Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Apollo’s Girl

January 11, 2017

Film

apollo-and-lyre

NY Jewish Film Festival
(January 11 – 24, 2017)

Film Society of Lincoln Center/Jewish Museum
http://www.filmlinc.org/festivals/new-york-jewish-film-festival/#schedule

nyjff-logoNYJFF 2017 has a big palette; color it interesting. Opening day/night’s film is Moon in the 12th House (director Dorit Hakim will be present at both matinee and evening screenings), a look away from more familiar Israel-specific military and settlement issues to a very contemporary and personal tale of two sisters who inhabit very different lives. Their dilemmas resonate far beyond their homeland, mirroring family conflicts familiar throughout the West. Hakim observes and probes deeply into her characters, with her cast working hand in glove to demand 12th-houseour attention (Yuval Scharf and Yaara Pelzig as the sisters are superb). This is an important film for everyone who cares about the basics of how parents determine the paths their children take, the consequences of their choices, and the possibilities of redemption in challenging circumstances. Rooted in tradition, these young Israelis learn how to shape-shift into adult lives in a non-traditional world. Highly recommended.

One of this year’s features is a slate of exceptional revivals, with a big palette all their own. Threepenny Opera (Pabst, 1931), based on the Brecht-Weill musical of 1928, itself a lineal
threepennydescendant of
John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera of 1728, is not to be missed. While Gay’s version offered a charming pastiche score of popular songs, hymns, and opera tunes, it’s Weill’s original score that remains the gold standard. Its powerful bite has not been matched. Of course all three versions have their own backstories, but for a telling account of the mother of all behind-the-scenes movie dramatics, marvel at Tony Rayn’s account https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/614-the-threepenny-opera-doubles-and-duplicities. It will seem like today’s news. While the film as seen now omits many of Weill’s matchless ballads, it offers a glimpse of the phenomenon that was Lotte Lenya (Weill’s wife and muse), and a sense of what made Berlin the international capital of attitude and art between the wars.

valeskaNur zum Spass, nur zum spiel—Kaleidoskop Valeska Gert (Volker Schlőndorff, 1977). A look back at the queen of eccentric dance and stage and film acting, famous in the same Berlin and then a refugee who fled to America and survived by washing dishes and running a series of cabarets staffed by then-very young busboys like Jackson Pollack and Tennessee Williams (among others). A rebellious standout even in Berlin, Gert appears in the Threepenny Opera (in a small role), but deserves Schlőndorff’s attention to reveal her truly revolutionary and original talent as a real ancestor of Punk, way ahead of its time.

THE PRODUCERS (1968) GENE WILDER, KENNETH MARS, ZERO MOSTEL PRDR 002CP MOVIESTORE COLLECTION LTD

And make space for The Producers (Mel Brooks, 1968) on the big screen. Forever fabulous, it’s the only way to immerse yourself in the outsize phenomenon that was Zero Mostel, and his partner in crime Gene Wilder, aided and abetted by Mel Brooks. Treasure those laughs…

For one more look back at Germany between the wars (this time through the eyes of one of its most celebrated exiles), attend Closing Night to see Maria Schrader’s Stefan Zweig: zweigFarewell to Europe. This is a big, beautifully made film, powerful and affective. The screenplay (by Schrader and Jan Schomburg) gives all of Zweig’s complexities their due; his refusal to condemn Germany, his ambivalence about his fame, his need for both solitude and for friends and family in exile. The cast is an Olympian match for the material: Josef Hader (as Zweig); Babara Sukowa and Aenne Schwarz (as Zweig’s first and second wives); and a host of others (playing the many artists and politicians who were integral to Zweig’s circle) create an entirely believable moment when the world was turned upside down and changed forever. Schrader (famous for her role in Aimée & Jaguar) applies her acting smarts to her cast’s talents, and gets a gorgeous film from DP Wolfgang Thaler and editor Hanzjőrg Weißrich. (P.S.:Pay attention to the way the end of the film is shot. Fascinating choices.) Austria’s nominee for Best Foreign Film.

peshmerga

Returning to the present, don’t miss PeshmergaBernard Henri-Lėvy’s documentary about the eternal struggle of the Kurds to prevail against IS, as the war rages through Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey with no end in sight. The Kurds are determined to create Kurdistan for themselves, and we will have to wait until their multi-sided battles have been resolved to see the future. This is war up close and personal, being observed by one of France’s leading writer/philosophers.

kentridgeSince William Kentridge is unquestionably a prolific, articulate, original and utterly charming subject who talks and performs as well as he paints, draws, and makes film, attention must be paid to Andrea Patrieno’s account (Triumphs and Laments) of the artist’s murals (reflecting Rome’s history) painted on the banks of the Tiber, where they will ultimately be washed away by the river’s ebb and flow. Kentridge is a subject hard to get enough of, and time spent in his company is time to be cherished. Grab it while you can (Patrieno will be present for Q & A at both screenings).

Angel Wagenstein: Art is a Weapon (Andrea Simon) This is a truly stunning work on every level, from an accomplished filmmaker with a subject made for her talents. Even in the Festival’s august company (Kentridge, Zweig, Gert), the 94-year-old Wagenstein dominates the screen. Described by a supertitle (“94 years; 52 films; 3 wagensteinrevolutions”) he offers up his life with a heady brew of humor (“I am a Marxist because of the Marx Brothers”), humanity, and survival skills that you will hate to abandon at the film’s end.

Simon benefits from an archival deluge of Wagenstein’s films and documentary footage covering most of the 20th century. But most of all she benefits from Wagenstein himself, an international treasure whose memories and personality are every filmmaker’s dream. I shudder to think of how hard her choices must have been, and mourn the thousands of feet of footage that had to be left behind, even as I celebrate the brilliance of her decisions and the film she has made from them packed into only 84 succulent minutes. Angel Wagenstein has everything, and you will regret it if you can’t find a ticket for its single screening (Sunday, January 22 at 8:30 PM, Walter Reade). Andrea Simon will be there afterwards for a Q & A, likely to be as rich and as interesting as the film itself.

Apollo’s Girl

December 25, 2016

TV/Film

apollo and lyre

A Little Night Music

I’m starting very small–still recovering from the election—so have two tweet-like recommendations: first, Rachel Maddow’s recent interview with Kellyanne Conway on MSNBC broke every glass ceiling ever. It’s not about whose ideas you preferred, but about two women, phenomenally well-matched for debate, creating a paradigm for (relatively) civil combat. On the biggest issues we will be grappling with 24/7 after January 20. Frankly, it was hypnotic!
MSNBC interview

There was a consistent effort to actually listen to each other before attempting decapitation with tightly focused ripostes, and a crackling intelligence that never descended into campaign speak. The last time we saw its like was the early days of the Vidal/Buckley mano a mano, and those two were definitely White Men in a very elegant duel that remained alive for a long time.

Second, La La Land. It was the life-enabling piton for climbing out of the post-election abyss, and while you are likely to be enchanted by it (the 8.9 IMDb readers’ score and 93 Metacritic’s are hard to contest), I can only add  that if babies can now be produced with the DNA of three parents. La La Land is definitely the love child of Russian Ark, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Shall We Dance. Forget your troubles, c’mon get happy and go see it. And then urge Damien Chazelle to run for president. landscape-1468420673-la-la-land-4

Apollo’s Girl

September 8, 2016

FILM

apollo and lyre

 

 

Coming and Going and Still Here…
+ Things to Come (TIFF)

But first, drop everything and plan how to catch ALL of Kryzstof Kieslowski’s decalogoDecalogue between now and October 6 at the IFC Center. This Polish masterpiece was made for TV in 1988 and is seldom shown in its entirety. Based loosely on the ten commandments, it is hardly a schematic theological exercise but, rather a probing adventure into human nature, politics, and art played out in ten installments whose kiescharacters weave in and out of the extended narrative. Absorbing. Brilliant. A cinematic omakase that will leave you remembering much and wanting more.  ifc center
(NB: Its Metacritics have given it a solid 100 across the board!)

The People vs. Fritz Bauer (Dir.: Lars Kraume) Lincoln Plaza Cinema ThePeopleVsFB_RZ_01.inddDo not be misled by the deliberately retro style of Fritz Bauer, set in the post-WWII era of Germany’s long march to respectability via the Nuremberg Trials and attenuated hand-wringing mea culpas by many former Nazis whose leadership in government and industry was deemed essential for the country’s future. Bauer (Burghart Klaussner), a Jew who was released from a concentration camp and exiled to Denmark has returned to Germany to mete out justice to as many of the guilty as he can, while struggling against the opposition of his colleagues and (it is implied) even the United States.

But he is stubborn, aggrieved and persistent; when he finds evidence that Adolf Eichmann is still alive, he’s determined to bring him to trial in Germany. 

The film soars as Bauer, increasingly stonewalled by his own government involves Israel’s Mossad and Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld), a young prosecutor in his division, in his mission. There are death threats. There are complications (Bauer is homosexual; so is Zehrfeld) as their colleagues become enemies and prosecute them to derail the investigation. Israel co-opts the Eichmann trial and Bauer is accused of treason. More than a heady brew, the high-stakes twists and big surprises of the story tighten their grip as they accelerate to the finale. The excellent cast (especially Klaussner and Zehrfeld) delivers all the way. And of course the curtain-raising leads us to ponder what further chapters of post-war Germany still remain backstage to be revealed another day….


fatimaElinor Bunin Munroe Film Center;
 Laemmle Royal Theatre, LA
Fatima  (Phillipe Faucon) is a real honey; one of many entries about Muslims adjusting to (and changing) French culture. In its quiet way, the lives of a divorced mother and her two daughters make a great impact because of the film’s modesty—its whisper is stronger than any shout. While one daughter is a rebellious teenager who turns her back on her first culture, the other struggles to become a doctor. The mother (Soria Zeroual) supports the family with cleaning jobs as she navigates the rigidity of the Muslim community she remains part of, while determined to give her children a future. She keeps a diary (in Arabic) that reveals the keenness of her sensibilities, and studies French to be able to live more fully in her new home. The film’s last image (devoid of any show, any effects) is simplicity itself; yet carries a soaring emotional charge that simply explodes in joy.

Author: The JT Leroy Story (Dir.: Jeff Feuerzeig)
Elinor Bunin Munroe Film  Center/Landmark Cinema

You will start off being beguiled by the Amazon Studios animatedjt-leroy preview and then hop on the roller-coaster that the film sends hurtling down the tracks. This film has everything—a story that you can’t possibly make up; some Very Big Names who play their parts in it; more than a few professionals who are completely convinced that it is all true, true, true; and a tight band of core players who put, and keep, the roller-coaster speedinguntil they don’t. It’s an extended case of not mistaken, but completely forged identity, with a reveal that explains why it happened in the first place. The hero/ine? A not-so-fun-house of an author (with very real talent for putting words on the page) who can’t help hitting the best-seller lists and being signed for a movie deal. It’s very, very complicated. At times exhilarating, more often (as the details begin leaking out) very, very sad. But always intriguing. A documentary? A fiction? You decide…

Things to Come (Dir.: Mia Hansen-Løve) arrives at TIFF trailing thing-to-comeawards from Cannes and Berlin, and likely in line to pick up many more; Love’s  fifth feature film is on solid ground. Her works are markedly different from one another in tone and emphasis, but always created from what she knows; Things to Come is no exception. 

One of its many great pleasures is its wholehearted embrace of the life of thought by a filmmaker who has lived it; another is the appearance of Isabelle Huppert as a thinker (and doer) who thinks, and does, as intuitively as a hummingbird seeking nectar. Never still, Huppert runs through her days almost on tip-toe, navigating her family, her friends, her home and her university, while levitating a character both enormously appealing and enormously deep. She does light and shade and the transitions between brilliantly, seamlessly, in a role that seems to have been written for her, but also huppertcreated by her from moment to moment. It’s an extraordinary performance. At 63—just look at her!— with 131 films to her credit, she is ready for many more. And Hansen-Lǿve (at 35) has barely scratched the surface of her films to come. She has a flawless instinct for the arc of her characters, a love for their complexities, and is unlikely to run out of them anytime soon. Things to Come will open later this year. Watch for it…..

Cooper’s London

July 4, 2016

Politics/Theatre

!cid_A15726B8-792D-4BB3-8E63-1E1A0B6E6E5E@westell

 

 

Shakespeare Lives!
The Brexit/Regrexit Plays

Forget the West End and regional theatre; forget the RSC and National. The UK at the moment is broadcasting the Greatest Show on Earth 18 hours a day, unspooling with real style, gusto and endless twists of plot. It’s called the Brexit Play. It features major and minor politicians (some of whom are becoming stars, and others who were stars ) who look as if they are about to burn out. Some Farron-591646people, like Tim Farron (who runs the Liberal Democrats—all eight of them that made it into Parliament in the last election) is trying to start a contemporary play to compete, which I call: Regrexit. If he succeeds, we will also see the annoyed 48% of the country’s voters (Remain!) trying to reverse the decision of the 52% (Leave!) the EU.

I could write an essay on just how bad it is for the arts, and for entertainment, too, but you can probably figure it out for yourself; the whole issue has itself become the world’s arts and entertainment this summer.

michael and sarah. gove
Recently, TV pundits were comparing
Michael Gove (Conservative MP) to Macbeth, Mrs. Gove to Lady Macbeth (without the laughs), and Boris Johnson (twice Mayor of London) to Duncan. Julius Caesar seems to be playing itself out on TV screens as well, with some people appealing to the mobs to crown their Caesar, and others crying to the Brexit voters: “You blocks, you stones, you worse-than-senseless things. Knew you not Pompey?”

Mind you, we are not entirely certain who’s acting Pompey right now. It sure ain’t Jeremy Corbyn (the Labour Party opposition leader), with his lean shanks corbynand slippered pantaloons, still at this writing refusing to leave the stage though “Exit pursued by bear” has been in his script for days. He is also being likened to King John, who provoked his nobles and eventually signed Magna Carta against his will (are you listening, Jeremy?). Frankly, it’s hard not to feel that Shakespeare is still living at this hour and somehow foresaw it all.

POLITICS Heseltine/BackbenchWe had John of Gaunt of Richard II on TV today in theperson of Baron Heseltine (the Conservative who unseated Margaret Thatcher), pleading for “this England, this royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, this other Eden, demi-Paradise, this fortress built by Nature for her self”, and for its prime and moral position in Europe.

Daily, as if creating scripts for new History Plays, or merely echoing them, we have betrayals, and we have evidence of
theresa mayloyalties; we have great shifts of support
for one would-be political monarch after another, from one moment to the next. And we may just have another female Prime Minister soon, the redoubtable Theresa May (for now, the Conservative Home Secretary), playing, according to her supporters, our very own sane and stable Paulina of The Winter’s Tale.

Of course, the most memorable and powerful speech on behalf of remaining in the EU was made at the 11th hour (and wonderfully!) by the actress Sheila Hancock. I do hope it surfaces on the Internet.

Mingy and stingy old ITV has been blocking her speech for copyright reasons. Now if only she had said her piece on the BBC! (Which, of course, is under threat from the Conservatives, but that is another story from another place.)

Right now the beleagured UK is living through what the Chinese call “interesting times”. No one knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. It’s a political thriller; it’s a political farce; it’s also a soap opera and high drama, all at once. Europe is seriously pissed off with the UK, cameron-hands-2and especially with our PM, David Cameron, who swore over and over that he could win this. “If you are not 100% certain you can risk it, David, do not do it,” they advised. Years ago, thatcher1Margaret Thatcher was pressured into holding a referendum by her Euroskeptics but never would; David Cameron believed he knew better. He was told not to have a Referendum; he went ahead, leading the Remain! Campaign, and he did not win. And so his little Conservative Party squabble cost him his job and his legacy— and is costing the whole of Europe dearly. We may end up not only with the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, but also the withdrawal of Scotland and Ireland from the UK. (Shakespeare was no stranger to bad decisions: Brutus thought Cassius knew how to preserve the Roman republic. Chaos ensued.)

These are similarly parlous and chaotic times, and this is (do not think I am exaggerating) the worst Constitutional Crisis in what feels like forever—some say since our Civil War and Cromwell. demonstrationsThere is also the fear that David Cameron’s ill-considered attempt to bring the UK equivalent of Tea Party Republicans to heel has unleashed xenophobia of a very high order, and the racism that escalates daily as well. Has he put our toes on the first step of the ladder of Fascism? It sounds exaggerated; but people old enough to remember the 1930s are telling me that this is exactly what it felt like when it all began, and that Hitler sounded as plausible and not-so-very-racist as, let us say, Nigel Farage (England’s new Oswald Moseley?), leader of the UK Independence Party.

Farage, who has been working tirelessly for 17 years to bring the UK out of the EU, abruptly resigned from the party on July 4th, ten days after his triumph. Perhaps he is Richard II to someone’s Bolingbroke. Perhaps he and his henchmen are not Hitlersjust little Fascists much diluted. (Mind you, Hitler had plans for genocide and territorial expansion.) I suspect that the problem with Farage and his fellow bigoted Brexiters all along has been that they have no plans at all! farageThey just don’t like immigrants or the EU any more than Henry V liked the French, or the Yorkists liked the Lancastrians with whom they fought the Wars of the Roses. Never mind that this is no reason to leave it, but a reason to reform it; never mind that you are encouraging a country to betray all its friends and neighbours, remove its influence at a crucial time, and diminish its moral standing in the world.

Don’t believe the propaganda. The EU is democratic; the only laws we are living under promulgated by the EU were first debated and voted for in their Parliament (where we have MEPs), then agreed to and adopted by our Parliament. The EU asks only for a fair share of “fees” to belong to their club; the reason the UK was the fifth-largest economy in the world (well, until last week) was precisely because of the growth and development achieved during the past 43 years as the EU’s partner. Basically, as in Julius Caesar, Brexit’s rationale was all a lot of demagoguery and downright lies used to provoke the crowd: “Friends, Romans, countrymen: we come to bury the EU, not to praise it!”eu

There is a mythical £350 million we send to the EU every week that is actually more like £128 million when you consider rebates and so forth. This is the UK’s fee for belonging to the EU club; this is our tax. People who complain about those who will not pay their fair share of taxes in the UK also complain about Britain’s paying its fair share of tax to the EU; they choose to ignore not only the quantifiable benefits but the unquantifiable ones. One example: the UK has a huge lead in and great respect for its scientific research. For every £4 we put into the EU budget, we actually get back £6.5 for projects that also link us to, and are done in co-operation with, other EU countries. And, for the arts, include experimental theatre groups subsidized by the EU; exchanges of artists to work and exhibit their work within EU countries; cross-cultural musical festivals and shows. All that and much, much more is about to go, too.


donald trumpBut why should I bore you with our little troubles when you have an even greater clown to entertain you for months to come in the Presidential race? Perhaps sadly, we have just had our own boris johnsonblonde clown with a comb-over (Boris Johnson) withdraw from the race for Prime Minister. But never fear! He is very ambitious and a talented entertainer. He loves a crowd. You can’t keep such people down. He will probably pop up again in some other role very soon.

lear's foolUnlike like the Fool in King Lear, who ends up dying for telling the truth, and who disappears halfway through the story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apollo’s Girl

June 18, 2016

Film

apollo and lyre

 

Open Roads: Just Gone,
but Not Forgotten…
HRW: Right Here, Right Now

What’s not to love about Open Roads? Always overflowing with joie de vivre, poetry and violence; with the occasional historical film to open roadsrelish, and resonant with the humanity for which the Italians are famous. Of course it can come at a price—heightened decibels―but two of this year’s standouts at the Film Society of Lincoln Center were whispers, far more powerful than any shout.

.Arianna, a narrative feature debut by Carlo Lavagna, was a real jewel, as unexpected as it was tender and perplexing, lofted by an extraordinary actress—Ondina Quadri—whose candor and Ariannasubtlety matched the script. The story of young intersex woman unfolds with considerable full-frontal nudity and sexual exploration. Could it have been exploitative? Certainly. But not in Arianna. What might have been distasteful with another director seems here compassionate and always respectful of the people (and especially the person) whose lives have been constrained by a secret: parents who deeply loved their son and wanted to save him from the cruelty he would suffer if they didn’t act on his behalf. And the son himself, turned surgically into a daughter as a young child before he could understand what he might expect. And most of all, the remarkable Ms. Quadri who remains luminous, mysterious, and entirely appealing throughout the film. Her journey is both heartbreaking and reassuring as she finds the strength to accept herself and whatever future that may lead her to. So far, Lavagna has been nominated twice: for Best New Director, and Best Feature Film; there will be more. Quadri has won two awards at Venice for Best Actress in a Debut Film, and is currently in the forthcoming Il Nido

Banat (Dir.: Adriano Valerio) This, too, is a feature debut–by Valerio, whose handful of shorts include several nominations,banat and a Special Mention win at Cannes. His work as writer and cinematographer before Banat has sharpened his talent for shaping a narrative with images from long shot to closeup, like windows into the characters he has carved into his narrative. It is an unlikely love story, catching fire quickly and sustaining it as the lovers move from southern Italy to a run-down farm in Romania and cope with the displacement. Their relationship is sexual, affectionate and playful in equal measure. Valerio’s talent extends to watching over his cast; they are fully dimensional in the brief scenes that develop their story almost like a storyboard, allowing you to fill in the spaces between the frames. You will, and you will want Ivo (Edoardo Gabbriellini) and Clara (Elena Radonicich) to keep the heat alive long after the credits roll.

Human Rights Watch (https://ff.hrw.org/)


hrwThere were women everywhere throughout HRW, behind the cameras and captured by them; perhaps the most unlikely a Chinese heroine (Ye Haiyan) nicknamed Hooligan Sparrow. Her journey (more properly called an ordeal) traces her evolution from country girl to prostitute to ardent activist in a country where activism is sure to be treated more harshly than sex-for-money—illegal, but pervasive. It began with the news of an elementary school principal who had taken six of his students to a hotel. As we learn, the sentence for child prostitution in China is less than that for rape. Ye Haiyan’s response was to stand with a sign reading “Hey, principal—sleep with me; leave the kids alone.” As the storm swirling around her and first-time filmmaker Nanfu Wang gathered, the government’s Goliath geared up to demolish them. Wang was physically assaulted more than once, and Ye Haiyan was hounded from one town to another. During one attack, she and her belongings were dumped out all over a highwayand left there. Perhaps Hooligan Sparrow is technically rough, but Wang (literally shooting from the hip) was strong enough to capture the fierce emotion and courage that will be sending this Sparrow around the world.

 Sonita (Dir.: Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami) Although technically a documentary, Sonita is a hair’s breadth

(Photo: Stephanie Sidoti)

(Photo: Stephanie Sidoti)

away from a narrative with a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction plot that keeps you on the edge of your seat for most of its 90 minutes. Sonita Alizadeh, with dreams of becoming a rapper, is promised in marriage in her mid-teens. Through sheer determination and the help of the filmmaker, a support organization, and assorted samaritans at home and abroad, Sonita finds her way out of Afghanistan and into a university music program in Utah then, in short order, to the Internet as a viral sensation and recording artist in the fast lane. Turns out she’s as talented as she’s ingenious, and there’s no turning back: the film won both the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary.

Jackson is likely to make you very, very mad and look for a way to get even on jacksonbehalf of April, the heroine of Maisie Crow’s both even-handed and inflammatory portrait of Jackson, Mississippi, where Barbara Beavers (Executive Director of the Center for Pregnancy Choices) and Shannon Brewer (Director of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization) try very hard to help April navigate a hardscrabble life. April has good instincts and a loving heart, and four children, born one year apart. As events unfold, Brewer and Beavers seem to have a common goal—to limit unplanned pregnancies. But Beavers’ solutions are abstinence or adoption; Brewer’s, birth control or (if desired by the client and early enough) abortion. Yes, Crow is an observant and disciplined filmmaker who has done her homework on the issues, but I won’t bet on audiences watching Jackson being able to remain calm for long, especially after seeing how the story plays out. The racial and economic divide may be implicit, but remains alive and well in Jackson.

Growing Up Coy (Dir.: Eric Juhola) will make you think for a long time after it’s over. Initially about a young transgender child who identifies as a girl, it develops into a complex legal battle over her right to use the bathroom of her choice at school, and into thecoy portrait of remarkably open-minded parents who want their child to thrive and are determined to remain supportive of her wishes. But things change: the issues become a magnet for school officials, politicians, lawyers andinevitablythe media. Lines are drawn and the public weighs in. The pressures to remain strong or to back off become an emotional roller coaster for parents and children, changing the balance of their relationships. They know that life in the spotlight, however painful, may lead to the victory that will empower their daughter. In the end, by standing fast and with the aid of their dedicated lawyer, they win. We are left to wonder what their future will bring once the spotlight is turned off, and there are definitely no easy answers to the question.

P.S. Jerusalem (Dir.:Danae Elon) As the daughter of renowned journalist and author Amos Elon, known for jerusalemhis disillusionment over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, Danae Elon has created a search for identity that is as clear-eyed as it is sensitive. Its sequences mirror her move (with her husband and children) from New York to the Israel of her youth, where she hopes to recapture a sense of “home.”

But, using her camera as both recorder and shield, her honesty and her sensibilities draw her into reflections that make her “home” increasingly problematic. While often beautiful to behold, her film captures the overt and the subtle realities of her home as it is now. p.s. jerusalemThis view from inside is ultimately painful, but required viewing for anyone who understands the importance of resolving the conflicts that persist in the powder keg that has replaced the Promised Land.

P.S. Human Rights Watch This was a very, very good year..

 


Apollo’s Girl

April 24, 2016

Film

apollo and lyre

What’s New and Different:
FSLC and MoMA

There was plenty to chew on and savor this year, downloadplenty to think about, and a sense that filmdespite the trail of tears of financing and distributionis alive and well in a number of places. In Iran, for instance, Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari) is a curious and affecting combination of war story, ghost story, and the plight of women in a crumbling society. More effective, and far under the shadowmore unsettling, than a conventional anti-war narrative,
Anvari manages to combine several themes into a cohesive and original political statement for his narrative feature debut. http://www.filmcomment.com/blog/ndnf-interview-babak-anvari/

bodyguardTwo shorts were exceptional, compressing volumes into the cinematic equivalent of a highly distilled brandy: Concerning the Bodygyard (Kasra Farahani, from a story by Donald Barthelme) for which Salman Rushdie provides the film’s narration, and Farahani’s elegant, reductive sensibilities provide the sting.

In The Digger (Ali Cherri), Sultan Khan, the lone caretaker of crumbling grave sites makes his rounds, dedicated to protecting what remains of the desert’s ancient civilizations. The The-Digger-2camera records a vast, quiet emptiness in which Khan’s tiny figure is almost lost, plodding through endless sand dunes under a merciless sun; the brick structures are disintegrating and their graves have been emptied. The film’s silence makes space for the viewer to imagine the story of what once was; what is is imposed by a slow reveal of Sharjah’s enormous oil refineries shimmering in the distance. In the right hands (and Cheri’s are), the truth is shattering.

happy hourAt the other end of the clock, there’s Happy Hour (Ryusûke Hamaguchi). The movie begins with a train carrying four friends to an outing, moving through a tunnel into the light; you know you are going on a ride. But if you expect to be restless at the leisurely pace and length (317 minutes) of Happy Hour, think again. You are much more likely to be surprised by how quickly you’re drawn in at first, then hypnotized by the way Hamaguchi weaves his tale of 30-somethings living and maturing in Kobe. Many of the scenes are shot in real time, with the four women, their relatives and significant others reacting to one another, sharing their adventures and coping with the social pressures of modern Japan. It’s storytelling by accretion, as layers of acutely observed behavior accumulate to pay off over time. You learn as you go, and the more you learn in each scene, the more you understand in the next, or one half-an-hour down the line. Infidelity? Jealousy? Sisterhood? Risky behavior? The weight of the past in the present? They’re all here, and more, to keep you entranced as Hamaguchi’s complicated structure rises on the screen. If the devil is in the details, it is Hamaguchi’s ability to see them, and to use them to reveal the humanity of his flawed but ultimately fascinating women. (The four shared the award for Best Actress at the Locarno Festival.)

Thithi (Raam Reddy) Nothing like the polite Anglo exercises of Merchant/Ivory, or the streamlined homecomings of Mira Nair, and definitely not like the Bollywood of many Indian thithi2
filmmakers now making deep inroads into Western cinema, Thithi is totally immersive, yanking you into the village culture of South India with its unfamiliar sights and sounds. For two hours you are inside a saga that begins with the death of a centenarian (who simply collapses on the street where he spends most of his days), continues through the generational family agendas that emergealways at oddsimmediately after, continues to unfold through an exotic shaggy dog story, and ends with a funeral to end all funerals. There are some choice quotes: “I’ll pass his life through a strainer,” and “This is a place where dogs lay eggs”, and some joyously discordant music. The cast stays in constant motion, traveling barefoot, by moped and by tractor. All in all, it’s quite a trip.

the fits2The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer) After NDNF’s Grand Tour The Fits comes home to Cincinnati for the coming-of-age story of a young Black girl struggling to find out where, and how, she fits in with her friends and family. She helps her older brother out with chores at the gym where he works, sees lots, says little, and misses nothing. She boxes occasionally, and joins a dance drill team preparing for a competition. An epidemic of “fits” runs through the dancers and teachers, unexplained. So the script is occasionally puzzling, sometimes extended with a rich score, or slow-motion for emphasis. But what carries the entire story is the haunting presence of its young star, Royalty Hightower, whose melancholy eyes and quiet presence capture both your imagination and your attention. Watch for her…

evolutionEvolution is an example of what feels like a brand-new sub-genre of science-fiction: an indirect story. An elegant, truly original idea (in this case, a reversal of the reproductive process) Evolution incorporates eerie cinematography and lighting, the mysterious power of the seashore and the sea, a series of clone-like young mothers, and their clone-like young sons. There is a hint of Frankenstein and some curious medical procedures. A mythic sensibility pervades the strange plot which, because it’s so beautifully told and so tantalizingly revealed, draws you into a guessing game that no one fully wins. But the journey is fascinating.

A little bit a documentary of the Italian countryside, a lot a lost and beautifulreference to the eternal traditions of commedia, dell’arte, Lost and Beautiful (Pietro Marcello) mixes things up in cunning ways. It beings with the story of a “real” caretaker who dedicates himself to preserving the ruins of a noble palace. He is loved and respected for his selflessness, but as he lies dying, he convinces the filmmaker to find a Pulcinella to rescue a buffalo calf. Thus begins a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress as Pulcinella and calf make their way to their destiny. The tone is set with the calf’s voiceover statement: “I would have liked to have been born on the moon; nothing could be worse than where I live now…this is my story.” Or: “I’m proud to be a buffalo; in a world without a heart, being a buffalo is an art.” Magical realism prevails; the calf finds a new home and, finally, the castle is beautifully restored for all to see. Dedicated to its real-life caretaker, the film is (like many others in this year’s festival)a quirky and original entry.

Kaili Blues (Gan Bi). Another original marvel, and something kaili bluesof a Chinese shaggy dog story, resonant with texture and imagination. In other words, a non-linear narrative that often drops its clues and references entire sequences away from their payoff. Although set in contemporary China, its characters are shaped by the country’s ancient and recent history, which surfaces in intriguing and often unexpected ways. A doctor sees his brother (a bit of a no-goodnick) who is interested in selling his son, Wei Wei. The doctor wants to adopt Wei Wei, but appears too late. He sets out on an odyssey to find him in the country, full of beautiful mountains and rivers, and odd shabby little towns, and encounters villagers, mysterious women, and finally, a band of archaic people marching to a funeral, playing their instruments, whom he’s been seeking for many years. When he finds Wei Wei at last, he finds a grown man who doesn’t recognize him. But creating a synopsis of Kaili Blues is like trying to capture lightning in a bottle. Its fractured timeline, the density of its references to Chinese culture, the wow factor of its spectacular 40-minute tracking shot and the depth, richness and sharp-eyed skill of its director require multiple viewings.

mountainTwo films from Israel (one co-produced with Denmark) focus on the difficulties of living under the restrictions of Orthodox Judaism, and particularly on the effects of its rigid attitudes toward sex and emotional expression. The first, Mountain (Yaelle Kayam), is a story (based on the Talmud) like no other I’ve seen. Living next to a cemetary on the Mount of Olives with her children and her indifferent husband, Zvia (Shani Klein)is deeply lonely and isolated; her only acquaintance an Arab man who looks after the cemetary, with whom she occasionally chats. At night, she gradually forges a relationship with the prostitutes and pimps who work the area, bringing them food and drink as she looks on. She feels the stirrings of curiosity and more, yet is frozen into the role she must play as Orthodox wife and mother.

tikkunIn Tikkun (Avishai Sivan), the volatile moods and desperation of a Rabbinical student (Aharon Traitel) are evident when he faints at the sight of his own blood after sharpening a pencil. The film’s black-and-white cinematography underscores the growing intensity of its story. There is little dialogue, but what there is leaves no room for ambivalence: the father (given to heavy-handed determinism) tells his anguished son, “God gave us our bodies; you have to worship God through your body.” The son replies, “I hate my body!” For the son in Tikkun and the wife in Mountain, God has no pity, and offers the pain of stifled lives with no respite. Although Tikkun has a streak of mysticism that provides great beauty, it is no match for its sorrow.

Weiner (Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg) Described as “ a hybrid of classic documentary techniques and reality-based dramatic storytelling,” Weiner is, more accurately, a Very Big Deal and a Very Big Story recent enough to be conjured up by many outrageous moments throughout the film, and by an opening quote from Marshall McLuhan, “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he almost never recovers.” For the reference to McLuhan, I leave readers to Google the name in question. But for the film? It’s fast and furious, and often full of double takes, emotions whisked under the rug in front of the camera’s harsh eye, and details increasingly painful to behold. Well-made and clever, of course, weinerbut the unavoidable question looming at the end of the film’s 100 minutes is: why on earth did ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner and his wife Huma Abedin (one of Hillary Clinton’s top aides and her former Deputy Chief of Staff at the State Department) agree to have their overflowing hamper of linen washed in public? Perhaps it seemed to them that it would be useful for their future in politics; perhaps the savvy producers simply talked them into it. But given the couple’s considerable experience and sophistication in the political arena, that seems unlikely. While we are often given more information than we might want, it does not include an answer to the question, nor a happy ending. It is, however, very entertaining, and lures us in with a surfeit of the very techniques that keep us wringing our hands over the tenor of our festering political climate.



Apollo’s Girl

March 11, 2016

Film

apollo and lyre

 

Let’s Meet Again…

Filmmakers are like architects: whatever the time and costs involved, they’re always ahead of the game; cresting the wave of the future, anticipating the next Zeitgeist. And so it is at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. Gone are most of the ruling Gallic rom-coms, the brilliant historical pageants and adaptations of classic plays (though there is a lot of sex…). rendezvous 2016In only three years, this always-provocative festival has become a reflection of France now and in the foreseeable future, its cultural, racial and linguistic issues front and center in 2016.

Well, there are two exceptions: on opening night, The Valley of Love, starring the iconic Gérard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert, filmed in Death Valley (largely in English), reaffirmed the French connection to world cinema that began with the New Wave.

thethreesistersAnd although (strictly speaking) by Chekov, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi has turned The Three Sisters into a gorgeous souffle of a tragicomedy that while quintessentially French, is, somehow, more Russian than Russian in its mercurial shifts and failed trajectories. The cast (from the Comédie Française) is superb in every part. But the décor, the costumes, the shorthand translation carry us to the Russia-that-was and will-never-be-again faster than the speed Chekov imagined in 1900, yet with no less power, and with tender attention to spirit and detail that marry the best of Now and Then. (The opening scene is absolutely Now!)

That said, Rendez-Vous’ focus on the present offers a wide-ranging slate from new and seasoned directors (more than one-third of them women) with original ideas about the human condition.

fatimaFatima (Philippe Faucon) is a real honey; one of many entries about Muslims adjusting to (and changing) French culture. In its quiet way, the lives of a divorced mother and her two daughters make a great impact because of the film’s modestyits whisper is stronger than any shout. While one daughter is a rebellious teenager who turns her back on her first culture, the other struggles to become a doctor. The mother (Soria Zeroual) supports the family with cleaning jobs as she navigates the rigidity of the Muslim community she remains part of, yet determined to give her children a future. She keeps a diary (in Arabic) that reveals the keenness of her sensibilities, and studies French to be able to live more fully in her new home. The film’s last image (devoid of any show, any effects) is simplicity itself; yet carries a soaring emotional charge that simply explodes in joy.

While The Story of Judas (Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche)
judascould be described as an historical film, it’s definitely not an historical pageant, but rather a fresh re-imagining of the Biblical story that could never have been part of Hollywood’s overblown Biblical canon. Like Zaïmeche’s earlier Smugglers’ Songs https://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/2012/03/07/apollos-girls-12/, it reminds us that legends are always based on elements of reality; in this case, Judas’ part in Christ’s death, as well as the roles of Pontius Pilate, Carabas, and others we think we know reduced to their essence in vivid snapshots among the mountains and deserts of Judea. The air shimmers with heat and dust, the clothes are ragged and begrimed. You are left to connect the dots on your own, based on what you see and what you remember. It’s a challenge worth taking, hard to resist, and definitely original.

The Great Game (Nicolas Pariser) is a politicapoupaudl thriller in the tradition of the British The Ghostwriter, but with an even twistier plot and more populous cast starring Melvil Poupaud, who proves once again (as in last year’s Fidelio: Carol’s Journeyhttps://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/2015/03/09/apollos-girl-52/ ) that he has aged remarkably well. The politics here are still being played out in France between the police and a group of idealists trying to live in communal peace; it’s a dark (and accurate) view of limited choices.

Alice Winocour’s Disorder combines the PTSD of a disorderveteran of the war in Afghanistan (Matthias Schoenaerts) with the desperation of a wealthy weapons dealer’s wife (Diane Kruger) and some really terrifying thugs seeking revenge into a fast action movie that had a critics’ audience gasping more than once. Schoenaerts is believable, scary and sympathetic in every scene, and Kruger torn between her sense of entitlement and intense attraction to him (equally believable).

La Tête Haute (Emmanuelle Bercot) reflects a French juvenile justice system reminiscent of the elementary school lunchroom in Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next. The phalanx of judges, therapists, teachers and counselors deployed for a decade in the tete hautultimate salvation of a recidivist punk is in stark contrast to our own tradition: Reflect on our teens unlucky enough to be sentenced to serve time and unlikely to receive either sympathy or support, or to be able to rejoin society as functioning adults. (Just as the students in Moore’s film can look forward to a leisurely gourmet feast every day, while lunch here is fast, brutal, and largely about starch, fat, sugar and salt.) Definitely food for thought…

 

chant d'hiverWinter Song (Otar Iosseliani) As complex as Georgian culture and language, Iosseliani’s brilliant jigsaw puzzle of a film is a real pleasure at every level. His ability to deploy crowds of unforgettable characters defined in seconds like Japanese brush-strokes is equaled by his genius for keeping them moving through brief scenes as they skitter in and out of each other’s lives. His gift for connections is both visual and narrative; his tongue forever in his cheek. Worth seeing twice just to join the game going on in his artful and prodigiously humane imagination.

my kingMy King(Maïwenn) stars Emmanuelle Bercot as a lawyer with a broken leg and a persistent memory for her affair with and marriage to Vincent Cassell. As for Cassell? He’s trouble with a three-day stubble (uh-oh), dancing in the street, sweeping her away on a motorcycle when they first meet, laughing her into bed shortly thereafter. Complications ensue. They love each other, but drive each other crazy for a long time. (One suspects that there may be a great deal of autobiography lurking about in Maïwenn’s script, and a brief survey of its watersheds would heighten that conclusion.)

Dark Inclusion(Arthur Harari) is set against a fascinating and uncommon backdrop: the diamond business in Belgium, where gems mined in Southdark inclusion Africa go to Antwerp to be cut and polished. It has been dominated by close-knit families (many of them Jewish) for generations and remains cool to outsiders. While diamonds are at the center of the plot, it is spun by family ties unraveled and ultimately spun again; blood proves thicker than water. As one trick after another unfolds and alliances shift, the multi-cultural nature of the gem trade now includes Arabs, Indians, Jews, Africans and the Belgians who cut the stones and each others’ profits. What goes on behind the closed doors of offices and workshops leaves you wanting to know more.

Summertime (Catherine Corsini) With its theme of intense love between two womenespecially since one of them is named Caroleit’s hard to avoid comparing Summertime to this season’s Carol, a mainstream feature on the summertimesame topic. Yet Carol, despite its outstanding performances and really stunning production, remained, for me, a tale worthy of respect for its achievements, but always a bit chilly under its high-gloss surface. Summertime, on the other hand, while certainly beautiful to behold, was on fire with emotion and the caprices of real-life women with deep conflicts (for different reasons) over the connection that brings them together. It’s definitely not because of the external differences in their lives when they meet, or that they regret their surrender to one another as often as they are torn by it, but the gritty reality (with its constant shifts and contradictions) that frames their every move into, and away from, the flame. Its evocation of city and countryside in the France of the 1970s is immersive. And both Izia Higelin and Cėcile de France capture your attention and your sympathy full-time.

Dheepan (Jacques Audiard) Ever since seeing Read My Lips, I’ve had a thing about Jacques Audiard. No one does light and dark quite the way he does, shooting and cutting at high speed while always digging deep into his characters. dheepanMore often than not, they are flawed, yet give hints of redemption on closer look. Dheepan shifts the balance in the other direction: its hero (Antonythasan Jesusthasan) rejects the violence of his military service in Sri Lanka and emigrates to France to start over again. He is a man of conscience who works hard, sees everything, says nothing and earns the respect of those who share his life in a grim housing project on the outskirts of Paris. Until he’s forced to take a stand. Then he, and Audiard, deliver the kind of electric finale you’ve been waiting for.

http://www.filmlinc.org/festivals/rendez-vous-with-french-cinema/

Apollo’s Girl

February 28, 2016

Film

apollo and lyre

 

 

Friends From Abroad

As a non-member of the Academy, never have I been more grateful for not having to vote than for this year’s flag-bearer from somewhere else; no category breaks more hearts than the Best Foreign Language Film. Backstage politics and deals aside, each entry has already been a winner at home, selected from strong contenders, to represent the biggest talents its country can muster. So, by the time it’s been shortlisted in Hollywood, it’s notas with so many domestic finalists—so much about who did what to whom, or who owes a favor to old friends. It’s safe to say that 2016 has shortlisted an array of foreign talents from first-timers to veterans strong enough to paralyze any attempt to raise one’s hand. And if you are drawn to character-driven films, this is the category in which to find directors, writers and actors united in a single purpose: to create characters (and lives) which remain lodged in memory for decades.


son of saulOf course there is
Son of Saul, a kind of King of Kings, already crowned with Cannes’ Grand Prix. It is 
harrowing, disturbing, painful to watch. It is also a work of genius. For one who has seen countless Holocaust films, it rises above even the best of them for its sheer intensity. During a press conference at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, director László Nemes and actor Géza Rӧhrig recounted their five-year odyssey of writing, rewriting, replanning and fundraising made even more difficult by the fact that Nemes had not made a feature-length film (let alone one on such a difficult subject) before; that his co-writer (Clara Royer) was a full-time academic at the Sorbonne; and that Rӧhrig (who described himself as a professional—“a professional poet”) had previously appeared only in two episodes of a Hungarian mini-series. That press conference was enthralling, and unforgettable for the breadth and depth of its discourse, as well as for the civilized wit summoned by it subjects as they answered Gavin Smith’s questions. press conference

embrace of serpentNo less intelligent, but in an entirely different style and intent, Embrace of the Serpent (director/writer Ciro Guerra) is an original and thrilling marriage of reality and fantasy played out in two 20th-century time frames, magic realism based on the accounts of two European explorers who pierced the Amazon forests, contemplated the natives who had survived brutal exploitation, and did their best to understand both the ecological and spiritual cultures so at odds with their own. The film is hypnotic, full of mystery, and mostly in black and white, which seems to enhance its purpose. http://variety.com/2015/film/festivals/film-review-the-embrace-of-the-serpent-1201510916/.

mustang_poster_285The sheer energy and courage of the five young women in Mustang capture your heart and your sympathy from the opening scenes at a beach frolic to the arc of their destinies as their family tries to marry them off and control them in the interim. The progressive constraint takes its toll, yet the two youngest and fiercest of the sisters are able to escape bleak lives and create a future with a truly dazzling and intrepid escape. A first-time feature directed and co-written by a woman (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, with co-writer Alice Winocour), Mustang is a soaring tribute to what is possible for those who are determined enough to take chances. The traditions here are definitely worth pushing against.

a warA War: yes, a man’s film that speaks to women as well, by director/writer Tobias Lindholm, whose style is defined by a pared-down aesthetic without one ounce of fat; it’s all about the story and the characters who tell it. Starring Pilou Asbaek as a Danish soldier in Afghanistan, it is a riveting, intense up-to-the-minute account of an unwinnable war, responsibility, and the effect of trauma and confusion on the soldiers and their families; the consequences do not fade with time and distance. Lindholm has many films to his credit, notably A Hijacking and screenplay credit for The Hunt, and seems to have been born to prove that less is always more.

theebTheeb: 

http://www.filmfestivals.com/blog/laura_blum

 

No matter which contender walks off with the prize tonight, all five films offer a command of filmmaking as art and craft. They remain required viewing for everyone who cares about the medium and for what it can accomplish with imagination, inspiration, commitment, and (to use an overused word) vision strong enough to stay the course

Go forth and see them!

Cooper’s London

February 28, 2016

Books

Mel snapshot 19

 

 

The Reader’s Reader

Latest Readings (Clive James),
Yale University Press

Years ago, Clive James was a very entertaining journalist and TV personality in the UK. I’m not sure how far his writings or TV shows penetrated the USA, but in on this side of the pond he was a major, much-loved star. In 2010 he was diagnosed with terminal leukemia. Despite the shock, he decided to fill his time with reading and re-reading. Still entertaining, and in a series of cogent, brief essays, James reports back to us from these experiences and shares his insights with inimitable charm. As ever, he is decidedly witty, at times hilariously funny, and always clear in his understanding and recommendations. His Latest Readings is also a great place to pick up tips for your own reading, reactions and interpretations.

clive james1Along the way, James also takes you with him on the journey of his illness so far. For example:

Among the disadvantages of COPD, which used to be called emphysema, is a susceptibility to chest infections. Despite one’s daily intake of antibiotics, different bacteria keep arriving from all directions, eager to squat. One day I was checking in at the hospital for a routine clinic, and my temperature was deemed to be too high for me to go home. I spent ten days in the pulmonary ward, while the fever turned into pneumonia. … But meanwhile the problem of boredom loomed. I staved it off by re-reading Lord Jim, a copy of which, along with the usual epics about swords and dragons, was on the library cart which a very sweet and obviously fulfilled senior female volunteer was wheeling around the wards. … I remembered it as a boring book. I suppose I had a plan to stave off one kind of boredom with another, as a kind of inoculation. On the strength of this long-delayed second reading, the book struck me as no more exciting than it had once seemed, but as a lot more interesting. I had long known Conrad to be a great writer: on the strength of Under Western Eyes alone, he would have to be ranked high among those English writers – well, Polish writers resident in England – who, dealing with eastern Europe, analyzed the struggle between the imbecility of autocracy and the imbecility of revolution. But on the strength of my earlier memories, I didn’t see Lord Jim as part of that international historical picture. Now, reading a few pages at a time as I lay fitfully on a sweat-soaked sheet while my fever refused to break, I could see that I had been laughably wrong about Conrad’s most famous book for the whole of my reading life. An international historical picture is exactly what it exemplifies.”

Okay, analyse that! Note: the humour; the wry tone; the bits of autobiography; the luring you into thinking seriously about Conrad; the implication of the fun to be had; the irony; the lack of self pity; the straight stating of the facts; the conversational authorial tone. The whole book is at this level; and the whole book is a total delight made poignant by knowing the Clive James has a terminal illness and that he’s sharing some of his intellectual interests with you. His taste is eclectic; his choices of book sometimes surprising (Sir David Fraser’s biography of Alanbrooke? David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be? his taste for reading about American politics?) but he covers a considerable number of classic authors as well.

Like his old TV criticism, the essays feel personal, somewhat demotic, and very direct. The cumulative effect of this book is to make you want to follow Clive James’s reading list and to admire and share his joy of living. His intellect and insights are remarkably appealing.

The book is simply excellent; there isn’t a dud essay in it, not an essay that doesn’t make you want to read the volume he’s talking about for yourself;clive james 2not an essay that isn’t informative as well as enthusiastic. Recently, James commented that he almost had to apologize to his readers for continuing to survive beyond the original expiration date. Well, I can only hope that he survives a lot longer for all the right reasons and also so that he can produce at least ten more sequels! You could do a lot worse than forming a book club to read all the books that he covers in this charming tome.

Cooper’s London

January 17, 2016

Books

Mel snapshot 19Don Carlos’ Dad:
Father of Spain

 Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II.
(Geoffrey Parker, Yale University Press)

Anyone interested in Schiller’s play schiller_fDon verdiCarlos, or in the great Verdi opera based upon it, must be curious about the real historic background to these two major works of art. Anyone interested in the era of the Tudors or Spain’s years of developing an empire, will know of the huge shadow this man cast. There is no shortage of decent biographies of Philip II and also no shortage of his appearances in the biographies of Mary I or Elizabeth I of England, or in books about several of his contemporaries. But this new and parker 2013aextremely scholarly biography by Geoffrey Parker is now my “go-to” book for anyone who wants to know about this troubling, difficult monarch. And, if you weren’t interested in the subject previously, it’s easy to get hooked.

Prize-winning historian Parker has had access to a recent, astonishing archival discovery3,000 documents in the vaults of the Hispanic Society of America in New York City that have mostly not been read since the time of Philip II himself. Many of the documents confirm what is already the widely accepted interpretation of the of this king’s personality and also of his reign; but some require significant adjustments to our understanding of the man and his times. Dealing with Philip’s relationship to his own father, the Emperor Charles V, and ending with this religious king’s supposed ascent into heaven after his death, the book is a very well-written and compelling story.

The Don Carlo story is, of course, only an episode in the tale of Philip II; Carlos’ birth, his upbringing, his erratic behaviour, his arrest and horrifying demise are all thereand are very different from the ways Schiller (and thus Verdi) portrayed them. However, the book manages to examine and reveal Philip’s personality believeably, his likes, his dislikes and his psychological issues; it develops cogently and convincingly and is therefore the perfect place to find out the truth behind the myths and romanticizations. Of course, neither Schiller nor Verdi had access to most of the material that ParkerPhilip_II deals with and were also closer to the gossip and the distortions. Yet perhaps the most exciting thing about Imprudent King for those coming to it from the play and/or opera is that, even if they wildly romanticize the historical details of the man’s life and his relationship with his son, one also comes away from this book convinced that both dramatists instinctively understood the man’ himself.

The authoritarian self-belief, the religious narrowness and bigotry, and the immense loneliness and pain that you find in Verdi’s music and Schiller’s drama are all given greater credence here. Philip micro-managed everything, trusted no one, and wasted too much time on trivia in periods of real crisis when what he really needed was an understanding of the bigger issues and some real breadth and depth of vision. Also, of course, this book gives you the background to the Posa/King Philip friendship and so much more: Charles V’s abdication, the marriage to Mary Tudor, the various wars (including the troubles in the Netherlands), the wooing of Queen Elizabeth I, the terrible religious conflicts of this era which are now often perceived as the protracted and very bloody dawning of modernism; the Imperialism and stretch of Spain’s ambitions; the Armada. All of it is impeccably researched and Parker’s conclusions and understanding are strongly supported. It’s a rich and complex tale that and does require attention to detail. (Note to filmmakers: there is material here for three or four epic films..)

imprudent kingA friend of mine (to whom I gave the book because of his love of Verdi’s opera) complained to me that this wasn’t an easy read. It is meticulous in detailing Philip’s religious attitudes, the background of the period, and the administrative problems of his obsessive control of his empire. And it sets everything in scholarly context. But in the end my friend said it was worth the effort, even though he had previously preferred Alison Weir or Philippa Gregory for learning about the era’s history.

Personally, I felt the scholarship was immensely important in convincing me about the character of this somewhat dour but also sad monarch. There is material here for a long Freudian analysis in addition to the three or four films!

If you want a quick fix on the background of Philip’s life, there are no doubt easier and briefer ways to get it. I would have liked to have more in the book about his zeal for collecting and commissioning art and his use of it for propaganda; and I would have appreciated even more information about the Inquisition. But if you want really to understand the man, his nurture, his nature and the background thinking and conflicts of a time when the intellectual foundations of the Enlightenment were being laid down, this is likely to remain the definitive study for some time to come.

Philip was isolated, tormented and, at times, very imprudent as well as wilfully narrow; this book makes it all clear. It also clarifies the great dramatized scene of Philip’s relationship with the Grand Inquisitor, so powerful in both the play and the opera. I recommend it very highly for anyone willing to take the trouble. And before you heave a sigh of satisfaction at the end, go back and see what Schiller and Verdi made of Philip, and their insights into his soul through their art.


%d bloggers like this: