Thursday, 17 April 2008

Wajda Update

News from the Barbican that Andrzej Wajda will make an appearance at the Censorship as a Creative Force event (25 April). He is filming a 10-minute personal introduction to the evening.

Milky Way

Is it something about living in Hungary? For cinephiles the names Béla Tarr and Miklós Jancsó evoke memories of languid, beautifully shot films, full of extremely long takes: with The Round-Up (1967), Jancsó became known as the master of the technique, while Tarr’s Macbeth (1982) has just two shots – and one of those is only five minutes long.

These are obviously experimental in their own ways but Benedek Fliegauf’s new film Milky Way (2007) pushes things even further. Its 82 minutes comprise just ten shots, each around the same length. So far, so ‘normal’: technology has made feature-length ‘single-shot’ films possible, most famously Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), but I’d also recommend Salvatore Maira’s Valzer (2007).

But Fliegauf decides to restrict himself even further. The ten shots take us from night to night through a single day, the camera never moves, and most of them are horizontally bisected by a flat horizon (thoughts of the Hungarian plain). So, there you have it. Ten tableaux where any interest is completely within the frame. The only music you hear is from the scene itself. Oh – and there’s no discernible dialogue, either. More Dogme than many Dogme films, Fliegauf has chosen not to go for accreditation.

We start with a static scene. Something happens. The original set-up returns, but with a subtle difference.

But what might seem dauntingly minimalist is in fact incredibly engaging. Some of the scenes are positively action-packed, and even those that aren’t reverberate with meaning, filled with often wry, but occasionally sad reflections on everyday life and human ambitions and failings.

In the mournful opening scene a lonely wind-farm turbine, with its flailing arms, stares balefully back at us through the pre-dawn gloom, reminding us that we aren’t the only watchers on this planet.

Next: a camper on a windy hillside goes for an early morning pee only to see her tent blown away.

Three pensioners – two men a woman – float in a swimming pool, taking refuge from the sun’s heat. After a while, one of the men lazily swims over to the woman. While they make love, the other man takes no notice. They part and the initial tableau returns. Then a young man swims by oblivious to these goings-on, forcing us to question society’s youth-ophilia.

A wintry tree stands next to a cairn-like pile of rocks. Two BMX-ers appear and bounce their way over it (after all, why simply ride around it?) then disappear down the hill. The scene is again empty. In the tree a crow’s nest mysteriously catches fire.

The highpoint is a frankly hilarious scene about a bouncy castle, finely balancing hope and joy with disinterest and failure, and the film ends, again at night, with two silhouetted kids deliriously break-dancing by the light of a chemical factory.

It might sound wilfully quirky but Milky Way is a delightfully humane work, looking at homo sapiens with an anthropologically objective, yet affectionate eye.

You can catch Milky Way at the Barbican on May 10, 2008.

The Round Up (which I'll be blogging about in a few days) is at the Barbican on April 28 2008.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008


The news that 82 year-old Andrzej Wajda is too ill to travel to London to take part in on-stage discussions at the Barbican and the BFI South Bank is obviously worrying.

At the Barbican he was to appear on stage with Jirí Menzel and István Szabó (oddly, born just five days apart in 1938) on 25th April. Wajda's place has been taken by Agnieszka Holland who, with recent episodes of Cold Case and The Wire under her belt will certainly bring a different perspective to the event.

At the BFI Southbank Wajda was to introduce his Oscar-nominated Katyń on 22nd April, but he will be replaced with another, as yet unannounced, speaker.

I'll be at at least one of those events, so will report back.

In the meantime, here's the trailer for Katyń.

Monday, 14 April 2008

"Das Wunder" at a hundred

As the centenary of conductor Herbert von Karajan hove into view, so there was another certainly - that Norman Lebrecht would excoriate "Das Wunder".

Reminding the world that Karajan was a deeply unpleasant, greedy, vain, musically conservative Nazi, who has destroyed classical music is at least a part-time occupation for Norman Lebrecht, as he struggles to push against the pendulum of adulation.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for critical engagement with reputations, and where necessary violent re-evaluations, but it has to be done with a larger aim in mind.

Lebrecht’s argument is that Karajan being an awful person and a Nazi, led inevitably to musical inferiority: that and his vanity led to him being over-rated: that and his greed damaged classical music for everyone else. This can be shown quite simply as:


QM is the Musical Quality
PA is Personal Awfulness
N is Naziness
V is Vanity
R is Rating of musical performance in the public’s mind
G is Greed
K is Karajan

Note that a common howler is to see the outcome of the equation as QM

Actually, a lot of what Lebrecht says is fair enough.

Karajan’s recordings of baroque music are, depending on your taste, repellent or hilariously misconceived: the gloopy Adagio, commonly ascribed to Albinoni but at least half-written by Giazotto brings forth a queasiness unmatched by any other piece of music I can imagine.

The explorations of what was once called ‘authentic performance’ before its aspirations were reined in as ‘historically-informed’, left no impact on his chromium shell. His Mozart and Haydn can seem laughably bloated, but his Beethoven, Brahms and other bits of the core German repertoire (for Lebrecht, Karajan’s concentration on this is itself a dubious choice) still worked (at least in his early days).

It’s true also that Karajan was no storm-trooper for the avant-garde – he didn’t care to help anyone ‘throw a lance into the future’. A few pieces by Carl Orff hardly count – especially as he fights his own posthumous rear-guard action against accusations of Nazidom. Though why a Nazi would want to conduct the degenerate works of Schönberg, Berg and Webern, the unacceptably nationalist Bartók, the shamefully Slavic Stravinsky, and Hindemith’s clearly anti-Nazi Mathis der Maler Symphony isn’t immediately clear.

Would Schönberg have approved of the dubious sonic experiment of reseating the orchestra through each of the Variations? Who cares?; he was dead. Stravinsky, one of the few living composers Karajan essayed, memorably and tartly remarked that his Rite of Spring was in a ‘tempo di hoochie-koochie’.

But attacking Karajan raises the same problem as attacking Wagner and Eliot for their anti-Semitism. We begin to focus on that individual as a lightning-rod of hatefulness, forgetting that there were others whose views were just as nightmarish, and so, those people get off.

The truth is that anyone who wanted to continue their careers when the Nazis rose to power had to choose from three options;

1) Enthusiastically embrace the philosophy
2) Decide to what degree they were willing to see their careers suffer rather than help the Nazis
3) Leave

Once we start to look at anyone who stuck around, we find the inevitable and necessary compromises that come with living in a dictatorship. Once the dictatorship is gone, it’s a different matter, but the genial uncle still has a dark past.

Lebrecht’s Cassandra act has been going on for over a decade: one of his most successful publications was The Maestro Myth: a sustained attack on… well, it does what it says on the tin. Stupidity, pettiness, arrogance, vanity, unfaithfulness, greed, cruelty, deviousness, blackmail, profiteering, racism, sexual perversion and above all tyranny and egomania, this catalogue of conductors’ unseemly behaviour spared few (except those who, living, might sue).

But for some reason Karajan has become Lebrecht’s lightning-rod. It’s just a shame that while focusing on the éminence-not-so-grise, and his Fafnerish wealth, he was unaware of the fact that conductor Robert King was abusing his choristers.