A new year; a new policy. I shall try to write an occasional post about the books (and other things) I’m currently reading. Some of these title will end up getting reviewed, others – probably the majority – won’t, but I can say a little bit about all of them here so they won’t feel left out. (Books have feelings too!)
To the right here are the books in my current reading pile. From the top …
PD James’ detective/Austen mash-up Death Comes to Pemberley. (A Christmas present from my sister and already read by Mrs SC – I have yet to pick it up.)
Kathryn Stockett’s The Help about African American maids working in white households in 60s America. (Another Christmas present – this one’s from my mother. As yet unopened.)
Bill Bryson’s At Home. On loan from my mum. I like Bryson in small portions so I’ve been reading this on and off for a couple of months now … Sometimes he’s very funny. Sometimes he hits the nail squarely on the head. But sometimes (when I happen to know more of the history of whatever he’s writing about than he he does – or than he’s chosen to express), I find him irritating and tiresome. In respect of this book, his focus is on social history using his house in England as the axle on which the book turns, but at some point in every chapter he remembers he has an audience Stateside too and (sometimes awkwardly I feel) wrestles his subject around to include an American slant.
Lawen Mohtadi’s Den dag jag blir fri is next. A biography – the first – of the Swedish Romany activist and children’s author Katarina Taikon. I’m a chapter into this now. An interesting subject and written in easy Swedish … a bit too easy to be honest. It’s very flat.
Below that is Andrea Gillies The White Lie. I read this novel when it first came out about a year ago. I enjoyed it, recommended it to others and even bought an extra copy to give to my sister (who also liked it). I fully intended to write a review of it for Amazon … but I never got around to doing so. Another New Year Resolution: live up to your promises!
The last three are thinner than the others, but still packed with enjoyment. Sara Granér’s All I Want for Christmas is planekonomi is a graphic debate book, a scream of protest against the triumphalism of the market economy in cartoon form. For dipping into.
Below that is the new catalogue of the Gothenburg International Film Festival – starting in 10 days – which I am feverishly reading and flipping through back and forth as I try to narrow down my choice of films to see to something manageable timewise and moneywise.
And below that you can just see a copy of the latest edition of Forskning och Framsteg a magazine of popular science, Sweden’s equivalent to New Scientist. There’s an essay on the Black Death (Digerdöden) I’m looking forward to reading.
And one more title, Hamlet made Simple and Other Essays – see left – which arrived by post the day after I took the main photo. This is a book of essays by a visitor to these pages no less. David Gontar is currently a Professor of English and Philosophy at the Inner Mongolia University of China and this book (with the exception of the title essay) was conceived and written not far from Xanadu.
went to see Prometheus yesterday evening. It was … hmm … ‘OK’ I suppose is the best I can do. There were definitely things to like about it. The acting was good. Especially from Noomi Rapace as Elizabeth Shaw the archaeologist and Michael Fassbender as David the Android, though I liked Charlize Theron’s character too. But, but, but …
I still don’t think the much hyped ’3D’ imaging is very good. It does not seem three dimensional to me. More like several flat planes set one behind the other. There is an illusion of depth, but it works best in what I take to be computer animated landscapes where the camera can swoop and fly. In the live action scenes I found – at best – it added nothing to the experience of the film. At worst (but to be fair there were few ‘worst’ moments) it distracted from the drama.
Setting that aside, one other aspect of the FX really irritated me. Regardless of how good the technology is in some places, isn’t it remarkable that Hollywood still can’t create a convincingly old person? Poor Guy Pearce (Peter Weyland) who must have spent hours getting slathered in latex every day he was in front of the camera. To what purpose? He looked like a man slathered in latex. Why Ridley Scott could not have found an elderly actor to play the part I do not understand. I kept expecting a transformation scene, or a flashback, in which the latex would vanish and the point of using an actor in his forties would become clear. But no.
Generally I found the story disappointing. Thousands of years ago – at least 35 thousand years ago according to the film’s opening live-action scenes – the human race was created by a race of giants. For sake of argument we’ll call them Titans. Then for unknown reasons, the Titans took it into their heads to wipe us out again. They developed some sort of biological weapon, but lost control of it. This happened about two thousand years ago. (Am I alone in seeing some sort of connection with the founding of Christianity?)
The Titans lost control of their weapon and it wiped them out but not before they had built a fleet of spaceships and loaded them with deadly canisters of bio-gunk. The bio-gunk is still alive and deadly, as the crew of the Prometheus then find out. When the gunk infects a person it seems to go through a series of metamorphoses before growing into the Alien we know and love.
Here’s the question at the core of the film: if the Titan’s made us in their image and are, so to speak, our creator-gods, then who created them?
The puzzle is presented twice. First through Elizabeth Shaw’s equivocating Christian faith. (Exactly why is she so attached to that cross she wears? Is it really only nostalgia for her missionary father?) The second time is by way of David the Android, who lives and watches over his own creator-gods.
Perhaps this is a philosophical question that it is worth devoting a whole film to, but let’s not pretend it hasn’t been done before. And if Ridley Scott does think this is a profound philosophical conundrum, why tackle it so superficially?
Because the film is superficial. It is very obvious that it is being made for crass commercial reasons. There are many nods in the direction of the original Alien films (to reel in the punters who liked them) and many loose threads and unanswered questions (to open up the options for sequels). But set the film next to Scott’s gritty, sweaty and truely frightening original Alien and the sheer poverty of this new film is very apparent. Set it next to (for example) JJ Abram’s re-envisioned Star Trek film and the cack-handedness of Prometheus as a vehicle for kick-starting a failing franchise is also very obvvious.
No. For me Prometheus just confirms that Scott is losing his touch.
The official site is here.
The IMDB site (where a version of this review also appears) is here.
big part of the fun of the Gothenburg International Film Festival is getting to see films you would probably never otherwise see. Sometimes you find yourself choosing a film to see simply on the basis of its title, sometimes because the one you wanted to see is sold out, sometimes because it is from a part of the world that you are interested in but which seldom produces films. Africa in my case – I always try to see Festival films from sub-Saharan Africa.
Another part of the fun is logistical – the constant uncertainty of whether you’re going to get in time to the place where the film is being shown. Over the whole Festival I think there were at least three major delays on the No. 6 tram line, the one the Festival and Gothenburg Public Transport bill as the “Festival Tram”.
On the morning of 1 February I found myself on my way to the Haga Cinema on Linnégatan to see Grey Matter, a film from Rwanda. As there was a backup of trams from my part of Gothenburg – some sort of breakdown somewhere – the tram was very crowded: full of teens late for school and having a riot. Then when the tram stopped at Nordstan it was stormed by hoards of kindergarten kids. Standing room only. Fortunately I had a seat but I also had two kindergarteners looking curiously over my shoulder as I tweeted on my mobile phone.
“What are you DOING?” Asks one.
“What’s your name?”
“John – what’s yours?”
“Alma! Ebba!” I see a teacher hovering nervously, separated from us by the sardine packed hordes. I smile at her in what I hope will seem a reassuring manner, but it only seems to make her more nervous. What a world we do live in.
At Prinsgatan I managed to eel off the tram and took myself into the Haga Cinema. Lots people but no queues. Anarchy, but a much lower level anarchy than on the tram. I found the theatre where Grey Matter was to be shown and joined the crowd milling around outside. While we were waiting, I counted 12 people coming out of theatre. Now, I was waiting for the first showing of the day so why were people coming out of the theatre? Perhaps there’d been a private showing earlier, or perhaps they’d been camping out on the floor. (For some reason I prefer to believe the latter.)
Despite the apparent anarchy, once the doors opened everyone hanging around outside was able to get a seat, including me though I found myself seated rather a long way from the door. From being nervous about whether I would manage to get in to see this film, I started to worry about whether I would be able to get out of the cinema in time to get across town to my second film of the day. Oh, the worries one has!
Matière Grise (Grey Matter) was a very moving film, and in places rather disturbing, as you would expect from the first feature length film to come out of Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide. The film is a bit disjointed in that it is composed of three independent stories which do intertwine with one another, but jarringly I thought. The first story is about a filmmaker called Balthazar (perhaps a representation of Kivu Ruhorahoza, the writer and director of Grey Matter) and his struggles to finance the film is trying to make. His government contacts complained that his film is backward looking and want him to make upbeat, educational films about, for example, the fight against AIDS. The second story is a Kafkaesque fantasy about a man locked in a prison and reliving his role in the genocide of the “cockroaches”. (Literally – this story involves real cockroaches.) The third and longest part of Grey Matter is taken up with a young man’s struggle for sanity and his siter’s struggle to help him and hold the two of them together in a family. They are survivors of the genocide; their parents and the rest of their family have been brutally murdered.
Coming out of Grey Matter I found myself drawing parallels with the Korean film Characters that I saw the day before. (See Part 2.) Both films use bracketing stories about the making of a film and in both films the bracketing story blends with the film’s “true” story. I found Characters more than a bit pretentious, but I did not have that feeling about Grey Matter – at least not nearly to the same extent. Yes, the pretensions were there, especially in the first section when the filmmaker is discussing his cinematographic antecedents and references, but they were nowhere near as intrusive as in Characters which really didn’t have anything much to say. The story in Grey Matter was so powerful and the characters, especially in the second and third sections, so much more believable, that the pretensions did not assume the significance they did in Characters.
Grey Matter was one of the films this Festival that I found myself continuing to think about for long after. If I get the opportunity to see it again I will certainly do so.
y second film of the day was the French language Iranian film Poulet aux Prunes (Chicken with Plumbs), a – mostly – live action film by Marjane Satrapi, the author of the charming, funny, touching animated autobiography Persepolis.
Chicken with Plumbs must also be based on a graphic novel. It’s obvious in much of the live action cinematography – there is a quality of tableau vivant over a number of scenes in the film. Also, the film breaks into Satrapi’s characteristic black and white animation in at least one place.
Chicken with Plumbs tells the story of world-famous violinist Nasser Ali Khan and how he goes about committing suicide – first failing humorously, but finally tragically succeeding. Why does he suddenly decide to kill himself? Is it the row with his wife? Is it his broken violin which he is unable to replace? It turns out to be because of a lost love, recently re-met. In good Thousand and One Nights style the film contains many small stories that appear to be incidental, but that all contribute to the whole, and make for a very satisfactory completeness in the film. As I left the cinema I found myself tweeting that “Chicken with Plumbs is the best film I’ve seen so far this #GIFF”.
With a certain amount of perspective now – and having seen a few more films at the Festival – I want to revise that statement. Chicken with Plumbs was certainly one of the most complete and satisfactory stories that I saw presented in a feature film. Visually it was also very satisfactory – beautifully made, with wonderful sets, very good acting, funny and sad. But it was also very sentimental. It was a more rounded story than the one in Persepolis, but not nearly as edgy. True there were a few references to the history and politics of Iran, but Chicken with Plumbs is a fantasy. It would work perfectly well without any of those references and could very easily have been transposed to another country than Iran. I enjoyed it, I recommend it, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it a second time. (The trailer is fine though… )
That was my last film of the day as I had some translation work to do in the afternoon, so I shall break off my account here. Continued in Part 4!
ne disadvantage of being a dedicated Gothenburg International Film Festivalian is the headaches you sometimes wake up with. They’re the consequence of craning your neck for hours in uncomfortable cinema seats. But it’s all worth it (he says, knocking back the aspirin).
[BTW, the embedded video here to the right is the GIFF vignette from last year. I'll embed this year's at the beginning of Part 3.]
Sunday 29th January I only had one film to look forward to. I was going to see Death of a Superhero in the evening, but had other things to occupy me during the day. My good wife Mrs SC, on the other hand, was set up for a full day – getting up early and coming home late.
Her first two films were back-to-back Chinese documentaries. The 90 minute The Interceptor from My Hometown (director Zhang Zanbo) and the 2½ hour Fairytale by Ai Weiwei. Fairytale documents Ai Weiwei’s week long installation in Kassel in Germany in 2007 with 1001 Chinese people and the process of selecting them and bringing them to Germany. (Fascinating and positive says Mrs SC, though the first half about the selection process was the most interesting.)
It’s The Interceptor from My Hometown, though, which has most frequently come back in family conversation since GIFF. The Interceptor… is about a civil servant, a man from Zhang Zanbo’s home town, a former schoolmate, whose job it is to help the Chinese local authorities save face by stopping citizens submitting petitions of complaint to the central government in Beijing. The people have the legal right to petition the central government, but when they do they shame the local administration. More than this, the central government would find it impossible to function if it was forced to deal with every infringement of people’s rights and livelihoods made by the local authorities. Consequently the local authorities employ people to ‘intercept’ petitioners, and bring them back home (where they can expect to be punished for their temerity in trying to exercise their legal rights). The central authorities turn a blind eye to this practice.
y headache had cleared by the time I got to see Death of a Superhero in the evening. I wanted to see this film because the principle character is played by Thomas Sangster who you’ll remember from Love Actually as Liam Neeson’s stepson Sam, the little drummer-boy in love. It had completely escaped my attention that Andy Serkis was heading the cast list, so it was a pleasant surprise to see him as well.
Death of a Superhero is charming about teen angst and anger, moving about cancer and funny about all three. Fifteen-year-old Donald (Sangster) is dying of what I take to be leukaemia. Certainly a cancer. He is undergoing chemotherapy, has lost all his hair and sports a variety of t-shirts with macabre comments (“One more PET scan and I’ll glow in the dark”). The boy is a cartoonist and graffiti artist (a good one) – though the book on which the film is based doesn’t seem to be a graphic novel, which was my first thought. The film is about how Donald, his family, schoolmates, girlfriend and thanatologist (death therapist – Serkis) cope with his illness and inevitable death.
Very good acting. Believable story (up to a point – still in two minds about the high-class call-girl and the thanatologist’s role in paying her for services unrendered). Well-made film though. Worth seeing.
Monday 30th January I was busy all day with work and my cineaste self got put on the shelf. To make up for that, on Tuesday 31st I managed to see four films.
ickets for GIFF are not cheap – just one fifth below the price of the regular, expensive cinema tickets and no cheaper than the tickets for screenings at the not-for-profit cinemas. But there is the daypass option. The GIFF daypass is a flat rate ticket that gives you free entry to any film starting before 4pm on weekdays. If you see at least six films with the daypass, you begin to ‘save’ money. This year I only had four days in which to use the daypass, and Tuesday 31st was my first. I got off to a good start and used it to see my first three films of the day. The fourth, which was an evening screening, I had to pay extra for.
My first film was Iris, a Finnish-Swedish costume drama which was showing at Draken, the festival’s core theatre. It was a popular showing, but Draken is a real, old-fashioned film theatre and can swallow 700 people or more, so it was not overfull by any means.
Iris turned out to be a children’s film. Very nicely made, pretty good child actors, and the story was good overall, though I thought it a bit uneven in places. It wasn’t quite the film I’d expected to see. I had misinterpreted the description in the catalogue and was expecting an historical drama about the experiences of a turn-of the century Finnish-Swedish artist and her family. The film turned out to be an account of a summer in the 1890s when Iris (Agnes Koskinen), the eight-year-old daughter of artist Ester (Maria Salomaa) is sent away to the Åland Islands to live with her uncle and his wife while Ester visits Paris. The Ålands are an island group lying between Sweden and Finland in the Baltic Sea; they belong to Finland but speak a form of Swedish called Finland-Svensk.
Iris is a sweet film about the culture clash when town-bred, bohemian Iris has to adapt to a rougher, working-class life in the country. It’s hardly a new subject, but apparently this is the first time a children’s costume drama has been made in Åland, so it’s been a big thing for the Åland community. Scandinavians are generally very good at making children’s films, and Iris is no exception, but it’s not an exceptional film. Kids might like it.
My second film of the day was the Belgian-Togolese Blue Bird. Also a children’s film, in the sense that the protagonists were two children, five or six-years-old, but so very much more. Blue Bird is based on a play, L’Oiseau bleu, from 1908 by the Belgian symbolist writer Maurice Maeterlinck. In fact, though the film and play start in the same place (the children are playing with a blue bird which escapes), the film quickly departs on its own journey and weaves an independent – though still symbolic – story out of the lives, games and improvised performances of the Togolese actors, none of whom are professionals. Filmed entirely through a blue filter, the heat and the light of sub-Saharan Africa (which I know also from personal experience – myself a six-year-old) was transformed in shades and tones of blue. This contributed to the mystical, magical quality of the film.
Now, at the time of writing five weeks later, I think of all the films I saw at this year’s festival, Blue Bird was the one that left the greatest mark visually. I dreamed in blue the night after seeing it.
After Iris and Blue Bird I was a bit dazed, but I had another film to see. Definitely not a children’s film this one, but after the previous two, I was perhaps less than receptive to Characters.
It seems the South Korean director, Kwang-Ju Son, has made a number of short films before, but this is his feature film début. Well, it looks like a long film made by a short film maker. I’m still not really sure what Characters is about, beyond depicting a couple of handful characters in various constellations. There’s more than a nod in the direction of Pirandello here (Six Characters in Search of an Author), but I don’t think the director is able to pull it off.
Each of the characters has his or her story, some brief and clichéd, some more complex though fragmented. Some of the stories link up: the popular film maker trying to make a film to please the critics; the scriptwriter with family problems. At the end the scriptwriter phones one of her own characters (played by the same actress), who then walks away into a wasteland that turns into the sea. Pretentious? Mmm…
ou’ll be pleased to know I took a break between Characters and my final film of the day. I rested my eyes (and my neck) and then met up with my wife and, as it happened, our niece in the student bar at Chalmers, the technical university. We had a meal and a drink and prepared ourselves for The Boy who was a King, a Bulgaria documentary. Mrs SC and I met in Bulgaria and have a soft spot in our hearts for the country. At GIFF, if there’s a Bulgarian film being shown, we try to see it together. This year there were two films from Bulgaria, but I wasn’t able to see Tilt, so that left …
The Boy who was a King is a weird, weird documentary about Simeon Saxcoburgotski who was the last Tsar (king) of Bulgaria. He inherited the throne after the death of his father Tsar Boris III at the age of six in 1943. Exiled in 1946 by the post-war communist government, Simeon lived in various places, eventually settling in Spain, his wife’s homeland, where he lived the life of a playboy or a businessman, depending on who is telling the story. In 2001 he became the first former monarch to be elected by popular vote as Prime Minister of the country he had once ruled as king.
Although the film starts conventionally enough, with clips of newsreels and amateur films showing the young prince in the palace grounds, gradually the feeling grows that something is not quite right here. The first interviewees, long retired palace servants are straightforward, though they are filmed from a distance, sitting in chairs or wandering through the rooms, apparently talking to themselves. From there the film gets increasingly peculiar. It’s as if the director, Andrey Paounov, has gone out of his way to track down the most extreme people to interview. The taxidermists in the natural history museum, the ‘white-trash’ Bulgarians who dive from the wreck of the royal yacht, the founders of a royalist club, the Japanese immigrants who sing their self-composed paean of praise for him, the seamstress who has made a suit for him with a record number of pockets (and who thinks he is a giant of a man, over six feet tall, when he is clearly not much taller than his cousin Prince Charles in the clips where the two of them are seen together).
Simeon himself comes across as far and away the most normal person in the film. And I’m still not sure if Andrey Paounov is out to ridicule Simeon and his followers, or if he is trying to make a Bulgarian film in imitation of the sort of pseudo-documentaries that get airtime on commercial TV.
fter nearly 30 years of living abroad, Britain when I return to it can often seem like a parody of the country I remember. A place designed to service (and sometimes disservice) tourists and with a peculiar obsession for a past distorted by selective memory, nostalgia and sentiment. It doesn’t seem quite real, somehow. I know this isn’t a fair picture; that I am myself seeing Britain through my own distorting lens (for I only come to Britain nowadays as a tourist), but there it is. That’s the Britain I see and, it seems, it’s also the Britain Ben Hatch and his family spent five months exploring as they researched the guidebook he and his wife Dinah had been commissioned to write.
Are We Nearly There Yet? is not the guidebook (that would be, I’m guessing, Frommer’s England with Your Family and Scotland with Your Family). Instead, it’s the story behind the guidebook. Ben and Dinah take their two under-fives, Phoebe and Charlie, and drive around Britain. They stay in a different hotel every night and visit tourist attractions day out and day in, testing the hotels and the attractions for child-friendliness (and parent-friendliness). It seems like a mad way to make a living and something only a masochist would choose to do, but it makes for an entertaining story – perhaps most enjoyable for people with experience of young children.
With credits from John Cleese, Terry Wogan, Richard Briers and Tim Brooke-Taylor among others I was expecting a laugh a page; perhaps I should have read the credits more closely. The words “moving” and “touching” occur almost as frequently as “funny”. Because the book is not simply an account of the trials and tribulations of guidebook writing, it’s also about Ben Hatch’s relationship with his father.
David Hatch, a one-time member of the Cambridge Footlights Revue, had a distinguished career in BBC radio behind him before being knighted for his services as chairman of the Parole Board. During the course of Ben’s book, David Hatch is diagnosed with a liver cancer that has metastasised, fights it, is brought low by it and ultimately succumbs to it. So interwoven with the story of the sometimes manic, sometimes mundane trip around Britain, we have the thread of Ben’s childhood, youth, adulthood, and the push-pull of his father’s personality. (And it seems to have been quite an outsize personality.)
I started reading this book expecting it to be entertaining, and an easy, straightforward read. And it is entertaining – in places it’s very funny – and it is written in an easy style, but it’s not nearly as straightforward as I anticipated, and at one point it reduced me to tears. To be sure, it’s more than possible that my reaction to Are We Nearly There Yet? is coloured by my own relationship with my father and by his death from pancreatic cancer (which followed much the same course as David Hatch’s liver cancer). Still, I thought this was a good read, certainly funny (the “draft copy” texts for the guidebook especially amused me), but, yes, equally touching and moving. I would definitely recommend it.
This review is also published on the Amazon.co.uk page for Are We Nearly There Yet?. To visit Amazon’s page for this book click on the illo above or here.
he Göteborg International Film Festival (familiarly known as GIFF) takes place annually at the beginning of February in Gothenburg, and has done so for 35 years. Or is it 34? I know they jumped over the number 13 but can’t remember if they managed afterwards to make the numbers correspond to the years. Not that it matters really.
GIFF started small in the 70s and has grown and grown. Today it’s the largest of all the Nordic film festivals. Most importantly (for reasons of local pride) it’s bigger and more prestigious than Stockholm’s international film festival. (Ha! Take that, Capital City!)
Gothenburg’s festival has now reached the stage where it offers some 450 long films (and dozens of shorts) shown in 9 or 10 different locations over a 10 day period, and attracts an audience of some 32,000 film lovers and cineastes. It’s also an important venue for the trade, with deals being done and prizes being competed for. The series of seminars and debates held in the new-since-last-year Lagerhus social central offers extra events to interest the general public, students of film and film buffs who may be taking a break from the rigours of end-on-end movie going. There are side events – this year’s video installation Curtain Callers at Magazingatan 3 for example. And there’s a social side to the festival which spills over into the pubs and clubs.
I’ve attended GIFF annually since moving back to Gothenburg from Sundsvall in 1998, but I was a sporadic visitor even before, when I had the opportunity.
The beginning of February, in cold-damp Gothenburg. Of course you want to be sitting in a packed cinema, all breathing together. As ever, this year, I found myself wondering if I would break my record and go down with a cold within the first 24 hours. But no, both I and my good lady Mrs SC remained remarkably healthy throughout.
And I managed to tweet all the way through the week about the festival and the various films and events I went to. This blog entry is based on those tweets.
My first film was The Color Wheel. An American film shot entirely in grainy black and white. (I think the title was supposed to be a joke.) Lots of shaky Dogma-style hand-held camera action. There were some funny lines (especially in the first third of the film) and situations. Still, I wouldn’t choose to see it again. I had the feeling it was a student effort produced as a final, graduation masterwork. All the characters (bar one) seemed about the same age, friends or classmates of the director and writer? The principles, Carlen Altman (JR) and Alex Ross Perry (Colin) were clearly revelling in improvised backchat, some of the other actors though were clearly uncomfortable with this and were, simply, wooden. And the story … well, I felt the story hadn’t really been worked out and the conclusion was clichéd and a bit desperate. As the lights came up after the film was over, the guy in the seat next to me said “I don’t know”, and that was my reaction too.
Two weeks on, I still don’t know.
Left: Still from The Color Wheel with writer & actor Carlen Altman as JR. Right still from QM I think I’ll call her QM with Ann-Sofie Sidén as QM.
My second film of the festival was actually a series of short art films by Ann-Sofie Sidén. All interesting and enjoyable each in its own way, and all of them of much higher production quality than I, at least, am used to seeing from films made for video installations.
The first film was QM, I think I’ll call her QM in which a paranoid psychiatrist ‘studies’ a mud-woman (QM = Queen of Mud) imprisoned in a room in her house. I’m not giving anything away when I say QM escapes at the end. The second film was Head Gallery Piss Up. It documents the installation in a gallery in Vienna of a squatting, pissing, full-size model of the artist in bronze. Fascinating and surprisingly funny! The third film was Curtain Callers a film of events behind the scenes before, during and after a performance at the Stockholm Royal Dramatic Theatre. This latter piece (as mentioned above) was also being show as an installation (5 screens side-by-side with surround-sound audio) which I also managed to see later in the week.
All 3 films were worth seeing, though they probably benefited from being seen together and with Ann-Sofi Sidén present and answering questions put to her by an interviewer and the audience. She was disappointed – to say the least – about the projection of Curtain Callers at the Bio Roy. Too bright, she said, too loud.
Later the same day (this is Saturday 28th January) I saw my third film and first documentary, Deaf Jam in one of the lecture theatres at Gothenburg’s Technical University, Chalmers. Part of the fun of GIFF is getting to see films in places one wouldn’t normally visit. I’m only ever at Chalmers at festival time.
I though Deaf Jam was fantastic. I tweeted that I was blown away. A film of deaf teens working with American Sign Language and imagery to create visual poetry … and then finding ways to communicate to/with hearing poets and on to an audience of predominantly hearing people.
I was so impressed I tweeted an appeal to Swedish Educational Radio (Utbildnings Radio) to: Please! Buy Deaf Jam and show it on TV. No response though.
OK – A bit long for a blog entry (but about par for me). I’ll break here with the intention of continuing in a later entry. I’m also planning to write some longer reviews of some of the films and post to the IMDb – I’ll add links as I go along. In the meantime, here’s the trailer for Deaf Jam.
(NB: This player works in Explorer, Firefox, Chrome and Safari but not in Opera. If you’re having problems – please use the download option.)
I don’t enjoy complaining, but sometimes it’s the only honest way to go. Most of the following is a complaint – so if you’re not in the mood, stop reading or listening now!
t’s been nearly a year since I was last able to see one of the Live Broadcasts from the National Theatre, which means I’ve missed at least four performances. Circumstances conspired against me. But it was with great pleasure that I realised on Thursday last week there was still one performance left of the season, and that nothing stood in the way of my seeing The Cherry Orchard with Zoë Wannamaker as Ranevskaya.
I booked a seat over the Internet and headed off into town at about 7 pm. Neither suspended public transport nor thunder-threatening clouds could put me off, and I was in time to pick up my ticket at Cinema Bio Roy just before the performance was due to start.
It was soon apparent that I needn’t have stressed. Technical problems left us with a blank screen and the message that there was “No or bad signal” – still this did give us something to chat about with our neighbours in the cinema.
Apparently, it wasn’t just us. All of Sweden was experiencing the same difficulty. The rumour went around that the start of the performance in London would be delayed until our technical problems were fixed. People said: “It had happened before.” That turned out to be as reliable as rumours generally are.
It took about 20-25 minutes to fix the reception. Perhaps we didn’t miss all that much of the play, if the NT started by interviewing the producer, or giving some background info as they did for the first four NT Live plays. Still, when at last we were able to see the play, the actors were well into the first act.
Also, there was a noticeable lag between the sound of the voices and the movement of the actors’ lips on the screen. That caused my heart to drop (remembering the experience of All’s Well that Ends Well in which the actors and their voices were slightly out of sync for the whole performance) but this problem too was fixed within two or three minutes, and I settled back at last to enjoy the play.
But no! It seems the NT has taken to adding English subtitles. When did that happen? The first four plays were blessedly free of such distractions. Have they introduced subtitling this season? Or is it new for The Cherry Orchard? The titles are rather large, very bright and fill the bottom fifth of the screen.
Now, I’m used to subtitles on Swedish TV, and I’m used to them also, when I go to the cinema here in Sweden (though I think they don’t take up nearly as much space on the screen). On this occasion, though, I found them very obtrusive. Apart from the physical feeling I was craning my neck to watch the play over the top of a blindingly whitewashed five-bar gate, the subtitles also raised a psychological barrier in my mind. They emphasised the distance between the audience and the players in a way that was not alienating so much as banal. I mean, they detracted from the feeling that I was observing a real-time performance and instead gave me the feeling I was watching a dime-a-dozen film, and a rather wooden film that.
Wooden? Well, theatre performances are not the same as film performances or television performances. I know …
In a theatre the actors are committed to behaving in a very different way from when they are in front of a camera. They must project their voices to reach the back of the theatre, they must enunciate, they must move in certain ways so as not to block the audience’s view. There is no one to shout “cut”, there’s no one going to ask them to take it again – everything has to be done in the moment.
Yes, I know this!
Going to see an NT Live performance, I allow for it. I forgive some of the theatricality because of the delight I experience in the feeling of being in a front row seat or VIP box that the close up screen images of the actors gives me.
But not this time. The subtitling kept tricking me into thinking I was watching a poorly edited film rather than a rather well-performed play.
Another thing I have against subtitles is that I cannot keep myself from reading the bloody things! So in the course of the performance I find myself not only craning and straining, but also reading the words on the screen and comparing what I read to what’s being said.
Of course, the subtitles had been created in advance, but it seemed they hadn’t been made with full attention to detail. Far too often the words the actors spoke were either twisted by the subtitles or predicted by them – I mean significant pauses were completely obviated by the fact that what the actor was going to say was already present on the screen. Furthermore, spelling mistakes were also a distraction: I suspect for example, the script actually called for the actors to use the word “deviance” and not “deviants” as the subtitles insisted.
I wonder why subtitles are being used now? Is this going to be a regular feature in future? Are subtitles also to be seen in British or American cinemas? Is the non-English speaker audience so big and have they protested so vocally about having to listen to English without subtitles?
If there’s a market for NT broadcast performances with subtitles, would it be possible to broadcast first a performance without (for those of us who really don’t need them), then rebroadcast the same performance with added subtitles? (In that way at least there would be a chance that the words would actually reflect what the actors were saying.)
All this carping may suggest that I did not enjoy the performance. It’s not entirely true. The acting was perhaps a little melodramatic or a little mannered in places (or seemed to be because of my mental conviction that I wasn’t watching a play) but certainly Conleth Hill as Lopakhin, James Laurenson as Gayev and Claudia Blakely and Charity Wakefield as the sisters were very good.
Both Zoë Wanamaker, and Mark Bonner as the tutor, coped well with some speeches that must have been a trial in rehearsal.
The play as performed was in a new translation – a new “version” – by Andrew Upton. The introduction of modern slang and turns of phrase were, I felt, while sometimes appropriate also sometimes jarring. There are clearly parallels to be drawn between immediately pre-revolutionary Russia and our own age, and the language certainly helped to stress these. But frequent references to specifically 19th-century Russian circumstances (the liberation of the serfs and all the concomitant social upheaval for example) kept re-establishing the historical context of the play and distancing it, in my mind at least, from the modern world.
I read somewhere that this production of the play emphasises the political rather than the personal. I suppose that means the prominence given to Petya the tutor’s harangues, and to Lopakhin’s “holiday homes in the country” plans, but, honestly, I thought the play was still far more about personal relationships, about dreams and memory, hopes and fears, devotion and indifference.
I think it’s a testament to the strength of the play and the work of the performers that despite all the distractions and all my criticism here, I was among the small cadre in the cinema to join in the applause at the National when the actors came on for their curtain call. Nevertheless, of the five NT Live broadcast plays I’ve seen now, this was the one that impressed me the least.
As we left the cinema, Bio Roy staff handed out vouchers to the value of 90 Swedish crowns as an apology for the technical problems at the start. That was nice – 45% off the next NT Live show here (if the prices don’t go up next season). I’ll definitely try to see another performance. The cumulative positive experiences from the first four plays still outweigh the negative impressions of this one.
But NT Live Please Note! If I’m forced to peer at another play over the top of a bar of subtitles, that will be the last.
The National Theatre’s production of The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekov in a version by Andrew Upton, Directed by Howard Davies and starring Zoë Wanamaker was broadcast by NTLive on the evening of Thursday 30th June 2011.
The illustrations used on this page are all taken from the official poster for the broadcast culled from other Internet sites as the NTLive are puzzlingly ungenerous about making even this one image widely available. The face is that of Zoë Wannamaker in character as Lyuba Ranevskaya.
n Tuesday evening I had the pleasure to see the entertaining Hamburg/Berlin theatre collective She She Pop perform Seven Sisters, their take on Chekov’s Three Sisters, at Gothenburg’s Pustervik Theater on Järntorget.
The first time I saw She She Pop, a year ago, also at Pustervik, they were grappling with King Lear and brought in their fathers (three fathers anyway) to help out. In Seven Sisters they involve their kids (three kids aged 4, 3 and maybe 2-years-old).
As with their take on Lear (which they called Testament), Seven Sisters is less a performance of the canonical play, more She She Pop coming to terms with the play, the characters of the three sisters, their brother and his wife, and the ideas that Chekov has his characters express.
The actors’ interaction with Chekov’s text, their interpretations of key ideas and phrases, their application of Chekov’s satire to their own (possibly fictionalised) situations and personas, is all performed with a glint in the eye and a fine irony.
Seven Sisters is clearly the product of a process of improvisation, and the immediacy of that process still hangs about the performance, though I wonder how much on-stage live impro they let themselves indulge in on Tuesday. A little, I think, towards the end, because that was just where the performance limped.
Though the Seven Sisters actors are all German speakers, the performance in Gothenburg was in English. Very good English too, but improvisation in a foreign language and in front of an audience for whom the language medium is also foreign must be to take a self-imposed handicap to quite an extreme.
On their homepage She She Pop write:
By allowing and encouraging audience intervention in the development of our work we aim to explore the freedoms and difficulties inherent in the negotiation between individual decision making stategies and the production of collective/inclusive performance.
I suspect the audience in Pustervik were not ideal in this respect. (We were very passive.)
The King Lear/Testament play from last year was performed in German, with (as I remember it) an Opera-style above-the-stage super-titling screen with Swedish(?) text. It worked. It’s good to see theatre bridging language barriers in this way.
Still, if you can understand German you’ll probably get most out of a performance of Seven Sisters in its original language.
I enjoyed the performance on Tuesday and ran a part of this review on my Twitter stream in the hope of encouraging people following me in Gothenburg to go along to the second of She She Pop’s performances.
And if you, dear reader, ever have the opportunity to see a She She Pop performance yourself, then take it!
The illustration is a picture of the programme from Tuesday. The original photos are credited to Annette Hauschild.
(dir. Pipilotti Rist – Austrian – German language)
y first film of the Gothenburg International Film Festival 2011 was this colourful, exuberant and anarchistic story, the first full-length feature film by Swiss video artist Pipilotti Rist. A good film to start the festival with, as it happened, though (appropriately) that was a consequence of serendipity rather than forethought.
The film tells the story of Pepperminta (Ewelina Guzik), who seems to be a combination of Alice from Wonderland and Dorothy from Oz, and who exists in time both as a young adult and as a child. (Her child self is played by Noemi Leonhardt). She lives partly in the real world, partly in a fantasy, but the two are not always separate. Pepperminta’s fantasy overlays reality like coloured plastic over the camera’s lens changes the colour of the world the lens sees.
Pepperminta is on a quest to live without fear, to help everyone she comes in contact with to know themselves and achieve exactly what they “really, really, really want”. Along the way she gains champions and partners: the fat, shy Werwen (Sven Pippig), Edna NeinNeinNein Tulip (Sabine Timoteo), and the elderly Leopoldine (Elisabeth Orth) who is close to death. Pepperminta helps each of them to overcome their fears and they join her and become her followers and accomplices.
The film makes great use of colour and perception, but also goes out of its way to focus on more senses than just sight: sound, touch, smell and taste also figure prominently. Special effects are generally of a more analogue than digital sort, for example, the stop motion sequences with strawberries or clothes, or the clever cutting in the “transporter” scenes when the characters travel to Pepperminta’s hideaway via her bath. Still, the production values are professional – this is video art for a cinema audience – and the film’s 80 minute running length does not seem too long.
It is not the most intellectually challenging of films, and I suspect some people will be irritated by the adult Pepperminta in the first few scenes. However, if you can reach the Nirvana of suspended disbelief quickly enough I think the film will charm and delight.
Unless you understand German, make sure you see a sub-titled version.
t’s interesting to use Google News to follow the press trail of a breaking story. I did just that with the recent news that there are 241 nominees for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. Actually, I set out to trace the story back to the original Nobel Peace Prize Committee’s press release – because there must have been a press release, right?
I can’t find it. Perhaps the Peace Prize Committee make a verbal announcement which the news agencies pick up , but I’m surprised, 22 hours after the announcement that I still can’t find the press release on the net.
I know it’s about 22 hours since the announcement because Google very helpfully gives that information.
There, you see, 22 hours ago, the Associated Press (AP) broke the news internationally and KTUU in Alaska was the first to broadcast it.
My search was sparked off by seeing Swedish Radio International’s report “Record number of Peace Prize nominees”, which is about 19 hours old as I write. I was going to publish this link on Twitter (as I do from time to time) but thought it would be more fun to find the original English language announcement – or perhaps a report from Norway in English.
Well, as I say, I couldn’t find the press release. Nor could I find anything in English from Norway. Unlike Swedish Radio, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) doesn’t offer an English language service, and none of the Internet-based English language news services from Norway that I’ve looked at (The Foreigner, The Norway Post, Norway News or News in English Norway) have anything yet to say. Still taken up with the Nordic Skiing Championships.
But in Norwegian though? Not much. As far as I can see NRK is ignoring the Peace Prize Committee. In the on-line newspapers, though, there is more interest. The first article Google finds is from the Norsk Telegrambyrå (Norwegian News Agency, NTB) and published in the Trønder-Avisa newspaper (from 22 hours ago) “241 nominasjoner til Nobels fredspris”.
Before this news, the most recent Norwegian reference to the Peace Prize committee is in Aftenposten, published on 28th February: “The Peace Prize Costs Norwegian Business Life Dearly” (my translation of “Fredsprisen koster norsk næringsliv dyrt“).
Can that explain why the Peace Prize seems more interesting to people outside Norway?