Oh, yes, the Oscars…


That there is a category for Foreign Language Film tells you everything you need to know about the Oscars. Still, a few things about this year’s cinematic fashion show have managed to get past my old codger’s cynicism…

I’m pleased that The Artist and Hugo have done well. I love the former and I hear great things about the latter.

I’m particularly pleased that A Separation won the said Foreign Language category, partly because of something I mentioned in a previous post re the importance of diversity (different stories) in cinema:-

…goes some way to explaining why I think cinema – that is, a diverse cinema which reflects the experiences of people from all corners of the world, from every walk of life – is such a potentially important, enriching, enlightening, and empowering force. If, for example, you have seen the films of Abbas Kiarostami, or Asghar Farhadi’s recent A Separation, it is difficult to read or view news reports about Iran in quite the same way; to interpret these reports without being reminded of the humanity of Kiarostami’s and Farhadi’s characters, to be reminded of the many people just like us who are going about their daily lives in that country.

So I was immediately drawn to this Guardian piece by Saeed Kamali Dehghan discussing the reaction within Iran to news of the Oscar success:-

A Separation has become the first movie ever to take an Academy Award to Iran after winning the best foreign language Oscar, prompting national celebration at a critical time in the country’s history.

Millions of Iranians stayed up all night to watch the film’s director, Asghar Farhadi, going up on the stage and delight his countrymen at a time when their lives are clouded with fear of war with Israel and crippling economic sanctions.

“At this time, many Iranians all over the world are watching us and I imagine them to be very happy,” said Farhadi, while accepting the Oscar. “At the time when talk of war, intimidation, and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics.”

He added: “”I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, the people who respect all cultures and civilisations and despise hostility and resentment.”

How do Iranians feel about this?:-

Within few minutes of winning an Academy Award, Iranians took to the social networking websites such as Twitter and Facebook, congratulating themselves on A Separation’s success at the Oscars.

“Imagine Iranians are now waking up to find the world is talking about its cinema, not its nuke, for a change,” said Iranian journalist, Reza Asadi, on his Twitter account.

How different from the Iranian authorities:-

Despite generating patriotic sentiments among ordinary Iranians, Tehran leaders have been sceptical about the film’s worldwide success, especially in the United States which they consider as a sworn enemy.

A Separation was originally produced with permission from the Iranian government. But in the face of its success, the regime has not publicly denounced the film but many of its supporters have publicly spoken against it. In a programme broadcast in the state-run television, Masoud Ferasati, an Iranian writer whose views are close to those of the Islamic regime, said: “The image of our society that A Separation depicts is the dirty picture Westerners are wishing for.”

So, a great film has been given some much deserved extra publicity, and perhaps a few more people will come to see Iran as a country of ‘many stories’, not just the one that dominates the news.

Oh, and one other thing about this year’s Oscars, it has also lead me to watch the winning Animated Short Film: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore. It’s rather sentimental, but beautifully crafted – well worth a look:-



I’ve just come across the following Guardian article (thanks to Jonathan Rosenbaum posting a link) which talks about the reaction in Israel to A Separation winning an oscar:-

When Oscar-winning Iranian film-maker Asghar Farhadi spoke of the importance of recognising his country’s glorious and essentially peaceful culture at a time of “war, intimidation and aggression” he might have wondered if anyone in Israel was listening. At the very least, film buffs in the Jewish nation seem to have got the message, because they are turning out in large numbers to watch Farhadi’s best foreign film Academy Award winner A Separation at cinemas.

The film’s fledgling box-office success in a country whose leaders are currently considering a pre-emptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities is all the more remarkable because A Separation was up against Israeli drama Footnote, a Talmudic scholar saga from film-maker Joseph Cedar. The film is being shown mostly at the seven Israeli sites owned by Lev Cinemas, whose CEO Guy Shani said all screenings were sold out on Friday and Saturday. “We are being helped a lot by the press in Israel,” Shani told the Associated Press, adding that the threat of war between the two countries had helped to draw viewers.

Yair Raveh, a leading Israeli film critic who writes for the Pnai Plus entertainment magazine, said his countrymen were often surprised to note that Iranians did not seem all that different from themselves. “It’s very well acted, exceptionally well written and very moving,” he said of the film. “Ultimately you don’t think about nuclear bombs or dictators threatening world peace. You see them driving cars and going to movies and they look exactly like us.”

Filmgoer Rina Brick, 70, said she was surprised to see that the Iranian bureaucrats portrayed in the film did not behave very differently to those in Israel.


The story behind a favourite portrait: Stan Tracey by William Ellis

Stan Tracey©William Ellis

One of my favourite portraits of the jazz legend Stan Tracey is that by William Ellis.

So I was very pleased to come across this New Statesman piece where Ellis discusses some of his portraits, starting with the one of Stan.

This photograph of Stan Tracey, sometimes called the “Godfather of British Jazz”, was taken in 2003 at the Guildhall in Bath and captures a true jazz legend in a relaxed, intimate atmosphere. “I’ve got to know Stan since then and I’ve often photographed him on stage. This was taken at the sound check for the concert to be given by him and his long-time collaborator Bobby Wellins.

“Stan is one of those guys who came through, even when, as he dryly puts it, ‘The phone never started ringing.'”

Even for someone as experienced as Ellis, nerves still take hold before a shoot. “I couldn’t sleep the night before thinking about how I would arrange this sitting. But when I meet the sitter I feel so relaxed, almost like we’ve already done the session.

Ellis sums up what he thinks the essence of portraiture is:-

A portrait can be more than memorable, it can be definitive. The face is a theatre — drama, emotion and expression happening right there. A good portrait gets inside, behind the safety curtain. All the planning and the thought about how a portrait should be set up just provides a framework, but that’s all it is. It’s the intimacy and intensity during the shoot that makes it work.

For me his image of Tracey captures both the modesty, and self-deprecating nature of the man, and also his quiet determination, his refusal to compromise. It is certainly a fitting portrait of one of our greatest musicians.

Fay Godwin – a subtle eye


Large White Cloud near Bilsington, Kent, 1981.

Here lies a subtle eye; and an even sutler human spirit.

John Fowles, describing the landscape photographs of Fay Godwin in his 1984 essay featured in her book Land.

It’s a book I treasure.

As an avid collector of all things Fowles, it was the essay which lead me to the photographs; but I quickly fell under the spell of Godwin’s sublime and sometimes enigmatic landscapes. Fowles’ eloquent description of the photo above perfectly captures how I feel about the best of this artist’s work:-

A number of her pictures I know by heart, yet look at again always with renewed pleasure. Almost all her finest ones are jealous with their secrets. It is certainly so for the one I should count as my own most cherished favourite: that superbly balanced field, tree, cloud in Large white cloud near Bilsington, Kent. I have had it beside me all through this writing, and I am convinced it is a very great photograph. Yet I am hard put to analyse why it satisfies and pleases so much: says things I know I could never write, epitomises so many unspoken feelings. It is like a certain kind of rare poem, unalterable, perfect in its every syllable.

This short piece of text moves me almost as much as the photograph it describes. All art which touches us deeply seems to defy proper explanation. We might offer suggestions and contextualisations, but the analysis is always reductive and can only be partial. The art is jealous with its secrets. And yet there is a joy in trying to explain, and the best of the commentators open up new possibilities, new ways of approaching the art. Perhaps explanation is the wrong term, it is more about sharing, finding ways of expressing to others our sense of wonder or fascination or intrigue.

So, I find it hard to ‘analyse why’ Godwin’s best photographs ‘satisfy and please’ me so much, but can only say that they are indeed like a ‘rare poem, unalterable, perfect in its every syllable’

Here are some more poems…




Too Many Cinematic Masterpieces?

This short piece by Geoff Andrew caught my eye: O masterpiece, where art thou? [no longer available].

Between a couple of Berlin’s press screenings, Nick James and I found ourselves discussing the overuse of ‘masterpiece’, a word apparently as vulnerable to abuse as ‘classic’.

I felt uncomfortable on reading this, since I’m probably guilty of being a little too free and easy with my superlatives as far as films go (and music as well for that matter).

What, though, might the characteristics of a masterpiece be? Andrew suggests:-

The accent should be on ‘extraordinary’. A masterpiece can’t just be a terrific movie; it has to be far more than that. It is by definition the greatest work (or at the very least one of the greatest works) of a proven master; it is also a ‘consummate piece of work’. That surely suggests, among other things, immense depth, richness and resonance – a real sense of completeness.

This looks like a good, working guide (though I’m not sure about the ‘proven master’ component – what about Orson Welles). However, things begin to unwind a little for me when he says:-

In Berlin, some have claimed that Miguel Gomes’s Tabu is a masterpiece, just as others have harked back nostalgically to last year’s edition which, it’s alleged, produced two masterpieces in A Separation and The Turin Horse. Now, impressive as all these movies are, I consider none of them deserving of the M-word. Each is clearly flawed in one way or another; and if the film with the most persuasive claim to greatness is the one by Béla Tarr, I’m afraid even that must surely yield to the Hungarian maestro’s Sátántangó, which remains a truly monumental and extraordinary achievement.

I haven’t seen The Turin Horse yet, but I have seen and greatly admired Tarr’s Satantango. For me this film is indeed ‘truly monumental and extraordinary’; but I think it has its minor flaws and I’m not entirely convinced – if we are going to be really strict – that the label of ‘masterpiece’ is appropriate. I would be far happier to bestow that honour on Tarr’s perfectly formed Werckmeister Harmonies.

But in the end that’s just my opinion, and one that might possibly change with time and more cinematic experience… Still, when I’m next poised to hail a film as a masterpiece, I’ll try and hold myself in check at least long enough to put my assessment to the Geoff Andrew test.

The danger of the single story…

It’s thanks to Rich Pollett on Google+ that I watched the TED talk given by novelist Chimamanda Adichie. It is an eloquent and moving account of the power of stories.

Adichie sets the scene by illustrating the power of stories in her childhood:-

I was an early reader, and what I read were British and American children’s books. I was also an early writer, and when I began to write at about the age of seven…I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading. All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked about the weather and how lovely it was that the sun had come out. Now this, despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria – had never been outside Nigeria; we didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather because there was no need to.

What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of stories, particularly as children.

Now I loved those American and British books I read, they stirred my imagination, they opened up new worlds for me. But the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature. So, what the discovery of African writers did for me was this: it saved me from having a single story of what books are.

She goes on to describe how stories have a powerful effect on how we see others:-

[An American] professor once told me that my novel was not authentically African. Now I was quite willing to contend that there were a number of things wrong with the novel, that it had failed in a number of places, but I had not quite imagined that it had failed in achieving something called African authenticity. In fact, I did not know what African authenticity was. The professor told me that my characters were too much like him, an educated and middle class man; my characters drove cars, they were not starving, therefore they were not authentically African.

Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become. The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity; it makes our recognition of an equal humanity difficult. It emphasises how we are different, rather than how we are similar.
Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanise. When we reject the single story; when we realise that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.

For me, this is a beautiful description, and one which goes some way to explaining why I think cinema – that is, a diverse cinema which reflects the experiences of people from all corners of the world, from every walk of life – is such a potentially important, enriching, enlightening, and empowering force. If, for example, you have seen the films of Abbas Kiarostami, or Asghar Farhadi’s recent A Separation, it is difficult to read or view news reports about Iran in quite the same way; to interpret these reports without being reminded of the humanity of Kiarostami’s and Farhadi’s characters, to be reminded of the many people just like us who are going about their daily lives in that country.

We are reminded of our ‘equal humanity’.

Ronnie Scott and All That Jazz


I managed to catch some of the two programmes featuring the great saxophonist Sonny Rollins on Friday night; both shown as part of BBC Four’s jazz weekend. The second programme looked particularly interesting, with Sonny on fine form at Ronnie’s back in 1974. I didn’t get as far as the jazz bagpipes (not played by Sonny); that “treat” awaits me when I watch the programme in full!

What I did get to see, in its entirety, was the documentary called Ronnie Scott and All That Jazz made back in 1989 at the time of the 30th anniversary of Scott’s famous jazz club. It’s a programme I remember seeing when first transmitted and which made a big impression on me at the time. It is a warm and evocative (though necessarily partial) portrait of modern jazz in Britain, which manages to capture some of the magic of the music, as well as the dedication and idealism of its practitioners.

As well as enjoying the (sadly) short musical snippets from the likes of Ronnie himself, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Evans, Nigel Hitchcock, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Buddy Rich, Stan Tracey, etc, there were also lots of fascinating observations from the interviewees.

It was interesting to hear just how radical bebop was when it emerged in the ’40s, and how it ostracised its followers from the establishment. Saxophonist John Rogers says:-

Don’t forget when bebop came out, the Melody Maker’s chief critic said Charlie Parker can’t play his instrument, this isn’t modern harmony it’s wrong notes.

This sound incredible now.

For the musicians who had fallen in love with this new musical language, Ronnie Scott’s club – when it opened in 1959 – became (as Scott’s club partner Pete King says) “somewhere to try and develop our music”. It was a place where the music came first; and what great music it was. As the club began to book the American star players, people could see their heroes – the true masters of the art form – live and up close.

Stan Tracey, house pianist for many years at Ronnie’s, played with most of the visiting superstars. Asked who he was happiest accompanying he says:-

The one who stands out above all the others for me was Sonny Rollins – for his inventiveness, night after night. Tremendous.

Talking of Stan Tracey, I was disappointed that this jazz weekend did not include a repeat of the excellent documentary about Tracey, “The Godfather of British Jazz“. However, at least he is part of this film, which includes the classic moment when he breaks the piano string mid-solo!

One of the most interesting observations, which goes to the heart of this documentary, is by Benny Green:-

If you’re in the jazz business, you’re not going to be a rich man – that’s not the point of the exercise. They used to say that if the musicians had spent the same amount of energy and time and application studying accountancy they’d all be millionaires, which I think is probably true. There is no more dedicated or hard working person really, though they’ll often deny it. They’re the only idealists I’ve ever come across, as it happens. I know all kinds of writers, actors, politicians; I only ever met idealists in the jazz world, no where else.

It’s the kind of idealism which drove Ronnie and Pete to set up the club in the first place, and it’s the kind of idealism which you see in many jazz musicians today (though they’ll probably deny it!).

Huw Warren: Infinite Riches In A Little Room


On its release in 2001, John L Waters wrote in the Guardian that:-

This solo piano album already sounds like a classic.

It’s an album that has grown in stature the more I’ve listened to it, and one that never loses its freshness or its ability to reveal new treasures.

Huw Warren is a pianist and composer who, as his website states:-

…has achieved a reputation for innovative and eclectic music making over a twenty year career. Equally at home crossing the often exclusive worlds of Jazz, World and Folk and Contemporary music, he has a distinctive and personal voice. Known both for a lyrical beauty and a ferocious rhythmic energy, his own compositions have a gentle ironic wit underpinning them. Recent collaborations with musicians such as Mark Feldman, Maria Pia de Vito, Peter Herbert, Joanna Macgreggor, Theo Bleckmann , Pamela Thorby and Erik Truffaz.

I was introduced to him via his work with:-

…the award winning quartet Perfect Houseplants and his collaboration with English singer June Tabor.

(As an aside, after a hiatus of some years the fantastic Perfect Houseplants are playing gigs again, and as I found out last year when I saw them at the Kingfisher Way Festival, they are brilliant live – it was one of the best gigs of the year!)

The range of colours and expansiveness of musical ideas emerging from the fertile imagination of this great musician means the description ‘solo piano’ album is woefully inadequate. Here’s Waters again:-

[Warren sequences] the 16 tracks to create a wide variety of mood, tempo and timbre, using digital editing, synthesisers and samples to expand the basic sound source of a Steinway piano…Xibaba, by the great Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal, is exuberant, with a punchy prepared-piano part. Charlie Parker’s bebop standard Moose the Mooche is transformed into asymmetric boogie-woogie with a touch of Conlon Nancarrow. Infinite Riches is still and contemplative, a kind of jazzy Howard Skempton. Loopy might remind you of a Jerry Goldsmith horror score before it settles into A-grade British modal composition. Quiet (R) Riot and . . . Still Dancing are aggressive solo versions of pieces commissioned by the six-piano new music ensemble Piano Circus. [On] Burke and Van Heusen’s Like Someone in Love, just 35 seconds from the end of the piece, he adds a percussive prepared-piano ostinato and a whistling synthesiser in the irreverent style of [Django] Bates’s Human Chain.

These are all fantastic pieces, but the ones I am increasingly drawn to are the:-

…suite of eight pieces based on John Dowland’s 1604 composition [Lachrymae]. This provides a rich and absorbing set of materials for Warren’s explorations: the formal, courtly nature of Dowland’s melodies provides a distinctive flavour for the improvisations.

Just listen to the suite’s opening track – Teares – and hear how the tender melody is developed so beautifully, with such exquisite voicings. As a total contrast, try the restless, insistence of track three – Unfit Guests – where a fragment of melody serves as the launchpad for mini improvisations which take fascinating musical forays, but are always brought back home by the repetition of the initial fragment. Or listen to the final track of the suite – True Teares – which begins like some murder mystery with its strange effects and unsettling harmonies (watch out for the sudden echoing bass, like a ghost has just walked into the room). Then hear how the piece gradually begins to draw itself together to end with a fragile, tentative restatement of the Dowland theme and a final bass note which this time brings resolution. Just fantastic!