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.

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.

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.

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 ( 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.