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” 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.

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? Cezanne, Richard­son explained, had become ever more obsessed with the idea of max­imis­ing colour through­out the can­vass, by elim­i­nat­ing any of what he referred to as “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 across 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 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 invent­ed cam­era do that far more effec­tive­ly? What exact­ly was art for now? Cezanne showed Picas­so the road out of that conun­drum, and the result, soon after, 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 was on Picas­so, almost all of his pro­grammes are supreme­ly insight­ful. The only blot on his copy­book being 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, bril­liant­ly acer­bic on restau­rants but much more seri­ous and con­sid­ered on the medi­um of tele­vi­sion. 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.

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 on to 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 it’s being fes­tooned with (the boys from Prav­da gave it a 9.5

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 plan­gent “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.

Burnt By The Sun” by Nikita Mikhalkov

Mikhailkov’s Burnt By the Sun.

Niki­ta Mikhalkov was des­tined for a life of con­tro­ver­sy. His father Sergei wrote the lyrics to the Russ­ian nation­al anthem on no few­er than three occa­sions. First for Stal­in in the 1940s, then  for Brezh­nev in the 70s, and most recent­ly for Vladimir Putin in 2001. He him­self is a staunch monar­chist and a rabid apol­o­gist and cham­pi­on for Ser­bia. For­tu­nate­ly though, and in stark con­trast to Emir Kus­turi­ca, he is first and fore­most a film mak­er, and has man­aged mer­ci­ful­ly to con­fine his deeply ques­tion­able pol­i­tics to his per­son­al life.

After a stint as a suc­cess­ful actor, he wrote, direct­ed and starred in his first fea­ture At Home In The Com­pa­ny Of Strangersin 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.

Mar­cel­lo Mas­troian­ni and Sil­vana Mangano in Oci Ciornie.

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 and his Brothers, The Leop­ardas 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)!).

Vis­con­ti’s The Leop­ard.

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 gov­ern­ment official.

Hel­mut Berg­er and Romy Schnei­der in Vis­con­ti’s Lud­wig.

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.

You can see the trail­er for Burnt By the Sun here.

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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

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.