Friday, October 30, 2009

Film Review : Katalin Varga (dir Peter Strickland)

This is a beautiful, shocking film which will haunt you long after leaving the cinema, for many reasons.

The plot is straightforward, but is revealed slowly: Katalin Varga's husband has discovered that his wife's son was not fathered by him, and he turns her out of their house in rural Rumania. Katalin takes her son and embarks on a journey across the remote Translylvanian countryside, but she isn't intent on visiting her sick mother, as she tells her son, but trying instead to rectify the wrong done to her which has resulted in her life being turned upside down.

The film moves forward slowly through stunningly beautiful but wild and remote countryside, the sense of menace heighened by a hallucinatory electric drone in the background. When she reaches her first destination the film cuts to gypsy violins and wild dancing, it is not clear if we are in real time or flashback - the image becomes grainier, and Katalin has lost her distinctive headscarf. But soon the reasons become more clear.

Hilda Peter as Katalin is extraordinary, her finely wrought face switching easily from concern for her son, to apparent lust, to grim determination. Towards the end of the film, she reveals her story to Antal (Tibor Palffy), one of the men she has been searching for, and his doting wife. She tells her horrific story in a state approaching ecstacy, knowing that the revenge she is extracting is much more subtle than what had been brutally meted out to Antal's colleague.

And yet, Antal is reaching out for redemption himself through the son that is all that is missing in his own marriage, and through his gradual understanding of the past. Is forgiveness possible?
This is subtle, complex film-making, the story being told in a flash of the eyes, a shadow on the wall, yet a storyline that is remorseless in its determinism.

Peter Strickland produced, directed and wrote the screenplay, his first film. Remember the name....

Film Review : Thirst (Bakjwi) (dir Chan-wook Park)

- "So here's the deal, it's a remake of Zola's Therese Raquin, wait for it...-it's remade as a modern Korean vampire movie"
- "Nice one, Park" you can see Steve Carroll saying as he raises his eyes to his sidekick, "Look, don't call us on your Orange mobile phone...".

But amazingly, it works. Chan-wook Park's take on vampirism eschews most of the traditional baggage of the genre, adds a moral twist and some very funny bits, but somehow manages to keep the barrage of ideas under control for long enough to fashion a taught, exciting and enjoyable film, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes.

Kang-ho Song is Sang-hyeon, a priest racked with self-doubt who volunteers to test a vaccine for the Emmanuel Virus, a deeply unpleasant Ebola-like haemorragic virus. The vaccine fails, but he discovers that human blood keeps the symptoms at bay. With his recovery, he is ascribed miraculous powers by followers. At this point Zola cuts in. He is asked to cure his sickly friend Kang-woo and proceeds to join his appalling mother and beautiful wife Tae-joo for games of Mah-Jong. Needless to say, Tae-joo is not satisfied by Kang-woo's affactions and soon Sang-hyeon's priestly vows are in jeopardy (although he is unconcerned by syphoning off the blood from hospital patients in comas in order to get his regular fix).

Those familiar with Therese Raquin can see where the plot goes from here, although in Therese Raquin the protagonists don't have superhuman powers, which is just as well for their domino-playing friends. They also don't have the problems of daylight and the need for regular fixes of blood to deal with, which is where the ethical issues of how exactly one sources one's fresh human blood cut in.

Everyone is talking vampires this year. They even did a piece on the genre on Newsnight Review for goodness sake. I don't know if this is some subconscious response to the emasculation of bloodsucking capitalism over the past two years, or just the way these fashions go. From Buffy to Twilight our screens are full of blood-soaked revisionist horrors, turning their backs on Dr Van Helsing and the Hammer films of the past. This doesn't subvert the vampire genre as thoroughly as the magnificent "Let the Right One In" did earlier this year, and as a film it doesn't retain a consistent unity of tone, but it is a very enjoyable, thought-provoking if occasionally bonkers piece of filmmaking.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Film Review : The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (dir Terry Gilliam)

There is no denying Terry Gilliam's visual brilliance - in all of his films created remarkable images which stay with you long after the film - and this is certainly no exception. From the beatifully realised wagon of Doctor Parnassus, which transforms at the tug of a rope into a fully-functioning stage, to the remarkable pastel dreamscapes of the Doctor's imagination which characters can enter through a mirror on the stage.

But a film needs more than just an ability to look good - a bit of plot, some tension and maybe a couple of ideas wouldn't go amiss. And this is where this film goes sadly wrong. The premise - that characters can enter into the imagination of the immortal doctor and realise their desires - is good, and everyone from Midas onwards knows that one should be careful about what you wish for. But Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) has, for reasons I didn't really follow, made a deal with the Devil (Tom Waits playing Tom Waits) and this is generally not a good thing to do. So innocent souls must be attracted through the mirror, and some seem to succumb within Doctor Parnassus' imagination but others don't. It's all rather confusing.

Now, those of you who have seen some movies in the past may have seen the following plot devices
1. The girl with a choice between the guy who always really loved her and the flashy newcomer
2. A deadline, and a ticking clock
3. A chase (But this time on imaginary stilts!)

By the time all these have been telegraphed your cliche detectors would be on full beam if you weren't trying to wrestle with the detail of the plot, so eventually you give up and let all the beautiful cinematography wash over you. And rightly so, because it all ends exactly as you expected, but since you didn't really care that much for any of the characters in the first place you're not really bothered. You have been entertained for a couple of hours, and you leave the cinema feeling that you have eaten a meringue - it was good whilst it lasted, but hardly satisfying.

Personal View : Nick Griffin on Question Time

Voltaire did not in fact say “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”: it was instead attributed to him by S.G. Tallentyre on the basis that, if he didn’t actually say it, he ought to have done. Whether he said it or thought it or not is immaterial – the sentiment encapsulates the spirit of freedom of speech in a liberal democracy. It makes explicit the fact that we are sufficiently confident in our institutions to allow any sentiment to be expressed, even those invidious to liberal-minded democrats, as in an environment of rational tolerance the better argument must prevail. The only exception, prima facie, must be the preaching of violence or hatred against individuals or groups.

The prospect of Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, appearing on Question Time on BBC1, has outraged many who find the views of him and his party abhorrent. Peter Hain, that great fighter against racism in all its forms, has passionately set out his belief that views such as those of Griffin should not be allowed a platform. He points to the ticking clock on the BNP website marking down the seconds till the start of the program, and argues that the publicity and legitimacy that Griffin’s appearance will accord will counter the great steps made in the past 40 years against racism in the UK.

However, I disagree. If Griffin’s views are abhorrent, then we must allow him the opportunity to state them so that they can be rebutted in free debate. If his views are genuinely unacceptable, then it is incumbent upon the other panellists to prove to the audience why this should be the case. If they cannot do that, then one must query if Griffin’s views are so extreme that they shouldn’t be aired. What we cannot do however, is allow ourselves to descend to the level of the bookburners, the totalitarian enemies of democracy whose legitimacy is so fragile that they cannot allow their opponents the freedom to state their case. In preventing Griffin from having the opportunity to state his case, we are, paradoxically, lowering ourselves to the level of Fascist enemies of free speech ourselves.

There are limits however. That freedom which we bestow does not extend so far that it encompasses incitement to hatred or violence against others, but where these boundaries lie is not clear-cut. Is speaking in favour of forced repatriation of non-“Europeans” an incitement to violence when the Government today forcibly repatriates failed asylum-seekers? Those who monitor the activities of the BNP would do well to ensure that these perimeters are clearly defined and maintained.

Does this extend, however, to statements of untruth – such as Holocaust denial? Ultimately, who can define what is true. A Tennessee Christian may believe in the truth of the Biblical creation story, Clarence Darrow may choose to differ. Truth in the eyes of scientists and the State will evolve through time – “E pur si muove”! Newton’s Laws of Motion were inviolable until Einstein proved otherwise. Freedom of thought and of speech ensured that Einstein expressed his heretical views with less comeback than Galileo. And yet, Holocaust denial is an opinion held by a tiny minority against overwhelming evidence, and the espousal of such a view is likely to cause deep offence to a many people. Should it be made illegal to support such an opinion, as in Germany or Austria? In my opinion, no. Once again, I believe that the errors of such a position must be demonstrated in open debate with reference to the copious evidence which survives.

In a free society, we must preserve everyone’s right to be wrong, to express opinions which are contrary to those of the majority, and to believe what almost everyone else believes to be incorrect. For it is only through healthy debate that we can revalidate what we stand for and believe in.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Personal View : City of London Sinfonia at the Wycombe Swan 18/10/09

High Wycombe’s name is not synonymous with a great musical tradition. Legend has it that the Rolling Stones (or was it The Who?) once played at one of its pubs, and eighties synth-legend Howard Jones hailed from these parts, but other than a desultory stream of tribute bands and superannuated rockers who should know better, the world of live popular music tends to pass it by.

It is better served by classical music, though, with numerous local festivals and a residency by the City of London Sinfonia at the Wycombe Swan which is now in its tenth year. The relationship with the CLS no doubt sprang at least in part from the fact that the CLS’ founder, the late Richard Hickox, was born and educated nearby. Hickox was one of the classical world’s great organisers, and tonight’s tribute concert was produced in conjunction with the Wooburn festival, which he also founded, and featured the London Symphony Chorus which he led from 1976-1991.

The concerts are always preceded by a pre-concert talk, which tonight featured guest conductor Andrew Litton. A New Yorker, Litton talked eloquently and engagingly on the pieces to be presented, Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Britten, Symphony No 5 “Reformation” by Mendelssohn and The Music-Makers by Elgar, and on how British music is appreciated abroad. For one whose knowledge of classical music is entirely superficial, these talks provide an intriguing insight into this arcane world – for example, the Music Makers, chosen as one of Richard Hickox’ favourite pieces, requires three trombones and a contra-bassoon, as does Mendelssohn’s 5th, hence them being programmed together in these straightened times.

One of the pleasures of having attended these concerts for ten years now is that one gets to recognise the characters within the orchestra. It has always been apparent that the main source of fun has emanated from the violas, whose lead Stephen Tees would glance mischievously towards the cellos whenever some faux pas noticeable only to the players was committed. This was his last concert for the orchestra at High Wycombe, and he will be missed.

For me, the concert is a tactile experience. I always sit in the front row – not the best place, I am informed, for an all-round sound, but where I can feel the vibrations of the double-bass, sense the wheezy suspiration of violin bows drawn slowly, hear the scuff of the conductor’s shoe (or, in the case of Andrew Litton, the thump as he landed following a mighty leap during the Mendelssohn).

The CLS as ever gave a rousing performance. I wasn’t familiar with either of the British pieces before listening to them prior to the concert. The Britten is saltily evocative, developing into a rousing crescendo as the storms envelop Peter Grimes. Both the Mendelssohn and the Elgar show that referentiality is not a purely post-modern phenomenon, as lines by Bach and Elgar’s Nimrod appear in quotations. The Reformation Symphony is, as always with Mendelssohn, chock-full of good tunes, whilst The Music-Makers, with its haunting choral backdrop, is certainly a piece I will look into further.

But one must worry for the future of classical music in Britain. The average age of the audience must have been well over 60, and the hall was probably only 75% full. This is not sustainable, but it’s difficult to see what can be done to reverse the trend. The CLS has already lost its Arts Council grant, and the number of concerts each year has reduced from four to three. Soon, such concerts will only be available in the big cities where they will be inaccessible to a large part of their remaining audience. And so, such music will become still more an elitist museum-piece. But where are the Mendelssohns of today who can write rousing classical music with accessible melodies?

Theatre Review : Cymbeline - Arts Theatre (dir Brendan O'Hea 19/10/09)

It is unfortunate that the phrase “National Youth Theatre” conjures visions of worthy earnestness – why else would this excellent production of a difficult play have to perform to half-empty houses at the Arts Theatre. If instead the title “Royal Shakespeare Company” had hung above the door, the house would be full and to be honest barring the absence of some star names none would be much the wiser.

Because this production is an example in clarity. Some judicious cuts have sharpened the focus, and why more companies don’t take a scalpel to the sacred text in order to resolve down to two hours traffic on the stage is beyond me. The stage is simple, shrouded in sheets, through which as the music begins you can make out the palimpsest of the performers. Switch scene to Rome, and its towers appear in silhouette. A grid of light provides a window, a tuck of cloth reveals a cave. A shadow trunk opens and Iachimo emerges through the hanging sheets to gaze on the sleeping Imogen. Uncluttered and effective, and one can see that Designer Sam Wyer had worked with silhouettes in the excellent “All’s Well that Ends Well” at the National earlier this year.

The cast was on the whole excellent, enunciating well-paced verse with clarity. Luke McEwan is a brow-beaten Cymbelene, the responsibilities of ruling weighing heavily upon him. Catriona Cahill in a dramatic costume makes an eye-catching queen, and Rosie Sansom plays an unconventional Imogen with clarity and precision. However, undoubted scene-stealer was Will Edelsten as Cloten. There was a noticeable frission in the audience whenever he came onto the stage simply due to his presence and comic timing in what is usually an unsympathetic role. I’ll be watching out as his career develops.

This play does have some silly bits, and even they – on the whole – were carried off well. Cloten’s decapitation didn’t provoke its usual mirth, and the whole gaol scene, Jupiter and all, was mercifully underplayed. Nothing can make Guiderius and Arviragus lusting after Imogen-as-Fidele anything other than ridiculous. No-one really cares about the Romans but they do provide an excuse for a dramatic fight, and the whole denouement is preposterous, but no more so than most of Shakespeare’s other conclusions. Most of these minefields were navigated with aplomb in this classy, satisfying production.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Return of Roderick Random

When I started writing this blog, I had visions of a community of likeminded individuals enjoying the cut-and-thrust of cultural debate on its pages, as some agreed and many disagreed with my musings. After a few months, I realised what an insignificant spec in cyberspace I was, and wherever the likeminded individuals were, they weren't queuing up to respond to my blog. And so I got a bit disillusioned, and work got busy, and I saw a couple of plays that I couldn't really be bothered to respond to, and read some books that did not excite the passions, and fell behind in my postings and soon it became like most of the other blogs in the multiverse, started in that first flush of enthusiasm, carefully nurtured for days or weeks or even months, but eventually cast adrift with the flotsam of cyberspace.

But one night, after a couple of months' abeyance, my mate Chris asked if I had stopped writing the blog which he used to read from time to time. And then I got a COMMENT. Yes, a real comment from SOMEONE I DIDN'T KNOW. And it was a nice comment. So thank you Ramona, your support was much appreciated. And I thought, there are some people reading this out there, must get it started again. But again the timing wasn't right, too many other things happening, and the Muse was hanging out and not returning calls.

But now...why now? Basically, because I realised it was time to reappraise the nature of my relationship as audience member with the play, or as reader with the book. Most audience members are passive consumers of the product placed in front of them, reducing their relationship with the work presented to them into an enjoyable experience, a pleasant night out, it made them think a bit, they liked the actor in such a part and the pretty girl and the music. And this is how I watch a play when I know I don't have to write about it. I may have some views on the staging or the lighting but they are hazy ideas, ill-developed pub talk. But when I know that I will have to write about something, the rules of engagement change. I need to be able to articulate the reasons why such a scene works or not. And that requires a much more active intellectual engagement with what is being presented to me. And that is what I was missing - I had become a passive consumer and I realised that my theatregoing and bookreading was becoming less fulfilling as a result.

So, welcome back Roderick Random. Critical faculties ready, spellchecker poised. Once more, stepping into the void. And this time, its personal...