Monday 23 March 2009

Four Nights With Anna

There are elements of Monsieur Hire, Talk To Her. A Short Film About Love, and - oh yes - Rear Window to Jerzy Skolimowski’s first film in 17 years (that is, since his apparently benighted adaptation of Ferdydurke). It’s an intense and compelling drama about the fixation of lonely Leon (Artur Steranko) on nurse Anna (Kinga Preis). Skolimowski sustains a tense, suggestive atmosphere, with nicely judged intrusions of black humour, and there are some stunning sequences: each night Leon spends with Anna has a slightly different tone and feel, the final one is beautifully staged and quite moving. There are things to criticise - a whiff of misogyny, an utterly gratuitous scene of brutal homophobia, and a particularly pitiful moment when a psychobabble explanation for our voyeur’s behaviour is offered: we learn that he was “illegitimate” (?) and brought up by his grandmother. The non-linear time-line is also a bit of a problem: it allows for some interesting juxtapositions, but also seems unnecessarily confusing at times. Overall, though, Skolimowski produces a fine film here. Good to have him back on this side of the camera.

The Class (Entre Les Murs)

French school-set movies are practically becoming a sub-genre. Laurent Cantet’s drama, based on François Bégeaudeau’s book and starring Bégeaudeau, ranks as one of the best. The film couldn’t be more different from Christophe Honore’s La Belle Personne, which, though utterly charming, tended to place the emphasis on its photogenic students’ and teachers’ sentimental travails rather than their academic life. What I loved about Cantet’s film is its singularity of focus: no scenes outside of the school, very limited information about the characters’ private lives (no teacher/pupil or even pupil/pupil romances, thank Christ). I’ve never seen a film that’s so attuned to the complexities of classroom dynamics as this one: the shifts in power, the failures in communication, the conflicts and moments of complicity, the insights and joys. "Issues" of race, class, identity, religion, and nation emerge naturally, through a series of superbly realistic and brilliantly acted real-time scenes. But this strikes me, mainly, as a film about language, which views the classroom as a dialogic space where all kinds of communications take place. Full of feeling and tension, this is a beautiful and engrossing film.

Thursday 5 March 2009

CD Review: Easy Come Easy Go (Marianne Faithfull)

From Soho street corner to the Salzburg Festival, with more than 20 albums behind her and acting roles encompassing Ophelia and the Devil, Empress Maria Theresa and, most recently, an elderly masturbatrix, Marianne Faithfull’s progression from Andrew Loog Oldham-tailored ready-made muse to respected elder stateswoman of rock remains one of contemporary music’s most singular and surprising trajectories. It’s a compelling survivor’s story, no doubt about it. But the more sensational aspects of Faithfull’s rockstar myth (stoked by her own highly self-regarding autobiographies) have arguably had the effect of obscuring her creative output, which, while not exactly consistent in terms of quality, has at least been of consistent interest and ambition since the release of her watershed ‘comeback’ album Broken English in 1979.
Across her many covers records Strange Weather (1987) and 20th Century Blues (1996) and albums of original material such as Kissin’ Time (2002) and Before The Poison (2005), Faithfull has proved herself a versatile song interpreter and, sometimes, a skilled lyricist, as comfortable performing Coward or Cole Porter, Hollander or Brecht and Weill as she is hanging out with the likes of Beck, Blur, Etienne Daho, Nick Cave and Polly Harvey. Depending on your perspective, Faithfull’s pick-and-mix approach to collaboration can seem an admirable endeavour to broaden her musical horizons or a strained attempt at contemporary relevance. But however mixed the result – and some of her big-name artistic liaisons have, frankly, promised rather more than they’ve actually delivered – this approach has allowed Faithfull to build up a vast, generation-spanning repertoire to mine in live performance, an arena in which she still excels. Erratic and unpredictable she may be, but Faithfull brings a unique, highly intellectual perspective to bear on the songs that she writes and records, and you certainly can’t fault her for a lack of drive or an unwillingness to experiment.
Easy Come, Easy Go ranks as perhaps her most elaborate project yet. It’s a mighty 18-track double album of covers that encompasses material from most of the 20th century (and earlier). Reuniting Faithfull with her Strange Weather producer Hal Willner, the record feels like a continuation and extension of that classic album as it blazes through genres, passing from blues and jazz through country to cutting-edge contemporary rock. Looking for an album that finds space for songs by Dolly Parton, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Judee Sill, Duke Ellington Morrissey, Merle Haggard, and The Decemberists? Well, look no further than Easy Come, Easy Go.
Stylistically, the album alternates between spare and lush, classical and contemporary, with sensitive and supple arrangements based around strings and horns, combining with the gravitas of a full rock band made up of Marc Ribot, Greg Cohen, Rob Burger, Jim White and Faithfull’s longtime collaborator Barry Reynolds. As on her most recent releases, Faithfull once again brings a strongly collaborative, big-name guest artist ethos to bear on this recording, reuniting with previous co-conspirators Nick Cave and Jarvis Cocker, and recruiting some fresh voices, including Chan Marshall, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Rufus Wainwright and (inevitably) Antony Hegarty on various tracks. (Indeed, given Vanity Fair’s memorable description of her as the “den mama of indiedom” it’s interesting to note just how many scions of the famous turn up on the album – not only Wainwright but also Jenni Muldaur, Teddy Thompson and Sean Lennon.) Inevitably, some of the song choices and guest voices fail to gel as well as others. But even so, Easy Come, Easy Go is never less than compelling.
Proceedings kick off with Faithfull’s take on one of Dolly Parton’s darkest songs, ‘Down From Dover’. I’m not sure that the jazzy makeover works exactly, but it’s an intriguing, valiant effort that offers a fresh and original perspective on a track that’s fast becoming a country standard. The cover of Neko Case’s ‘Hold On, Hold On’ actually rocks harder than the original, culminating in a superb electric guitar part. Chan Marshall’s harmonies add little but Faithfull’s variously harsh and tender vocal carries the day. A sublime version of The Decemberists’ ‘The Crane Wife’, with a sympathetic Nick Cave on backing vocals, is an immediate standout and easily one of Faithfull’s finest ever moments on record. The same goes for an intense, slow-burning rendition of Espers’ ‘Children Of Stone’ with Rufus Wainwright, though the draggy duet with Antony on Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ ‘Ooh Baby Baby’ fails to ignite. A cheeky take on the Bessie Smith song that gives the album its title lightens the mood, while, elsewhere, Faithfull chillingly turns Randy Newman’s ‘In Germany Before The War’ into something resembling an undiscovered gem from the Brecht–Weill canon. Merle Haggard’s ‘Sing Me Back Home’ – with Keith Richards! – also gets a sensitive reading.

Highlights of the second disc (only available on the special edition) include a superlative ‘Black Coffee’ and touching low-key versions of Judee Sill’s ‘The Phoenix’ and Jackson C Frank’s ‘Kimbie’. In contrast to the stripped-down approach to these songs, Faithfull and the musicians pour passion all over Morrissey’s ‘Dear God Please Help Me’ for a histrionic but oddly effective performance. The album closes with its oldest song, the traditional ‘Flandyke Shore’. Even with the McGarrigles trying their best in the background, this overly stately version doesn’t quite take flight, and certainly doesn’t come close to rivalling Nic Jones’s definitive rendition of the song on Penguin Eggs. Indeed, throughout, it’s not always the most likely material that works best: Faithfull sounds much more commanding and convincing on Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s ‘Salvation’ than on a fairly lugubrious ‘Solitude’.

But say what you will about its technical limitations, Faithfull’s smoky croak can be a fabulously expressive instrument and she certainly knows how to get it working dramatically. With an actress’s sense of timing and delivery, she can convey folky intimacy, punky defiance or Dietrich hauteur, all with a distinctively English twist. Check out her appropriately scalding, bitter delivery on ‘Black Coffee’, or the wonderful increasing stridency with which she delivers the “I will hang my head low” refrain in ‘The Crane Wife’. At her weakest, though, she can sound plain awkward: the worst offender here is a bizarrely funereal take on ‘Somewhere (A Place For Us)’ with an oddly sinister sounding Jarvis Cocker. Surely the cover version of Bernstein and Sondheim’s nightmares, it’s one of the grisliest duets in recent memory. But, overall, the mix of material generates its own special excitement. And if Faithfull just occasionally comes off like a slightly tipsy aunt tearing through a particularly eclectic karaoke machine then the hit-and-miss approach ultimately adds to the cumulative charm and appeal of the album.

In fact, given the stylistic diversity of the songs that it contains, Easy Come, Easy Go is a remarkably cohesive listening experience, a testament to the shared vision of Faithfull and her excellent musicians. This is one of Faithfull’s most consistently engrossing albums and what she does with it live – a planned European tour will see her “recreate” the record with the band – should be fascinating to witness.


Monday 2 March 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Henry James meets Eric Rohmer meets Pedro Almodovar in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen’s tale of Americans questioning their certainties abroad. Like most of Rohmer's work the movie is, to borrow Pauline Kael's phrase, a piece of "serio-comic triviality.” But fortunately Allen, unlike Rohmer, doesn’t "direct to a metronome” so the end result is quite spry and fun. I don’t support the view that Allen’s work has deteriorated beyond measure over the years - I find some of his “classics,” such as Annie Hall and Manhattan insufferably smug and irritating. Though VCB is about as trivial as his movies come, it at least has Barcelona looking fabulous, lovely performances from Scarlett Johansson (ah, how I LOVED Scarlett in 2004 ...), Rebecca Hall and Javier Bardem, plus Penelope Cruz injecting a dose of creative insanity into the proceedings. There's also a well-observed turn by Chris Messina as Hall's dull-as-ditchwater fiance-then-husband (who ends up with the funniest line in the film). Throughout, Allen recycles all sorts of stereotypes about passionate, quick-tempered Spaniards who propose sex two minutes after meeting and stick knives into each other during domestic arguments, but the film has enough pace and charm to get away with this. The deadpan narration subtly ironises everybody that’s presented, but it’s a warm and quite delightful movie overall.