Wednesday, 18 November 2009
Second Run have recently released Márta Mészáros' Diary for My Children (Napló gyermekeimnek, 1982) on DVD. Even better, the rest of the trilogy (Diary for My Loves, 1987 and Diary for My Father and Mother, 1990) will follow, so we'll all be able to ditch the VHS's from the C4 screenings all those years ago!
In the meantime there's a special screening of Diary for My Children at the Renoir Cinema on Sunday 22nd November at 2.15, at which I'll be interviewing the uncredited co-writer, and director in her own right, Éva Pataki.
It's a wonderful, semi-autobiographical film about the teenage Juli, returning to Hungary in 1947, having spent the war exiled to the USSR, where her parents died. It perfectly captures the contradictions of post-war Budapest (as I imagine!): the freedoms of western-type fashion shows and the impositions of the regime; moments of personal joy and grating bureaucratic idiocy, and memories and strange dream sequences set against quotidian banalities. All seen through the eyes of Juli, growing to be a woman, discovering love and developing the cinephilia that will lead her to film school.
Zsuzsa Czinkóczi's fantastically touching performance captures Juli's frustration at the lies, dissembling and surreal paranoias that surround her. She carefully balances the solemn and melancholic retreat into memories of pre-war happiness with the steeling of Juli's resolve to counter what she sees around her. Exactly as Mészáros herself does in the film.
You can read more about the film, on Second Run's website, here
Here's the Renoir cinema page, with details of the event.
Wednesday, 11 November 2009
Made in 1926, it was directed by Vladimir Vilner, while Isaac Babel based the script on his own short stories The King and How It Was Done in Odessa. The Russian texts and the 'kino-povest' (illustrated, left) are here, and Jeff Glodblum - that's Goldblum - reads The King (in English) here.
But Krik, the leader of a bunch of criminals, is hardly admirable and the film had something to offend everyone.
For starters, Krik's gang seems to be first precursors of, and then profiteers from the Revolution. Even though they're ultimately foiled by the Bolsheviks, the regime, obviously, was not impressed.
Meanwhile, Jewish groups were alarmed that it might inflame anti-Semitism.
The Soviet Union spent 1921-22 struggling economically in the face of what Lenin called "the elemental forces of the petty-bourgeois environment", before initiating a limited return to capitalism, even de-nationalising some enterprises - excluding, of course, the 'commanding heights' of heavy industry, banking etc. This 'New Economic Policy' became increasingly divisive: on one hand it made available luxuries - and even some essentials - that state and collective organisations were so signally failing to provide, but NEP-men were despised as spiv-like semi-gangsters and, plugging into Russian anti-Semitism, were often seen as Jewish.
In such an environment, Krik couldn't do right for doing wrong. Not only did it upset the authorities, but it was accused of ignoring the proletariat and concentrating on Jews (as if they were inimical!). But of course, it 'concentrates' on them only to criticise them as cynical petty thieves who are happy to trash tradition and their Jewishness in the pursuit of profit.
Ethnically even more confusing is that Babel based Krik on the well-known Odessa gangster Mishka 'Yaponchik' (Mike the Little Jap) Vinnitsky, though I'm not sure why - he was Jewish and born in Odessa. Allegedly this is a portrait.
He's also the subject of Juliusz Machulski's Polish film Déjà vu (1988), which takes the action to Chicago: I suppose the archetypal US gangster city - it's where Balabanov's Brother II goes. Babel, perhaps seeing that he had created a potentially long-running franchise, didn't kill Krik in the books but he does die in Vilner's film, suffering a fate based on Mishka's death. Maybe Babel felt (or was advised) that the more popular medium needed to show retribution.
Krik is still a popular hero, largely thanks to the panache which Babel gave him - the Russian movie Мишка Япончик (Mishka Yaponchik, 2007) is part of the series Great Russian Adventurers! You can see a silent movie style trailer here.
Vilner's film was released in January 1927 but pleased nobody. It was almost immediately banned in Ukraine and never shown in Moscow. It has since fallen into that huge well of forgotten curiosities. After a couple more films, Vilner returned to the theatre, from when he had come.
Nevertheless Eisenstein recommended the script to Ivor Montagu, whose English translation was published by Collett's in 1935 in a numbered edition of 500. That sold well enough to go to another numbered 500. I've never seen this tome but I suspect it's the 1925 script that Babel wrote with Eisenstein, who later remembered the author observing that "writing a script is like calling the midwife out on your wedding night".
Tuesday, 10 November 2009
It's hard in the course of such a mini-fest to do justice to the enormity of Schnittke's output (even if you think - as I don't - that it's wildly uneven). Of course there are things I'd want to have seen, primarily the hallucinogenically terrifying First Symphony, and one of the last symphonies, and perhaps a survey of the concerti grossi (and of course, more films!) but over all it's as balanced as it could be in the time available.
The LPO has a minisite devoted to him here.
The main stuff is:
15/11. The Gogol Suite and the (brilliant) Monologue followed by Prokofiev 6 at the RAM.
18/11. Royal Festival Hall. A 6.15 pre-concert event with the 3rd SQ (his best?) played by the Harpham Quartet. Then, in the main concert, rather than just doing the Faust Cantata, there are excerpts from the opera that swallowed it (basically as Act 3). These are semi-staged, so perhaps Jurowski is moving towards a very welcome production - in which case, hopefully he'll be conducting what Schnittke wrote rather than the 'Hamburg edition'. It's preceded by Haydn 22 (is the subtitle the only link?) and bits of Parsifal. Here's a bit of Arte's broadcast of Historia von D. Johann Fausten. Would that BBC4...
19/11. Back at the RAM for a visit from the Moscow Conservatory Chamber Choir and a good belt of Russian choral stuff. The Concerto for Choir is another cast-iron masterpiece.
21/11. An all-day symposium at Deptford Town Hall under the aegis of the Alfred Schnittke Archive at Goldsmiths. Even those usually averse to academic conferences might be tempted by the world premiere of the Concerto for Electronic Instruments. This includes four ekvodins (a 1930s Soviet synthesiser), a crystadin (something to do with Oleg Losev's research, I assume), a camerton piano (errrrr...?) and a shumophone (even more errrr... but it sounds polyglottally tautological: 'shum' [шум] being Russian for 'noise' and 'phone' being Greek for 'sound'). In such company the theremin that the estimable Lydia Kavina will be playing seems almost workaday!
On 22/11 those able to keep up will be headed to the South Bank Centre for another all-day-er. Amongst the talks will be an unmissable interview with animator Andrei Khrzhanovsky, director of, inter alia, The Glass Harmonica fresh from his debut feature (of which more anon) A Room and a Half. The other music will include the hilarious Music for an Imaginary Play, the fantastic Epilogue from Peer Gynt and the Kandinskian Der gelbe Klang, which I seem to remember being really interesting (if only I could find that decade-or-so old off-air cassette).
25/11. Ater a couple of days rest you'll be ready to venture back for a kaleidoscopic look at old musics: Stravinsky, the venerably double-barrelled Bach-Webern, Schnittke and Safronov. That's at 6pm, after which there's another concert: Webern, Lindberg, Berg and Schnittke's Third Symphony. I prefer Schnittke's (more secular) odd-numbered symphonies and this is one of my favourites - a piece I find endlessly fascinating.
Films are covered at Pushkin House on 26 and 27 (The Ascent and Commissar) and 28 at the RFH (Agony). Later on the 28th at the RFH there's a concert with an interesting pairing: Schnittke's Second Cello Concerto (which uses some of Agony's music) and Haydn's Seven Last Words. The Schnittke is being played by Alexander Ivashkin (he and conductor Vladimir Jurowski are the main movers behind the festival), who, just a few days ago, was in Moscow playing and conducting a concert of Unknown Schnittke. Hopefully there'll be a CD or at least some more performances.
Things are wrapped up on 1 December at the QEH with the String Trios by Schnittke and Tchaikovsky.
Alexander Ivashkin's written several books about Schnittke, including a biog-intro (published by Phaidon) that should be every anglophone's starting point
As an adjunct I'm doing a one-hour intro to Schnittke and his music for Resonance 104.4fm on Friday the 13th at 8pm. Also listenable on-line.
Friday, 23 October 2009
At its core is a monologue by British guerilla-provocateur-situationist-author Tom MacCarthy in which Hitchcock meets his younger self on the set of The Birds. But that in turn is based on a short surreal autobiographical tale by Borges in which the author meets his older self.
As the film’s narrator says: “They say that if you meet your double you should kill him, or he will kill you; two of you is one too many.”
But of course, even when you’ve killed your doppelganger, you won’t know if you are actually unique so life becomes, paradoxically, a lonely trawl for others of yourself. Whom you must kill.
I suspect Borges would have enjoyed this ‘hitching’ to another author and he was very cinematically minded, thinking Hitch’s The Thirty Nine Steps greatly superior to Buchan’s novel. En passant, I should say that the Borges source material is its own doppelganger, existing in two forms: The Other and August 25 1983 (according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, a day on which nothing of note occurred).
From there, Double Take enters a hall of mirrors so complex that the viewer (and possibly director-scriptwriter Gimonprez) becomes (perhaps deliberately) almost completely lost.
There’s the impressionist Mark Perry listening to a recording of Hitchcock, twinning his voice to loop (in both senses of the word) an explanation of the Maguffin (maybe Peter Bogdanovich was charging too much, or maybe he was just too good and would have knocked it off first time?) There’s the well-known Hitchcock lookalike Ron Burrage who, curiously, was born on Hitchcock’s thirtieth birthday, 13 August 1929, (Borges was born in the same year as Hitchcock but eleven days later: Gimonprez was born the day before, 1962, while Hitchcock was being interviewed by acolyte Truffaut, and making The Birds, the backdrop to MacCarthy’s monologue). There’s the story of Hitchcock’s two dogs and their appearance/non-appearance in The Birds; and there are that film’s two lovebirds (as well as Hedren and Taylor). Finally(?) of course there’s Hitchcock himself. Hitchcock walks down the street and has an uncanny, Borgesian-MacCarthyesque encounter with Hitchcock. There are the famous cameos, where Hitchcock sometimes ‘plays’ ‘Hitchcock’. And there are all manner of Hitchcock jokes from the openings of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including Hitchcock staging a Hitchcock lookalike competition (and losing); And there are five cringeworthily sexist adverts for Folger’s Coffee – sponsors of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
But even that largely excludes Double Take's wider concerns. There are the mirrorings of Kennedy and Nixon in the fateful Presidential debate (broadcast on both radio and television but with very different ‘results’); Nixon also crops up as a counterpoint to Khrushchev in the Kitchen Debate. Of course, that leads us to Capitalism vs Communism, their respective contributions to the space race (and the arms race) and the Bay of Pigs (and Laika the dog). Meanwhile Cuba hovers between the two; Fidel makes a speech as fiery as the Cuban sun before visiting Nikita to cavort in the Soviet snow.
At the bottom is the commodification of fear, and the way that the idea of ‘the other’ is reinforced to justify all kinds of official actions.”Two of you is one too many.” Who will kill whom?
And it’s all recorded by the increasingly dominant television (slowly strangling its parent, cinema) as “History” (Gimonprez’s previous film was called Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y) is controlled by (or through) the media. I could push it further and talk about Double Take’s zapper-like (or even hypertext) editing, but I’ll leave that to you.
Though it all centres on the very early 1960s, we’re brought up to date with Reagan-Gorbachev and Clinton-Yeltsin as new Nixon(s)/(Kennedy?(s))-Khrushchev(s). Even more contemporary resonances come with shots of New York skyscrapers, the story of how the Empire State Building was hit by a plane in 1945, and an approximation of the famous 911 “falling man” footage.
It all ends with Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous “known knowns and unknown unknowns” speech, guaranteed to raise a laugh with audiences amused by the assonant riffing but which to me – no Rumsfeldian - seems surprisingly clear-sighted, despite the unsavoury ends which it was used to justify.
Doubles and coincidences are all very well, but once you start looking, you can, if you care to, find them pretty much anywhere you look. Given the film’s deeper meaning, Gimonprez obviously decided to miss out on some of the most obvious ones: the two Blackmails, the two Ma/(e)/n Who Knew Too Much, the Hitchcock/van Sant Psychos or the many other Hitchcock doppelgangers. Being a film, Double Take largely ignores the non-visual radio (home to several Hitchcock adaptations, sometimes starring the same and sometimes different actors) and books (both as source materials and post-film adaptations) and the various remakes and sequel (troublingly for the film’s premise, often, as with The Birds, not limited to a single reincarnation). It’s also a bit unfortunate that inescapable history means that the thread that ties the Cold War to Hitchcock is one of his weakest films (albeit set partly on Cuba) Topaz.
Double Take has a fun surface and at its core is a vital idea, but it tries to cram so much in that in the end I began to feel like Frenzy’s Chief Inspector Oxford faced with his wife’s ‘cordon bleu’ meal; so rich as to be indigestible. Or even that Hitchcock himself – eventually overwhelmed by contemplations of geopolitics - has been turned into the film’s very own Maguffin. But without that, the premise and montage of archive material could start to look like something by Adam Curtis.
By the way – Frenzy has two scores: Ron Goodwin stepped in when Hitchcock decided he didn’t like Henry Mancini’s. Of course, also Topaz was Jarre’s second attempt to work with Hitchcock: he was supposed to replace Herrmann on Torn Curtain but that gig ended up going to John Addison. And so it goes on…
Friday, 16 October 2009
We're just about half way through the London Film Festival (a couple of posts to come) and already on the horizon is the Third Russian Film Festival which precisely abuts it, starting the day after the LFF (30 October) and running until 8 November.
Friday, 2 October 2009
Even better news is that the current exhibition of Polish posters is set to run until 31 January 2010 and some to-be-announced events are planned.
The first (Polish-themed) event is on 25 October, opening a three-part season on Polish film avant-garde, from its beginnings till now. World expert Marcin Giżycki will present a brief history of avant-garde film in Poland, from the work of Franciszka and Stefan Themerson in the 1930s to the 1950s and Andrzej Pawlowski's influential Cineforms (Kineformy, 1957). Giżycki will also discuss the work of Jalu Kurek, Jerzy Zarzycki and Tadeusz Kowalski - previously unknown in the UK. Giżycki sets Polish film avant-garde in the context of other, contemporary film avant-gardes, making this a perfect introduction to the next strand - from the 1960s to the 1980s.
It's impossible to choose a single still to illustrate the wonderfully fluid and abstract Cineforms and Adam Walaciński's music also plays a central part, so here it is on Youtube:
While you're in the area (and, presumably, in the mood), you could pop over to Patio, the excellent and veritable Polish restaurant at the Shepherd's Bush Green end of Goldhawk Road.
But back to Westbourne Grove (via Vladivostok) and little quiz for you to enjoy: which film starring Yuli Borisovich Brynner takes us from Nice, through Paris and New York, to Westbourne Grove?
Thursday, 24 September 2009
Also on the programme is Gubaidulina's piano concerto, Introitus. While its not terribly virtuosic, it is very intense and typical of her late 1970s/early 1980s work: rich with personal religious symbolism (that listeners might not even pick up on) and extremely contemplative (there's a lot of wondering how many ways you can play an F sharp).
Between the two is a suite from Korngold's first film, Max Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1934). Just as the Nazis had been unable to unlink the play from Mendelssohn's music so Rheinhardt always intended to use it. It was just a question of who would edit it. Actually it was hardly a question - Rheinhardt had known Korngold since they met at the premiere of Mahler's Eighth Symphony in Munich in 1910 and Rheinhardt had no intention of taking the studio's suggestion of Franz Waxman. In the end Korngold added some bits of Mendelssohn's other works including the Scottish Symphony and orchestrations of some Songs without Words.
Much as I love Haydn, this isn't really the place to discuss him.
The programme in full:
Haydn: Symphony No 101 (Clock)
Korngold: Midsummer Night's Dream (suite from the film).** UK premiere.
Prokofiev: Toast to Stalin***
Drosostalitsa Moraiti (piano)*
Casey Evans (soprano)**
Goldsmiths Sinfonia, conductor Alexander Ivashkin
2 October 2009, 19.00
The Great Hall
Richard Hoggart Building
Tickets are £7; £5 (concs) and £3 (Goldsmiths students)
Further details are here.
Friday, 18 September 2009
Thursday, 17 September 2009
Monday, 7 September 2009
Often the designers approach the job very differently than their Western counterparts do: they're more interested in capturing the film's mood or in coming up with something metaphorical. Probably this isn't best for comedies (some of them - rightly or wrongly - seem to come out looking quite bleak, if comedic at all!) but darker stories work brilliantly as the designers get to the heart of the matter in a way that hardly ever happens in the west.
A good example is Roman Kowalik's poster for Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice. The film doesn't include any (literal) crucifixions, the house where everything happens isn't shaped like a church/cross and the hero remains fully-clothed throughout. Yet this image captures the film's tortured and joyful austerity. The image that was used in the West - the finale's solitary sapling worked well enough as a symbol of hope but it almost gave too much away: even without seeing the film, Tarkovskians would probably guess that that was how it ended. Kowalik leaves us wondering how (I don't suppose 'whether' was ever up for grabs) the anonymous man will escape. Or even if he wants to.
There are too many great posters to put in a single blog entry, but here's one of my favourites: Andrzej Pagowski's haunting image for Kieślowski's A Short Film About Love (Krótki film o miłości, 1988). It brilliantly captures the film's desperate ambiguity regarding what I suppose might have once been called the ownership of the gaze.
Here's the press release from The Polish Cultural Institute and there'll be some more information on the Cinéphilia West website in due course. Note that the exhibition is at Cinéphilia West, on Westbourne Grove, rather than the HQ, off Brick Lane.
And now: a little competition, I've removed the title etc from this poster for a very famous film. Anyone identifying it will win ... a lifetime's subscription to this blog!
Monday, 29 June 2009
At home there’s only one contender – the Bronze Horseman in Decembrists’ Square. Unveiled in 1782, it had been commissioned by Catherine the Great with a dedication to her predecessor Peter. But the ambiguity of the phrase "From Catherine II to Peter the Great" meant that it wasn't simply a metaphorical gift, but a statement of linearity which, given Catherine's somewhat tenuous claim to the throne was an astonishing piece of chutzpah.
Be that as it may, it was soon taken to the city's heart and in 1833 Pushkin was inspired to write his ghoulish story about the statue's retribution on a man who cursed Peter's decision to build the city on a swamp. As an aside it's interesting that three years earlier he'd written The Stone Guest, a take on Don Giovanni that also climaxes with a statue coming to life. Though The Bronze Horseman (read it here) seems quite ambivalent about the city it was hailed as a masterpiece and became very popular (possibly for its embedded anti-Polish sentiments) so that its title (actually, literally The Copper Horseman [Медный всадник] was then retrofitted to the statue.
It's worth pointing to a couple of paintings: Vasily Surikov's benign view [left] and, more famous, Benois' illustrations for a 1904 edition of Pushkin's poem. Pushkin and/or Benois also inspired composers Glière and Myaskovsky but I'll leave them for another post.
Actually Chiaureli wisely allows Stalin a couple of seconds of noble profile on his own before cutting to the money shot. After that, we catch up with some soldiers and, as their patrol is brought to a halt Shostakovich’s music is unceremoniously faded down.
Chiaureli’s need for, and appreciation of, music certainly seemed to come and go: perhaps he had difficulty in deciding what he wanted – or in explaining it to the benighted composer. Certainly 1919 and his previous collaboration with Shostakovich – the notorious The Fall of Berlin (1950) – feature some of the most ham-fisted music-editing ever to besmirch a film. I wonder if the shocking edits and fades up and down were a slap in the face or helped the composer cope with being forced to do such work.
Tuesday, 23 June 2009
I gave a series of lectures on Russian music on a cruise from St Petersburg to Moscow. Actually I did the first leg as well (Moscow to St P), but blogging both ways would have been a bit boring. Initially, I thought that technology (wi-fi on the Volga isn’t great) would force me to forego illustrations (there are a few pix – musical, cinematic or general - that are worth posting), but that I’d rectify it when I got home. Actually, the connection’s so slow that I’m writing the whole thing as a Word document and so am posting it all retrospectively (and possibly in a slightly random order)
So: St Petersburg, starting with initial impressions.
The first thing that surprised me since I was here last, was the explosion in traffic. Not only are Peter’s weekday streets jam-packed, but in the suburbs every third business seems to be 0А0 втосервис (which implies that not all the Ladas have been replaced with BMW
s and Mercs). Parking is virtually non-existent and, of course, for a city built on a swamp, underground parking presents certain problems.
Another third of businesses are строительные материалы – building materials. Clearly lots of people are updating their dachas: saunas and bath-houses are on the up, while the trip out to Peterhof is spattered with new-build would-be Romanov micro-palaces.
The women, too, seem changed.
Many young women wear belt-sized skirts and crucifyingly high heels: we even saw traffic wardens in heels, which made me wonder how they’d cope if someone did a runner – till we saw a couple of beheeled women tottering along very efficiently.
Also, some of them endlessly get their friends or boyfriends to photograph them, in extremis, in pseudo-model poses: chest out, shoulders back head thrown back, tossing their long hair
and smiling dazzlingly in homage to fashion magazines. (Thanks to Melissa for the pic!)
Clearly, despite the popularity of Putin’s Slavophilia, the Westernisers have been making hay. Hoardings advertising Биг Макс and Heinz кетчуп are old hat, but you're increasingly likely to see shops that cause a double take, like Рив Гош. Even weirder, more and more signs are bilingual – even hopping between Russian and English in mid-sentence.