A brief look at documentary…

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Nicolas Philibert

The Screen St Ives film for July was Senna. Since I somehow missed this documentary when first released, I was very pleased to catch-up with it at this friendly community cinema.

I have very little interest in sport – one reason I probably didn’t rush out to see the film on release – but this documentary had me enthralled from start to finish. It clearly had a powerful affect on our audience as well, and we had a very interesting post film discussion. Some of the issues we talked about are touched on in this Stuart Jeffries interview with Senna director Asif Kapadia.

Kapadia says:-

The challenge was to make a film that appealed to people who think Formula One is about men driving in circles in oversized cigarette packets.

Judging by the positive reactions from our audience reaction, he certainly did that.

Interestingly, other film makers had also wanted to make a film about this charismatic man:-

Lots of film-makers over the years approached the Senna family,” says Kapadia. “Oliver Stone, Michael Mann and I’m pretty sure Ridley Scott all approached, and were told no. Antonio Banderas wanted to play Senna.”

 

Why were they rebuffed? “The main thing was they all wanted to make a film about his final weekend at Imola in 1994. The family didn’t want that. They preferred what we wanted to do, which was a three-act drama celebrating his life, from archive footage.”

Even though Senna is less obtrusive than some documentaries in its story-telling, it clearly sets out to tell a well-structured narrative.

“It’s the story of an outsider – a Brazilian who came to Europe and took them on. A man who was slightly apart from the world he inhabited”

Some documentary makers take a different approach, though.

In France we have a saying: “Le chemin se fait en marchant”; the path is made by walking it. And that, for better or worse, is how I tend to work as a film-maker. I make my documentaries from a position of ignorance and curiosity. I need to have a starting point but I don’t need a map; I don’t need to know the final destination. In this way, the film is an invitation. It’s saying: come with me and we’ll go and see what’s happening. We might get lost but that’s OK.

So says filmmaker Nicolas Philibert (Etre et Avoir, Nenette) in this Guardian piece. It sums up why he is one of my favourite directors of this particular form, and why his approach stands apart from the conventional methodology. Of course his films are shaped and constructed, but Philibert always relishes ambiguity, and invites the audience to actively participate in constructing their narrative(s).

Some of the most rewarding cinema has this sense of exploration, of being open to possibilities not yet imagined. As Philibert says:-

Put simply, I make a film in order to understand why I wanted to make a film…We make films from our subconscious and there’s no way of anticipating what they will provoke in the minds of others.

I loved Senna, but it is the more elusive films of Philibert that I keep returning to.

Ben Webster – Stan Tracey: Soho Nights Vol 2

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It’s an irresistible combination: thanks to a new release of previously unissued tracks we can witness the pairing of two giants of jazz – the great American tenor saxophonist Ben Webster and the magnificent British pianist Stan Tracey.

This second volume featuring these two musicians, both recorded live at Ronnie Scotts’ club in London, is if anything even better than volume 1.

Webster plays beautifully throughout; there’s the luscious, warm, breathy tenderness of tone contrasted with the characteristically muscular growling as the tempo increases. The CD liner notes, by the excellent UK saxophonist and very talented writer Simon Spillett, say of Webster:-

[He] delivered in person confirmation of his status as one of the three great Swing Era tenor saxophonists.

However, for me, the real heart of this recording is Stan Tracey’s contribution, which is simply phenomenal! This is no overstatement, Tracey is on truly spectacular form – each solo is bursting with brilliant, inspired, and remarkably bold ideas. For the many Tracey fans out there, this recording is an essential addition to your collection.

Spillett says:-

What strikes this writer as especially gripping is the sheer athleticism of Tracey’s soloing; this is two-handed piano playing, often virtuosic in its delivery and incredibly daring.

Of the pairing of these two giants:-

The juxtaposition of Webster – on the face of it the most “mainstream” guest to have thus far graced Scott’s tiny bandstand – and Tracey, unquestionably then at the forefront of the parochial “modernist” camp, is noteworthy. Hindsight may have made nonsense of such labels…but at the time there were sharp dividing lines. A closer look at Webster’s background reveals how idiotic all this was; the tenorist had been amongst the first of his generation of jazzmen to defend Charlie Parker, had employed Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk at a time when both were far from safe choices…

For a live recording made in the ’60s, the sound quality is excellent, conveying the club atmosphere well, and giving you a privileged front-row seat in front of a band (completed by Rick Laird on bass and Jackie Dougan on drums) who are obviously inspired by each other’s playing, constantly sparking new and unexpected ideas.

Very highly recommended indeed!

Bobby Wellins – Birds of Brazil

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Good news! The website of top British saxophonist Bobby Wellins reports that:-

Bobby’s CD, Birds of Brazil, recorded in 1989 and long unavailable has been re-released by HEP records.

Just checking out who’s in Bobby’s quartet on this album lets you know that you’re in for some quality jazz: there’s the late great Pete Jacobsen on piano, Ken Baldock on bass, and the ever inventive Spike Wells on drums. There’s more, though, as John Fordham mentions in his review:-

The title suite [the first three tracks on the CD] and a scattering of other tracks here come from early-80s recordings the saxophonist made with his quartet, a classical strings ensemble, with Kenny Wheeler guesting on trumpet, and featuring Tony Coe’s subtle arrangements.

As Fordham points out, the title suite is proof that:-

Scottish saxist Bobby Wellins deserves a composer’s reputation alongside the illustrious one he’s had as an improviser (his tone influenced by pipers and folk singers) for five decades.

There are some lovely liner notes to the CD by Rob Adams, including the following observations:-

Although he carved his name and tenor saxophone tone indelibly into British jazz history through his inimitable contribution to one well documented suite, Stan Tracey’s classic Under Milk Wood from 1965, Bobby Wellins hasn’t enjoyed much luck with his own extended compositions. His masterly Culloden Moor…lay, almost forgotten, for years until, happily, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra revived it in a new arrangement in 2011, with Wellins sounding every bit the majestic featured soloist at the age of seventy-five.

 

Birds of Brazil dates from a later period when, following a long absence from the jazz scene, Wellins was delighting audiences once again with his beautifully paced, sometimes mischievously phrased uptempo solo building and a style of playing ballads that could only come from a complete understanding of song form and a penchant for singers.

 

Listening to the music now, it’s classic Wellins…Tony Coe’s orchestrations captured Wellins’ musical personality perfectly. There’s never a note wasted and the string shadings both subtly enhance the emotion of the tenor saxophone and lightly colour the atmosphere and sense of loss that the composer’s initial inspiration was surely striving to suggest.

The other tracks on the album are also excellent. Look out for a superb solo from Bobby on Angel Eyes.

Recommended.

A fleeting glance at Take Care of your Scarf, Tatjana…

Take Care of your Scarf Tatjana

One of my favourite films by Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, and a brilliant example of how less is more.

This is a black and white, ultra deadpan, minimalist comedy which, below its surface, has an abundance of heart.

Lana Wilson in Senses of Cinema:-

A’60s road comedy about two middle-aged men in a vintage Cadillac (complete with built-in record player) who pick up two women – an Estonian and a Russian – and give them a ride to the Tallinn ferry. The film encapsulates Kaurismäki’s attitudes towards three countries with historically strong presences in Finland: consciousness of Russia’s enormous influence, idealization of Estonia as place to escape into paradise and love of American popular culture.

Geoff Andrew in Time Out:-

A gem from the variable Kaurismäki, his beautifully economic anti-romantic road comedy is both hilarious and strangely touching…Marvellously observed and understated, the film exudes a delicious sense of the absurd. This is deadpan as good as it gets.

Well worth checking out.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie…

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Bunuel’s classic 1972 film has been re-released, and comes to the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge this week. Having recently re-watched it on DVD, I found it as strange and compelling as ever; it doesn’t seem to lose its potency, if anything I find it more intriguing as I get older. Even though on the surface it perhaps looks rather dated, it quickly draws you into its absurd, surreal world.

Dave Calhoun in Time Out only gives the film 3 stars, but says:-

…perhaps it has now slightly lost its special strangeness, but ‘The Discreet Charm’ remains both an amusing satire on polite society and a tricksy exercise in pulling the rug out from under our expectations. The story, which has an increasingly improvisatory feel, sees six bourgeois French folk move through various, aborted attempts to sit down for a meal, including a visit to a private home on the wrong day and a trip on the same night to a restaurant where the deceased patron is lying in state in the back room. It still has a compelling and mischievous energy to it.

Closer to my own assessment is Peter Bradshaw who gives the film 5 stars in The Guardian:-

Luis Buñuel’s surreal masterpiece from 1972, co-written with Jean-Claude Carrière, is stranger and more sensual than ever. The weirdness under the conventions throbs even more insistently and indiscreetly, now that those conventions themselves are historically distant…The surrealist and anthropologist in Buñuel was fascinated by the ritual of the dinner party: without a host, this social event resembles humanity frantically inventing intricate rules for itself in the absence of God… An exotic and brilliant hothouse flower of a film.

There’s an interesting piece by Ryan Gilbey about Jean-Claude Carrie (mentioned above and the subject of a BFI season this month) in The Guardian [no longer available], which gives an insight into how Bunuel and he collaborated on their scripts-

[Carrie] is a master of the cinematic enigma – it was Carrière who advised Michael Haneke to prune some explanatory material from The White Ribbon to intensify that picture’s enigmas. (It’s a nice in-joke that Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy features Carrière as the only character whose words can be taken at face value.)

 

Carrière was 32, and already an Oscar-winner…when he was chosen by Buñuel in 1963 to co-write Diary of a Chambermaid. “I realised I wanted to love his ideas so much that I was in danger of agreeing to everything,” he recalls. Trying to find a way to spruce up a dinner-table conversation scene, Buñuel suggested that the camera might follow a woman’s hand as she reaches below the table to feed a wild boar idling at her feet. “I said: ‘I love it! What an image!’ But Buñuel said: ‘How stupid. Don’t you realise that from this moment, the audience will wonder only what is going to happen with the wild boar? The rest of the scene no longer exists.'” He set you a trap. “I think he did,” Carrière smiles admiringly.

 

The partnership thrived. They would spend several months at a time in a hotel in Toledo, Spain, doing nothing except writing, eating, drinking and telling one another stories.

Out of these sessions came Discreet Charm, a film which Jonathan Rosenbaum describes as:-

Frightening, funny, profound, and mysterious.

David Jenkins in Little White Lies [no longer available], after pointing out what I find the most bizarre fact about the film:-

…that it picked up an Oscar for Best Foreign Film defies all plausibility…

…then goes on to bring out a particular contemporary relevance:-

The notion that this elite social clique must sit down to dinner as the world crumbles around them equates to a fairly blunt attack on privilege and decadence. Central to the glittering ensemble is moustache-twirling Buñuel regular Fernando Rey who plays the wily and corrupt ambassador to the fictitious Latin American Republic of Miranda.

 

His character not only lends the film a ripe political angle, but emphasises how canny an operator this man is when it comes to matters of exploration for personal financial gain: his diplomatic pouch is used for drugs and he keeps a constant vigil on the young terrorist who constantly loiters outside his office. And yet, maintaining something as basic as friendship proves to be an impossiblity, a luxury that has no place in his, or any of these characters’ pampered lives.

 

On paper, this film appears to be much more simple, direct and angry than it actually is. It’s still very harsh and bitterly funny, but there’s a dark, messy humanism at its core that makes it so special, so interesting and so worthy of re-release.

 

As we still chide bankers and businessmen for their uncultured extravagancies, unchecked crookedness and inability to see a world beyond the edges of a gaudy china dinner plate, the film feels more relevant than ever. Their priorities may be despicable, but we must remember that, like everyone in this world, these characters are ultimately trudging down a twilit country road to a tragic, unavoidable oblivion. Outside of Buñuel’s own magnificent oeuvre, there really is nothing like it.

The Secret O’ Life…

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For no reason in particular, a favourite song came to mind this morning – the exquisite James Taylor ballad ‘The Secret O’ Life’.

Sometimes it can be hard to appreciate the here and now…

The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time
Any fool can do it
There ain’t nothing to it
Nobody knows how we got to
The top of the hill
But since we’re on our way down
We might as well enjoy the ride

And…

Try not to try too hard
It’s just a lovely ride

Of course, it’s not such a lovely ride for many…for oh so many…

But even even if we do have something to appreciate, the concentration on the next goal can divert attention from who and what surrounds us now.

Here is my favourite juxtaposition of images in all songwriting:-

Now the thing about time is that time
Isn’t really real
It’s just your point of view
How does it feel for you
Einstein said he could never understand it all
Planets spinning through space
The smile upon your face
Welcome to the human race

The melancholy beauty of Vaughan Williams’ 5th symphony…

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I’m looking forward to this Prom concert on 16 August which features three consecutive Ralph Vaughan Williams symphonies, played by the Scottish Symphony Orchestra. For those more familiar with RVW through the pastoral beauty of The Lark Ascending, the concert may come as a shock, beginning as it does with the explosively aggressive opening statement of the 4th, and ending with the long, enigmatic, uneasily subdued, never resolved finale of the 6th.

Between these two great works sits my favourite RVW symphony, the magnificent 5th. On the surface, this returns to the more familiar RVW ‘pastoral’ territory, but as Andrew Clements says in this short Guardian piece:-

There is a dark undertow to the symphony, which wells up most clearly in the scherzo’s brusque brass punctuations and in the troubled central section of the slow movement. The landscapes that the Fifth explores are by no means as benign as they at first appear, and the finest interpreters of the work do not mistake the surface calm for the key to the whole work.

The BBC Discovering Music page explains the genesis of the work:-

This work was written between 1938 and 1943 and in terms of style, the music is far more romantic as compared to the harsh dissonances prevalent in the fourth symphony. The music written in the pre-war years was often turbulent and restless, almost as a prophecy of the horrors to come. This work was composed during the hostilities and Vaughan Williams felt that people did not need yet more agitation and angst and so with this work we are back in the modal-polyphonic world in which tonality is only clearly established by the last movement.

This tonal ambiguity, as well as the unsettling urgency of some of the passages, and the underlying melancholy of the music, give this symphony a richness of experience which never fails to affect me. Above all, though, it is the moments of sublime luscious beauty, with their overwhelming sense of yearning, which I find so deeply and profoundly moving.