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.

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