Tag Archives: Film

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.

Films from the underground: A conversation with Jeffrey Babcock (pt.1)

American cultural activist and alternative film curator Jeffrey Babcock is one of the most fascinating individuals I have met during my stay in Amsterdam. For several years now, he has been the programmer of several underground cinema venues throughout the city. I recently had the chance to sit with him and discuss about films, technology, human interaction and the role of cinema in shaping one’s life and way of thinking.

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

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

What follows is our full conversation, which took place at Filmhuis Cavia on May 16th, 2013. I thought it was worth sharing and I hope more people may find something interesting and thought-provoking in it.

You started doing screenings in 2006, which is also around the time when I first arrived in Amsterdam. However I only found out about it some years later.

JB: Yeah, a lot of people have said that: “If I’d just known!” But it’s always a matter of chance; it’s always a matter of friends telling friends, that’s how the audience is growing. I think people finding out about it through word of mouth, and so in a way creating a culture, is much better and more magical than any sort of marketing campaign. I think only bad products need to be advertised anyway. If something is really good, people just tell each other and then it grows naturally.

How do you go around preparing the audience for the movies you choose to show?

JB: There is a weekly newsletter with descriptions for all the films, and I also do a live introduction on the actual evening of every screening. The selection of movies I’m showing is so diverse and so wide that nobody can be expected to like all of it, so I’m trying to give people an indication of what it is they’re going to be involved with. In this way they’ve been warned, at least they know what to expect.

From all the screenings you’ve done over the last years, are there some you would choose to highlight?

JB: Not really, I think they’re all special. Because it’s all about special films, films not being distributed and not shown in cinemas, and people don’t know about them for the most part. But it’s also about the locations, so it’s a combination of these two things every evening.

Sometimes you also invite directors or artists to your screenings.

JB: Yes, it is something nice when I am able to invite these people. About three years ago I had John Sinclair, who is well known through John Lennon, who actually wrote a song about him back in the 1970s. He lives in Amsterdam so I contacted him one day, thought maybe he would be interested. And it was fantastic, he came to the screening and we had a film about him [‘20 to Life: Life and Times of John Sinclair’, 2007, directed by Steve Gebhardt]. Or, for example, one month ago I had Martha Colburn, who is one of the biggest animators in the US, and we had a Q&A and showed some of her short films before the feature film.

You often couple a feature film with a short film in your screenings, right?

JB: Yeah, because you know, short films don’t have a place in the cinemas today. When I was young, 30-40 years ago, they would still show short films before the feature film. But then it changed into commercials, because big companies got involved. There is a whole history of short films and I want people to be able to see that instead of commercials.

You also show recent films, not only old ‘cult classics’. What are your criteria for choosing a title?

JB: I believe in diversity. I don’t believe in being a ‘retro’ programmer, or a horror-film programmer, or a film noir programmer, or a programmer of any specific kind of genre. The same applies to time periods. I feel like showing films from the 1920s, but then last week I also showed a film that’s just 6 months old and it was a European premiere [‘Video Diary of a Lost Girl’, 2012, directed by Lindsay Denniberg].

A lot of things are not available anymore, so it’s hard work finding those films that I’m interested in. So I make a selection of films that it’s possible to show and out of that selection I start programming with as much diversity as possible. So I wouldn’t have too many B&W films or films from the 1970s in a row. Also, if it’s a really great film and is not shown anywhere in the city, I’d sometimes show it again every 2 or 3 years. But in general I’m not so interested in big films that people know already, I feel more like highlighting all these unknown gems.

Are there any films you’d like to show but haven’t been able to get hold of? 

JB: Sure. There are lots of films through cinema history that are just not available. Really a lot, especially from the 1960s and 1970s, which is a period I’ve lived through and there are many titles you can’t find. The only people that know about those films are the people that were alive and in the right age to be experiencing them in alternative cinemas back then. So now it’s all gone.

There are similar issues with more recent films as well. For example, there are films that are really popular in France but virtually unknown outside of it. Same thing in Bulgaria, Hungary, etc. I have a very international audience coming to my screenings, so I always ask: “Are there any films that people really love in your country that nobody else knows about?” And then I try to see if I can find these films and screen them with English subtitles.

What possibilities/threats do you see for cinema with the advent of digital technology?

JB: There are a lot of negative things happening in cinema that have to do with technology. At the same time there are also some positive aspects to the new digital formats, like for example the possibility for anyone to create subtitles and add them onto a film. So film fans that want other people to know about some movie will make subtitles for it and put it online in downloadable form so that it is available for everyone to use.

I think real film, i.e. celluloid, is more beautiful than digital translations of film like DVD or Blu-ray. But then everything is being shifted to digital anyway. So you can’t live in the past, but you can be critical of the present. When everything changed to digital a couple of years ago, it entailed the potential for incredible freedom. It should have meant that, with the help of the internet, any cinema in the world could show any film they would like to directly from the filmmaker, without any interference of businessmen or distributors. But this didn’t happen. Because distributors got in between and said “we want the same old structure”, so they lobbied and forced the situation to stay the same, whereas we could have absolute freedom.

Official channels and institutions also play a role here.  

JB: Sure. Take for example the EYE, Amsterdam’s new film museum. They do maybe 5% of what they should do, but the other 95% is going in a totally wrong direction.  There was also some bad programming when the Film Museum was still based in Vondelpark, but now it’s gotten far worse. They should just be more progressive, you know. They’ll never show a movie unless it has won awards etc., so they’re just fitting in what’s already popular. Instead, they should be taking lesser-known gems that are forgotten or marginalised and bring those into the spotlight. And they are in the position to do that.

So why do you think this is not happening?

JB: Approximately twenty years ago, there was this guy called Eric de Kuyper [Deputy Director of the Dutch Film Museum between 1988-1992] who transformed the Film Museum from a stuffy, dusty archive to a great film museum. He remoulded everything and had an incredibly diverse programming all day long. But by law he was only allowed to stay in charge for 4 years. The next one was worse, then the next one was worse, and it has been going down ever since. I think there’s probably some creative people buried within the system there, but their voice is not as strong as the management’s.

-click here to read pt.2-