Films and music

20 September 2017

zbigniew_preisner

I found a note on film music in an old notebook on an interview with the Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner, perhaps still best known for his work with Krzystzof Kieslowski. Here are a couple of extracts.

The question is why should we use music at all. The connection between the film and the music is completely metaphysical because you never see the music; you only feel it, and in my opinion the best music for a film is total silence. Most American films use a composer like John Williams, when there is music all the time to tell you what to think and how to feel. A bit of danger: some scary horns. A love scene: romantic strings. But the French writer Baudelaire was right when he said that the matter for the artist is not to describe what he sees, but what he feels.

And this. It explains in part why, despite his reputation, he has only worked in European cinema. The other part of the explanation is about what Hollywood economics does to artistic endeavour.

When I see most American movies, I think they are providing instructions for terrorists. I was in Poland when I watched September 11 on television, and at first I thought it was a movie. Sure, Independence Day is fun, but films like this are wishing for something to happen, like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And here, to troll the Brexiteers who are busy hating my recent Medium post on Brexit, is his ‘Song for the Unification of Europe’, from Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue.

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Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942) 

18 September 2017


I watched Sherlock Homes and the Secret Weapon because that series of films starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes were a bit of a mystery to me. They certainly banged them out: 14 were made between 1939 and 1946, and updated to the present, often with the lightest of nods to the Conan Doyle canon.  

Rathbone plays Holmes, Nigel Bruce plays Watson, Moriarty appears, and is killed off a couple of times. But, as in the original, of course, Moriarty never dies. 

In 1942, in Secret Weapon, Holmes has to spring a scientist from Switzerland under the eyes of watching Gestapo agents, and once in London spring him once again from the clutches of Moriarty. Of course, it is a propaganda film. The MacGuffin is a bombsight that the scientist has designed that is far more accurate (yes, I heard it as “bombsite” in the film until I saw it assembled).  

The Conan Doyle reference is to the Dancing Men code, used by the scientists for a critical plot point. Watson is bluff. Lestrade is a comic plodder.

The moment is certainly a spoiler: yes, Holmes foils the plot and saves the scientist and the RAF gets its bombsights. This is from the very end of the film, when Holmes and Watson are watching squadrons of bombers equipped with the sights heading for Germany. (The usefulness of that is for another post on another day). Shakespeare is invoked. But unlike Nolan’s Dunkirk, when audiences first saw this film, in 1942, they didn’t know how things were going to turn out. The TV version I saw had left an advertisement for war bonds on the print they screened, after the credits.


Film Moments #22: Love Affair (1939)

17 September 2017


Director Leo McCarey made Love Affair twice, with almost the same script. The first time, it starred Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, a big ’30s star who has now slid from view. He remade it almost two decades later as An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr to considerably more acclaim, but there’s lots to like about this first version.

Same script, same plot. A couple fall in love on a transatlantic liner, but are each engaged to someone else, so can’t be together; they agree to meet on the viewing tower of the Empire State Building in six months; tragedy strikes; but (spoiler) they are reunited right at the end of the film. Yes, it’s one of those stories that would be so much simpler now they’ve invented the mobile phone. It’s a while since I’ve seen An Affair to Remember, but memory says that it laid the melodrama on with a trowel, partly through its score, which is probably why it is so popular. Love Affair seemed to have a lighter touch.

Love Affair is out of copyright, so can be found on the internet. There’s an elegant bit of visual design. On the boat, both are in white or cream clothes, until close to the end of the voyage. Once in America, both are predominantly wearing black. Right at the end of the film, when they meet again, the two colours are reunited through a payoff that has been set up in the first part of the film.

The moment is a visual one that would only work in film. The two are on the boat as it docks in New York, scanning the crowd for their respective fiance(e)s. She is far left, he is far right of shot. As they see them, they indicate them, wordlessly, to the other. After that there’s some business on the gangway that’s also worth looking out for. And listen for the nod to Gershwin.


‘Eddie, they’ll arrest you’

16 September 2017


There is a fabulous snippet of cycling history in the latest edition of Rouleur, which has a Spanish theme. It profiles the former Basque rider Txomin Perurena, a Tour de France King of the Mountains winner in 1974 and twice Spanish road race champion. Perurena rode for the Basque team sponsored by drinks company Kas, and was a contemporary of the great Eddie Merckx.

The story is about a stage of the 1974 Tour that crossed the border into Spain. Perurena:

We’d taught him [Mercx] Euskera, which is even more difficult than Flemish. Well, not all of the Basque language, only one phrase: “Gora Euskadi Askatuta” (‘Long live the freedom of the Basque country’.) It was Santi Lazcano who had taught him, and all Mercx could think of doing was to start shouting it in the middle of the pack when the Tour got to Spain, a stage that ended in La Seu d’Urgell. 

“You’re crazy, Eddie”, we would tell him, “if the Guardia Civil hear you, they’ll arrest you.” … It was 1974 and Franco was still alive. Spain was still a dictatorship.

Perurena’s brother was a member of the Basque separatist group ETA and was shot on the street in 1984, a decade after Franco’s death by the Spanish mercenary paramilitaries GAL. They had been hired by Spanish police with the secret approval of the government to fight a so-called ‘dirty war’ against ETA.     

The Basques are passionate and committed cycling fans, and you see their flag on Pyreneean stages of the Tour, along with another black and white flag that supports a prisoners’ repatriation campaign. It wants those ETA members still in jail returned to the region from far-flung parts of Spain and France to serve the rest of their sentence in one of the region’s jails, so that friends and family can visit them. 

The former Basque cycling team Euskatel, with its striking orange tops, was part funded by local subscription in the region, and had a policy of hiring only riders who were born or brought up in the region. Elsewhere, in his wonderful book of stories about the Basque area, Obabakoak, Bernardo Atxaga has a story about a cyclist that stands in some ways for the loss of childhood.  

In the interview, by Carlos Arribas, Perurena tells the story of the day he lost the lead in the Tour of Spain in 1975. At the start of the decisive time trial, he was ahead by more than a minute. The time trial ended in the velodrome in San Sebastian/Donostia, in front of Basque fans. 

“On entering the velodrome and hearing the silence that greeted me from the fans, I knew I hadn’t succeeded. In the end I lost by 14 seconds, half a lap… I’ll never get that silence out of my head… That’s how I lost the Vuelta in front of the home fans.” 


Film moment #23: Dunkirk (2017)

14 September 2017


I might as well acknowledge from the start that I’m suspicious of Dunkirk, just as I’m suspicious of this year’s Churchill film and suspicious to the point of despair about the about-to-open Victoria & Abdul, no matter how well Judi Dench plays Victoria, again. I’m not sure that the world needs any more cultural objects right now that are basically rehashes of Britain as world power, even if, as Churchill said of Dunkirk at the time, “an evacuation is not a victory”, and, come to that, Christopher Nolan is a consistently interesting film-maker.

Having seen it quite reluctantly, I’m not with those critics who were gushing, or come to that the British writer who hated it

So, on the upside, it is technically interesting, in that Nolan refuses almost all of that tedious backstory stuff that usually clutters up films, especially films in which the characters have a risk of death, and which allows us to attach judgmental labels to them. The illusion he is creating for us is that he is putting us face-to-face in the moment with the characters (although unlike them, we know how it turned out.) This also means it must have one of the shortest scripts of a modern full length film. And Nolan refuses to use CGI, which is laudable, since CGI is clearly the drug that has destroyed Hollywood’s imagination. 

Except: that in telling a story that involved evacuating 50,000 people a day from a beach for a week he clearly hasn’t got enough extras to convey the scale of the operation, and one of the things that attracted Nolan to the story was the scale of the operation. (There are ways around such things. I’m thinking of the visual innovation Edward Dmytrk brought to Crossfire when the shooting schedule didn’t allow for proper lighting set-ups, but Nolan doesn’t opt for this.)

On the downside, I hate films where the music tells me blatantly what I’m supposed to feel. Hans Zimmer’s score plays with the chords of ‘Nimrod’ from the moment it looks like the evacuation plan is going to work, and by the time he’s got to the end he’s gone full Elgar (“Variation 15”). Like I said, enough of that age of empire stuff.

The moment. Nolan sees the film in an elemental way, as being earth, sea and air. The earth is the ‘mole’ or beach area of Dunkirk, protected by two long breakwaters, and as he introduces these elements (pun intended) he adds a caption with their ‘time’ attached to them. The mole is a week–which is how long they have before the Germans overrun the defences. The sea is a day–how long it takes the boats to go there and back. And the air is an hour: the flying time of a Spitfire across the Channel before they run out of a fuel. I’ve never seen a director share with the audience the way their film thinks about time in such a straightforward way. 

   


The Septembers 11th

11 September 2017

Lentes_Salvador_Allende
It’s been many times observed that the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001 fell on the anniversary of the overthrow in 1973 of the Allende government in Chile, in which the CIA was deeply complicit.

The two events echo around each other. I found an old notebook in which I’d written about reading on the same day both Ariel Dorfman’s book, Exorcising Terror, on the detention of Pinochet in Britain, and articles in Le Monde Diplomatique on the American export of terror.

The engagement by the CIA in the Chilean coup, according to some of the accounts of the torture which followed it, sounds like a set of early rehearsals for the treatment of the detainees in Abu Ghraib prison. And probably in quite a lot of other places in between. The Agency, it would seem, does as much as it thinks its political masters will be willing to turn a blind eye to.

In the same notebook, I also found a quote which offered a different, if related, perspective from the Pakistani-born/British-resident writer Nadeem Aslam, in a short review of Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday:

A novelist votes every time he writes a sentence. Ian McEwan’s Saturday is a lovely and profoundly serious act of engagement with our age. The collapsing of the Twin Towers on 9/11 gave many people – including, I feel, Saturday’s protagonist Perowne – their first glimpse of another kind of world that had been existing alongside ours for some time. It is almost as though the Towers had been blocking a view.

The image at the top of the post is of Salvador Allende’s glasses, recovered from outside the Moneda Palace after his death. It was taken by Roger Espinosa and is published here under the GNU Free Documentation Licence.


Brendan Behan, lighthouse painter

2 September 2017


I once learnt in the Maritime Museum in Moville, Co. Donegal, that the Irish writer Brendan Behan had spent some time as a young man working as a lighthouse painter. This was in that time after his second spell in jail for IRA-related activities, but before his literary career had become a success.

He wasn’t very good at painting, possibly to the longer-term gain of Irish literature. The museum has a letter from the Principal Keeper at St John’s Point lighthouse asking that he be sacked immediately. The local paper, The Down Recorder had an article when the letter came to light later.

“He is wilfully wasting materials, opening drums and paint tins by blows from a heavy hammer, spilling the contents which is now running out of the paint stores.

“Drums of waterwash opening and exposed to the weather, paint brushes dirty and lying all around the station — no cleaning up of any mess but he tramps through everything.

“His language is filthy and he is not amenable to any law or order.

“The spare house, which was clean and ready for painters has been turned into a filthy shambles inside a week.

“Empty stinking milk bottles, articles of food, coal, ashes and other debris litter the floor of the place which is now in a scandalous condition of dirt.”

Here’s the letter.


I was thinking of this because I was listening to Philip Chevron’s version of Behan’s lyric, “The Captains and the Kings”, with its precise disdain for England and the Empire:

We have many goods for export, Christian ethics and old port

But our greatest boast is that the Anglo-Saxon is a sport

On the playing fields of Eton we still do thrilling things

Do not think we’ll ever weaken of the captains and the kings


Behan wrote the song for his play The Hostage. While I was looking for the Chevron version, I found a recording by Behan himself, singing it in his “Oxford accent”:

 

 


Film moments #21: Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

1 September 2017

You watch Ridley Scott’s version of Robin Hood and it turns out to be a gateway drug to Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights.  It’s a genre spoof, like Blazing Saddles, which gets a nod here. The Producers, it ain’t. What that means in practice is lots of gags that were of the moment, along with the hopelessly anachronistic (the Godfather is hired to arrange Robin’s assasination), but it does hit all of the correct mythical moments.

We get Robin earning his spurs with the merry men, the daring escape from the castle, the archery competition, Marian, King Richard’s return (Patrick Stewart gets to do his Sean Connery impersonation.) In other words, it is a kind of bastard child of the Prince of Thieves, as evinced by Robin’s black sidekick–no, I’m not going to get into that argument here–and also Errol Flynn’s Adventures of Robin Hood.

Anyway, the moment. I’ve talked in one of the other Moments about exposition, and Men in Tights does a neat job of getting people up to speed with the Robin Hood story. First, there’s a musical version, immediately after the credits, telling the tale in a (mostly) hiphop style:

Prince John and the Sherriff, they were running the show

Raising the taxes because they needed the dough…

The second is when the Sherriff of Rottingham has to break the news to Bad King John that Robin is back from the Crusades. The screenwriters’ trick? John only likes to hear good news.


A tender kiss

26 August 2017

romeo-and-juliet-1968

While checking an assertion I’d made in my last post, on Robin Hood, I stumbled across a presentation/workshop that Ben Crystal gave to the British Council on Shakespeare’s language and his pronunciation. The whole thing is worth watching, but early on there’s a stunning close reading of the scene in Romeo and Juliet where the two lovers meet for the first time, at the masked ball. As Crystal points out, Shakespeare suddenly breaks stride and has them, in their first conversation, exchange the lines of a sonnet.

ROMEO

[To JULIET] If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

JULIET

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

ROMEO

Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

JULIET

Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

ROMEO

O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

JULIET

Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.

ROMEO

Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.

JULIET

Then have my lips the sin that they have took.

ROMEO

Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.

JULIET

You kiss by the book.

Here’s his reading of it, helped by a couple of actors. It runs for around 10 minutes.

The image of Romeo and Juliet at the top of the post is from Franco Zeffirelli’s version, in 1968, starring Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey.


Film moment #20: Robin Hood (2010)

19 August 2017


The Robin Hood story is such a familiar myth, and such an open one, that film-makers can fill it with anything they want to. And they do. Wikipedia lists more than 70 film and TV versions.

The 1938 film with Erroll Flynn, even allowing for the anti-Nazi subtext, is more or less the “official version”, with the noble-born Robin of Locksley cast into the woods with his outlaw band, down with the common people under the greensward, with narrow scrapes involving the Sherriff of Nottingham, the Lady Marian, archery and a ton of swordplay. And the returning King Richard, the deus ex machina that fixes the plot. This is the version parodied so brilliantly in Time Bandits.

And, later, of course, by Mel Brooks:

There’s a “one last job” version, with Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn as the ageing Robin and Marian. In Prince of Thieves Kevin Costner plays it as class war with a diversity twist, Saxons-plus-Moor against Normans in the mud and rain, if memory serves. I’ve seen a 1950s cross-dressing version (spoiler) where they send for Robin Hood’s son and he turns out to be his daughter.

Ridley Scott’s telling of the story feels like the post-financial crisis version. It was much rewritten over a period of five years. He gave up on the idea I read about online of having Robin of Locksley and the Sherriff of Nottingham be the same person, and ends up more or less writing Locksley out completely. Instead an ordinary soldier (Russell Crowe) picks up Locksley’s sword after he is ambushed by the perfidious French on the way back from the Crusades, returns it to his family, and ends up being asked to impersonate Locksley by his family to help ensure their safety. Locksley and his death become the inciting incident, and the film ends up being the prequel to the myth.

This whole plot device deals quite elegantly with one of the big problems of the Robin Hood story. How do you exactly explain the aristocrat who ends up living in the woods, robbing the rich? ( (This works as myth, but not so much as plot). Screenwriter Brian Helgeland fixes this by turning Robin Hood into Everyman. And fabulously, being the post-crisis version of the story, Everyman Hood ends up inventing both the Charter of the Forest and the Magna Carta as part of the plot. At the start of this sequence he even drops a hint to Shelley as well. This is the moment.

I’m not with those people who say that Russell Crowe’s accent is all over the place. It is, by modern standards. But one of the things we know about the early English is that accents were all over the place. And don’t mess with Cate Blanchett, who plays the Marian role here. I love her as an actor, and the way her character develops through the film is well done. Here she is explaining to Russell how things are, after her father has suggested that they need to share a bedchamber to convince the servants that Robin Longstride really is Robin of Locksley.