Friday 30 September 2011

5 Filmmakers (v): Mike Leigh

Three key films: Naked (1993), Secrets and Lies (1996), Topsy-Turvy (1999)

Underrated filmAll or Nothing (2002). A contemporary drama released between Leigh’s two stunning “period” films Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake (2004), All Or Nothing slipped through the net; indeed, the movie has been described by Leigh and Lesley Manville as “the one that got away.” Dismissed by some British critics as grim and interminable, this raw ensemble drama about the fortunes of three families on a South London council estate is in fact a rewarding, involving and, finally, quietly affirmative piece of work: “I feel that this film is entirely about redemption,” Leigh has said. With superb performances from Manville, Timothy Spall, Ruth Sheen, James Corden, and, in her first role for Leigh, Sally Hawkins, All or Nothing combines Ozu-like intimacy with an oddly epic scope; it’s ripe for rediscovery.

Unforgettable moment: The meeting between Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) and Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) in the diner in Secrets and Lies, shot in one brilliantly sustained long take, encapsulates the film’s brand of humour and heartbreak, as Cynthia moves from denial and amnesia to the recognition that the young woman sitting beside her is in fact the daughter that she gave up for adoption years before.

The Legend (1943-)

“Directly, objectively, yet compassionately [Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs] puts on the screen the great, hard, real adventure of living and surviving from day to day and from year to year, the experience of ordinary people …” Mike Leigh’s praise for Olmi’s film stands as a very apt description of Leigh’s own work, which has, from the very beginning, concerned itself with “the experience of ordinary people”: working, raising families, dealing with loss and illness, trying to communicate and connect. Howie Movshovitz defines Leigh’s output as a sustained attempt to “capture the texture of real life” and terms such as “social realism,” “kitchen-sink drama” and “naturalism” invariably appear in discussions of the British auteur’s work. However, none of these terms seems quite adequate in capturing the very distinctive brand of humane insight and uproarious social comedy that characterises Leigh’s film-making. As the director states, “no work of art is truly naturalistic. Art is not real life and has to be organised, designed and distilled because it’s dramatic.”

Leigh’s very particular process of “organising, designing and distilling” his material remains one of the most original and commented upon in contemporary cinema. In recent years, the director has become somewhat more open about discussing elements of his method - even while keeping the more “esoteric” aspects firmly behind closed doors. Famously, Leigh’s projects begin with no script, starting instead from a basic premise that is developed through lengthy improvisation sessions with his actors, who initially base their characters on a person - or various people - that they know. The months of rehearsal result in Leigh’s composition of a bare-bones shooting script, which is refined, distilled, and finalised after more improvisation, by the time shooting commences. The process is organic, finely detailed and highly collaborative; small wonder that many actors (including his unofficial “repertory company” of performers: Alison Steadman, Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville, Peter Wight, Phil Davis, the late Katrin Cartlidge and, more recently, Martin Savage, Eddie Marsan and Sally Hawkins) have frequently described their work with Leigh as among the most rewarding and fulfilling of their careers.

Leigh’s idiosyncratic methods were initially developed in his work for the theatre, a medium in which he continues to do vital work (cf. his stunning new play Grief). However, it was a viewing of John Cassavetes’ seminal Shadows (1959) that first alerted him to the possibility of “creating complete plays from scratch with a group of actors.” His first film, Bleak Moments , a devastating anatomisation of English reserve and failures in communication, appeared in 1971, but it would be another 17 years before his next feature film, High Hopes was made. In the intervening period, Leigh dedicated himself to working for television, producing a string of memorable dramas for the BBC’s celebrated ‘Play for Today’ strand, including Hard Labour (1973), Nuts in May (1976), The Kiss of Death (1977) and Abigail’s Party (1977). Following High Hopes and Life is Sweet (1990), the turning point in Leigh’s career came with Naked, an epically-scaled and often brutal drama which tracks its garrulous anti-hero, Johnny (David Thewlis), from Manchester to the streets of London, exploring his fairly vicious relationships with women; the film’s confrontational approach was likened by one (hostile) critic to “a mugging.” Naked was followed by the equally extraordinary Secrets and Lies, perhaps the quintessential Leigh film in its subtle, immersive drawing together of a group of extended family members, colleagues and friends. His camerawork characterised by what David Thompson has called a “detached, medical watchfulness” Leigh often bases his scenes around social engagements, with their ensuing dramas, revelations and embarrassments; the climactic, emotionally charged barbecue sequence in Secrets and Lies is, in many ways, the Leigh scene par excellence.

Leigh has broadened his scope to encompass period drama with Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake (2004), bringing his distinctive aesthetic (and most of his favourite actors) to bear on these projects, which subtly challenge the conventions of heritage cinema. Sometimes prone to caricature and over-emphasis, Leigh’s weaker films can be obvious and schematic, occasionally relying too heavily on broadly-drawn contrasts between characters and taking a rather judgemental attitude towards the protagonists. His best films, in contrast, work to change and challenge the audiences’ pre-judgements about characters, and cast a sharp yet sympathetic eye upon human frailty and resilience. According to Andy Medhurst, the director‘s skill lies in “making moving (in both senses of the word) pictures that evoke the horrors and humours of being English.” For all the national specificity of his work, however, it is, finally, Leigh’s sustained engagement with “the great, hard, real adventure of living and surviving from day to day” that makes his films resonate so profoundly for audiences across the world.

5 Fillmmakers (iv): Michael Haneke

Three key films: Funny Games (1997) Code Unknown (2000), Hidden (2005)

Underrated film: 71 Fragments of A Chronology of Chance (1994)
The final part of Haneke’s Austria-set “emotional glaciation trilogy” has never gained the amount of attention given to its predecessors, The Seventh Continent (1989) and Benny’s Video (1992). But this subtle and provocative film is among Haneke’s most resonant works. As its title suggests, the film is an elliptical account of numerous events involving disparate characters (a homeless Romanian boy; a student; a bank security guard and his wife) who are finally connected by a random and apparently motiveless act of violence. A precursor, in both content and structure, to Code Unknown, the movie’s withering critique of the mediatisation of experience is encapsulated by the ending, in which we see a complex and multi-faceted event diminished and packaged as it takes its place in the endless parade of TV news images.

Unforgettable moment: The film ‘rewind’ in Funny Games. In a rare moment of one-up-(wo)man-ship against the family’s two captors, Anna (Susanne Lothar) shoots Peter (Frank Giering), only for his accomplice Paul (Arno Frisch) to grab a remote- control and rewind the film’s action from within the diegesis, subsequently “replaying” the scene to prevent Peter’s murder. Functioning as a self-reflexive disavowal of the ‘catharsis’ of the retaliatory violence expected from a suspense thriller, the scene is one of the most startling moments not only in Haneke’s oeuvre but in all of contemporary cinema.

The Legend (1942-)

“Cold,” “detached,” “theoretical,” “didactic” and “sadistic” are some of the words that invariably appear in discussions of Michael Haneke’s work. While a superficial engagement with Haneke’s cinema might make all of these terms seem apt at various points, none of these reductive descriptions truly does justice to the power of Haneke’s work and the density of its inquiry into the complexities of living and interacting in the contemporary world. Calculated to provoke and disturb, it’s certainly true that Haneke’s films can be gruelling experiences, but they seldom fail to reward one’s patience and commitment. Watching Haneke’s movies, the viewer always feels in the grip of a controlled, discerning intelligence, that of a filmmaker who is intensely preoccupied by some of the most pressing social and ethical questions facing us today.

A German-born Austrian, Haneke studied psychology, philosophy and drama at the University of Vienna. He worked as a film and literary critic before beginning his directing career in the German theatre and in television. His first cinematic feature, The Seventh Continent, appeared in 1989; the story of an Austrian family going through their daily lives in a series of ritualised routines before calmly undertaking an irrevocable decision, the film established some of the key aspects of the director’s spare, measured, understated and elliptical style. It was followed by two more films, Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments of A Chronology of Chance, that also explored what Haneke would call the “emotional glaciation” of Austria. The trilogy was followed by a made-for television adaptation of Kafka’s The Castle (1997), and then by Funny Games, still perhaps Haneke’s most notorious film, a Brechtian deconstruction of the “home invasion” thriller that critiques the concept of violence-as-entertainment but was accused by some critics of employing precisely the kind of shock tactics that it sought to attack. Since then, Haneke has gone on to make more ambitiously-scaled films, often employing European star actors: Juliette Binoche in Code Unknown and Hidden; Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher [2001] and Time of the Wolf [2003]. He has also continued to engage in a subversive manner with genre conventions: melodrama in The Piano Teacher, disaster film in Time of the Wolf, suspense thriller in Hidden. His most recent film, the Palme d’or-winning The White Ribbon, was a foray into period drama, a chilling account of mysterious, violent happenings in a north German village just before World War I.

Deeply concerned with the ethics of spectatorship, Haneke’s work frequently explores the ways in which the proliferation of images in contemporary culture may serve to reduce rather than intensify the viewer’s sense of reality. As Catherine Wheatley has argued, Haneke believes we are living in a time in which “people have become inured to the experience of real life through the medium of television (and film), which divides brute reality into neat segments and packages it between commercials, insinuating it into the daily routines of consumer life.” Screens-within-the-screen, frames-within-the-frame, thus form a recurrent motif in his cinema, which attempts to forge an alternative relationship to the spectator, engaging him or her as a discriminating, thoughtful participant rather than a voracious, unthinking consumer.

Indeed, watching a Haneke film the viewer often feels drawn into an intense, all-too-rare state of alertness, challenged to puzzle out the significances that seem “hidden” in his often static and painstakingly-composed frames. Clearly, there's an element of didacticism in Haneke’s project to make us “see better,” but ultimately his cinema is one of open-ended questions rather than fixed, final answers. Wider allegorical resonances in his work emerge subtly, almost subliminally, and despite his engagement with a range of contemporary panics and paranoias - around race, immigration, sexuality, power - his work never feels issue-led. Finally, an unsentimental compassion and concern underpins the invigorating moral seriousness of Haneke’s film-making, with its urgent inquiry into what we watch, how we live, and the relationship between the two.

5 Filmmakers (III): Agnés Varda

Three key films: Cleo From 5 to 7 (1961), Jacquot de Nantes (1991) The Beaches of Agnés (2008)

Underrated film: The Creatures (1966)
Varda’s under-appreciated film boasts excellent performances from Michel Piccoli and Catherine Deneuve as an enigmatic couple, a writer and his mute wife, on the beautiful island of Noirmoutier in Western France. Controversial at the time, the film’s genre blur - it combines elements of fantasy, comedy and suspense thriller - now seems integral to its strange and singular fascination.

Unforgettable moment: Distressed about the imminent results of a medical test that she fears will confirm a fatal condition, the singer Cléo (Corinne Marchand) receives a visit from her composer and accompanist, Bob (played by Michel Legrand), who presents her with a new song, “Sans Toi.” Moved by the lyrics, which seem to refer to her predicament, Cléo’s performance of the song becomes a highly emotional, dramatic and expressionistically staged interpretation that marks a turning point in the character’s journey towards self-realisation. This scene alone is enough to make you understand why Madonna once set her sights upon starring in an American remake of this movie.

The Legend (1928-)
Encompassing fiction, documentary, photography, essay film and, latterly, installation art, Agnés Varda’s diverse output is connected by a wonderfully inclusive curiosity about the world: about people, animals, places, buildings and objects. Born in Belgium, Varda studied Art History at the Ecole du Louvre before becoming the official photographer to the Théâtre National in Paris. Those two disciplines have informed Varda’s pioneering approach to film-making, which began in 1954 with La Pointe Courte. Shot on location on a tiny budget (with Alain Resnais as editor), the film was stylistically ahead of its time, combining documentary footage of the fishermen of a French village with the story of a couple breaking up. La Pointe Courte is now recognised as the first New Wave film, although Varda belonged more precisely to the Left Bank wing of the movement, which included Resnais, Chris Marker, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras.

Throughout her career Varda’s work has been characterised by experimentation with film form. She has moved fluidly between documentary and fiction film-making; indeed, perhaps the most striking and innovative aspect of her work has been her blurring of the boundaries between fiction and documentary. Her masterpiece remains the classic Cleo From 5 to 7, in which a pop singer whiles away two hours in the shops, cafes, streets and parks of Paris as she anxiously awaits the results of recent medical tests. But Varda’s filmography is full of riches, surprises, delights. These range from the gorgeous textures and dark heart of Le Bonheur (1965), one of the most visually splendid yet subtly disturbing “family” films ever made; the feminist coming-of-age saga One Sings, The Other Doesn’t (1977); the gritty homelessness drama Vagabond (1985); Jacquot de Nantes, her moving film about her husband Jacques Demy; and the extraordinary, life-enhancing documentary The Gleaners and I (2000), which explores the practice of “gleaning” from its depiction in 19th Century art-works to the actions of contemporary scavengers, who salvage discarded produce in order to survive and to denounce the excesses and waste of consumer capitalism.

In addition, Varda has made short films on a variety of topics - from cats and potatoes, to the Black Panthers and widowhood, sculpture to the Côte d’Azur - each offering a witty and profound discourse on its theme. A deceptive lightness of touch characterises much of her work, but her movies go fathoms-deep. Witness her most recent film, the eccentric and entrancing cine-autobiography The Beaches of Agnés, which ranges over episodes from her childhood and career, and features Chris Marker in the guise of an animated cat. What’s especially heartening is the centrality that “play” clearly retains in Varda’s concept of cinema. In her 80s now, this director continues to make movies with what can only be described as unfettered glee. “I don’t want simply to show, but rather to convey a desire to see,” Varda has claimed.. This commitment is evident in the way her films work to sharpen the viewer’s perception of the world, heightening our awareness of what can be noticed, appreciated and - ultimately - loved within it.

5 Filmmakers (II): Andrzej Wajda

Three key films: Kanal (1956), Ashes and Diamonds (1958), Man of Marble (1976)

Underrated film: Everything for Sale (1968)
“Today you’re in despair. Tomorrow you’ll be thinking it’ll make a great film…” Inspired by the death of Zbigniew Cybulski, acting icon and star of Ashes and Diamonds, Everything for Sale is Wajda’s (1963), a dazzling reflection upon the relationship between art and life, in which a film crew (led by a director called, yes, Andrzej) must deal with the death of its leading man in an accident. A fascinating experience in its own right, Everything for Sale is also an interesting companion piece to Wajda’s most recent film, Sweet Rush (2009), a collaboration with Krystyna Janda, that is another astute and poignant meditation upon loss and the filmmaker’s art.

Unforgettable moment: In Ashes and Diamonds, the increasingly reluctant assassin Maciej finally fulfils his remit to kill Comrade Szczuka, shooting him at point-blank range in the street. The dying man staggers forward and Maciej finds himself holding his victim in his arms. In a final expressionist flourish, fireworks from a party light the night-time sky behind the pair, locked in their strange, momentary embrace.

The Legend (1926-)

More consistently than any other Polish filmmaker, Andrzej Wajda has dedicated himself to presenting the social, cultural and political life of his country on screen. Born in Suwalki, north-east Poland, Wajda was 13-years-old when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded the country, an experience that would have an indelible effect on his psyche, and, ultimately, his cinema. His father, a cavalry officer, was among the thousands murdered by the Soviets in the Katyn massacre of 1940, an atrocity that Wajda would finally address in Katyn (2007), the Oscar-nominated film that became a cultural phenomenon in Poland. After the war, Wajda studied painting at the Cracow Academy of Fine Arts, a discipline that is evidenced in the profusion of memorable single-shot images in his films. However, the solitary act of painting failed to satisfy his artistic temperament, and he subsequently trained at the famous Lodz Film School, making an immediate impact in 1955 with his feature debut A Generation, a portrait of a teenage anti-German resistance group, that provided the foundations for the nascent “Polish School” of cinema. “With this film Polish cinema began,” commented Roman Polanski, who acted in the film.

Wajda’s following film Kanal, a vivid, intense depiction of the last days of the 1944 Warsaw uprising, won the Cannes Special Jury Prize, catapulting Wajda to international fame. The director’s position was consolidated by the release of Ashes and Diamonds, which starred the iconic Zbigniew Cybulski (dubbed Poland’s James Dean) as a resistance fighter assigned to kill a Polish Worker’s Party official. The film is still regarded as Wajda’s masterpiece.

As Janina Falkowska has argued, “in his films Wajda presents human dilemmas within a complex historical and social reality … An individual is shown as either trying to oppose the historical reality or as annihilated by it.” Consistently concerned with the excavation of the past to uncover long-buried truths, Wajda has explored Polish experience in numerous films, including the classic, Citizen Kane-inspired Man of Marble and its sequel, Man of Iron (1981), which explore political activism in the country from the Stalinist era to the Gdansk shipyard strike. In addition, he has turned his hand to lavish literary adaptations, including The Promised Land, based on Stanislaw Reymont’s novel about industrial development in Lodz, and the less successful Pan Tadeusz (1999), an adaptation of Adam Mickiewicz’s epic poem.

Wajda has seldom worked outside Poland, although in the martial law era he directed the French-produced Danton (1983), a film interpreted by many as an allegory of the Lech Walesa/Wojeiech Jaruzelski conflict of the time. These epic films, however, have been balanced by other, smaller-scaled, more idiosyncratic and self-reflexive projects, including Everything for Sale, The Conductor (1980), featuring John Gielgud, and the recent Sweet Rush, an intimate collaboration with his iconic actress, Krystyna Janda. Ultimately, though, it is the political commitment of Wajda’s cinema - its ability to turn the complexities of Polish history into compelling human drama - that will be the director’s enduring legacy.


Wednesday 28 September 2011

5 Filmmakers (I): Claire Denis

Claire Denis

Three key films: Beau Travail (1999), 35 Shots of Rum (2008), White Material (2009)

Underrated film: The Intruder (2004)
“Your worst enemies are hiding inside. Hiding in the shadows. Hiding in your heart.” Denis’s most obscure and inscrutable film deeply divided audiences and critics, some viewers considering it to be a profound treatise on identity, life and death, and others attacking it as an impenetrable tone poem that fails to add up despite scattered striking images. Initially baffling it might be, but The Intruder is a movie that, even more than Denis’s other films, richly repays and rewards repeat viewings. Inspired by Jean-Luc Nancy’s book, the film is at once a metaphysical exploration, a travelogue, and a quest narrative of sorts, tracking its “heartless” protagonist, Trebor (Michel Subor), as he journeys from Jura to Pusan in South Korea and finally to Tahiti, undergoing a heart transplant and attempting to seek out his estranged son. As a story in which, in Denis’s words, “everything is broken,” The Intruder doesn’t need to add up, and for all its opacity, the film remains an indelible, haunting experience - a trip, in two senses, at least.

Unforgettable moment: Endings in Denis’s cinema are invariably memorable and surprising, and none more so than Denis Lavant’s extraordinary acrobatic solo dance at the conclusion of Beau Travail, a moment that at once underscores the movie’s exploration of the male body and space and blows it all to pieces. Previously depicted as the controlled military man, Lavant’s Galoup lets rip with a frankly astonishing display of moves in this scene: twirling, flailing, leaping, rolling on the floor, and finally propelling himself out of the frame. “I wanted to show that Galoup could escape himself,” Denis has commented. And you’ll never hear Corona’s “The Rhythm of the Night” again without seeing these images.

The Legend (1948-)

“I always freak out when I hear people opposing sensation to story-telling,” Claire Denis has said. “A great story-teller always gives you that sense of warmth or cold… [Sensation and story-telling] are not opposed … Why deprive a film of what belongs to cinema?” Perhaps more consistently than any other contemporary filmmaker, Denis’s movies work to make sensation into story-telling, and vice versa. Elliptical and fragmentary, sometimes oblique to the point of opacity, Denis’s films re-write the rule-book in terms of narrative content and characterisation, her stories often emerging through an intense focus on the bodies of her actors and a moody, sensuous evocation of places and spaces. The result is a cinematic style that, in its combination of discretion and ellipsis with moments of confrontational, sometimes brutal directness, is one of the most distinctive in modern French cinema.

Born in Paris, Denis was raised in colonial West Africa, where her father was a civil servant; she went on to study at the IDHEC, the French film school, and served as an assistant to directors including Jacques Rivette, Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch. This background finds its way into her films in ways that vary from the obvious to the indirect. Elements of autobiography would certainly seem to inform her debut film, Chocolat (1988), in which a white French woman returns to Cameroon, where she recalls her childhood as the daughter of a regional administrator and her relationship with the family’s servant, Proteé (Isaach de Bankolé). Issues of “race” and the fallout of colonialism remain pertinent in Denis’s cinema, and in its exploration of the experiences of white characters in Africa (Beau Travail and White Material) and African and Caribbean immigrants in France (No Fear, No Die [1990]; 35 Shots of Rum [2008]) her work can certainly be seen to engage with the complexities and uncertainties of our post-colonial world.

But Denis’s movies are too subtle and impressionistic for crude polemics around racial politics. Rather, her films approach such issues in more abstract terms, charting what the director herself calls “movement[s] towards the unknown Other and toward the unknown in other people.” Indeed, the notion of “movement” is particularly key to Denis’s cinema which brings a choreographic sensibility to its presentation of bodies at rest and in motion, and also makes spectacular use of rock and pop music ranging from Neil Young to the Beach Boys and the Commodores. An invigorating tactility, an effort to make her movies felt in the body of the spectator, characterises her film-making practice.

Denis frequently works with the same colleagues, including actors (de Bankolé, Grégoire Colin, Alex Descas, Nicholas Duvauchelle), musicians (the British band Tindersticks) and the cinematographer Agnés Godard. The contributions of such collaborators clearly play a part in the distinctive ambience that her films create even as her work moves from the gore of the horror film Trouble Every Day (2001) to the warmth and sensitivity of an Ozu-inspired family drama (35 Shots). But what defines Denis’s cinema most is the liberating amount of interpretive space that it gives to the audience. In the words of Ryland Walker Knight, Denis “captures life’s richness by observing behaviour, and then lets us develop the picture.” Ultimately, it is nothing less than the mystery and materiality of human experience which is conveyed with such bracing insight and feeling in Denis’s dynamic work.

Film Review: Melancholia (von Trier, 2011)

I saw Melancholia (2011), Lars von Trier’s latest piece of provocation, in Łódź's Kino Charlie back in July. And while it would be an exaggeration to say that it’s taken me over two months to formulate a response, it’s certainly true that von Trier’s film is a tough one to sort out your feelings about. I think that’s because what’s good and what’s not so good in Melancholia is very close indeed, sometimes to the point of being indistinguishable. For that reason alone, I’d place von Trier’s movie alongside Terrence Malick’s recent evolution opus The Tree of Life (2011). Like Malick’s film, von Trier’s variously lush and stately, urgent and contemplative offering often teeters on the cusp of being a ludicrous, pompous folly as it scores the end of the world, ever so picturesquely, to Wagner. But, also like The Tree of Life, Melancholia is possessed of an ambition, audacity and singularity of vision that it’s hard not to admire and, ultimately, embrace. (And, boy, what a truly cosmic double-bill these two pictures would make!)

One of the exciting elements of von Trier’s output has been the way in which it has fused literary and theatrical elements into a thoroughly cinematic form. Melancholia’s thoughtful, elegant structure divides the film into two chapters that focus on two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). We encounter Justine on her wedding day to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) - at a reception that, even from the opening moments, fails to go as smoothly as planned. After all, the presentiment that a planet called Melancholia may be on a collision course with earth is hardly likely to get a girl in the mood for her nuptials, though in truth there seem to be a few reasons other than the prospective end of the world for Justine’s sudden dose of cold feet. The second section then shifts the focus to Claire, who, some time after the wedding, is attempting to deal not only with Justine’s melancholia but with her own increasing anxiety about the planet Melancholia’s approach.

For all the exasperating, contrived and over-obvious elements present in this scenario, the assurance of von Trier’s handling of the material comes as a relief after the risible art-film-meets-torture-porn miscalculation Antichrist (2009), a true folly. Indeed, even as you’re stifling groans, you’re likely to find yourself caught up in Melancholia, an “atheist’s On the Beach” - to borrow Michał Oleszczyk's brilliant description. Felicities abound, not least in the performances of the cast, from Charlotte Rampling’s caustic cameo  to amusing bits of business from Udo Kier and John Hurt, neat work from Kiefer Sutherland, and the wonderfully intense characterisations offered by both Dunst and Gainsbourg. (This is another only-in-von-Trier ensemble if ever there was one.) It’s debatable that the movie’s portentousness adds up to any kind of profoundity: perhaps the director is doing little more than working out his own depressive condition here. Melancholia makes its impact, though: it certainly feels quite unlike any other film released this year. See it, love it, hate it, argue about it. But do see it.

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Theatre Review: South Downs/The Browning Version (Minerva, Chichester)

Chichester Festival Theatre’s Terence Rattigan centenary season concludes in the Minerva with Angus Jackson’s production of The Browning Version, which is paired in this outing with a newly commissioned work by David Hare called South Downs - a “response” to Rattigan’s play, directed by Jeremy Herrin. Rattigan’s venerable 1948 one-acter was originally performed with the author’s Harlequinade, an amusing-enough trifle on theatrical themes. Hare’s play proposes itself as a more substantial and relevant curtain-raiser, however. And it is a decent enough effort, albeit one that looks somewhat pallid compared to Rattigan’s play, and the intensity of emotional response that it is still able to generate.

South Downs isn’t in any sense a radical revisioning of Rattigan’s text but rather a play that draws on themes and issues from The Browning Version: it includes, for example, complementary riffs on teaching, on the benefits (or otherwise) of likeability and charm, and on the role of performance in daily life. And, most obviously, like Rattigan’s play, South Downs unfolds in a boys’ school and pivots upon an act of benevolence that redeems the protagonist’s sense of alienation. In this case, the year is 1962 and the focus is on a 14-year-old pupil named John Blakemore (Alex Lawther), an unhappy boy whose friendship with another pupil, Jenkins (Bradley Hall), is undergoing strain. Dismissed as “showing off,” Blakemore’s endless class-room questioning has pretty much alienated the rest of his classmates as well. But he draws the sympathetic attention of an older boy, Duffield (Jonathan Bailey), whose actress mother (a wry, warm Anna Chancellor) invites Blakemore to tea and offers him a few valuable life-lessons over Fortnum & Mason cake.

Herrin’s spare production conjures the atmosphere of the school, with its petty squabbles and tensions, without fuss, and boasts some strong performances, especially from the younger cast members, most of whom are making their professional debuts. There is perhaps a strain of sentimentality to Hare’s characterisation of the troubled but bright, Camus-reading and CND-supporting Blakemore - the playwright’s hymn to his own sensitivity, intelligence and beautiful alienation at this age, perhaps? But Lawther’s skilful performance cuts through this conception. And Andrew Woodall brings his customary wit and presence to a scene - the play’s best - in which he pompously lectures the students on Alexander Pope.

Hare, who last month was quoted as saying that his recent work has become more journalistic because “there hasn’t been time to dramatise it,” mercifully avoids a journalistic approach in South Downs. But the play isn’t really dramatic either: it lacks a sense of urgency and momentum. Still, the playwright’s gift for enjoyable sharp put-downs is in good form, and if some moments here feel bogus and rigged, others prove quietly affecting.

South Downs sustains interest while it lasts, but when compared with the grace, elegance and cutting emotional insights of The Browning Version Hare’s play simply shrivels up and blows away. No case needs to be made for the greatness of The Browning Version these days, but Jackson’s staging is just about as fine an account as you’re likely to experience. Intimate and full of feeling, it centres on a superb performance from Nicholas Farrell (who’s not given quite enough to do in South Downs) as the unloved schoolmaster Crocker-Harris, dubbed “the Himmler of the Lower Fifth.” As his wife, Millie, Anna Chancellor does well enough to convey the bitterness of a woman trapped in an entirely unsuitable marriage - though her performance ultimately lacks the heft of Judi Dench’s exquisite work in the 1985 TV version. But the always-watchable Mark Umbers brings a beautiful clarity, conviction and moral force to his role as her lover, while, as the student Taplow, Liam Morton pitches his performance exactly right. The scene in which Taplow’s unanticipated gift briefly succeeds in piercing Crocker-Harris’s reserve is, as it should be, the very moving highlight of an altogether excellent production.

South Downs/The Browning Version runs for 2 hours 35 minutes and is booking until 8th October. Further information at the Chichester Festival Theatre website.

Friday 23 September 2011

Screening the Secret City: Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg

Part of the Maddin-est Blogathon in the World!

Keyframe are hosting a Blogathon dedicated to the great Guy Maddin this week. Here’s my contribution: an essay on Maddin's My Winnipeg (2007) which takes a look at the films presentation of the city,  its politics, and its attention to space. Cameos from J. Hoberman and Edward Soja, amongst others. 

Screening the Secret City: Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg

When Michael Burns, the president of the Documentary Channel in Canada, first approached Guy Maddin to ask him to make a film about his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, it was with a couple of specific instructions. “Make it your Winnipeg,” Burns apparently told the director. And: “Please don’t give us the frozen hell-hole that we all know the city is.” It’s hard to imagine that Burns would have envisaged anything other than a highly personal and unconventional portrait of the city from Maddin, who is widely celebrated as one of the most distinctive auteurs in Canadian cinema. As is known, the signature visual aesthetic of Maddin’s films replicates the look and feel of early cinema - in particular, of silent film. And not only that, but Maddin’s work also seeks to replicate the degraded look that such films might have after decades of projection have left their mark on the images. This faux-retro style - at once direct and elusive – leads J. Hoberman to describe Maddin, with characteristic perceptiveness, as “the most eccentric of mainstream filmmakers (or the most accessible of avant-gardists)” (Hoberman 2004).

Of course, the overt stylization of Maddin’s work - its wholesale appropriation of the language of silent film, its surrealism and absurdist humour and its wildly melodramatic elements - may seem entirely antithetical to the documentary tradition. Maddin is, after all, a director who boldly champions film as artifice. “I like silent film because it aggressively says to its viewers: I am artificial,” he has said. “Silent film announces itself as art. It says: 'quit expecting realism from me.' If you want realism watch security camera tapes” (Maddin, in Springer and Werthschulte, 2008).

In Maddin’s hands, then, My Winnipeg was hardly destined to be a standard or conventional documentary. Appearing at the time of other, complementary, city essay-films - notably Victor Erice’s La Morte Rouge (2006), about San Sebastian, and Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City (2008), about Liverpool - the film famously combines fact and fabrication in its account of the city, merging archive footage, home videos, and staged re-enactments of Maddin’s family history, and producing a work that is as based in imagination, dream and subjective personal memory as historical fact. Developed in collaboration with Maddin’s regular writing partner George Toles, the film was shot over a ten-day period in a wide variety of formats -16 mm, Super 8, mini DV video, HD video and cell phone, as well as found footage - and also avails itself of inter-titles, cut-out animation, and most significantly a dynamic voice-over narration provided by Maddin himself. As Ryan Gilbey suggests, “the textural collage [of the film] is appropriately jumbled and hallucinatory” (Gilbey, 2008), reflecting Maddin’s construction of Winnipeg itself as a kind of multi-dimensional mosaic, as much dreamscape as historical reality.

While Maddin originally favoured the portmanteau word “docu-fantasia” to describe My Winnipeg’s genre-blur, he ultimately rejected the term, stating that “I think it is just a documentary. Documentary has elastic enough borders, especially now, everyone understands that there is no such thing as a completely honest documentary. Everything has a point of view” (Maddin, in Halfyard, 2007).

The "point-of view" of  My Winnipeg is one that emphasises, overtly, incompleteness and  impression, the personal, selective and the subjective. Maddin thus places the documentary in what he has called his "Me Trilogy," alongside Cowards Bend the Knee (2003) and Brand Upon The Brain! (2006). Each of these three films features a character called "Guy Maddin" and draws in a fantastical way on aspects of the director’s personal history.

The Maddin avatar in My Winnipeg (played, as in Cowards Bend the Knee, by Darcy Fehr) is introduced to us on a train journey through Winnipeg as he attempts to escape the city that oppresses and confines him - “to film his way out” in Maddin’s phrase. This is a journey which, we gather, the protagonist has attempted (and failed) to accomplish many times before. He is, as the narration has it, “leaving for good - again.” This notion of the endlessly deferred journey out provides a structural principal as the film travels through the city, digressing through personal memory, folklore, anecdote and social history, in order to anatomise Maddin’s own shifting engagement with Winnipeg, a relationship characterised by a mixture of pride and distaste, hatred and affection. “It’s no Eden that you would see/But it’s home sweet home to me” state the lyrics to the song “Wonderful Winnipeg” by The Swinging Strings that plays over the film’s opening credits. Though heavily ironic in context, the lyrics succinctly encapsulate the ambivalence of Maddin’s attitude to Winnipeg, which is presented throughout as “no Eden” but nonetheless functions as an (ultimately inescapable) “home sweet home.”

In talking about his decision to make the film, Maddin emphasised his desire to mythologise Winnipeg, commenting on what he identifies as a peculiarly Canadian failure to mythologise the nation. “I am making it my mission to mythologize the place,” Maddin stated. “Every other country in the world gives their folk heroes a bigger than life treatment. For some reason, Canadians look through the wrong end of the telescope and make them smaller than life. I just thought that if no one was going to make a myth about Winnipeg [then] I would do it myself” (Maddin, in McBride, 2008).

Unsurprisingly, Maddin’s myth-making in My Winnipeg often tends towards the absurdist or the ludic. The city that the film presents is one of gay bison, of séances held in the parliament building, of aged hockey stars reunited for one final game, and, in the film’s most famous image, of frozen horse heads trapped in the Red River. Maddin’s sleepy, snowy Winnipeg is, in this sense, “wonderful” - full of wonders, spectacles, phenomena, intrusions of strangeness and oddity into the everyday. This is a city of “mystical synchronicities,” we are told. The statistics which the narrator provides at various points are largely and deliberately fictional, parodying the conventions of the documentary and constantly unsettling the viewer’s sense of historical reality. As Gilbey notes: “In Maddin’s wildly fabricated Winnipeg, veracity matters less than evocation” (Gilbey, 2008).  

Even so, the entrancing playfulness of Maddin’s approach should not obscure the seriousness of the film’s endeavour to engage with and deconstruct the myths and realities of Winnipeg’s past and present, and more broadly the myths and realities of the nation for which the city serves as a metonym. In particular, the film’s attention to space is central to its often subversive engagement with Winnipeg’s history and the position of its citizens therein. In Post-Metropolis, Edward Soja suggests that

[p]erhaps more than ever before we are becoming consciously aware of ourselves as intrinsically spatial beings, continually engaged in the collective activity of producing spaces and places, territories and regions, environments and habitats.... On the one hand, our actions and thoughts shape the spaces around us, but at the same time the larger collectively or socially produced spaces within which we live also shape our actions and thoughts in ways that we are only beginning to understand. (Soja, 2000)

Soja’s suggestion that human beings both shape and are shaped by the spaces in which we live with others resonates strongly with My Winnipeg. Indeed, Maddin’s film may be read as an exploration of how a city and its culture and geography form the individual, and how the individual, in turn, (per)forms and re-forms the city itself. “Our performance as spatial beings,” Soja suggests, “takes place at many different scales, from the body, or what the poet Adrienne Rich once called ‘the geography closest in,’ to a whole series of more distant geographies ranging from rooms and buildings, homes and neighbourhood, to cities and regions, states and nations, and ultimately the whole earth.”

The spaces documented and explored in My Winnipeg encompass just such a wide range, taking in the train tracks leading in and out of the city; the Arlington Street Bridge; the city’s back alleys; the Eaton’s department store and the Winnipeg Hockey Arena. They encompass the famous ‘Forks’ of the Red and Assiniboine rivers; the three-level Sherbrook pool; Garbage Hill, a dump for the city’s waste materials; and the abandoned Happyland amusement park, which the film finally reclaims as a space for the city’s dispossessed. And then, of course, there is the Maddin house itself, 800 Ellice, rendered in Maddin’s voice-over as an abstract shape: “a chunk of home: white, block, house.” It is here - indeed, on that most intimate of spaces, the family couch - that My Winnipeg reaches its elegant and surprisngly emotive end.

A concern with spatial relationships thus permeates Maddin’s movie, and what is especially striking is the way in which the film constructs city space and bodily space as synonymous. Bodily metaphors abound in Maddin’s often florid descriptions of Winnipeg’s geography. Most significantly, there are the 'Forks' where the Red and the Assiniboine rivers meet, and which are associated throughout with the "lap" of Maddin’s mother, visualised in the film as a pubic triangle that flashes across the screen dissolving into the image of the rivers ("The Forks! The lap!").  The image encapsulates the film’s merging of the private and the public, and, moreover, the city's status in Maddin's imaginary as both nurturer and oppressor.

There is also, again, the Winnipeg Hockey Arena, where Maddin claims to have been born - "right in this dressing-room." The venue is described by Maddin as “my male parent” and connected throughout with the presence of his father, manager of the Winnipeg Maroons hockey team. There are also the back lanes of the city, figured as its “black arteries,” and there is of course the position of the city itself, at “the heart of the heart” of the continent, as Maddin’s voiceover repeatedly announces.

Such bodily metaphors imbue with particular poignancy and power two interrelated narratives of civic loss and destruction which are at the centre - indeed, at the heart - of the film. These are the demolition of Eaton’s department store and the demolition of the Winnipeg Arena, both of which events are explicitly presented by Maddin as acts of violence perpetrated against the living body of the city by its officials. Maddin’s voice rises in righteous anger as he rails against the bureaucrats who sanctioned the demolition of these buildings, with all their personal and communal associations. Particularly traumatic is the loss of the Arena, described by Maddin as “the most myth- and memory-packed landmark in our city’s history.”

Public space in My Winnipeg is thus presented a contentious and contested entity, one that is threatened by local authority, whose decisions result in what Maddin terms “a horrific chain reaction of architectural tragedy.” As William Beard suggests, "the loss of Eaton’s .. could appear as a particularly unmistakeable objective correlative for the long, gradual slide downhill of a city that had not so many decades earlier been so bustling and full of promise" (Beard, 2010).  For a time, Beard suggests, "Winnipeg stood dramatically for for the vast potential of the Canadian west - English Canada’s Chicago, almost. If there is a melancholy that clings to the city itself, and not simply to Maddin’s view of it, it can perhaps be traced to this sense of faded promise" (Beard, 2010). The movie’s lamenting tone echoes Roger Kemble’s remarks in The Canadian City as he surveys the intersection at Portage & Main: “Whatever a sense of place may have been, Winnipeg has lost it,” Kemble writes. “The old streets have disappeared. The city is one big parking lot now” (Kemble, 1989). 

As the Eaton’s and Winnipeg Arena episodes attest, attention to space in My Winnipeg is explicitly connected to the film’s politics. Although Maddin has often sought to downplay any political content in his cinema, the documentary is very clearly political in its implications, adding up to a critique of the erosion of social, cultural, architectural and other traditions in an increasingly homogenised and corporate world. Exploring the aftermath of the urban project of modernity, Maddin’s film finds much to mourn and rage against. As Soja claims in Post-Metropolis, city spaces "must be recognised as products of collective human action and intention and therefore susceptible to being modified or changed. This infuses all socially constructed scales of human spatiality with built-in tensions and potential conflicts, with openness and freedom as well as enclosure and oppression,… and hence with politics, ideology, and what, borrowing from Michel Foucault, can be called the intersections of space, knowledge and power" (Soja, 2000).

Winnipeg as presented by Maddin is precisely a place of “built-in tensions and potential conflicts, openness and freedom… and enclosure and oppression.” Moreover, the concern throughout with issues of “space, knowledge and power” explains why Maddin’s film is repeatedly drawn to the idea of spaces within spaces. Winnipeg, the film tells us, is “a city of palimpsests, of skins beneath skins.” Dipping into the layers of Winnipeg, Maddin’s film discovers a “secret city on top of the official one.” The aforementioned back lanes  with their hints of illicit or non-normative sexuality are one such secret space, as are the 'Forks' Beneath the Forks where, in the film’s mythology at least, the Aboriginal First Nations speak of a subterranean river system running directly beneath the visible one, and attribute supernatural powers to this secret juncture.

More significant still is the film’s aforementioned reclaiming of the destroyed Happyland amusement park as a space for the city’s marginalised groups, including First Nations, the homeless and the city’s forgotten war veterans. These “swelling ranks of the heartsick dispossessed,” as Maddin’s narration figures them, “gather up the detritus of Happyland, every last sliver of happiness they can gather, and reconstitute it out of sight, and up on the rooftops of our city. An Aboriginal Happyland.” As Darren Wershler suggests, "this is not so much a forced marginalization as it is what Hakim Bey might call a TAZ - a Temporary Autonomous Zone where non-normative desires can be enacted and revolutions planned" (Wershler, 2010, p. 91). Winnipeg’s “forgotten people” must unite, the film suggests, to claim their own space within the city’s narrative.

In a final revisionist flourish, the narrator posits a fantasy saviour for Winnipeg named "Citizen Girl" who will “tend to those in our aerial Happyland,” as well as restoring the Winnipeg Arena and the Eaton’s store, and reversing other incidents of civic damage and loss chronicled by Maddin’s film. As such, My Winnipeg  proposes a fantasy scenario as an escape route from the realities of the city's present state.  This is not to suggest that the film’s engagement with the history of Winnipeg’s marginalised is  in any sense unproblematic. In particular, as Wershler notes, the “Marxist pin-up” Citizen Girl whom Maddin envisages saving and restoring the city is “unambiguously white, leaving salvation, once again, in the hands of the colonizers” (Wershler, 2010, p.91). The problems inherent in the notion that a Utopian space must be secured by a white guardian are neither resolved nor even addressed in Maddin's film.  What is significant, nonetheless, is the film’s recourse to imagination and fantasy to highlight the injustices of the past and present, and to construct a counter-narrative that disrupts and modifies the city’s official history. 

In this way, the city that Maddin presents connects with Edward Soja’s notion of thirdspace, “opening up the scope and complexity of the spatial imagination.” In this alternative or “third” perspective,” Soja argues, “the spatial specificity of urbanism is invested as fully lived space, a simultaneously real-and-imagined, actual-and-virtual, locus of structured individual and collective identity” (Soja, 1996). Maddin’s "real-and-imagined, actual-and-virtual" Winnipeg serves as just such a "thirdspace," as the film opens up the city’s history to revision and re-imagining.

My Winnipeg offers, then, a variously poetic, playful and political meditation on the director’s hometown, one that unpicks the spurious certainties of the documentary as it engages with social and historical issues of considerable significance. “Dipping into the layers of the city,” “decoding its signs,” Maddin's movie constructs a counter-narrative to an official version of Winnipeg, presenting the city as at once familiar and fantastic, mysterious and mundane, banal and baroque. “No Eden yet home sweet home,” Maddin’s multi-dimensional Winnipeg is a city replete with secret spaces and hidden realms that co-exist with its daily façade, offering the potential for the revision of dominant ideologies. “The best we can do is selectively explore, in the most insightful way we can find, the infinite complexity of life through its intrinsic spatial, social and historical dimensions, its interrelated spatiality, sociality and historicality,” Soja suggests. Maddin’s film provides just such an exploration, one that adds up to an interrogation of the historical legacies and contemporary realities of “the peaceable kingdom.”

Monday 19 September 2011

Theatre Review: Grief (Cottesloe, National Theatre)

Hearts break very quietly in a 1950s suburban living-room in Grief, Mike Leigh’s exquisite new play which is currently in previews at the National Theatre and follows this year’s well-received revival of his 1979 play Ecstasy at Hampstead and in the West End. (Despite the complementary one-word titles, there are no direct connections between these two dramas, as had been speculated in some quarters.) Appearing in Terence Rattigan’s centenary year, this new play marks Leigh out - at once surprisingly and not surprisingly at all - as an heir to Rattigan in many ways: an acute anatomist of English reserve, of petty cruelties, of failures in communication and love. Having been dissatisfied with Leigh’s last film, Another Year (2010), on a number of counts, I was delighted to find myself completely absorbed by Grief, a play which ranks, I think, as one of the director’s finest works to date, and certainly one of his most tender, poignant and humane.

The setting is the middle-class household of Dorothy (Lesley Manville), a war widow who resides with her bachelor brother Edwin (Sam Kelly) and teenage daughter Victoria (Ruby Bentall) in a Greater London suburb. The year is 1957, in an England in which signs of social change are just beginning to stir. Changes are occurring within the family, too: Edwin is about to retire and Victoria is preparing for her O’Levels. Though clearly plagued by depression and still affected by her husband’s death, Dorothy is a kind and outwardly cheerful woman, who plays the gracious hostess as she receives visits from her old friends Gertrude (Marion Bailey) and Muriel (Wendy Nottingham). But as the New Year approaches the situation in the household darkens considerably, as mother and daughter come into conflict and the extent of Victoria’s frustration and resentment is revealed.

Fractious parent/teen relationships have been a staple of Leigh’s output from Life is Sweet (1990) to All or Nothing (2002), and they come to form the focus of Grief, a play deeply concerned with generational clashes and the reluctance of parents to accept changes in their children. And Leigh’s delicate and atmospheric production, beautifully lit by Paul Pyant and meticulously designed by Alison Chitty, draws us gently but inexorably into intense intimacy with the characters, pulling our sympathies every which way.

The principal problem with Another Year, for me, was that it resorted to Leigh’s bad habit of setting up over-obvious contrasts between the protagonists and encouraging the audience to pass judgement on them. Grief avoids such traps. Holding more than one perspective in balance, the play simply presents behaviour, and gives us the space to draw our own conclusions. Dorothy’s firm belief in “the rules” and her refusal to yield to her daughter on certain picky points of social propriety are frustrating, yet Manville’s empathetic performance succeeds in showing that the character is motivated by deep concern and love for her child. At times, the play’s portrait of parent/teen communication break-down threatens to teeter on the brink of cliché. But the perceptiveness and emotional exactitude of Leigh and his actors is such that Victoria and Dorothy’s conflicts stir many small shocks of recognition. Registering distress with the slightest flinch, the brilliance of Manville’s subtle, captivating performance is that it keeps us attuned to Dorothy’s feelings all the time: we have the sense of watching her thinking, in close-up, throughout. And she’s well-matched by the excellent Bentall, who unpicks Victoria’s terseness to reveal a truly disturbing sense of alienation and tendency towards self-sabotage: her final (wordless) scene may haunt you for days to come.

The production’s rhythm is extremely satisfying: the scenes flow elegantly, each carrying its precise emotional weight, and revealing some gem of perception or resonant detail, while generating a strong cumulative tension across the interval-less two hour running time. (And Leigh isn’t afraid of moments of silence and stillness on stage, either.) As in Topsy-Turvy (1999) and Vera Drake (2004) the director again proves himself a master at writing believable period dialogue too: the interactions here feel totally authentic, emerging out of the social context in a way that never seems forced or contrived. When Dorothy, Gertrude and Muriel reminisce about their work as telephonists, or when Edwin and Dorothy talk about their parents, these moments have a genuine weight. (The sequences benefit from the performers’ shared professional history as “Leigh regulars,” too.) And the scenes in which Manville and Kelly sing together - with the lyrics of songs like “Goodnight Sweetheart,” “Smile,” and “Apple Blossom Time” expressing the deep feelings that the characters aren’t otherwise able to articulate - are simply lovely; they suggest such a close, intuitive brother/sister bond that the progressive deterioration of Dorothy and Edwin’s relationship is truly upsetting to witness. Again, the challenge of human contact is Leigh’s primary concern throughout. A scene in which Bailey’s garrulous Gertrude finds Dorothy in distress and the two women almost - but don’t quite - win their way through to honest communication is especially moving.

There’s also lovely work from Dorothy Duffy as Dorothy’s brash, no-nonsense new cleaner, Maureen, and, in particular, from David Horovitch as Hugh, the jovial Doctor friend of Edwin’s who drops by to boast about his son’s achievements and giggle over his own witticisms.

Those who prefer the more savage and satirical side to Leigh may be disappointed in Grief, a play which, while rich in humorous moments, avoids the snide tone that can crop up in his work. (The director certainly seems to be mellowing on class issues: following the glowing endorsement given to those smug bourgeois Tom and Gerri in Another Year, the middle-class matrons here are subjected to only the most affectionate mockery.) As in other Leigh texts, there’s also a certain inevitability to the trajectory of the piece: you may find yourself wishing for a less predictable ending. But that doesn’t stop the conclusion from packing a terrific emotional punch. Perfectly pitched and powerfully affecting, this great production is one of the strongest that the National Theatre has offered us in a patchy year. Good Grief indeed.

The production runs for two hours without interval and is booking until 28th January. Many performances are already sold-out but further information is available at the NT website.

Thursday 15 September 2011

Concert Review: June Tabor & Oysterband (Queen Elizabeth Hall, 14/9/2011)

It may have taken them over two decades to get around to recording a follow-up to their 1990 album Freedom and Rain, but June Tabor and Oysterband have intermittently reunited for live shows in the intervening years, "never losing touch" with each other’s music, as Tabor noted in a recent interview. This deep rapport and connection was clearly evident last night in Tabor and the band’s superb show at Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, the first in a tour in support of that long-awaited new album, Ragged Kingdom [reviewed below]. The show served as a launch of sorts for the new record, with Oysters front-man John Jones confessing rather sheepishly that this was the first time that they had performed many of these songs for an audience.

No signs of anxiety showed through in the performances, however. For, from the galloping, powerhouse opener “Bonny Bunch of Roses” to the impeccably elegant closing lullaby “Put Out the Lights,” Tabor and the band delivered a thrilling show that was controlled and polished yet wonderfully loose and spontaneous.

The set-list combined tracks from Ragged Kingdom and Freedom and Rain, with a couple of Oysters originals added to the mix. Avoiding Dad-rock stolidity, the band played with vigour and passion throughout, Dil Davies’s sturdy drumming, Ian Telfer’s outstanding, soulful violin-playing, Alan Prosser and Al Scott’s guitar-work and the efforts of the multi-tasking Ray Cooper (cello, mandolin, bass) giving the material an exciting mixture of folk grace and rock grit, and beautifully complementing Tabor’s magnificent vocal performances. Jones’s singing matched Tabor’s in drama and intensity, especially his stunning, keening solo on “Molly Bond,” while, backed by Cooper’s mournful cello and Prosser’s delicate guitar, the pair’s duet on Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” proved predictably emotive. Cooper, Prosser and Telfer provided chants and harmony vocals for several songs, including an ambient “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” a reeling “Susie Clelland” and a heart-rending “(When I Was No But) Sweet Sixteen,” their contributions adding deep hymnal textures to the already rich material.

The force of the performances succeeded in rendering the diverse song selections - from broadside ballads to late-’60s psych-rock - cohesive, with epoch-spanning tales of war, loss and Love Gone Wrong presented as a seamless story. The most daring transition was between the Oysters’ thunderous, percussive take on “The Bells of Rhymney” and Tabor and Prosser’s timelessly restrained and haunting rendition of “The Hills of Shiloh,” while other highlights included a deft, jangly “If My Love Loves Me” and an ineffably sultry “Mississippi Summer.” And I doubt that there’s been a cooler spectacle on the QEH stage this year than that of Tabor and the band tearing into Jefferson Airplane’s immortal Alice/LSD classic “White Rabbit” at the encore, which she introduced with a hilarious anecdote about performing the song in San Francisco in the early ’90s.

Indeed, throughout the night the bleakness of much of the songs’ subject matter was off-set by the warmth and affection of the band’s interplay, and by Tabor’s wonderfully wry gallows humour. (A story involving a “Goth baby” definitely deserves another outing.) The result was a richly enjoyable concert that held the audience in thrall from beginning to end. “Every place that I have been/Leaves its message on the skin,” sang Tabor on the closing “Put Out the Lights.” The same might be said of all of the indelible songs sung on this spell-binding evening, by some of Britain’s finest. Don’t miss the chance to catch these guys if they’re performing round your way.


Bonny Bunch of Roses
Fountains Flowing
All Tomorrow’s Parties
Love Will Tear Us Apart
If My Love Loves Me
Molly Bond
That Was My Veil
(When I Was No But) Sweet Sixteen
Susie Clelland


Judas (Was A Red-Headed Man)
Son David
Mississippi Summer
Bells of Rhymney
The Hills of Shiloh
The Leaves of Life
Where the World Divides
Dark-Eyed Sailor
Seven Curses

Dark End of the Street
White Rabbit
Put Out the Lights

Details of tour dates and venues here.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

CD Review: Ragged Kingdom (June Tabor and Oysterband)

Not content with having delivered one of the year’s finest albums in the magnificent Ashore [review and interview here and here], June Tabor now returns with her second record of 2011, re-teaming with Oysterband for a highly enjoyable (and long-anticipated) sequel to their 1990 collaboration album Freedom and Rain. Placing Tabor’s unique voice - mostly associated with stark, or indeed a cappella musical settings - in the context of Oysterband’s lively, brawny brand of folk-rock, Freedom and Rain expanded the musical horizons of both singer and band, offering covers of songs by artists as diverse as Billy Bragg, The Velvet Underground, Shane McGowan and Richard Thompson alongside a smattering of traditional material.

Twenty-one years on, the set-up remains much the same on Ragged Kingdom, although the ratio of old-to-new material is more balanced here, the new album’s twelve tracks comprising seven traditional numbers and five contemporary songs, seamlessly sequenced. Benefiting from the many years of musical exploration undertaken individually by Tabor and the Oysters, the new record also boasts a wider tonal range than its predecessor, as well as a fuller, richer, more organic sound; play Freedom and Rain straight after listening to this and the older album sounds just a tad “tinny” by comparison.

Proceedings open in fine style with a rollicking take on “Bonny Bunch of Roses,” the venerable broadside that presents an imagined conversation between Napoleon’s second wife, the Empress Marie Louise, and their war-mongering young son. The band settle into an imperturbable gait and Tabor tears into the lyrics with gusto, ensuring that the song’s cautionary vision of “Moscow … a-blazing” is fully communicated to the listener. Her awesome dramatic power is put to equally good use on a brooding, full-blooded version of The Wicker Man-evoking Somerset carol “Judas (Was A Red-Headed Man),” with sublime fiddle work from Ian Telfer and Alan Prosser, while other highlights on the trad. side include fresh, spirited interpretations of “Son David” (another mother/son duologue), “If My Love Loves Me,” and “Fountains Flowing.”

“We have long been fascinated by the mystery, magic and mayhem in traditional song,” note Tabor and the band in the liner notes. “But the impulse to tell strange stories never goes away.” War and the travails of love remain two of the primary thematic concerns on Ragged Kingdom and provide a bridge from the oldest to the newest tracks. The taut take on PJ Harvey’s and John Parish’s “That Was My Veil” packs a fiercer punch than the muted original, and Tabor’s emphatic delivery of the final “Lies!” is prodigious. As on Freedom and Rain the band don’t swamp Tabor’s genius for nuance when at their noisiest, except perhaps on the slightly clunky version of Bob Dylan’s “Seven Curses” that’s included here, a reading that somehow fails to really tap in to the song’s tragic narrative.

It’s ultimately the album’s quieter moments that resonate most profoundly, though. Tabor’s and John Jones’s gloriously dolorous duet cover of Joy Division’s immortal “Love Will Tear Us Apart” has been a highlight of their live shows for several years now, and it fully retains its impact on record, while Shel Silverstein’s and Jim Friedman’s Civil War saga “The Hills of Shiloh” gets a marvellously spare and spectral acoustic guitar-led treatment that’s reminiscent of some of Tabor’s work with Martin Simpson.

And the a cappella “(When I Was No But) Sweet Sixteen” is the most haunting thing here - a moving tale from the perspective of a young mother who warns against submitting to the desires of “the plough-boys in the gloaming.” Chips Moman's and Dan Penn’s illicit-lovers staple “The Dark End of the Street” may seem a lightweight choice of finale by comparison, but Tabor and Jones offer an elegant, understated reading that tips its hat to Richard and Linda Thompson’s version of the song while also carving out its own distinctive niche.

In sum, Ragged Kingdom is a most welcome addition to both Tabor and Oysterband’s catalogues, a stirring offering that succeeds in bringing “strange stories,” old and new alike, to vivid, compelling life.

Ragged Kingdom is released on 19th September, through Topic. Tabor and the band are undertaking an extensive tour in support of the album, and I’ll be reviewing their show at the Queen Elizabeth Hall tomorrow night. Further details on tour dates and venues here.

Reviewed for Wears the Trousers.

Theatre Review: Dr Marigold & Mr Chops (Richmond Theatre)

Fresh from his successful stint at the Edinburgh Festival in Emmanuel Darley’s Tuesday at Tescos, and having only recently completed a run of Being Shakespeare in the West End, the indefatigable Simon Callow now hits the road with Dr Marigold and Mr Chops. Callow first performed this double-bill of Charles Dickens texts as a Christmas show in 2009, in a production directed by Patrick Garland, and the show has now been revived for a national tour, with Richard Twyman taking over directing duties. Callow is, of course, an actor who has practically cornered the market in one-man shows in recent years, and these colourful monologues - adapted by Dickens himself from two Christmas stories that he wrote and performed on his famed reading tours in the 1860s - provide pretty much an ideal showcase for the actor’s talents.

Callow delivers the monologues on a set by Christopher Woods that suggests the run-down backstage area of a theatre or circus, with red curtains, stacks of theatre paraphernalia and faded posters surrounding him. In the first piece, "Mr Chops," the actor plays one Toby Magsman, a showman who narrates the cautionary tale of the title figure, a circus dwarf whose £12,500 lottery win provides him his long-awaited entrance into “society.” But this position proves rather less congenial than Mr Chops imagined and the story charts his discovery that an increase in social status can represent its own kind of sham and trap. Clearly relishing Dickens’s epigrams and baroque turns of phrase, Callow dexterously conjures the presences of a variety of circus folk here, in a piece that combines social satire with a vivid evocation of the life of sideshow performers.

"Dr Marigold," though, is the richer and more emotionally satisfying of the two monologues. It’s the tale of a ‘cheap jack’ or itinerant merchant, who, following the deaths of his wife and young daughter, adopts a ‘deaf-and-dumb’ girl with whom he forms a deep bond. Like much of Dickens’s work, "Dr Marigold" has been criticised for sentimentality, but underpinning its tender portrait of a healing relationship is a darker narrative that touches on poverty, loneliness, domestic violence and child abuse. And Callow proves himself an absolute master at shifting moods here, moving the audience from mirth to deep melancholy as he slides from Dr Marigold’s quick-fire salesman’s spiel to a devastating account of a bad marriage. Thus the piece really earns its emotional response and heart-warming finale.

There is, it must be admitted, a certain air of quaintness about a show like Dr Marigold & Mr Chops, which is an unashamedly old-fashioned entertainment. But this charming evening proves hard to resist, serving as a reminder of the rich humanity of Dickens’s writing and a demonstration of the skills of an actor whose sheer delight in performance is palpable and infectious.

Reviewed for The Public Reviews.

Review of Mr. Callow's Masterclass last year here.

Monday 12 September 2011

Film Review: Archipelago (2010)

I missed Joanna Hogg’s film Archipelago (2010) on its theatrical release earlier this year, but having recently seen, and for the most part admired, Hogg’s first film, Unrelated (2008), I was eager to catch up with her most recent work. A chamber drama shot in a spare, austere, painterly style, Archipelago feels very much like a companion piece to Unrelated; in fact, Hogg has spoken of the films as the first two instalments in a loosely connected trilogy. Further, Archipelago reunites the director with one of the stars of her first film, the much-in-demand Tom Hiddleston.

Complementing Unrelated’s exploration of the interactions between a group of family members and friends on holiday in Tuscany, Archipelago’s focus is a family gathering on the Scilly Isle of Tresco. Prior to the departure of 20-something son Edward (Hiddleston) on a volunteering trip to Africa, the Lytton clan hole up at their summer rental on the island to say farewell. Edward’s sister Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) and mother Patricia (Kate Fahy) are present, but notable by his absence is Edward’s father, whose non-appearance becomes the subject of a series of increasingly testy phone-calls with Patricia. Filling out the group are the family’s cook, Rose (Amy Lloyd), who Edward finds himself drawn to, and the soulful artist Christopher (Christopher Baker) who is teaching Patricia how to paint.

Like Unrelated, Archipelago polarised viewers on its release with some finding its measured pace and art-conscious ambience captivating and others deeming its “privileged” protagonists unbearable. This isn’t the moment for a debate on issues of class in British cinema (although I do wonder whether viewers who complained about Archipelago’s comfortably middle-class crew had any problems clucking with sympathy over the travails of a rather more privileged protagonist in The King’s Speech). But what I admire about Archipelago is that it does things that most British films don’t do, and that it does them with discretion, intelligence and finesse.

Hogg is great on domestic detail, on the awkwardness of groups (a restaurant scene here is a mini-classic), on capturing her characters in moments of solitude and reflection, and on atmosphere. This is the kind of film that sharpens the viewer’s perception, and its Hammershoi-inspired compositions (with characters often shot from behind or through doorways) are expressive and interesting, the Tresco locations serving as more than a mere backdrop (as the Italian locations really didn't in Unrelated).

The tensions inherent in the family dynamic emerge believably,  and the performances are engaging. Hiddleston’s work is especially fine, rendering Edward’s passivity and hesitancy exasperating and touching, while Leonard communicates the concern and insecurity that’s lurking under Cynthia’s tetchiness. And Baker (playing a version of himself) is a wonderfully calm presence: a fine late scene in which he provides Edward with a memorable definition of “toughness” is a highlight of the film. I don’t think Hogg means for us to pass a final judgement upon these characters (although it seems that many viewers went on to do just that), instead casting a wryly sympathetic eye on their foibles, their hesitancies, their squabbles and their brief moments of connection.

Archipelago is perhaps a little too proud of its art-film credentials (no music, no camera movement). And as in Unrelated at times the semi-improvised dialogue seems a strain on the performers; although Hogg’s approach is very different, a few moments here have the peculiarly unreal “reality” that John Cassavetes's work can have. But, as in Cassavetes’s films, other scenes are marvellously effective, and touch off very personal associations. The upside of Hogg’s studiously “subtle” approach is that Archipelago leaves the viewer plenty of interpretive space. So the lives of its rather opaque characters resonate and linger in the mind. Overall, then a beautiful and distinctive movie from a British filmmaker to watch.