Archives for October 2014

Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point” at the cinema.

Zabriskie Point

Zabriskie Point

After the 1966 film Blow Up became a sur­prise box office hit, and espe­cial­ly after the com­mer­cial and crit­i­cal suc­cess of Easy Rid­er in 1969, Hol­ly­wood was des­per­ate to grab ahold of the zeit­geist and jump on board. And so Ital­ian film mak­er Michelan­ge­lo Anto­nioni was invit­ed by MGM to go over to Amer­i­ca and make a movie for them. This is what he pre­sent­ed them with.

Blow Up.

Blow Up.

Tra­di­tion­al­ly, Zabriskie Point (’70) is seen as the sec­ond and by far the weak­est of Antonioni’s Eng­lish lan­guage tril­o­gy. An unfor­tu­nate and uncom­fort­able trip to Amer­i­ca in between the twin mas­ter­pieces of Blow Up in ’66 and The Pas­sen­ger in ’75. That’s cer­tain­ly how I would have regard­ed it before see­ing it again in the cin­e­ma this week. And that I think is the key, you real­ly do have to see this film in the cin­e­ma. It’s a revelation.

What­ev­er about the crit­i­cal past­ing that it got at the time, it’s not hard to see why it bombed at the box office. It’s exact­ly the kind of frac­tured, anti-nar­ra­tive por­trait of counter-cul­tur­al dis­gust for con­ven­tion­al bour­geois cap­i­tal­ism that you’d expect from the dar­ling of the Euro­pean avant garde. In oth­er words, it’s exact­ly the kind of film Hol­ly­wood would have claimed it was look­ing for. As ever, be care­ful what you wish for.

Monica Vitti and Alain Delon in L'eclisse.

Mon­i­ca Vit­ti and Alain Delon in L’eclisse.

The rea­son that it makes for such remark­able view­ing today is not because it offers up such a fas­ci­nat­ing snap shot of Los Ange­les as the ide­al­ism of the 60s became sub­sumed by the nihilism of the 70s. Although it is def­i­nite­ly that. Rather, it’s the com­bi­na­tion of Antonioni’s excep­tion­al­ly mea­sured and care­ful­ly con­struct­ed com­po­si­tions in a film that invites con­tem­pla­tion at the expense of a con­ven­tion­al story.

Many, indeed most of the shots are long lens, but in close up. So, say, a man sit­ting at a desk will lean for­ward, there­by going out of frame, before com­ing back into frame as he changes posi­tion in the chair once again. What results is a hyper aware­ness of the frame and of the very tac­tile nature of film, as in cel­lu­loid. You can feel the tex­ture of the images as they unfold before you. And the exper­i­men­tal sound­track, both the use of sounds, and the music of Pink Floyd, the Stones and Roy Orbi­son accen­tu­ate and com­pli­ment the images as they reveal themselves.

Daria Halprin in Zabriskie Point

Daria Hal­prin in Zabriskie Point

The Mon­i­ca Vit­ti tril­o­gy of L’Avventura (’60), La Notte (’61) and L’Eclisse (’62), togeth­er with the oth­er two films from the Eng­lish lan­guage tril­o­gy, Blow Up and The Pas­sen­ger, are con­ven­tion­al­ly under­stood as Antonioni’s mas­ter­pieces. Zabriskie Point can now also be includ­ed in that august list. It con­firms Anto­nioni as one of the two most impor­tant film mak­ers to have ever worked in the medi­um. The oth­er of course was Bergman. And they both died on exact­ly the same day in 2007, on July 30th. But, and I hate hav­ing to say this, you real­ly do have to see it in the cinema.

You can see MGM’s trail­er for Zabriskie Point here. Groovy.

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Syro”, disappointingly safe new album from the Aphex Twin.

Aphex Twin's "Syro".

Aphex Twin’s “Syro”.

Syro is the much await­ed new album from the Aphex Twin, and the first offi­cial release from Richard D. James in 13 years. James is to elec­tron­i­ca what Mar­tin Luther King is to the civ­il rights move­ment. His is the name that shall not be tak­en in vain.

And sure enough, the music press fell over itself in its deter­mi­na­tion to wel­come it accord­ing­ly. The boys from Pitch­fork gave it an 8.7 here. And the dogged­ly pos­i­tive review that Sasha Frere-Jones gave it in the New York­er here end­ed with,

Syro” is Aphex Twin say­ing, “Yes, that was me,” rather than “Here is the new frontier.”

But being asked to lis­ten to an Aphex Twin album devoid of the new is like being invit­ed to lis­ten to a Simon and Gar­funkel album denud­ed of har­monies. New is what he does.

Richard D. James in, perhaps, slightly less happier times...

Richard D. James in, per­haps, slight­ly less hap­pi­er times…

I sup­pose it’s inevitable that a music so inex­orably linked to the tech­nol­o­gy that pro­duces it is des­tined to become redun­dant in the blink of an eye. What would you think about being offered a brand new ten year old mobile phone? Nonethe­less, it’s impos­si­ble not to feel mon­u­men­tal­ly under­whelmed by an album that sounds and feels so safe. And con­ven­tion­al.

When it comes to the act of cre­ation, emo­tion­al depth and peace of mind are inverse­ly relat­ed and can be mapped math­e­mat­i­cal­ly. Art is the prod­uct of pain. So one can only hope that James is as hap­py and con­tent­ed as this album sug­gests. There’s noth­ing wrong I sup­pose in pro­duc­ing a new album of great­est hits. But if this is your intro­duc­tion to the Aphex Twin, you should prob­a­bly start off with 26 Mix­es for Cash from 2003.

In the mean­time, here’s some­thing to put hairs on your chest. It’s the video for the title track to the 1997 ep Come to Dad­dy, direct­ed by Chris Cun­ning­ham. And here’s a track from his new album Syro.

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The Gatekeepers” an Amazing Window on Israel.

Ami Ayalon, now in the Israeli Knesset.

Ami Ayalon, now in the Israeli Knesset.

In the week when the new Swedish gov­ern­ment announced its inten­tion to rec­og­nize the state of Pales­tine, and after the back bench British MPs made a sim­i­lar show of pub­lic sup­port, last weekend’s screen­ing of the BBC Sto­ryville doc­u­men­tary The Gate­keep­ers made for time­ly viewing.

This is one of those films that you feel you ought to watch, rather than one you actu­al­ly want to see. And like so many of those, it turns out to be absolute­ly riveting.

Direct­ed by the Israeli Dror Moreh, who was inspired by Errol Mor­ris’ extra­or­di­nar­i­ly reveal­ing inter­view of Robert S. McNa­ma­ra for The Fog Of War, The Gate­keep­ers is an extend­ed inter­view with the last six heads of the Israeli secret ser­vice, the Shin Bet. Remark­ably, it’s every bit as reveal­ing as the film that inspired it.

The remarkable Rodriguez.

The remark­able Rodriguez.

For the last 35 years, these six men have been in charge of Israel’s inter­nal secu­ri­ty. And watch­ing them grap­ple with their con­sciences whilst bemoan­ing the refusal of lead­ers on either side to seri­ous­ly engage with their oppo­site num­ber was fas­ci­nat­ing, depress­ing and ulti­mate­ly some­how hopeful.

If only, you couldn’t help but feel, it had been some of these men who’d been run­ning the coun­try instead of the ones who were actu­al­ly elect­ed. One of them has indeed now joined the Knes­set. We can only hope. The mes­sage from all six of them was unan­i­mous. We must engage. We need to talk. You can’t secure the state of Israel with­out acknowl­edg­ing the fate of the Palestinians.

Muscle Shoals.

Mus­cle Shoals.

This is yet anoth­er in an ever more impres­sive ros­tra of docs form the Sto­ryville team. If you haven’t already, watch Search­ing for Sug­ar Man (reviewed ear­li­er here), Mus­cle Shoals (here) or the amaz­ing and sober­ing The House I Live In (here). In fact you can pret­ty much watch any one of their films. It’s the most con­sis­tent­ly impres­sive strand of doc­u­men­tary film mak­ing any­where in the world. You can see the Gate­keep­ers trail­er here.

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Perfume Genius’ new album “Too Bright” the real deal.

Perfume Genius' Too Bright.

Per­fume Genius’ Too Bright.

Too Bright is the third album from Mike Hadreas who per­forms as Per­fume Genius. He’s the lat­est to be offi­cial­ly anoint­ed by the grown-ups in the music press, but hap­pi­ly, after the dis­ap­point­ment of the recent and sim­i­lar­ly laud­ed FKA Twigs album, this time round it’s the real deal.

Hadreas has brought in the Por­tishead gui­tarist Adri­an Utley for pro­duc­tion duties, while long time PJ Har­vey col­lab­o­ra­tor John Parish sits in on drums for a num­ber of tracks. Hadreas has said that Har­vey is a major influ­ence, the oth­er being Nina Simone. And that com­bi­na­tion of raw, emo­tion­al pain and care­ful­ly wrought musi­cal tex­tures with a decid­ed edge are what best describe the feel of the album.

PJ Harvey.

PJ Har­vey.

But there are also qui­eter more lyri­cal moments, as with My Body (T5) where he seems to be chan­nelling Ricky Nelson’s Lone­some Town. And oth­ers where the pres­ence of Antony and the John­sons can clear­ly be felt.

The boys from Pitch­fork give it an impressed 8.5 here. And you can see the video for Grid here, and for Queen here. And you can read Sasha Frere-Jones piece on him in the New York­er here.

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Cronenberg’s new Film “Maps To The Stars” is a Poison Pen Letter to Hollywood.

Maps To The Stars.

Maps To The Stars.

David Cro­nen­berg’s new film Maps To The Stars arrives here from this year’s Cannes Film Fes­ti­val where it was screened in May. Most of the famous satires on Hol­ly­wood are secret­ly in awe of the place. The Play­er, The Bad and the Beau­ti­ful, even Sun­set Boule­vard (all reviewed ear­li­er here) have an under­ly­ing warmth and exhib­it a shy love love view of Hol­ly­wood. Not this one.

Julianne Moore plays an actress who’s seen bet­ter days and has nev­er real­ly come to terms with the death of the moth­er who brought her up so dis­as­trous­ly. She takes on Mia Wasikows­ka as her per­son­al assis­tant. Her estranged moth­er and father are a famous pow­er cou­ple over­see­ing the mete­oric career of her 13 year old brother.

James Spader in Crash.

James Spad­er in Crash.

There’s a strong sense of impend­ing doom and Greek tragedy to the film, sug­gest­ing the Oresteia. And the air of neme­sis, hubris and inevitable ret­ri­bu­tion hang heavy through­out. All the cast are excel­lent, and it’s easy to see how Moore won the Best Actress Award at Cannes. But it’s equal­ly easy to see why the film failed to win any of the main prizes.

Robert Pattinson and Sarah Gadon return from Cosmopolis for Cronenberg's new film.

Robert Pat­tin­son and Sarah Gadon return from Cos­mopo­lis for Cro­nen­berg’s new film.

Yes it’s extra­or­di­nar­i­ly caus­tic, and unremit­ting­ly bleak (and often very fun­ny) about the sorts of lives that those who inhab­it Hol­ly­wood live. And, it has to be said, all too believ­ably so. But more than that, there’s a clin­i­cal cold­ness to the film’s final quar­ter. Unlike Crash, which gives an equal­ly dystopi­an overview of the mod­ern world, Maps To The Stars sinks to its con­clu­sion instead of ris­ing to an emo­tion­al crescen­do. Its spir­it is Apol­lon­ian rather than Dionysian, and it ends up being a film that you great­ly admire instead of being one that you’re dev­as­tat­ed by.

Nonethe­less, togeth­er with the recent Cos­mopo­lis (reviewed ear­li­er here) it’s anoth­er impres­sive addi­tion to Cronenberg’s august back cat­a­logue. And he con­tin­ues to be one the very few seri­ous film mak­ers around. You can see the trail­er to Maps To The Stars here.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below and I shall keep you post­ed every week on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music!