Screen St Ives and a Very Special Screen 2 Opening Event

dead cat

Dead Cat

In August 2017, community cinema Screen St Ives (SSI) launched ‘Screen 2’ – a new specially curated strand which Amanda Randall and myself are leading on – with a special screening of the British romantic comedy, Dead Cat. The local director of the film and good friend of SSI, Stefan Georgiou, came along to introduce the screening. We had a sell-out show and a very enthusiastic and appreciative audience.

In the film notes to the screening, Stefan said:

Dead Cat, it’s a romantic comedy, I swear! I left the NFTS with no money but an abundance of enthusiasm and ambition to make a feature film. I approached my best friend and co-writer Sam Bern and said we had to make one within the year, didn’t matter how much it cost… and so began the next four years of my life. We wanted to tell a story about relationships and friendships set in an authentic London that we grew up in. We cobbled together a budget of £30k, convinced enough cast and crew to go on a journey with us and off we went.

Looking back on Dead Cat, it’s the proudest film I’ve ever made. It’s not perfect but it was made with a lot of heart, from lots of talented people who gave us their time. It really is incredibly humbling to see so many people come together to tell a story we believed in so much. What’s even more incredible is when people watch it and tell you how it moved them; nothing compares to that.

I set my sights on making a film that would get a cinema release, which we didn’t quite reach. However, audiences who watch the film seem to take it into their hearts and it continues to screen at various places, which I guess means Dead Cat touches people on some level and as a storyteller that’s the greatest satisfaction of them all. I really hope you find something you love in the film and apologies for the swearing, if I could go back I’d take out 50% of it, I promise!

Stefan also recommended 3 films to watch:

1. Letter From an Unknown Woman (dir. Max Ophuls, 1948, USA)
“A heartbreaking and strangely uplifting film, its melodrama is matched perfectly by its meticulous and ever-flamboyant lighting and camera movements.”

2. Rififi (dir. Jules Dassin, 1955, France)
“My favourite noir crime movie, about the characters as much as it is about the crime. Often copied but never bettered.”

3. Her (dir. Spike Jonze, 2013, USA)
“One of the most unexpected, heart-breaking stories about falling in love and loneliness – I wish I’d made it.”

Dead Cat Screening-03 August 2017-016

Mike O’Brien, Stefan Georgiou, Amanda Randall. Photo by Chris Boland

You can read Amanda’s review of Dead Cat on her blog, PenPaperAction!.

 

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Interview: Mornington Lockett to front special Herts Jazz Festival concert in celebration of Bobby Wellins

My interview with Mornington Lockett was originally published in London Jazz News.


 

Mornington Lockett

Mornington Lockett: photo by Melody McLaren

One of the highlights of this year’s Herts Jazz Festival is a concert put together by one of the UK’s most accomplished jazz saxophonists, Mornington Lockett, in celebration of the music of one of his heroes, the late great Scottish saxophonist, Bobby Wellins.

The concert, which closes the 3-day festival on Sunday 15th October, features Mornington with a variety of top British players, including long-time Wellins associates, Clark Tracey, Spike Wells, Art Themen, Andrew Cleyndert, and Mark Edwards, as well as the Purcell School of Music Big Band.

I spoke to Mornington about this unmissable event:

Mike: You studied jazz saxophone with Bobby in the 80s. How did you find him as a teacher, and what were the most important lessons you learnt?

Mornington: When I first heard Bobby live in 1981 he was flying high. He had just landed a Composer in Residence post at York University and his new band with Peter Jacobsen was the hippest thing around. For me it was as if all the light bulbs had been switched on at once in a darkened room. It was all about sound, colour, harmony, swing, but most of all that visceral emotion that pierced you through the heart like a laser. I was desperate to learn how it was all done. Bobby was incredibly generous both with his time, and in sharing his secrets. I used to go and stay at his house in Bognor Regis and the lessons would  basically last a whole day. Bobby even gave me a vintage metal Selmer mouthpiece as a present, to help me get a better sound. I still use some of the things he taught me every day.

Mike: When did you first play professionally with Bobby?

Mornington: I did not play with Bobby properly, I don’t think, until I became involved with the Stan Tracey operation. We played as a quintet a number of times, which was a fantastic experience, and back to school again for me every gig. I will always remember Bobby playing ‘Three Blind Mice’ in a major key over a minor blues and glaring into the crowd, as if to say: “What do you think of that, folks?”. That was Bobby all over, and Stan taught me that too: you make up the music as you go along, not according to anyone else’s rules.

 

Bobby Wellins & Stan Tracey

Bobby Wellins and Stan Tracey: photo by Melody McLaren

Mike: What was special about Bobby’s style of playing?

Mornington: Bobby had a thoroughly original style and approach. Like his great contemporaries Don Weller and Art Themen, Bobby taught himself, as there were no jazz colleges. Bobby worked out all those Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter chords on the piano, his own way. His theoretical concept was completely thought through, from the bottom up. However it was the emotional depth and honesty in Bobby’s sound that set him apart. Very few musicians speak to you like he could. Perhaps the starkest Miles Davis ballads from the late 50s come close but I can’t think of anything else.

Mike: The first half of the special Herts Jazz Festival concert begins with you leading a quintet, together with Art Themen, playing tunes composed by Bobby.

Mornington: Clark Tracey approached me out of the blue to put on this concert, after the emotional Bobby Wellins memorial concert at the 606. It is a huge honour, but also a massive ‘ask’. Bobby was a renaissance master of British music, a Da Vinci, and here I am with my little paint-by-numbers kit! Luckily I have secured the services of the legendary Spike Wells, from the original quartet, one of those few musicians, like Bobby, who can elevate the whole experience onto another plane. Mark Edwards and Andrew Cleyndert will also be joining me, who both have a long association with Bobby, and the great Art Themen will be helping us to recreate the wonderful quintet Bobby had with Don Weller. There is a wealth of amazing music to chose from. Bobby’s daughter Fiona has been kind enough to lend me some original scores, and has suggested a couple of pieces we might include.

Mike: The second half will feature the centrepiece of the concert, Bobby’s composition The Culloden Moor Suite where you will be joined by The Purcell School of Music Big Band.

Mornington: The Culloden Moor suite was written as a sextet, with Lol Coxhill on soprano, and Bryan Spring (joining Spike Wells) as a second drummer, playing Scottish snare drum and a variety of exotic percussion. Pete Jacobsen played piano and Fender Rhodes. The result was incredibly exciting and evocative music, I have never heard anything quite like it in any genre. The modern big band version is very ably orchestrated by Florian Ross, but is rather a modern, airbrushed version of history, where nobody gets hurt. I am hoping to combine both versions of the suite, by sending Spike Wells and Art Themen headlong into the fray, together with the Purcell School Big Band, conducted by Simon Allen. I think we have the chance to do something very special here, hopefully a worthy, certainly a heartfelt tribute to the great Bobby Wellins, a musician and man much loved, revered and missed by us all.


The Herts Jazz Festival takes place on 13-15 October 2017 at the Hawthorne Theatre in Welwyn Garden City. You can see a complete list of who is appearing at the festival on the website: http://www.hertsjazzfestival.co.uk. The special concert in celebration of Bobby Wellins is on Sunday 15 October at 7:45 pm.

Special screening of Abbas Kiarostami’s THE TRAVELLER (1974)

The Traveller - 1

This Bank Holiday Monday, 29th May 2017, we have a real treat in Cambridge. The Arts Picturehouse cinema, in conjunction with ourscreen.com, is presenting a screening of THE TRAVELLER, the debut feature of the great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. The event will take place at 9 pm and tickets are only £5.

Ehsan Khoshbakht, the film critic and curator, will be introducing the film. He says of THE TRAVELLER:

Kiarostami’s first feature film was made for Kanoon (The Centre for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults). It is a suspenseful, witty story of a young boy’s determination to travel from his small town to Tehran to attend a national football match, it combines realism with the economy and precision of a visual artist (the director’s first occupation before turning filmmaker). Featuring brilliant performances by a cast of non-actors, the film has one of the most gripping, unforgettable endings in film history.

In advance of this rare screening, Ehsan kindly agreed to answer some questions about the film and about Kiarostami’s cinema more generally.

Mike O’Brien: What led to Kiarostami making his feature film, The Traveller?

Ehsan Khoshbakht: I guess like any other filmmaker, from his very first short film (made 4 years earlier) he had dreamed of going feature-length. It’s sad that the short films don’t get the same amount of recognition and exposure as the features. And I also guess that he gained the confidence of the institution for which he was making his films (Kanoon), to the extent that they let him make a longer film. Let’s not forget that in between he had made mid-length films, one of which was aptly titled The Experience. So he had gathered that “experience” to embark on creating a more “professional” notion of cinema.

MO’B: Can we see in this early film any of the stylistic and thematic traits that became part of the mature Kiarostami cinema?

EK: Absolutely. It’s almost shocking to see from the very first film he is exactly the Abbas Kiarostami that we know today. All the classic Kiarostami propositions are there from the early 70s, including the journey/odyssey structure, the naturalistic dialogues which are carefully written (and NOT improvised), the real location shooting and the presence of non-actors. You can compare it to Jacques Tati whose early shorts defined his cinematic style and then his first feature, Jour de Fete, was the expansion and extension of those ideas, almost like a longer remake of a short he had made 2 years before Jour, a beautiful film called L’École des facteurs. In that sense, Bread and Alley was Kiarostami’s L’École and out of it The Traveller was born.

MO’B: How was the film received by audiences in pre-revolutionary Iran?

EK: The premiere was at the Tehran Film Festival, which was a prestigious affair and it won a prize there. But after that it probably had a limited release and most likely only in Kanoon centres, which were these beautifully designed art and culture houses for children and young adults. It probably had a wider exposure on TV, both before and after the revolution. I believe it was even shown at the Gijon Children Film Festival in Spain but went completely unnoticed.

MO’B: Did Kiarostami look back favourably in later life on his first feature?

EK: I think he did, even though there were certain things in it which he stopped doing, such as the use of music (the classic and jazz pieces for the last sequence of his films was a different matter), here beautifully composed by Kambiz Roshanravan. The simple fact that up until the late 1980s his films stayed faithful to the cinematic ideas he had explored in The Traveller shows that he must have been satisfied with this stunning debut.

MO’B: This is a very rare screening of The Traveller. A number of Kiarostami’s films are not easily available in the UK. Are there any plans to release these films on Blu-ray or DVD?

EK: Not that I’m aware of. I think it’s quite possible, though, because now there’s lots of interest in his cinema, probably more than ever.

MO’B: Kiarostami passed away last July at the age of 76. What do you think his legacy is to cinema and the arts more generally?

EK: Probably that the greatest pieces of cinema and art (let’s not forget that he was also a photographer, artist and poet) are created from nothing or very small, tiny things. That everything is drama and the smaller the event, the more likely it will resonate with the audience’s personal experiences and emotions. That cinema can be great without massive budgets and an army of technicians at hand. On a more personal note, I think he is the only Iranian filmmaker, with the exception of Sohrab Shahid-Saless, who has managed to fully capture the essence of Iranian life with all its glorious beauty, melancholy, and humour.


You can read Ehsan’s Kiarostami obituary, published by Sight and Sound, here.

When Beckett met Buster and they made Film (updated)

Update: 20 May 2017

Next Monday (22nd) finally sees the release on Blu-ray / DVD of FILM, the collaboration between Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton. In addition, the BFI package comes with a new documentary, NOTFILM.

Pamela Hutchinson extolls the riches of this welcome new release in a Silent London post.

While it is a joy to see Film on film, with the whirring projector providing the only soundtrack, it’s a boon to have this work available digitally too, on DVD and Blu, for the enjoyment of connoisseurs, and no doubt film and theatre students also. Film has been restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and let me tell you, every crease in Keaton’s fabulously craggy face is as deep and sharp as you could wish…

This Film and Notfilm dual-format release from the BFI goes one better than pairing the movie and the documentary. There are outtakes here, including an opening scene thought lost for decades. There’s the haunting British colour remake from 1979, starring Max Wall, interviews, featurettes, photo galleries, and a really very illuminating set of booklet essays by Michael Brooke, Ross Lipman and Vic Pratt (who writes in loving detail about the 1979 version). There’s even the option to download Mihály Vig’s really rather wonderful music from the Notfilm soundtrack.

I especially enjoyed an audio recording of Beckett, cinematographer Boris Kaufman and director Alan Schneider, thrashing out the story…

What a treat!


Original post: 10 March 2012

Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton. At first it sounds like the strangest of collaborations; but quickly begins to feel like the most natural of pairings. In 1964 they made Film, a 20 minute cinematic curiosity.

Tin House recently re-posted a Barney Rosset piece on Film:-

Evergreen Theater were me, Richard Seaver, Fred Jordan (all of us with Grove), and Alan Schneider a seasoned director of Samuel Beckett’s work in North America… We established Evergreen Theater and made up a list of authors we thought would make great film writers.

With Beckett’s Film (a very Beckettian, though confusing, title) we were luckier than with all the other scripts. Samuel Beckett came from Paris to New York for his one and only trip to the United States.

The production staff was a talented one. I prevailed upon an old acquaintance, Sydney Myers, not only a fine director but also a master of film editing, to be our editor. He and Sam quickly became friends. For cinematographer I chose Boris Kauffman, because of his work with Jean Vigo on two feature films, Zero for Conduct and L’Atalante. Though I did not know it then, Kauffman had become a famous cinematographer in this country, for his Oscar-winning work in On the Waterfront and many other big Hollywood films. Even stranger to me was the discovery that Boris’s brother was Dziga Vertov, one of the great filmmakers during the Soviet Union’s creative heyday.

But how was Keaton chosen for the lead?

The first person Beckett wanted for the only major role in Film was the Irish actor Jack McGowran. He was unavailable, as was Charlie Chaplin and also Zero Mostel, Alan’s choice. Finally, Alan suggested Buster Keaton. Sam liked the idea, so Alan flew out to Hollywood to try and sign Buster up. There he found Buster living in extremely modern circumstances. On arrival he had to wait in a separate room while Keaton finished up an imaginary poker game with, among others, the legendary (but long-dead) Hollywood mogul Irving Thalberg. Keaton took the job. During an interview, Beckett told Kevin Brownlow (a Keaton scholar) that “Buster Keaton was inaccessible. He had a poker mind as well as a poker face… He had great endurance, he was very tough, and, yes, reliable. And when you saw that face at the end… Ah. At last.”

And working with Beckett?:-

In his book, Entrances, Alan Schneider discusses working with Beckett: “Sam was incredible. People always assume him to be unyielding, but when the chips are down, on specifics, here as well as in all his stage productions, he is completely understanding, flexible, and pragmatic. Far from blaming anything on the limitations and mistakes of those around him, he blamed his own material and himself.”

In this article Kevin Brownlow decribes Beckett talking about working with Buster:-

I asked if Keaton ever enquired what the Film was about?
Beckett laughed. ‘No. He wasn’t interested.’
‘Did you ever tell him?’
‘I never did, no. I had very little to do with him. He sat in his dressing room, playing cards – patience or something, until he was needed. The only time he came alive was when he described what happened when they were making films in the old days. That was very enjoyable. I remember him saying that they started with a beginning and an end and improvised the rest as they went along. Of course, he tried to suggest gags of his own.’
‘Did you use any of them.’
‘No,’ he laughed. ‘We were depriving him of his trump card – his face.’

What did Buster make of it? In the the same article, James Karen is reported to say:-

‘Buster didn’t understand it. Who understood it? I didn’t understand it I mean, I didn’t find it very great drama, and yet it is an exciting picture to see and a lot of people think very highly of it. Buster did not.’

Whatever the merits of Film (it’s certainly no masterpiece), the image of the cloaked and hatted Buster scuttling along that wall is one that always seems to resonate, though I’m not sure why.


 

I can’t end without including one of the most remarkable clips on Youtube: a short extract of the notoriously camera-shy Beckett being interviewed in his hotel room:-

Film: Further Beyond – A Journey Well Worth Taking

further-beyond

With HELEN and MISTER JOHN, directors Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy proved themselves adept at thoughtful and intelligent fiction features. Mark Kermode waxed lyrical about HELEN in this video review:

It’s one of those little gems that really makes you think cinema can still be exciting and exceptional in ways that are frankly inexplicable.

Their latest film is also exceptional; a wonderfully playful, stimulating, and hard to characterise ‘documentary’  called FURTHER BEYOND. Leslie Felperin’s five star review describes it as:

by turns an essay film in the tradition of Chris Marker (San Soleil) and Patrick Keiller (London), a documentary, and a quirky drama about loss and exile…For those who care about film-making that pushes against what’s possible – and fundable – in an age of cautious, cookie-cutter comic-book franchises and safe-bet awards bait, this is essential viewing.

FURTHER BEYOND is about Ambrose O’Higgins, an 18th-century figure who migrates from Ireland to Chile. Or rather, it is a film about how the biopic of this historical figure might be made. It’s also about the insightful and witty observations, ruminations, and frequent digressions along the way.

David Jenkins, in his Little White Lies review, says:

This brilliant latest feature offers a playful deconstruction of conventional narrative filmmaking, picking up on bad habits and clichés and puncturing through the fourth wall to emphasise the subtle connections between fact and fiction. Further Beyond is a movie biopic that’s been carefully pulled inside-out, interested in posing questions about the ethics of representation and what it means to deliver personal history as objective fact.

I think Donald Clarke, writing in the Irish Times, gets the best analogy when he says:

There is something of Lawrence Stern’s Tristram Shandy about the piece. Just as that 18th-century novel took endless discursions while deconstructing the form, Further Beyond refuses to settle down and be a conventional documentary. [It’s] a labyrinthine journey well worth taking.

 

One of the joys of this film is being immersed in a ‘story’ that is continually re-shaping and re-forming itself, making new connections and discoveries, then looking at itself again and making new discoveries. In a piece written by the directors for Mubi, they say:

The process of making Further Beyond is a million miles away from the process of making narrative fiction. We discovered, or should we say, rediscovered the pleasure of walking and talking, researching, filming, editing, writing and back to walking and talking again as a legitimate way of putting a film together. A reminder that it is not always necessary to start with a script. For us, when making Further Beyond, this freedom of approach meant we could continually change the course of the documentary’s direction based on the actual material we were getting and not what we imagined we might get…

At its core, Further Beyond is about our desire to make a bio pic about a little known but compelling 17th century Irish man, Ambrose O’Higgins—a poor tenant farmer who left Ireland for South America before eventually becoming the Governor General of Chile. We thought that would be enough. However, as we began to make this documentary we quickly felt the facts of his life—the history lesson, so to speak—were only part of what was interesting to us. We also found what he represented equally compelling. And then, during the process of researching the material, we came across old video tape footage of my mother, Helen. Like Ambrose, Helen’s story is also one of migration and travel, which began when she was 11 months old and was put on a ship in New York, unaccompanied, to be sent off to relatives in Ireland. Helen’s story began to compete for our attention but, yet again, what interested us was what she represented. What she embodied. Suddenly—suddenly?—no, gradually, we had two intertwining narratives so that the film became more complex and intriguing and, it has to be said, more unwieldy…

As the film developed it also became more personal to us. More personal in terms of its content but also in how it was being expressed. In fact, we think it’s fair to say it’s the most personal film we’ve ever made. We didn’t set out with this in mind but it just moved in that direction and we felt we had to follow it. This might sound like the film was controlling us and not the other way around. That the film itself could tell us where to go next. What it wanted next. Seems stupid to say this but even as we sit and type these words, we’re not entirely sure that this wasn’t the case. Spooky.


A special screening of the film will take place at the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge on Tuesday 7th February at 18:15, after which I will be hosting a Q&A with Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor.

Don’t miss this great opportunity to see FURTHER BEYOND on the big screen and meet the filmmakers in person.

 

 


My Favourite Films of 2016

I have a love/hate relationship with top film lists.

Of course, their contents are dependent on the films actually seen, contingent on mood and atmosphere when seen, influenced by how others reacted, and much more. Yet, they hold an irresistible fascination, and often provide a useful opportunity to spot films which I need to check out, or some that may be worth another viewing to give them a further chance.

So, for what it might be worth, here’s my list of my favourite films seen in 2016. It’s a snapshot of this moment in time and nothing more. Tomorrow, it will probably be different.

Here it goes….

son-of-saul

New releases in 2016

10/10:

9/10:

8/10:

Limited release / festival release / TV / other

9/10

8/10

Older films which I discovered for the first time

9/10

8/10

 

Bobby

bobby-wellins

Tonight, it feels like the world is nervously holding its breath. As the presidential election votes are being counted, I find I can’t sleep.

A thought has popped into my head – “at least Bobby doesn’t have to worry about all this…”

As well as bringing back the terrible sadness of his sudden passing, just a few weeks ago, to think of Bobby also brings to mind his charm and humour – how he was always ready with a kind word or a witty remark, delivered in that soft Scottish accent. Bobby always made you feel good.

Were I asked to choose my favourite recorded saxophone solo, I would probably not choose something by Hawkins, Webster, Coltrane, Rollins, Coleman, or Brecker, brilliant though all these players are/were, but something by a self-deprecating musician whose magical, unique tone has now been silenced – Bobby Wellins.

As a teenager, I discovered and explored jazz via records borrowed from my local library. One of these – selected initially on the basis of its connection to Dylan Thomas – turned out to be a turning point in my musical education, making a very deep impression on me: Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood. Not only did this record spark my lifelong love affair with Stan’s music, it also brought me under the spell of Bobby Wellin’s enchanting sound. In particular, the haunting, fragile sensitivity of Bobby’s solo on the track Starless and Bible Black 

 

It’s a track which evokes the rainy streets of a London-based film noir, the tenor providing a sad, resigned voice-over which can’t quite hide the sense of wonder at the mysteriousness and magic of these city scenes.

Bobby’s harmonic language, so distinctively and unmistakably his, may have had a natural affinity with the melancholic, but his melodic lines also had the strength, tenderness and romanticism of someone who relished life.

His music was as beautiful, humane, and ambiguous as an Edward Hopper painting.

Bobby, we miss you.

 

Bobby Wellins: 1936-2016