Friday 20 November 2009

Midwinter Graces

“This is winter’s gift,” coos Tori Amos over harpsichord and piano on “What Child Nowell,” the inviting opening track to her determinedly non-denominational “seasonal” album Midwinter Graces. Following Abnormally Attracted to Sin, this is the second release this year from the musician who must surely rank as one of the hardest working (and most underrated) in the industry. Even so, this project may seem something of an unlikely one for Amos. This is, after all, the woman whose songs have variously speculated on God’s need of a girlfriend (“God”), recalled masturbation upstairs during prayers downstairs (“Icicle”), suggested Jesus was a woman (“Muhammad My Friend”) and appropriated the motif of crucifixion as an analogy for self-abnegation (“Crucify”). Few contemporary artists have made religion as central to their work as Amos has, and it’s precisely for those reasons that a seasonal album from her makes such good sense. Her Native American ancestry and her rebellion against aspects of her “Christianization” have always been focal points of her music, and have turned her into an open, willing student of many different belief systems and practices. (Then there are the memorable covers of “Little Drummer Boy” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” that she put out in the 90s). Unsurprisingly, then, Midwinter Graces approaches the genre with a mostly winning mixture of reverence and irreverence, transforming the Christmas album into the solstice album, adapting and amalgamating classic carols, and featuring a few Amos originals (which are, for me, among the highlights of the work). Always alert to the patriarchal manipulations of Christian doctrine, Amos’s focus here turns out to be the rebirth of light - the sun as much as the son - and she thereby turns Midwinter Graces into an inclusive experience that, nonetheless, should not offend traditionalists. (“I’m a big fan of Jesus,” Amos reminds us on the DVD interview, in a tone that suggests she could just as easily be talking about Robert Plant.) Difficult tightropes to walk, these, but Amos - a glorious walking contradiction herself - has pulled it off pretty well.

Musically, the album is a fairly rich experience. With Amos on keyboard duties (of course) and her usual cohorts (Matt Chamberlain: drums; Jon Evans: bass, MacAladdin: guitars; John Phillip Shenale: string arrangements) backing her, the overall sound is at once classical and fresh. Highlights include the medievally-tinged “Candle: Coventry Carol” and the evocative “Holly and the Ivy”/“Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming” amalgam “Holly, Ivy, and Rose” (with effective cameos from Amos niece and daughter respectively). Of the originals, the playful big-band number “Pink and Glitter” sparkles, the lovely “Snow Angel” has both sweetness and sweep, and the stunning, dramatic “Winter’s Carol” (from The Light Princess) bodes very well indeed for the forthcoming musical. Amos elegantly and understatedly injects a healthy does of anima into each of these songs - and, indeed, into the Christmas story. The two piano-only bonus tracks - in particular an inspired reinvention of “Comfort and Joy” - are also worthwhile.

Nonetheless, the subversiveness of Midwinter Graces is evident more at the level of concept and lyrics than interpretation. Amos’s singing is fairly restrained throughout; she’s described the album - rightly - as the first record of hers in which there is “no anger in the work,” and it’s hard not to conclude that this has resulted in a limitation in her vocal approaches, one’s that’s particularly apparent for an artist best defined by her exhilarating ability to swing between emotions and moods. Midwinter Graces simply does not afford her that opportunity, and, conveying wonderment, Amos sometimes ends up sounding merely twee. (Worst offenders: the schmaltzy “A Silent Night With You” and the rather clunky closer “Our New Year,” which is also too close in content to The Beekeeper’s more elegant “Toast”). But like all of Amos’s albums, Midwinter Graces ultimately repays the quality of attention that the listener is willing to give it. The record is not an Amos classic, by any means. But as “winter’s gifts” go, it’s not a bad one.

The White Ribbon

In its presentation of a community hiding secrets, abuses and oppressions behind its respectable veneer, Michael Haneke’s new film takes it place alongside - and maybe draws some inspiration from? - movies as diverse as Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003), and M. Night Shylaman’s The Village (2004). I love each of those films in different ways and I found myself thoroughly absorbed by The White Ribbon. “Love” isn’t an emotion that a Haneke film ever seems likely to inspire, but The White Ribbon is certainly a movie to admire and, as always with Haneke, one to debate and argue about.

Haneke’s setting is a village in Northern Germany in the years preceding WW1. Everyone here, from the local pastor (Burghart Klaubner) and doctor (Rainer Bock) to the Polish migrant labourers working on the baron's estate, appears to know (and accept) their place. But then the community is beset by a series of strange incidents: the doctor is injured after his horse falls over a tripwire; a woman dies in a sawmill accident, prompting an act of revenge; the baron's son is tortured. Who is to blame for all the crimes? The schoolteacher (whose retrospective narration structures the film) begins to believe that the village's children may be in some way responsible.

This being Haneke-land, the viewer will know better than to expect solutions to most of these conundrums. (How mainstream!) Instead, The White Ribbon operates on insinuation, suggestion - and, it must be said, a fair amount of dread. A biting critique of patriarchal power, it offers indelible images: a teenager tied to his bed to stop him masturbating; a stabbed bird; a girl explaining death to her younger brother; that same boy opening a door to find his sister and his father in mysterious collusion. The surprisingly sweet love story that Haneke smuggles into the movie never really pierces an oppressive atmosphere dominated by what one character rather baldly refers to as “malice, envy, apathy and brutality.”

As an allegory for the rise of National Socialism The White Ribbon strikes me as less satisfactory; the movie begins with the narrator’s statement that the violence in the village might “help to clarify things that happened later in this country” but ultimately ducks out of making that link more explicit. (Much as Haneke himself rather irritatingly seems to invite allegorical readings of his movies only to rebuff those journalists who dare to make such readings in interviews with him.) Nor can the general thesis of the movie - cruelty begets cruelty; victims become perpetrators - really be considered profound. Yet, scene by scene, The White Ribbon pulls you in. Haneke knows how to construct sequences for atmosphere, drama and (despite his reputation for coldness) emotional impact. There’s a great deal of manipulation in his approach, of course, and maybe some masochism on the part of the viewer in queuing up for one of his movies. But the seriousness of his work remains invigorating.

Potter, Mayer, Solnit

Sophie Mayer’s excellent and insightful book on the work of Sally Potter (available from Wallflower Press) contains a quotation from Rebecca Solnit that's worth sharing. Actually, the book contains a lot of quotes that are worth sharing, but this is the one that jumped out at me first. It goes:

“What is the purpose of resisting corporate globalisation if not to protect the obscure, the ineffable, the unmarketable, the unmanageable, the local, the poetic and the eccentric? So they need to be practiced, celebrated and studied too, right now.” (Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark)

Inspiring words indeed. Will be sure to check out Hope in the Dark.

Thursday 19 November 2009

Bad Sex, Courtesy of Cave and Roth

The Bad Sex Nominations ...

Natalie Merchant @ Free Word Centre 18/11/2009

“He’s hot!” Natalie Merchant exclaims, brandishing a photo of e.e. cummings and, a bit later, Robert Graves. It says something about Merchant’s refreshingly idiosyncratic world-view that poets can be considered pin-ups. Merchant has spent the last few years adapting work by cummings, Graves and a whole host of other writers and setting it to music; the fruits of her labour will be available on her new album, Leave Your Sleep, due out on Nonesuch next March. Merchant has collaborated with more than 100 musicians from across the world for this double-album (her first since 2003’s The House Carpenter’s Daughter). But in a delightful (and free!) preview show at Farringdon’s Free Word Centre, she presented some selections from the record with a trio of musicians, in what she referred to as the “bare-bones treatment.” Poems by Charles Causley, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mother Goose, Edward Lear and Lawrence Alma-Tadema received musical treatments that were not merely tasteful but dramatic, sensuous, funny and moving, with Merchant’s vocals at their best.
A disarming stage presence, Merchant also revealed a sense of humour that has rarely translated onto her records, swapping banter with her droll guitarist Erik della Penna (he does a mean James Mason impression; she does a good Katherine Hepburn) and drawing the audience in with grace and ease. A lovely evening that raised expectations for what promises to be a wonderful album.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Almodovar Week @ PopMatters (A Plug)

’Tis Almodóvar Week over at PopMatters. Essays, retrospectives, and Pedro pleasures untold, assembled by the venerable Mr. Matt Mazur, with a few contributions from yours truly. Head over:

Sunday 8 November 2009


I was looking forward to seeing Helen (2009), not least because the film has been described as “the latest sign of a UK art cinema resurgence.” (We might amend this to “the only sign…”). But the premise of this movie turns out to be far more intriguing than anything that the filmmakers, Joe Lawlor and Christine Malloy (making their feature debut), actually do with it. The title character (Annie Townsend) is a teenage girl from a care-home who is recruited to participate in a reconstruction of the last-known moments of a girl named (with heavy-handed Significance typical of the movie) Joy. With a fractured sense of identity and belonging due to her background, Helen gradually undertakes an investigation of the missing girl's life, stepping into "Joy" via odd encounters with her parents and boyfriend.

Helen thus sets itself up as a Passenger-ish exploration of identity and the end result has all the art-conscious ambience that that implies. (And none of the pleasures of that particular Antonioni movie.) Posed and stilted converstaions abound, with all the characters speaking in the same level, neutral tone. (The movie features the most unnaturally still group of teenagers ever seen.) The shots are composed with such over-obvious, scrupulous care that any emotional involvement is lost, ensuring that Helen - and Helen - remain sadly remote to the viewer.

Monday 2 November 2009

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

“Don’t worry if you don’t understand it all immediately,” advises a character near the beginning of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. This being a Terry Gilliam film there’s a pretty good chance that you won’t understand it all by the end, either. Typically, for Gilliam, the new movie is a mess, but I found it a much more enjoyable, endearing mess than some of his previous efforts. At its worst, Gilliam’s much-vaunted inventiveness can take the form of tiresome battering of the viewer, but, for all its manic moments, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is somewhat more measured in its moods. Thematically, the film’s pitting of the imagination against the machinations of the devil remains rather hazy, but the most effective moments here have an exhilarating dream logic. Of course the film is destined to be remembered as Heath Ledger’s last movie; fans of the actor will no doubt find his “resurrection” in his first scene here upsetting and moving. (Or maybe comforting?) It’s not every film that could get away with re-casting a part three times over, but Ledger’s morphing into Johnny Depp then Jude Law then Colin Farrell is as logical as anything else that happens in this movie.

The casting elsewhere is also superb: I loved Christopher Plummer’s Lear-ish immortal Parnassus; Lily Cole as his daughter (accurately described as “scrumptious,” this extraordinary-looking actress, fresh from Rage, should always play characters with names like Valentina); and a wheezing Tom Waits as the devil. There are magical moments throughout - Depp waltzing with Maggie Steed on a waterlily; Law’s staircase-to-the-clouds becoming a pair of stilts - and the film’s use of London locations is wonderful as well. Gilliam has been quoted as saying that he wanted “to bring a bit of fantasticality to London, an antidote to modern lives. I loved this idea of an ancient travelling show offering the kind of storytelling and wonder that we used to get.” In its best passages, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus achieves exactly that.