Archives for September 2013

Blue Jasmine; Finally A New Woody Allen film Worth Seeing.

Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine".

Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine”.

After mak­ing a hand­ful of genial come­dies in the ear­ly 70s, Woody Allen shot Annie Hall in 1976. Which was sup­posed to have cen­tred around the comedic fig­ure of Allen. But when test audi­ences respond­ed so warm­ly to the roman­tic chem­istry between he and Diane Keaton, they sched­uled sig­nif­i­cant re-shoots and the whole film was re-edit­ed as a roman­tic comedy.

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in "Annie Hall".

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in “Annie Hall”.

And for the next 20 years, Allen made a suc­ces­sion of intel­li­gent, per­son­al, warm and occa­sion­al­ly poignant per­son­al dra­mas, the vast major­i­ty of which were roman­tic come­dies, with the empha­sis, as it always should be, on the Romance. These were inter­spersed with the occa­sion­al pure dra­ma, cen­tred around a series of female protagonists.

Films like Zelig (’83) The Pur­ple Rose Of Cairo (’85), Han­nah and Her Sis­ters (’96) and Bul­lets Over Broad­way (’94), and then Sep­tem­ber (’87), Anoth­er Woman (’88) and Alice (’90). Near­ly all of them were won­der­ful. Man­hat­tan (’79) was a mas­ter­piece. And Crimes and Mis­de­meanors (‘89) a minor one.

But from Mighty Aphrodite in 1995 on, his muse desert­ed him. Sure there was Sweet And Low­down in 1999. And Vicky Cristi­na Barcelona is love­ly to look at.

Vicky Christine Barcelona.

Vicky Cristi­na Barcelona.

But for the last 20 years or so, we’ve all been wait­ing in the vain hope that it might, just might belat­ed­ly return. Or that at the very least, he might slow down and think a bit more clear­ly and care­ful­ly before embark­ing so point­less­ly on his next film.

Incred­i­bly, and to pret­ty much everyone’s com­plete sur­prise, he’s done exact­ly that. Blue Jas­mine isn’t just the best thing he’s done in 20 years, a barbed com­pli­ment if ever there were one. This could com­fort­ably sit with any of those films he was mak­ing in the mid 1980s.

It’s an occa­sion­al­ly rye but most­ly poignant por­trait of a soci­ety woman, Cate Blanchett, who has fall­en spec­tac­u­lar­ly from grace. We move back and forth between the present, and the events that led to her fall in the past, as she tries to pick her­self back up off the floor and start all over again.

Blanchett and Baldwin in Blue Jasmine.

Blanchett and Bald­win in Blue Jasmine.

Whilst not an actu­al adap­ta­tion of A Street­car Named Desire, the film shad­ows Ten­nessee William’s icon­ic play almost scene by scene. And yet curi­ous­ly, far from detract from the film, this mere­ly serves to fur­ther add a sense of doom and foreboding.

All of the cast are foot per­fect. Blanchett, obvi­ous­ly. But Alec Bald­win too, as the Bernie Mad­off type that she was mar­ried to, Sal­ly Hawkins as her sis­ter and Bob­by Can­navale as the latter’s lat­est beau.

Very unusu­al­ly, this is a film that actu­al­ly deliv­ers on all the hype it’s been generating.

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Simon Schama’s The Story Of The Jews on BBC2.

The Jewish Ghetto in Venice.

The Jew­ish Ghet­to in Venice.

Simon Schama’s appro­pri­ate­ly eru­dite The Sto­ry of the Jews con­tin­ues on BBC2. One time Art Crit­ic for the New Yorker and cur­rent­ly a pro­fes­sor at Colum­bia, Schama signed a much pub­li­cized book and TV deal with the BBC worth £3m in 2003. Simon Schama’s Pow­er Of Art duly fol­lowed in 2006.

There, he took eight heavy­weight artists rang­ing from Car­avag­gio and Berni­ni to Turn­er and Rothko, and some­how man­aged to find fresh and reveal­ing insights into each and every one of them. Which is no mean feat when deal­ing with the likes of Van Gogh and Picas­so.

This lat­est five part series is every bit as engag­ing, and man­ages to be suf­fi­cient­ly per­son­al to gen­uine­ly move with­out ever dwelling for too long on inevitable pathos.

The first episode cov­ered the first mil­len­ni­um BC, whilst the sec­ond took us up to the cat­a­stroph­ic expul­sion of the Jews from Spain and Por­tu­gal in 1492 and ’97. It was this that led to the cre­ation of the first ghet­to in Venice, which marks a decid­ed­ly ambiva­lent junc­ture. It was won­der­ful to be final­ly giv­en a home. And yet, they were clear­ly marked out as Other.

Caravaggio's "The Taking Of Christ".

Car­avag­gio’s “The Tak­ing Of Christ”.

It’s a vast sub­ject of course, but it would have been inter­est­ing to have a bit more on the cru­cial peri­od between the 2nd and 6th cen­turies AD. Chris­tians and Jews had come increas­ing­ly to under­stand them­selves in oppo­si­tion to one anoth­er, and there were then as many Jews preach­ing hatred against Chris­tians as there were Chris­tians spew­ing vit­ri­ol against the Jews.

Incred­i­bly though, no soon­er had this mutu­al and pro­found mis­trust become ingrained, one of the two sides sud­den­ly “won”. As in the 4th cen­tu­ry A.D., and almost overnight, the whole of the Roman Empire con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty. Not only that, but over the next few cen­turies, the rest of north and east­ern Europe quick­ly followed.

Simon Schama's "The Story Of The Jews".

Simon Schama’s “The Sto­ry Of The Jews”.

So, it’s been sug­gest­ed, that anti-Jew­ish ele­ment that was so cen­tral to the ear­ly Chris­t­ian Church came to be cod­i­fied as part and par­cel of Medieval Chris­ten­dom, based as it was on the Roman Empire and its Latin lan­guage. When then the Islam­ic Empire sprang up in the East soon after, it was all too nat­ur­al for the West to lump the Jews togeth­er with their new foe.

This doesn’t of course excuse the unspeak­able treat­ment of Jews by Chris­tians in the Cru­sades that fol­lowed from the 11th cen­tu­ry on. And indeed through­out the rest of his­to­ry. But it does sug­gest an expla­na­tion as to why it is the West has always been so much more intol­er­ant of Jews com­pared to the Islam­ic world where, at the very least, they were allowed to exist.

But that’s a minor quib­ble. This is a com­pre­hen­sive sto­ry bril­liant­ly told with a mix­ture of schol­ar­ship and, unsur­pris­ing­ly, feel­ing. The Sto­ry Of The Jews con­tin­ues on BBC2.

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The Genuinely Enigmatic film “Upstream Color”.

Shane Carruth and Amy in "Upstream Color".

Shane Car­ruth and Amy Sein­metz in “Upstream Color”.

When talk­ing about his 1987 film Wings Of Desire, Wim Wen­ders said there are two types of films. Those that say this is what I am, be it a thriller, a love sto­ry, or a roman­tic com­e­dy. And then there are those that ask you, what am I?

Few films fit quite so com­fort­ably into that sec­ond cat­e­go­ry as Shane Car­ruth’s lat­est fea­ture, Upstream Col­or. This is the fol­low up to his 2004 debut Primer, which was inter­est­ing, but very much a first film call­ing-card. This is a sig­nif­i­cant­ly more sub­stan­tial affair. So what is it?

Amy Steinmetz in Upstream Color.

Amy Stein­metz in Upstream Col­or.

Well, it’s clear­ly some class of a love sto­ry. But the two leads, played by Car­ruth him­self and the impres­sive Amy Sein­metz seem to inhab­it some sort of a con­tem­po­rary dystopia, where nefar­i­ous indi­vid­u­als are har­vest­ing mutant maggots.

Against which though, there seems to be some sort of benign indi­vid­ual shad­ow­ing the vic­tims to admin­is­ter a cure, in much the same way that the angels glide through the afore­men­tioned Wings Of Desire offer­ing succour.

Bruno Ganz in Wenders' "Wings Of Desire".

Bruno Ganz in Wen­ders’ “Wings Of Desire”.

But Car­ruth is clear­ly at least as inter­est­ed in visu­al and son­ic jux­ta­po­si­tions and the con­nec­tions and moods they pro­duce, as he is in nar­ra­tive coher­ence or intel­lec­tu­al clar­i­ty. Remark­ably, and very unusu­al­ly, this doesn’t detract– at least as yet — from the expe­ri­ence of watch­ing his films.

Steven Soder­bergh has said of him that,

I view David as the ille­git­i­mate off­spring of David Lynch and James Cameron.”

But the loud­est cin­e­mat­ic echoes evoke David Cro­nen­berg (whose under-rat­ed Cos­mopo­lis I review ear­li­er here). If Cro­nen­berg had tak­en acid and had some­how man­aged to make an entire fea­ture film that night, this is what it would look and feel like.

Cold, unques­tion­ably, at times creepy, and at oth­ers some­what anaemic. But con­stant­ly inter­est­ing and end­less­ly fas­ci­nat­ing. This is that rare thing, a gen­uine­ly enig­mat­ic film. And Car­rruth is one of the very few seri­ous film mak­ers work­ing today.

See the trail­er to Upstream Col­or here.

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BBC4 Programme on the History of Theatre and Ancient Greece.

Taormina in Sicily

Taormi­na’s spec­tac­u­lar the­atre  in Sicily

Michael Scott’s lat­est pro­gramme on Ancient Greece is a fas­ci­nat­ing explo­ration of the twinned birth of democ­ra­cy and the the­atre in late 6th and ear­ly 5th cen­tu­ry B.C. Greece. Don’t be put off by its title though. The Great­est Show on Earth is, hap­pi­ly, sig­nif­i­cant­ly bet­ter than that would suggest.

In the first of the three episodes, he explains how the birth of the­atre came about for exact­ly the same rea­sons that the Athe­ni­ans tri­umphed so unex­pect­ed­ly at the bat­tle of Marathon in 490. Because the demo­c­ra­t­ic reforms in the Athen­ian con­sti­tu­tion in the pre­vi­ous decades gave each of its cit­i­zens a sense of pride, of own­er­ship and even­tu­al­ly entitlement.

Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles.

Aeschy­lus, Euripi­des and Sophocles.

Cru­cial­ly though the the­atres that they now began build­ing – hav­ing invent­ed archi­tec­ture as well – ful­filled two func­tions. It was where the con­flict between the ethics of pow­er and per­son­al moral­i­ty could be explored by tragedy’s  great tri­umvi­rate, Aeschy­lus, Sopho­cles and Euripi­des. But it was also, lit­er­al­ly, the are­na in which democ­ra­cy phys­i­cal­ly took place. It was in these the­atres that their polit­i­cal debates were staged.

The sec­ond episode then looked at the 4th cen­tu­ry, after Athens had fall­en, laid low by its dis­as­trous expe­di­tion to Sici­ly. It explored the way in which the­atre then came to be export­ed by Alexan­der with the spread of Hel­lenism, as Greek cul­ture came to con­quer the world. And how para­dox­i­cal­ly, at least as far as its rela­tion­ship to Athens was con­cerned, its the­atre became ever so slight­ly impov­er­ished. In that it ceased to address the con­cerns of Athens, and became instead a uni­ver­sal medium.

This is anoth­er of Scott’s superb pro­grammes on Greece, after this summer’s Who Were The Greeks. And he man­aged to assem­ble a par­tic­u­lar­ly impres­sive group of aca­d­e­mics to help explore the top­ics raised. Notably Paul Car­tledge, who is one of the movers behind the excel­lent series of webi­na­rs under the Read­ing Odyssey umbrel­la, here. And Robin Osborne, whose Greece in the Mak­ing 1200–479 is, quite right­ly, the first book that any Clas­sics’ stu­dent is point­ed in the direc­tion of.

Michael Scott.

Michael Scott.

Try not be put off by that incred­i­bly irri­tat­ing title though. The Great­est Show on Earth isn’t quite as annoy­ing as the one he gave a pre­vi­ous pro­gramme on Alexan­der, the exe­crable Ancients Behav­ing Bad­ly. Hope­ful­ly he’ll reign in his ten­den­cy to sad­dle his pro­grammes with twee attempts at rid­ing the pop­u­lar Zeit­geist. Because titles aside, he’s fast estab­lish­ing him­self as the BBC’s most engag­ing and infor­ma­tive voice on Ancient Greece.

Episode 3 is on Tues­day next. And you can vis­it his web­site here.

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