Archives for July 2011

“The Tree Of Life” – Terrence Malick

At the core of Aristotle’s Poetics is the dictum that every story must have a beginning, middle and end. As far as the modern medium of film is concerned, this translates into three core questions; whose story is it, what do they want, and what’s stopping them?

Many films fall short by failing to address that third question, so that, as Robert McKee points out, there aren’t sufficient forces working against the story’s protagonist (and if you have any interest in writing anything, you need to get your hands on his seminal “Story” http://mckeestory.com/?page_id=27). These films tend therefore to have beginnings and middles but no endings, as where the film is going is invariably all too obvious. Other films fail because their characters are unclear, or worse uninterested, as to what it is that they want. These so say character studies produce a series of unconnected events that take place casually rather than causally, and fail again to produce an ending, and often very much of a middle. But a surprisingly large number of films fall at the very first hurdle by failing to decide who it is that their story is about. So all they do is produce a series of beginnings, and a smattering of possible middles. Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life is yet another in this latter category.

In fairness, it’s a significant improvement on his previous attempt, The New World (‘05), where his fondness for Heidegger was all too evident in the disinterest he displayed in the actual people in his story, which verged at times on disdain. Here, happily, he is very visibly engaged with what is clearly a very personal topic. But, possibly because of which, he can’t decide whose story it is.

It presumably started out as the young boy’s story, portrayed in occasional flash-forwards by the adult Sean Penn. But it feels more like the story of the boy’s father, played by the supremely commanding Brad Pitt, and not just because of the force of his towering but measured performance. But you could just as easily make a strong case for suggesting that it’s the story of the boy’s mother, played by the luminous Jessica Chastain. Because Malick can’t decide whose story it is, there is no sense of what they might want, and consequently there’s no actual story.

Possibly, he thinks that he’s produced a character study (he’s wonderfully reticent about explaining anything about any of his films, which is fantastically convenient, and is, as Michael Corleone would say, very much a smart move.). But characters like people are defined by their actions, and if you can’t decide what your characters want, then obviously they can’t act wilfully. And bereft of the capacity to act, they remain but sketches.

He does attempt to tack on an ending, by melding the finale of La Dolce Vita and 8½. But Marcello ends up isolated on the beach in the former because of his inability to connect with the world he lives in and the people who inhabit it. And the theatrical curtain call that the cast of the latter conclude with is an appropriate ending to a film that deals with the hallucinatory if collaborative process that the production of all works of art demand. This just feels like the sort of thing a student would dream up on first discovering the films of Fellini.

And there’s the rub. The whole thing feels like one of those interminably bloated scripts that all film students produce during their second or third year at film school. That clumsy, cosmic flashback blatantly belongs to a different script, and should have been binned. But like all students, absolutely everything that Malick writes is so important that it all has to be included and couldn’t possible be tampered with. He ought to have been forced to cut 80-90% of it, and told instead to concentrate on the three very strong and potentially interesting principle characters, deciding whose story it was, and how they would each be effected by it, and to produce a no more than 90 page story with a beginning, middle and end.

But Malick isn’t interested in stories. Which is why he should never be allowed write any of his own scripts. He’s perfectly competent technically speaking, though whether he’s any more than merely adequate is hard to say. After all, few film students would have any difficulty in making Jessica Chastain look luminous. But one or two of the scenes are genuinely moving, and he clearly has a way with actors.

Malick is like the older, smarter teenage brother of Michael Cimino. Where the former hides his inability to tell a story with a cacophony of noise and by cluttering every image with a mountain of stuff to produce the visual equivalent of a pound shop, Malick does so by crafting impeccable images which he drowns in very pleasant if hopelessly obvious classical music (matching Wagner’s Rheingold to water imagery in The New World was just plain lazy). It’s undeniably pleasant to sit through, it just doesn’t go anywhere.

There’s talk of a 6 hour cut of The Tree of Life, but perhaps he should think instead about producing a 60 second version. The ability he has to suggest a story without actually telling one indicates that he’d be far more at home in the world of advertising than he is in that of feature films. Unfortunately though, as the 2011 Cannes Film Festival once again demonstrated, there is such a dearth of ideas in contemporary cinema, that any suggestion of them is welcomed blindly with disappointingly open arms. Expect the multi-disc Director’s Cut box-set any day now.

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“The Impressionists: Painting and Revolution” – BBC

In 2001 Waldemar Januszczak joined forces with Picasso’s great friend and definitive biographer John Richardson, to produce their magisterial three part television series on the painter, Magic, Sex and Death. Whenever I’m asked what I mean when I say that, up until the advent of the internet, television was the most powerful educating force since the invention of the printing press, this is always the (first) example that I site.

I could never understand exactly what it was that Picasso saw in Cezanne. What could a painter for whom everything was so easy and effortless have possibly gleaned from one for whom everything was so effortful, and so painfully, pedantically pedestrian? Cezanne, Richardson explained, had become ever more obsessed with the idea of maximising colour throughout the canvass, by eliminating any “dead space”. But the laws of perspective are very clear in that regard. Colour both fades with distance, and changes in intensity depending on how far away it is from the light source. What to do.

Eventually, and incredibly reluctantly, Cezanne decided to disregard the laws of perspective, so that those luminous landscapes of the south of France of his could be saturated throughout the entire canvass in those lush greens and browns and blues. Not only that, but in a vain attempt to atone for his sins, he took any obvious area of perspective, say a road that moved away from the foreground into the distance and the houses that lined it on either side, and he deliberately exaggerated their perspective, making the diagonals of their facades even more angular.

So he broke the laws of perspective, twice, deliberately! This is what so attracted Picasso to Cezanne. Why should a work of art merely re-present reality? Couldn’t the newly arrived camera do that far more effectively? What exactly was art for now? Cezanne showed Picasso the road out of that conundrum, and the result, eventually, was cubism and all that that ushered in.

Since then, Januszczak has made a host of brilliantly engaging and wonderfully informative programmes on Gauguin, Van Gogh Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, the Baroque and sculpture. And whilst he’ll never have the opportunity of teaming up with anyone quite as erudite or as well positioned as Richardson is on Picasso, all of his programmes are supremely insightful. The only blot on his copybook was the one he did on Michelangelo, Secrets of the Sistine Chapel, which was uncharacteristically lacking in any coherent narrative.

Almost in acknowledgement of that, his current show, The Impressionists: Painting and Revolution couldn’t possibly be clearer in the story it sets out to tell. In his regular guise as the Art critic for the Culture section in The Sunday Times, he wrote that he’d been moved to make the series after reading a throwaway remark by his fellow contributor A.A. Gill, the merely hilarious restaurant critic, but serious TV critic. He had dismissed Impressionism, with characteristic insouciance, as being boring. This series is Januszczak’s response.

In three parts, the first episode gave us mini portraits of Impressionism’s four pioneers, Pissarro, Renoir, Monet and Frédéric Bazille, the movement’s forgotten hero, who died at 28 in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Not only did he explain why what they were doing was so revolutionary, he demonstrated how they’d been enabled to literally broaden their horizons. It was the invention of tubes of paint in 19th century England that allowed those early pioneers to set up their (now portable) easels outside and produce fully fledged works of art en plein air. Before that, the actual mixing of paint had been so cumbersome that all anyone had been able to do beyond the four walls of their studio was to produce sketches. This, and the new types of paint brushes that then followed, was one of the many practical things that facilitated their radical revolution.

If you don’t manage to catch any of this, yet another of Januszczak’s superlative series’, and you’re not already a regular reader of his, try to get your hands on any of his television programmes. They all of them educate, inform and entertain. Brilliantly.

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New-roots Americana: The Low Anthem + Fleet Foxes + Bon Iver + Iron And Wine

screen-shot-2011-04-20-at-12-00-15-pmOver the past ten years or so, music makers in the US have been drawn increasingly to their roots for inspiration and guidance. Alt country acts like Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (aka Will Oldham), Smog (Bill Callaghan), and the ill-fated Sparklehorse (Mark Linkous), Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, Alison Krauss and the re-emergence of Emmylou Harris, have all been hovering around the fringes for some time now.

And you could see it in the paired down production of Rick Rubin and T Bone Burnett, the former in the iconic American Recordings he made with Johnny Cash, the latter in the surprise package that was O Brother, Where Art Thou and all that that ushered in. But this New-roots Americana really only became a bona fide movement when four nearly new acts burst onto the scene and dragged it from the periphery into the mainstream.

Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, the eponymous Fleet Foxes, Iron & Wine’s The Shepherd’s Song and The Low Anthem’s Oh My God, Charlie Darwin all appeared in or around 2008 and were each met with widespread critical acclaim and (relative) commercial success. And although the latter two were actually third albums, they very much felt like a couple of debuts, not least because of how comfortably they sat with the former pair.

the-low-anthem-smart-flesh-592Although they each cast their own very distinct shadow, they were all clearly sculpted from the same stone. Pristine melodies and the kinds of lush, Appalachian harmonies that are impossible to describe without referencing Brian Wilson, were draped in self-consciously Spartan arrangements, using instruments that proudly bypassed a generation and looked back instead to Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. The results were ravishing and managed to be both invitingly intimate and disarmingly honest, and the complete absence of cynicism or irony was a rare and welcome treat.

This year, all four produced that difficult, second album. And, broadly speaking, they each managed to deliver, if in their own different ways. Three of the acts made a conscious effort to develop what they’d begun. The Low Anthem in contrast took where they’d gone with Charlie Darwin and refined and reduced it still further, pairing it down to its bare essentials. The result, Smart Flesh, somehow transcends its uncompromising austerity to wrap itself around you in the musical equivalent of impossibly refined cashmere. Though they do need to lighten up a bit. Somebody should send them on a road trip to Vegas with a credit card and Charlie Sheen’s address book.

Each of the other three moved to develop their musical palette and expand it in various ways. The least ambitious is Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues, which doesn’t really do very much more than continue on from where their debut left off. The somewhat clumsy foray into free jazz in “The Shrine/An argument” accentuates rather than disguises that lack of development. But it’s hardly their fault if they arrived with their debut fully formed and already complete. And there’s nothing here to dampen the merited enthusiasm generated by its predecessor, Fleet Foxes.

In contrast, Bon Iver, Justin Vernon’s eponymous follow-up to For Emma, Forever Ago is a significantly more muscular affair. And the fact that it is only now with his second album that Vernon feels sufficiently comfortable to offer up the mandatory self-titled album, is a clear sign of his new-found confidence. He’s as bold and adventurous processing his vocals through Auto Tunes as Kanye West was on 808, and was an inspired choice by the latter to collaborate with him on his subsequent Dark Twisted Fantasy (see below).

Iron and Wine Kiss Each Other Clean 2011 FrontWhilst the ease with which he embraces synth-heavy 80s MOR filler and uses it as the sonic wall paper on which to hang some of his exquisitely crafted melodies is evidence of a musician confident of the direction he wishes to go in. The resulting album takes us on a melodious if introspective journey from faltering childhood to apparent maturity and back again, and deserves all of the plaudits its being festooned with (the boys from Pravda gave it a 9.5 http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/15551-bon-iver/).

But the most enjoyable of the eight albums is Iron & Wine’s (aka Sam Beam’s) Kiss Each Other Clean, which came out on 4AD. He’s taken his particular brand of New-roots Americana down the same route that Gram Parsons and The Byrds travelled, by fusing Nashville and the mountains, country and roots, to alchemically produce pitch perfect pop. It’s a road that would eventually lead to Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles in their prime, and the combination of bitter-sweet world-weariness cloaked in mellifluous melodies is as intoxicating now as it was then.

It’s not an entirely unexpected move. It was hinted at in the impossibly moving “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” from The Shepherd’s Dog, a track that the underrated Kristen Stewart insisted be included on the Twilight soundtrack. The expansive musicality that that track mapped has here been extended across an entire album, and the resulting sounds are irresistible.

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“Burnt By The Sun” Nikita Mikhalkov

Nikita Mikhalkov was destined for a life of controversy. His father wrote the lyrics to the Russian national anthem on no fewer than three occasions. Once for Stalin, once against him, and more recently on behalf of Vladimir Putin. He himself is a staunch monarchist and a rabid apologist and champion for Serbia. Fortunately, and in stark contrast to Emir Kusturica, he is first and foremost a film maker, and manages mercifully to confine his questionable politics to his personal life.

After a stint as a successful actor, he wrote and directed (and stared in) his first feature At Home In The Company Of Strangers in 1974. Impressively enigmatic, it’s a good hour before it eventually reveals itself as Russia’s answer to the spaghetti western. But it was Slave To Love in ‘76 that brought him international recognition, catching the eye of the wonderful Italian scriptwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico, who died recently at the age of 96.

In an interview she gives on the recently re-released DVD of Visconti’s Ludwig, which she wrote for him together with Bellissima, Senso, Rocco, The Leopard as well as many, many others, she describes how she and Mastroianni had been so impressed by it, that they travelled to Russia in search of the director (she goes on in the same interview to lament dolefully “I really only have three good friends in the (Italian film) industry; Marcello (as in Mastroianni), Luchino (as in Visconti) and Nino (as in Rota, the composer and long-time collaborator of Fellini)!). When eventually they tracked him down, the three of them took a short story of Chekov’s and turned it into the irrepressibly charming Oci Ciornie, or Dark Eyes, for which Mastroianni unsurprisingly won the Best Actor award at Cannes in ‘87.

Urga, Mikhalkov’s gentle portrait of life on the outskirts of Outer Mongolia then won both the Golden Lion at Venice and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in ’92. But it was Burnt By the Sun that proved to be both his most critically and commercially successful film, winning the Grand Prix at Cannes and a second Academy Award in ‘94. Set over the course of a single day in the 1930s, the pastoral idyll that Mikhalkov and his wife and daughter enjoy is shattered by the return of a man who seems to have “known” his wife from her past, and who appears now to be a high ranking Soviet official.

The script brilliantly draws together the public and private axis of the narrative arc, and a deeply personal drama is set against the backdrop of the kind of deadly political chaos that so many people, tragically, just happen to be born into. By focusing on the havoc that politics wreaks on the lives of ordinary people, it manages to be about politics, without being specifically political. And the painfully moving performances, combined with the beautifully understated direction, make Burnt By The Sun one of the few genuinely great films of the last few decades.

He arrived in Cannes in 2010 with a sequel that wasn’t, apparently, as ill-judged as everyone assumed it would be. But it’s yet to surface anywhere. And coming as it did a year after his stage adaptation of the original appeared in London at the National, it seems the temptation of repeatedly returning to the well is proving hard for Mikhalkov to resist. Which is a shame, but is hardly surprising. Because Burnt By The Sun is a very serious film indeed.

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Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi – “Rome”

Brian Burton first surfaced under the moniker Danger Mouse in 2004 with The Grey Album, his mash-up of The Beatles’ White and Jay-Z’s Black albums. He followed that up by forming Gnarls Barkley with Cee Lo Green, and their debut single Crazy went, as they say, global. But like the dog and a certain part of its anatomy, the only reason he but briefly indulged in that kind of wallet stroking was because he could.

Since then, he has instead gone about producing some of the most quietly impressive albums of the last five years or so. First up was Demon Days, the second and best Gorillaz album. Then there was Beck’s Modern Guilt, and The Black Keys’ fifth album Attack and Release, plus the hit single Tighten Up from their next and best album, Brothers. And any day now he’ll be steering the latest U2 album into view.

But the most substantial of the many projects he’s been involved with was Dark Night Of The Soul, his collaboration with David Lynch and Sparklehorse, aka Mark Linkous, who sadly committed suicide in 2010. Despite a bewildering array of guest vocalists, ranging from Wayne Coyne, Black Francis and Iggy Pop to Nina Persson and Suzanne Vega, the music and lyrics that DM and Linkous glue the album together with give it an austere yet intimately inviting aura, making it a painful testament to the latter’s short-lived but sumptuous talents http://dnots.com/.

If Dark Night Of The Soul is the musical equivalent of Bergman, Rome is pure Sergio Leone. Listening to tracks like Theme Of Rome (1), Roman Blue (6) and The Gambling Priest (8) it’s impossible not to feel yourself shuffling warily in on your horse as you arrive at a dust-laden, deadbeat town on the outskirts of Andalucia, circa 1968, watched in a haze of suspicion by its few inhabitants, before leaving again to the tune of Morning Fog (12).

The five years that the album was in the making seem entirely appropriate given the languid cinematic dreamscape that the album evokes. And the choice of Jack White and Norah Jones as guest vocalists does nothing to dispel the sense that the whole thing was recorded on vinyl, by retro heads in vintage threads. Which is only as it should be, as they’re backed by the Cantori Moderni choir, the musicians originally responsible for realizing Ennio Morricone’s score for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Luppi and DM succeeded in reassembling them at the Forum Studios in Rome, hence the name, feel and mood of the album.

When you discover that long-forgotten bottle of beer at the back of your fridge in the small hours of a lazy, hazy summer’s morning, this is the soundtrack you’ll be reaching for as you go in search of the matches.

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