Thursday, February 23, 2017

Film Notes: Dekalog Eight

Dekalog Eight is a short film about lying, or rather the refusal to lie; even when the lie will save lives and hinder the progress of evil. The film is a powerful drama in which Krzysztof Kieślowski seems to question the absoluteness off the biblical commandment, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour", through the setting up a moral situation in which lying would have been the better option.

The action in this film takes place in Poland, in the mid-1980s, but just as in Dekalog Seven; the story pivots around a backstory which is unearthed as the film progresses. An ethics professor at a Polish university engages in fascinating debates with her students, and is visited by a younger academic from America who has translated her works into English. The visitor contributes an ethical dilemma to the class discussion, proposing a dilemma about whether a Polish Catholic family during WWII, should lie and forge a fake baptismal certificate for a Jewish child, to prevent her being taken by the Nazis. In other words, is lying still unethical, if it saves lives and frustrates evil?

(Spoiler alert). As the film develops, we realise that the younger woman was the girl who was taken by the Nazis, but survived the holocaust; and the ethics professor is the Catholic who refused to break this Commandment - prefering to stay ethically pure according to her own code; but failing to impede the evil of others. The professor, haunted by these questions all her life, she is forced to face them again by the younger woman. Of course, the plot is more complicated than that single dilemma, the older woman explains that there were rumours that the family who were to have hidden the child were collaborators with the Gestapo. This means that the pressure to not lie, and allow evil was all the greater; coupled with the fact that cowardice and fear makes assessing true motives precariously difficult, even with ourselves. The film ends with the characters in dangling irresolution, the matter left to us to judge.

The original commandment, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour" originates in the story of the biblical Exodus. Having led the people out into the desert, escaping from Pharoah's tyranny Moses is pictured in chapter 20, receiving the law of God on stone tablets. This was the original Dekalog. I have been reading this ancient story in recent days, and was struck by something in the story, which relates directly to the dilemma faced by the characters in this film. While Moses delivered the 'do not lie' commandment from God, Moses himself was saved from something of a Holocaust, because of a heroic liar. Pharoah had ordered the slaughter of new-born baby Jews, but Egyptian midwives lied to enable them to live. Fascinatingly, the book of Exodus, describes God as blessing those who lied to save life! My younger son (rather astutely) asked if it was different them, because they lived prior to the issuing of the 'do not lie' commandment, than for anyone subsequently. This is a great question, and I think that the answer that Exodus gives is that it is no different then as now. I suspect that if Exodus was wanting to propose a 'before and after' ethical watershed, it might have said that God allowed them to lie because they were ignorant of His ways. Rather than that, however, it seems that God actually rewarded them, for doing something He regarded as good.

Strong performances, and intimate facial close-ups capturing every flicker of emotion make this an emotionally stirring, and deeply involving drama. Each of these 'dekalog' films last an hour, some of them seem to rush by in minutes.

Film Notes: Dekalog Seven

The seventh film in the Dekalog series by Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski, is his response to the biblical commandment "You Shall Not Kill", found amongst the 10 Commandments of the Old Testament. While Dekalog Five and Six, contained powerful messages, Dekalog seven reverts to the pattern found earlier in the series of asking questions around the fringes of what the commandment means in practice. While this film doesn't challenge the commandment directly, it does question what ownership means, where moral and legal 'ownership' clash. The critical line in the entire piece is delivered by the central character, Majka when she says, "Can you steal something that belongs to you?"

The plot of the film is revealed more slowly than the action; in as much as the meaning of the unfolding drama is only drip-fed to the viewer, as the complex back-story of the characters is slowly unveiled. Bit by bit, the action begins to make sense, as the characters turbulent past is brought to bear on the present. In short (spoiler alert!) however, the drama focuses on a fragile young woman Majka, who appears to be kidnapping her little sister Ana, from her parents, who eventually successfully reclaim her. The plot-twist is that the child is not her sister, but her daughter, fathered by a school teacher with whom she had a scandalous affair - all part of the back story. To complicate matters, Majka's mother, Ewa (who was unable to have any further children after Majka), is obsessed with mothering Ana, and excluding Majka. Majka's father is a kind, but weak man, who fails to intervene in the unfolding crisis, cowering before his wife's power.

While this is one of the weaker films in the series, it is certainly a gripping and absorbing hour's viewing; which raises profound questions. While the cast may not have had as much to work with as their colleagues in some of the other films in the series; they turn in some riveting performances. Ana Polony as the Ewa is a strong and domineering force. Maja Barelkowska plays Majka with an amazing delicacy and vulnerability which is rather beautiful in its fragility. The performance of Katarzyna Piwowarczyk as the little child Ania is though quite remarkable. It perhaps suggests that Kieślowski, along with his love of signs, symbolism, and mystery - is also rather adept at directing children, and enabling this one to give an amazingly natural performance.

You shall not steal, might be the starting point. The end point though, seems to be that ownership is up for question - and can sometimes what is established as 'ownership' is more a matter of might than right.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Random Thoughts About Essays and Reviews

This blog has for some time featured more reviews of other people's work; books, films, and music than it has of any original creativity (aside from photography - and these are all responses to beauty rather than initiators of it anyway). I have written a few little essays about various things in these unillustrious pages, but these were of little real consequence. I was recently made to think about the value of reviews however, and to explain my constant reviewing, so this piece is a little justification of the humble review - which will include some laboured cricketing analogies, for which I apologise.

The first reason I review is that I have a bad memory. I read, watch and listen - and gain a few valuable things from each experience, and need somewhere to record them. I am honestly not that worried if anyone reads them or not, I find the discipline of the review makes my mental intake less passive and more critical and analyitical. Writing the key things down also helps me remember the most significant points and helps me recall important links to other material which occuer as I read. I am by nature a prodigious note-taker, and sometimes even the shortest reviews exist on the back of reems of notes on paper or on my PC.

The second reason I review is that I am not a great original thinker. I'm not even, to be honest, even a good second order discoverer of original thinking, or of its distillation and circulation. What I think I can do reasonably well is to sift and recycle things of merit, through the prism of my own view of the world; which as anyone who reads this will know is that of an over-educated, under-employed, husband, Christian, father and sometime writer, based in Scotland.

There is an even more important reason than this though. Writing essays is like golf, but writing reviews is like batting in a test match! (I did warn you about the cricket anaology). In golf, it is a requirement that the ball remains still until struck. Anyone hitting their second shot before their first has come to a complete lie, is in violaton of the rules. Furthermore, if it is so windy that the golf ball will not stay still, but has to be followed across the course, then you should pack your kit away and head straight for the 19th hole (mine's a Bruichladdich, no water, no ice; thanks for asking). Golf is about accurate, and precise hitting of a stationary ball. This is much like the essayist who sits with a piece of original thought, or research, in front of blank screen and delivers their thoughts to the page. It is prepared, meticulous and heavily planned. No-one else need get between the individual and the challenge before them.

The test batsmen, on the other hand, is there not in front of a stationary ball, but up against the moving one. All his skills and preparation are marshalled in the instant, to respond to what he is bowled; be it a short pitched hostile bouncer, a fiendish leg-cutter or an inswinging yorker. So too, the humble reviewer. He has his views and his pen; and his job is to make the best of what he is presented with. I was recently asked to review some secular books for a Christian magazine called Solas. This was a rather joyous prospect, and felt like going in to bat. I have been presented with some easy deliveries to face, some of which were straight down the mythical 'corridor of uncertainty', and one or two which were as hostile as Colin Croft in a bad mood. Marvellous.

Over-extended cricketing anologies aside (and I promise there are no more), it is simply sometimes more interesting to face incoming deliveries, and see what I can make of them; rather than simply write my own thoughts. There is sometimes something more 'three-dimsensional' about my thoughts and world view in interaction with external stimuli, than there is in the contents of my rather average mind alone. The resulting review is the product what has been sent my way; and how I have managed to handle it. It is perhaps why sports such as football and cricket gain greater viewing figures than bowls. It is certainly why I love writing reviews, and will continue to do so.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Film Notes: Hannah Arendt

In 2012, Margarethe von Trotta embarked on a project to make a film about the political theorist Hannah Arendt, specifically focusing on her reporting of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel. The results are a film which, although perhaps not a great work of art - is a superbly entertaining way of opening up some very important issues. Indeed, if the issues which are exposed in the film were important in 2012, they are even more so in the more dangerous and turbulent world of 2017. 

The film opens with the kidnap of a man, who is bundled into a truck and taken away. We soon learn that the operation had been carried out by Mossad, and that the man taken was Adolf Eichmann, a key figure in the planning and execution of the Nazi Holocaust from his Berlin office. Eichmann had escaped from Germany at the end of the war, avoided Nuremburg, and spent several decades in hiding in South America. The Eichmann trial in 1961 was the subject of enormous interest around the world; and a great deal of the popular reporting involved dealing with Eichmann as a demonic hate-twisted figure, a kind of human embodiment of evil.

Hannah Arendt was a political philosopher who, because of Jewish identity, had fled from Hitler in the 30s, only to be imprisoned in France after the Nazi invasion. She had escaped and fled to the USA where in the postwar years she had forged a career as an academic, writing extensively about totalitarianism. Arendt was intrigued by the Eichmann trial, and even more intrigued by the way in which it was being represented in Israel and in the West. Determined to assess the matter for herself, she sought (and got), a commission from The New Yorker magazine to write a series of essays about the trial. The film focuses on Arendt's coverage of the Eichmann trial, her writing about it - and the controversy it caused.

In Arendt's estimation, Eichmann wasn't an individual who was motivated by hatred of The Jewish people, some kind of contorted, satanic figure, quite unlike normal people. Rather, he was a dull man who had surrendered his individual personhood in the face of totalitarianism, and lost the capacity for rational thought or protest. The phrase that Arendt gave to the language was "the banality of evil".

This of course is deeply disturbing, as the instinct of all decent people to the evil of Nazism is to recoil and to reassure our selves that we do not have the capacity for such evil. Eichmann though, while organising train timetables for the deportation of victims, did his dull work without any critical thought, patiently working his index files and filing to ghastly effect. It wasn't that he was stupid though, we see in the film that Eichmann was so systematised that he didn't merely 'follow-orders' under threat, but that he equated the Fuhrer's will with the law itself, and that stood in place of any objective morality. He did not plan, invent or ideologise the Final Solution, he was but a banal cog in monstrous system. 

If evil looks utterly different to us, it is comfortable to live with. If we can portray those who have collaborated with great evil as being totally unlike us, characters with nothing but warped, satanic delusions controlling their poisoned minds - then the problem of evil is externalised and we feel unsullied. The film shows that this view dominated the public narrative about Eichmann. Arendt then caused a storm, because her version of Eichmann looked a lot like us, an unremarkable person who had lost his individuality in the face of totalitarianism, who simply lacked the imagination and will to do anything but comply. The line between good and evil then is not drawn between us and others, (the kind of evil which can be kept out by building walls), but runs through each of us. The kind of evil of which Eichmann indulged, is the kind that affects us when we are too banal to discern what is wrong with the world in which we live - and to make a stand against it.

The film moves on to show that reaction to Arendt was savage, she was scorned and blacklisted by all manner of academics and survivors of the holocaust. She was accused of being a self-hating Jew, an anti-Semite, a Nazi sympathiser, and seen as defending Eichmann; while of course she was nothing of the sort, and actually supported the death sentence which was finally handed down. This furore was further stoked when in one of the Eichmann articles Arendt drew attention to the fact that some Jewish leaders had collaborated with the Nazis, which struck another blow against the view that evil is something which affects the other and not ourselves. The final scenes involve Arendt seeking to defend her thesis, and losing old friends because of her approach.

Along with the action in the courtroom, debates amongst academics, and in editorial boards, the film also charts Arendt's personal life during this period. Barbara Sukowa puts in a strong lead performance as the chain-smoking Arendt, ably supported by a good cast who move between English and German (with subtitles), as the action crosses between continents.

In 2017, with a refugee crisis erupting around us, with great uncertainty in Russia and Ukraine, and surging nationalism across Europe, extraordinary volatility in Washington; and the final collapse of the millenia-old Christian moral system as a basis for western ethics; this film seems to be apposite. Not one of us would contemplate active persecuting hatred of 'the other'; that kind of evil is unthinkable. No, the kind of evil we are capable of is that of sheer banality in the face of oppression; of filling our days with things of no consequence, while the system of which we are a part allows the deaths of uncountable numbers of precious souls, from the womb to the migrant camp. The temptation is to picture evil clothed in swastikas, and jackboots. Eichmann's evil came carrying a clipboard and a card index, and looked disturbingly familiar. In the French film, Au Revoir Les Enfants, the children carted away from the little rural school to die in Auschwitz were organised and processed by a dull, and rather pedantic, fat bureaucrat, who wanted to be something like a bank clerk. He is one of the most frightening figures in film, because he isn't Hannibal Lecter, or Frankenstein, he's utterly banal and sees the whole thing as an administative burden he would rather do without. This is a kind of evil which  too close to us for comfort. No wonder they didn't like Arendt's articles.

This is a fascinating film, which contains huge amounts to think about.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Film Notes: Dekalog 6

The sixth short film in the Dekalog by Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski, is his take on the biblical commandment, "You Shall Not Covet". While some of the earlier films in this series took an exploratory and non-judgemental angle; Dekalog 6 feels like a morality play; a sort of warning about the consuming and damaging nature of covetousness. This follows on from the violent Dekalog 5 which takes a strong moral stance against capital punishment which it portrays as the flip-side of murder. While never being in the remotest sense didactic or 'preachy', Kieślowski definitely shifts from asking questions to stating opinions in these middle episodes of the series. It will be interesting to see if this is a pattern for the remainder of the series - or a little diversion in the middle.

The covetousness in question here, is that of a lustful teenage boy, spying on his attractive neighbour and her various boyfriends and lovers. His initial lust, turns to obsession with her, and a consuming covetousness which controls all his life decisions. Some have suggested that the strongly sexualised storyline indicates that the commandment 'do not commit adultery' is in view here; but this is surely incorrect. None of the characters involved here are married, and so adultery is not the issue - rather the destructive power of desiring what one does not, (and should not) have, is. With some nicely comedic farce, the plot involves the teenager falsely reporting gas leaks, in order to interrupt the lady of his desires when her lovers visit. As with all these films, the setting is the 'Dekalog' flats in Soviet era Poland, which provide a rather bleak canvas on which these human dramas are painted.

Without giving away every detail, it is nothing of a surprise when the story doesn't drift towards a happy ending; but that covetousness causes damage to both the covet-er, and the coveted. Interestingly, the danger which Kieślowski sees covetousness as having is two-fold, in that it both creates a desire which is uncontrollable and reduces the freedom of the person so consumed; but also makes the distant coveted object appear to be so unrealistically perfect that 'having' it in any sense can only be disappointing, unfulfilling - and in this case embarrassing. The story then turns two sharp corners, the first as the coveter is exposed and disillusioned; and then when the coveted person seems to miss the flattery that was contained within covet-er's obsession.

As with so many of these Dekalog films, the directing and acting is very strong; the whole effect being to produce a series of the most atmospheric and absorbing dramas.  The teenager Tomek is well played by Olaf Lubaszenko, as is the woman, Magda by Grażyna Szapołowska. Of course, the Soviet-era is long gone; and it is rather interesting to see that while so much has changed, from cars to architecture - the human condition has not. The same relational complexities, human drives and appetites, lusts and needs alike, remain intact. Of course, the sins in view here are those from a list which itself is thousands of years old, given to the nomadic Israelites, between their flight from Egypt and their conquest of Canaan. Such a different cultural context is perhaps hard to imagine; yet the sins there prohibited are depicted here as being the driving forces of a group of Poles in the Soviet-bloc; which causes us to reflect on how they might be worked out in our own time and place; and indeed within ourselves.

Album Review: Static in the Wires by Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro

Static in the Wires, is the new studio album from slide guitar legend Martin Harley and double bass player Daniel Kimbro. It is a collection of finely crafted songs in which Harley's intricate guitar lines fuse his gritty vocals to Kimbro's booming melodic bass lines, creating something of real beauty. These fine performances of eleven new Harley compositions, are a treat for acoustic, blues and roots fans, which deserves to be widely heard.

Harley has always been at home in the Blues genre, and is probably most recognisable with a slide on a Weissenborn guitar, slung horizontally across his lap. This instrument is the ideal vehicle for Harley's remarkably expressive and emotive playing. The Blues tracks on Static in the Wires, such as One Horse Town, Feet Don't Fail Me Now, Trouble, This Little Bird, Mean Old City (2), are not the cliched endless 12-bar shuffles that fill some albums - but demonstrate a fine array of arrangements and styles. The addition of some rolling bluesy piano songs like One Horse Town, are something of a new departure for Harley and Kimbro, which work very nicely indeed. Feet Don't Fail Me Now starts a little like Somebody on Your Bond, but almost immediately veers into a slide guitar groove which has more than a little of the great Leo Kottke about some of its flourishes. Electric and then acoustic slide solos then complete this sure-fire contender for their new live set. My Lover's Arms, is a slow, bluesy country ballad, that is just brimming with that early Ray Charles feel, but with guitars rather than piano to the fore - and that is high praise indeed. Meanwhile on Trouble, (another one which I want to hear live), the wry blues lament of the lyrics is brought to life by some glorious Hawaiian sounding Weissenborn slide from Harley, and some deep, mournful bowed double-bass from Kimbro, culminating in a magnificent solo from the bass-man. The piano joins in again on This Little Bird, in a jaunty groove not unlike Nicky Hopkins' contributions to Gary Moore's Still Got The Blues sessions.

However there is more to Static in the Wires than Blues. There are also wistful ballads like Postcard from Hamburg, on which intricate guitar picking and neat harmonies relate the longing for home that is the life of the travelling musician. Sweet and Low, is a gentle acoustic ballad which harks back to Harley's Grow Your Own era. Dancing on the Rocks, is a different matter altogether, a gorgeous complexity of engaging lyrics, primed with longing and wistfulness, layered with great harmonies and guitar work which in places has echoes of John Martyn. I Need a Friend follows on in this vein, with intricately picked folky guitar work, over Kimbro's bass lines on a song that wouldn't have been out of place on Harley's Money Don't Matter album. The song Gold, however takes Harley into completely new sonic territory. This massively spaced out song, is luscious in it's dreamy world-weariness. The muffled drums add a dazed, smoky feel to the proceedings, while the electric guitar solo is sparse and beautiful. Wasn't it Miles Davis who commented that it's often as much about what you don't play as what you do? That precisely what this solo does - in a kind of Paul Kossof way, soaring above Gold's hazy backdrop.

Finally the album comes to a close with Mean Old City (Part 2). I'm not sure if part one exists anywhere, but part two is great ending to a splendid album. The hypnotic beat, driven by Kimbro's bass, provides a structure for Harley to let rip on the vocals, "I gotta go where I can be free!", and then improvises gloriously on the Weissenborn in a long, intense, brooding crescendo of a solo, which is captivating. If they don't play this live in their forthcoming tour together, I will be very disappointed!

Harley and Kimbro have gigged together many times, but this is their first album of new songs, recorded in studio conditions. Their only other joint-album, was really a live-in-the-studio set in which they re-worked a list of Harley favourites. It is for me, so far, the release of 2017 - and I'm looking forward to seeing them live on their forthcoming UK tour.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Film Notes: Hiroshima Mon Amour

Hiroshima Mon Amour is, by any stretch of the imagination, a quite remarkable and unforgettable piece of cinema. It is not simply that Alain Resnais made a few departures from cinematographic norms and made a slightly unusual film; but rather that he threw the rule book away and took a huge gamble with making something unique and groundbreaking; which has had its admirers and its imitators, but I suspect not its like.

Resnais apparently went to Hiroshima to make documentary about the nuclear holocaust, and the efforts to rebuild the city, during the 1950s. He felt his documentary failed to capture the essence of the place, and came back instead with a this highly idiosyncratic drama, which he believed would communicate more powerfully, and influence his viewers more profoundly than a documentation of the brute facts.

Hiroshima Mon Amour is a film over which vast quantities of ink have been spilt over the near half-century since it was made. Woven into the narrative of this film are war, peace, suffering, loss, death, love, sex, shame, and home - all of which revolve around a central motif of the nature of memory. Without summarising the whole plot; two lovers lie entwined in a Hiroshima hotel room, in the midst of a passionate affair that last only a few days. He is Japanese, she French, and soon she will return to her normal life in Paris. Their bodies appear at one moment to glow with radioactive dust, which seems to symbolise the fact that within the two, within the moment, a past also lives. Although they both seem happy, confident and deeply sensual; the pasts they bring with them into their
encounter loom larger and larger as the film unwinds. At first the film cuts back and forth between the past and the present, until the woman herself, caught up in the pain of memory seem to mentally slip into the past herself. When is it right to forget the pain of the past? The man has lost his family and his city to nuclear war; for her part, the woman has suffered during the occupation of France, where her German lover was exposed, killed and she was ritually humiliated for her liaison with the enemy. In parallel scenes, the woman is seen having her head shaved - as a punishment in France, with the hair falling from the radiated heads of the women of Hiroshima. There seems to be a loyalty to the losses of the past, which deserves to be clung on to; but yet a pain in doing so which deserves to moved on from. As time sluices back and forth in this film, it seems to say that the past is always present no matter what. Intriguingly we learn that the dreadful story of the French woman's first love and loss with the German outsider and her humiliation and breakdown, has only been revealed to this Japanese illicit lover - another forbidden outsider, with whom she seems to recapture the sense of  'before loss'. This is powerful and surprising viewing.

This is of course an enormously sexy film too. This is all the more the case, because it was made in the 1950s before the pornografication of cinema, when the censorial standards of the day meant that directors had to convey the emotion and passion of lovemaking, rather than the lurid shots of body-parts which pass as 'love scenes' today. I only recently binned a (highly recommended) DVD, because the portrayals of sex in it were all unnecessarily, functional and explicit and rather horrible as a result. Hiroshima Mon Amour gets given merely a (12) certificate, yet is a highly erotically charged movie. I am not even sure if the censors gave the 12 for the sexual content or in respect of the distressing scenes from the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima. Certainly the juxtaposition of the irradiating of human life, and the rather subtle and beautiful portrayal of the act of love which creates it, is a cinematographic device of dizzying intensity.

The whole mesmerising effect of this film is empowered by a poetic script, delivered almost hypnotically by the two main cast members; as they unearth the secrets of each others' pasts. This is overlayed with a mysterious and engrossing sound-track of wonderfully constructed music, which adds a detached, almost surreal atmosphere, to the already rather unusual proceedings. The two shattered people at the centre of this story, stand in the middle of the still shattered city of Hiroshima. The film then can be seen a polemic against war, both conventional and nuclear. But the man and the woman, also stand in the middle of a city which is in the process of being rebuilt, which in a way they are too. The past lives within them, memory is every bit as real as the physical environment and the here and now; but they are rebuilding, they are works in progress.

There are many, any essays about this film online. Click here to read one I especially appreciated.

On a personal note, regular readers might have wondered why this blog has turned into a film review column! This is for a number of reasons: I am writing other materials including book reviews for a print magazine, which are no longer appearing on here so much. Also, my family are away on holiday this week; and I have been unwell. Catching up with some films, has been a good option this week!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Film Notes: Dekalog Five

The fifth instalment of The Dekalog films is direct, brutal and chilling. The commandment used as the inspiration for this film is "thou shall not kill", and it is the horrific killings around which the plot of Dekalog 5 revolves that have earned the collection a "15" certificate in the UK. Certainly there has been nothing I can recall up to this point which has been above a "12", with even the more adult themes being mostly alluded to rather than depicted.

The plot of Dekalog Five centres on the strange anti-social behaviour of a young man, as he wanders the streets aimlessly. While some scenes show hints of his humanity; at other times he seems to gain some grim satisfaction from inconveniencing, humiliating, hurting and finally killing others. The murder he commits is senseless, premeditated, and carried out upon a random victim who has not earned his victim status by being either especially odious or virtuous; but by simply just by being there.

The unfolding action in the city streets around the
Dekalog flats, is interspliced with the career development of an idealistic young lawyer, working his way up the ladder and preparing to defend his first accused person. Inevitably the two stories will collide, and they do, as the young man is caught, convicted and sentenced to death. The idealistic defence lawyer, asks the judge if the prisoner will die because of any errors on his part; but is assured that his speech was the best denunciation of the death penalty that he had heard, but nevertheless, the law stands. The lawyer's desperate attempts to save the life of the young sadistic murderer, come to nothing - and they spend a final half hour together before the sentence is carried out.

The execution is set up to be something similar to the original murder. It is planned, organised, thought- through and all the horrible weapons of death assembled. Like the murder, the execution for all it's planning, is a violent, frantic and ghastly business, in which pleas for mercy are ignored and the frenzy of killing is followed by a noxious silence. Unlike the hangings of Pierepoint (depicted in the movie starring Timothy Spall), in which hanging was conducted with scientific accuracy, speed and with an strange efficiency, this was a matter as horrible as the crime it sought to repay. The credits roll to the sound of the lawyer weeping and yelling, "I abhor it, I abhor it!" The viewer is drawn inevitably to the same conclusion.

It is fascinating that the Polish communist authorities permitted this film to be made and shown on TV, at a time when the Polish State still had the use of Capital Punishment at its disposal. While the rates of executions was a tiny fraction of what it had been under the Stalinist post-war regime, it was still many years before the end of such practices. Dekalog Five was obviously Krzysztof Kieślowski's attempt to hasten its' demise. 

Dekalog Five is horrible, nasty, and powerful as a result. It is noteworthy that Kieślowski's
anti-execution polemic doesn't suggest that the man was innocent; he wasn't. He doesn't suggest that the man was pleasant but unfortunate, he doesn't hint that there was an irregularity in court procedures or that this was a crime committed in self-defence. Krzysztof Kieślowski rather wants the viewer to see that even when a nasty man, commits a nasty crime, without compassion and for no reason; killing him is still not the appropriate response of the state. Asking the viewer to sympathise with the criminal, or to excuse him in some other way, would have detracted from the power of the point he was making. In fact the supressed humanity of the murderer only begins to re-surface in his final minutes.

The filming of Dekalog Five is interesting. The Dekalog Flats feature less than in the other film in the series, in that we see the victim leave the flats, but most of the action takes place away from them at the murder scene, and then in courts and prisons. It is also filmed in a very grimy low light, not in black and white, but an almost ghostly black-and yellow; which casts a mournful shadow over the entire length of the piece. Lengthened and reworked, this episode came to a wider audience as "A Short Film About Killing". It is powerful, intelligent and provocative filmmaking, essential viewing even though the instinct is to want to look away from the screen, again and again.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Film Notes: Under the Bombs

Phillippe Aractingi's 2007 film Under the Bombs (French: Sous les bombes, Arabic: تحت القصف; taht alqasf‎‎), is a deep lament for civilians caught up in the violence of war. The setting is Lebanon in 2006, just as the almost month-long conflict between Israel and Hezbollah is drawing to a close under a UN brokered truce. While the war is raging as the film begins, it ends with French-UN forces arriving and a tense cease-fire generally holding sway. While the respective armies and politicians no doubt count their successes; this film focuses on the people who are left to bury their dead, and rebuild their roads, homes and families.

The film centres on two characters, Zeina and Tony; she has arrived back from Dubai in a desperate attempt to locate her sister and son, who have not been heard of since their town was bombed by the Israeli Air Force. Tony is the one taxi driver at the airport who is so in need of money (and it turns out with his personal dreams in tatters) that he is willing to drive Zeina into dangerous areas in search of her son. He is from 'the South' too, and knows the back-roads and diversionary routes around bombed out bridges, and unexploded ordnance which makes the post-combat zones enduringly dangerous. Nada Abou Farhat as Zeina and Georges Khabbaz as Tony, delivery memorable performances; begining the film as strangers, who in the course of their harrowing road-trip, discover more and more about each other's complex lives. The contrast between the fragile beauty of their humanity and the devastation which surrounds them is haunting.

Under the Bombs is superbly filmed too. According to Aractingi's interview with The Daily Telegraph, a lot it was filmed during the war, or in its immediate aftermath in 2006. The footage of ruined cities, of motorways junctions in fragments, of fleeing refugees, are real scenes of the horror of war. The cameramen took real risks in capturing this remarkable footage, which is on occasion spliced togther with archive news footage from the conflict too.

The obvious question which viewers want to know is which 'side' in the conflict the filmmakers take. Here in the West, people typically come to a film like Under the Bombs, wondering if it will be an anti-Israeli polemic, an apologetic for Hezbollah, or the inverse; a right-wing American funded justification for the Israeli bombing. The film itself turns out to be far more subtle and complex to be simply any of those things. For a start we met sympathetic characters who are Muslim as well as Lebanese Christian. Furthermore, we soon learn that one of the main characters has a brother who fought for the South Lebanses Army, who has fled to Israel, where he lives with his family  - and whose children speak fluent Hebrew. "We are not so different, we and the Jews" says one, "I don't care about politics, I don't care about religion - I just want to find my son" screams Zeina. The demarcation line
highlighted in this film is not racial, or religious; but between people of war, and those who simply want peace. "When the bombs stop, I pick my figs; when they start I hide in the caves" laments a elderly Palastinian man, who seems to speak for all those who simply want to get on with their lives. That doesn't make Under the Bombs a-political, or a piece of naive sentimentality though; we are introduced to friends and family of Tony the taxi-driver; who engage in passionate and informed debate about the many sided conflict. Tellingly though; Zeina interrupts the debate, and she and Tony leave to continue their tragic search. For her part Zeina looks as disgusted with the Israeli planes who kill her sister, as she does with the Hezbollah leaders who politicise the funeral.

Under the Bombs is a remarkable, poignant and unforgettable film which will remain branded in my memory for a very long time. There are simply too many war films which celebrate the heroism of combatants; and too few which expose the truth that the bravest of them all are usually the ordinary people, who face the task of finding some way forward when the bombs stop falling, the funeral processions are gone; and they stand alone in the rubble of all they once knew. Under the Bombs does all this and more; watch it and weep as the sorrow unfolds.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Film Notes: Spotlight

Spotlight is the 2015 film written by Tom McCarty and Josh Singer, about The Boston Globe's investigation into institutional child sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church in Massachusetts. Making a good film about journalism, which says something important, and does so in a compelling way is not easy. The most vivid newspaper stories are still essentially produced by a person sitting typing, with the resulting words being edited and spell-checked meticulously, which is hardly a spectator sport. Spotlight, however manages to make a gripping movie about the investigative and editorial process which led to the publication of a truly landmark piece of journalism.

The Spotlight team produced regular columns for The Globe, covering all manner of subjects, researched in substantial depth, sometimes over long periods of time. The film describes the way in which the team begin to unearth a series of sorry truths about the Catholic Church, the City of Boston and finally themselves. The investigation begins with a piece about a paedophile priest who was brought to trial, Fr John Geoghan. Interviews with victims suggest that he was not an isolated individual, but part of a large group of child-abusers who had infiltrated the church and used it as a means to access children to prey upon. Finally they unearth eighty-seven guilty names from within the Boston Archdiocese alone. Researching and publishing such grim truth turns out to be difficult, because the church was but one element of a Boston elite, who had spent decades ignoring the problem in the hope that it would go away. The city's legal system, is thoroughly implicated in the cover-up which Spotlight unearths, in which errant priests were moved from parish to parish to 'start-again', while pay-offs with gagging-clauses were agreed with any victim who spoke out. Perhaps as we have seen with Savile at the BBC in this country, there were countless people who knew, but did nothing. The final uncomfortable truth the Spotlight team discover is that they too had been sent information years before which they had failed to act upon; and that they too had been drawn into the web of silent cowardice in the face of power. This film concludes with both the abuse, and the institutional cover-up being exposed, leading to a massive shake-up of the church, the city, and the resignation of a Cardinal - and the phones ringing around the clock as countless further victims and survivors come forward.

In his book, Flat Earth News, Nick Davies argues that this is exactly the type of journalism we are fast losing, because dropping sales have meant falling revenues, which have led to slashed budgets, reduced staff and the regression into what he calls mere 'churnalism'. 'Churnalism' is the term he uses to describe dispirited overworked journalists merely hacking press releases into unchecked, unsubstantiated almost worthless copy. The obvious question is, who speaks truth to power today? The 'powers' have obviously changed, the days of churches being part of the cultural hierarchy are long gone; but the new managers of the zeitgeist, and moneyed classes today do not have brave journalistic teams holding them to account. Rather, the UK libel laws, seem rigged in favour of the rich to precisely prevent such scrutiny. If you want a detailed understanding of the way that journalism today is stifled in this way, read the section on 'money' in Nick Cohen's "You Can't Read This Book".

The roles of the core investigative team at Spotlight, are really well performed by Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, and Rachel McAdams. They benefit from good direction and editing, some very well observed set-design and era-appropriate details, and an exceptional script. There are a few especially telling moments in the film. Notable amongst these were some of the interviews with (now adult) victims, which were harrowing to watch. Not in terms of the lurid details, which are mostly referenced indirectly and handled with some care by the filmmakers. Some crime based films take a salacious delight in the horror of the offence, but Spotlight avoids this temptation; in order to more soberly consider the long-term effects of abuse upon its' survivors.

Within the movie the subject of 'spiritual abuse' is also raised but not really defined. There seem to be two aspects to this within the film. The first is that within Catholic theology, the priest is an intermediary between people and God, and so acts apparently with God's authority. Victims spoke of
being unable to fight back or resist as they had inculcated the idea that to resist a priest was to defy God. The second aspect of the spiritual abuse raised, is that abuse by the church robs people of their faith - something precious, defining which gives their lives meaning, which is ripped away from them. Mark Ruffallo and Rachel McAdams characters both indicate that this investigation marks the final end of their remaining Catholicism. Both of these issues are worthy of some comment, because the common theme which unites them is that the church is not God.

I write this review from the perspective of a Christian who believes that God does not mediate his grace to humanity through an institution; but through a person: Jesus Christ. The elevation of a priest into a divine mediatorial role, doesn't just give him the opportunity to abuse (though that is the context in this film), but to smear the good name of God with whatever faults the man or his institution has. We should note that such thinking can all to easily permeate churches who would not ever actually endorse such hierarchical theology and might even include some statement about the 'priesthood of all believers' in their basis of faith.  Presenting a veneer of respectability, hiding a morass of wickedness can cause nothing but long-lasting damage to the cause one is seeking to protect. Conversely truth is always liberating.

Spotlight then is a film which calls us not merely to disgust, anger or a knee-jerk anti-Catholicism. Rather, it demands that we do not hide wrongdoing, but call it out for what it is, both in ourselves and in powerful institutions wherever it occurs. Likewise, it demands that we are rigorous in all our child-protection procedures in churches, schools, youth-clubs, sports-clubs and the like as the damage done to individuals by systematic failures in this regard are appalling. Finally Spotlight calls us to seek a free, open press who can investigate the great, the good and the powerful, without fear.

Spotlight is a thought-provoking and disturbing film which exposes dark truths and does so, quite brilliantly.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Film Notes: Dekalog 4

All ten of Krzysztof Kieślowski's short films in the Dekalog series have certain things in common; they are brooding, bleak, atmospheric dramatic shorts, set in the same monolithic Soviet-era block of flats, and all are inspired to some degree by The Ten Commandments of the Old Testament. To undertake such a task when Poland was torn between the Catholic and Soviet identifies on offer was a bold enough prospectus, but Kieslowski once remarked that these were plays about right and wrong, written in an era when the very authority to define such concepts was up for grabs. This is compelling stuff, and in the hands of filmmaker as thoughtful and subtle as Kieslowski, surely going to have a lot to offer.

In practice the films are not all of the same quality. The ones which work least well are those where viewers and critics are left debating about which of the Commandments the film is said to relate to. Kieslowski didn't name the films, merely numbered them, and is a director who likes to leave things for his audiences to work out for themselves.
There is no doubt at all about which commandment Dekalog 4 draws on for its inspiration however, "honour thy father and mother" is clearly in view here. [spoiler alert]. The nature, importance, and uniqueness of the parent-child relationship is explored; and its limits probed, in this touching piece of drama. The film opens in the (by now familiar looking) 'dekalog' flats. A man and woman (Anka and Michal) share this flat, and we first encounter them they are acting playfully and affectionately, and despite their differing ages the starting assumption is that the beautiful 20-something is the wife/partner of the older man. Then, it becomes apparent that they are not partners in that sense at all; their separate rooms, and the appearance of the woman's boyfriend reveal that, and when she waves Michal off on a trip she says, "Goodbye Dad". 

As the complex narrative unwinds, we discover that the girl's mother died soon after delivering her, leaving Michal to bring the girl up alone. He has never remarried, or formed any long term attachments, despite some brief liaisons. At the time the film is set Anka has grown up, is a drama student for whom sex (with a succession of boyfriends) is part and parcel of her life; despite her father's disapproval. This much is straightforward; however the neat lines dividing the parenting relationship from all other are shattered when Anka finds a letter which reveals that Michal is not her biological father. A conflict ensues, in which Anka angrily accuses of Michal of lying to her for years. More disturbingly however, once the restraints of biological incest are removed; and it becomes clear that an unspoken sexual tension has
been building between them for years - their whole relationship could be metamorphosed from from that of parent/child to that of lovers. Here we have the heart of the question Kieslowski asks his audience: is parenting simply a matter defined by DNA, or is the social role of nurturing, disciplining, and raising equally definitive? The answer supplied by Anka and Michal, is that despite the physical attraction, the parenting relationship is more that the sum of its genes, and that the parenting relationship is to be honoured, preserved and protected. The film ends as they burn the letter which revealed their biological secret, and Anka again calls Michal 'Dad'.

Anka is well played by Adrianna Biedrzyńska, who very patiently allows the audience to explore the complexity of the character, as the reasons for her angst, tension and promiscuity is progressively
revealed. Janusz Gajos is excellent as Michal too, as he resists the obvious temptation to overplay it, and scene steal. Instead he allows the complex character of Michal to be tormented and complex, but in a quiet, stoical manner - so much of a more believable portrayal, whose impact is all the greater for its subtlety.

Dekalog 4 is a surprising, and slightly disturbing film. But one which asks an important question and probes towards a helpful answer.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Film Notes: Dekalog 3

Kryzystof Kieslowski's "Dekalog" series of ten short films, was billed as his creative response to the Ten Commandments. I was attracted to the concept, not simply because of it's biblical inspiration, and because I assumed it would contain some interesting ethical wrestling; but because Kieslowski is such an interesting film maker. His "Three colours trilogy", was not only beautifully shot and wonderfully constructed, but was intriguingly quirky in its' inclusion of subtle signs, references and illusions - few of which were 'in the face' of the viewer, but which constantly intrigued and fascinted.

The Dekalog series are equally subtle, loaded with hints, pictures and subtle references playing between each of the individual films - all of whihc are set in the same tower-block of flats. Intriguingly, it is not always obviosu which commandment is being referenced in each film, although Dekalog 1 is thought to be inspired by the 'have no other gods before me' instruction, and Dekalog 2, by the prohibition on misusing the Lord's name. Dekalog 3 is said to be attached to the command to keep the Sabbath Day - but the narrative of this film makes that far from obvious.

The story concerns the events of Christmas Eve night, and two people searching for a missing man. The two are Janusz and his former mistres Ewa, and they are looking for her husband who she has reported missing. From the outset, the commandment against commiting adultery seems a more obvious starting point for the film. However, the narrative takes a series of unlikely turns (spoiler alert!). For a start the couple do not resume their affair, which has been over for three years; then it turns out that the missing husband is not a missing person but left Ewa years ago - and the whole night they spend together is predicated upon an elaborate series of lies (which call another commandment altogether into play). Finally as they separate at 7AM, and Janusz goes home to his wife, who simply wants to know if he is going to be faithful to her or resume the affair; Ewa reveals what has realy been going on. She was alone on Christmas Eve, and set herself the 'bet' of gaining company until Christmas Morning, or ending her life. 

Dekalog 3 contains many of the strenghts of the first two films, bleak and atmospheric shooting, compelling acting and an engaging storyline. It doesn't match up to the first two in terms of links to the commandments, emotional engagement, or depth of thought however. Of the first three films, this is the weakest by some margin. The alleged links to 'the sabbath' commandment are made by seeing links between Sabbattarian duty, and Janusz's duties as a husband - but this seems contrived. This couple seem to be damaged by the fallout from the violation of the adultery commandment, and caught up in the middle of a web of lies; and these commandments seem to be closer to the mark. 

Unlike the focused impact of Dekalog 1 & 2, the third film seems to drift. The bleak empty streets, the moody filming and Maria Pakulnis' brilliant performance as Ewa, don't quite compensate for the fact that this film just doesn't grab the viewer by the throat like the first two.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Allt Da Ghob

An Evening of Blues with The Simon Kennedy Band & Lins Honeyman & Band

The Souter Theatre in Perth's AK Bell Library played host to a blues extravaganza on Saturday night, courtesy of two local bands, The Simon Kennedy Band, and Lins Honeyman & Band. As Blues Bands go, they couldn't be more different, but between them they put on a fine evening's entertainment.

Lins Honeyman's band got things underway with a set of predominantly acoustic blues  (they have an electric guitar on several songs), featuring a mixture of Blues, Rock n Roll classics, and Honeyman's own compositions. Honeyman is a well known figure in the Perth music scene, having been gigging for many years in the company of an evolving line up of musicians. The current band: Honeyman: vox, guitars, harmonica, mandolin; Andrew McCully: lead guitar, double bass; Les Dalziel: keys, double bass, electric bass; Jon Assheton: drums, percussion, cahon, and Peter Oates: violin; has remained largely unchanged for a while now (Oates being the sole recent addition). Over time they have increasingly gelled as a unit and were on good form on Saturday night, presenting the bluesy-est set list they have performed in a while. Having heard this band range across a whole range of musical styles, I have always rated their blues-based performances as the pick of their output. Whether that is a fair assessment of their work, or simply a reflection of the fact that I love the blues, is hard to objectively judge!

Lins did a solo spot mid-show, which was well-received, and included a Shakespeare-inspired audience-participation singalong. It sounds improbable, but it worked! Other highlights included a bit of Blind Willie Johnson, some Chuck Berry, and a cheeky bit of blues comedy in the form of Keep Talkin', a humorous blues with a lyric that would bring a knowing smile to the likes of Champion Jack Dupree, who was apparently similarly afflicted! Two Feet Mama is another slightly tongue in cheek blues song which Lins wrote when he was quite young, but which has made a recent return to his live performances; alongside an idiosyncratic take on a certain Jungle Book number at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum to the soul searching song 'Sertraline'. The first half finale from Lins and Co, was 'Stranger Blues', which has been part of their set for some years. It has sometimes featured Les Dalziel and Lins himself, on Hammond organ solos, but with Les occupied on double-bass duties, and Lins wielding the harmonica, they were joined onstage by Mirek Hodun from the Simon Kennedy Band, who added a unique flourish to proceedings. Yesterday night, I was at one of my kids school parent's evening. One of the teachers, who had also been at the gig said to me, "I just love Lins' band... they just get better and better!"
As they combined solid musicianship, with a unique and eclectic set-list, delivered with Honeyman's trademark wit and whimsy, in a rootsy acoustic blues package, it's hard to disagree with his assessment.

After the interval, Simon Kennedy led his band onto the stage. Once a four piece band, the new SKB lineup features the eye-wateringly good drummer Brian Macleod and keyboard maestro Mirek Hodun,
who's left hand has replaced the bassist! While the first half featured lots of chat, humour, and acoustic vibes; the SKB were a complete contrast; from the outset they were full of highly charged, very loud, high-energy, funky electric blues. Led by Simon Kennedy's technically stunning, melodic guitar lines, trading licks with Mirek's very funky Hammond, built upon the foundation of Macleod's scintillating grooves; they kicked off with a Freddy King instrumental which set the tone for the second half of the evening brilliantly. Mixing blues covers, like Cannonball, and the El Media Stomp with Kennedy's own writing they showed why they are a real force to be reckoned with in the contemporary blues scene; and why they have gained national radio airplay.

Kennedy's own writing is mostly up-beat, intense, and earnest; but his lyrics are uncommonly thought-provoking and profound. If you are a fan of the the endless cliche's which fill the charts, then Kennedy's lyrics are not for you. His songs, do not feature any of the usual hackneyed phrases which rhyme such banalities as "sitting at home" with "all alone" and "waiting for the phone". Rather, he probes the human condition, and its' many sided complexities - drawing deeply on his Christian faith for answers to the many questions he airs. All this in upbeat driving, funky blues on tracks such as "Show them it's True".

The SKB then delivered a staggering version of the soul song, "The Letter", popularised (though not written by) Joe Cocker. Beginning with an eerie guitar introduction which weaved a chunk of "Stairway" into it, the band later morphed into a blast of 'Smoke On The Water"! In between that they belted out a stonking version of the song itself interspersed with an amazingly entertaining drum solo from Macleod, and a organ-solo, singalong from Hodun.

The night came to a glorious conclusion when all the musicians crowded onto the small stage for a big blues jam, under Kennedy's direction. Everyone who had taken part (with the exception of Jon Assheton - as there were two drummers, but only one kit!) traded solos and brought the evening to a rip roaring conclusion. 

I had the privilege of being asked to take some photos of the gig, which was hugely enjoyable. One day I'll own a professional standard camera which can operate at high ISOs without producing this much 'noise'.