Saturday, 12 June 2021

Barbra: My First Time

I don’t know who would believe me if I said that I was a Barbra Streisand virgin until yesterday. It wouldn’t strictly be true; I’ve seen clips of her on The Judy Garland Show, and in Meet the Fockers and Guilt Trip, but I wasn’t exposed to the dazzle of her music making until I turned on The Barbra Streisand Album for my drive home last night.

The album was Streisand’s studio début, and I won’t forget the experience of hearing its opening. After a short meandering solo by a plucked double bass, Barbra’s mezzo voice pierces the open silence above it, with a rhythmic incisiveness and mercurial inflection. She starts with the now-famous six-note falling scale that opens “Cry Me a River,” and that her distinctive tone immediately renders new and unfamiliar.

I was surprised to hear the wide range of approaches she takes on in one album, to convey her meanings. She veers from poise and precision – an elegance that may befit a salon in fin-de-siècle Paris – to brassy, growling roars, where she loses (that is, gives up) her control over pitch, pronunciation, and other aspects of making a nice sound. Her broad spectrum of expression covers infinitesimal nuances, subtle gradations in colour and timbre, and always seems to arise from a spontaneous idea or impression – moments become masterpieces, flung out on the wing.

Streisand’s distinguished artistry, and the sound of it on my inadequate speakers, made me think of the immediate recognisability of many of my favourite artists – Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Louis Armstrong, Emily Dickinson, Terrence Malick, Maria Callas, Chantal Akerman, Wes Anderson, Glenn Gould, Clint Eastwood, Nina Simone, or Jean Seberg – and how their style is more than an idiosyncrasy, or a brand. Style (at least, that of a great artist) is an outward expression of an entire personality; it’s the shuddering of a great soul, rendered as a physical experience. It’s why the styles of the artists mentioned above – as highly influential as each of them was – are so inimitable, why any attempt to reproduce them can only come off as the shallowest mimicry, and why coming across it in their work, in each moment-by-moment encounter, can feel like an enlargening of life itself.

Saturday, 29 May 2021

A Moving Musical Documentary on Netflix

I watched a very moving documentary on Netflix last week:
Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, which tells a story of the highly anticipated original Broadway production of the Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, and its immediate failure. The 2016 documentary was directed by Lonny Price, one of the production’s main cast members, and he interviews Sondheim, the production’s director, Hal Prince, a number of his castmates, and two notable audience members who saw the original run. I watched the movie as someone very interested in the work of Sondheim, and came away from it deeply touched by the experiences and perspectives of the people it features.

The documentary’s setting is the musical theatre of Broadway in the early 80s, but its subject is the expectations and frustrations – the dreams and subsequent hard reality – of any young person starting out in life. This happens to be a theme of the musical Merrily We Roll Along as well, and the plot, as relayed by Sondheim and Prince, is an apt parallel for the stories told by the once-young-and-aspiring real-life performers that Price interviews.

Sondheim and Prince had hired a cast of young performers, in their late teens and early 20s, each of whom was making their debut on Broadway, and who couldn’t have been more thrilled by the entire experience, including that of being a part of the history of their heroes. Price engagingly includes himself in the telling of the story, as well as the story of how the documentary got made, in part.

The show’s failure (closing after just 16 performances) had a devastating impact on all the documentary’s subjects, even Sondheim and Prince. Some of the young performers tell of struggling in a tough and competitive industry, one famous one struck on enviable success, and at least one left the acting profession entirely. More than the details of the production or what came after, the most engaging aspect of the entire movie is the affecting care and attention that Price pays to the people involved. The then-young performers are now all much older, and each carries a wealth of experience that’s instantly evoked in their interviews.

The weight of emotion that comes with that experience is brought poignantly to the movie’s forefront, and the documentary becomes a story that mirrors that of the show: Young people with big dreams transform into baffled, worldly, and keenly emotional older people. The tender observation – call it Love – with which Price shows their stories (including his own) is what enriches those emotions, and turns his documentary into a powerful experience.

Sunday, 17 January 2021

The Year in Movies – 2020

Like many, many things in 2020, this blog and any updates gave way to very different priorities, and not only did I watch fewer movies last year, but the way in which I watched them and the aspects that I paid most attention to and appreciated most also shifted, perhaps irreversibly. I found myself responding much more strongly to movies where the filmmakers took conspicuous and considerate care in imagining and conveying characters’ emotional lives, and to stories that seemed informed by lived experiences and hard-won knowledge.

Miranda July’s Kajillionaire (which could just as easily have been my Number 1 movie of the year), a movie about familial struggles, was born not only out of her prodigious imagination, but also out of her accumulating feelings of frustration, fury, discovery, joy, and a multitude of others that arise from her new experience of being a wife and a mother. Shirley was made by a consummate cinematic creator, Josephine Decker, who herself must have experienced some of the terrors and ecstasies of artistic creation before evoking them in the story of her protagonist, the real-life novelist Shirley Jackson.

Monday, 14 December 2020


Miranda July’s new movie – her third feature film – tells of a family of scammers: a father, Robert (Richard Jenkins), mother, Theresa (Debra Winger), and their 26-year-old daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), whom they’ve brought up outside of the mainstream culture and trained as a partner in crime. The very origin of Old Dolio’s name is an anecdote that exemplifies July’s enormous, distinctive, and highly eloquent imaginative powers. She also works as a short story writer, performance artist, and digital media artist (among a few other positions), and her filmmaking overflows with the creative energy she imparts in every aspect: the performances, the camera angles and movements, the light and shadows, the plot, the dialogue, the soundtrack, the very transitions from each image and sound to the next, all build upon each other to render every moment a stunning creation of imagination and furious expression in itself. Surrealism is combined with idiosyncratic fantasy to evoke vast emotional turmoil; the natural world’s turbulence, seismology, and cosmos map onto the inner world and experiences of both the characters and the artist that imagined them.

The subject of Kajillionaire is family life, and, in particular, the friction and conflict that arises when a family that has isolated itself comes crashing into contact with the outside world. Old Dolio’s parents treat her without affection or due respect, justifying it as an egalitarian attitude – they claim regard her as an equal partner, while casting numerous cruel offhand remarks – and, without knowing it, she harbours an ocean of repressed emotions and desires. Her journey of self-discovery, self-revelation, and emotional eruption begins when the family meets an optician’s assistant, Melanie (Gina Rodriguez). Robert and Theresa lure Melanie into a scheme with feigned warmth and affection (the same false emotions they claim to keep from Old Dolio), and even their faux behaviour arouses jealousy and anguished yearning in Old Dolio. Melanie befriends Old Dolio and guides her through a new realm of emotional expression and nourishing gratification, that not only frees her from the repressive restrictions of her own family, but brings her into contact and connection with the wider world, that awakens her to the might and magic of living a connected life. July comes up with one of her most extraordinary imaginative strokes in rendering this moment, both as a cosmic-scale emotional experience and visual metaphor, of a person emerging from dark nothingness into the light.

A word on availability: Kajillionaire was released theatrically in the US earlier this year, and is available on various streaming services in the US, but nowhere in South Africa. Local viewers will need to devise their own schemes to see it.

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.