Wednesday, 18 November 2009

An event for your Diary

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

Benya Krik

It seems a good moment to mention a forthcoming screening of Benya Krik at the Purcell Room on 29 November 2009. Among other things, it's a fascinating view of early 20th-century Jewish life, apparently shot partly on location in Odessa.

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.

A few months later Babel's astonishing play Sunset opened, in which Krik, fearing disinheritance, beats his father up then arranges an abortion for his gentile girlfriend, and forces his sister into marriage to obtain the dowry. After all this, he is praised by the local rabbi.

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".

Eisenstein, whilst eating stewed apples, sharing vodkas with Malevich, and corresponding with Stefan Zweig, was dividing his time between Krik, 1905 (aka The Battleship Potemkin) and a wartime front-line brothel comedy called The Bazaar of Lust. In 1932 he praised the 'laconicism' of 'the vastly underestimated play Sunset', though it had been heavily criticised and dropped from the repertoire five years previously. Babel got permission to go to Paris for a year and on his return he and Eisenstein would work on the banned and destroyed Bezhin Meadow. In 1939 he was arrested for being an 'anti-Soviet Trotskyite spy' (recruited during his time in Paris) and 'a member of a terrorist conspiracy'. He was shot in 1940 and dumped in a mass grave.

You can get a silent DVD of Benya Krik from The National Centre for Jewish Film, but better go to the South Bank where klezmerish live music is provided by Robin Harris in a screening that's part of the Jewish Music Institute's Jewish Culture Day.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009


In case you thought I'd forgotten about it - a heads-up/reminder of Between Two Worlds, the Alfred Schnittke festival led by the LPO and happening at various places in London from 15 November to 1 December to mark what would have been his 75th birthday.

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

Double Take

Johan Gimonprez’s Double Take (shown recently in the London Film Festival) is a post-modernist mash-up-CGI-mockumentary-philosophical-essay/gag-reel (that started life in 2005 (very differently) as the installation Looking for Alfred). But if that description hints at its porous structural borders, it takes an equally liberal view when it comes to revealing its subject matter.

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.

Double Take has been something of a festival hit and there are five trailers on Youtube but they make it seem like it is just going to be a witty exploration of ‘the idea of Hitchcock’ and doublings – but there’s more. So here's a clip that is less of a hard sell and hints a little more at what the film is like.

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

Russian Film Festival

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.

As usual it concentrates on the newest Russian cinema (this year with ten UK premieres), but they've expanded the docs and shorts section and there's an archive strand showing the five great Alexandrov-Orlova musicals. All this with the usual set of guest speakers and debates.

The features (which I'll quickly cover here) are dominated by films from the big names. Sergei Soloviev has two titles: Anna Karenina (literary behemoths have made popular source material recently). Somewhat unexpectedly, Soloviev sees a companion piece to Anna Karenina in his other festival film, Assa-2, a sequel to his cult perestroika rock classic from 1988. Amongst its cast is the great violist Yuri Bashmet, who began as a bassist in a rock group.

More literature with an updating of Chekhov's Ward 6 (Палата 6) from Karen Shakhnazarov. In between running Mosfilm, Shakhnazarov has made some intriguingly structured films, often intertwining humour and dark, moral ambiguity, so it will be interesting to see this tale of mental disintegration.

Nikolai Dostal's Pete on the Way to Heaven (Петя по дороге в Царствие) might sound like a sequel to his wry 1991 comedy Cloud-Heaven (Облака рай) but, though it features another simpleton in nowheresville, it's more politically engaged. Another film about the events of 3 March 1953? That sounds almost like the beginnings of a season in itself.

The flight of Yuri Gagarin is another historical moment that's had a recent cinematic outing: though appearing only briefly, the cosmonaut was central to the plot of Alexei Uchitel's (to me, slightly disappointing) Dreaming of Space (Космос как предчувствие, 2005). In Paper Soldier (Бумажный солдат) Alexei German Jnr takes a darker view of the events.

More literature, this time Nabokov, with Andrei Eshpai's The Event (Событие). Nabokov isn't generally remembered for his plays and Eshpai avoids it being a simple filming. He comes from a line of composers (Yakov Andreyevich and Andrei Yakovleyevich), and he brings a similar degree of musical sensitivity to the film - central to it is the music of Bach, adapted by his father.

Melody for a Street Organ (Мелодия для шарманки) continues Kira Muratova's recent strong run of films. Muratova is wonderfully attuned to the soundscapes of her films (though sadly its an aspect of her work that's often overlooked) and here, as in some of her others, the score is by the great Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov.

One genre that isn't really associated with Russia is the mockumentary, but while in the west it's often a chance for some gentle humour at the expense of a tangentially important subject, Russia 88 (Россия 88) strikes at one of the country's hearts: patriotism, nationalism and xenophobia. Like all successful mockumentaries there's an ambiguity about the central character and there's been a huge debate about whether it actually promotes the neo-Nazism that it portrays - an effect that is disturbingly intensified by the unprompted vox pops that support such views.

Despite some more positive prognoses for the country there's still a supply of bleak films and Nikolai Khomeriki's Tale in the Darkness (Сказка про темноту) fills that role here. A brutalised far-Eastern population and child cruelty beings to mind Freeze Die Rise Again (Замри умпи воскресни) but this is a contemporary - and harrowing - story, though some critics saw light at the end of the tunnel.

Undoubtedly the weirdest feature in the festival is First Squad (Первый отряд). There's an undeniable mystical streak in the national character. War films have always been popular there. They have a great animation tradition. The country has an interesting relationship with Japan. Hey presto - a supernatural WW2 anime! Clearly, 14 year-old Nadya (of course, Russian for 'hope') is no Slavic Tank Girl but First Squad can't be anything less than interesting (and must be more successful than the Tank Girl film!)

Friday, 2 October 2009

Cinéphilia West

As I mentioned a couple of weeks back, Wallflower Press has a new outlet, Cinéphilia West, at 171 Westbourne Grove (close to Needham Road). There's a screening space, a gallery and a bookshop, and there'll be a regular stream of events. And, of course ... the essential caff.

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

Toast to Stalin

Goldsmiths College is giving us a rare chance to hear Prokofiev's cantata Toast to Stalin (Здравица). Soviet national radio commissioned Prokofiev to write it as a 60th birthday present for the tyrant in 1939 and he must have had mixed feelings after after the different fates of Alexander Nevsky (a triumph - albeit temporary) and the Cantata on the 20th Anniversary of the Revolution (undeservedly, a catastrophe). Neverthless he managed to select texts (in that Soviet neologistic oxymoron, 'modern folk poems') that spend most of the time discussing the people's happiness rather than praising the man directly. It also contains a couple of hilarious fingers in the pocket.

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)
Gubaidulina: Introitus*
Korngold: Midsummer Night's Dream (suite from the film).** UK premiere.
Prokofiev: Toast to Stalin***

Drosostalitsa Moraiti (piano)*
Casey Evans (soprano)**
Goldsmiths Chorus***
Goldsmiths Sinfonia, conductor Alexander Ivashkin

2 October 2009, 19.00

The Great Hall
Richard Hoggart Building
Goldsmiths College

Tickets are £7; £5 (concs) and £3 (Goldsmiths students)

Further details are here.

Friday, 18 September 2009


A quick heads up the retrospective of five films by Wojciech Has at the Barbican.

Given his surrealist bent, it might seem appropriate that Has was born on All Fools' Day (1925). His forty-odd year career began just after the war with several documentaries that seem to have made little impact. In 1958 he made his first feature, The Noose (Petla) a disturbing nocturnal tale of an alcoholic. The same year saw Farewells (Pozegnania) a story of a wartime romance framed with almost fetishistic visuals.

But the highwater mark came in with two cultish masterworks from the 60s and 70s.

The Saragossa Manuscript (kopis znaleziony w Saragossie, 1965) is a superb adaptation of Jan Potocki's extremely literary novel (actually originally published in French) which intertwines several nested stories set during the Napoleonic Wars. With a gently humorous transgressiveness, it's no surprise that it inspired film-makers like Bunuel and Lynch and, beyond that, The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia. It also inspired an alternate soundtrack version from Aleksander Kolkowski and Marek Pytel.

The last of the five films in the retrospective is The Hour-Glass Sanatorium (Sanatorium Pod Klepsydrą, 1973), after Bruno Schulz's collection of dreamy stories, with an overlaying contemplation of the Holocaust, of which the author was, paradoxically, both a survivor and a victim.

Once you've seen these two you'll want to buy the DVDs - but see them on the big screen first.

After the Barbican the season moves on the Edinburgh, Manchester and Brighton.

To go with the season there'll be a new installation at the Barbican by the Brothers Quay, long-time Has and Schulz admirers.

There's more about it at the Polish Cultural Institute and the Barbican Cinema.

Thursday, 17 September 2009


A quickie on the LFF. The launch was last week and after a few days of digesting the programme, here are a few of the things I'm looking forward to (and not).

As per usual the galas are nice for star-spotting (though you'll be spending most of your time at the Vue West End, while the Odeon is redeveloped to include a hotel, flats, restaurants and, sadly, smaller screens) But in reality, wouldn't you rather see the very beautiful restoration of Asquith's Underground, with live music from Neil Brand and ensemble? - actually, in a welcome reappraisal of the archive strand it is a gala! Or how about Hollis Frampton's epic seven-film sequence Hapax Legomena?

As to the East European stuff, for the minute I'll limit myself to brief details:

Tales from the Golden Age (Amintiri din epoca de aur). A Romanian-French black comedy set under Ceaucescu, that's been picked up by Trinity Films. More info here.

Help Gone Mad (Сумасшедшая помощь, Sumasshedshaya pomoshch'). A Beckettian-Kaurismakian 'bleak and lugubrious comedy' from Boris Khlebnikov.

Morphia (Морфий). Balabanov's latest, scripted by the late Sergei Bodrov Junior and based on Bulgakov. Must be a candidate for proper distribution but, as yet, hasn't been picked up.

Osadné. A documentary about the titular Slovakian village and its relationship to the rest of Europe.

Protektor. A Czech drama about a journalist and an actress who gradually realise the implications of the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia.

A Room and a Half (Полторы комнаты или сентиментальное путешествие на Родину, Poltory komnaty ili sentimental'noe puteshestvie na Rodinu). A fantasy that realises exiled poet Joseph Brodsky's imaginary incognito trip back to Russia. Director Khrzhanovsky is best-known for his animation (The Glass Harmonica is a classic) and this live-action film interpolates animated sequences.

St George Shoots the Dragon (Sveti Georgije ubiva azdahu). A WW1 Balkan epic from Srdjan Dragojevic (director of Pretty Flame, Pretty Village). It's allegedly the most expensive Serbian film ever, though if East European cinema teaches us anything, it's that there's no necessary connection between budget and quality.

Sweet Rush (Tatarak). Just as Britain belatedly gets to see Wajda's Katyn, the LFF launches his new one. Counterpointing the fictional story are Krystyna Janda's meditations on the death of her husband, cinematographer Edward Kłosiński, As yet, nobody's picked up up, but hopefully we won't have to wait too long for a proper release.

Who's Afraid of the Wolf? (Kdopak by se vlka bál?) A Czech family drama that merges into a fairy-tale world, and specifically Little Red Riding Hood. Sounds intriguing, and the LFF listing specifically mentions the score by Jan P Muchow.

Meanwhile, there's the Russian Wolfy (Волчок, Volchok). Another redemptive, fantasy-tinged childhood story, this time loosely based on the dysfunctional family of lead actress Yana Troyanova.

The Ferrari Dino Girl (Holka Ferrari Dino) is a welcome return for Jan Nemec. An autobiographical look at the footage he shot of the 1968 Soviet invasion, how he smuggled it out of the country and its fate thereafter.

Victor Alampiev's enigmatic avant-garde 8-minute My Absolution will be shown on a loop in the studio on 25 October for anyone to drop in for free.

As for shorts, there are three Polish and two Latvians. I wish they'd put them on as supports to appropriate features (like the LFF used to many years ago - even if they were often unannounced so you might end up seeing the same thing three times). But unless there's been a change of heart, here are links to the programmes in which they appear. From Poland: Chick, Don't Look Back (Nie Patrz Wstecz) and A Story of a Missing Car (Historia a Braku Samochodu). The Latvian pair, both children's films (When Apples Roll (Kad Aboli Ripo) and Magic Water (Dzivais Udens) are at least gathered in the same strand. Also, Romka-97 is a Finnish film set in St Petersburg.

In the British film Perestroika, Sarah Turner re-enacts her Trans-Siberian rail trip from twenty years ago, and readdresses the footage that she shot at the time.

Elsewhere, Trimpin: the Sound of Invention, a doc about the sonic experimenter looks worthwhile. Again, no distributor but it's showing at the ICA who, if they have any money, might be tempted to give it a week or so.

Double Take, a Hitchcock mockumentary-found-footage-CGI-mash-up looked hilarious in the LFF trailer.

Another mash-up - this time about love and creation, destruction and death - comes from Gustave Deutsch with FILM IST: a girl & a gun.

I'm hoping no-one holds me to the rash predictions I made about the 'inevitable' inclusion of Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, but there's always the possibility that it's the surprise film.

Another change is that there'll be a proper awards night (again, back to the future). Fest director Sandra Hebron said "The idea is very much to raise the festival both in terms of its public address but also in terms of its relationship with the industry. A lot of the things we’re doing are about trying to bring the festival up to a level of parity with festivals internationally that operate on a similar scale." But at the same time:"We are not an A-grade competitive festival and at the moment we are not aspiring to be one" and that she would personally resist copying the likes of Cannes by having a high-profile competition strand because it would not be true to London's aim to be a festival for audiences. So, is this the start of a (slow) march towards making the LFF more Cannes-ish, Venetian or Berlinian? We shall see.

Finally, I would say that Nowhere Boy, Sam Taylor-Wood's John Lennon biopic (though the LFF brochure denies it that description) has divided the people that I've talked to. Except I can't. Perhaps it's just who I knock around with, but everyone is shuddering with horror at the prospect. Certainly the trailer makes it look like a standard biopic, with no evidence of the 'authorial signature' that the programme cites. But who knows...

Monday, 7 September 2009

Polish film posters

Polish film posters must be some of the best in the world, and there's a chance to see a selection of around 50 in a new exhibition at Cinéphilia West, running from September 1st to 30th.

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

The Bronze Horseman

Many cities have developed (either deliberately or by happenstance) an internationally recognized ‘logo’ – the Eiffel Tower, the Brandenburg Gate, a routemaster on Westminster Bridge (preferably to the accompaniment of Big Ben’s chimes, though increasingly, it’s an image of the Eye), etc. Moscow’s is clearly Red Square – or more precisely St Basil’s, but what of St Petersburg? The raised bridges appear frequently, or the Winter Palace complex. Palace Square and the Alexander Monument?

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.

Because of the myth that the city would stand as long as the statue, during the Siege of Leningrad it was – perhaps superstitiously - completely covered with sandbags. In much the same way, Britain only survives because the ravens at the Tower of London have their wings clipped.

I'll finish by mentioning a film appearance: Chiaureli’s jaw-dropping 1950 Stalin hagiography The Unforgettable Year 1919 (Незабываемый 1919 год). To the marvelously inappropriate accompaniment of Shostakovich’s Attack on the Red Hill – a miniature Rachmaninovian piano concertino (previously mistranslated as Assault on the Beautiful City of Gorky), Stalin, like a night-watchman, patrols the city, pausing only to strike a pose in front of the statue: as Peter had founded the city, so Stalin would defend it.

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
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

Russian Diary (1)

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.