Monday, November 12, 2018

Key Largo (John Huston, 1948)

I remember thinking of this film as an entertaining but minor entry in the tiny Bogart/Bacall canon, rather hamstrung by its evident origins as a stage play. Today it seemed very different indeed, partly because although Bogart and Bacall are both very fine in it, it's barely about their relationship at all, nor are they the most interesting characters, and if it seems less purely entertaining than The Big Sleep it's because much more is at stake here. All the performances (including an excellent rogue's gallery of familiar character actors) are very fine indeed, particularly Edward G. Robinson, who manages to meaningfully refer to his old gangster performances without pastiching himself. The limitation of the setting for most of the film to a single hotel, while a hurricane rages outside, now seems to me very effectively managed, with Karl Freund's cinematography achieving beautiful effects with subtle movements, compositions, and focus pulls, while remaining in the service of the narrative at all times. The ending does rather fall away, descending into satisfying but implausible heroics and the cliché of a villain who can't comprehend that money isn't everything for everybody. But during the body of the film there are some wonderful studies of cowardice and humiliation; A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax's excellent biography of Bogart plausibly makes a case for an allegory of the recent HUAC hearings (John Huston was apparently proud of getting a quotation from FDR past the Breen office). The most notable scene of humiliation is of course Claire Trevor's enforced singing of her old torch song in search of a drink. The scene would bear comparison with the famous audition sequence in Mulholland Dr., expertly dissected by George Toles. The drama trades on the tension between our comprehension that the narrative has set the song up to be a failure and our hope that it will, nevertheless, be a triumph. The failure is edged into very delicately – at the beginning things could go either way, and I don't think it would be easy to pinpoint the exact moment at which we realise it's all coming apart.

(A final aside: at one point one of the thugs responds to a policeman he has just beaten up describing how 'the lights went out again' by dryly announcing 'I'm the electrician', which makes me wonder if this film is a source for Scott Walker's extraordinary song.)

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Leave No Trace (Debra Granik, 2018)

The beginning of this film irritated me. It gave me something of the feeling I also got watching The Revenant: I'm sure all this practical information (largely about how to build a fire in the woods, in this case) will be useful to me if I ever have to survive outdoors for an extended period, but being a pale and pasty indoors type who was never a Boy Scout, should such a thing happen I'd probably just chuck the towel in at the first opportunity. But things picked up after that, and the narrative – concerning a father (Ben Foster) traumatised by military service who is attempting to bring up his daughter off the grid (he has to try to leave no trace because of the traces that war has left on him) – turns out to be, on the microlevel, surprisingly unpredictable. The pair return to "civilisation" far earlier than I was expecting, for example. Performances throughout the film are excellent, in particular Thomasin McKensie as Tom, the young daughter, who can pack a great deal into an expression without exuding the impression that she's "acting". There were small irritations. The father's hair and beard remain neatly trimmed through the entire film, which I'm sure removed some continuity concerns while editing, but I found a distraction. Also, everybody that the pair meet is, in different ways, kind and helpful, and while this allowed the film to sidestep obvious clichés of narrative development and to attempt to put the blame for the father's state on "the system" rather than on individuals, it did clash with the film's desire for realism. (Although maybe not entirely – Richard Brody comments in The New Yorker that the film's narrative is that "white people keep giving a white man houses"; it's not clear quite how self-aware the film is about this.) Across its duration the film had me oscillating – between, for example, finding the cinematography usefully (undistractingly) neutral, and simply finding it unremarkable (there is nothing of the poetry that Kelly Reichardt, in the same neck of the Pacific Northwest woods, found in Old Joy, for example). Or oscillating between admiring the directness of the narrative (the only really in-your-face metaphor involves a beehive, but mostly the film eschews underlining its points in such ways) and wanting more to get my teeth into. The balance that the film strikes is unusual. Ordinarily, films that employ such a distanced narration also strive for richness and ambiguity, but here narrative delicacy is combined with an almost complete lack of ambiguity. (Which is not to say that the film is not subtle, because subtlety and ambiguity are not the same thing.) Possibly, on a second viewing, I would find this a remarkable achievement, but on a first viewing Leave No Trace falls between two stools in an interesting but ultimately frustrating way.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Schlußakkord (Detlef Sierck [Douglas Sirk], 1936)

This, Sirk told Jon Halliday, was his first melodrama (Sirk on Sirk, p. 45), and it certainly has all the ingredients – a complicated kind of love square, a suicide, blackmail, a kidnapping, the trial of an innocent woman – not to mention a judicious dose of the improbable: a woman implores the head of the orphanage to which she has given up her child that she has to be reunited with him, and just at that moment the child's new foster father, a famous conductor called Garvenberg (Willy Birgel), telephones to say that he's looking for a nanny... But while it may not be entirely credible, it's very far from being risible. Performances are big but not without delicacy (though perhaps Lil Dagover of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fame as the conductor's wife is a little broad by modern standards), and the narrative sidesteps the most obvious maneouvres, even going out of its way at times to telegraph them as if to chide us for underestimating it; a Sleeping Beauty motif is introduced only to be deliberately undercut, for example. The music is tremendous, and given generous attention – no contemporary underestimation of the audience's patience here. Transitions and connections are handled with particular imagination: the distance between Germany and New York is emphasised by shots of the Atlantic at the same time as simultaneity is emphasised by having the characters in New York listen to a radio broadcast of the very same performance of Beethoven's Ninth that Garvenberg is conducting. Music is accorded a very great power in the film, and yet one transition (just after that mentioned in the previous sentence) manages to ask whether there is anything in common between lovers of Beethoven and afficionados of a pseudo-scientific astrology. (The visual style likewise manages to move between the efficient and the grotesque with elegance.) Both the connections and differences between this and Sirk's acclaimed American melodramas are fascinating (of course, we should not ignore the fact that the film was made in Germany during the Third Reich; a number of scholars such as Linda Schulte-Sasse and Andrew G. Bonnell have pondered this), and it would be great to see a proper restoration, rather than the VHS rip that I watched.

PS For a detailed look at the film, Linda Schulte-Sasse's 1998 article "Douglas Sirk's Schlußakkord and the Question of Aesthetic Resistance" (The Germanic Review: Literature, Culture, Theory, 73:1, 2-31) is highly recommended. A couple of thoughts I had in reaction to it follow (which will, I'm afraid, make little sense if you haven't seen the film and might also be guilty of a spoiler or two).

Schulte-Sasse is quite right to point out (p. 10) Garvenberg's fantasy of a world with "no women, nothing but Bach, Haydn and Mozart". Charlotte's incomprehension of music and desire for attention from her husband may recall misogynist tropes of the irrational woman enslaved to her desires, but it is not reducible to them; she really does love her husband (though she wants her lover too). Her death might even be seen to express this, in some ways (it certainly brings out the real love in her maid, who had previously become rather a cartoon antagonist for the mother). The conductor's one attempt to compromise (when he attempts to cancel a concert in order to attend to Charlotte) is blocked, and so at the end he achieves a satisfactory "final arrangement" ("Schlußakkord" means either this, or the final chord in a piece of music) having had to direct hardly any agency toward achieving this goal. Thus there is perhaps an irony in the final pan up from the reunited son and mother to the stone angels with their brass trumpets. Do we put the emphasis on the angelic, or on petrification?

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Somewhere in the Night (Joseph L. Manciewicz, 1946)

How had I never heard of this film before? It might not be in the absolute first rank of noirs – it did come out the same year as The Big Sleep which is about as demanding as competition gets – but it's very good indeed. Some splendid cinematography, very fine performances from some faces that were to become familiar, and a suitably convoluted plot. The amnesia theme may seem rather well-trodden, but it's effectively used, especially in a remarkable scene between John Hodiak and Elizabeth Conroy in which, to begin with, its is being recognised that proves profoundly bewildering for the protagonist, but is then followed by a denial ("You don't know me, don't worry – I never saw you before, I lied") which, diegetically, is emotionally motivated but gains in intensity for the audience because we can't at first be entirely sure that we're not meant to take it literally (is she, too, in the pay of the villains?). Certainly at the end things become a little gratuitously twisty, and gathering everybody in the same room is uncomfortably Agatha Christie (although this device is at least undercut somewhat so it doesn't undermine the film the way it does The Blue Dahlia), but on the whole everything is adroitly handled; some details that appear superfluous (the facial bandages at the beginning; a certain character's past as a private eye) become neater in retrospect. There are some very fine versions of some staple locations such as working class housing (with a very funny sequence of dialogue on the doorstep) and a sinister sanatorium. There's also a good level of self-aware humour (comments about detectives' hats and about lighting; the line "Oh, we're having repartee, are we?") that show how quickly the genre – if it is a genre – was able to satirise itself (which is to say pretty much immediately) but that are lightly enough handled not to become too arch or smugly knowing. Well worth tracking down.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Pitfall (Andre de Toth, 1948)

I confess to never even having heard of this until very recently, but it's very fine indeed. A melodrama in film noir clothing, even at this relatively early stage in the genre the film is able to play with the conventions – there's a femme fatale who isn't one, as well as forgotten briefcase that doesn't turn out to be the fatal mistake we assume it will be, and the first violence comes from a source that is only predictable in retrospect. Much as I like Dick Powell in films like Murder, My Sweet he's a more convincing ordinary man who willingly gets himself into trouble (because he thinks it won't really be that much trouble) than he is a Philip Marlowe. Lizabeth Scott, Jane Wyatt and Raymond Burr are all strong and effective. Dramatic photography is used sparingly and non-gratuitously. The "non-femme fatale" is thrown away rather cruelly at the end, but though this saves the middle class marriage, I think one could make a case that the film does at least raise the question of whether it's a price worth paying, and for whom.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Naked Fire Gesture: brief thoughts on Cecil Taylor's dialectical detail (2005)

[The following was originally published on the website dispatx in 2005. 
Many thanks to David Stent, Oliver Luker and Vanessa Oniboni. 
Many thanks also to David Grundy who discovered a copy of it lurking on his computer, when I had long since lost track of it. 
I repost it here now in tribute to Cecil Percival Taylor, March 25, 1929 – April 5, 2018.]

Naked Fire Gesture

Brief Thoughts on Cecil Taylor's Dialectical Detail

'one mineral crystalizing / one mineral into another'
[Cecil Taylor, 'Chinampas', Leo Records CD LR 153. track 3]

The metamorphic dialectics of Cecil Taylor's pianism are pithily expressed by this line from his only piano-free recording, 'Chinampas', a studio session of poetry and percussion recorded in 1987. Like the crystallizing mineral, melodic and rhythmic shapes coalesce and emerge in Taylor's music from disparate material, pause, restate themselves, and somehow in the process become other than they were, propelling the performance along with an unmistakable momentum. Taylor's work has, since his earliest recordings (and increasingly so over the 50 years of his recording career), been based on energy, on its rise and fall (as Ekkehard Jost points out in his 1972 book, 'Free Jazz'). Energy is not a euphemism for loud, fast and undifferentiated ecstatic improvisation. It refers very precisely to the convergence (or crystallization, perhaps?) of dynamic, register, rate and density of activity and more in Taylor's work, a convergence whose rates of change are controlled with the utmost precision by the pianist - with the grace of the dancer or athlete, in fact, who must admit the spontaneous and the unplanned amidst their iron control. They must work with rather than against gravity or fall over, but to engage with this risk is where the beauty lies - as Taylor writes in the utterly extraordinary liner notes to his 1966 recording 'Unit Structures' (Blue Note 84237), 'ballet is the studied manipulation of extremities, a calisthenic procedure away from body center'. It is somehow characteristic of the range of Taylor’s music that metaphors derived from chemistry and from dance seem equally apposite as routes into his work. And yet what has been underemphasised in discussion about Taylor is the importance of the hiatus in his work. In the 'Unit Structures' notes he says 'measurement of sound is its silences'. The pause between phrases is a moment of recovery that is also the moment of preparation, just like the dancer’s pause and gathering of energy before the leap or the static build up in a chemical substance to a rapid change of state. This moment allows one to hear Taylor melodic 'cells' as just that; it is the space in which one moment can be heard to stand in relation to all the others, that allows one to hear the dialectical detail that drives his performances.

The Podewil, Berlin, is dark and silent. It continues to be so for what seems like an age. Even polite Germans begin to get restless – ‘good show’ shouts one, with heavy irony. Then an old man, vibrantly dressed (somewhat like a psychedelic aerobics instructor) hobbles onto the stage. He reaches the piano. It is the 7th November 2003. The first notes begin to sound and in the gloom we see Tony Oxley seated behind, and surprisingly high above, his drums. He seems disconcertingly nonchalant – bored even – in counterpoint to the utter precision of the sounds he is producing. The lights come up very, very slowly, matching the ascent of the music. Cecil now looks 20 rather than 70. Oxley smiles. The music fills the room, a maelstrom made up of pinpoints of sound, vibrantly weaving against and into one another.

'elements geometric and chromatic'
['Chinampas', track 5]

'Unit Structures', from the album of the same name, seem to be Taylor's own term for the musical cells or quanta (take your metaphor from biology or physics as you wish) that form the microstructure of his music. Yet they are not merely little building blocks, they are alchemical formulae that enable him to create his music ('angle of incidence / being matter ignited' - the opening words of 'Chinampas'). They are 'unit', but they are also 'structures', implying the relationship of smaller parts to a larger whole - a hierarchy not predetermined but nonetheless present, just as Taylor usually refers to his bands as the 'Cecil Taylor Unit'. Like the fractal, the unit can contain in embryo, or at least relate metonymically to, all that occurs over the longer scale. ('a substitution of part for the whole' Taylor recites in a fabulously faux-pompous voice on track 7 of 'Chinampas'). Taylor's cells are basically riffs - but sometimes obviously so, such as the thundering Monk/Basie-like bass parts he sometimes tosses in, sometimes less so. They pile on top of one another and after one another, sometimes fulfilling all that the riff is supposed to (rhythmic propulsion, melodic hooks), sometimes being so multiple that they go beyond this into new musical areas, only to be all the more effective when they recur in identifiable form. And they are recognisable, instantly - such as the root - flat five - octave - root - flat five - major seventh figure found in kaleidoscopic but always identifiable form across Taylor's recorded oeuvre. Yet these are much more than merely the licks by which Taylor provides himself with an improvising vocabulary. Rather, they express the dialectic between improvisation and composition in Taylor's work - he is both improviser and composer or perhaps better, not exactly either, when he plays his own music. Brian Morton called him 'an epic singer' in the Wire 242, de-emphasizing 'originality at source while placing a radical new emphasis on the synthesizing skill of the improvisor'. Listen to Taylor's epic encounter with guitarist Derek Bailey from Berlin in 1988, 'Pleistozaen Mit Wasser' (FMP CD 16), and you hear the improviser at work. Taylor plays directly on the piano strings (something very rare now in his own groups), and when he comes to the keyboard uses far fewer of his 'licks' than one might expect, dealing directly with the material musical relationship between himself and Bailey. Then turn to the trio recording 'Celebrated Blazons' (FMP CD 58), also from Berlin and only three years later, and really listen to those 'licks'. Here is the master composer/improviser at work in the medium he himself has built from the ground up. (His bandmembers - bassist William Parker and drummer/percussionist Tony Oxley - inspire, cajole, reinforce and contradict Taylors pianism, but the framework in which they do so is clearly Taylor's alone.) His 'Unit Structures' are much longer than one might imagine - not just a mere couple of notes strung together, but more extended shapes, characterized by pitch, rhythm and texture. Following these shapes, one can begin to predict where Taylor will go next, only to be all the more surprised as he ducks the expected consequent to what we have come to hear as an antecedent. The internal shape of the unit structures, geometric and chromatic, is an integral part of their dialectical character.

The musical whirl continues to fill the Podewil. Time begins to lose meaning. We think we have the measure of the performance – we’ve reached a climax now, things will wind down (at least temporarily). But they continue climbing. Another peak has become visible as Taylor and Oxley mount what we thought must have been the summit. The audience begins to be exhausted, as well as exhilarated. Then it stops – midnight. Oxley announces that they will return for even more! We wait another half hour in a confusion of moods, and then they do return, for fifteen minutes of exquisite music. The energy and intensity is still there but there are other mountains to climb and the melodic strands now gleam in a way they could not in the midst of the tumultuous whirlpool we heard before.

'the apex being equinox'
['Chinampas', track 3]

Cecil Taylor’s music is filled with tiny vibrant details. But what most often strikes listeners unfamiliar with his performances are their scale – the sheer length of his marathon journeys into sound. In fact, through his mastery of detail, Taylor has mastered the long form also. 'Geometry' parallels the 'chromatic'. Taylor's forms are not empty, inert, waiting to be filled with musical material. They are unfolding, dynamic: 'form is possibility', say the notes to 'Unit Structures'. The energies pent up in the small-scale structures are explosively released and channeled in an improvised dance of forces. A single note might be an increase in intensity from the note preceding it, yet it might make up part of a phrase in which the energy of the preceding phrase is somewhat dissipated. These two phrases, however, may be part of a larger - say, ten minute - arc of steadily building intensity. Taylor's forms are spontaneous and both self-similar and self-dissimilar. Experiencing them in the heightened moment of the live performance, one can continually shift ones attention between the different scales at play (as Taylor says, in contrasting voices, on track 2 of 'Chinampas': 'traffic in one scale / in one what? / scale'). There is a characteristic moment in Taylor's performances where the energy suddenly drops. The audience is left (for a second, ten seconds, a minute) unsure whether this drop in energy is an interlude in an otherwise continually intense passage, or a moment of structural pivot, a change in direction on a larger scale. The apex may also be the equinox.

The Royal Festival Hall in London is shadowy and not quite silent. A restless murmur is beginning. ‘Get on with it!’ rings out from the back of the hall. An old man shuffles onto the stage. The ritual is repeating itself. It is the 15th November 2004. The same and yet different in every detail. Cecil begins alone at the piano – we have already heard solos from Tony Oxley and veteran trumpeter Bill Dixon. Sustained and sun-stained notes hang gently in the air. Then shorter, punchier tones begin to tumble into one another, crushed in on themselves, turning round and catching their own tails. Plenty of pauses – hiatuses - short and long as the music spins on a complex gyroscopic fulcrum. Eventually the others join in and we take off again. The same and yet totally different.

Rhythm is life the space of time danced through'
[liner notes to 'Unit Structures']

All Cecil Taylor’s activities militate against making rigid distinctions between music and the rest of life, as the liner notes to 'Unit Structures' clearly express. Practicing one's instrument is not merely the preparation to an act of entertainment (or even art), but an intermingling of body and mind wherein the self may not only express, but define and articulate itself: 'Practice is speech to one's self out of that self metamorphosing life's 'act' a musical subject having become 'which' that has placement in creation language is arrived at. ... There are not separate parts: one body and the mind enclosed.' A related intermingling, communication and spur to action take place when musicians improvise, not alone, but together: 'Joint energy disposed in parts of singular feeding. A recharge; group chain reaction.' Mind and body, past, present and future all find their concrete expression now in action that changes the world: ' ... light rain / about to fall not fallen yet / distances - light differential – between nourished impulse and act ...' Hence politics and music are not disparate activities but both founded in minute details that, through self-defining physical/mental action move outwards into the world and alter it. The title of Taylor's 'Unit Structures' notes expresses this exactly: 'Sound Structure of Subculture Become Major Breath / Naked Fire Gesture'.

We can break this down:
• 'Sound Structure' - minute phrase or form of an entire piece
• 'Subculture' - for Taylor the African-American and gay communities, but we all belong to social units on a smaller scale than the culture at large
• 'Become Major Breath' - oxygen enables life (or, better, lives) to come into being, grow and develop
• 'Naked' - bodily, honest, sensual
• 'Fire Gesture' - passionate, dynamic, and semantic - and hence, remembering the linguistic metaphors in the third sentence of this paragraph, meaningful.

This meaningfulness is enacted in Cecil Taylor’s performances – the abstract collapses into the concrete in the heightened moment. The heading to this section mirrors this process in the way its subjects and metaphors collapse into one another: music (‘rhythm’), space, time, and the action that occupies, fills and defines this space and time all cohere in the moment, but if one tries to pull them apart too far and ‘de-code’ them the semantics collapse. It is only in activity and through time that they cohere; splayed out synchronously like a medical specimen they needs must die. So Cecil must keep playing music, keep performing, re-enacting the ritual – or the adventure into the unknown – by which his and our physicality and intellect can be brought into meaningful, living juxtaposition.