Tag Archives: Film

Soul, jazz, and punks: A selection from this year’s In-Edit festival

It all started in 2003 in Barcelona with the first version of In-Edit festival, when the once neglected genre of music documentary came to the fore. Ever since, a steady increase in interest from audiences worldwide has ensured a great selection of music docs are screened each year from Chile and Colombia to Germany, Spain and Greece.

As I find myself sitting through various screenings during the first chilly and cloudy November days in the Greek capital, here’s my picks from this year’s Athens edition.

Charles Bradley: Soul of America

A moving and heart-warming documentary about American soul singer Charles Bradley (1948 – 2017), who sadly passed away in Brooklyn earlier this year. Tracking the events that led up to the release of his debut album No Time for Dreaming, the film follows Bradley’s remarkable life story through his early childhood in Florida and Brooklyn, his years as James Brown impersonator in California, and finally his return to New York and his recording with Daptone Records.

Through a series of endless hardships and constant struggles, there emerges a portrait of a man who, against all odds, managed to realize his biggest dream, releasing his first and widely successful album at the age of 62! Not unlike the excellent Searching for Sugar Man, which also relates an inspirational story of an unlikely revival, the film is ultimately about the unwillingness to compromise and the triumph of will in the face of adversity.

Bill Evans: Time Remembered

A key figure in the history of jazz, American pianist and composer Bill Evans (1929 – 1980) was one of the most influential jazz musicians to emerge in the second half of the 20th century. This documentary portrays Evans both as musician and person, following chronologically his life through his childhood in New Jersey, his musical development and collaborations (most notably with legendary trumpeter Miles Davis), to his drug addiction and untimely death at the age of 51.

Highlighting Evan’s musical genius while also showing his darker, less attractive side, the film (which took producer Bruce Spiegel 8 years to make) provides valuable insights into the music and -often troubled- life of Bill Evans, while offering a comprehensive overview of his career by bringing together the testimonies of various ex-collaborators of Evans, such as Tony Bennett, Jack DeJohnette, and Paul Motian.

B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West Berlin 1979-1989

If there ever was an epicenter of alternative culture throughout the turbulent 1980s, it must have been the western half of the -still divided by then- city of Berlin. The film takes us through a fascinating tour of West Berlin’s alternative music scene through the eyes of musician and producer Mark Reeder, who traveled from Manchester to Berlin as a teenager in order to get a first-hand experience of the city’s vibe.

Featuring rare footage from the city’s underground hubs as well as clips, interviews and performances by key artists that lived and worked in Berlin around that time (such as Einstürzende Neubauten, Die Toten Hosen, Die Ärzte, Nena, and Nick Cave), the film gives us a good idea of what it was like to be living and creating in 1980s West Berlin, while also providing the soundtrack for one of Europe’s most vibrant cultural scenes during the Cold War era.

 

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Conversations on music

When people from different disciplines interact and engage in dialogue, novel and stimulating perspectives often emerge. This is the case with the following fascinating exchanges between world-class musicians and prominent representatives from other fields, who also happen to share a deep passion and interest in music.

Haruki Murakami – Seiji Ozawa: The writer and the conductor

An ex-owner of a small jazz bar in Tokyo, Murakami is known for his love and appreciation of music, which is evident throughout his oeuvre. In Absolutely on Music (2011), he exchanges views with acclaimed Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa on a variety of topics, ranging from Beethoven and Brahms to opera, Chicago blues, and the joys of teaching.

These conversations, dating from 2010 – 2011, unravel while the two men listen to various recordings from Murakami’s record collection and exchange views on various artists and music genres. They offer a unique insight into Ozawa’s approach to conducting, memories of his mentors such as Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, was well as his educational activities and work with the prestigious Saito Kinen Orchestra.

Moreover, Murakami provides some very interesting remarks about the relationship between writing and music. “You can’t write well if you don’t have an ear for music”, he says, referring to his own beginnings as a writer:  “How did I learn to write? From listening to music. And what’s the most important thing in writing? It’s rhythm.”

Edward Said – Daniel Barenboim: The intellectual and the maestro

A highly compelling exchange between cultural critic Edward Said and pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim, Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society (2002) features conversations between the two men centered on music, but touching upon many themes such as the nature of sound, religion, antisemitism, politics and identity.

Full of captivating ideas and insights, the book offers a glimpse of the two men’s philosophical pondering and the great significance they attribute to music. For Said, “music, in some profound way, is perhaps the final resistance to the acculturation and the commodification of everything”, while Barenboim, who subscribes to Ferruccio Busoni’s definition of music as “sonorous air”, says: “Whenever we talk about music, we talk about how we are affected by it, not about it itself. In this respect, it is like God.”

In 1999,  Barenboim and Said (who was an accomplished pianist) founded the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra, a youth orchestra consisting of Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab musicians, with the aim to promote understanding and enable intercultural dialogue. As Barenboim has put it: “The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it.”

Bruno Monsaingeon – Glenn Gould: The director and the virtuoso

French filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon has made several documentaries about prominent musicians, while his interviews with Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter and French composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger have also been published separately as books (Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations, and Mademoiselle: Conversations With Nadia Boulanger, respectively).

One of the artists that most fascinated Monsaingeon was Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. On hearing Gould performing J.S. Bach for the first time, Monsaingeon later wrote: I don’t think I was less inflamed that night than Blaise Pascal during his night of fire. “Joy, joy, tears of joy!!!” In July 1972, Monsaingeon traveled to Toronto to meet Gould, who by then had already stopped giving public recitals. The two would develop a lasting friendship and work on various projects that included the films Glenn Gould, the Alchemist (1974) and Glenn Gould, hereafter (2006).

A conversation between Gould and Monsaingeon is included in The Glenn Gould Reader (ed. Tim Page, 1984), a compilation of Gould’s writings that offers an abundance of original and highly unconventional ideas with regards to performance and music making. When Monsaingeon asks Gould  why he doesn’t want to record Mozart’s concertos, he replies: “Well, you see, Bruno, I don’t really enjoy playing any concertos very much. What bothers me most is the competitive, comparative ambience in which the the concerto operates. I happen to believe that competition rather than money is the root of all evil, and in the concerto we have a perfect musical analogy of the competitive spirit.”

Brimming with thought-provoking and stimulating remarks, Gould’s words were as unique as the notes he played. Whether one agrees with him or not, there’s little doubt he had some very interesting, and often profound, things to say – both on paper and at the piano.

Tales of various Stradivarius

A sound like no other

When it comes to the construction of stringed instruments, no artisan has ever come close to achieving the fame of legendary Italian craftsman Antonio Stradivari  (1644 – 1737). From the approximately 1,000 instruments he made during his lifetime, 650 (including around 500 violins) survive to this day, better known as Stradivarius or simply Strad.

Stradivari

Edgar Bundy, “Antonio Stradivari” (1893)

Along with their unique sound, many Strads also carry with them a fascinating history. Like the 1721 “Lady Blunt” violin (sold in 2011 for £9.8 million), named after Lord Byron’s granddaughter Lady Anne Blunt who owned it for 30 years. Or the 1697 “Molitor” Strad, said to once have been owned by Napoleon himself (it belonged to Gabriel Jean Joseph Molitor, a general in the emperor’s army).

S(tr)ad stories

Given their extraordinary reputation and sky-high value, it is perhaps not surprising that several Strads have gone missing or stolen over the years under obscure circumstances. One such case occurred only last month when Frank Almond, the concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, was attacked shortly after a performance by two thieves who disappeared together with his precious Strad.

The stolen violin is known as the “Lipinski” Strad and was built in 1715 (which is during Stradivari’s “golden period”, i.e. 1700- 1725). Its first known owner was no other than Italian composer and virtuoso violinist Giuseppe Tartini (1692–1770), whose Devil’s Trill sonata remains hugely popular to this day.

Another famous Stradivarius violin with a tumultuous past is the “Gibson” Strad, named after its early owner George Alfred Gibson, a prominent English violinist. On February 28, 1936 it was snatched backstage at Carnegie Hall during a recital by Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman, who had left the Strad in his dressing room while performing on his -equally precious- Guarnerius  (a violin made by Stradivari’s contemporary Giuseppe Guarneri). When Huberman went backstage after the show, his “Gibson” Strad was gone.

Bell’s Strads ringing

Some 50 years later and after a deathbed confession by the thief, the “Gibson” Strad was finally recovered and bought by American virtuoso Joshua Bell. Its unique tone can be heard in Romance of the Violin, Bell’s first recording with the long-missing Strad.

Bell’s former violin had also been a Stradivarius. It was the 1732 “Tom Taylor” Strad, which he played in the Oscar-winning score for The Red Violin (1998), an absolute must for violin aficionados. And what a score that was…

Sweden on screen

The best… and the rest

The other day I happened to be at an advance screening of We Are the Best!, the latest film by Swedish director Lukas Moodysson. Set in Stockholm in the early 80s, the film follows the story of Bobo, Klara and Hedvig, three teenage girls -and social outcasts- who come together to form a rather peculiar punk trio.

It was my first acquaintance with Moodysson’s oevre and, apart from introducing me to Sweden’s lively punk scene of the late 70s/early 80s, it also made me curious to check some of his earlier works.

So I went on watching Show Me Love (1998),  Moodysson’s first full length film. It bears many resemblances to Blue Is the Warmest Color (‘La vie d’Adèle’, 2013), and it also sparked quite a controversy when it first came out.

But my favorite Moodysson’s title so far is Together (2000), a film about the members of a commune in 70s Stockholm. It takes great artistry to produce such a fine balance of sociopolitical commentary, satire and drama, especially so when you choose an ABBA song for the soundtrack without compromising on the aesthetic result.

Best friends

An underlying theme of all the aforementioned films is that of friendship. In Show Me Love it’s the relationship between two teenage girls who are still discovering their sexuality, in Together it’s the friendly (and quasi-romantic) bond between a young girl and a boy who both share big thick glasses, while in We Are the Best! it’s the unlikely friendship between two punks and a born-again Christian.

Moodysson’s works are marked by an utterly unpretentious style and a deep, heartfelt humanism. It’s stories about real people with real emotions, and situations all of us can easily identify with because we have been there too.

And that’s perhaps why even the cheesiest, shallowest or otherwise most indifferent songs take on a completely new dimension when heard, sung or danced to during one of these films.

Modern-day Mozarts

Masters from the cradle

I was always fascinated by stories of music prodigies: Mozart composing already at the age of five, 10-year-old Camille Saint-Saëns offering to play any of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas from memory as an encore at his debut public recital, or Hungarian virtuoso Georges Cziffra entering the Franz Liszt Academy at age nine, after four years performing in a traveling circus.

Several instances of young children displaying extraordinary musical talent have been recorded in recent times. Among them one can find famous performers such as Martha Argerich, Glenn Gould, and Yehudi Menuhin, to name but a few.

The Canadian Mozart

However, the list also includes many less-known musicians whose early promising careers did not always match the expectations of their patrons and audience once they reached adulthood. One such case was Canadian pianist and composer André Mathieu (1929 – 1968). While still 7 years old, Mathieu gave a recital of his own works in Paris. His performance was received enthusiastically and critics unanimously hailed him as “Canadien Mozart”.

However, the aftermath of WWII found Mathieu a changed man and his return to Montreal was followed by alcoholism and emotional problems that led to his premature death at the age of 39.  Mathieu’s life story is explored in the film L’enfant prodige (2010) by Luc Dionne, which features much of his beautiful music performed by -also Québécois- pianist Alain Lefèvre.

Rise and fall (and rise again)

L’enfant prodige bears a close resemblance to the film Shine (1996) by Scott Hicks, which deals with the formative years of Australian concert pianist David Helfgott and his subsequent struggle with mental illness. Both films explore similar themes such as the beginnings of a promising music career, the strong influence of family on the child’s character, and the early claim to fame followed by a sudden fall.

There is, however, a crucial difference. While L’enfant prodige is the tragic story of one’s descent to alcoholism and despair, Shine is essentially a film about overcoming seemingly unsurpassable obstacles and surviving life’s misfortunes.

A great challenge even for the most phenomenal talents, no doubt.

Raising ravens

A Spanish drama

I recently had the chance to watch Cría Cuervos (‘Raise Ravens’), a 1976 drama film by Spanish director Carlos Saura. The film, which won the Special Jury Prize Award at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival, was shot as Spanish dictator Francisco Franco was lying on his deathbed. While it deals with themes like childhood and loss, one can also find subtle allusions to the contemporary political situation and the changes Spanish society was undergoing at the time.

Cría Cuervos left quite a strong impression on me. As the story unfolds Saura manages to create a miniature, fragile universe of emotional intensity and introspective -almost claustrophobic- atmosphere (most of the film is shot inside a single house).

In the center of this universe lies Ana, the little girl protagonist, played by 8-year-old Ana Torrent whose performance is absolutely mesmerizing. Ana’s father (a general in the Spanish army), her mother and two sisters (together with the rest of the characters in the film) all seem to revolve around her, like planets in orbit that occasionally draw nearer or get farther away from little Ana.

 Jeanette meets Frederic Mompou

The film’s exemplary direction and great performances aside, I was also intrigued by its music. Jeanette’s pop song Porque te vas recurs throughout the movie, adding a bittersweet feeling to the film’s imagery.

What is more, the film’s main music theme is Cançó No.6 in E-flat minor by Catalan composer Frederic Mompou (1893 – 1987), a wonderfully melancholic and haunting piano piece. Originally dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein, it was also a favorite of celebrated Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli.

PS: The film’s title comes from the Spanish proverb Cría cuervos y te sacarán los ojos, which literally translates as: “Raise ravens, and they’ll take out your eyes”.

Films from the underground: A conversation with Jeffrey Babcock (pt.2)

-click here to read pt.1-

Jeffrey Babcok Photo: Mony Art http://www.monyart.com

Jeffrey Babcock
Photo: Mony Art http://www.monyart.com

The social factor and people getting together from different backgrounds is an important element in your screenings. But how is watching a movie different than reading a book or listening to a record, which can also be a very personal experience?

I feel the world is becoming too fragmented, we are becoming more and more isolated. People nowadays even have jobs that they can do from their computers staying at home. So everyone ends up staying in their little apartments with their home cinema or their flat-screen TV. And so we’re becoming more and more isolated, and desperately disconnected from each other.

So it really comes down to human interaction.

Everything I do, even cinemas and film, is not really just about film. I’m not a nerd in that sense. Films are only a step to reflect on our lives and what we are doing with our lives. If it doesn’t do that, then it becomes worthless to me. I’m not the kind of guy that downloads tons of movies just to have them all there. I think social interaction is necessary, more today than ever before, and that’s why cinema today is also necessary.

Watching a film together with other people makes it a living thing. You see a film with one audience and then with a different audience, and it can change incredibly according to how people react. I’ve shown movies that I’ve seen 25 times, and I’ll still be there with my audience watching the film. I would never abandon the audience and just go to the bar and grab a beer or something. I’m always there because it’s a live experience.

Do you also tend to watch the audience during a screening?

Yes, I do that sometimes. Like when you’re caught up in a movie and you suddenly step back and look at the audience, and you see all these beautiful faces transfixed on the screen…

Also, since many of my screenings are free, there’s a lot of people coming that normally would never go to watch a European art film. So then you get people that are used to acting in a certain way, because they’re used to going to Pathé to watch blockbusters and James Bond films, and they’re carrying over their behaviour from those cinemas because they don’t know any other way to relate to a movie. I see a lot of that going on but I regard it as a necessary evil, and it’s a good thing in a way. Because these people are the ones who need most to see such films, and otherwise they would never watch them.

If for example I’m showing a classic 1955 Italian film, there will be people who’ve never seen anything like it before and they will be surprised. And of course you’re likely to get some strange reactions, because they’re not used to respecting a movie, they’re only used to spectacles and blockbusters and treating movies like trash. My hope is that if these people come to the screenings frequently enough, they will then start to behave more respectfully. So I want them to come, so that there is diversity in the audience. I could choose to show film noir only, and then I would get a hardcore fan group and there would always be the same people, so the whole thing would be dead. So this is one way to keep things alive.

I always try to keep the movies at a very low price or for free. In my newsletter I also mention sometimes that if someone can’t afford to pay, they can come find me before the film and I’ll get them a ticket. I cannot necessarily let people in for free, because the places where we charge ticket also have to pay rent, so I don’t want to take money away from the cinemas either. Therefore I cannot just say “come in for free”, but I can pay for their ticket instead. I think people should be free to experiment, and with my cinema you never know what you’re going to get yourself into. So you should not be paying an expensive ticket like you do for Pathé and all the big cinemas.

And looking at the ticket prices in most cinemas, it seems that going to the movies is becoming a kind of luxury.

Yes, and the end result of this is that if someone wants to watch a movie and cannot afford to go see it on the big screen, they will download it and watch it at home by themselves. Once again, this is pushing people back into their private experiences, whereas what I’m trying to do is open people up into the social experience. And of course not everyone in Amsterdam can fit in my screenings, but there could be fifty small cinemas throughout the city doing the same thing, offering an incredible diversity of choice and being dirt cheap too.

At the same time, distributors currently couldn’t care less if a film is commercial or uncommercial; they will always ask the same standard price, which has led to a ridiculous situation. I see Amsterdam as an international city, and I think we should have an international cinema. It doesn’t have to be a big organization; anyone can basically turn any bar or space into a cinema and start their own initiative.

Is there a specific film or director of particular importance to you personally?

Not really. I mean, in general I am so open and I love diversity so much that I can’t get locked on to certain films or directors. The first movie I remember seeing is ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ with Charles Laughton. I remember seeing this as a kid and I wasn’t supposed to stay up that late, so I sneaked out my bedroom door and I was watching this and it was fantastic: Esmeralda, Quasimodo, him on the top of the Notre Dame… And this reminds me that it can be a special experience when you have to struggle a bit or overcome some kind of obstacle in order to watch a film. It is the same thing, in a way, with some of my cinemas; not all of them are necessarily very comfortable.

And then there was Godard’s ‘Weekend’, a film he made in 1967. It’s a film I watched as a teenager when I was going to high school in a small town. On the weekends, and sometimes even during the week, we would go to the capital city (Madison, Wisconsin) and there were these students in a campus showing all these European films – because in America you don’t get to see European films. It was there that I saw my first Antonioni, my first Truffaut and John Cassavetes… So I was learning about cinema and when I would go back to my high school I would try and talk to other kids about it, but they only knew ‘Saturday Night Fever’ or ‘Star Wars’, there was such a divide going on…

So I also watched Godard’s ‘Weekend’ during that period and I was a young kid. And I was so pissed off after that movie, I was thinking “how could that fucker do that?”, you know, “how could anybody be so arrogant?” I was really upset about this film. But then, exactly because I was so upset about it, it got stuck in the back of my mind, I didn’t forget about it. And this changed slowly, and I started appreciating the movie and understanding where the film was coming from. So regardless of whether someone really hates or likes a film, I think it’s very important when it invokes a strong reaction. Because the kind of neutral mentality “seen the movie, had my pop corn, now go home” never has the possibility of changing a person’s life.

Are you thinking of including more titles by female directors in the future?

I think the ratio of female directors to male directors is good, in relationship to what’s available. Because how many films by female filmmakers are available? It’s a very difficult thing. I’m a real pusher of people like Lina Wertmüller for instance. Nobody else shows her films anymore, and I’m the only one that keeps pushing people to see her films. So I had a screening of ‘Love and Anarchy’ (1973) one month ago, and people were totally amazed.

What is your favourite cinema in Amsterdam?

My favourite cinema? I don’t know. I love the cinemas where I’m having my screenings because they’re all so unique and special. But I’m also supportive of places like Kriterion or Studio K. Kriterion was started from people who were in the underground resistance in World War II. And then it transformed into a student-run cinema. So the people involved can only work there as students, and they get money from a gas station on a highway outside Amsterdam. That means they can afford to do uncommercial things and take risks, and they’re willing to do that.