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Monday, 21 March 2016

Some Tweeting from Easter at King's 2016

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (20 to 27 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

21 March

Mini-reports from Easter at King's : the annual festival, in concert and in choral services, of Passiontide music and texts for Holy Week

Bach's St John Passion ~ The Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Stephen Cleobury ~ Monday 21 and Tuesday 22 March at 7.30 p.m.

A battle of wills - and world-views - between a baritone (Roderick Williams) and a bass-baritone (Neal Davies)

Some instrumental assets among The Academy's regulars

The vocal cast for the Choir's recording of the performances

Catching up properly with Bojan Čičić (after seeking a solution to temperature-sensitive period instruments and the huge South doors of King's College Chapel on Monday)

Services of Sung Compline (one of the daily Offices, before it was merged with that of Evensong) ~ The National Youth Choir of Great Britain, directed by Ben Parry ~ Tuesday 22 March (and also Wednesday 23 and Thursday 24 March) at 10.00 p.m.

Britten Sinfonia (@BrittenSinfonia) and Britten Sinfonia Voices, conducted by Eamonn Dougan (@ejdougan), in a programme of Byrd, Bach, Shostakovich (arr. Barshai) and James MacMillan (@jamesmacm), plus a short tribute to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, on Wednesday 23 March at 7.30 p.m.

Instead of Tweets, some comments on the Sinfonia with Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110, arranged as a Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a

* A sympathetic transcription by Rudolf Barshai, which makes the most of the orchestra’s deep, full sound

* As a Chamber Symphony (with the leader sometimes in an obbligato role ?), the work has a different character

* Fire in its belly (Allegro molto) - fast and insistent

* On an emotional level, made unacceptable, by being acceptable with full strings ?

* Amidst passion, hollowness afterwards (Allegretto), with aetherial solo violin and muted violas

* We may never know how much of this quartet was an elegy for DSCH, Dresden, or both, but the repeated three-note pattern (in the first of two movements marked Largo (Largo (I)) here feels militaristic (with inescapable threat when we can hear the sound of the drone ?)

* The solo role for the leader re-emerges at the end (Largo (II))

In tribute to the memory of ‘Max’ (who died on 14 March 2016), James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words was seamlessly preceded by his ‘Lullabye for Lucy’ (1981)

Some other responses to the MacMillan

The BBC Concert Orchestra (@BBCCO) and BBC Singers (@BBCSingers), conducted in Palestrina, Schubert and Haydn by Stephen Cleobury (@SJCleobury) ~ 24 March (Good Friday) at 7.30 p.m.

Next, Schubert, the Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, D. 417 (where the composer’s age should be immaterial)

Stephen Cleobury, conducting The Choir of King’s College Chapel and The Hanover Band, in Handel’s Brockes Passion (1715-1716) ~ 26 March (Holy Saturday) at 7.30 p.m.

Similarities (which may modify what we think of as typically of Bach) :

* Effects and certain moods

* Figurations brought out, e.g. by the oboe, within themes

* The onward impulse of a harpsichord cadence into recitative, or a brief instrumental phrase that leads to an aria

* Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen – the words and the interjections are there from Handel

Dissimilarities (amongst many such places) :

* Short choral interjections (the first being two lines, beginning Wir alle wollen eh’ erblassen)

* Number and use of soloists (trios and quartets), even if Bach may have wished to do so (and Handel was led by his text)

* In Bach’s work, the calls for crucifixion are more ferocious (use of the turba Chorus in the St John)

* Differently paced, especially in the concluding numbers

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

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Works from Italy on Palm Sunday : The English Concert under Harry Bicket

This is a review of a concert by The English Concert under Harry Bicket

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

20 March

This is a review [incomplete ?] of a concert given by The English Concert under Harry Bicket, with soloists Katharina Spreckelsen (oboe), Nadja Zwiener (violin), Anna Devin (soprano) and Robin Blaze (counter-tenor), at Saffron Hall on Sunday 20 March at 7.30 p.m.

Part Two : From the decade following Part One, a work by a Neapolitan composer, dying in Pozzuoli in the care of Franciscans¹

(4) Antonio Vivaldi ~ Sinfonia in B Minor (Al Santo Sepolcro) (c. 1730), RV 169

(5) Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710–1736) ~ Stabat Mater (1736)

Starting in the second half of the concert, with soloists Anna Devin (soprano) and Robin Blaze (counter-tenor) already on stage (either side of the harpsichord / chamber organ), Harry Bicket and The English Concert (@EnglishConcert) employed Vivaldi’s Sinfonia ‘Al Santo Sepolcro’ as a thoughtful prelude to the last work on the programme, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater (almost managing to avoid applause just after it²) :

With its initial, reverentially solemn atmosphere, it was insightful programming, and the ensemble created a great sense of space, during which, from his expression, Robin Blaze (seated stage left) could be seen to be engaging with the Sinfonia, as if ‘getting into character’. (It was clearly intended as such, for him (and Devin) as well as for us). Towards the end, it was suspenseful, before, with repeated notes, becoming more expansive : thus, it had the rise and fall of emotions, and the devotional trains of thought³, that were to come out in the Pergolesi.

We may think that we live in an era of information exchange, but (as will be mentioned below) composers in different countries were aware of each other’s works in the early eighteenth century : in the last ten years of his life, Bach arranged Pergolesi’s composition (slightly expanding its orchestral resources) as Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden (BWV 1083), in which he set a German paraphrase of Psalm 51 (and it is because Bach copied out the work that we have Handel's Brockes Passion, performed at Easter at King's on Holy Saturday, and broadcast on Easter Monday).

Coming full circle, to having heard Stabat Mater for the first time in live performance as a twenty-year-old, one was struck anew by what one would now see as the Baroque character of the setting, and how it brings out those qualities in the text (even if it is near the end of the period - whether or not that is deemed to be in 1750, with the death of Bach). That said, by being over-emphatic with the work, it is easy (as many a recording did at that time) to make it sound ‘soupy’ (and so sound from another century, era, or genre), an effect that is also greatly magnified by much vibrato in the solo voices : not, of course, what one would have any reason to expect from The English Concert.

So nowadays, perhaps, this work is less often heard with a soprano and an alto (fashions change), and, although the familiar chordal-progressions of the opening may not change, Bicket brought a tautness to the playing. He went straight into the vivid strings of the next movement, with a tightness that kept a number in a row together, and make them of a piece with each other : unlike Palestrina, who set the text of the Stabat Mater as stanzas of six lines, Pergolesi has it in groups of three, which means that those first movements can have a nuance to match the content of each shorter stanza. [In the structure's formal terms, there may be twelve movements within the twenty stanzas of text, but one-half of them are taken up with the first eight stanzas.]

Once the voice of Anna Devin (soprano) had settled with that of counter-tenor Robin Blaze after the opening number⁴, we could hear together as a whole the sections through to the conclusion of the eighth stanza (Dum emisit spiritum [‘As He gave up the spirit’]). En route, in a movement that Bicket took briskly (it is marked Allegro), the tone that Pergolesi gives to the fourth stanza (which begins Quae moerebat et dolebat, an alto aria that talks of Mary’s grief, and her shuddering at her son’s pain) is the first time where we might detect an apparent mismatch between text and the tone of the setting⁵.

Immediately after Quae moerebat et dolebat, which may be what draws Pergolesi on, we have the other-worldliness of the duet Quis est homo qui non fleret, and then the word-painting of Dum emisit spiritum, with lute-notes, the affect of Devin's soprano voice, and the pianissimo strings. These words are where the first significant difference in mood comes, as the emphasis moves from - within the context of where Mary is, and what she feels - the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross, and Bicket here took a very brief pause.

The next seven stanzas (or, at least, five) felt to have the different focus of a prayer to Mary, asking to identify with her grief (in stanza nine, Me sentire vim doloris [‘Let me feel the force of grief’]). From this point on, when it was not a duet, it was a solo aria for Blaze’s honeyed, if quiet, voice, which, at his best, has the clarity of the tone of a bell, and Bicket maintained the tight approach to keeping the movements ticking over.

However, at the close of these stanzas that directly speak to The Virgin (Fac me tecum plangere [‘Let me weep with you’]), he allowed a moment’s breath. The last three movements (plus Amen) were a less-pressured two-stanza solo alto aria (in which Blaze and the ensemble set a tone of reflection), and two duets, which took us through death and beyond with the personal voice that has been addressing us since Jesus’ death (in the triumphant way that, over a longer span, Messiah does).

Enthusiastic applause, and even some drumming of feet, were indicative of how keenly the audience at Saffron Hall appreciated the performance. It was a great pleasure to hear this ensemble and these soloists at Saffron Hall with such a meditative concentration on the variety of music in this short period of composition !

Moving to writing up the first half…

Part One : Venice in the early decades of the eighteenth century

1. Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741) ~ Concerto for Strings and Continuo

2. Tomaso Albinoni (1671–1751) ~ Oboe Concerto

3. Vivaldi ~ Concerto for Violin, Strings and Basso Continuo

(1) Vivaldi ~ Concerto for Strings and Continuo in G Minor (c. 1725), RV 157

1. Allegro
2. Largo
3. Allegro

In this performance by The English Concert (@EnglishConcert), conducted by Harry Bicket, the approach to the opening piece was energetic, in the way that some of Bach is typically played (who, of course, was heavily influenced by Vivaldi’s compositions), as well as being direct and clear : perhaps we had a feeling, as in (whatever its exact origins) Johann Pachelbel's Canon for Three Violins and Basso Continuo, of being impelled, till, at the very end, we came down to quietness and the sound of the lute (William Carter).

The central, slow movement was fully expressed and unhurried. Without its being over-meditative in character, Bicket brought out a tone of thoughtfulness, which provided a vivid contrast with the Allegro, accordingly making its pace seem like that of a Presto. Again, the playing was spirited, with dynamism and attack (albeit, at times, this is writing of a somewhat anxiety-ridden kind, with the tremulous activity of its figurations), and its energy drove it through to a sure conclusion.

(2) Albinoni ~ Concerto for Oboe and Strings in D Minor (1722), Op. 9, No. 2

1. Allegro e no presto
2. Adagio
3. Allegro

The work opened with a movement in which a principal feature is what is most easily described as a swooping (or ‘snatched’) gesture, and which showed great versatility in writing for the oboe. It was welcome that oboist Katharina Spreckelsen did not play over-plangently, but, without complicating the musical line, developed expressive tone through it : an elaborated section, just before the conclusion of the Allegro e no presto, then had its proper context.

Bicket next brought out a flowing texture, which swelled in the way that Handel's familiar instrumental passage ‘The Arrival of The Queen of Sheba’ does⁶, with the Adagio being nicely and neatly played by all. As a whole with this ambience, Spreckelsen was tellingly restrained in the solo part, with unfussy trills - when Rallentando and emphasis were used, it was sparingly, and so to good effect. Winningly, we heard from her at the last, and then the movement passed to the strings for its close.

Shorter than the other movements, the Allegro gave us an Italianate style of bells, and peals of them. Spreckelsen was now using a more reedy tone, but with a dead-ahead attack, and, although the phrasing within the ensemble was balanced, it was, of course, unlike when other groups attempt such playing, being subtly done.

(3) Vivaldi ~ Concerto for Violin, Strings and Basso Continuo (per la Santissima Assenzione di Maria Vergine) in C Major (c. 1730), RV 581 :

1. Adagio – Allegro
2. Largo
3. Allegro

There is a rising Adagio introduction to the movement proper (resembling a subdued / suppressed fanfare ?), where we then heard soloist Nadja Zwiener approaching, with ease, some quite intricate violin-writing. Before returning to the opening material, and the end, we also had a real feeling of excitement in the sound of soloist and strings.

The succeeding Largo had a feeling of suspension to it. It was to be increased by the effect, in the divided strings, of brief strokes being drawn below Zwiener’s harmonizingly lyrical writing, as if with the sense of breaths, or a pulse. (It is an impression by which Vivaldi was clearly taken, and is most famously heard in Concerti Nos 1 to 4 of Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione, a set of twelve as his Opus 8.) In the final bars of the movement, we find ourselves returning to full orchestral sound.

The tone of the ensemble in the closing Allegro was good natured, with something akin to joie de vivre to the fore from Zwiener. However, as if we acquiesced in this mood too quickly, there were to be darker hints, not least with the second orchestra’s contributions.

We were to be brought to a very expressive passage for violin, modulating to navigate to the soul of the piece. Upon a moment’s rest per tutti, we were then led into the Concerto’s lively conclusion.

It had been a shorter instrumental first half, without the originally programmed Sinfonia by Alessandro Scarlatti (from I Dolori di Maria Vergine - so part of the Marian (and Crucifixion) theme), but very insightful as well as enjoyable, and with evidence that the audience appreciated the sensitivity and skills of soloists and ensemble and its conductor alike.


¹ Some traditions have it that the text's author was the Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi.

² Though hands or bows held high do not always ensure that performers succeed in holding off applause at the end of a piece, and, if they want to run the next one together, sometimes have to make it impossible to interpolate it.

³ If, even at this modest remove of time, we sometimes have little notion, save from an indicative title, why pieces had been composed (i.e. to be performed where and / or for what purpose), and commentators and musicologists then have to conjecture, giving us their best guesses from the information available : this was as true in the first half, with another piece by Vivaldi (his Concerto for Violin in C Major, RV. 581), as with items in Bojan Čičić’s (@BojanCicic’s) recent concert programme with The Academy of Ancient Music (@AAMorchestra).

⁴ In this piece, matching may tend to be less of an issue with two female singers (although the voices can sometimes be quite exposed), but they still have to get the balance right : the hall in which they rehearsed now reacts differently, with the effect of an audience in it.

⁵ The choral version of (Josef) Haydn’s originally purely orchestral Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross was performed on Good Friday at Easter at King’s. In her programme-notes, Emma Cleobury likewise refers to occasions where – in Gottfried van Swieten’s revision of a text first used by Joseph Friebert for the same purpose as Haydn – the words 'jar with the music' :

One case that she cites (in the Haydn, in the movement Es ist vollbracht !) is of 'serene music' alongside Weh euch Bösen, / Weh euch Blinden, words of rebuke to those who ignore Christ’s sacrifice. Yet such conflicting responses to the death of Christ are ones that one is familiar with in Messiah (first performed in 1742), at once mourning Christ, having lamented his suffering on the cross, but then looking to the salvation that he has won and is offering.

⁶ Taken from Act III of Handel’s Solomon (HWV 67), it is often heard alone, and also employs oboe (being scored for two oboes and strings). The oratorio was composed in 1748 (twenty-six years later), and Handel would assuredly have known, and taken from, the Concerto. (Or one might equally have been reminded of the effect, in places, of his Water Music (HWV 348–350), which pre-dates Albinoni’s work ?)

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

Friday, 18 March 2016

Hiding in plain sight

This is a review of High-Rise (2015)

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

18 March

This is a review of High-Rise (2015)

High-Rise is not a short film, but it seems to handle with unnecessarily great brevity – either because one has been overly tempted that one will find out (Curiosity killed the cat, after all), or because Amy Jump’s adaptation of J. G. Ballard least wants to tell (if not maybe Ballard himself ?) – what, after the very opening¹, the inter-title ‘Three months earlier’ has one most expecting, i.e. something like 'a story', or, here, an explanation :

We may well end up feeling that there is an allegory in train that is essentially contentless, because it descends to typifications of character and social impulses from which one may easily disinvest, although it is concerned, as if tasked to be so, to proceed linearly back to the opening - for us to understand anew (or maybe feel that we were misdirected into construing awry ?). In contrast, a film such as Metropolis (1927) (to which we will return below : Ballard must surely be responding to Fritz Lang) is expressly, unmistakably a parable, whereas this film seems to have pretensions to be something else, but progressively withdraws (from) them : whether that is adaptation or original, we may feel that we are re-visiting the territory of a film such as O Lucky Man ! (1973), but arguably less interestingly (despite a little energetic reference to Pierrot le fou (1965) thrown in for good measure).

The result is remarkably emotionless – sex on the glass dining-table, and even with Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) hanging over the balcony of the twenty-sixth floor, all of which one knows should feel daring, but is actually as exciting as the lack of affect with which why Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) asks, and is answered, why the sex is not continuing, after it has banally been interrupted. Dr R. Laing (we must be reminded of R. D. Laing), from the Department of Physiology, is described by other characters as Hiding in plain sight, and, in a semi-naturalistic way, his look, physique, make-up, demeanour are all used to make him seem a creature apart, later subverted by that Godardian gesture of absurdity. (And, somewhere in all this, do we find hints of Kingsley Amis in Lucky Jim, and that Jesse Eisenberg in The Double (2013) deserves greater respect than the film seemed to merit when it was released… ?)

Maybe the fact is that Ballard’s novel does not exactly have a narrative, which is what this review appears to suggest (and Will Self confirms - please see the Post-script) : Ballard moves us randomly up and down the (initially) tripartite building with chaotic aplomb; his narrative is controlled by the dysfunctional elevators, blocked by the broken chairs, cupboards, desks that jam the stairwells.. If so, this is surveying the building, from top to bottom and around, as an environment for, and one that has given rise to, one excess after another – almost as if Plato had got it all wrong, with The Republic, and authored chaos. But is High-Rise any better than, say, choosing Samuel Beckettt’s short story Le Dépeupler (The Lost Ones), if his literary executors would even allow one, as the basis for one’s screenplay - what, one would have to ask, would making a film add to what that text describes (there are some quotations below) ?

In fact Carmin Karasic's The Lost Ones seems to exist, as an immersive installation and VRML work based on Beckettt's text

By analogy with the focus of this film (or indeed this question whether it was best left as a novel, without the burden of visual representation ?), it is as if, in The Matrix Reloaded (2003), Andy and Lana Wachowski had taken a brief, but important, moment, and instead had it dominate the whole film : one thinks of when Neo penetrates to their own character called The Architect². What film, one has to ask, would it have been if that scene, when Neo realizes that what he had thought beforehand (i.e. that getting there was the be all and end all - which, to have him make the attempt, it was expedient that he believe), had been handled that way : not as Neo's impetus to what, in the light of his accepting the reality that he did not achieve what he expected and acting on it to provoke what next happens, but as an occasion for a massively extended philosophical and existential enquiry between The Architect and him [there appears to be a complete transcript of that scene, which is worth those who are unfamiliar reading, at] ?

In being drawn to microcosm, though with a narrower focus, Ben Wheatley’s (@mr_wheatley’s) A Field in England (2013) is most like High-Rise, but Sightseers³ (2012) and it both have a concern for story-telling (even the former, for all its psychedelic elements), which is largely abandoned here, except in appearance. For although High-Rise, in its own terms (let alone that of its predecessors), often does not seem very cinematically motivated, it does enjoy employing visual spectacle, and gives us moments or set-pieces that it luxuriates in, such as when ABBA is being played by a string quartet, or with Laing patchily applying the contents of a small tin (for which he has absolutely fought tooth and nail), but somehow perfectly painting the whole of flat 2505 – and skating over what might hold any of this together...

In the event, maybe the film just asserts that there is no story, that that is just how things are when the lives of individuals, in a melting-point, battle it out. (This is part of the reason, despite its very different tone and purpose, for mentioning Le Dépeupler (The Lost Ones) above, and seeking dominance is certainly highly relevant in A Field in England, of course.) In the concluding minutes of High-Rise, Wheatley employs a laconic voice-over, which formally assumes the role of being informative, but now seems oddly inessential, given a scenario where it is patent, because at such length, that people in this place have abandoned everything to pursuing their self-interest, at any cost.

When the device of voice-over is used, one seeks after the utility in doing so : here, it seems to be to underline what has already been imparted, which is a sense of inevitability about the upheaval, of resigned fixity in the face of societal disintegration and chaos. Concluding a number of meetings that the screenplay choreographs, the architect Royal (Jeremy Irons) and Laing casually chat about these things, over a dinner of sorts (and that, as mentioned above, is specifically where one is put in mind of The Matrix Reloaded, when Neo encounters The Wachowskis’ Architect, and learns that he effectively exists and operates at the level of a computer program, albeit an anomalous one).

Charlotte Melville, after all, told Helen Wilder that Robert Laing is definitely the best amenity in the building (a building that, we should note, Royal's right-hand man Simmons claims, when Royal wants to sack him, to consider to be his employer, not Royal). On one level, as that terminal voice-over wants to suggest, High-Rise is about Laing, and the very familiar theme of the mercenary instincts of someone who becomes attracted to power, scheming, etc. (e.g. obviously O Lucky Man !, but also Bel Ami (2012), though it scarcely bears mentioning alongside Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) [It is better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody]).

On a parallel level within the film, and in common with Metropolis, which gives the youth of rich parents (such as Joh Fredersen’s son Freder) a sky-top place of pleasure in which to while away their hours (unlike the toil of working life underground, and the hours of respite on lower levels up from the workplace), High-Rise has an almost absurdly and floatingly unreal roof-space garden⁴. It adjoins The Architect’s penthouse, and, in imitation of Marie Antoinette at Versailles (cake is even suggested as a food at one point…), represents the life of the elite. (* NB Spoiler * Even if it is an elite that ludicrously believes that it can regain power by the implausible step of lobotomizing one individual, who is the perceived source of trouble.)

A still from Metropolis (1927)

God forbid, though, that Ben Wheatley, in filming this text, should leave us feeling cheated, as at the conclusion of Metropolis : no one need fear on account of appearing to be naively expected to embrace a resolution that, except on some symbolic level, hardly addresses the cause of all the disturbance and violence, by presenting a gesture and a form of words. (This highly unconvincing rapprochement that Fritz Lang gives us, as if it changes what we have seen, is mediated by Freder, between Joh Fredersen and Grot, the leader of the workers (and the foreman of The Heart Machine), who links their hands : we are told that There can be no understanding between the hands and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.)

Ballard must have explicitly wanted to reject that sense of papering over from Lang, but High-Rise arguably gives us not something else, but just the opposite extreme, where passionate urges do not get controlled reasonably. His novel, and its impact as a piece of writing, may be one thing. This film gives us, without the coherence or explanation that some might want (unless one simply subscribes to the view that an account of incoherent actions, intentions and the resulting processes and patterns has an innate right to be incoherent in its own right), a picture of where the brutal and horrific have become commonplace.

So what seemed grim and desperate when first seen is then how things have developed to be, with the connivance of all, and are as they are. But maybe Beckettt (translating himself from the original French of 1971), and not Ballard (from 1975), deserves the last word – who says, of those occupying the ‘flattened cylinder fifty metres round and [eighteen] high’ in The Lost Ones⁵ :

Obliged for want of space to huddle together over long periods they appear to the observer a mere jumble of mingled flesh. Woe the rash searcher who carried away by his passion dare lay a finger on the least among them. Like a single body the whole queue falls on the offender. Of all the scenes of violence the cylinder has to offer none approaches this.


In The New Statesman (@NewStatesman), Will Self (@wself), who knew Ballard personally, and was even consulted by Amy Jump for that reason, concludes his piece about film adaptations of Ballard’s work (‘What would J G Ballard have made of the new High-Rise film ?’) by saying (about High-Rise) that ‘It may not be everyone’s idea of a laugh-out-loud film but, frankly, who cares what everyone thinks ? I don’t – and nor, quite obviously, did Ballard.’ Earlier, talking about when he met Jump, Self says (NB Contains spoilers) :

All I can recall saying is that she and [Ben] Wheatley had their work cut out, given that the novel has no proper plot to speak of, being, in essence, a series of flashbacks from a scene neatly encapsulated by the book’s opening line: ‘Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.’


¹ Playing the sprightly theme from the Allegro of Bach’s so-called Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 (in G Major, BWV 1049) [the link is to a performance of the Concerto, by Das Freiburger Barockorchester, on YouTube] deliberately sets up an incongruity at the outset with the grotesque manner of domesticity that we are shown. (Elsewhere, Wheatley uses material from one or two more of these Concertos as a method of effecting a dislocation between the pleasant civility of the music and what he shows us.)

² Planning the city in Metropolis, Joh Fredersen is another architect, and, of course, all of these take their lead from freemasonry’s tenets. (Both have a regal bearing, but Ballard’s architect (Jeremy Irons) is even called Royal.)

³ On whose screenplay Amy Jump also worked, with the film's stars, Steve Oram and Alice Lowe.

⁴ However, unless visual distortion (or some strange geometry) is at work, the extent of the walled garden is not matched to the footprint of the building (which, although it shifts across at the top of the tower, does not change).

The Lost Ones, pp. 7, 59-60. Calder & Boyars Limited, London, 1972.

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

The intensity of poetry and of Bach Passions (work in progress)

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

17 March

This is an accreting review of The Mirror (Zerkalo) (1975)

Words can’t express everything a person feels

Some people like the security of being told what a film means (or ‘is about’), especially if it is a difficult one (and, from when they first appeared there, Andrei Tarkovsky’s films attracted serious critical approval at Venice, and Cannes).

However, even if you really believe that a film such as The Mirror (Zerkalo) (1975) can be summarized in a couple of sentences, what appears on the film’s page on IMDb (@IMDb)) may not be they – where someone seems intent on imposing an interpretation as if it is definitive and conclusive of all :

One would imagine, from what is claimed, that The Mirror coheres or coalesces around the scene to which it refers (and from which it infers much) : it is, indeed, in the nature of some film-making, as perhaps it sometimes is here, that one’s understanding of what one sees and hears requires being patiently provisional, of waiting five or ten minutes for what that shot or comment was really saying to be confirmed or disclosed. (In other types of film, some aspects may not be revealed right until the closing shot, and then all makes sense.)

By contrast, The Mirror simply does not give the impression that there is one way of understanding it, and that, with that as a key, all is plain sailing and can be directly comprehended : it does not ever resemble that kind of film, and offering this token to the world at large is no real invitation in, although it is not without an element of truth.

For, having been quoted as having described the film as about a man who is seriously ill, Andrei Tarkovsky said about it (in an interview with Ian Christie) :

People ask themselves serious questions at different times, and especially in the face of death. [...] But I want to emphasize that this film was not constructed in this way for dry, dramatic reasons. It is important to see our hero in an extreme psychological situation, so that we don't feel his illness is entirely accidental. And it is the kind of illness where we don't know if he will survive, although it is not important to the meaning of the film — if there is any meaning !

[‘Against Interpretation : an Interview with Andrei Tarkovsky’ (1981) (collected and edited in Andrei Tarkovsky : Interviews¹, p. 67)]

And here is Tarkovsky, again in very simple terms (and from the same source-book¹), saying what he made the content of The Mirror²:

For example (as he told his later collaborator on Nostalghia (1983) and Tempo di Viaggio (1983)) :

[…] And my father came home very late one night. [...] He wanted me to go to live with him in the other house. [...] That night [...] I was asking myself what I should say the next day if they asked me who I wanted to live with. […]

[‘Interview with Andrei Tarkovsky’, Tonino Guerra (1978) (ibid., p. 47)]

At the same time, Tarkovsky says how he battled the film, or the film him :

The picture was simply not working out [...] Editing the picture I thought about dramatic composition. Only having made twenty edited versions did I realize that I had to try and paste together my material according to a completely different principle, without any regard for logic. This was the twenty-first version. And this is the version that you have seen on the movie screen.

[‘The Twentieth Century and The Artist’, V. Ishimov and R. Shejko (1984) (ibid., p. 128)]

Everything will still be ahead. Everything will be possible.

In its entry, IMDb (@IMDb) also appears to give prominence to the fact that Tarkovsky chooses to use Bach’s St Matthew Passion, BWV 244, whose aria Erbarme dich was to appear so sensitively in The Sacrifice (Offret) (1986) (the last film that he was able to make of those planned, on account of terminal cancer).

However, there is a very long section from the opening Chorus of the St John Passion, BWV 245, addressed to the Lordship of Jesus, which is just one of the many elements to the film : dialogue ; his father Arseni's poetry being read (three or four poems) ; scenes and sets (and their juxta- and interposition) ; sound-design / scoring for symphony orchestra ; archive footage (e.g. of nuclear-tests, or armaments and munitions being dragged, with much effort and by different soldiers, through shallow waters) ; existing compositions such as those works by Bach³.

The passage used from the St John Passion opens the work : maybe one is used to recent recordings and performances that bring out the contorted dissonance of the oboe-line, but Tarkovsky’s choice does not have that bite. If it did, would it fit better for us with the screen-time over which he has it play, perhaps feeding into the moments shown, by the superposition of the tension of the Passion story, in the way that the fevered mind or confused imagination may mix things together ?

Cinema, in contrast to literature, is the film-maker's experience caught on film. And if this personal experience is really sincerely expressed then the viewer accepts the film.
I've noticed, from my own experience, if the external, emotional construction of images in a film are [sic] based on the filmmaker's own memory, on the kinship of one's personal experience with the fabric of the film, then the film will have the power to affect those who see it.

[‘Dialogue with Andrei Tarkovsky about Science-Fiction on the Screen’, Naum Abramov (1970) (ibid., p. 35)]


Perhaps The Mirror might have been what Tarkosvky had in mind when he said to Gideon Bachmann (during the 1962 Venice Film Festival) that he was seeking a principle of montage that will allow me to expose the subjective logic — the thought, the dream, the memory — instead of the logic of the subject.

Though those twenty editorial versions that he alluded to above (in talking to Ishimov and Shejko) do not suggest that he was instinctual in making this film... If, as Tarkovsky himself says in that interview, he had to cut loose from ideas of dramatic composition and any regard for logic, then maybe we need to consider ourselves encouraged by these words about our response to the film (immediately preceding what Bachmann quotes):

One doesn’t need to explain in film, but rather to directly affect the feelings of the audience. It is this awakened emotion that then drives the thoughts forward.

[‘Encounter with Andrei Tarkovsky’, Gideon Bachmann (1962) (ibid., p. 11)]


¹ Andrei Tarkovsky : Interviews, edited by John Giavinto. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson (2006). Other quotations will appear above, as indicated.)

² To Ian Strick, He admitted, with regret [as to the 'autobiographical aspects' of The Mirror], that the film had lost him a lot of friends. 'It was rather silly ; they reproached me for being too personal in telling my own story. But, if I show things that I didn't understand when they happened, how can I explain them now ? [...]' [‘Tarkovsky’s Translations’, Ian Strick (1981) (ibid., pp. 71-72)].

³ During the opening credits, we also hear Das alte Jahre vergangen ist, BWV 614, from Das Orgelbüchlein (BWV 599–644). (Does one also think that one hears Mozart's Requiem Mass ?)

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

Monday, 7 March 2016

Two now-celebrated film directors talk via an interpreter

This is a Festival review¹ of Hitchcock / Truffaut (2015)

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

6 March

This is a Festival review¹ of Hitchcock / Truffaut (2015)

Two film directors, both of whom later turned out to have been near the end of their careers (and lives), agreed to meet for week-long interviews, the younger man [François Truffaut] asking questions, via an interpreter [Helen G. Scott], of the older [Alfred Hitchcock] : the result of their meeting was not only deepening friendship, but also Truffaut's book Hitchcock², of whose existence and history Hitchcock / Truffaut (2015) is right to remind us.

Frontispiece of Truffaut's Hitchcock

Hitchcock / Truffaut is a documentary that is worth watching for what it tells and shows, though not always for how it chooses to do so (please see below). Also, more importantly, because one could easily tease out its various strands³ [which are identified in the end-note] and ask whether one or more could have been given more weight - with the others as subsidiaries, or not included at all.

Since Leeds International Film Festival asks one to rate everything from 1 to 5 (5 being the best), one agrees to slot into that snapshot way of thinking, and - as there had been better films – one eliminated giving it 5, but then it had to merit 4 (as it certainly was not 3). In fact, it is deserving of being scored as 4 just to hear Martin Scorsese talk with masterful intelligence about Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), which, whatever its aims may have been, is the heart of film : his analysis makes us delightfully aware of the cinematic stature of both Hitchcock and of him.

What this Tweet says may, indeed, be what publicity for the film wants to tell us, and, in some senses, we do get a good feel for how all those interviews went – as well as how some of the ironic photography came about, including that used for the poster (in the Tweet above). (If we want to know what resulted from all that interviewing, though, one reads the book itself², of course [and the film does not much tell us how, or how much, the interviews - as conducted and recorded - were 'tidied up' for publication].) On other levels, hearing simultaneous translation prominently taking place at some length can, for those with some ability in French, be confused and confusing, just in the way that watching a film in, and with sub-titles in, one’s own language can be a distraction (even without any discrepancy between them...), if one is needlessly drawn to reading the latter, rather than listening to the voices and what they are saying :

As the whole point of using the footage was to give that sense of the interviews in progress, Helen G. Scott translating simultaneously into French needed to be audible, but it might have been better suited to Hitchcock / Truffaut’s purposes to adjust the volume of her voice, and that of the two men, for its English-speaking audience : relatively speaking, did we actually need to be able to concentrate on (a) Hitchcock and on (b) what Scott translated Truffaut asking or commenting to him (and less so on (c) her translating Hitchcock’s words for the benefit of Truffaut, and on (d) what he said for her to translate for Hitchcock) ?

Presenting the material, just as it was, and expecting the viewer to accommodate to it was one thing that deprived the film of being rated 5. Another, already alluded to (above), was that of director Kent Jones insufficiently deciding, and being clear about, the relative importance of the five or so strands within the film³ [identified in the end-note], and it has been said that Scorsese’s contribution is vital to its appeal and worth. (It does not quite fit in the last of these broad strands, as, unlike some of those interviewed (one just happens to recall Wes Anderson⁴), Scorsese was working in film at the time, and got to see Vertigo through being in film circles, since it was not available otherwise.)

The end-note⁴ has just mentioned that Hitchcock / Truffaut seems too keen to prove to us that it has people who make comments (under one or more of its strands) whose opinions actually matter, and (above) that it seems too undetermined, in what it ends up saying, about what is important : at the danger of overpraising Scorsese’s words, he was actually seeing films such as Vertigo alongside, and without needing the insights of, the Truffaut book. So the film has us stray, without being either sign-posted or having a justification, into valuing Hitchcock’s direction (and his work of preparation for a shoot) as if it is somehow just part of the thesis that the book importantly benefited both Truffaut and Hitchcock’s reputation.

Finally, no doubt it did, but that does not, in and of itself, prove to make a good reason to order the book, expecting from it a good filmic read. Historically, the re-valuation of Hitchcock that it achieved may have been overdue, but it does not mean that the exchanges between the men come off the page (as against in the live segments of interview that we see) with vivacity, or even that some of the territory into which either man wishes to take us may be of interest (except to them) : by contrast, in the Faber & Faber series that may owe it its origins (where film directors are interviewed about their work), a title such as Woody Allen on Woody Allen⁵ takes more time on each film, by usually devoting a chapter to one (whereas five or six are looked at in each of Truffaut’s chapters).

As the sub-title suggests, Faber & Faber's Hitchcock on Hitchcock : Selected Writings and Interviews (1995) offers something different

As against the Truffaut book, cinematographer Stig Björkman’s conversations with Allen have been more closely edited, for its chapters to be flowing and thematically arranged within them, of which one has far less sense with Truffaut's Hitchcock. Although Truffaut did produce a revised edition, Björkman and Allen have had the luxury, since the first UK edition⁵ (it originally appeared in Sweden, in 1993) of re-visiting the work with the passage of time and the appearance of new films. It survives the test of being readable and informative now, whereas – for all the significance of Truffaut’s – maybe it does so not have so much to say now... ?

Post-script :

To dilate, as an antidote to the above, on considering Hitchcock / Truffaut in wider terms [from ‘Actors are cattle’: when Hitchcock met Truffaut, Stuart Jefrries writing in The Guardian (@guardian)] :

'In the book of the interviews,' says [Kent] Jones, 'Hitchcock came over as stilted and formal, which you can hear he isn’t.

Thanks to critics such as Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, Godard and indeed Truffaut (all of whom who would become the iconoclastic hipster directors of the Nouvelle Vague), cinema for the first time became, as director Olivier Assayas puts it in Jones’s film, self-conscious. For the first time, it reflected on itself as art rather than dismissing itself as mere entertainment. The Hitchcock-Truffaut interviews were part of that revolution.


¹ Seen, during Leeds International Film Festival (@leedsfilmfest) 2015, at Hyde Park Picture House (@HydeParkPH).

² Hitchcock by François Truffaut, with the collaboration of Helen G. Scott : Secker & Warburg, London, 1968. (First published as Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock : Robert Laffont, Paris, 1966.)

³ * Contains spoilers * :

(1) How Truffaut (and his peers) came to esteem the films of Hitchcock, and for Truffaut to approach him with his request

(2) Their correspondence leading up to Truffaut’s visit

(3) The interviews themselves and artefacts of those sessions

(4) The resultant book Hitchcock / Truffaut** and the effect that Truffaut desired from it, i.e. for an appreciation of Hitchcock’s films as works of film-making, not merely as entertainment (not least of all what made them work as ‘thrillers’ in the first place)

(5) Plus some 'talking heads' - other directors, or writers or critics, few on the screen long enough for their contribution to amount to more than bulking out the numbers.

⁴ If, as one is glad to do, one knows films of Anderson’s, there is another form of distraction, but this time on the screen : not only do we have this director (or writer, critic, etc.) identified by a caption (which is always useful, and can easily be taken in), but, in another part of the screen, a short list of films, publications, etc.

The tendency, then, is is to wonder why this film has been mentioned, but not this one (rather than focusing on what Anderson is saying…). So who is this film for that, there and then (rather than built into the credits ?), it needs to be sure of establishing the credentials of those who are shown saying how important Hitchcock or this book of interviews is ?

Stylistically, there is a like tendency, which comes out strongly at times, towards having too much archive / documentary material in view at once : we do not simply have a text on the screen for us to be allowed to read [such as Hitchcock’s quite gracious response to Truffaut - although that actual letter was accepting, but short]. Rather, at the same time as highlighting passages in it, the visual-design of Jones’ team over-busily has it transit across the screen, as well as changing the focus, and shifting us on, by moving other pieces of original material into play : almost akin to some Harry-Potter-like notion of an interactive museum, where, as the Hogwarts portraits do, the exhibits have a life of their own – perhaps entertaining or enchanting, but not an aid to concentration (or low anxiety) ?

⁵ Faber & Faber Limited, London, 1995. (It was originally published as Woody om Allen.)

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

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Great difference betwixt our Bohemia and your Sicilia (The Winter's Tale*)

This is a review of Wreckers (2011)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

26 April

This is a review of Wreckers (2011)

* Please be aware that, without giving the plot, there may be significant detail revealed *

Great difference betwixt our Bohemia and your Sicilia

In context, these words - in the opening lines of the first theatre production where I was so involved in the mechanics of the text and how it was delivered that it amounted to immersion in the play's world and language - do many things all at once:

* They introduce Camillo to us straightaway (and by name), because the speech is addressed to him - he has a difficult and all-important decision to make just scenes away, and we need to know who he is

* Established at once, in these words, is that we are in Sicilia, but that Bohemia and it, where Camillo has come as part of an embassy, are - the person speaking to him thinks - poles apart

* So we know immediately that we are in a royal court**, and that it is with the lives of such people and those, such as Camillo, who are employed by them that we shall be concerned

* But my last point is my main point: wherever Bohemia and Sicilia may be (and I had very little conception at the time of that production where they are - after all, I think that finding Illyria on the map might prove rather taxing), they are not here

* It is a depiction of things happening that is openly declared to be somewhere else

Dictynna Hood's first feature (Wreckers (2011)) is, itself, almost immediately and unequivocally established as being set somewhere specific. That place is not specified (except by how David and Nick, who grew up there, speak, if one had an ear for that accent (and there is a credit for the person who worked with them and others to make them sound from that area)), but it is not Bohemia or Sicilia, but rural England.

Which is part, of course, of what makes it so disturbing - just fleetingly, just at times. That feeling is reminiscent of, but also very unlike, Pinter's vision of what could be happening in everyday scenes set in unremarkable streets, maybe does happen. The things that we don't know about, or - more like it - pretend that we don't guess at or are not interested in.

And this is a village in Britain, where (although they would always claim not to be nosy) everyone knows everyone else's business: we are even told, in (I think) a scene on a street in the village itself that a man was known to sleep with his daughter. This place where even incest is something that, although not exactly witnessed, isn't anybody's business to report (just to be aware of), is where a drama plays out that involves Dawn and David, their neighbours, and their not entirely welcome visitor Nick, David's brother (or are we even so sure of that?). So, Dictynna Hood seems to be saying (and I mention this topic, not becase it is what happens, but because sexuality and the urge to have sex, to procreate, is shown to be a strong force).

Slight diversion (but not really)

he veneer of our society is of such a kind that, if an unheard-of businessperson and his or her colleagues and / or business associates or would-be clients, go to a live sex show, then So what? It's a free country!. These claims, perhaps less made now, about freedom, and the reality of when such private matters suddenly become public, do clash, however:

For it would be better for that businessperson not to become a Cabinet minister and continue to do such things, or not to have concealed (as best he or she can, by any means he or she has at his or her disposal) all trace of ever having done them (now or in the past), because politicians, in the UK at least, are meant to be above reproach. (Even if the reproach sometimes comes from members of the press who would have no objection to personally doing whatever they state they are condemning.)

Back to the film...

I hinted at Pinter, but it is an edginess of its own that Dictynna has shown us here, one that inhabits these people, their behaviour, maybe where they live. Much is not spelt out, although (and there may be doubts whether what he says is true) it seems that Nick has some sort of experience of post-tramatic stress, the brothers have lied (but which one?) in a way that attributes their actions to the other and vice versa, and that there are immense and largely unadmitted feelings of jealousy, anger, rage and hatred.

They are almost, without in any way diminshing from how they are drawn, characters who step forward momentarily as if an everyman or -woman, an archetype, and then step back into being the sorts of people that we may find it hard to admit that we are ourselves deep down, in this England where there is still a show of respectability, and what goes on in the bedroom - and who is in the bed - is best not known or talked about.

This sense, quite a subtle one, of one standing for all makes this a powerful and resonant film, and I just hope that I have the chance to see it again, ideally on a big screen.


* I have posted already that it is often enough wrongly called A Winter's Tale.

** Not The Royal Court!