At the Movies : “Ida”

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Two scenes from Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida :

Scene One :

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In the first, the car has stopped at a fork in the road; the younger of two women, Anna, kneels in front of a crucifix embedded in stone, hands together in prayer, the grey of her novice’s uniform merging with the stone itself, the grey of the empty field, the surface of the road; the older woman, Wanda, stands by the car, smoking, maintaining distance, disbelief. Beyond and behind them both everything is swathed in mist. Poland some time in the 1960s.

Taken to a convent as a young child after her parents were killed during the Nazi occupation and brought up Catholic, Anna has just learned – weeks before taking her final vows – that she is a Jew. Propelled by Wanda, her aunt and sole surviving relative, she has set out to discover the truth of what happened to her parents. A journey in which she will seek to discover the truth about herself.

Another scene which I can only describe, not reproduce :

Ida, with Dawid Ogrodnik and Agata Trzebuchowska

 

Left alone by her aunt, Anna/Ida has gone down into the ballroom of the hotel where they are staying, drawn by the music of the young saxophone player who had earlier hitched a lift in their car. He plays Coltrane’s Naima, talks to her as a young man would to a young woman. Do you ever uncover your head, he asks?  Do you realise the effect you have upon people?

Upstairs, later, alone in front of the mirror, she uncovers her head, takes down her hair.

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Pawlikowski’s film is, I think, a small masterpiece, beautifully, carefully acted (by Agata Trzebuchowska as Anna/Ida & Agata Kulesza  as Wanda) and carefully, beautifully shot in overlapping shades of grey; each shot, each scene beautifully, exactly framed – perfect in its composition, but, like, say, a solo by Thelonious Monk, often coming at you from an unsuspected angle, encouraging you to look – listen –anew.

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At the Movies: ‘Museum Hours’

Thanks to the [suitably] understated manner in which it slipped into the art-house schedules, I nearly missed Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, which would have been a great shame as, to my eyes, it’s pretty near perfect.

Beginning with the camera focussed on a section of a Brueghel painting showing bare trees and a sparse scattering of black birds, and cutting to a shot of actual trees, actual birds, not the same but similar, Cohen’s film is a sort of meditation on looking, on the links between art and actuality, and the way people see – or don’t see – those connections.

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Filmed partly within the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna and partly in the less glamorous parts of the city itself, the film is threaded together by the meeting and subsequent friendship between Johaann, one of the museum guards, and Anne, a Canadian woman who has come to Vienna to visit a relative who is seriously ill  in hospital. There’s no big romance, few in any intimations of longing; this is no big love story in the making. They get to know one another a little, she gets to know some more about the city and about the museum’s paintings, the Bruegel room in particular, and then they go their separate ways. The paintings remain.

As I say, it’s close to a perfect little film. And without being in any sense pushy or didactic, it makes you think. And, most importantly, look.

Anne, the visitor, is played with restraint and a wonderful sort of fading beauty by the Canadian folk singer, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Johaann with quiet believablity by Bobby Sommer. Jem Cohen, I discovered, has been making films, mostly, I think, documentaries, for years – Lost Book Found, set on the streets of New York City, seems like one to look out for. And I was ingtrigued to learn that he was involved in the making of a documentary about the late Vic Chesnutt, Peter Sillen’s Speed Racer.

Ken Loach, Social Realism & Crime Fiction

No sooner have I written an essay for Five Leaves Publishing’s forthcoming journal on Crime, making an argument for the importance of social realist television and cinema in British urban crime fiction, than the evidence – some of it – is everywhere. A two-part season looking at the work of producer Tony Garnett, responsible for much radical TV drama in the 60s and 70s and a frequent collaborator with director Ken Loach, begins at the BFI Southbank in May, as does a season of films, The Roots of Neorealism, including De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, acknowledged by Loach as one of his principle inspirations. And this weekend just past, as part of its Smithfest, examining the cultural impact of The Smiths, the ICA has been showing a short season of films which were amongst the group’s inspirations – just check out the album/singles covers. On Good Friday there was a double bill of A Taste of Honey & The Leather Boys, introduced by Rita Tushingham, and on the following day another double, Poor Cow & It Always Rains on Sundays, followed, suitably, by a late night screening of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

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Watching Poor Cow and It Always Rains on Sundays, one after the other, was as instructive as it was enjoyable. Poor Cow – “Three years in the life of a young working class mother in London who falls in love with a young crook while her husband is in prison, reads the BFI Screen line synopsis – was Ken Loach’s first feature film, made in 1967, and built around an always watchable, totally believable performance by Carol White, who had made her name in Loach’s groundbreaking television film, Cathy Comes Home. A mixture of documentary style social realism,  improvisation (highly successful in scenes between White and Terence Stamp, far less so in her scenes with John Binden), direct address to camera and Brechtian inter-titles, Poor Cow enlists our sympathies for its central character without  downplaying her weaknesses and limitations. As a portrait of those parts of London lagging behind in the glitz and glamour of the Swinging Sixties – it was largely filmed on location in Bethnal Green – it is penetrating and convincing.

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Robert Hamer’s It Always Rains on Sundays, made twenty years earlier for Ealing Studios, also leans heavily on the documentary tradition that burgeoned in both Britain and Italy during and immediately after WW2. Filmed partly on location around Whitechapel in east London and Chalk Farm to the north, the realism of those scenes sits in awkward parallel with scenes too obviously shot in the studio. That problem, it seems to me, is symptomatic of the film’s weaknesses as a whole, torn as it is between a taut and rugged, almost brutal style owing much to both French and American film noir and the softer caricature so typical of Ealing, exemplified here by Jack Warner’s pipe-smoking avuncular policeman (three years before, shockingly, he would be shot dead in the street in The Blue Lamp) and the trio of hapless ne’er-do-wells incapable of scoring much more than a gross of roller skates.

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John McCallum, a strong physical presence as an escaped convict, and Googie Withers, his former lover who has accepted the boredom of  married existence, play their scenes with an intensity that, while providing the most watchable moments, further split the film asunder, their sexuality and passion – largely and brilliantly repressed on Withers’ part – too large, too strong for Hamer’s film to adequately contain.

Art Chronicles: Anselm Kiefer

Watching William Friedkin’s 1971 film The French Connection shortly after my first visit to Anselm Kiefer’s exhibition, Il Mistero delle Cattedrali, at the White Cube in Bermondsey, I was struck by the similarity between the setting for the film’s final shoot-out and the larger pieces in Keifer’s show. The police have pursued the drug smugglers to a derelict  industrial area by the river, and Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle chases the leading smuggler into an abandoned factory building with high windows running along both sides, bare pipes and rusted iron work, peeling paint on the walls, water dripping from the roof and glassily puddled on the floor. Half-blinded by the variations in light, by the intensity of his own anger, Doyle shoots a fellow cop my mistake and lets the smuggler escape. The film’s final shot is of the empty factory; the final sound a bang that could be another gun shot or a slamming door.

A great location dressed up by  Ben Kasazkow and Ed Garzero, art director  and set director respectively, and nothing more? A metaphor for the disintegration of those parts of America laid waste by drugs? A visual metaphor for the unravelling of Doyle’s mind? All those things, if we wish, and maybe more. See as you find.

No doubting the metaphoric intent, I think, in Kiefer’s work. From the beginning, when, before turning almost exclusively to paint, he photographed himself giving the Hitler salute in a variety of incongruous foreign locations, Kiefer’s overriding concern has been with German history and German myth – more specifically, the extent to which German culture has been distorted by the ideology of the Third Reich.

Kiefer uses as a basis what has become a recurrent theme in his work – a blackened German landscape of ploughed earth, rendered pictorially dynamic by the high horizon and offset vanishing point. *

In the larger pieces at the White Cube landscape has moved from ploughed field to urban wasteland, architectural now rather than agricultural – the most prominent setting being Berlin’s now-deserted Tempelhof Airport, built on land that had belonged in medieval times to the Knights Templar and redesigned in the late 1930s to be the central gateway to Hitler’s world capital “Germania”.

Constructed from large panels, each thick with richly augmented paint – and reminding me a little of the exaggerated impasto of Auerbach’s paintings of London landscapes after the Blitz – together these works are staggering in their force and size and, not least, their verisimilitude. And though predominantly urban, the natural world is not forgotten: giant atrophied sunflowers lean and lurch across the work, like the now-silent instruments of mass production, minature model aeroplanes dangling between them.

As Nazi ideology corroded Germany, German culture and the German people,  so Kiefer’s work shows the corrosion that has laid waste what was once an object of absurd grandeur, and to achieve this, he literally corrodes sections of his canvasses, subjecting them to the effects of the elements and – in keeping with his long-held interest in alchemy – accelerating the process through oxidisation. Thus, the note from the White Cube suggests, Tempelhof is “transformed into a latter day cathedral – a mystical site of aspiration, of absurdity, even apocalypse.”

Does it matter that the size, the brilliance of Kiefer’s creation bring us to such a state of admiration and wonder that we are in danger of forgetting the deep criticism that lays behind it?

* Charles Harrison & Paul Wood: “Modernity & Modernism Reconsidered” in “Modernism in Dispute: Art since the Forties” Yale/OU Press