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.

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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!