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Monday, 29 February 2016

Spotlight on a winner of Academy Awards in 2016

Some film-references and an accreting list of comments about Spotlight (2015) :

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

29 February

* Contains some spoilers *

After some film-references (not to be much explored), an accreting list in not much order of comments about Spotlight (2015) :

* L’enquête (The Clearstream Affair) (2014)
* Mea Maxima Culpa : Silence in the House of God (2012)
* Philadelphia (1993)
* Philomena (2013)
* Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

* Howard Shore’s score was inventive and employed a range of instrumentalists – however, at one point, it may have inappropriately suggested a positivity (to the progress of the investigation) that was not in keeping with what, at that point, was being investigated

* Dramatizing the telling of a true story – at best, we forgive such dramatic retellings for the voice that they have given to someone whose trust has been abused and his or her own voice silenced ; at worst, why not a dramatic reconstruction (for those whose choice would not be Mea Maxima Culpa (2012)), rather than having to adapt character and content to fit the inflexible standard notions of the elements of a drama ?

* Misdirection A : With the help of the score, in spy-film mood, to suggest that corruption or ill-will on the part of one or more of those higher up at The Boston Globe might have prevented earlier researches into these issues, but then let that dissipate with a curiously thin explanation, covered by newly arrived editor Marty Baron's (Liev Schreiber's) worthy speech about the rewards of having hindsight¹

* In contrary motion, and questions of billing apart, that purposive importing of notions of suspicion and intrigue is at curious odds with no one much, other than Baron, seeming to have a grasp of what about a story makes it in the public interest, and with how both the methods of investigative journalism and yet a lack of knowledge of worldly ways is portrayed

* As a screenplay that is now acclaimed, it is fine that we have three Christmases established : the latter cases give a sense of time and scale, but the first five minutes or so - which make quite sure that we do not miss the decorations - are hardly necessary, even in a linear narrative, to provide a historical perspective or tell what happened in that time-period

* Generally, the film fails too much just to tell², and chooses instead to show, and, at the same time, it tends to have characters talk, or even arrange to meet, when what is said (in legal terms) is solely for the benefit of an audience of supposed lay people : the characters would know not even to spend the considerable time involved to ask for what, answered in terms of principles of client confidentiality or professional legal practice, is bound to be refused

* Of course, one cannot judge how this would appear to those who have not practised law (or banking procedures, in L’enquête (The Clearstream Affair), to those not versed in finance), but surely no such journalist would register surprise at the lack of evidence in the courts of settlements made without proceedings having been issued³ : if agreements could not be made between claimant and defendant without everyone knowing what they were, there would be no point to them

* Misdirection B : A little as with Professor Snape in the Harry Potter films, and as part of generating the sense of suspicion that was mentioned above, we hear that someone’s heart had been in the right place after all (except not only that, if someone is asked to do what he has already done, one would imagine that he would simply say so, but also that he has no reason to claim instead that he cannot, which is falsified by having done what he did)

* Spotlight is about an obviously important subject being covered up, but this award-winning screenplay has its infelicities⁴, and, though it is approach that can work in the right place, does just allow significant characters, such as Marty Baron and Eric Macleish, to occupy some twilight part of the film, from where they are engaged when needed, but then sent back off to the wings

* Yet we spend more screen time, ‘on the beat’, with others, whose contributions seem tangential or to lack a corollary⁵, and who and whose professional roles are sometimes sketchily drawn : even if that were how it was, it even seems something of a surprise that the journalists do not write up the story as a team, but that it falls to Mike Rezendes, working on his own (quite apart, in a film about the lawyerly influence on public life, our seeing Baron, without attorneys checking it over, making the decision about what to print)

* As for real intrigue and a committed journalist who is personally laying everything on the line, though, it cannot compete with L’enquête and how, in a film that is more than twenty minutes shorter (this one is, in places, less well paced), it makes its far, far more complicated networks of transactional and interpersonal information at least as digestible - except that the latter is a French-language film, which still wrongly rules it out for this sort of consideration, and so much more !

Seen on the opening night of Cambridge Film Festival 2015

Post-script :

In his review, writing for The New Statesman, Ryan Gilbey comes up with other cogent reasons why the film does not work, starting with :

If we sympathise with the heroes of Spotlight, we have delivered some indefinable blow to institutional child abuse, just as anyone who paid to see Twelve Years a Slave (an earlier Best Picture winner) was also purchasing an invisible 'I Hate Racism badge. If we support The Big Short, we have done our bit to avert the next economic collapse, or at least to ensure we can discuss it with authority when it comes. But good intentions are not always synonymous with great film-making.

In The Hollywood Reporter, concluding his review, Todd McCarthy sums up :

In the end, this material can't help but be interesting, even compelling up to a point, but its prosaic presentation suggests that the story's full potential, encompassing deep, disturbing and enduring pain on all sides of the issue, has only begun to be touched.


¹ Although one might infer a submerged plot-line about the effects of hierarchy on having the courage of one’s convictions ?

² At the same time, we hear the Spotlight team talking about what they are working on / what they are being asked to postpone doing, but we are not bothered with more than the necessary traces of the substance of what that is, since we would simply gain nothing by knowing : the film can trust its judgement there, but errs elsewhere with this issue of having to have people say what we do need to know.

³ Or (though this question did not arise), equally, to imagine that the judicial system, where cases have settled out of court, will show the settlement reached.

⁴ For example, as a matter of tone (whose key does not match), rather than a moment of humour, when the others go down to the basement and, asking what the smell is, they are directed to a dead rat – as if someone would wish to start researching without removing it ? Or why Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) is both asked by Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) whether his surname is Italian (it does not sound remotely so) and, with some disbelief at the answer, where he is from.

⁵ Such as the retired priest, and just on the door-step, being garrulous about having molested (but, he says, not raped) boys in his flock - before being shut up from within.

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

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The best of duo partners (Part I) : The music is almost an excuse to hear them play

Part I of a review of Maxim Vengerov in Recital, with pianist Roustem Saïtkoulov

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

21 February

This is the delayed¹ Part I of a review of Maxim Vengerov in Recital [Part II is reviewed here], which he gave with pianist Roustem Saïtkoulov at Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden, on Saturday 20 February at 7.30 p.m.

The first part of the recital that Maxim Vengerov gave at Saffron Hall (@SaffronHallSW) with pianist Roustem Saïtkoulov comprised two sonatas for violin and piano. [Part II is reviewed here.]

They were written in the first two decades of the nineteenth century and within fifteen years of each other (although Schubert was more than a decade, and his work was not to be published until 1851, which, if it is the publication-date that we notice, might make us fail to realize that he lived his live almost entirely within Beethoven's life-time).

Programme (Part I) :

1. Franz Schubert (1797-1828) ~ Sonata for Violin and Piano (‘Grand Duo’)

2. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) ~ Sonata No. 7

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) ~ Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major (‘Grand Duo’), Op. Posth. 162 (1817), D. 574

1. Allegro moderato
2. Scherzo : Presto
3. Andantino
4. Allegro vivace

In the Sonata’s opening Allegro moderato, the tone of Roustem Saïtkoulov’s playing was open, as if of song accompaniment. The writing for violin, meanwhile, was developing into complexity, with expressive cadences, and with Maxim Vengerov using a great variability of string-tone between, say, feeling free or sweet, exuberant or jolly. With the repeat, ease was the overriding sense, leading into a hint of nostalgia, and then new (agitated) material, with loud piano gestures. Momentarily, the duo chose to hesitate over the recurrence of the original theme, and then brought the movement to lively and uncomplicated close.

A horn-like motif, as if acting as a fanfare, opened the Scherzo (and was to make further appearances, following boisterous gestures the next two times). Schubert next variously gave us (punctuated by use of the fanfare) a passage built around repeated and syncopated notes, and a sinuously flexible line for Vengerov, whilst the piano had a sort of trotting pattern : that sound had already reminded of another composer, and, when the horn-call had come back triumphantly, the piece then duly transformed, in its ending, into a piece of Beethovenian theatre.

The third movement had a song-like opening from Vengerov. That theme was ultimately to be passed to Saïtkoulov, but a feature of this Andantino was trills on piano, violin adornments, and modulations. Those modulations, when the theme was on piano, led to harmonic uncertainty, and then it was passed back for a mood of mellifluousness that alternated with one of earnestness. More modulations, and trills, first on piano, came before the movement concluded, but with a slight feeling of irresolution.

Having once read Jo Kirkbride’s programme-notes, one necessarily listened with awareness that it was youthful Schubert. The Allegro vivace opened with what seemed to be a variation of the start of the work, with a ‘jogging’ passage connected to it (a little like the earlier ‘trotting’ figure ?). Just before a theme was passed to the violin, one was aware that the piano part was reminiscent of Schubert’s later style in keyboard sonatas.

Generally, this movement seemed more mature than the others, with a feeling of equal partners, and it had energy and dramatic tension, from performers and composer : Schubert’s piano-writing is sympathetic, and both Saïtkoulov and Vengerov brought a lightness of touch to this finale, but coupled with expressiveness. Schubert ends the piece with enthusiasm, but it is unannounced, in the usual ways, in the writing, and so catches us somewhat short.

As with the Sonata that we were about to hear, this was playing engaged on a passionate purpose, with sympathy and communication between the players, and much appreciated by those who had been listening at Saffron Hall.

Beethoven ~ Sonata No. 7 in C Minor (1802), Op. 30, No. 2 :

1. Allegro con brio
2. Adagio cantabile
3. Scherzo : Allegro
4. Finale : Allegro ; Presto

Beethoven gives us, in the opening Allegro con brio, a pair of note-clusters that, with their contrasting note-values, balance a third, longer one, and Vengerov and Saïtkoulov clearly relished this rhythmic material. The composer’s assurance in writing and handling it was matched by theirs in bringing it to us, and, in co-curating the performance with him, and so a march-like passage felt rendered quite anew when it returns.

To some extent, elements of music inevitably, if well imprinted on the first occasion, will feel fresh when the composition has it repeated, by virtue of the differing context. Yet this was all part of the performers’ nuance and intonation, to have us take in themes in passing : at another point, we would be able to notice that Vengerov used under-statement before the material reappeared – both men were clearly feeling alive to the sensitivities and revelations in the Sonata. So, musically, the group of three vigorous down-strokes on violin need to fit where we hear them, and, if they do (as they did when Vengerov played them), they do not resemble gratuitous loudness (or even aggression ?), but make musical sense.

When that martial utterance comes back one final time, before a gloriously confident end to the movement, does it now seem to pre-figure what we hear in the so-called 'Eroica' Symphony ? (The Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major (1804), Op. 55, was completed within a year of its publication*.)

When Roustem Saïtkoulov opened the next movement (marked Adagio cantabile), Maxim Vengerov was observing him keenly, during the introduction for solo piano : one had the sense that he wanted to absorb, with all available senses (not just that of sound), how this was being played, and, when he made his entry, it was with a most beautiful tone on violin, and phrased for the light piano chords.

There was the intonation and feeling of close duo partners, with Saïtkoulov performing figures, below Vengerov’s playing, and of an overall effect that, as the writing is, was balanced, with grace amidst a sense of solemnity. Just as with those three lively down-strokes from Vengerov in the Allegro con brio (please see above, in the penultimate paragraph), so Beethoven puts two massive rumbles into the piano-writing (in the form of pairs of very abrupt scales) : maybe curious in itself at first, but, with delicate violin following and adding to it, there was a devotional feel to how we heard violin with piano.

By now, although we still had two movements to be heard, they are (in a typical performance) shorter in length, put together, than the preceding Adagio cantabile. Yet music is not, of course, to be ‘sold by the pound (or kilo)’, and so, just as the emotional centre of a work may be found in a relatively short Adagio (because of what has come before it, and prepared for it), so the effect that these last movements can have will be built and be sustained by our experience of the earlier part of the Sonata.

The Scherzo movement opens with what, to Western ears could be an erratically accented dance-line (maybe in homage to the its fellows and its Tsarist dedicatee² ?), from which players and Beethoven extract thematic material. At times, with Saïtkoulov following Vengerov, it sounded imperial in nature; at others, perhaps more like a hymn of thanks – radiant and glorious.

Of course, it is not actually that the Scherzo is any more brief than is typical with any other movement so marked, but that the Finale is no longer. However, with rhythmically inventive writing and playing, and more use of syncopated off-beats, almost everything (please see below) about the tone and structure of the movement is predicated on its doing as we expect :

Beethoven makes a fugal use of a form of the theme, and we could see and sense the satisfaction of both men, in this music and in the performance, as they built from this point. Despite indications to the contrary, in a moment of almost stasis near the end, with violin and piano moving strophically, a Presto coda, signalled by Vengerov, was to bring the Sonata to a close, and to very much applause and sincere appreciation from Maxim Vengerov and Roustem Saïtkoulov on stage at Saffron Hall.

The link here is to the review of Part II of the concert


¹ By way of explanation for this Part (Part I) of the review not appearing when intended :

² The publication of this set of three Sonatas, Beethoven's Opus 30 (dedicated to Tsar Alexander I of Russia), had been in May 1803 (they had been written between 1801 and 1802).

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

Monday, 22 February 2016

The last Prelude and Fugue, and onwards : Reich, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Bach celebrate (with) Louis #Andriessen

A review of Britten Sinfonia at Milton Court for / with Louis #Andriessen (Part I)

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

18 February

This is the first part of a review of a concert given by Britten Sinfonia under Andrew Gourlay (and with soprano Allison Bell), as part of a BBC Louis Andriessen festival at The Barbican Centre, presented by Tom Service at Milton Court on Saturday 13 February at 3.00 p.m.

Soprano Allison Bell sang in #Andriessen's Dances (1991), the only work in Part II of the concert (which is reviewed here)

Programme (Part I) :

1. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) (arr. Louis Andriessen (1936-)) ~ Prelude No. 24

2. Bach (arr. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), compl. Andriessen) ~ Prelude and Fugue No. 24

3. Stravinksy ~ Three Pieces for String Quartet (1914)

4. Steve Reich (1936-) ~ Duet (1993)

5. Andriessen (arr. strings, Marijn van Prooijen) ~ Miserere (2007, arr. 2015)

It has to be said that, even with the benefit (and delight) of having heard Peter Donohoe (@PeterHDonohoe) play Book I of Das wohltemperierte Klavier entire (at The Stables at Wavendon, Milton Keynes (@StablesMK)), there are still pairs of Preludes and Fugues that one feels that one is less confident of knowing well¹ :

So it is that, although recordings of Book I abound (and are listened to, e.g. by Glenn Gould, András Schiff, Richard Egarr, Keith Jarrett, etc.), those Preludes and Fugues from around No. 19 onwards never quite get as much attention / exposure as they might, or should – from that personal perspective, therefore, hearing the original work first might have helped one listen out better for what first Andriessen, then Stravinsky, had done to Bach's structures and textures…

Bach (arr. string quartet, Andriessen) ~ Prelude No. 24 in B Minor, BWV 869, Das wohltemperierte Klavier (1722, arr. 2006)

1st violin, Jacqueline Shave ~ 2nd violin, Miranda Dale ~ Viola, Clare Finnimore ~ Cello, Caroline Dearnley

(1) In the part for cello, we apprehended serene, stately movement beneath that of the other strings, and, as we resumed da capo, there were moments of tenderness. When, later, the writing for cello could be perceived to have a step-wise character, the other string-parts had a fluidity to them, and there was an excitement to the music’s build and fall.

Bach (arr. strings, Stravinsky, compl. Andriessen) ~ Prelude and Fugue No. 24 (1722, arr. 1969)

(2) A little as when Britten Sinfonia (@BrittenSinfonia) played Mahler’s arrangement, for chamber string orchestra, of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor (‘Death and The Maiden’), D. 810, there was not an impression of a much fuller sound, though it appeared capable of being more sweeping in its effect, and gave a ‘larger’ crescendo.

In this version, the sadness came out in the theme that Bach takes for a fugal subject : its intensity was not lessened by a group of instruments playing the long opening trill (the Prelude also contains trills). Its motifs, and the use of falling intervals against contrary motion in the other parts, are suggestive of mourning, and, as the culmination of Bach’s educational enterprise (we know that, in class, he used playing it through as one), it is almost necessarily far removed from the Prelude and Fugue in C Major, BWV 846, with which Book I begins.

As to the impression given, especially of the Fugue, by making the arrangement, one factor has been mentioned above (i.e. the relative unfamiliarity of items towards the end of Book I), but, even compared with Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV 1080 (which is still sometimes thought recondite), does this material seems harder to shape ?

Stravinksy ~ Three Pieces for String Quartet (1914²)

The quartet was made up exactly as for the first piece in the concert :
Jacqueline Shave and Miranda Dale, Clare Finnimore, and Caroline Dearnley

The work had no titles for the movements until 1928, when, alongside his Étude pour pianola, Stravinsky arranged them for orchestra (under the title Quatre études), and they became called, respectively, Danse, Eccentrique, and Cantique : the stridency of the first of these was characterized by vigorous pizzicato notes on cello (Dearnley), and an emphatic part for first violin (Shave), with occasional prominent strokes from second violin (Dale).

Stravinsky opened the second Piece by employing a heavily accented and slurred sound (as of his notion of an eccentric³ ?), but then there was an abrupt change of tone and mood, more extreme, in its rhythmic freedom and energy, than even much of Bartók’s writing for string quartet. When the initial material resumed, there was less jollity about it, and less slurring.

The last Piece was very different again – and one wonders what, in arranging it for large orchestra, Stravinsky might have changed. It began with a few gestures, which conjured to mind, perhaps, a waste space, before developing into what resembled a hymn (or someone praying).

Yet we were to keep reverting to those more stark gestures, as if to a distillation of his Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) from the previous year – and a work of whose influence on him Louis Andriessen was later to tell. Towards the end, the part for lead violin had a fugue-like subject, and, amidst these unlikely fragments, to the credit of the Sinfonia’s string-players (as well as of the composer), there was warmth.

Appreciative of a sensitive performance (and it could be that this felt like the first substantive piece ?), the audience at Milton Court called the players back for applause.

Reich ~ Duet (1993)

When they were leaving the concert-hall after the first part of the concert, one heard a couple of men talking in a way that showed that they did not realize that they had already heard Reich’s Duet.

Even for those who did not have the programme, as maybe they also did not, it was clear enough, not just because Tom Service (@tomservice), for the BBC (@BBCRadio3), had announced, and talked about the pieces in, the running-order of the Louis #Andriessen Immersion Day concert (through to the composer’s own Miserere) : for one thing, it was not as if it did not, in aural terms, resemble Steve Reich's style, but, for another, one imagines that (as with Music for 18 Musicians) he would have specified where on the stage, and so in visual terms, the duo should be – the familiar Sinfonia violinists Jacqueline Shave (leader) and Miranda Dale (principal second violin) had been facing each other across the performance-space.

This was a completely other sound-world from that of Stravinsky (as heard from 1914), with its use of echo / delay, i.e. in the person and playing of the performers, and sustained notes. Reich then added in patterning, in the form of rhythms from the double-bass (Roger Linley) and, for this piece, a third cellist (Rowena Calvert), deploying a flat bow to tap the strings.

For those who had been listening to Ligeti recently (because of Britten Sinfonia’s At Lunch 2), utterly different from the effect that he sought – open sounds, but with dissonance introduced, and the interaction of the parts of Reich’s duetting pair of violins, conspiring to throw the equilibrium off balance. With a light, open texture, the Sinfonia brought the work to a close.

Andriessen (arr. Marijn van Prooijen) ~ Miserere (2007, arr. 2015)

Interviewed by Tom Service, Louis Andriessen told us (wanting, as he said, to avoid giving us a lecture’s worth on it, as he had formally done elsewhere recently) that he had written Miserere for Amsterdam Sinfonietta as a requiem - as at, and for the fact of, their final concert : he had done so at a time when funding for the arts had been in the hands of people whom he described as ‘gangsters’, and this ensemble (and four others ?) had lost its grant.

However, another and happier aspect to its genesis, at the outset, had been a simple figure, written as a birthday present for his sister, and which #Andriessen said that even he could play on piano. The work had originally been written for string quartet, and Andriessen approved of the present arrangement (for string orchestra), which had been made by the Sinfonietta’s bassist, Marijn van Prooijen.

Alas, it had been intended that the review-notes, on which the comments that follow are based, would be amplified, with the piece (fresh) in one’s memory : nothing wrong with the intention as such, as an effort (as with Andriessen’s Dances, in the second half) to detach oneself from the activity of formulating immediate and specific responses, and, rather, making a comment on the overall impression⁴...

At first, the work fell into sections, with contrasts occurring between the sections. Then, as Andriessen had said to Service by way of an introduction to his composition, it becomes more ‘disquieting’, and less ‘conventional’, which we heard as the texture felt itself to be twisted (or tortured ?). When that feeling did subside, there was a quality of expansiveness to the writing, which was a little reminiscent of such moods in Copland (or Sibelius ?) – till, at the end, it had richness, as of Britten.

Part II of the concert is reviewed here


¹ As, say, with a concert that includes complete Rachmaninov’s Preludes, Op. 23, nothing can alter the fact that some are celebrated (e.g. No. 5 in G Minor, marked Alla marcia), and so one less easily relates to their neighbours, heard in between.

² Although it was completed in 1914, it appears that it was not published until 1922 (and Stravinsky had revised it in 1918).

³ Assuming that Stravinsky did not conceive of that description after the fact, although Book II of Claude Debussy’s Préludes had first been performed in London in 1913, of which No. 6 (L. 123 / 6) is marked Dans le style et le mouvement d'un Cakewalk, and sub-titled (at the end of the piece) Général Lavine – eccentric.

If, of course, it had happened - whereas, it had then seemed natural, just after hearing Allison Bell (@bellAsoprano) sing, to write up notes for the second half.

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

Sunday, 21 February 2016

The best of duo partners (Part II) : The music is almost an excuse to hear them play

Part II of a review of Maxim Vengerov in Recital, with pianist Roustem Saïtkoulov

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

20 February

This is Part II of a review of Maxim Vengerov in Recital, which he gave with pianist Roustem Saïtkoulov at Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden, on Saturday 20 February at 7.30 p.m.

After a dark concert-suit in the first part of the concert (to a review of which this links), a change of repertoire and ambience was signalled by a change of suit for Maxim Vengerov, a grey lounge suit with a black collar

Programme (Part II) :

3. Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) ~ Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2

4. Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931) ~ Violin Sonata No. 6

5. Wilhelm Ernst (1812-1865) ~ The Last Rose of Summer

6. Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) (arr. Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962)) ~ Theme and Variations on ‘I Palpiti’

Ravel ~ Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2, in G Major (1923-1927), M. 77

1. Allegretto
2. Blues. Moderato
3. Perpetuum mobile. Allegro

The Sonata's opening Allegretto, from which the central movement is often detached (please see below), felt full of mystery and allusiveness : maybe there was birdsong in the discords, maybe car-horns (tying in with apparently invoking Gershwin in the last movement ?), but resolving into harmonies. From composer and performers, a sense of conjuring something into existence with this sound-world…

The central movement is often heard outside its place in the whole work – typically with great relish of the passage with that bluesy ‘bent’ note (if to the exclusion of much else ?). After extreme pizzicato gestures to begin with, Maxim Vengerov was then rightly relatively restrained with that familiar passage :

One can only appreciate what has been singled out to be known by accepting it to be so, when fitting it back into its musical context. Afterwards, as the piano ‘muses’, he used very much more gentle pizzicato to bring in subtle timbres, and, when it came to the often unacknowledged sub-theme, carefully accented it to bring the line of melody within it out to us. A little more pizzicato, this time with intensity, came before Ravel’s quiet, and somewhat moody close.

In the final movement, the Ravel of Gaspard de la nuit (1908), especially ‘Scarbo’ (its third movement), seemed evident here : the exactly terrifying effect of a moto perpetuo when put alongside the edginess of his piano-writing.

Remission came in the form of overtly jazzy piano (from which we might infer - wrongly¹ - that Ravel is quoting George Gershwin, in An American in Paris), and the violin skating above it, only to return to the anxiety of the moto perpetuo against chords from Saïtkoulov. A recurrence of that jazz-infused material then relieved us - now, the parts of piano and violin came to us in a more integrated form (and, although finishing the piece with the gesture of a closing cadence, Ravel seemed to do so without a harmonic resolution ?).

Ysaÿe ~ Violin Sonata No. 6, in E Major (1923), Op. 27

Eugène Ysaÿe

This solo work seemed to have - as the first encore was likewise to suggest - a Neapolitan character to it (and perhaps, near the end, even a reference to Carmen ?) : now playing alone, Vengerov’s virtuosity and ease of playing were being exploited, and tested.

However, amongst all that was going on and being asked of him, everything proved - played with this level of skill and insight - to be part of the whole. The adornments and extras were there, not for themselves, but in the service of lyricism, and of the music’s emotional content.

Ernst The Last Rose of Summer² (Étude No. 6) (1864) : Introduction, Theme, Four Variations, and Finale

After an introduction, we would have recognized the theme, complete with left-handed pizzicato. By 1846, the status of the song ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ had been established for decades (since Beethoven had used it twice, the first time in Irish Songs (1816), Vol. 2, WoO 153)². As the work progressed, we could hear how a variation would go away from, and come back to, home – or of the theme’s expressive enhancement (if almost to disintegration ?).

Given its popularity, then and now, it was illuminating to hear the theme so variously treated, with, after a ‘straight’ form of variation, next more left-handed pizzicato, but performed as a kind of ‘twang’, almost as if to undermine a serious bowed line. (Some other effects were read as comic, rather than in the nature of further challenging technique, with a number in the audience actually laughing – not that smiles or laughter are to be banished at the door of the concert-hall, but it was unclear that what we heard was meant to be taken that way.)

Paganini (arr. Kreisler) ~ Theme and Variations on ‘I Palpiti’ (1819), Op. 13 (arr. publ. 1905)

Again, a piece in variation form, but, coming from a celebrated violinist, it seemed employed to the end of conveying character through, rather than in, the chosen matter, and with the relative simplicity of the part for piano. The balance of the piece, and of the performer, was between the elements of ornamentation and bringing out its qualities of expression, and Kreisler’s importance and memory were clearly close to Vengerov’s heart (not just because the first two encores were by Kreisler, but in his approach and playing).

Fritz Kreisler, with his dog, in October 1930

Encores :

(1) The Caprice viennois, Op. 2, was given to feel and be reverential of Kreisler, but in a dreamy, if also matter-of-fact, way [Kreisler seems, judging by this recording from around 1942, to have chosen to play it with orchestra].

By contrast, in Kreisler’s (2) Tambourin Chinois³, Op. 3, Vengerov was obviously enjoying himself, with its pentatonic taps or fast bow-strokes. Yet, even more so, the tempo of the slower, central section – with its richness of tone, it was reminiscent of moments in the Ravel.

In retrospect, it was a shame not to have started a ripple of applause to second the sentiment that Maxim Vengerov wished that there could be more concert-halls like Saffron Hall (@SaffronHallSW).

Finally, a very well-known piece, (3) the ‘Méditation’ from Massenet’s opera Thaïs (where it originally served as an intermezzo) : Vengerov is a great player, but there was not a sense of ego here, but of loving the music, and loving playing it. As earlier in the recital (e.g. with the Ravel), what was well judged was in seeing what is lovely about it – the depths of expression, rather than exploiting it for its familiar capacity to move to tears.

Here, the concert concluded (as signalled by the duo coming back to the stage violinless) : in any case, one would not have wanted anything else to follow this choice. Many of the audience who had not already stood took the opportunity to do so, and take one last curtain-call with these performers.

The link here is to the review of Part I of the concert


¹ I.e. that when, in 1928, Gershwin composed An American in Paris (after his second trip to Paris), he was the one paying tribute. It is a story often told that Gershwin and Ravel were in correspondence (before Gershwin's first visit, in 1926), because Gershwin wanted to take lessons in composition from him. When, however, Ravel saw what the other was earning as a composer, he joked that he should be taking lessons from Gershwin.

On meeting Gershwin in 1926, Ravel did not find himself able to teach him, and suggested Nadia Boulanger as a teacher. (Gershwin was not to meet her until the second trip : almost as famously, she urged on him that, true to himself, he was already a first-rate Gershwin, and should not try to become a second-rate [version of] Ravel.) In between, Gershwin helped persuade Ravel to make a lucrative concert-tour to the States, and the further contact between the men led to Ravel's making a generous commendation of Gershwin to Boulanger.

² The traditional tune ‘Aislean an Oigfear’ (‘The Young Man's Dream’) had been transcribed in 1792 (by Edward Bunting). The poet Thomas Moore then not only set words to it (i.e. his poem ‘The Last Rose of Summer’), but published Bunting’s transcription (in A Selection of Irish Melodies (1813), Vol. 5).

What one finds is that Ernst was by no means alone in finding it an attractive musical subject : we may well know of Britten’s arrangement, but, in the intervening two centuries, it has proved one to dozens of other composers, amongst them Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Kuhlau, Glinka, Gounod, Reger, and Hindemith.

³ Vengerov announced it as a second Caprice by Kreisler, setting one’s heart racing at the idea that he might, as Kreisler did, have passed off one of his works as that of another…

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

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

To Dick Cavett [who asked Janis Joplin how he would know that she was not doing heroin] : Who would care ?

This is a review of Janis : Little Girl Blue (2015)

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

16 February

This is a review of Janis : Little Girl Blue (2015)

Film references :

* Let’s Get Lost (1988) [Chet Baker]
* Mavis ! (2015) [Mavis Staples]
* Orion : The Man who Would be King (2015) [Jimmy Ellis]

One member of Joplin’s first band, Big Brother & the Holding Company, said of her that it could be seen that she had already been hurt, over and over.

Her sister put things somewhat differently, saying that going to San Francisco was an Opportunity to make your life fit your values - although Laura Joplin talked elsewhere on camera of ‘social acceptance’, her words did sound a rather negative formulation to describe what Joplin had felt that she needed to do in her life¹.

What impresses most in the film is how it has been put together. Not simply at the level of how to decide to narrate the story of Joplin's work and life, and how to allow opinions (such as Laura Joplin’s) to stand unweighted alongside those of others (and what include / what leave out), but also in terms of how the visual elements interact with the audio.

In particular, director Amy J. Berg chooses to use imagery, whose metaphorical import can proceed our actively comprehending : before we ever come to know what it relates to and means, we see pieces of footage of movement along a rail-road, and Joel Shearer’s music [IMDb (@IMDb) does not credit him, so it is as well that his name crudely noted during the credits] dares to be ambiently effective, without trying to fit her bands’ styles.



¹ Excerpts read from letters from Joplin to her parents and vice versa (with a variety of ways of presenting them on the screen), as well as the short initial part of the film that talked of her early times at home in Port Arthur, Texas, suggested that knowledge of her promiscuity or drug-use was not going to be met with understanding, let alone without judgement.

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

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Pierrot sings of an unlucky love

A review of Britten Sinfonia at Milton Court for / with Louis #Andriessen (Part II)

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

14 February

This is the second part of a review of a concert given by Britten Sinfonia under Andrew Gourlay and with soprano Allison Bell, as part of a BBC Louis Andriessen Festival at The Barbican Centre, presented by Tom Service at Milton Court on Saturday 13 February at 3.00 p.m.

Second part first, in this review (as the notes more naturally cohered as prose when being typed up, in a quiet spot on level -2 at Milton Court). Dances (1991) is, for a change with lyrics, settings from a novel, Winged Pharaoh. (Joan Grant’s historical novel, which, when published in 1937, apparently first garnered strong interest in her work.)

After a long first part, and with no Louis Andriessen (#Andriessen) to hand for Tom Service (@tomservice) to talk to about Dances, he called for the audience to welcome soprano Allison Bell (@bellAsoprano), Britten Sinfonia, and - conducting again - Andrew Gourlay.

The cover of the first edition of Winged Pharaoh (1937)

The introductory part of the work (Section I (without voice)) had some chiming notes (from percussionist Jeremy Cornes), which were at least piercingly on a par with Stravinsky’s chords, from four concert grands, in Les Noces (though, without having heard that piece live, it is hard to be sure), and with elements added by harp and grand piano – that temporal reminder alternated, for a while, with some sparse solo material on viola (Clare Finnimore). With a texture becoming established, comprising sustained notes on strings, and the harp to introduce / effect / signal sudden modulations (in a slightly Steve-Reich way ?), the key element was an ostinato on vibraphone.

In Section II (what we would normally want to call the second movement), where Allison Bell first had a role, another ostinato was set up, but this time on harp (Lucy Wakeford), alongside a variety of percussion (from Cornes and Karen Hutt) and energized strings. It took a little while to acclimatize to the text, the mistake being to assume (not having it to follow) that it was going to be in Dutch, when it is English, but then, although elements of these words seemed sententious, it is inconceivable afterwards that Joan Grant was unfamiliar¹, amongst other things, with Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps² (The Rite of Spring).

Quite aside from the words, their delivery was felt, but also hypnotic, in the spirit of a work that seemed all in a dream. With some very rhythmic writing for both cellos (Caroline Dearnley and Julia Vohralik) and piano (Catherine Edwards), played with liveliness, we built to what ‘the music’ and ‘drums’ in the prose told us was ‘a mighty storm’, so the lyrics were co-creating this loud passage with the score itself, only for us to relax into this type of living torpor (before, towards the end, arpeggios on the harp), which appears to speak of Symbolism and / or Surrealism – one easily thinks of the somnolent expectancy of the canvases of Paul Delvaux, or Giorgio de Chirico :

[T]hey were as still, as trees upon a silent evening¹

For Section III, the review-notes become more sparse (partly because trying to make, and then jot down, observations can easily come to distract from listening - from taking in the scope and scale of the whole). It was characterized by the use of see-saw intervals, hints of Sprechstimme (?), and more florid language, though – at odds with itself – to express a form of aristocratically promoted self-control [associated with the days, not then past, of The British Empire], which is neatly summed up by stressing the need ‘to keep a stiff upper lip’ [please see also below] :

[N]or if the outline of my eye was smudged, could I throw the wax upon the floor, as I sometimes longed to do. Always I had to preserve an unflawed calm, as though the light around me shone like pearl instead of being flecked with the red of anger.

None of this emotion could stay suppressed, and Allison Bell was called upon for her specialty of the very high soprano range, with the Sinfonia strings most furiously played. Yet, as with Section II (and its words ‘quietness’ and ‘peace’), all returns to where it was, and Section III ended with a note on vibraphone, held until Gourlay’s signal.

The Disquieting Muses (1918) ~ Giorgio de Chirico

Some important words that came out in, and through, Bell’s rendition of the text in Section IV were ‘companionship’ and ‘longing’, seeming to speak with yearning, as well as sadness : [T]he loneliness of all women who do not have a man to share their lives seemed to be the voice’s position in life, but here seemingly not from lack of a partner (in fact, however, the voice's fellow ruler is her brother³), but because of not being able to share, for He would be sorrowful, if he knew. In the orchestra, an alternating pair of notes on vibraphone developed into the pattern of the initial ostinato, and with modulations, again, on the sound of a chord from the harp, and then a passage on the strings, with definite down-strokes. Dances concluded as the previous movement had done, quietly.

Andrew Gourlay was necessarily intent on Allison Bell taking due recognition : as we knew, in herself she was probably feeling under par, but this was a performance richly deserving acknowledgement alongside that of Britten Sinfonia, and she was brought back to the stage with enthusiastic applause.

Allison Bell (on another occasion) ~ @bellAsoprano ~

We were left to think about the timbre of this piece, whose effect was as of a song-cycle, with the narrative of those who appear to have their appointed role in ceremonial rites (Section II) juxtaposed with the permanent position of majesty (Section III) and the lack of a consort to whom one dare to reach out to share (Section IV) : it is almost as if, in Andriessen’s selection of material, we hear of an Egyptian ruler modelled on Elizabeth I (but not informed by such works as Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex (published in 1928)), but with the sentiments of Schumann in Frauenliebe und –Leben


¹ Whatever the context in the book, the chosen passage is discrete and compact (fewer than 170 words) - wonderfully complete in itself, it evokes the phases of a cycle, as if of vegetative growth : at a time when Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, now apparently much discredited, was still in its heyday ?

² As Jo Kirkbride's programme-notes now confirm, after this review has largely been written, the composition was a huge early influence on Andriessen, so he has found his source-material for a reason.

³ The programme-notes also tell us that the soloist represents the Princess Sekhet-a-Ra, joint Pharaoh in The First Dynasty with Neyah, her brother.

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

Friday, 12 February 2016

Levity is an irresistible temptation ! ~ Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel)

This is a detailed exegesis, following a review of Youth (La giovinezza) (2015)

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

11 February (link added, 19 May)

This is a detailed exegesis, following a review of Youth (La giovinezza) (2015)

* Contains many spoilers – intended for those who have watched the film *

It has been commented already [in I have to believe everything in order to make things up] that the title Youth, and Jane Fonda (as Brenda Morel), both make very delayed appearances¹.

(The title of that posting is quoting Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), responding to Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) about his gullibility. That of this one refers to a conversation between Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) and Ballinger, when Tree says that Ballinger and he made the same mistake (he with a film where he played Mr Q, Ballinger with his Simple Songs), of 'giving in to levity'.)

The whirling opening (heard presaged in the audio, as the various logos of collaborating film companies flick through) features a song called ‘You’ve Got The Love’ (originally recorded by Candi Staton, as vocalist with The Source, in 1986 (Florence and The Machine also spent quite a bit of time with it)) :

Sometimes I feel like throwing my hands up in the air
I know I can count on you
Sometimes I feel like saying, ‘Lord, I just don't care’
But you've got the love I need to see me through

Later, we see this group, The Retrosettes (from Manchester), in the context of the acts laid on at this spa-hotel, but we are straightaway introduced to the film’s style, its immediacy with the camera on the lead singer Helen Rodgers, as everything else literally blurs behind her. These words, which speak of love, may be speaking of divine love (as The Song of Songs, part of which is set by composer David Lang as ‘just’, also ambiguously does), but they mark one end-point, the other being the fictional Simple Songs, where we have (as well as violinist Viktoria Mullova) soprano Sumi Jo, on a pure white stage and cyclorama, with lyrics such as I lose control.

Paul Dano (playing actor Jimmy Tree) had been at the hotel with Michael Caine (Fred Ballinger), and is in the audience, as Ballinger conducts this piece by royal command. What does it mean that, in the very last moments of the film, we see Harvey Keitel (Mick Boyle) with both forefingers and thumbs put together to make a view-finder, as if just appraising this shot ? Of course, we might simply see Ballinger, imagining his departed friend, in this gesture. Or we might, recalling that The Great Beauty (2013) is a film of complexity (even as to waking and dreaming), and invoke the well-known question whether The Emperor dreams being a butterfly or vice versa…

For is it not a massive suggestion that this staged moment with Ballinger, which looks unreal, is unreal ? That, all along, Boyle has been devising a film about his life-long friend (we know that what was being worked on was called Life’s Last Day), and so, when Boyle (immediately after saying I'm going to make another film) casually jumps over the balcony, we should actually be reminded more of De Niro in Brazil (1985), as the semi-mythical Tuttle, than of Ida (2013) or The Lobster (2015) :

On this interpretation, we do not really see an act of dying, but Boyle Making an exit¹(just as Beckettt has Vladimir and Estragon draw attention to their theatricality²). Is nothing that we see afterwards - where we finally leave the hotel and its environs - inconsistent with the notion that this is footage from Boyle's new film ? [Even if Boyle did die, did he exist in the first place, outside this film - its costume, hair and make-up departments, and the person of Keitel ?]

A film in which Ballinger, mysteriously told by the doctor that 'youth' awaits him outside, does visit Venice (casting off this 'apathy' that Lena talks of, and seems to adopt (please see below)), where we realize that there has been a clever misdirection – complete with Ballinger visiting San Michele, Venice's cemetery island (on the way out to Murano, Burano, Torcello...) - with our impression that his wife Melanie, Lena’s mother, is dead. (Ballinger is only in the cemetery, because that is where Igor and Vera Stravinsky are buried (as they are).) Earlier, we had seen his look (shocked at the idea ? frightened ?), when Lena says, You could bring flowers to mummy.

Quite a time before this coda, and with Mick Boyle’s challenging confrontation with Brenda Morel still to come, we had had a scene with the six heads of his collaborators and his juxtaposed, though we roam from face to face, not taking in the whole. The scene's look is assuredly impressionistic (and quite probably a film reference, yet to be placed³), as they lie together, seeking to determine what, in terms of a closing moment, the conclusion of Life’s Last Day will be.

They are meant to be working on the scenario He's on his death-bed…, as a result of which, having heard all the other suggestions, Boyle overrules, determining that the unnamed character in the film ‘doesn’t say anything’ (but, rather, that something is said to him) : in all the conversations about this film’s genesis, we never know anything other than it concerns a man, because he is (somehow) not graced with a name. Yet this scene – with its stylized notion of a script that is complete but for that last utterance⁴ (as if it really could be added in at the end, as in the game where one pins the tail on the donkey) – comes both right after we have seen Ballinger in significant conversation elsewhere.

As to the question of his apathy, the etymology takes us back to an origin in a word in classical Greek for ‘without feeling’. In relation to which, Ballinger says to his daughter both that her mother could understand her, but, he claims, I can’t, because your mother’s not here, and that he can only relate to music. (As mentioned above, Tree says that Ballinger’s mistake was in relation to levity with Simple Songs.)

He considers himself retired from conducting (and composing), but, in the spot in nature to which he returns after Boyle’s exit, we have seen him in the surreal action of conducting the alpine cows (duly equipped with bells), birds, etc. – his animation, his enthusiasm and enjoyment. Since, even at the superficial level, this is a film, we can see this happen (as it does in Mary Poppins (1964)), but it is a clue to what the film within this film means, as are the titles of other works by Ballinger, which Tree gives us : The Black Prism and The Life of Hadrian. Encyclopædia Britannica tells us that ‘Hadrian’ also appeared in the form ‘Adrian’. Could The Black Prism evoke 2001 : A Space Odyssey (1968), in which the most famous use of music is Sonnenaufgang (Sunrise) from composer Richard Strauss’ tone-poem Also sprach Zarathustra (Op. 30) ?

If so, Thomas Mann is thought to have taken Friedrich Nietzsche, who is the author of Also sprach Zarathustra, as one model for the composer Adrian Leverkühn in his novel Dr Faustus (Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde [Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, Told by a Friend]), published in 1947, to which the titles The Life of Hadrian and The Black Prism could obliquely refer. In the review, links were made before both with this novel by Thomas Mann (concerning a Faustian pact made by a composer, often identified with Arnold Schoenberg, though might it well be Strauss ?), and also with his earlier novel Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain), which was set in what is now The Hotel Schatzalp, one of the film’s secondary locations (in Davos, in Switzerland). (Mann seems to have started the work in 1912, but it was not published until November 1924.)

Der Zauberberg’s principal character, Hans Castorp, initially goes to the sanatorium in Davos to visit his cousin (before starting his intended career in ship-building). However, there seems to be an element of ‘guilt by association’, because the cousin is being treated for tuberculosis, and Castorp, whose departure back for Hamburg (and to begin practising his profession) keeps being delayed by his being unwell, is first thought to have a bronchial infection, but is then diagnosed with tuberculosis.

He does not leave for seven years (at which time, he leaves to volunteer to serve in the army in World War I), but he has a life there, in the sanatorium and its environs, that is centred around a very varied group of inmates, just as is that of Guido Anselmi’s (Marcello Mastroianni’s) in the spa-hotel in (1963), or Boyle and Ballinger’s is in that of Youth itself (the actual location is The Grand Hotel Waldhaus Flims). Ballinger’s connection with, and difference from, Castorp or Anselmi is that he is here for a cure (hence Boyle’s and his exchange of notes about rates of micturition, in a place where – as in – we see the guests as they queue to take the waters), at a place to which he has chosen to come for more than a decade :

Ballinger, though, is not a film director, trying 'to fizz himself' into bringing to life a film that is anxiously expected, but substantially does not exist (a topic at which Seven Psychopaths (2012) fairly unsuccessfully tried its hand), but rather considers himself ‘retired’ from the activity of conducting (and composing). [It remains unclear since when that is so, even if we may guess at it from his interactions with HM The Queen's Emissary (Alex Macqueen, of all surnames !), and with his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) in her capacity as his assistant.]

As we are well aware, it is Boyle’s métier that is film-making, even if, as his cinematic testament (with which the title Life’s Last Day chimes), he ultimately desires for his female lead a woman (in the heavily made-up shape of Jane Fonda as Brenda Morel) who twice calls his last three films ‘shit’ (saying that it is everyone’s opinion of them) : in attitude and appearance, Morel does not conjure up youth (la giovinezza), but resentment, and, with her withdrawal, she renders null the task of Boyle and his team (though he does not tell them that, when he parts from them at the station).

(To a lesser extent, also, there is Tree’s realization that he does not wish to work with horror – from experimenting as an agéd Hitler, complete with the alpenstock that we see him size up and purchase when Ballinger is with him (amusing himself by setting off the cuckoo-clocks), and having adopted (as Tree said that he did with all the guests), Ballinger's mannerism with his handkerchief : as with Luca Moroder, casting off Lena Ballinger and him from the mountainside and into the air, this idea of experimentation cannot properly be taken on a literal level, but a symbolic one, of imagery...)

The choice of music (i.e. meaning other than what David Lang has composed / adapted) likewise functions on the level of imagery. Four times (from Debussy’s Préludes, Book I, No. 6), Sorrentino brings back the motif of moving pairs of notes, the first accented, the second higher, which speak of muffled and snowy quietness (marked Triste et lent, and sub-titled – exactly at the end of the piece – ‘Des pas sur la neige’ (‘Footsteps in the snow’)).

Maybe not in this order (items 3 and 4 could be out of sequence ?), the entries of the Debussy occur when :

1. General conversation in the grounds of the hotel mentions the subject of love

2. The young woman (who turns out to be operating, from the hotel lobby, as a prostitute) is dressing, as the naked man in the room leans against the wall (or a chest of drawers ?)

3. Mick Boyle and Lena are talking about her father, and she says what a strange friendship they have that he did not mention the royal request – until they go on, they are ambiguously almost talking about Fred Ballinger as if he were dead

4. The end of Boyle and Morel’s conversation is near, probably when he has already said that he will make his film without her

All of these usages of the Prélude underscore times when there is a question of relationships – having heard it the first time, in its context, echoes for us when we have the situation of (2) a client (and the uncertain expression that he has on his face), (3) of old friends, when one (Ballinger) is discussed with one (Boyle) who must be an old friend of the family as well, and of (4) former colleagues (do we suspect, also, former lovers ?), whose ways are parting, in flagrant disagreement (though seeking to hold back (further) contempt and bitterness as they finish their meeting ?).

Boyle and Ballinger, it is suggested, can be thought of as parting company : though not necessarily, or only, in the way that proceeds from calmly stepping onto a chair – and, thence, onto a low parapet - and off. Even in the literal terms of cinema (within and despite the suddenness of this action, from which, as in Ida (2013), is where its effect comes), we know that Boyle is taking leave of the film, not Keitel of life – and similarly that, although Luca and Lena (such euphony) absolutely seem to float off above the Alpine greenery way below, we know, on reflection, that people will be credited with having made us think so. (We probably do not much need to invoke the world of Holy Motors (2012), and what it there means for Kylie Minogue’s character / character within a character to fall from the heights.)

Boyle, then, is parting from Ballinger. However, this is not known to the latter, of course – unlike Morel and Boyle, who propulsively found that they have scant common ground nowadays, or that client as the sex-worker is exiting, who, however much he may regret it, knows that he struck a deal for how much ‘company’ he would get (and would have to pay more to extend it). The surprise in what Boyle does, when he has been talking in the hotel-room with Ballinger, is that he has just asserted that he is going to make another film [emphasis added], which is the claim that this exegesis has been seeking to consider.

Just before he [says about making another film and] jumps, and in response to what Ballinger said to him about what he believes [and what] matters to him, Boyle tells him that Emotions are all we’ve got. Unlike those other partings, Ballinger also does not know what has happened (or that anything has happened) except that, as a man whose career has been built around working with sounds, he hears them from below : Mick Boyle, we see, has evoked a reaction in Fred Ballinger, and has got through to him, because we can see him shaking. (Although, on a literal level, it would be an extreme way to show Ballinger the existence and reality of his emotional life.)

In the closing sequence, the command-performance concert [the link is to @YouTube - audio only, of Sumi Jo and Viktoria Mullova with an unspecified BBC orchestra] is inter-cut with shots from Melanie’s room in Venice. There, we had previously seen Melanie, looking out of the window (as Fred speaks to her, and says what they will keep as secrets). (Curiously, we may have noted, the view from the window behind her, seemingly of The Grand Canal, is a painted backdrop.) However, images of Melanie are now brought back, and she is no longer seen from the side – seeing her face fully for the first time, and in the vividness of what seems real time, we realize how she resembles Lena.

Not only that, but there is then a moment when we are with Sumi Jo in front of the orchestra, in the lush, enthused intensity of what David Lang has written as Ballinger’s early work, and Sorrentino cuts across to Melanie : as we see her, and her lips moving, they seem to merge with the words being sung in London (not least because the soprano, as she performs, has often looked – for some technical reason, rather than any other ? – to be miming). With no disrespect intended to age, or the older Melanie, one is reminded of Dylan Thomas’ poem ‘After the Funeral (In Memory of Ann Jones)’, where his final words are envisaging the time until :

The stuffed lung of the fox twitch and cry Love
And the strutting fern lay seeds on the black sill

Of course, there is also Thomas’ famous poem about his boyhood, ‘Fern Hill’ (read here by Richard Burton), and, for Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) in La grande bellezza, his own early manhood, and his first love, is a connection that he finds himself making - unexpectedly breaking down in tears at news of her death. In that film, though, Paolo Sorrentino gives us early on Gambardella’s changed perspective on the life that he leads, and we are concerned with his working out what it means to him – with a convergence (again through symbolic cross-cutting) with the saintly nun who is to be canonized, painfully climbing La Scala Santa in search of spiritual sustenance.

And Youth (2015) ? When, and because, Mick Boyle leaves the film, we have Fred Ballinger, not as a man considering that there must be something wrong with him, but believing in his invigoration : he cannot resist, when told that he does not have any problems with his health (not even his prostate), asking what Boyle said about Gilda Black, and satisfying his curiosity. Unlike Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg and its Hans Castorp, Ballinger is not going out from the clinic only with the likelihood of dying in conflict, but to remedy years of neglecting to visit his wife :

If there is an element of Doktor Faustus about him, with what seems to have been his peremptory Quiet, Melanie ! to her (and thence to the rest of the household), Boyle seemed ‘to jump ship’ on that version of Ballinger’s life, no longer seeing the attraction of a film that leads to ‘a last day’ – if only to be outside that version, and so be able to make one, embodying youth, that starts from there. That is the thesis (on the analytical basis provided above), that we have Boyle at the end, framing his shot, because he is the originating film-maker within this film, not just in Ballinger’s memory (or mind’s eye) : as with Jep Gambardella, and what he values in life, what one takes from Youth beyond these clues will be personal.


¹ At the station (of Wiesen, in Austria), just before Boyle turns out to have taken leave of the group with whom he has been working (the old filmic motif, of being revealed to be still being on the platform when the train pulls out), he has said – to counter their perceptions about the business of making films – that all have to do what Brendan Morel did In order to survive in this world, and claimed that We’re all just extras.

² Though, for notoriety at least, few works match the fact (albeit amply presaged by Chekhov, amongst others) that the activity referred to by Waiting for Godot turns out to extend, incomplete (announced, as it had been, by The Boy at the end of Act One), beyond the end of the play. For us, an often familiar audience (rather than the original, surprised Parisian one), this pair of lines (quoted from memory, as the text proves elusive) is as true :

Estragon : What keeps us here ?
Vladimir : The dialogue.

³ It is not the example that had been sought from the world of art, but Albrecht Dürer’s Christ among the Doctors (1506) comes close :

Or maybe it was M. C. Escher's Eight Heads (1922), after all (a tessellating print made from a wood-cut block) ?⁵ :

⁴ Slyly, Sorrentino does allude fleetingly to Gilda (1946) – till it turns out that Fred is reminding Mick of their seeming joint and lifelong obsession with Gilda Black : it is a film of which it is famously asserted that it was made up as it went along…

⁵ In fact, all along, it was this work (by Hieronymous Bosch)...

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