight dalliance,
Because he is famed… ?

© Belston Night Works 2015

Postlude :

Twinned traitors

He enjoys stories
Of her dark,
With the other men

It makes the sex sharp,
, that he might hit her
For what he'd allowed


Sucking your nipples
Till you
(or seemed to come... ?)
Accorded prowess :

Flattery's efforts
Let you worm in warming hope
Which you could then


* These are the other Parts : Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

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

Sunday, 3 May 2015

The Izzie Poems (Part IV*)

This is : A Poem for Iggy II

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

4 May

A Poem for Iggy II

Stardust sounds so much fun,
Unlike, dear Iggy,
Major Tom, dutiful,
The protein-pill man,
Making all the grades

Louis chirp-states Stardust,
Before throatily
Drawling with scat notes
Out the melody’s
Lines, lovingly so

Even when Stéphane
Sends smiles through the song***,
Stardust is more dust, still,
Than Star-Shine Bright,
From another world

© Belston Night Works 2015


* These are the other Parts : Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part V.

On @YouTube, though, StéphaneGrappelligives us another take on Stardust :

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

The Izzie Poems (Part III*)

This is : A Poem for Iggy I

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

3 May

A Poem for Iggy I

Iggy Not-Quite-Stardust,
And Not-Much-Spaceman,
Crash-landed with his craft
In that southern Sea
Of Isabella

Gravity’s attractions,
Notwithstanding strong,
Quite unsecondary
In that descent, swift
To Isabella

Hush, said Isabella,
, whispered then he :
For he did not un-know,
But knew, knew anew,
Through Isabella

© Belston Night Works 2015


* These are the other Parts : Part I, Part II, Part IV, and Part V.

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

Friday, 1 May 2015

The Izzie Poems (Part I*)

This is : A Poem for Izzie I

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

1 May

A Poem for Izzie I

Sounds, in the air, sound our hearts,
Find out the longing that stays
Silent, the more that we say,
Cramming the air that departs
Our vacant lips

Lips, lips that touch, touch our soul,
Deepen the yearning that knows,
Silent, the way that we go,
Parting the halves of the whole
Within our mind

Mind, in two minds, not to be,
Seeking the loving that binds,
Silent, the ones who are kind,
Healing the wounds on the tree
That living inflicts

© Belston Night Works 2015


* These are the other Parts : Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.

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