Wednesday 30 June 2010

Canon (2007) by Ani DiFranco

The singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco has put out seventeen albums in seventeen years, alongside copious EPs and concert releases. In the face of such overwhelming productivity, the problem for anyone coming new to DiFranco's work is simply where to start. With the early folk? The recent electronic experiments? The live recordings? Happily, there’s a very simple answer to the question of where to begin your DiFranco journey: get yourself a copy of her double-disc retrospective Canon and saddle up for a heady introduction to the work of a remarkable artist.

The thirty six songs on Canon trace a broadly chronological path through DiFranco’s career, encompassing tracks from all of her albums, from her self-titled 1990 debut to last year’s Reprieve. (The package also includes newly-recorded, reworked versions of five DiFranco songs.) The press release for the collection emphasises its status as no mere “Best Of”; rather, this is an “album that’s arranged and intended to be played from beginning to end,” one made to DiFranco’s “precise specifications.” Would we expect anything less? After all, DiFranco has long been celebrated as an icon of independence on the music scene, releasing all of her work through her own Righteous Babe label and retaining full control over all aspects of her music. Given the extraordinary amount of material she’s put out in the last seventeen years, the decision of what to include on Canon can’t have been easy, but DiFranco has produced a carefully packaged and extremely well-sequenced collection with a strong sense of track-by-track flow.

The first thing to strike is the wonder of her guitar-playing and her lyrical dexterity. DiFranco’s songs teem with imagery and detail, and she darts around the tunes with an exhilarating speed and momentum. Her rapid, attention-grabbing guitar style is perfectly in sync with her vocal delivery with its funky, almost conversational quality and appealing snap and snarl (surely a formative influence on Alanis Morissette?), and also with her lyrics, which are similarly direct and upfront, full of sharp edges and breathless word-play. Like someone on a caffeine jag, the typical DiFranco song comes at you in a rush, with a hasty, even aggressive urgency, a need to get it all out now. Her music bristles with the brazen, nervous energy of her native New York - brilliantly described in her song "Cradle & All" as “the city that never shuts up” - and feels intrinsically urban with images of fire-escapes, subway trains, “men pissing in doorways,” “trash on the curbs” and “traffic hissing by.”

That’s not to say that she can’t also be introspective and reflective, as on the touching piano-led post-show rumination "You Had Time" and the measured, meditative "Grey." Indeed, at their best, her songs sometimes spark similar shocks of recognition to those of a Mitchell or an Amos. Witness the reference to “last night’s underwear in my back pocket - sure sign of the morning after” in "Cradle & All," or the moment in the sublime "32 Flavors" in which the narrator pauses mid self-eulogy to acknowledge that “there’s many who’ve turned out their porch lights/Just so I would think they were not home/And hid in the dark of their windows/Til I passed and left them alone.” With her poet’s eye for detail, DiFranco builds her songs out of fleet-footed images, vignettes and narrative fragments. Thematically, much of her work takes place at the juncture where the personal and the political intersect. "God’s Country" dramatises an encounter between the Brooklynite narrator and a state-trooper on some lonesome highway. “This may be God’s country but this is my country too/Move over Mr. Holiness, let the little people through” DiFranco sings, leaving it up to the listener to decide whether she’s addressing the Lord, the cop, or both.

"Subdivision" anatomises poverty, homelessness and contemporary manifestations of segregation (“America the beautiful is just one big subdivision”), while "Paradigm" is a complex celebration of the political commitment of her immigrant parents, with DiFranco recalling herself as “just a girl in a room full of women, licking stamps and laughing” and remembering “the feeling of community brewing/of democracy happening.” "Hello Birmingham" explores both civil and abortion rights, and the stunning "Fuel" begins with the discovery of a slave cemetery and goes on to take some well-aimed pot-shots at everything from clueless Presidential candidates to corporate culture. Clearly, DiFranco does not fear didacticism, but her socio-political critiques seldom sound facile or glib. She can be a lot of fun too, and it’s central to her appeal that she can crack you up one moment and make you think about society’s ills the next. Canon gives a full indication of her multi-faceted personality as an artist, as well as a valuable insight into the evolution of her sound and her lyrical concerns. Meanwhile, four judiciously chosen concert cuts - "Distracted" (a spoken-word reflection on the accusation that her work has abandoned politics in favour of safer subject matter), "Gravel" (on which we witness the narrator’s statement “I abhor you” turn into “I adore you”), "Untouchable Face" (a wry “kiss-off to an ex) and "Joyful Girl" - offer a pleasing glimpse into the DiFranco live experience.

There is, it must be admitted, a strong streak of self-consciousness to some of DiFranco’s work, and it’s particularly evident on the spirited but unpleasant "Napoleon," an infamous critique of a friend who signed with a major-label which features a told-you-so coda that can’t avoid a whiff of smug self-righteousness. Alongside "Shameless," "Your Next Bold Move," "Both Hands" and "Overlap" (all solid), "Napoleon" is one of the re-worked tracks which are placed at the end of each disc as an enticement to fans who may otherwise be reluctant to pay out for a collection that probably doesn’t include much material that they don’t already possess. (A DiFranco rarities disc must surely be on the cards at some point.) But while the dearth of new material on Canon means that, aside from the reworked tracks, the collection has less to offer long-time DiFranco-ites, for newcomers to her work this is absolutely the perfect place to begin.

Music in Movies: 4 Favourite Scenes

1. Dans Paris (2006). A blast of Kim Wilde lures Romain Duris out of break-up depression.

2. Mean Streets (1973). The best opening to a movie ever?

3. Beau Travail (1999). The best ending to a movie ever?

4. 5x2 (2004). Classic Ozon: two couples and Paolo Conte's "Sparring Partner."

Y Viva España

Tuesday 29 June 2010

"Anthem" by Leonard Cohen

Meaghan: enjoy!

LCD Soundsystem at Glastonbury

I didn't catch much of the Glastonbury coverage this year; every time I switched on all that seemed to be happening was inane chatter from presenters or an endless Ray Davies set. But the general consensus seems to be that it was a sucessful year, and the atypically good weather was certainly appreciated. (Though it seems unbelievable that people would go to one of the most famous rock festivals in the world and then spend the last afternoon there watching football on a giant screen! Only in England, surely?) Of the bit of footage I did see, LCD Soundsystem was the act that I enjoyed the most, and their set convinced me that I really do need to get a copy of This is Happening, after all. (I wasn't as enamoured of Sound of Silver as everyone else seemed to be.) James Murphy looks like such an unlikely dance-rock God, but he sometimes sounds like Jim Morrison circa L.A. Woman. No bad thing, that.

Monday 28 June 2010

El cine español - dónde está?

These days, the only Spanish films that British and American viewers are likely to be able to see are horror flicks or the latest Almodóvar. (The latter, I'm pleased to report, is currently preparing a new movie with Antonio Banderas entitled La piel que habito.) It wasn't always so: up to the late 1990s, films by Carlos Saura, Bigas Luna and Julio Medem were regularly released in the UK, while the presence of Almodóvar-associated actors (Carmen Maura, Victoria Abril) was enough to get a film some limited screenings. But as distribution policies have grown more cautious and conservative in the last ten years, it's been harder to see work by Spanish filmmakers outside of Spain. Returning from Ibiza with my usual load of cinema magazines (God bless you, Fotogramas!) I was delighted to read about the interesting new work being made in Spain - and frustrated that so little of it is likely to see the light of day over here. Vicente Molina Foix's El dios de madera (with Marisa Paredes, above), Sebastian Cordero's Rabia, and Sigfrid Monleon's biographical drama El cónsul de Sodoma (with Jordi Mollà, below) are just a selection of the movies that deserve some international exposure. Here's hoping that these films turn up on some festival programmes at the very least. []

Saturday 26 June 2010

"Crop Comes In" by Chatham County Line

My favourite track from Chatham County Line's excellent new album Wildwood, due out in a couple of weeks.

Friday 18 June 2010

Wild Grass (Les Herbes Folles) (2009)

Alain Resnais's highly eccentric and entrancing new film Wild Grass (2009) finds the 88-year-old auteur in playful mood. The film's themes - loneliness, ageing, chance, fantasy - may not sound like a great basis for a comedy, but Resnais has produced an extremely amusing film here - albeit one that never once cues the audience when to laugh. (And is all the funnier for it.) Based on Christian Gailly's experimental 1996 novel L'Incident, the film's focus is on Georges Palet (Andre Dussolier, a joy), a middle-aged, married man with a (real or imagined) shady past, and his fixation upon a woman called Marguerite Muir (Sabine Azema, inevitably) whose stolen wallet he finds in a supermarket car-park. Initially resistant to his overtures, Marguerite - a dentist and part-time aviatrix - becomes increasingly intrigued by her persistent admirer.

Resnais's mode here - whimsy with an undertone of menace - won't be to all tastes. But for those willing to enter into the ludic spirit of Wild Grass, there are great pleasures to be had. There's a wonderfully disorientating sense throughout the movie that anything might happen: the characters behave irrationally and inconsistently and take the viewer right along with them. The delight is in the detail, from Sabine Azema's extraordinary red frizz (the centrepiece of a bravura opening sequence) to Mathieu Amalric's bulging-eyed gaze (he plays one of the policemen who visits Georges). It's also in the arsenal of stylistic tricks (flashbacks, abrupt fade-outs, inserts, fantasy scenes, stream-of-consciousness voiceover mixed with second- and third-person narration) that Resnais employs throughout; these keep the film fizzing up to its audacious and brazenly enigmatic finale. Wild Grass might not be the masterpiece it's been hailed as by some critics, but it's a delightful and thoroughly enjoyable experience, beautiful and barmy; charm itself. Great poster, too.

7 Favourite Album Covers

From a delightfully anti-chic Ella and Louis through Kate as Houdini's missus to cock rock incarnate, seven (of many) favourite album covers.

Wednesday 16 June 2010

"Reckoner" covered by Gnarls Barkley

"Dedicated to all human beings": Gnarls Barkley tackle Radiohead.

Tuesday 15 June 2010

Welcome to Thebes (National Theatre)

Directed by Richard Eyre, Welcome to Thebes, Moira Buffini’s ambitious new play at the National Theatre, merges Greek myth with contemporary West African politics; the results are flawed but often fascinating. I saw the first preview tonight, and while there are, inevitably at this stage, a few moments that require a bit more definition and pace, the production is already in pretty strong shape and boasts some superb performances. It is, I'm happy to report, a much more satisfying experience than the Eyre film I reviewed earlier this week.

Buffini’s text imagines Thebes as an impoverished African country emerging from a brutal civil war, and her Eurydice (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is the first female democratic leader of the country. (The clearest parallels are with Liberia’s current president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.) The play opens on the day that Theseus (David Harewood), the ruler of Athens (a US-like superpower, here), arrives for talks with Eurydice, allowing Buffini to stage an encounter between “First” and “Third World” nations that plays out against a backdrop of civilian unrest, a volatile military and the machinations of Prince Tydeus (Chuk Iwuji), the leader of the opposition.

What the Greek myth mash-up adds to Welcome to Thebes is debatable. At times, it seems more of a distraction than anything else and a way for Buffini to inject a few cheap laughs into the play: there’s a line about Phaedra and Theseus’s wedding photos being “on all the celebrity sites on the internet” and another crack about Ismene and Antigone’s “motherfucking dad” (ie. Oedipus, ho, ho). These moments seem more gimmicky than revealing. But, at other times, the mythic resonances seem to have inspired Buffini to develop a robust, vigorous and poetic language for the play; there are passages of great beauty and power (albeit juxtaposed with some jarring slang), and the examination of issues of gender, conflict and states(wo)manship is often extremely insightful. (I particularly liked the scene in which Theseus is introduced to Eurydice’s female senators.)

Amuka-Bird gives a deeply felt and finely modulated performance as Eurydice that conveys both strength and an awareness of the vulnerability of the character’s position; in a startling and moving late scene, she reveals the rage and bitterness that the protagonist has suppressed up to this point. Amuka-Bird works well with Harewood, who gives a distinguished performance as always, despite being saddled with some of the play’s sillier conceits (such as a running gag about getting in touch with Phaedra on a mobile phone). Bruce Myers is a brilliant Tiresias, while Vinette Robinson and Tracy Ifeachor do well as Antigone and Ismene. Eyre’s direction is assured and intelligent, though some of the scenes between Iwuji’s Tydeus and Rakie Ayola’s vengeful Pargeia feel melodramatic and even tacky. But while you can quibble with aspects of the conception of Welcome to Thebes, it's a bold and important play that deserves to be seen.

Monday 14 June 2010

Potiche (Ozon)

To be released in November in France: François Ozon's latest film, Potiche. Does Monsieur Ozon ever take a break from making movies?

Soul-Pipping My B.L.A?: The Pleasures of Misheard Lyrics

(Antony singing ... something.)

Watching Dar Williams's expert, carefully crafted lyrics to "Southern California Wants To Be Western New York" appear on the screen (see previous post), I got to thinking about how very different the experience of reading a song as you listen to it is from the experience of "just" listening to it. Dar's diction is fairly clear throughout the track but, without the lyrics on hand, there are still some ambiguities that a listener might run into. What does it mean to hear "SUNY student" as "Sony student," for example? Or to decipher the closing line "it's tres Western New York" as "extra Western New York"? (No car buff, the "Miata" reference was definitely a challenge for this listener upon first hearing the song.)

“An old horse dying/Gets me going in the morning.” An intriguing lyric, I remember thinking, when listening to a track from Rufus Wainwright’s Want Two album a few years ago. It was several listens in before I checked the track-list and found that what Wainwright and Antony were actually - or allegedly - singing was “Old Whore’s Diet.” Antony provided me with a similar sense of disillusionment-mixed-with-pleasure again, when I discovered that a track from The Crying Light (2009) was not, as I'd decided, a patient-to-psychiatrist love song featuring lines like “Jung will repair me…/Jung will take of me” but instead an address to a more generalised father-figure (or perhaps to time itself): “Aeon.” And I remember being quite convinced that Lucinda Williams was drawling something about "eagles" on "Lonely Girls," the opening track to her 2001 album Essence. “Sparkly rhinestones /Shine on bald eagles”; quite an image.

I enjoy mishearing lyrics; it’s one of my favourite things about experiencing music, in fact. Despite the obvious, much-celebrated necessities of clear diction, ambiguous articulation can prove far more fascinating, I find. It can move a potentially banal statement into profundity, take it beyond realism into impressionism, abstraction or (more often than not) absurdism. Glenn McDonald describes Emmylou Harris’s sublimely murky vocals on Wrecking Ball (1995) thus: “When she sings she brushes lightly across words, sketching their shape without necessarily articulating every bend and spike in the letters. This acts like a layer of gauze stretched over these songs, or a sepia tint applied in the processing.” "Swallowed syllables," McDonald goes on, "involve the listener in replacing them, and lead to heard phrases that, though different from the words nominally being said, aren’t necessarily wrong."

I think McDonald is exactly right: in the gap between what’s said and what’s heard, between sound and sense, signifier and signified, multiple meanings may emerge. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy Tori Amos’s work so much; Amos's tendency to shift and re-shape syllables as she sings, to make homonyms out of words that once seemed only distantly related to one another, is an endless source of delight and absorption to me, and an integral part of the richness of her music. The lyric sheet tells us that on the bridge to “Bouncing Off Clouds” Amos is singing “I think fate is now…/Waiting on us.” But, almost every time, I hear the line as “I think we design/Where we take our lives”; two great, miraculously complementary statements there. More typically, Amos's articulation produces marvellously surreal effects. On another American Doll Posse (2007) track, “Big Wheel,” the (mis-)heard line “soul-pipping my B.L.A” is more interesting, I'd argue, than what the lyric sheet tells us is “so baby maybe I let your…”; it's also a pleasingly acronymic precursor to the “M.I.L.F” bridge in that song. Amos is a highly sophisticated lyricist whose best work reads well on the page, so the many resonances that she gets from her idiosyncratic prounciations just add more and more layers to her music. There are other lyricists, in contrast, whose work always sounds much more intriguing than its reads to me.

Mishearing lyrics could be described as a post-structuralist's delight, one that highlights the slipperiness and "free play" of meaning, the indeterminacy of interpretation, the disjunction between what's said, what's heard and what's meant. It's also great fun.

Any other favourite examples of misheard lyrics that you’d like to share, people out there?

Sunday 13 June 2010

"Southern California Wants To Be Western New York" by Dar Williams

The Other Man (2008)

Adapted from a short story by Bernhard Schlink, Richard Eyre’s The Other Man (2008) is presented as a psychological thriller in - what else but? - the Hitchcock mold. In truth, it’s a confused and unsatisfying piece of work that squanders a good cast, including Liam Neeson and Laura Linney (here playing husband and wife for the third time following their partnerships as the Proctors on stage and the Kinseys on film). The plot revolves around Neeson’s discovery that his “absent” wife Linney has been having an affair; he heads to Milan to track down the other man (Antonio Banderas) and the bulk of the film focuses on the interplay between these two characters.

As a director Eyre has never seemed particularly at ease with the film medium but this is his shakiest piece of work to date. The themes of love, betrayal and the unknowability of others that are at issue never fully emerge and the film boasts some appalling editing and risible dialogue. It pivots, ultimately, around a piece of with-held information that makes a bit more sense of what has gone before. Yet the revelation comes too late to have anything like the emotional punch it should have. The actors fare poorly too: Neeson communicates torment by excessive shouting, while neither Banderas nor Linney seem to have succeeded in making much sense of their unconvincing characters. Premiered at the London Film Festival in 2008 The Other Man was never given a cinema release in the UK. That’s nothing to hold against a movie; indeed it can be a guarantee of quality. But, in this instance, sadly, it’s not hard to see why.

Saturday 12 June 2010

Letters To Juliet (2010)

In Gary Winick’s romantic trifle Letters to Juliet (2010), Amanda Seyfried plays Sophie, a New Yorker fact-checker and aspiring writer who travels with her budding-restaurateur fiance Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal) to Verona for a pre-wedding vacation. Once there, Sophie is enchanted by a public practice whereby young women leave letters asking romantic advice of Shakespeare’s Juliet; their missives are answered by a volunteer group of women styled “Juliet’s Secretaries.” Sophie discovers a letter by an English girl named Claire, who, it emerges, gave up her Italian lover, Lorenzo, and returned to England. Though the letter was written fifty years before, Sophie replies to it and, lo and behold, Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) appears in Italy with her uptight grandson (Christopher Egan), eager to find out the fate of her old beau. With Victor distracted by business, the trio set off on a quest to track down Lorenzo.

As the above synopsis might indicate, Letters to Juliet (2010) has been released strategically to target a very specific demographic: those already suffering from football fatigue. The film suggests a Nicholas Sparks-meets-Mamma Mia! hybrid, but it motors along with a moderate amount of charm and appeal for much of its running time. Though there’s a sense throughout that Winick and the screen-writers Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan aren’t making as much of the material as they might, you begin to care for the three central characters and to enjoy their interactions.

So it’s unfortunate that the film blows it with a shamelessly contrived and poorly staged conclusion that makes you feel embarrassed for having succumbed. (It’s the kind of movie you wish you’d left about ten minutes before the end.) Given the premise, you might have expected the film to inject some of the craziness, darkness, magic and melancholy of Shakesperean drama (or comedy) into the proceedings but the best the film can offer, finally, is a painful pastiche of the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene. The recourse to rom-com formula is certainly dispiriting, but for the most part, the movie is a pleasant, exceedingly picturesque diversion and it boasts some appealing performances. Seyfried is lovely (though you can’t help but wish that someone would give this actress a really decent film to be in), Garcia Bernal is amusing as a guy who clearly prefers food to his fiancee, and even the rather stilted Egan begins to grow on you (a good thing, since the plot requires him to be an irritant initially). And Redgrave is, well ... radiant as always. The film plays off of the actress's personal history in one significant piece of casting, but what counts more than that is the spontaneity and soulfulness that she brings to her scenes. Investing the film’s corniest dialogue with the weight and consideration that she might give to a Shakespeare sonnet, her acting - and sheer star quality - transcend the banality of the scenario. “She’s awesome,” breathes Seyfried’s character at one point. The viewer can only agree.

Thursday 10 June 2010

Women Beware Women (National Theatre)

Some great and some ghastly ideas jostle around in Marianne Elliott’s busy production of Thomas Middleton’s 1621 play at the National Theatre; it’s hard to say exactly which wins out in the end. The production’s approach is somewhat reminiscent of that of Phyllida Lloyd’s version of Webster's The Duchess of Malfi at the NT in 2003: Italy-set Jacobean tragedy presented through a modern prism, influenced by 1950s Italian cinema. But Elliott’s production lacks the sustained intensity of Lloyd’s and gets bogged down in sometimes gimmicky effects. The production is an uneven, though always intriguing, mix of insight and clumsy over-emphasis.

It’s easy to see the play’s appeal for Elliott who has specialised in re-imagining classic drama with strong female protagonists, from The Little Foxes through Pillars of the Community to Therese Raquin and last year’s wonderful All’s Well That Ends Well. Middleton’s play focuses on the interwoven fates of two young girls, Bianca and Isabella (played here, excellently, by Lauren O’Neill and Vanessa Kirby) who are subject to the manipulations of assorted relatives and authority figures, in particular those of Isabella’s widowed aunt Livia (Harriet Walter). The production’s great highlight comes midway through, when the deadly Livia distracts Bianca’s mother-in-law (Tilly Tremayne) with a chess game so that Bianca’s rape by the Duke of Florence (Richard Lintern) can be accomplished. The scene is played and staged to chilling perfection. Walters brings wit, poise and intelligence to Livia and hers is probably the standout performance of the production (watch out for her extraordinary unexpected reaction when Bianca hisses an insult at her), though there’s fine work from Tremayne, Samuel Barnett, Raymond Coulthard, and from Harry Melling, who gives a strikingly unpredictable performance as the Ward to whom the unfortunate Isabella has been promised.

The production is at its strongest when it goes easier on the design concepts and the choreography and trusts Middleton’s pungent, sometimes filthy language to do the work. But Elliot seems in thrall to the big set-piece here, and the staging of the climactic blood-bath as an expressionist ballet is, I think, a sad mistake. And whoever thought that a jazz score would be appropriate for a Jacobean tragedy? Olly Fox’s music drains tension and momentum from the scenes. A line like “Sin tastes, at the first draught, like wormwood water/But drunk again, ’tis nectar ever after” sounds great when declaimed by Harriet Walter, but it's less effective when sung as a refrain by a jazz diva. (I seem to recall that Eliott used a similar device to this in her 2006 Cuba-set production of Much Ado About Nothing.) A mixed bag, then, but, despite its odder impulses, this Women Beware Women boasts enough distinctive elements to make it worth your time.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

"Ambling Alp" by Yeasayer

Listening to Yeasayer's album Odd Blood (2010). I don't think it's a great record by any means, but I do love "Ambling Alp", especially this performance from Later ... with Jools Holland.

Precious (2009)

With its tragedy-to-triumph trajectory, its no surprise that Lee Daniels’s much-admired Precious (2009) - based on Sapphire’s novel Push - comes to us bearing the Oprah Winfrey seal of approval. Sexual abuse, mother-daughter conflict, incest, teen pregnancy, AIDS, Down’s Syndrome, empowerment through journal-keeping; the movie is practically a dramatised Oprah show in itself. (The credits state that the move is “presented” by Winfrey and Tyler Perry. Is "presentation" the same thing as “promotion”, I wonder? It's a shame that Winfrey’s clout didn’t work for a much, much better movie than this one, Jonathan Demme’s under-seen Beloved [1998].)

Though there are things to admire in Daniels’s film I found myself strangely resistant to Precious overall. The catalogue of traumas paraded for the viewer’s delectation rivals those in the histrionic first half of the Daniels-produced Monster’s Ball (2001), while the heroine’s eventual triumph - through the rather familiar routes of education, motherhood and sisterhood - is presented with what felt to me like a great deal of obviousness and fatuity. I liked some of the quirkier touches that Daniels inserts - a scene based around De Sica’s Two Women (1960) is really inspired - and you can’t but be moved by the acting, in particular the powerhouse duo of Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique. Yet there’s a prurient tone to Precious that isn’t redeemed by its sentimental reliance upon conventional self-acceptance discourses scored to “uplifting” LaBelle tracks. The protagonist’s spelling-it-out voiceover doesn’t help either, since it leaves the viewer very little interpretive space. Precious's commentary editorialises on what we’re seeing, while important elements remain under-explored. We never really know how the character feels about the - now conveniently absent - father whose children she’s borne, and her attitude to those children turns out - conveniently, again - to be pure unadulterated mommy-love without the slightest trace of anger or even ambivalence.

It’s easy to see the appeal of the film’s inspirational message about redemption for the downtrodden; yet, churlish as it may sound to suggest it, perhaps that’s the real fantasy that's being sold here, and in somewhat predictable, melodramatic and clichéd terms. (A climactic sequence in which Precious decisively rejects her apparently repentant but still self-justifying monster-mother plays a little like those awful scenes in TV movies in which errant husbands return to their newly empowered wives only to be scornfully turned down by them.) Ultimately, then, the discomfort that Precious provokes isn’t just down to the subject matter that its dealing with; it has to do with the fact that, despite affecting moments and committed performances, you feel the movie’s manipulative gears grinding from its first frame to its last.

Monday 7 June 2010

A Secret Life (1995) by Marianne Faithfull

It's not every songwriter who'd choose to book-end an album of original songs with a little verse by Dante and Shakespeare. But then Marianne Faithfull has seldom lacked for chutzpah, and clearly has few qualms about presenting her co-written compositions alongside this classic material on A Secret Life, the 1995 album on which she collaborated with Angelo Badalamenti. I've wanted to hear A Secret Life for some time and finally got around to listening to it recently. It's an erratic work with - as per usual on Faithfull albums - one truly terrible track ("The Wedding," here). But with Faithfull intoning spookily over Badalamenti’s atmospheric soundscapes, the album casts a spell. The tracks I've returned to most are the adulterer’s anthem “Love in the Afternoon” and the lushly romantic “The Stars Line Up.” And “Sleep” - below - a song well used in Patrice Chereau’s excellent Son Frere (2003).

Saturday 5 June 2010

Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film (Egoyan/Balfour, MIT Press)

Its pages shaped to duplicate the dimensions of the cinema frame, Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film (2004) is a fascinating volume which features essays, interviews and images that engage with issues of translation, otherness and "foreignness" in film culture. Edited by Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour, and published by MIT Press/Alphabet City, the book offers an abundance of riches for any world cinema lover, including early film writings by Jose Luis Borges, an interview with Claire Denis, essays by Fredric Jameson and (inevitably) Slavoj Zizek, and much, much more. My favourite piece, though, is B. Ruby Rich's extraordinary "To Read Or Not To Read: Subtitles, Trailers and Monolingualism" which explores the history and the politics of subtitling. I quote the essay's concluding remarks here:

"I hope it's not too big a leap to imagine the resurgence of subtitles, also, as an incipient anti-war gesture. Subtitles allow us to hear other people's voices intact and give us full access to their subjectivity. Subtitles acknowledge that our language, the language of this place in which we are watching the film, is only one of many languages in the world and, at that very same moment, elsewhere they are watching movies in which characters speak in English while other languages spell out their thoughts and emotions across the bottom of the frame for other audiences. It gives me hope. Somehow, I'd like to think, it's harder to kill people when you hear their voices. It's harder to bomb a country when you've seen their cities in films that you've loved. It's hard to pretend whole cultures needn't exist when you've entered the space of their own yearning and fear and hope. Subtitles, I'd like to think, are a token of peace" (Rich, 168).

"Living For The City" by Stevie Wonder

Soundtrack for the day.

Friday 4 June 2010

Rounder Records 40th Anniversary Concert (Various Artists)

Venerated roots label Rounder have been in business for forty years; this disc presents highlights of the concert held last year at the Grand Old Opry House to celebrate that anniversary. (Actually, several of the performances on the disc have been culled from other shows at other venues.) While listeners will have their own complaints about who has - and more particularly, perhaps -who hasn’t been featured, it’s an enjoyable collection, showcasing a range of artists from across the label’s roster. Minnie Driver croons warm country-jazz, while Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas (!) offer a lively, crowd-pleasing set. Allison Krauss and Robert Plant seduce on "Rich Woman" from the massive Raising Sand, while Krauss also teams up with Union Station to unleash their disarming brand of elegance and twang on two lovely tracks from the album Lonely Runs Both Ways. Irma Thomas contributes a heartfelt "River is Waiting" and a strident "Don’t Mess With My Man" while Madeleine Peyroux delivers a spare, jazzy take on Leonard Cohen’s "Dance Me to the End of Love." There’s fine picking from Steve Martin and Bela Fleck, inspirational piety ("Why Shouldn’t We?") and a sturdy "He Thinks He’ll Keep Her" from Mary Chapin Carpenter, and the whole company assembles for an exuberant closing medley of "Angels Watching Over Me," "I’ll Fly Away" and "Down By The Riverside." It’s pleasant, tasteful, accomplished: like a Prairie Home Companion special - minus the more surreal interludes. Anyway, here’s to another forty years, guys. Preview below.

Wednesday 2 June 2010

Shaw, Sharp and SRB

(Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw in London Assurance, NT)

I've attended several actors talks and Masterclasses over the past few weeks and wanted to record some impressions on them here. Readers of this blog will be aware of the esteem in which I hold actors, and I find their discussions of their work illuminating, inspiring and, invariably, great fun. There's something about the process of clambering up on a stage every night and pretending to be someone else - the combination of courage, talent, empathy, energy, imagination and sheer practicality that it takes - that is endlessly fascinating.

Fiona Shaw, Lesley Sharp and Simon Russell Beale all offered diverse yet complimentary insights into that process. I saw Shaw first in a National Theatre Platform chaired by Al Senter - an interviewer so knowledgeable, funny, sharp and relaxed that he should have his own fan-club. Seemingly reluctant to talk about her early stage work, Shaw discussed, among other things, her current role as Lady Gay Spanker in the phenomenon that has become the NT's production of London Assurance; the challenges of her amazing performance as Mother Courage last year; Harry Potter; and her recent foray into directing opera, an achievement of which she was visibly proud. But Shaw's particular brand of brilliance and eccentricity emerged more fulsomely at a Masterclass a few days later, at which she took students through scenes from three Shakespeare plays - Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet and All's Well... - offering some priceless insights into her approach to the language, and bouncing up and down with glee as the students became more confident and began to take greater risks with the texts. At one hilarious point, Shaw gave direction by alluding to "that woman ... oh, what's her name? Madame Gaga?" My favourite moment, though, was her quite brilliant taxonomy of a whole history of theatrical language and experience, from the "inclusive, truth-telling" emphasis of Shakesperean drama through the "lies" of Restoration comedy to the fragmentation of Beckett and the estrangement of Brecht. I'm not doing what she said justice here, but it was a remarkable insight - one of many, in a great afternoon.

Lesley Sharp's Masterclass took the form of a Q&A session in which the actress, about to open in Ingredient x by Nick Grosso at the Royal Court, discussed with frankness and clarity her drama school days, the Mike Leigh working process (Sharp appeared in both Naked and Vera Drake), the challenge when performances go wrong, and her sense that the hard work of actors has been devalued by celebrity culture. I particularly liked her comments about auditioning: Remember, it's not just the director who's auditioning you, but you who are auditioning them, and deciding, from what you can glean of their process, whether you in fact want to work with this person.

Genial as always, and wearing his erudition with customary lightness, Simon Russell Beale was delightful at yesterday's NT Platform and the waves of warmth coming from a packed Olivier auditorium were palpable. (How could anyone who's witnessed his Sir Harcourt Courtly in London Assurance not love this actor?) Russell Beale is the performer I've seen on stage more than any other in my ten years of theatre-going and as Senter listed the roles he's stacked up in just the last couple of years - Andrew Undershaft, Leontes and Lopakhin amongst them - it was easy to understand Russell Beale's reputation as the hardest-working actor in Britain. ("Just the greediest," he demurred.) Russell Beale talked about the physical - if not the intellectual - demands of Sir Harcourt (and of his concern about the upcoming filmed performance of the play), of playing George Smiley on the radio, of his presenting work on the marvellous BBC4 Sacred Music series, and of an early, somewhat unlikely aspiration: to be a ballet dancer. He also offered a mini-masterclass in approaching a Shakespearean text, noting the importance of casting aside reductive preconceptions about the characters - "Leontes is jealous"; "Iago's a psychopath" - and instead "following the thought" of each speech and being open to what it gives you. An intense desire to communicate was at the heart of each of these performers' reflections on their work. Leaving the Platform I thought about Max Reinhardt's quote: "We can telegraph and telephone, wire pictures across the ocean; we can fly over it. But the way to the human being next to us is still as far away as the stars. The actor takes us on this way."

Tuesday 1 June 2010