Thursday, 16 July 2020

A Human Wound: An Interview with Itay Tal About God of the Piano

Premiered at Rotterdam, Itay Tal's God of the Piano is a supremely confident feature debut by the writer-director and another fine addition to the thriving new Israeli cinema. A drama with a thriller's grip, Tal's Tel Aviv-set film focuses on a concert pianist, Anat (the compelling Naama Preis), undertaking some dubious decisions as, having failed to fully live up to her father's exacting musical standards, she strives to make her son a piano prodigy. Lean and stylish, God of the Piano is notable for its intelligent, subversive perspective on the place of talent in family dynamics and a woman's role within a male-dominated household - not to mention a patriarchal classical music world. Following the success of Sara Colangelo's superb US take on The Kindergarten Teacher, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to imagine an American remake of God of the Piano in the future. I talked to Tal last year in Łódź.

Alex Ramon: How did God of the Piano come about? 

Itay Tal: It actually started as my graduation film and was meant to be a short. There were about 26 pages of script so I imagined it would be 30 minutes or so. But after 8 or 9 days, with only 60% of the film shot, I edited it and found that it was already about 36 minutes long. I wasn't going to give up anything in the script - all the scenes were necessary - so I thought I'm not going to shrink it but expand it to a feature instead.

AR: I understand you had some gaps in the shooting.

IT: Yes, the main reason for that was budget. We didn't get any funding from my initial application. It wasn't easy but to be honest this long process also had a few advantages in that I had more time to think things over due to the delays, and the script improved. I was also editing as we went along. For example, the big scene of the dinner at the father's house changed a lot, and I think it was for the better. So the lengthy process had its good sides, too. 

AR: Music is central to the film and the film feels like music in terms of the rhythmic way in which scenes are structured and edited. The opening, for example, is very brisk as we follow the boy, Idam, growing up. 

IT: That was always the intention. From the script stage, I understood that we'd move quickly through those opening scenes. The first ten or fifteen minutes of the film are very extreme - in some ways the most extreme section of the film - and for me the main story starts afterwards. So I wanted to get there fast.

AR: And how was the process of finding and working with the composers on the score?

IT: I got really lucky there. There are two great composers who worked on the film, Roie Shpigler and Hillel Teplitzky, along with a very talented composer/pianist, Eran Zvirin, who did all the playing for the film. Eran had already worked with me on my previous short, so we trusted each other. He recommended Hillel who we initially brought in to help the actors "fake" the piano playing; as, apart from Andy Levi as Idam, none of the actors were players. While that was going on he let me hear some of his compositions and I was really impressed. Later when Roie sent me the first draft of the score I listened to it about 50 times in a row! They really nailed it, and their work gave me more inspiration for some scenes.

AR: The film deals in part with the position of a woman in a family that doesn't value her. Could you say more about that theme? 

IT: Yes, it was an idea that came to me intuitively during the writing of the script. I've frequently been asked if Anat's position represents the woman's role in Israel generally. I don't feel that at all. Rather, this is the woman's role in this specific family. I tried to use every trick in the book to convey Anat's sense of separation and isolation in a very difficult situation, right from the opening scene where she's performing, and then, later, when she's giving birth alone. It was a way of pushing her to the extreme and making her confront the most difficult circumstances in solitude. 

That's why the scenes with the woman from the institute were important - a contrast to the very male older classical music world. Suddenly Anat makes this connection with another woman character. 

AR: Yes, I loved those scenes and that role is important in another way that's difficult to discuss without "spoilers"... But the important thing is that your view of Anat is sympathetic and feminist. Given some of her actions, how have audiences responded to her as a character?

IT: It's hard for some people to like her and I understand why. It's OK, of course, I mean, I also disagree with pretty much every decision that the character makes! But I understand and sympathise with her. The important thing is that even people who don't "like" her tend to stay and want to follow her journey. That investment is significant for me since I always worried that people wouldn't "survive" the first 10 minutes of the film. But they do. I think what hooks audiences is the horrible act she does at the beginning and the questions it throws up. Who is she? What led her to this?

AR: That's part of why the film is so suspenseful and feels like a thriller to me. In that way it also reminded me of Nadav Lapid's The Kindergarten Teacher. Here again you have a female protagonist and her dynamic with a talented child whom she's pushing in a certain direction. Was that film an inspiration in any way? 

IT: It was, and in fact all of Nadav Lapid's work is an inspiration for me. I really love it. I saw The Kindergarten Teacher a few months before starting to shoot God of the Piano. And another connection is that Nadav Lapid and Naama Preis are a couple in real life. 

AR: And how was the casting process? How did you find Naama Preis and Andy Levi?

IT: The casting took some time. But when Naama came to the audition it was kind of obvious that she was the one. She was so good. I asked her afterwards how she got into the character so fast and she told me that she felt a strong connection to Anat. And I think she does an amazing job, really carrying the film on her shoulders. 

When it came to the casting the role of Idam, I knew I couldn't get away with someone who doesn't know piano. So we looked for a player. We went to the conservatory in Tel Aviv, where we eventually shot as well. They helped me a lot. The teachers told me about a concert that was coming up and that I should attend it. I saw a lot of children perform and invited some for auditions. Eventually it wasn't hard picking Andy Levi; other than the fact of his obvious talent as a player, he's very intelligent. He was 13 or 14 when we started shooting and he really nailed the role. 

AR: Family dynamics, and the place of talent within that, are such a key theme of the film, aren't they?

IT: Yes, and I feel that this film is about something more than the musical context. For me, it's talking about a human wound: that of a child trying to win love from their parents by talent or with a tool - it could be through music, but also sports, or maths or something else, whatever the standards are in a particular household. Of course what human beings need is unconditional love. And the film shows the most conditional love there is. I think it's a wound that happens in a lot of families, something universal.

Perhaps the "cure," or the therapeutic process, for this is awareness most of all: knowing that it's happening. As I see it, the characters in this film know not what they do. They have no idea what's really going on. The only point where there is a realisation or awareness is in the last scene: when Anat "sees" something. It doesn't mean that it's going to be easy for her, far from it. But it's like a new era opening in her mind. 

AR: You premiered the film at Rotterdam. Do you enjoy the festival experience? 

IT: I really enjoy presenting the film. It's different every time and the audiences often surprise me. I'm thrilled that audiences received the film well. It exceeded my expectations that people seem to really connect with the film. They want to talk after, and they tell me it makes them think or that it stays with them. That's the biggest present I could get. 

AR: Can you say anything about your next project? 

IT: All I can say at this point is that it's another female-centred story. It's even going to be a bit more "extreme" than this one, in some ways, though perhaps less dark overall. It's still in early stages of development, but we're getting there.  

God of the Piano has just been released in cinemas in New Zealand. 

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Found Together: An Interview with Sean Cisterna About From the Vine

Based on Kenneth Canio Cancellara's novel Finding Marco, Sean Cisterna's From the Vine casts the venerable Joe Pantoliano as Marco Gentile, a Toronto business exec who departs the corporate world in order to revive his grandfather's vineyard in Acerenza, Southern Italy, much to the consternation of his wife Marina (Wendy Crewson). Leaning heavily on Pantoliano's charisma and DP Scott McClellan's lensing of some luscious Italian landscapes, Cisterna's likeable film harks back to such feel-good fare as Under the Tuscan Sun, and is now available for viewing on digital platforms. I spoke to Cisterna at the Cinergia festival in Łódź last year. 

Alex Ramon: When did your interest in filmmaking start?

Sean Cisterna: Very young. I remember going to see E.T. as a kid, and being overwhelmed, coming out crying, and just being really aware of the power of movies to transform us. I started making films with a video camera and then went on to study film in Toronto. 

You've taken From the Vine to various festivals. What has the reaction to the film been like?

We've shown the film around the world and the response has pretty much been the same. People say it's like a warm hug from an Italian grandmother! And wine always helps to bring us together! 

How does the film differ from the novel?

The book is more introspective. We made the film more plot-centred, while keeping the focus on Marco's journey and his reconnection with his roots in Italy.

Your films up to this point have focused on younger characters. What were the challenges of working with more experienced performers this time around?

Yes, I made a film for Netflix called Full Out and another called Kiss and Cry. So in a way working with older, more established actors meant coming out of my comfort zone. It was daunting to an extent, and Joe [Pantoliano] and I would both admit that we had some struggles along the way. Of course Joe's a very established actor who's acted more than I've directed so there was a bit of "head butting" at times. But gradually the charm of Italy won us all over and we developed a good working relationship. 

The dynamic between Joe's character and Wendy Crewson as his wife is one of the most delightful aspects of the film. And Marco Leonardi also puts in a good performance. 

Wendy was like the guardian angel on set. She was this warm being we could all go to and have a friendly discussion with. She also added to the script to make her character stronger which was a big benefit to the film. It was also great to have Marco Leonardi in the cast. Actually, he was one of the first actors to come on board after we contacted him when he was a special guest at the Italian-Canadian Film Festival in Toronto.  We were so happy that he loved the script and wanted to be part of it, bringing with him his history from films like Cinema Paradiso. 

It seems like the the village where you shot really opened up to you all. 

Yes, they were great with us. It was the first time that a film had been made there and the locals really wanted to participate. At one point there was a WhatsApp group with 700 people in it! Of course as a co-production we had to have a certain amount of Canadian and Italian crew and collaborators. It came together well, a great reminder of how cool it can be when people from different countries come together to create somethimg. We had some fun with that in various ways in the film, including with the score where we feature an Italian version of Blue Rodeo's "Lost Together," an iconic Canadian song, alongside Italian pop music.

From the Vine is available to watch on digital platforms now. 

Thursday, 25 June 2020

Interview: Thomas Clay on Fanny Lye Deliver'd

I interviewed writer-director-composer Thomas Clay about his fantastic "Puritan Western" Fanny Lye Deliver'd, starring Maxine Peake, Charles Dance and Freddie Fox, which is available online from today. You can read the interview at Film International here

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Song Preview: "Dancing in the Dark", Barb Jungr & Simon Wallace (Kristalyn Records, 2020)

The first song I ever heard Barb Jungr sing was by Bruce Springsteen: a version of "The River" that had so much intimacy, feeling and understated dramatic power that I was immediately captivated. This was February 2015 and a few days later, on Valentine's Day, I reviewed Jungr in concert for the first time. In the Southbank Centre's Purcell Room, accompanied by Simon Wallace on piano and Davide Mantovani on bass, Jungr delivered a supreme set of love-themed songs that ranged from the Isley Brothers' "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)" through Dylan's "I Want You" to Tom Rush's "No Regrets." It was a transcendent evening, and a perfect introduction to the artistry of one of the greatest, most dynamic and original performers that we have. 

I've seen Jungr in concert many times since then, with programmes dedicated to Nina Simone, Dylan and Cohen, The Beatles, and Sting, among others. The last time was at the premiere of her superb Brel/Dylan/self-penned collection Bob, Brel & Mewhich featured a spectacular appearance by The Fourth Choir on "If We Only Had Love." Jungr recently re-teamed with the Choir for a new release, the beautiful "In My Troubled Days," which you can listen to here

Now, reuniting with Simon Wallace, Jungr returns to Springsteen's work to deliver a recording of "Dancing in the Dark" that was developed and recorded in lockdown. For Jungr, the song itself now speaks to that experience and to the uncertainty of the future: "For all of us in music and live performing arts, the news is grim. It made me think about how we are all waiting to see what might happen, and how we are all, wherever we are, Dancing in the Dark." 

As with "The River," Wallace's delicate piano, bass and cello arrangement provides an intimate musical context, and Jungr's caressing, crystal-clear vocal turns an upbeat rock song into a contemplative ballad: a private expression that connects deeply with the listener. Intimations of stasis, frustration, absurdity and alienation emerge freshly illuminated, and so does their possible redemption. Jungr's voice dances over the title lyrics at the end, repeating the words, an expression of uncertainty turned into a poignant, shared affirmation.

Like "In My Troubled Days," Jungr and Wallace's "Dancing in the Dark" is exquisite: a balm that we need right now. It also prompts a hopeful anticipation of that future moment - whenever it may be - when we can join together again to hear the song in live performance, in that very special communion that a Jungr show provides. 

"Dancing in the Dark" is available from 26 June. Pre-order here.

Further reading:

What the Song Asks For: An Interview with Barb Jungr

Life of a Song: Dancing in the Dark

Saturday, 23 May 2020

A Desire to Bring Colour into Life: An Interview with Darya Zhuk

Unfolding in mid-1990s Belarus, Darya Zhuk's debut feature Crystal Swan (Khrustal) focuses on Velya (Alina Nasibullina), a DJ who intends to escape her homeland for a new life in the US. A mistake on her forged visa application throws a spanner in the works, though, forcing Velya to decamp to a village that's the location of the crystal-making factory of which she's pretended to be the manager. There Velya finds herself embroiled in a troublesome family's wedding plans, as she awaits a phone call that will determine her fate. Visually vibrant, consistently surprising, wryly funny, and more than a little melancholy, Zhuk's distinctive debut - which I reviewed for Sight & Sound - revels in '90s materiality as it examines the ambitions of its heroine, and her hopes of a life beyond Belarus. 

I enjoyed speaking to Zhuk following Crystal Swan's premiere at the London Film Festival, where we discussed her background and inspirations for the film, the importance of challenging stereotypes, the use of music, and the Belorussian "desire to bring colour into life." Crystal Swan is streaming now at Mubi.

AR: When did your interest in filmmaking begin?

DZ: I found film in a roundabout way, and it was actually through music. I was studying Economics, but not enjoying it, and I wanted to meet creative people. I took an electronic music composition class, and immediately had a feeling of "Oh my God, this is my tribe!" I find it hard to articulate how that desire to direct came about. It's just something that haunts you. I would go to see films, and sit in the dark and cry. I couldn't explain it. It was just a strong feeling of "I want to be part of this."

And this was in the US, right?

Yes, I went from Belarus to the States for school and I went to film school there too. I call going to film school "the most expensive vacation." All of my other schooling was on scholarship as a Belorussian student. But I felt that I had to go to film school, even if it meant being in debt for the rest of my life.

Darya Zhuk (Photo: KVIFF)

What films did you grow up watching in Belarus and what are some of your influences?

My Grandma would drop me off at the cinema on a Sunday morning. I saw a lot of Soviet children's films, and some Czech films, all stuff from that area. I didn't really watch American films then, but when we did see them they all looked like horrible B movies to us because they were always terrible copies! We assumed they were bad cinema. It wasn't until I came to the US that I realised that we really knew nothing about good cinema. I had to rewatch a lot and really educate myself.

When you're at film school there's this "film school language" that you get exposed to, you know, Tarkovsky, Bergman. They're great but at a certain point you realise it's not you, and that you have to find your own inspirations and voice. I realised I loved Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismaki, and that irony and humour are very important to me. In terms of female filmmakers, I love Kira Muratova and Larisa Shepitko. It feels like gender wasn't a barrier in the Soviet system, and there were many amazing women.

To what extent was Crystal Swan inspired by your own experience of trying to get to the States?

Somewhat, but not the actual story. I've been thinking about this film, really, for the past 10 years. I had a version of the script in 2011, but then it kept getting re-written and "massaged" by Helga Landauer. She's a Russian screenwriter and poet who lives in New York, and we collaborated. One short I made in 2015, called The Real America, is a bit of a precursor; it's more autobiographical, but it has a similar kind of wild character who refuses to be victimised.

Crystal Swan was definitely inspired by some real women I knew. I had girlfriends like Velya; they fascinated me. I loved them, but I was always afraid that something would happen to them. They were so wild. And of course I loved the subculture...the music always smelled like freedom to me: the fascination with the West, a breath of fresh air. So I can relate to the character's desire to take on the world. To self-actualise. That feeling of wanting something more: some abstract America that we don't know the realities of.

That's one of the themes, in fact: the tension between the fantasy of a place you want to escape to, and the reality: that nagging sense of doubt.

Yes. These are issues that come up for anyone who doesn't live in the country they were born in. Did I do the right thing? Am I to blame for things that go wrong? There are seldom easy answers to these questions.

How did you find Alina Nasibullina to play Velya? She's a theatre actress, right?

Yes, mostly in Russia you get a theatre training, and then you go on to do both theatre and film. But this is her first leading role. It was a long process; I'd cast the whole film but I hadn't found the lead. You want to fall in love with someone, you know? I'd worked with the casting director before on a TV show in Moscow: an ensemble comedy that was very hard to cast. She knew people that I didn't know and could track them down. So that's how, at the 11th hour, she sent me Alina and said: "You must see her."

My whole crew kind of gathered around to watch the piece Alina sent in and were like: "Who is this?!" She was funny and quirky - she might have been slightly drunk when she did the piece! - and obviously amazing but we wondered if she was the kind of person who'd show up for work... Of course it turned out that she'd had this amazing education and was so skilled and professional. So I said: "I must see her now! I'm in Minsk and shooting in two weeks and I have no one to shoot!"

Another filmmaker I love is Susan Seidelman, in particular Desperately Seeking Susan. And when Alina showed up I was like "Oh my God, you look like Madonna!" But she has so much presence of her own that it wasn't about her doing a Madonna "thing." She just oozes charisma and she changes so much. I love seeing all the new Alinas.

I think that with another actress the film would have been more of a drama, but Alina naturally has this comic quality, an ironic sensibility.

I wanted to ask you about genre. Given some of the darker elements in the film, how did you feel about LFF putting the film in the "Laugh" strand?

I always intended it to be a drama with comedic elements: ironic, tragicomic. When it was put into the "Laugh" gala in London I said I would also take the "Cry" section! I guess it's easier to sell a comedy, but the mix of tones is important to me. It's an Eastern European thing in some ways.

How was the response at the LFF premiere? Did the Brits laugh?

I ducked out, but I heard there was a lot of laughter. There were many Eastern Europeans in who speak the language and get the nuances. But Belorussians are the hardest audience for me. Because it's home and they're like: "This will be sent around the world, and it represents us. Why don't you love your homeland?!"

How is the film industry in Belarus right now?

The Government-funded films are about the war and other historical subjects; they're building up a national identity narrative and they're pretty depressing. But there are some independent filmmakers, doing low budget stuff that's interesting, some of it with a mumblecore vibe.

And what was your funding process like for Crystal Swan?

Excruciating, actually. We got some from the States, some from Germany, some private equity money... It allowed me to retain creative freedom, which is the most important thing, but getting everything together was a lot of work.

How did you choose the music for the film? You use it pretty sparingly throughout.

I wanted to include music that she could realistically listen to: that would be of the time and already released by the period that the film is set. But it turned out that a lot of it had aged badly. I was like: "Wow, we used to listen to this?!" A lot of it is just unbearable! And it's house music, 4/4 repetitive, so when you put it in a scene it doesn't have development, it doesn't escalate. So it kind of ruins your dramatic structure. I eventually found only a couple of tracks that could work. The important thing is that it's a storytelling device. It reminds you of her dreams, and it symbolises freedom. When her Walkman breaks it's like she's on the moon.

LFF has been extremely (some might say excessively) proud of the fact that this year 38% of the featured films are by female directors. How does that compare to the situation in Belarus? 

I don't know the statistics of our film festival, Listopad, in Belarus, but I feel that we do have a lot of female filmmakers, not necessarily those being picked for international festivals, but in terms of the national programme, there's a decent parity. That's also true in neighbouring countries like Georgia.

On Crystal Swan, I worked hard to make sure we had a female DP and I'm very proud of my collaboration with Carolina [Costa]. I also have a female producer and AD, and that was a fantastic collaboration. The screenwriter is a woman. So I feel that it's a feminist film, not only in terms of what's up there on the screen.

It was important to tackle stereotypes in the film, too. I tried to reverse the dynamic a bit. You see a lot of women working, and men not being present or being silent. And Eastern European women do that. They do a couple of jobs and that's considered the norm.

Tell me about your collaboration with Carolina, and the look of the film, which has great vibrancy - plus a distinctive ratio.

I just realized that I love colours. I was finding references and realised that the ones I was pulling on had a lot of colour. Belarus is very clean. It's always been like that. In the downtown, everything is painted. It's beautiful. There's a government building right near my house in Minsk. It has some architectural elements that resemble a vase. The building is blue and the vase is pink. I think that really says something about us as a society. There's such a desire to bring colour into life. I go back there and find myself  observing and appreciating all those details. It's not this grey reality that some people still like to think of as defining Eastern Europe. That's such a stereotype.

The apartment that we filmed in belongs to an elderly lady and, honestly, we changed so little. The kitchen really is red and crazy, and the living room, the carpets... we just literally put in one throw! I pulled a few elements a little tighter within the frame. But really it was all there. And it became the language of the film.

As for the ratio, it's something that Carolina and I discussed, and we felt that it helped to convey the character's sense of claustrophobia. It evokes the 90s a bit, too. I felt like: Well, I have few elements. We don't have much shooting time. Every decision I make needs to serve the story.

Which recent films have you liked?

I loved Michał Marczak's All These Sleepless Nights. Happy as Lazzaro by Alice Rohrwacher was also wonderful. And Roma... Oh my God, it's a masterpiece. That elegant simplicity. It looks like he's doing do little and really he's doing so much. And it's such a feminist film. I was amazed.

And how about your own next project ?

I have some ideas. A couple of things about love in certain contexts... But then when I saw Cold War, I felt like it had all been done.

Oh, I really don't think Cold War does it all...

Maybe you're right. I thought the film was great, but perhaps he over-cut it. It needed more love story, more emotion, to get it to that end. But yes, love and geopolitics is definitely what I'm interested in exploring. It's a fascinating mix.

You can stream Crystal Swan on Mubi here.

Further reading:

Monday, 4 May 2020

Book Review: Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage by Tori Amos (Hodder & Stoughton, 2020)

With 2005's Piece by Piece, created in collaboration with the journalist Ann Powers, Tori Amos rewrote the rules of the rock star memoir, producing a book that went broad, intimate, playful and deep as it placed her personal and professional experiences in the context of wider patterns, ones reflecting both her Native American and Christian heritage, as well as her Jung and Joseph Campbell-schooled study of archetypes and myth. 

Via an ambitious structure, and in prose as image-rich, perceptive, surprising and witty as her best lyric-writing, Amos and Powers explored formative family influences, music biz machinations, motherhood, creative process, live performance, and much more besides, the book drawing a great deal of its power from its structure as a wide-ranging dialogue between the two writers. 

Seven diverse albums (including the conceptual tours-de-force American Doll Posse and Night of Hunters), several world tours (encompassing band, solo and orchestral set-ups) and a one-of-a-kind National Theatre musical later, the prolific Amos now follows Piece by Piece with a second book, Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage. 

As its title suggests, this new work feels very much like a companion to Amos's last album, 2017's Native Invader, which mostly took inspiration from two events: the 2016 American election result and her mother's debilitating stroke. Over two years on from the record's release, Donald Trump remains in the White House and Amos's mother, Mary, a muse for many songs and the person to whom the book is dedicated, is sadly deceased. Those two facts are pivots for the volume, inspiring Amos to investigate the artist's position and potential in what she defines as an "unprecedented moment of crisis." (And that's before the horror of the current pandemic.)  

A feature of Piece by Piece was a number of "Song Canvases" - short sections focusing on specific songs - and in Resistance the prose sections are juxtaposed with full lyrics from a range of songs drawn from across Amos's catalogue (plus some never-seen-before photos, too). The book begins, appropriately, with Scarlet's Walk's majestic finale "Gold Dust" and Amos's memories of her late '70s/early '80s piano bar days in Washington D.C. Here, from her vantage point as a teenage girl starting her career under the supervision of her father (a minister with "more than a dose of Mama Rose pulsing through his veins" [p.8]), Amos observes the Carter-Reagan shift and right wing lobbyists' rise, finding herself playing in "a hotbed of conservative thinking on its rise to power" (p.13) as she smuggles songs like "The Last Chance Texaco" into her set. 

A lengthy section focusing on the 1979-1981 American hostage situation in Iran indicates the ambitious political dimension of the volume, as Amos aims to trace American foreign policy decisions from reaction to that event through the later Afghanistan invasion and the Iraq war/s. These elements are interwoven with many other reflections, from memories of her return to the piano following her first failed record to events as current as Christine Blasey Ford's testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee.   

"[I]ntersecting situations can compel a future work" (p126), Amos writes, and that observation clearly compels the volume itself. Amos shows songs both reflecting and refracting personal and political events, and expanding their meanings and resonances over time. Overall, though, Resistance ends up at once less expansive and less cohesive than Piece by Piece. An associative, place-based fluidity of structure is attempted, and sometimes achieved, but there's a restlessness to the book which often doesn't let an idea settle and develop before moving on to the next. The transitions, though at times arresting, can also be jarring, giving a random, unfocused quality to some chapters.  

"Part of a songwriter's discipline is being ruthless with lazy concepts" (92), Amos notes, and originality of thought and response has defined her as an artist. Still, while the writing here is often striking and vivid - check out the great description of "Cornflake Girl"'s genesis, for one (p.91-3) - some sections resort to rhetoric you could find in a social media post on any day of the week. There are predictable shorthands ("our Handmaid's Tale-like reality"), overused fashionable buzzwords ("gaslighting", "weaponizing"), and a touch of TDS, especially in the accusations of Russian meddling in the US election. (The linked Native Invader songs "Benjamin" and "Russia", with their teasing cryptographic elements, evoked the latter much more subtly and potently.)

But Resistance gets better as it progresses. As Amos writes frankly of the time that it can take for an artist to find their style, about the lessons learned from "failure", about the vital importance of recognising your own story as unique and valuable, so the book itself belatedly finds its shape. Her account of 9/11 and its aftermath, during which she was one of very few artists not to cancel a planned US tour, is powerful - showing how interactions and conversations experienced at that fraught time inspired Scarlet's Walk

The book also broadens out from a US context to take in her experiences in Russia on the mighty 2014 Unrepentant Geraldines solo tour, which she describes as "a turning point for me as a person and as an artist" (p.171-2) and where a highly emotional Moscow concert was followed by an encounter with Putin's heavies. Touring in Turkey, meanwhile, Amos observes restrictions of liberty under President Erdoğan that contrast with her experiences of the city 9 years before, reminding "how freedoms can be taken away before you realise they are gone" (p.175). As such, the book gives a vivid sense of the value of the touring life and its ability to expand the perspective of an artist dedicated to taking the temperature of every city and creating ever-evolving set-lists reflecting current events. (Oddly, though, given Amos's status as at least a part-time UK resident, reference to recent British political strife - Brexit, for instance - is completely excluded from the volume.)

Equally powerful are the later sections dealing with bereavement: firstly, her husband Mark Hawley's grief over the death of his father (an experience that inspired the songs "1000 Oceans" and "Invisible Boy") and then Amos's pain at her mother and friend Beenie's deaths within days of each other last May. As tender and lacerating as Michael Haneke's Amour, these sections find Amos finally taking comfort in her sense of continued communication with her mother, which provides encouragement and inspiration for a new album in development. (A verse from one of these new tracks, the beautiful "Mary's Raven," is included in the book.)

While Amos's creative process - as mystical as it is intensely practical - was more deeply sketched in Piece by Piece, the new book does yield some fresh insights, especially her disavowal of the notion of "writer's block" or artistic "barrenness," which she dismisses as a "delusion" that keeps too many people from making work at all. "Artists don't have 'limited' access to the universal creative force," Amos argues (p.245).

Ending with the lyrics to "Climb", her subtle, spiritual song about abuse and transcendence, Amos presents artistic creation as an endeavour requiring discipline, commitment, risk-taking, trust in one's own story, and respectful attentiveness to the force she figures throughout as "the Muses." Resistance doesn't always bring its strands together as seamlessly as you would wish, but at its best this anti-despair book offers a provocative, intelligent perspective on the necessity of keeping open, present, perceptive and creative in our deeply challenging times.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Film Review: Sala Samobójców. Hejter (dir. Komasa, 2020)

In Sala Samobójców. Hejter (Suicide Room: Hater), his latest collaboration with screenwriter Mateusz Pacewicz following their acclaimed pairing on last year's Boze Cialo (Corpus Christi), Jan Komasa pops a Highsmith-ish anti-hero into the complex context of current Polish sociopolitical reality. Drawing on concerns over nationalist sentiment, populism, anti-Islam hate speech, online culture, and computer game violence, not to mention such incidents as last year's murder of the Gdańsk mayor Paweł Adamowicz, the film could look like a calculated effort to capture the Zeitgeist. In fact, the end result is consistently absorbing, sometimes startling, and, overall, a rich and perceptive exploration of our troubled times. 

The protagonist, Tomek (played by Łódź Film School alum Maciej Musiałowski), is a provincial boy cast out from the wealthy, arty Warsaw family who were his benefactors after a college transgression, and who both revenges himself and manipulates his way back in to the fold by playing various warring sides against each other. In particular, the scheme involves exploiting the family's support of a liberal politician (a spot on, hugely sympathetic Maciej Stuhr) who becomes the subject of a gay bar seduction/manipulation scored to Kylie Minogue's "In Your Eyes". The film is rather even-handed in the way it zeroes in on the manipulable nature of both Left and Right, thanks to online culture: a sequence showing Tomek darting between computers to create two Facebook events - one rally in support of the politician and one against him - skewers our crazy, mediated age as well as any  scene in recent cinema.

Komasa and Pacewicz's youth shows in some questionable elements - Tomek suddenly sleeping with his witchy boss (a harshly photographed Agata Kulesza), for example - but it's a mature film overall, in which the inevitable, crushing moment when video game violence turns real gives way to a good subdued final scene. Conveying insecurity, arrogance, coldness, and vulnerability Musiałowski keeps us off balance, and so does the movie. Comparisons to Joker (2019)'s orgy of self-pity are a diminishment. This is an ambitious, dynamic film that confirms Komasa (who wasn't even mentioned in Peter Bradshaw's trite recent Guardian piece on new Polish cinema) as one of the bravest of the new wave of young filmmakers currently at work in the country.

Sala Samobójców. Hejter can now be streamed at here