Archives for April 2011

“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog’s riveting documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams was greeted with universal acclaim when it was released in cinemas this spring. He’d been given unique access to the magnificent suit of cave paintings that were unearthed at Chauvet in the Ardèche, north of the Riviera in 1994. The paintings that were discovered there were so sophisticated that all our ideas of what Stone Age man was capable of had to be completely re-imagined, as articulated by Judith Thurman, one of the brightest stars in the New Yorker’s stellar firmament (here).

Initially though, as Fintan O’Toole argues here, the find appeared to produce more questions about our Palaeolithic ancestors than it did answers. First; how is it that the paintings at Chauvet, which date to around 31,000 years ago, seem to be evidence of an already completed tradition?

Since then though, finds have surfaced in Namibia which date to 25,000 ya, in Fumane in Italy dating to 34,000 ya, and in Australia which date to at least 30,000 ya, and probably to 40,000 and earlier. And they all show evidence of exactly the kind of trial and error that we should have expected.

More to the point, cave paintings were part of a wider explosion in our evolution which dates to around 45,000 ya. It was then that we began to ritually bury our dead, to produce the thousands of “Venus” figurines that have been found throughout the whole of Eurasia, to wear personal ornamentation, and to trade, all of which are evidence for the advent of language. The cave paintings at Chauvet aren’t the beginning of this process, they’re its culmination.

Second he asked; given that cave paintings weren’t intended as hunting manuals, yet depict only animals (there are less than 5 or 6 humans in any of the thousands of cave paintings so far discovered) what exactly were these cave paintings used for?

In a word, belief. Cave paintings are yet more evidence that it was then that we first began to practice belief.

The best way to think of cave paintings is to see them as functioning in the same way that stained glass windows do in a Christian church. They clearly refer to, and are part of the rituals performed there in front of them. But with only the images to go on, we can never know what those rituals were. All we can say is that they must have been of fundamental importance, for them to have taken so much care and trouble in producing them.

All of which only adds to the allure of the film. And don’t worry if you missed your chance to see it in 3D. All that the 3D does is to give an inherently fascinating film an impressive gloss. It’s the film’s content that captivates, not the delivery.

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Yasmin Levy – “La Judería” + “Sentir”

After the fall of the Abbasids in Bagdad in the early 10th century the centre of the Muslin world moved to Cordoba is southern Spain. And for four or five centuries, Islamic enquiry, the Jewish intellect and Andalusian heat combined to produce an intoxicating cultural mix of improbable diversity and inexhaustible depth. Needless to say, the glory that was the convivencia couldn’t last, and in 1492 the junior partner in that ethnic triumvirate succeeded in having the Jews expelled from Spain, and then Portugal, and the Sephardim fled back to the Levant.

Sephardic is Hebrew for Spanish, and Spanish Jews expressed themselves culturally through Ladino, a mixture of Castilian and Hebrew which they formed for the performing of their poetry and music, so as to distinguish themselves from their Muslim brethren. After their catastrophic expulsion from Spain all that remained of the convivencia’s stellar explosion was the trail of the ladino language that was left hanging in the firmament. And it is this that Yasmin Levy seeks to preserve, just as her father Yitzhak had before her.

Like Susana Baca, Omara Portuondo and Mariza from Peru, Cuba and Portugal, Levy is dedicated to nurturing and fostering her cultural heritage by enshrining it in song. And like them, she does so by placing it in the context of the musical surroundings that produced those songs in the first place. So the traditional Jewish songs and poetry of her past are infused by the sounds and aromas of Turkey, Greece and the whole of north Africa, and they are all bolstered by the rhythms of a Flamenco beat.

She does take one false step on her latest album, Sentir, where she unwisely allowed her tour manager to persuade her to cut a version of Hallelujah. Recording a Leonard Cohen song but changing the lyrics, albeit in translation, is a bit like, well, recording a Leonard Cohen song but changing the lyrics.

But that aside, Sentir is every bit as captivating as the mesmeric La Judería, from 2005. The latter is a bit more earthy, a bit more impassioned, betraying the seriousness of youth. “I have no home, no land, net even a country” comes the painful, plangent lament on the opening track, Naci En Alamo. And that heady mix of north Africa, Andalusia and Jewish exile is palpable throughout.

On the other hand, Sentir boasts a brace of heartbreakingly beautiful duets, Una Pastoral with her father, who died when she was just one, and Porque with the Greek Eleni Viatli. All her albums are, happily, now widely available. I shall be treating myself to Mano Suave over the next few weeks. I don’t think I’ve ever been so completely certain about being entranced by an album I’ve yet to hear a single note of.

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“The Class” + “Of Gods And Men”

As it is in so many areas of our lives, deciding what film to watch is frequently a choice between watching something we think we ought to see, and something we actually want to. So despite the fact that Laurent Cantet’s The Class won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2008, I’ve been studiously avoiding having to watch it for months. Who honestly wants to spend an evening watching the travails of a diligent inner city school teacher from Paris trying to come to grips with the challenges presented by a gang of teenage 21st century multicultural miscreants? But eventually my sense of duty prevailed. Which is just as well, because it’s stunning.

Initially you sit there watching what is obviously a fly-on-the-wall documentary. But after a while, you begin to realize that all of these scenes must in fact have been constructed. But how it was made is soon rendered irrelevant, as you quickly become subsumed by the riveting story as it unfolds in all its brilliantly, nuanced complexity.

Like the Iranian pair The Apple and Close-Up, so entwined do the real world people and their story become with the fictional world woven by the filmmaker, that trying to untangle them becomes impossible. And you’re left to marvel both at the incredibly involving story told, and the extraordinary means used to tell it. And when you venture behind the curtain afterwards and watch the Making Of film, rather then take anything away from the film’s wonders, it simply explains how the whole thing came into being.

Two years later at the 2010 Cannes festival, Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods And Men won the Ecumenical Jury award. A smaller prize for a quieter film, and again the synopsis did not bode well. This time we’re dealing with the measured stoicism of French monks stationed in Algeria, as timeless devotions and communal obligations come into conflict with random violence and blind chance.

But once again, what could so easily have been hopelessly dull and oh so worthy results instead in a beautifully measured and quietly moving story, as the men there are torn between the insulation that their spirituality affords them, and the very real ties that they have formed over the years with all the villagers who have come to look up to them, and who hope that somehow, these monks will provide them with a buffer between them and the violence that inexorably approaches.

Don’t be put off by their summaries, enjoy that rare treat; a pair of grown-up films addressed to adults that explore profound questions in all their murky ambiguity.

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Duran Duran – “All You Need Is Now”.

I was pleasantly surprised to note the considered nodding and pleased raising of the communal eyebrows from the British music world that greeted the new Duran Duran album. So the level of circumspection that I sat down to listen to it with was considerably lower than it might have been. Or ought to have been. What on earth were they thinking? And in what way does this qualify as “new”?

The eponymous opening track spends its entire duration trying to segue into Hungry Like A Wolf. While Leave A Light On wistfully channels Save A Prayer. And then there are the lyrics. Nothing quite as memorable here as “Don’t say you’re easy on me, you’re about as easy as a nuclear war”, but Being Followed has the weighty, “I dream things I don’t want you to know.” Ah, so that’s what happens in dreams.

It’s not merely that it’s rooted so irresolutely in the 80s that you confidently expect Michael J. Fox to pull up in a DeLorean any moment now. It’s not even the fact that they’ve turned into their own tribute band. It’s more the sense that there was nothing worth consecrating in the first place. The Beach Boys this aint. Listening to a Duran Duran track was like having a cigarette, or eating an entire box of chocolates. You got an instant hit, and then felt bad about yourself for hours, and even days. It still is.

So what on earth were those savvy, cynical sensible musos thinking? Maybe it’s the David Lynch connection. Lynch after all directed the live webcast of their Los Angeles gig in March (http://www.youtube.com/user/DuranDuranVEVO). But the only thing you need to know about how that came about is the fact that it was lavishly sponsored by American Express. Like us all, the man has bills.

Maybe it’s just the Mozart effect. Perhaps the coiffured posturings of the boys from Birmingham was what their canoodling parents were listening to, as they were about to become a glint in their eyes, circa 1985. And here they are, a generation later, giving a bizarre thumbs up to this ohsotedious album of utter tosh. Avoid.

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