Monday, 1 June 2020

“Within Our Gates” at 100

I had already planned some weeks ago to watch Within Our Gates for the first time, for its 100th anniversary. As it turned out, the movie, its themes, and the circumstances of its production all make it particularly relevant for consideration in the current moment.

Within Our Gates is a silent romantic melodrama, released in 1920, directed by Oscar Micheaux. It’s the earliest known surviving movie made by a black director, and the specific perspective of a black person in America – having to confront harmful ideas and stereotypes that came before – becomes the very subject of the movie.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

My Heart, and the Melodramas of Douglas Sirk

For over three years, I have been in a romantic relationship that — deeply fulfilling, passionate, and transformative though it’s been — has not been uniformly accepted and supported by the people around me. My joy has been attended by moments of shuddering anxiety, numbing sadness, and shocks of pain, unpleasant moments that are inextricably linked to the happy memories and circumstances that brought them about. I know from my own experience that no movie gives real solace for these kinds of feelings, and I didn’t turn to movies for solace (I have the good fortune of great friends that I can rely on), but there are some movies that, as enduringly great and insightful works of art, can depict some of our most intense emotions with a force of truth so keen and so powerful that it stops our hearts.

No overtly gay drama or romance ever felt similar to my personal experience, and I wasn’t ever looking for a movie that would. But as I watched the 1955 romantic melodrama All that Heaven Allows, directed by Douglas Sirk, the realisation gradually bloomed that I was watching a dramatic depiction that felt like something I’d lived through myself, that Jane Wyman’s character was burdened by the same tangle of feelings and ideas that I had carried.

Sunday, 26 April 2020

The Obscured Nostalgia of “Verraaiers”

Verraaiers is streaming on Showmax.

Watching Verraaiers, the 2013 drama about supposed traitors to the Boer army during the Anglo-Boer War, left me with the desire to read up on the history of the war, because the experience of watching the movie feels highly inadequate and unenlightening on the historical episodes its takes as its subject. The sense of distortion and omission first arises in the voice-over prologue, when the narrator brings up the British incarceration in concentration camps of Boer women and children, as well as “their black compatriots”. No further details regarding African people are given in the entire movie, nor any qualifications of this faulty language. Knowing that this is a drama about the Afrikaans people and their history, and given the relation of that history to “their black compatriots,” there’s already the feeling of history being papered over or snipped out, and it casts doubt on the authenticity of the details that follow, including those that may seem merely incidental.

The story about Boer soldiers who decide to leave the army to stay with and protect their wives and children on their farms, and their subsequent persecution for this decision, is obviously one that interested the filmmakers, that they found historically important, and that engaged their sense of injustice. But whatever moral or emotional drive pushed this movie through to its final execution unfortunately didn’t appear to me on the screen, either as an imaginative re-creation of the past, as edifying analysis of any political situation, or as engaging and rousing rhetoric. The movie comes across more like an enactment of an encyclopedia article than as drama.

Friday, 6 March 2020

A Night of Dance and Drama at the JPO

Due to a number of conflicts, I didn’t buy a subscription for the Johannesburg Philharmonic’s Summer Season 2020. But I did decide to go to the last week, conducted by Daniel Boico, as a birthday gift to myself, and for the experience of two works that I love and was keen to hear again. It turned out to be just about the most rewarding decision I’ve made so far this year, and one of the most heartening experiences I’ve ever had at a classical music concert.

The programme began with Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, in E-flat, the one nicknamed “The Emperor Concerto.” Larger and louder than Beethoven’s four previous piano concerti (or any other concerto that came before), this work often sounds like a piece for two orchestras, one of them played in a reduction by a single, heroic pianist. Last night, that pianist was Jan Jiracek von Arnim, a tall, thin, bespectacled teacher from Vienna, with an air of confidence and comfort that he was equal to the challenge.

Sunday, 23 February 2020

The Metropolitan Opera’s Vital “Porgy and Bess”

As America was establishing itself as a cultural power, and setting up its institutions to garrison that culture, it conspicuously and contemptibly omitted much of black American culture and history from that sanctum. America’s hallowed depictions of itself in claimants to the Great American Novel and the Hollywood studio classics were not given to portray any African-American perspective, nor to consider the influences drawn from African-American culture or the significance of black history. George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is an enduringly great opera for a number of reasons, and one reason brazenly realised in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production is that it takes black history as American history itself, and it depicts the expressive and exuberant aspects of African-American life as the essence of America’s brash, new, singularly energetic place in world culture.

The most obvious feature of Gershwin’s musical style is the common attribute of American culture in general: It blends a variety of contrasting styles and origins, from diverse cultural origins, and arrives at something boldly new and flavoursome. Gershwin’s particular brand of the new musical styles was one that overtly paid respect to and acknowledged its roots in African-American culture. Taking a leaf from Dvořák’s bountiful and neatly compiled book, Gershwin saw that the way forward for music in America would come out of black people’s music, and he developed his personal artistic voice founded on that idea.

Thursday, 6 February 2020

My Oscar Ballot – 2020

The best thing about the 92nd Academy Awards is how early in the year everything is happening: from the Golden Globes on 5 January to the Oscars on 10 February, a five-week awards season is the shortest in living memory, and the most gratifying in an age where the Oscars clutch furiously with their Gollum-arms at a veneer of prestige and relevance.

The worst thing about the Academy Awards is to mistake their importance. They have practical significance, in boosting the careers of certain actors, craftspeople, and other working celebrities, but they no longer reflect what the rest of the world is interested in watching nor any kind of majority consensus in what constitutes the best being made in movies today.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

The Year in Movies – 2019

The big story in movie distribution over the past decade is how Netflix, Showmax, and other streaming services have made it easier for us to watch, rewatch, discover, and scrutinise many more movies, sooner and more frequently. Not only have they been buying and streaming various independent movies that we would not otherwise have seen in South Africa, but they’re producing their own independent content and showing us that as well, and, as with productions made by any studio or independent house, there’s the chance of great works coming out of this as well.

Each year, I split my list into movies that were distributed theatrically in South Africa and those that weren’t. Every year, some of the best movies are ones that most moviegoers have never heard of because they weren’t bought by Ster Kinekor or NuMetro and weren’t shown at shopping mall cinema complexes, and South African media outlets focus nearly exclusively — with a few notable exceptions — on movies that are theatrically distributed. This is where Netflix and Showmax (and a few more sources, some of less reliable legitimacy) fill in important gaps. Steven Soderbergh hit the point exactly when he said that he wanted his new film High Flying Bird to be seen by everyone everywhere, at the same time. High Flying Bird — one of the best movies not just of 2019, but of this entire decade — was indeed available to all of South Africa early in the year on Netflix, but most people never heard of it, because no newspaper or major website reviewed it. Movie theatres are already feeling the adverse effects of audiences that stay home to stream movies, and soon media outlets will too, for ignoring or marginalising a growing and vital part of the common moviegoing experience.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

The Best of the Decade: 2010 to 2019

To Start Off With ...

Above my Top Ten, I’m listing the entire output of Terrence Malick from 2010 to 2017, which is undoubtedly my favourite cinematic work from this decade. I rewatched each of these movies, trying to settle on one to place at the top of my list, but Malick’s body of work amounts to a greater achievement than the sum of its parts, and the ideas, emotions, images, and stories that flow through each of them form threads that can start in one movie and run through another.

The Tree of Life is the movie that awakened me to the full possibilities of movies, of how great thought and feeling can be conveyed through sounds and images, and of how deeply and intimately I could be moved by any movie. Malick searches for and devises new ways of looking at every subject (and every object), and each image in his movies packs a concentration of meaning, a focus on the essence and potential of each living thing and the matter that surrounds it, and an abiding sense of the eternal and the cosmic scheme into which it fits. I look at my own world differently now after having seen through Malick’s lens, and it’s a wondrous transformation.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

My Wishlist for JPO Programmes

After being thrilled to see the lineup for this past JPO Spring Season, I have a wishlist of pieces I would still like to see appearing on future JPO programmes. As an ardent supporter of classical music (a term that needs to be retired but can’t be supplanted), I faithfully attend all its concerts with any programmes it puts up. But, ultimately, what I want from an evening with a symphony orchestra is the kind of inimitable experience that draws people to live performances of any kind: sensitive, vibrant, revelatory renditions of classics, as well as exposure to the less familiar.

The JPO’s primary function is to provide good performances of works in the orchestral repertory. But there’s an important secondary, curatorial function to any symphonic orchestra; the works that are chosen to be played are the works that are implicitly designated as important to the culture, the ones that are chosen to last. The canon is built by the decisions of what to perform, as well as by what to leave out.

For too many people, the “classical” in classical music means definitive, or etched in stone. A great orchestral performance can prove that classical also means radical: the works that have survived the ages can still yield new experiences, new visions, new worlds of feeling, and the works of today that look forward and open up music’s paths into the future yield nothing but the new.

Monday, 4 November 2019

James Gray’s Sublime “Ad Astra”

I don’t know a contemporary filmmaker who communicates such fervent emotions so immediately across the screen as James Gray. He has already made one of this decade’s most passionate melodramas in The Immigrant (from 2014, starring Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix), and a stirring neo-classical adventure tale about ardent dedication to a noble cause, in The Lost City of Z. To briefly describe the experience of watching his new movie, Ad Astra, which is currently in release: I was held in rapt fascination, and profoundly moved. It’s the most beautiful movie I’ve seen this year, and to think about it afterwards, with wonder and appreciation, heartens me, even when some of my friends who saw it with me didn’t seem to enjoy it much at all.

That Gray makes movies of such deep-seated emotions, that express ideas and feelings with so authentic and idiosyncratic a style, is what makes his cinema beautiful. His images, while richly textured, and shot by Hoyte van Hoytema (who previously shot Interstellar) with purpose, tenderness, and a concentrated focus, are muted; they point to deep wells of emotion, rather than stoking them. The intense experience of a character onscreen is finely sketched with exquisite attention to suggestive and surprising details. The point is to preserve and exalt the purity of the emotions felt, not to gratuitously stimulate them in the audience. Gray eludes the striking and the picturesque, for images of sheer sublimity.

Friday, 1 November 2019

“The Laundromat” is a Lesser Success by Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh emerged from a short-lived “retirement” with the trio Logan Lucky, Unsane, and High Flying Bird — a one-two-three of upward leaps for an already formidable filmmaker. That his next movie, The Laundromat (distributed by Netflix), is a lesser work will not seriously blight his career. Nor is it as bad as many reviewers would have you think. (High Flying Bird and Logan Lucky are also available to stream, as well as his earlier success Side Effects.)

What works is the movie’s core, the main plot and the host of surrounding subplots. What I don’t enjoy is what reviewers have zeroed in on — the unnecessary asides by Gary Oldman and Antonia Banderas, addressing the camera directly with explanations of the financial schemes they employ, à la The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short. The many strands of the story are like the web of real-life people implicated in the Panama Papers scandal, one of the largest data leaks in history and the true story on which the movie is based. Well, it’s the factual event on which the movie is based. I’m not sure how many of the plot elements are from actual real-life stories; obviously Oldman and Banderas’s characters, Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, are the real-life partners of the law firm Mossack-Fonseca whose data was leaked. But I haven’t checked up on whether anything else in the movie is based on anything real, and it doesn’t matter either to the movie or to its real-life implications.