Friday, August 31, 2012


Vaarallisia valheita / Farliga lögner. US 1941. PC: RKO Radio Pictures, Inc. P: Harry E. Edington. D: Alfred Hitchcock. SC: Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison, and Alma Reville – based on the novel Before the Fact (1932, translated into Finnish as Rakkaani, paholainen by Eero Ahmavaara, WSOY / Korppisarja, 1962) by Francis Iles (= Anthony Berkeley).  DP: Harry Stradling. FX: Vernon L. Walker. ED: William Hamilton. AD: Van Nest Polglase. Set dec: Carroll Clark. Cost: Edward Stevenson. Makeup: Mel Berns. SFX: Vernon L. Walker. M: Franz Waxman. Love motif: "Wiener Blut" by Johann Strauss. S: John E. Tribby. C: Joan Fontaine (Lina MacLaidlaw Aysgarth), Cary Grant (Johnny Aysgarth), Cedric Hardwicke (General MacLaidlaw), Nigel Bruce (Gordon Cochrane "Beaky" Thwaite), Dame May Whitty (Mrs. Martha MacLaidlaw), Isabel Jeans (Mrs. Newsham), Heather Angel (Ethel, maid), Auriol Lee (Isobel Sedbusk), Reginald Sheffield (Reggie Wetherby), Leo G. Carroll (Captain George Melbeck), Alfred Hitchcock (man mailing letter).  Helsinki premiere: 11.9.1944 Adlon – vhs and dvd releases: Castle Video, Gerit Oy, PAN Vision – Finnish classification number 24983 – K16 – 2730 m / 99 min. A Svenska Filminstitutet / Filmarkivet print with Swedish subtitles viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Alfred Hitchcock), 31 August 2012.

Revisited the first half an hour of the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece.

Hitchcock admired the Lubitsch touch, and this movie is the first great appearance of a similar mercurial wit in Hitchcock's oeuvre. Suspicion is also the first appearance of Cary Grant in a Hitchcock movie. Later, To Catch a Thief was another Hitchcock movie with Lubitsch inspiration (Trouble in Paradise) and with Cary Grant starring.

The sparkling screenplay is by Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison and Alma Reville. Raphaelson was Lubitsch's screenwriter in eight movies or so (not always credited).

In Suspicion and Notorious Hitchcock emphasizes the dark side of Cary Grant. There is a Finnish saying "miksi naiset rakastuvat renttuihin?" ("why do women fall in love with scoundrels?"), and Suspicion is a movie about just that.

Suspicion, like Dial M for Murder, is also one of Hitchcock's movies about the worst nightmare in marriage: that the spouse who supposedly loves you actually intends to kill you.

The duped print does not do justice to Harry Stradling's cinematography.

Clean (2004, Olivier Assayas)

Olivier Assayas: Clean (FR/GB/CA 2004) starring Maggie Cheung (Emily Wang).

FR/GB/CA © 2004 Rectangle Prod. / Rhombus Media / Haystack Prod. / Arte / Forensic Films. EX: Aline Perry, Rupert Preston. P: Niv Fichman, Xavier Giannoli, Xavier Marchand, Edouard Weil.
     D+SC: Olivier Assayas. DP: Eric Gautier – camera: Aaton 35-III – lenses: Cooke S4 – Super 35 (KodakVision2 500T 5218) – laboratory: DeLuxe (London) – 2,35:1. PD: William Fleming, François-Renaud Labarthe. Cost: Anaïs Romand. Makeup: Thi-Loan Nguyen. Hair: Franck-Pascal Alquinet, Debra Johnson. M: Brian Eno, David Roback, Tricky, Elizabeth Densmore, Metric, Joey Ramone, Britta Phillips & Dean Wareham, The Notwist, z'Howndz. Maggie Cheung sings herself in her song sequences. S: Bill Flynn. ED: Luc Barnier. Casting: Shaheen Baig, Antoinette Boulat, John Buchan, Millie Tom, Isabelle Ungaro.
    C: Maggie Cheung (Emily Wang), Nick Nolte (Albrecht Hauser), Béatrice Dalle (Elena), Jeanne Balibar (Irene Paolini), Don McKellar (Vernon), Martha Henry (Rosemary Hauser), James Johnston (Lee Hauser), James Dennis (Jay), Rémi Martin (Jean-Pierre), Laetitia Spigarelli (Sandrine). As themselves: Tricky, David Roback, Liz Densmore.
    Loc: Paris, Hamilton (Ontario), London, San Francisco, Vancouver (British Columbia), Whitby (Ontario).
    Languages: French, English, Cantonese.
    110 min.
    Not released in Finland.
    A 35 mm print from Institut Français with English subtitles by Andrew Litwack viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Olivier Assayas), 31 August 2012.

A cool, sober, and strong movie about picking up the pieces and starting anew. The rocker Lee overdoses, his companion Emily goes to prison for possession, she is denied the right to meet her son when she is released, and everybody thinks she is responsible for the death of the highly regarded Lee. Also Lee's mother thinks so and has even told Emily's little son so.

The approach is matter-of-fact, focusing on practical circumstances of life and business arrangements such as recording deals and re-release plans.

Clean is a tale of a disaster and the long and humiliating road – the via dolorosa – that Emily needs to go, but she never gives up.

The parallel story is about Lee's parents: his mother Rosemary turns out to be incurably ill and facing imminent death. Nick Nolte portrays Albrecht, Lee's father and Rosemary's husband, who faces the twin tragedy with silent dignity. His is a great performance.

It seems impossible that Emily might be able to even meet her son Jay, but she succeeds. It's disastrous as first as Jay hates his mother for killing his dad. Emily's heart is broken, and she bursts into tears, but Albrecht believes that people change.

The climax and the turning-point is where Emily gets the chance to talk honestly with Jay about what has  happened. The encounter is psychologically believable and deeply moving, and we believe that Jay changes his mind and wants to stay with his mother now. These sequences are remarkable.

The print is clean and complete. There is an intentionally cold, bleak, urban, and industrial look. Clean has been shot on photochemical 35 mm film, but in this print there is a look which is either duped or like struck from a digital intermediate.

Critics between Arts (international seminar of the Finnish Critics' Association)

Ateneum-sali, Ateneum the Finnish National Gallery, 31 August - 1 September, 2012

Topical issues of art criticism were discussed at the international seminar organized by SARV (Suomen Arvostelijoiden Liitto = The Finnish Critics' Association). I participated in the programme of the first day in which the cinema was included.

It was a pleasure to meet Ph. D. Ronald Bergan, regular contributor to The Guardian, former Vice-President of FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics), and current president of Fedeora, a new federation of European and Mediterranean film critics, and author of many distinguished film books.

Ronald Bergan discussed cinema as the synthesis of all the arts and the meaning of the individual signature in a film.

I argued that a film critic can benefit from the study of all other arts and critics of all other arts can benefit from the study of the cinema. - My focus was on the digital transition which transforms all aspects of film production and distribution - also the art of seeing needs to be reinvented. - A hundred years ago film producers devoured prestigious classics of the past in literature, theatre, and opera in the Film d'Art phenomenon and its imitators, but simultaneously cinema itself was already a force of the future, radicalizing art, a source of inspiration for modernism in phenomena such as montage, collage, surreal juxtaposition, the dream mode, and the stream of consciousness. - Serious art criticism is more important then ever in the era of the deluge of information. I agree with Nicholas Carr (The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains): internet is good for surfing, but printed media is necessary for profound thought. - We need to fight for better conditions for professional art critics who deserve to be well paid for their expertise.

Friday, August 31st 11.00 – 16.15
11.00 Opening words, president Elisabeth Nordgren, The Finnish Critics´ Association
David Mawby, speaker of the seminar
11.15 – 11.45 Ronald Bergan: "The Seventh Art" (film)
11.45 – 12.15 Antti Alanen: "Cinema between Arts" (film)
12.15 – 13.15 Lunch break
13.15 – 13.45 Mette-Marie Zacher Sørensen: "Where Are the Borders of Literature? On the Critique of Digital and Multimodal Genres" (literature)
13.45 – 14.15 Maaria Pääjärvi: "The Otherness of Experimental Poetry?" (literature)
14.15 – 14.45 Coffee
14.45 – 15.30 Fisun Güner: "Do Artists Make Better Art Critics Than Non-Artists?" (art)
15.30 – 16.15 General discussion on the topics of the day, chair Heikki Kastemaa

Saturday, September 1st 12.00 – 16.15
12.00 – 12.30 Jan Granlie (music)
12.30 – 13.00 Osmo Tapio Räihälä (music)
13.00 – 14.00 Lunch break
14.00 – 14.30 Donald Hutera (dance and theatre)
14.30 – 15.00 Pekko Koskinen (theatre and games)
15.00 – 15.20 Coffee
15.20 – 16.00 General discussion on the topics of the day, chair Elisabeth Nordgren
16.00 – 16.15 Final words, Elisabeth Nordgren

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Shadow of a Doubt

Epäilyksen varjo / Skuggan av ett tvivel. US 1943 (New York premiere: 12 January 1943) © 1942 Universal Pictures. PC: Jack H. Skirball Productions. P: Jack H. Skirball. D: Alfred Hitchcock. SC: Thornton Wilder, Alma Reville, Sally Benson – based on a story by Gordon McDonnel. DP: Joseph Valentine. AD: John B. Goodman. Set dec: R.A. Gausman. Cost: Adrian, Vera West. M: Dimitri Tiomkin. Franz Lehár: "The Merry Widow Waltz". ED: Milton Carruth. S: Bernard B. Brown. C: Joseph Cotten (Uncle Charlie = Charles Oakley), Teresa Wright (Charlotte "Charlie" Newton), Macdonald Carey (Detective Jack Graham), Patricia Collinge (Emma Newton, mother), Henry Travers (Joseph Newton, father), Hume Cronyn (Herbie Hawkins), Wallace Ford (Detective Fred Saunders), Edma Mae Wonacott (Ann Newton), Charles Bates (Roger Newton), Irving Bacon (station master), Clarence Muse (porter), Janet Shaw (Louise), Estelle Jewell (girlfriend), Minerva Urecal (Mrs. Henderson), Isabel Randolph (Mrs. Green), Frances Carson (Mrs. Poetter), Constance Purdy (Mrs. Martin), Edward Fielding, Sarah Edwards (a doctor and a wife on the train), Grandon Rhodes, Ruth Lee (Reverend and Mrs. MacCurdy), Alfred Hitchcock (man on the train playing cards). Loc: Santa Rosa (California). Helsinki premiere: 2.9.1945 Astor, released by Astor Film – Finnish classification number 25617 – K16 – 2850 m / 104 min. A BFINA print viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Alfred Hitchcock), 30 August 2012.

Revisited a key work of Alfred Hitchcock, one that he at times called his personal favourite.

My previous main impression of Shadow of a Doubt was that it is about the torment of living in a permanent lie. A criminal's whole existence is a fake because he has to keep up an unremitting masquerade and any little detail may give him away. Unusually, the serial killer is the real protagonist of this movie. We are made to identify with him from the start when the policemen get on his trail. But there is another man who becomes the prime suspect, and when he dies Uncle Charlie gets a real opportunity to live the rest of his life undetected. Yet his niece Charlotte, also called "Charlie", instinctively knows the truth, and she becomes the sole remaining obstacle for Uncle Charlie.

On this viewing, my main impression of the movie was that it is about the young girl's endless disappointment and sorrow. She has idolized Uncle Charlie to be a fantastic and spectacular character, out of the ordinary, the opposite to the everyday life in the small town ("I don't like to be from an average family"). And yes, Uncle Charlie is all that, and how. Little disappointments give away the bigger ones. The valuable emerald ring Uncle Charlie gives to her niece bears an inscription belonging to a murdered wealthy widow.

Shadow of a Doubt is the first movie in Hitchcock's Übermensch ("Superman") cycle of the 1940s, also including Lifeboat and Rope. The Übermensch theme was famously studied by Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment.

Shadow of a Doubt also belongs to Hitchcock's studies about doubles like Strangers on a Train. In both there is a nice person who is so normal and balanced that it is difficult / impossible for him / her to even believe in such an evil that exists in the other. The outlandishness of the evil is a factor in making the crimes possible because others have a hard time in believing in and relating to its existence. The Dostoyevskian connection here is The Idiot with its train motif and its Myshkin / Rogozhin dichotomy.

Shadow of a Doubt is also a growing up story of the young Charlotte. She remains alone in her doubt, and she is alone to face Uncle Charlie's three murder attempts, and to finally fight Uncle Charlie in the conclusion. In its psychological dynamics Shadow of a Doubt anticipates The Silence of the Lambs, the Clarice Starling / Hannibal Lecter battle of the souls.

Shadow of a Doubt belongs to Hitchcock's expressionist movies with pronounced shadows appearing over sunny California: the exaggerated smoke from the train that brings Uncle Charlie to Santa Rosa, and the Langian-Nosferatuan shadows in scenes where Uncle Charlie appears.

Like in Lifeboat, I have a hard time in relating to the misanthropic aspect of Hitchcock's story: the villain is so powerful, and the other characters, except Charlotte, are sketchy and caricatured to my taste. The performances of Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright are great.

There is a duped look in this print.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


Olivier Assayas: demonlover (FR 2002).

FR © 2002 Elizabeth Films, M6 Films, Citizen Films. PC also: Forensic Films. P: Edouard Weil, Xavier Giannoli, Andrés Martin, Robin O'Hara, Jean Coulon, Claude Davy.
    D+SC: Olivier Assayas. DP: Denis Lenoir – 2K scan – colour. PD: François-Renaud Labarthe. AD: James David Goldmark. Cost: Anaïs Romand. M: Sonic Youth, Jim O'Rourke. S: Philippe Richard, Olivier Goinard, Dominique Gaborieau. ED: Luc Barnier. Assistant D: Marie-Jeanne Pascal. P manager: Sylvie Barthet.
    C: Connie Nielsen (Diane de Monx), Charles Berling (Hervé Le Millinec), Chloë Sevigny (Elise Lipsky), Gina Gershon (Elaine Si Gibril), Jean-Baptiste Malartre (Henri-Pierre Volf), Dominique Reymond (Karen), Edwin Gerard (Edward Gomez), Thomas M. Pollard (American lawyer), Abi Sakamoto (Kaori).
    129 min.
    Not released in Finland.
    A 35 mm print from Institut Français with English subtitles by Andrew Litwack viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Olivier Assayas), 29 August 2012.

In this movie Olivier Assayas approaches the cinéma du look territory of Beineix, Besson, Carax, and Jeunet-Caro of the 1980s and the early 1990s, but his heart is not in it, and the very failure of the movie may be a good testimony about Assayas.

There are also connections with Far Eastern action cinema, but maybe the most prominent impression of demonlover is Assayas' lack of conviction in superficial action. When there is more substance in the characters, he is a good action director.

B. Kite has written a fine double-edged essay on demonlover. In it he compares demonlover with Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse movies, and there are fascinating and relevant connections both in the concept and in the detail: both start with the theft of an attaché case with an important contract. The difference is that Lang invests an extraordinary, burning, unforgettable visual charge in pulp fiction, but Assayas is not a director "who believes in the image" in the Bazinian sense. Assayas at his best "believes in reality" and is the more Bazinian of the two.

Yet demonlover is interesting and relevant in an Assayas retrospective. It is a thriller with global, metaphysical concerns. It is a story about media industry. Let's not forget that super action fantasies started in France in the serials of Louis Feuillade (Irma Vep... ) and Victorin Jasset even before Feuillade. But Assayas is no Tarantino. He cannot sustain enthusiasm and passion for such genres.

One of the rewards of watching the films of a director back to back in a retrospective is realizing how a director may elicit completely different performances from his favourite ensemble of actors, such as Charles Berling, Dominique Reymond, Jean-Baptiste Malaltre, and Jean-Pierre Gos here. Some of them I saw yesterday in period costume in Les Destinées sentimentales, and now in cyberpunk fiction about interactive sadistic cyberporn.

The most impressive scene is between Diane (Connie Nielsen) and Hervé (Charles Berling) in the Japanese restaurant. After it, Hervé rapes Diane, and Diane shoots Hervé. Connie Nielsen is an intelligent actress whose roles have often been underdeveloped, and even here there is a constant expectation of a fuller characterization, frustrated because of the script.

The 2K digital intermediate look in the 35 mm print is intentionally cold, soulless, and drab.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Les Destinées sentimentales / Sentimental Destinies

Olivier Assayas: Les Destinées sentimentales / Sentimental Destinies (FR/CH 2000) starring Emmanuelle Béart (Pauline).

Les Destinées / Ödets vägar.
    FR/CH © 2000 Arena Films / TF1 / CAB Prod. PC also: Arcade / Canal+ / TSR. P: Bruno Pésery, Jean-Louis Porchet, Gérard Ruey.
    D: Olivier Assayas. SC: Jacques Fieschi, Olivier Assayas – based on the novel trilogy (1934–1936) by Jacques Chardonne. DP: Éric Gautier – camera: Aaton 35-III (Technovision/Cooke and Kowa Prominar lenses) – Éclair – Fuji – colour – Kowa Scope and Technovision 2,35:1. PD: Katia Wyszkop, Frédéric Bénard, Gérard Marcireau, Jacques Mollon, Ivan Niclass. SFX: Hans Frei. Cost: Anaïs Romand. Makeup: Véronique Hebet, Thi Thanh Tu Nguyen. Hair: Fabienne Bressan, Christine Leaustic, Annie Marandin. M: compositions by Guillaume Lekeu perf. L'Ensemble de Musique Oblique. Waltzes by Emile Waldteufel and Olivier Metra perf. L'Ensemble Sorties d'Artistes. S: Jean-Claude Laureux, William Flageollet. ED: Luc Barnier. Casting: Antoinette Boulat. Assistant director: Marie-Jeanne Pascal. Production manager: Jean-Yves Asselin.
    C: Emmanuelle Béart (Pauline), Charles Berling (Jean Barnery), Isabelle Huppert (Nathalie), Olivier Perrier (Philippe Pommerel), Dominique Reymond (Julie Desca), André Marcon (Paul Desca), Alexandra London (Louise Desca), Julie Depardieu (Marcelle), Louis-Do De Lencquesaing (Arthur Pommerel), Mia Hansen-Løve (Aline), Georges Wilson (Robert Barnery).
    Locations: Indre-et-Loire, Charente.
    180 min.
    Not released in Finland.
    An Institut Français print with English subtitles by Ian Burley viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Olivier Assayas), 28 August 2012.

Three parts: I La Femme de Jean Barnery, II Pauline, III Le Service ivoire.

As in Carlos, Assayas displays here his mastery with the form of the historical epic. The historical arc here extends from the year 1900 to the mid-1930s.

There is in Assayas' films a real interest in production and design, in arts and crafts. In this film: porcelain and cognac production; in other films: cybermedia, rock industry, and film production are examined also from a practical point of view. In Summer Hours the fate of art and design objects is an economical question for the family.

Jacques Chardonne (1884–1968), whose work I have not read, was reportedly a conservative writer, and after WWII he served a prison sentence for his active collaboration with the Vichy government. I would guess that his great novel trilogy is a work of capitalist realism. Richard Suchenski writes that the film adaptation by Assayas is faithful to Chardonne.

Les Destinées sentimentales belongs to the rare tradition of the cinema of the Viscontian epic, and I cannot think of another movie which would come closer to the Viscontian standard of Il gattopardo. In these works their creators are proud of their stance of objectivity. The protagonists are the masters of a vanishing glory, facing their destinies with dignity. The story has also affinities with the bourgeois family sagas of Thomas Mann.

The love story in the heart of Les Destinées sentimentales between Pauline (Emmanuelle Béart) and Jean (Charles Berling) is moving, unique and surprising to the end. There is a period of paradise in Switzerland, a period of estrangement ("I don't remember the man I was then"), and a period of final reconciliation.

French Protestantism is an important element. Jean starts as a minister, and there are affinities in Charles Berling's performance to those of Lars Hanson as Gösta Berling (pun intended) and Dimmesdale (The Scarlet Letter).

The print looks immaculate. In the beginning and later there are visual effects of a monochrome / tinted look. At times the print looks like duped or like it has been struck from a digital intermediate. The fine distinctions of celadon and ivory hues, important for this family saga in big porcelain business, are unrecognizable in this print.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

HHH – portrait de Hou Hsiao-hsien

Olivier Assayas: Cinéma, de notre temps: HHH – portrait de Hou Hsiao-hsien (FR/TW 1997).

Cinéma, de notre temps: HHH – portrait de Hou Hsiao-hsien.
    FR/TW © 1997 AMIP / La Sept-Arte /INA. PC also: Arc-Light Films / Hsu Hsiao-ming Film Corp. P: Xavier Carniaux, Peggy Chiao.
    D+SC: Olivier Assayas. DP: Éric Gautier – 35 mm – colour. S: Tu Du-Che, William Flageollet. ED: Marie Lecœur. Production manager: Elisabeth Marlangias.
    Featuring: Hou Hsiao-hsien, Chen Kuo-fu, Chu T'ien-wen, Kao She, Lin Giang, Tu Du-che, Wu Nien-jen.
    Not released in Finland.
    90 min.
    A Betacam with English subtitles by Andrew Litwack from Institut Français.
    Viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Olivier Assayas), 25 August 2012.

Clips from: A Time to Live, and a Time to Die (1985), A City of Sadness (1989), The Puppet Master (1993), Goodbye, South, Goodbye (1996).

Larry Gross in his essay on HHH comments on the place of Olivier Assayas in the history of the cinema. The great artistic blooming of the cinema that had started after WWII came to an end in the 1970s. The inspiration of modernism was being exhausted. The fire of la Nouvelle Vague was fading away. The golden age of new American cinema ended, too.

Olivier Assayas as a young critic belonged to the early discoverers of Asian cinematic modernism, and in Hou Hsiao-hsien's movies he found elective affinities. These were among his main sources of inspiration in contemporary cinema.

HHH is a central work in the oeuvre of Assayas, a film illuminating about Hou, and a major achievement of building bridges between cultures. We learn a lot about history and ways of life on Taiwan. We also get keys to understanding Chinese approaches to life, philosophic stances different from European ones, ways of  Chinese dignity and courtesy.

Assayas creates an atmosphere of confidence and friendship as we follow Hou to the streets of his childhood, favourite restaurants, cafés and karaoke bars, joined by his colleagues, partners, and friends. His screenwriters, actors, cinematographers and sound designers contribute to the story. We start to get acquainted with ways of life that are in the process of changing and vanishing. Taiwan is a society that has always been based on impermanence. Hou's parents expected to return to mainland China any year.

Hou is a good singer, and in the conclusion he sings two old popular Taiwanese songs to his friends in a karaoke bar.

Betacam quality.

Barbara (2012)

DE 2012 © 2011 Schramm Film Koerner & Weber / ZDF / ARTE. EX: Michael Weber. P: Florian Koerner von Gustorf. D+SC: Christian Petzold. Collaboration on SC: Harun Farocki. DP: Hans Fromm - shot on Super 35 (Kodak Vision3 250D 5207, Vixion3 500T 5219) - released on 35 mm and 2K DCP - colour - 1,85:1. PD: Kade Gruber. Cost: Anette Guther. Makeup: Barbara Kreuzer, Alexandra Lebedynski. M: Stefan Will. Frédéric Chopin: Nocturne g-moll opus 15 No. 3. S: Dominik Schleier. ED: Bettina Böhler. Casting: Simone Bär. C: Nina Hoss (Barbara, a doctor), Ronald Zehrfeld (Dr. André Reiser), Rainer Bock (Klaus Schütz, Stasi officer), Christina Hecke (Karin), Claudia Geisler (Schlösser, nurse), Peter Weiss (medical student), Carolin Haupt (medical student), Deniz Petzold (Angelo), Rosa Enskat (Bungert, janitor), Jasna Fritzi Bauer (Stella). Loc: Brandenburg (Kirchmöser, Brandenburg an der Havel), Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania (Ahrenshoop: the seashore), Schneidlingen (Hecklingen, Saxony-Anhalt: the train station). 105 min. Released by Future Film with Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Antti Mänttäri / Heidi Nyblom Kuorikoski. 2K DCP viewed at Maxim 2, Helsinki, 25 August 2012.

Synopsis from Wikipedia: "East Germany in 1980: Physician Barbara (Nina Hoss) has been transferred for disciplinary reasons because she had filed an "Ausreiseantrag", officially expressing her wish to leave the German Democratic Republic. This puts an end to her career and she is no longer employed by the prestigious Charité in East Berlin, being sent instead to a small hospital near the Baltic Sea. There she works in pediatric surgery, a department led by chief physician André Reiser. The Stasi orders Reiser to approach her in order to gain intelligence on her, but she refuses his advances."

"While Barbara's lover Jörg in West Germany prepares her escape, Reiser is increasingly impressed by Barbara. When a young runaway named Stella is delivered to the hospital, she openly contradicts Reiser, who thought she was just faking and finds out that the girl is suffering from meningitis. He stands corrected and appreciates how she takes care of Stella. She reads the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to her and learns that Stella has escaped from a youth detention centre for so-called juvenile offenders, where she was forced to do hard labour. Stella is pregnant and dreams of raising her child in West Germany, yet she must return to the detention centre."

"Barbara manages to meet Jörg secretly in an “Interhotel” (an East-German hotel designed for foreigners). He offers to move to East Germany instead of her fleeing to join him in the west; he also indicates she will not need to work if she joins him in West Germany because he is wealthy. The Stasi punish Barbara for the hours in which they cannot find her, by raiding her house and even by inflicting strip- and cavity-searches upon her."

"While Barbara is working on a concrete plan to get to Denmark, she accepts Reiser's invitation to dine with him, although she knows he must report to the Stasi. On this occasion she receives a gift from him. It is Ivan Turgenev's A Sportsman's Sketches and Reiser stresses that this book includes the tale of a doctor. They kiss but Barbara still can't let go of her dream of going to West Germany, so she eventually runs away to her own house."

"Stella flees the labour youth detention programme again and, gravely injured by barbed wire, seeks shelter in Barbara's home. Barbara does what she can to treat her wounds and takes her to the shore, where a man comes to pick Barbara up and bring her to Denmark where Jörg is waiting for her. With Barbara's blessing Stella takes advantage of Barbara's elaborate preparations and goes instead of her to Denmark. Barbara returns to keep on working as a doctor at Reiser's side."

An excellent low key account on life in East Germany during the last decade of its existence. It reverses stereotypes: the grim, glum, slightly haughty, hardly ever smiling Barbara (Nina Hoss) is the dissident. The friendly, warm, patient, and self-effacing André (Ronald Zehrfeld) is a Stasi informer, also a prisoner of the system, also a victim of injustice. Barbara is a story about life in a police state where privacy has ceased to exist.

Barbara surprises constantly with interesting observations. The waiters taking a break with their legs up the wall. André's personal lab and his Rembrandt interpretation. New meanings in the novels of Mark Twain and Ivan Turgenev. The circumstances at the Torgay camp for hard labour. State prostitutes working for Stasi. The accuracy in the details of preparing the escape. Interesting realistic detail about the doctors' practice. The feeling of freedom in the forest and on the seashore. The surprise ending which makes sense.

The visual look is intentionally bleak, and the visual quality of the 2K digital projection was fine.

Brave (2012 Pixar animation) 3D

Urhea / Modig. US © 2012 Disney / Pixar. P: Katherine Sarafian. D: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman. SC: Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman, Irene Mecchi - story: Brenda Chapman. Technical specs (IMDb): digital - digital intermediate 2K - 2,35:1 - released on 35 mm and DCP, on a flat version and Disney Digital 3D. Animation dept: huge. Art dept: Megan Bartel, huge. VFX dept: huge. M: Patrick Doyle - Scottish flavour with bagpipes, a solo fiddle, Celtic harps, flutes, the bodhrán, dulcimer and cimbalom: "I employed classic Scottish dance rhythms such as reels, jigs and strathspeys", and "unaccompanied Gaelic psalm singing". Plus original songs: "Touch The Sky", "Into The Open Air", "Learn Me Right". ED: Nicholas C. Smith.

Voice talent (from Wikipedia): Kelly Macdonald (Princess Merida, the heroine and the feisty princess of Dunbroch), Billy Connolly (King Fergus, Merida's boisterous father and the king of Dunbroch), Emma Thompson (Queen Elinor, the diplomatic queen of Dunbroch and Merida's mother, who just wants what's best for her kingdom and her daughter), Julie Walters (The Witch), Robbie Coltrane (Lord Dingwall), Kevin McKidd (Lord MacGuffin and Young MacGuffin), Craig Ferguson (Lord Macintosh), Sally Kinghorn and Eilidh Fraser (Maudie), Peigi Barker (Young Merida), Steven Cree (Young Macintosh), Steve Purcell (The Crow), Callum O'Neill (Wee Dingwall), Patrick Doyle (Martin, the guard), John Ratzenberger (Gordon, the guard). Non-speaking characters include Mor'du (the bear), Angus (Merida's horse), and Harris, Hubert, and Hamish (Merida's triplet brothers).

Finnish voice talent: MERIDA Heljä Heikkinen, FERGUS Jarmo Mäkinen, ELINOR Satu Silvo, NOITA Maija-Liisa Peuhu, LORDI DINGWALL Jouko Klemettilä, LORDI MACGUFFIN Sasu Moilanen, LORDI MACINTOSH Aku Laitinen, MAUDIE Eija Vilpas, NUORI MERIDA Seera Alexander, NUORI MACGUFFIN Santtu Karvonen, NUORI MACINTOSH Aksu Palmen, RAAKKU Antti Jaakola, WEE DINGWALL Petrus Kähkönen, MARTIN Mikael Eklund, GORDON Heikki Sankari. - Singer: Saara Aalto. - Other roles: Ella Pyhältö, Susa Saukko, Kari Tamminen, Tommi Haapaniemi, Katja Aakkula. Supervisor: Markus Bäckman. Äänitys ja editointi: Kari Leppälä. Tuotantokoordinaattori: Tarja Alexander. Dialogin kääntäjä: Marko Hartama. Laulujen kääntäjä: Tuija Korhonen. Studio: SDI Media.

Credited animation system: Presto. In memory of Steve Jobs. 93 min. 

Released in Finland by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Finland in three language versions: original, Finnish, and Swedish. 2K DCP, 3D XpanD, viewed at Tennispalatsi 1, Helsinki, 25 August 2012 (weekend of Finnish premiere).

It is very difficult to deduce the main animation credits from the long lists of names in the production information.

Facts from Wikipedia: This is the first movie to use the Dolby Atmos sound format. To make the most complex visuals possible, Pixar completely rewrote their animation system for the first time in 25 years. Pixar's first fairy tale, somewhat darker and more mature in tone than its previous films. Brenda Chapman considers it as a fairy tale in the tradition of H.C. Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. Chapman conceived the project and was announced as the director of the film, making her Pixar's first female director, but in October 2010, she was replaced by Mark Andrews following creative disagreements. Merida is the first female lead in a Pixar film.

This new kind of Pixar animation was very well received by our young companions of 8 and 10 years of age. It is a magic princess fairy-tale with some realistic insights in psychology: "I'd rather die than become like you", exclaims the princess to her mother, the Queen. Mastery in archery, will o' the wisp guidance, and a magic power that has terrible, unexpected side effects are among the ingredients in the fairy-tale set in medieval Scotland.

There are great sequences in the movie. Through magic, the Queen turns into a bear with a human soul, but gradually she is transforming into a true animal also inside. The daughter feeds her mother with raw fish, but she soon learns to fish herself. "Mother - is that you?" In a uniquely funny sequence the mother bear advises her daughter via pantomime (hand signs) in what she needs to say to the guests in the banquet hall.

In the Highland Games sequence there are fascinating details about medieval games and music instruments, and the lair of the witch-carpenter is full of interesting gadgets. All this detail flashes past too fast.

Brave is worth seeing, but as a whole it is not among the best Pixar features. The rhythm succumbs a bit too much to ADHD sensibilities, in contrast to the masterpieces of Pixar.

The literate script is well translated into Finnish, in verse, when needed. The Finnish actors speak sometimes in mannered-parodic 1950s theatrical, overdone accents, as seems to be required, but I'd prefer a more natural way.

Rated 7/4 in Finland, there were very young patrons (under seven years old) in the cinema. One family had to leave because the film was too frightening, and from the row behind we heard that another family also considered leaving.

I was the only patron in the cinema who stayed to the end and saw the bonus scene (the yawn, the witch, the magic crow).

Recently I have had no complaints about image brightness in 3D. Brave has been produced on a new Presto animation system in Disney Digital 3D, but perhaps in the huge Tennispalatsi 1 the lamps are currently not bright enough as the image seemed too dark. I tried five different 3D glasses on, but the result was the same. I missed the famous exquisite red hair effect, for instance.

La luna (2011 3D animated short)

US © 2011 Disney / Pixar. EX: John Lasseter. P: Kevin Reher. D+SC: Enrico Casarosa. M: Michael Giacchino. Voice talent: Krista Sheffler (Bambino), Tony Fucile (Papà), Phil Sheridan (Nonno). Digital animation in 3D. 7 min. There is no meaningful dialogue in the movie. Viewed in 2K DCP, 3D XpanD, before Brave at Tennispalatsi 1, Helsinki (weekend of Finnish premiere), 25 August 2012.

Wikipedia synopsis: "A young boy, Bambino, goes on a midnight sailing trip with his father Papà and grandfather Nonno. After they anchor their boat in the middle of the sea, Papà presents Bambino with a cap similar to the ones he and Nonno wear. The two men disagree on how Bambino should wear it, with Papà pulling it low over his eyes and Nonno pushing it back on his head. Papà sets up a long ladder for Bambino to climb so he can set the boat's anchor on the full moon, and the three ascend to start their work of sweeping fallen stars off the lunar surface. Papà urges Bambino to use a pushbroom on the stars, while Nonno favors a besom broom. As they quarrel, a huge star crashes down on the moon; it is far too large for any of them to move by themselves. Turning his cap backwards, the way he wants to wear it, Bambino climbs onto the star and taps it with a hammer. It bursts apart into hundreds of smaller stars, and all three go to work sweeping them up, with Bambino choosing a rake instead of either man's broom. Once the job is done, they climb back down into their boat and look up at the moon, which now displays a glowing crescent phase thanks to their efforts."

A charming animated short about a ladder to the moon, fallen stars, and how the crescent is born. An original fairy-tale with no implications about mankind abusing gold stars and darkening the sky.

Friday, August 24, 2012

L'Eau froide / Cold Water

Olivier Assayas: L'Eau froide / Cold Water (FR 1994) with Virginie Ledoyen (Christine) and Cyprien Fouquet (Gilles).

Pariisin kevät.
    FR © 1994 IMA Films. P: Georges Benayoun, Paul Rozenberg.
    D+SC: Olivier Assayas. Quoted: Allen Ginsberg's "Wichita Vortex Sutra". Ass. D: François-Renaud Labarthe. DP: Denis Lenoir – Super 16 mm – blown up to 35 mm – Fuji - colour. AD: Gilbert Gagneux. Cost: Françoise Clavel.
    M selection: "Me & Bobby McGee" perf. Janis Joplin; "Up Around The Bend" perf. Creedence Clearwater Revival; "Janitor Of Lunacy" perf. Nico; "Virginia Plain" perf. Roxy Music; "Avalanche" perf. Leonard Cohen; "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" perf. Bob Dylan; "School's Out" perf. Alice Cooper; "Easy Livin'" perf. Uriah Heep; "Cosmic Wheels" perf. Donovan.
    S: Hervé Chauvel, William Flageollet. ED: Luc Barnier. Production manager: Sylvie Barthet. Photographer: Isabelle Weingarten.
    C: Virginie Ledoyen (Christine), Cyprien Fouquet (Gilles), László Szabó (the father of Gilles), Jean-Pierre Darroussin (inspector), Dominique Faysse (the mother of Christine), Smaïl Mekki (Mourad), Jackie Berroyer (the father of Christine), Jean-Christophe Bouvet (teacher), Ilona Györi (Marie, the Hungarian maid), Renée Amzallag, Jerôme Simonin, Laetitia Lemerle, Alexandra Yonnet, Caroline Doron, Laetitia Giraud.
    Released on VHS in Finland in 1996 by Finnkino – VET V-2785 – S12 – 94 min.
    A print with English subtitles by Ian Burley and also French subtitles for the Hungarian dialogue viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Olivier Assayas), 24 August 2012.
    [The short version of this movie is called La Page blanche – TV version in the series Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge – 4ème: Le Début des années 70 – 67 min.]

A rough, edgy, gritty, and deeply felt account of young people in the 1970s. The title of the long theatrical version, Cold Water, refers to the sublime rushing river and the waterfall at the end of the movie. Christine has taken Gilles to the desolate wintry landscape where there is supposedly a community of artists among which they can live. But in the morning Christine has disappeared, and she has left behind all her clothes and belongings and a blank piece of paper – to which the title of the tv version of the movie, La Page blanche, refers.

The metaphorical senses of both titles are fully meant. The breakaway from society leads to a cold shower to both Christine and Gilles. And both Christine and Gilles, distancing themselves or even fighting their parents, the school system, and society in general, are still blank, unwritten pages.

"Trop tard", "too late" is a phrase heard during the movie, and Kent Jones has written an essay on L'Eau froide where he sees it as a key phrase for the whole generation depicted. L'Eau froide is a movie about a big disappointment. The previous generation fails to convey the inspiration of the great tradition of culture (Rousseau, Caravaggio). The climax is the party at the abandoned castle where the records played (see list above) all carry messages. This sequence, at least, is music-driven.

The visual quality of the 35 mm blow-up print understandably betrays its 16 mm origins.

Tie pohjoiseen / The Road North

Mika Kaurismäki: Tie pohjoiseen (The Road North, 2019) starring Vesa-Matti Loiri and Samuli Edelmann.

Vägen mot norr.
    FI © 2012 Marianna Films. P+D: Mika Kaurismäki. SC: Sami Keski-Vähälä, Mika Kaurismäki. DP: Jari Mutikainen - digital post-production: Post Control Helsinki Oy. AD: Sasu Joutsi. Cost: Riitta-Maria Vehman. Makeup: Marjut Samulin.
    M: Mauri Sumén. "Kuolleet lehdet" ("Les Feuilles mortes", Joseph Kosma, Jacques Prévert, Finnish lyrics by Kullervo) perf. Vesa-Matti Loiri, Samuli Edelmann. Jean Sibelius: Piano quintet in G minor: grave - allegro & moderato vivace (1890). Franz Schubert: Klaviersonate G-Dur D 894: molto moderato e cantabile.
    S: Joonas Jyrälä. ED: Jukka Nykänen.
    C: Vesa-Matti Loiri (Leo Porala), Samuli Edelmann (Timo Porala), Peter Franzén (Pertti Paakku), Mari Perankoski (Minna Paakku), Eila Roine (Irja), Irina Björklund (Tiia), Elina Knihtilä (Maarit), Ada Kukkonen (Janette), Rea Mauranen (Pirkko), Aake Kalliala (Kalle). With: Amira Khalifa (nurse), Krista Kosonen (Elina), Marja-Leena Kouki (hotel manager), Eeva Litmanen (Anja), Pertti Sveholm (Keke), Leena Uotila (Margit), Eija Vilpas (Birgit), Jukka Virtanen (uncle Rintapanttila). The restaurant orchestra: Kaihon Karavaani.
    113 min. Distributed by FS Film.
    2K DCP with Swedish subtitles by Markus Karjalainen viewed at Kinopalatsi 2, Helsinki, 24 August 2012 (day of premiere).

Having seen a few weeks ago a film adaptation of Jack Kerouac's On the Road directed by Walter Salles I was reminded of the centrality of the road movie concept in the cinema (including in movies by Dreyer, Bergman, and Fellini) and its long roots in the picaresque novel and in the tradition of the Odyssey. According to one theory, the Iliad and the Odyssey are still the two basic concepts in epic and long form fiction.

In Finland Mika Kaurismäki turned out from the start to be our main director of road movies. His feat in Tie pohjoiseen is to have convinced Vesa-Matti Loiri, a big national star (highly respected for his live performances as singer and flautist), to return to a leading role in a fiction film after a pause of seven years. He plays Leo the granddaddy who has been on the road all his life, and apparently on the other side of the law, as well. He surprises everybody by returning to his native Finland after an absence of 35 years. Samuli Edelmann, another big national star, like Loiri with a high profile both as an actor and a singer, appears in the other leading role as Timo, the son of the rogue father; Timo has become an acclaimed concert pianist. Reluctantly Timo follows Leo to a road trip from the south (Helsinki) to way up north in a stolen Pontiac convertible and learns about the whole mess of their family history for the first time during the quest. To the end Leo remains a compulsive liar who gets lost in his own fabrications, yet he manages to bring estranged family members together during what turns out to be his final voyage.

Expectedly there is a big duet sequence with Loiri and Edelmann.

The movie is underwritten, interesting situations in the story remain underdeveloped, and there are missed opportunities in many vignettes with top actors. The slimeball played by Peter Franzén feels false. Eila Roine gives a fine performance as Leo's demented but very funny mother. It is a masterful humoristic vignette of a potentially depressing situation.

The visual quality of the close-ups and medium shots is excellent, but limitations of the digital intermediate become apparent in long shots.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Carlos (2010) (the long version)

Olivier Assayas: Carlos (FR/DE 2010) starring Édgar Ramirez as Ilich Ramirez Sánchez / "Carlos the Jackal".

Carlos, Shakaali / Carlos the Jackal.
    FR/DE © 2010 Films en Stock / Egoli Tossell Film. P: Jens Meurer, Daniel Leconte.
    D: Olivier Assayas. SC: Olivier Assayas, Dan Franck, Daniel Leconte. DP: Yorick Le Saux, Denis Lenoir – shot on 35 mm – digital intermediate – released on 2K DCP – scope. PD: François-Renaud Labarthe. AD: Bertram Strauss. Set dec: Tibor Dora. Cost: Françoise Clavel. Makeup: Christophe Giraud, Thi Thanh Tu Nguyen. Hair: Noura Leder.
    Music selections: "Loveless Love" perf. The Feelies, "Dreams Never End" perf. New Order, "Terebellum" perf. Fripp & Eno, "All Night Party" perf. A Certain Ra-tio, "Ahead" perf. Wire, "Forces At Work" perf. The Feelies, "Sonic Reducer" perf. The Dead Boys, "Dot Dash" perf. Wire, "Drill" perf. Wire, "The 15th" perf. Wire, "Sharing" perf. Satisfaction, "Pure" perf. The Lightning Seeds, "La pistola y el corazon" perf. Los Lobos, "El sueño americano" perf. La Portuaria, "Muwashshah" perf. Hamza El Din.
    S: Nicolas Cantin, Nicolas Moreau. ED: Luc Barnier, Marion Monnier. Casting: Antoinette Boulat, Veronika Varjasi.
    C: Édgar Ramírez (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez / "Carlos the Jackal"), Alexander Scheer (Johannes Weinrich), Nora von Waldstätten (Magdalena Kopp), Christoph Bach (Hans-Joachim Klein / "Angie"), Ahmad Kaabour (Wadie Haddad), Fadi Abi Samra (Michel Moukharbel), Hiraku Kawakami (Yatsuka Furuya), Alejandro Arroyo (Valentín Hernández Acosta), Badih Abou Chakra (Sheikh Yamani), Juana Acosta (a girlfriend of Carlos), Susanne Wuest (Edith Heller), Talal Jurdi (Kamal al-Issawi / "Ali"), Anna Thalbach (Inge Viett), Julia Hummer (Gabriele Kröcher-Tiedemann / "Nada"), Razane Jammal (Lana Jarrar), Rodney El Haddad (Anis Naccache / "Khalid"), Katharina Schüttler (Brigitte Kuhlmann), Martha Higareda (Amparo), Antoine Balabane (General al-Khouly), Guillaume Saurrel (Bruno Bréguet), Aljoscha Stadelmann (Wilfried Böse / "Boni"), Nicolas Briançon (Maître Jacques Vergès), Fadi Yanni Turk (Colonel Haïtham Saïd), Belkacem Djamel Barek (Mohammed Boudia), Abbes Zahmani (Abdelaziz Bouteflika), André Marcon (General Philippe Rondot), Udo Samel (Chancellor Bruno Kreisky), Anton Kouznetsov (Juri Andropov / Yuri Andropov).
    Dvd release in Finland: 2010 Scanbox (short version 149 min) – VET 250380 – K15 – short versions 165 min, 185 min – long version 330 min
    Main languages: French, English, Spanish, German, and Arabic.
    Première partie: 98 min, Deuxième partie: 106 min, Troisième partie: 115 min
    We screened the long version in three parts at 17, 19, and 21, with short coffee breaks.
    There is no 35 mm print of the long version of Carlos.
    Tamasa Distribution 2K DCP with English (and at times also French) subtitles by Andrew Litwack viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Olivier Assayas – Night of the Arts), 26 August 2012.

We have a tradition of screening extra long masterpieces of the cinema during the Nights of the Arts of the Helsinki Festival. The long version of Olivier Assayas' Carlos was the selection of this year. An astounding achievement, a magnificent and intelligent global thriller, an account of the horrific mutation of youthful radicalism into callous career terrorism.

It starts with early actions of Carlos in Paris in 1973. "Demonstrations don't change a thing. It's time for action, fighting capitalism with guerrilla means." "Behind every bullet there is an idea". Carlos commits himself to the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and when Yasser Arafat (PLO) speaks at the UN in 1974 ("do not let the olive branch fall from my hand") Carlos starts to sabotage the Palestinian peace process of Arafat and PLO by every means possible. But his comrades realize that "you have become a star for the Western media". Carlos carries the weight of history, but life means nothing to him.

In the superb performance of Édgar Ramírez, as directed by Olivier Assayas, Carlos remains an enigma. He is fearless, committed, and assured; he is virile, insatiable, and irresistible to women; he is narcissistic, egocentric and usually very controlled, but also volatile and explosive; an alcoholic slob when he is not active on a project. He is a weapons fetishist: "weapons are an extension of my body".

The centerpiece of the movie is the 1975 raid on the OPEC meeting in Vienna in retaliation of the lifting of the oil embargo which was designed to put pressure on Israel and its allies. It is an exemplary piece of intelligent action cinema.

A central theme is the antisemitism of Carlos. The antisemitism alienates the German Hans-Joachim Klein, "Angie", whose life is in danger ever since he tries to leave the terrorist cell. "Du weisst zu viel".

In the 1970s the KGB (Yuri Andropov) and the Stasi (Erich Mielke) start to support Carlos in plans to assassinate Anwar Sadat and in arrangements of the weapons traffic. Carlos becomes a businessman of the arms trade. When the glasnost and the perestroika start Carlos loses the support of the secret services of Eastern European totalitarian governments, and he becomes a pariah also in North African and Middle Eastern countries. President al-Assad wants "nothing to do with you". Gaddafi: "your presence is undesirable". "The war is over, and we have lost". Finally the DST and the CIA catch Carlos in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1994.

There is black humour in the account of how Carlos loses his permission to stay in Budapest in 1979.

The physical production shot on many different locations looks magnificent, and there is a strong sense of place and time in the locations.

There are many ways to look at Carlos the movie. It can be seen as an account of an utter degradation of political radicalism. It can also be seen as a global gangster movie where radical ideas are but a smokescreen for a callous, hedonistic and destructive lifestyle.

In the history of the cinema, Carlos is a contender for the Godfather trilogy as one of the greatest epic crime sagas of all time.

Shot but not released on photochemical 35 mm film, the long version of Carlos looks mostly great in a 2K DCP projection at the cinema. The restrictions of the digital intermediate are displayed only in brief nature scenes.

Mustalaishurmaaja / The Gypsy Charmer (2012 KAVA restoration in 4K)

Zigenarcharmören. FI 1929. PC: Oy Fennica Ab. P: Armas Willamo. D: Valentin Vaala. SC: Theodor Tugai, Valentin Vaala. Cinematography: Aho, Soldan & Co. (Heikki Aho, Björn Soldan). AD+ED: Valentin Vaala, Theodor Tugai. Wigs: Hannes Kuokkanen. C: Theodor Tugai (Manjardo), Meri Hackzell (Esmeralda), Hanna Taini (Akris), Alli Riks (Glafira), Bruno Laurén (Feri), Waldemar Wohlin (Iska), Vladimir Sajkovic. Helsinki premiere: 4.11.1929 Kaleva, Olympia, Scala, distributor: Suomen Biografi Osakeyhtiö - classification: 15921 - S - 60 min

Digitally restored and digitally tinted / toned in 4K by KAVA in 2012. Restoration team: Päivi Hurskainen, Anna Lehto, Jarni Susiluoto, Jani Jäderholm.

The soundtrack selection in the screening: Hungarian gypsy music performed by Sándor Lakatos selected by Jaakko Tervasmäki and Teuvo Tulio for the MTV2 transmission in 1982.

4K screening at Cinema Orion (Teuvo Tulio centenary), 23 August 2012.

A historical viewing: our first 4K feature film restoration screened to an impressed audience, in the presence of many viewers who know the movie well. A job well done, with attention paid to the visual dynamics and to the fine soft detail, and with a refined colour world. Digital restoration at its best. Yet I was contemplating on the fact that I have been watching photochemical film exactly 50 years now and find the digital solidity still a bit uncanny - the fixed quality of the pixels in comparison to the merry frolic of grain on film.

Valentin Vaala (born 11 October 1909) and Theodor Tugai, later known as Teuvo Tulio (born 23 August 1912), were teenagers (19 and 17 years old) when the movie was shot in the spring of 1929. The youthful spirit is still infectious, and there is a winsome ironic approach to the gypsy romantic story in which the whole ensemble is participating.

The gypsy music score was better than I remembered, but the definitive score is the one composed by Yrjö Hjelt for the centenary of the cinema in 1995; let's hope the rights issues will be solved so that Hjelt's engrossing music can be heard again. Although Tulio himself participated in the 1982 gypsy music selection, according to Jaakko Tervasmäki he was not happy with the result.

The Sight & Sound 2012 Director's Poll online in extenso

The Sight & Sound 2012 Director's Poll online in extenso
It gets even more fascinating now that the 1200 individual top ten lists are all online, cross-indexed. For me, the differences are more interesting than the common ground.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Pelastusvene / Livbåt / Naufragos. US © 1944 Twentieth Century-Fox. P: Kenneth MacGowan. D: Alfred Hitchcock. SC: Jo Swerling – based on a novella by John Steinbeck (unpublished, written on the request of Alfred Hitchcock for Twentieth Century-Fox). DP: Glen MacWilliams. AD: James Basevi, Maurice Ransford. FX: Fred Sersen, Edwin Hammeras. Cost: René Hubert. Makeup: Guy Pearce. S: Bernard Freericks, Roger Herman, Sr. M: Hugo W. Friedhofer (opening and ending credits only; no score music during the narrative). Songs: "Don't Sit Under The Apple Tree" perf. Canada Lee (flute), William Bendix (voc); "Du, du, liegst mir im Herzen" perf. Canada Lee (flute), Walter Slezak (voc); "Heidenröslein" (Franz Schubert, J. W. von Goethe), perf. Henry Hull (flute), Walter Slezak (voc); "Treue Liebe" perf. Henry Hull (flute), Walter Slezak (voc); Die Meistersinger: Preislied (Richard Wagner). ED: Dorothy Spencer. C: Tallulah Bankhead (Constance "Connie" Porter, columnist), William Bendix (Gus Smith / Schmidt, seaman), Walter Slezak (Willy, captain of a German U-Boat, a doctor), Mary Anderson (Alice MacKenzie, nurse), John Hodiak (Kovac, ship engineer), Henry Hull (Charles D. "Ritt" Rittenhouse, millionaire), Heather Angel (Mrs. Higgins, a young English mother), Hume Cronyn (Stanley "Sparks" Garrett, radio operator), Canada Lee (George "Joe" Spencer, steward), William Yetter, Jr. (German sailor), Alfred Hitchcock (the "before and after" figure in the Reduco advertisement).
    Helsinki premiere: 18.3.1945 Capitol, released by: Fox Films – Finnish classification 25588 – K16 – 97 min
    A Classic Films print with Spanish subtitles viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Alfred Hitchcock), 26 August 2012.

Revisited Alfred Hitchcock's first limited-setting movie (followed by Rope, Dial M for Murder, and Rear Window). I had not seen Lifeboat for a long while. Probably I had only seen it on tv, and seen now as a 35 mm print on screen it had maintained its power to disturb.

Lifeboat is a WWII movie, set in the North Atlantic not far from the Bermudas. A freighter of the Allies and a German U-Boat have sunk in sea battle, and the survivors gather in a lifeboat, all Allies except a German who turns out to be the captain of the U-Boat.

The sky is clouded and only the German Willy who has a hidden compass knows where to go. The question of leadership emerges - there must be a captain who may even have to be a dictator. The seaman Gus is also born German, but "they made me feel ashamed of the name I was born with". His leg is hurt, there is a bad-natured gangrene, and Willy who is a surgeon performs emergency surgery, saving his life once, and again when Willy goes overboard in a storm. Energized by his hidden water flask and food tablets Willy keeps rowing the lifeboat to the direction of a German supply ship, a seeming example of "the master race".

Meanwhile, the Allies are torn by their conflicts, related to money, class, sex, and race. "Do I get to vote, too?" quips Joe, the intelligent and musically talented black steward, the only one who can recite a prayer when the dead baby of Mrs. Higgins is buried. When the Allies turn into a lynch mob who throw Willy overboard Joe is the only one who does not participate.

For the fashionable columnist Connie Porter the experience is a terrible ordeal and a learning process. One by one she loses her camera, her mink coat, her typewriter and her signature bracelet, all the external signs of her status, but her true identity emerges in a more solid way.

Connie Porter as interpreted by Tallulah Bankhead is an interesting Hitchcockian character. Otherwise I have problems of relating to the slightly misanthropic account of the human condition in Lifeboat. But the story is really Hitchcock's way to tell that we must act together or we become easy prey for fascism.

A running joke related to the Connie Porter character is a series of variations on the phrase "some of my best friends are...". Most funnily: "some of my best friends are women". Most ominously: "some of my best friends are in the concentration camp".

The first reel of the print is heavily duped, but the visual quality gets somewhat better.

Ya sluzhil v okhrane Stalina / I Was Stalin's Bodyguard

Ja sluzhil vi ohrane Stalina, ili Opyt dokumentalnoi mifologii / Я служил в охране Сталина, или Опыт документальной мифологии / [Palvelin Stalinin henkivartijana eli dokumentaarisen mytologian kokeilu] / I Was Stalin's Bodyguard, Or an Experiment in Documentary Mythology / I Served in Stalin's Guard [the title on the print]. SU © 1989 Panorama Studios. PC: Lenfilm. P: Ada Staviska. D: Semjon Aranovitsh / Semyon Aranovich. SC: Juri Klepikov / Yuri Klepikov, Semjon Aranovitsh. DP: Sergei Sidorov. M: Aleksandr Kneifel. Researcher: Anton Antonov-Ovsejenko. ED: Tamara Guseva. Featuring: Aleksei Rybin / Aleksey Rybin alias Leonid Lebedev. Never released in Finland. 73 min. A Gosfilmofond print of a NFM print with English subtitles. Viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (The Gulag Archipelago), 22 August 2012.

An interview documentary on Aleksey Rybin, who belonged to the inner circle of Stalin's security guard since the 1930s. "We're disappearing from history", states Rybin who lists other head bodyguards, including Ivan Khrustalyov, whose name appears in the title of a movie by Aleksey German on Stalin's death. The death of Stalin, "the great sun of the nations", opens Semyon Aranovich's remarkable movie. Rybin tells about the slow process into Stalin's confidence, including service in his sauna: Stalin enjoyed the same kind of sauna as Finns with löyly (full steam via throwing water on hot stones over the fireplace), and with vihta (birch whisks). We hear how Stalin embraced Kirov warmly; a day and a half later Kirov was murdered.

Rybin joined originally the OGPU, in charge of the Gulag system, with responsibilities in security, informers, interrogations, and terrorists. "Our detective work was very hard". For tasks the solving of which a month would have been a minimum Yagoda only gave 10 days. "I had about 30 informers". "For the informers, I was Leonid Lebedev. Even my wife calls me Leonid".

Rybin has never stopped admiring Stalin. Stalin ate elk's meat and enjoyed fried eggs. His feet hurt, but he never gave up his old boots; he died in them. He trimmed his moustache himself with a safety razor. During the war he often could not sleep. He always wore only one star. "He was not as frightening as his companions".

Rybin depicts the members of Stalin's politburo as slimeballs. Beriya was always chasing skirts. Molotov was closest to Stalin. Khrushchev was a fraud; he participated in atrocities. In the funeral of Zhdanov everybody got stoned.

"I was connected with the Bolshoi Theatre since 1933". Komsomol sent girls to work for the NKVD; all had pistols. "Stalin understood art better than any Bolshoi star". "He took art seriously". Stalin sung in a quartet: "Gori, gori, moja zvezda". We see footage from Tikhon Khrennikov's opera In the Storm. Stalin watched all dress rehearsals.

Stalin was shocked when Alliluyeva shot herself. Stalin cut off all relations with women after her and went to Alliluyeva's grave at night.

"I work with children now". Time and again we see Rybin play the accordion. Rybin talks about music pedagogics. Music makes the memory and the mind sharper, they make a person instead of a hooligan. Children sing and recite poems in Rybin's class. In historical footage, children celebrate Stalin's birthday: "thank you for our happy childhood". Stalin, Mao and Khruschchev are listening.

"I remember many informers", are the last words of the movie, "but I cannot tell you their names".

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Den første kreds / The First Circle (1972)

Aleksander Ford: Den første kreds / The First Circle (DK/DE 1972), the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn film adaptation shot in English in Denmark as a Danish-German co-production for Paramount Pictures. Despite the transnational production arrangement, the movie does justice to Solzhenitsyn.

Der erste Kreis / Der erste Kreis der Hölle / [Ensimmäinen piiri] / Den första kretsen / В круге первом / V kruge pervom.
    DK/DE © 1972 Paramount Pictures Corporation. Year of release: 1973 [New York release: 12 January 1973]. PC: Lanterna AB / Tele-Cine. EX: Zvi Kolitz. P: Mogens Skot-Hansen.
    D+SC: Aleksander Ford – based on the novel В круге первом / V kruge pervom (1968, translated into Finnish by Esa Adrian / Tammi, 1970) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. DP: Wladyslaw Forbert. AD: Anatol-Razinowicz-Radson, Viggo Bentzon. Cost: Birthe Madsen, Inga Hedal. Makeup: Ruth Mahler. M: Roman Palester – perf. The Royal Orchestra of Copenhagen. Electronical music and sound: Roman Palester, Knud Kristensen. S: Knud Kristensen.  ED: Carl Lerner.
    C: Gunther Malzacher (Gleb Nerzhin), Elzbieta Czyzewska (Simotshka / Simochka), Peter Steen (Volodin), Vera Chekova (Clara), Ole Ernst (Ruska Doronin), Ingolf David (Rubin), Preben Neergaard (Bobynin), Preben Lerdorff Rye (prof. Tshelnov), Per Bentzon Goldschmidt (Bulatov), Ole Ishøy (Siromaha).
    Shot in Denmark.
    Language: English.
    Not released in Finland.
    2735 m / 100 min.
    A vintage SFI print with Swedish subtitles by Torsten Manns viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (The Gulag Archipelago), 21 August 2012.

AA: The film adaptation of The First Circle was made soon after Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had won the Nobel Prize (in 1970) and just before he was expelled from the Soviet Union (in 1974). Aleksander Ford, the great director and teacher (of Wajda and Polanski, for starters), had been expelled from his native Poland in 1968 during its antisemitic persecutions. There were two projects to make a film of The First Circle, but the other producer, who had Fred Zinnemann in mind to direct, withdrew.

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions" was a remark by Judith Crist (1922–2012) on this movie. A lot of top critics saw it, and their verdicts were mostly crushing, although not unanimously so. The quality of the English dubbing seems to have been found particularly offensive and not worthy of the Nobel laureate.

I read the huge novel as soon as it was published in Finnish in 1970 and have not reread it, so I cannot fairly compare the novel with the movie, but I find the structure of the screenplay successful in its own right.

The story takes place in 1949 in the Soviet Union, and there is a double storyline.

In the framing story there is an eager young diplomat, Volodin, with bright career prospects. He warns a family friend about persecution, but his call from a phone booth is recorded and his voice is identified.

The protagonist of the main story is Gleb Nerzhin, a superb mathematician and a war hero, who has made a remark about Stalin and spent time in Siberian labour camps, but now he has come to a scientific research center working for the state security police. His task is to develop a tap-free phone for Stalin.

Gleb Nerzhin is happily married, but he is ambivalent about his wife having to wait for the 25 years of his sentence and miss the opportunity to have children. There is a tender relationship between Gleb and Simotchka, an intelligent policewoman. The movie is about the strengthening of Gleb's spirit.

The screenplay pays justice to Solzhenitsyn's main themes. The prison camp is a metaphor for the totalitarian society. And paradoxically, the prisoner Gleb is freer than the prison guards. Gleb solves the task of the tap-free phone but he burns the designs and terminates his love relationship with Simotchka. "You need me, I don't need you". "You can't give me freedom, you don't have it yourself". "A person you've taken everything from is not afraid anymore".

We see Volodin in constant fear of the sound of every car, every footstep in the corridor, every ringing of the doorbell, every knock at the door. In contrast, Gleb is never afraid anymore. In a totalitarian society, the prisoner is the freest of them all.

The screenplay does also justice to Solzhenitsyn's wit. "For nothing you get five years". "The end justifies the means? The means destroy the end." "What do you mean not guilty?"

Dante's line "Abandon all hope ye who enter here" is quoted, but The First Circle is really about a fighting spirit that can never be crushed. "Now we go to the real hell". "Don't be afraid. They are frightened themselves".

Aleksander Ford had been born in Ukraine in Czarist Russia, and after Hitler invaded Poland, Ford joined the Polish division on the Soviet side, and witnessed Stalinist rule in the USSR and in Poland. Although filmed in Denmark with non-Russian actors, there are aspects in the atmosphere of The First Circle which ring true and personally felt. It's a memorable movie.

The print is ok, clean, perhaps with a slightly duped look.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Side by Side

US © 2012 Company Films, LLC. P: Keanu Reeves, Justin Szlasa. D+SC: Chris Kenneally. DP: Chris Cassidy. AN: Noisy Neighbor Productions, Anthony Kraus, Charles Floyd. M: Brendan Ryan, Billy Ryan. S: Alex Soto, Tom Ryan, Max Greene, Wen Tseng. ED: Mike Long, Malcolm Hearn. Narrator and interviewer: Keanu Reeves.

Featuring: David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, James Cameron, George Lucas, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Michael Chapman, John Mathieson, Vittorio Storaro, David Stump, Reed Morano, Bradford Young, Dick Pope, Sandi Sissel, Donald McAlpine, Robert Rodriguez, David Tattersall, Phil Meheux, Charles Herzfeld, Joel Schumacher, Geoff Boyle, Alec Shapiro, Lars von Trier, Anthony Dod Mantle, Jason von Kliet, Geoffrey Gilmore, Ellen Kuras, Gary Winick, Caroline Kaplan, Darnell Martin, John Malkovich, Greta Gerwig, Richard Linklater, Danny Boyle, Tom Rothman, Craig Wood, Walter Murch, Derek Ambrosi, Anne Coates, Chris Lebenzon, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, John Knoll, Tim Webber, Dennis Muren, Adam Valdez, Jonathan Fawkner, Lana & Andy Wachowski, David Stump, Geoff Boyle, Alec Shapiro, David Tattersall, Don Ciana, Terry Haggar, Andrzej Bartkowiak, Stefan Sonnenfield, Jill Bogdanovicz, Tim Stipan, Ellen Kuras, Michael Ballhaus, Jost Vacano, Dion Beebe, Bob Harvey, Wally Pfister, Jim Jannard, Ted Schlitzowitz, Vilmos Zsigmond, Ari Presler, Vincent Pace, Glenn Kennel, Tom Rothman, Barry Levinson, Greta Gerwig, Lena Dunham, Donald McAlpine, Shurti Ganguly, Bill Russell, Michael Goi, Gary Einhaus, Ed Stratmann.

99 min on PAL dvd. Screener dvd viewed at home, Helsinki, 20 August 2012.

A documentary movie about film and digital, about the digital transition in the cinema. I like the sober and balanced way in which Chris Kenneally and Keanu Reeves deal with the biggest change in the history of the cinema since Lumière. Martin Scorsese: "It's exciting because it's the re-invention of the movies".

Side by Side would be ideal for teaching purposes because it is an introduction to all aspects of the cinema and how they are affected by the digital transition: cinematography, workflow, laboratory work, the principal production, editing, special effects, visual effects and computer generated images (CGI), the development of digital cameras, colour timing, manipulation in post-production, digital projection in cinema theatres, 3D, the democratization of movie making with cheap digital cameras (do it yourself), and archiving.

The state of the art is represented by ARRI Alexa and RED Epic. High profile movies still get shot on film: The Artist, Moneyball, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, Tree of Life, War Horse, Hunger Games, The Dark Knight Rises.

Thomas Vinterberg's Festen was the breakthrough theatrically released movie shot on a DV camera. Slumdog Millionaire won the Academy Award for cinematography: the first time for a movie almost entirely shot on digital cameras.

Side by Side is a good movie for someone who is getting acquainted with the film vs. digital dilemma for the first time. Its dozens of interviews and sharply presented facts offer fresh ideas also for professionals.

I have been a critical but very interested observer of the digital transformation since its early expressions in music videos and special effects, and early feature films such as Toy Story and Final Fantasy. I have been chronically disappointed with the 2K level of digital projection, but Side by Side provides fresh evidence that we are still in an early phase of the digital transformation. There is for the moment no serious solution for the preservation of digital information, only solemn decisions that the problem will be solved. The current solutions for digital are much more expensive than the ones needed for analogue preservation. At least unconsciously it seems we are living like there is no tomorrow. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Bill Viola: The Tristan Project

US 2004. Video to the production of Tristan und Isolde originally conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2004 in Los Angeles (Walt Disney Concert Hall). Video credits: PC: The video of Tristan und Isolde was produced by Bill Viola Studio in collaboration with the National Opera, Paris, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the James Cohan Gallery, New Yoerk, Haunch of Venison, London. EX: Kira Perov. P: S: Tobin Kirk. Production manager: Genevieve Anderson. D: Bill Viola. DP: Harry Dawson - black and white and colour - widescreen horizontal (acts I and II) and vertical (act III). Camera Assistant: Brian Garbellini. PD: Wendy Samuels. AD: David Max. Cost: Cassendre de la Fortrie. SFX: Robbie Knott. Digital artist: Brian Ross. S: Mikael Sangrin, Becky Allen. ED (live video mix): Alex MacInnis. ED (on-line): Brian Pete (LaserPacific Media Corp.). C: Jeff Mills (Tristan, earthly bodies), Lisa Rhoden (Isolde, earthly bodies), John Hay (Tristan, heavenly bodies), Sarah Steben (Isolde, heavenly bodies). In Helsinki: video operators: Sylvain Levacher, Guilhem Jayet. Viewed at Helsinki Music Center, 18 August 2012. Five hours.

Bill Viola's Tristan und Isolde can be called a silent movie as it has no independent soundtrack. Yet of course it is music-driven.

Bill Viola is one of the great pioneers of video art, and his Tristan und Isolde is an assured and impressive work, imaginative, conceptually expanding the experience of the music performance. It contributes to a modern and interesting approach to the Wagnerian idea of das Gesamtkunstwerk.

There are three acts in the video. Mostly it is in slow motion. The images are stark, reduced and subdued. The video character of the image is used a means of expression. Split screen is used in acts I and II.

The first act introduces the earthly bodies of Tristan and Isolde. The image emerges after the overture. First slow waves appear, then the sky and the sea. There is a storm on the coast. The lights of a ship appear in the fog. The image switches into a split screen. Two almost invisible dots slowly approch us and grow into Tristan and Isolde seen in full shot / medium shot. Tristan and Isolde undress and purify themselves in water. Water splashes in their palms. They are reflected in the water. They douse their faces in water. They exhale with their faces in the water. They dive.

In the second act there is a forest and searchers with their searchlights. The moon appears beneath the trees. There is a pillar of fire. There is an infinity of candlelights. There is an eternal embrace. The sun rises. There is a waterfall. Fire and water are united.

In the third act the screen is vertical. The ship lights are seen. The waves hit the coast, the clouds fill the sky. Video static appears as a means of expression. The branches of a tree are in the water. There is a mirage of a human form. Tristan and Isolde unite in the water. The crowns of the trees are shot vertiginously in Kalatozov-Urusevsky style. Tristan and Isolde unite against fire.

Bill Viola has created a spiritual and oceanic vision to be seen together with a performance Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. His video does not repeat or illustrate what is already seen and heard but provides a mindscreen commentary, a visual stream of consciousness as a contribution to the total artistic experience.

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (concert version) (Esa-Pekka Salonen, Peter Sellars, Bill Viola, RSO)

Tristan und Isolde. Handlung in drei Aufzügen. DE 1865. Composed and written by Richard Wagner based on medieval legends. Produced by Helsinki Festival, viewed at Helsinki Music Center, Saturday, 19 August, 2012. 18.00-23.28 with two intermissions and the final ovations. Finnish / English surtitles.

Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Visual artist: Bill Viola
Artistic collaborator: Peter Sellars
Light design: Ben Zamora
Radion sinfoniaorkesteri / Radio Symphony Orchestra (Finland)
The Polytech Choir
Choirmaster: Juha Kuivanen
Assistant conductor: Ville Matvejeff

Tenor: Ben Heppner (Tristan, a Breton nobleman)
Soprano: Violeta Urmana (Isolde, an Irish princess)
Mezzo-soprano: Michelle DeYoung (Brangäne, Isolde's maid)
Bass: Matti Salminen (Marke, King of Cornwall)
Bass-baritone: Jukka Rasilainen (Kurnewal)
Baritone: Waltteri Torikka (Melot)
Tenor: Tuomas Katajala (Shepherd and Young Sailor)
Baritone: Arttu Kataja (First Mate)

Official presentation: "Expect an unforgettable musical extravaganza as this unique ensemble unveils their take on Wagner’s hard-hitting classic. This truly unique and sumptuously visual production of the classic work, a collaboration between conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, director Peter Sellars and video artist Bill Viola, will expand beyond the confines of the stage to take over the entire concert hall. Salonen will be conducting the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and joined by an impressive roster of soloists, including Gary Lehman, Violeta Urmana, Matti Salminen and Jukka Rasilainen."

"Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde is widely acknowledged to be one of the most significant works in musical history. The Helsinki Festival production draws on the possibilities afforded by media art and set design to bring new perspectives to this much-performed classic. The American video art pioneer Bill Viola’s breathtaking images will be projected onto an 10-metre screen. Viola’s videos breathe with the rhythm of the music and flow with the conductor and orchestra. Directed by the highly acclaimed Peter Sellars, the performers move across the concert hall, creating a powerful three-dimensional effect."

"Salonen, Sellars and Viola’s Tristan project was first performed in Los Angeles in 2004 and has since played in major cities across the world, including Paris, London, Tokyo and New York City."

Richard Wagner's purpose was that Tristan and Isolde should drive audiences mad. To Ingmar Bergman Tristan and Isolde was an uninterrupted intercourse of five hours.

Tristan und Isolde has had a powerful impact on the cinema - on Luis Buñuel, Frank Borzage, and Alfred Hitchcock, for starters. Vertigo is among other things an hommage to Tristan und Isolde. Wagner's Tristan chord, dissonant chord, and harmonic suspension were models for the sound of suspense in the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock and the suspense music of Bernard Herrmann.

Influenced by Schopenhauer and influencing Nietzsche, Tristan und Isolde belongs to a strong philosophical tradition. It is about being and appearance, being and phenomena. Bill Viola also connects Tristan und Isolde to Tantra Buddhism: the spiritualization and sublimation of reality, the experience of infinite awareness, the cosmic consciousness.

Tristan und Isolde is also a late high point in the romantic tradition. It is about day and night, confronting the passions of the night, death, and madness. It is about passion as a matter of life and death. It is about a passion that leads to disaster. It is about Liebestod. There is a performance history of Tristan und Isolde of throwing oneself perilously, even claiming lives of conductors and performers.

Esa-Pekka Salonen's interpretation is cool, brilliant, intelligent, analytic and rational. He expresses powerfully the philosophical dimension. It is an interesting approach. Not so pronounced in this interpretation: the irresistible attraction against all odds, the warmth of desire, the heat of the passion, the volcanic tension, the lure of madness, the temptation of death, the fascination of destruction.

Esa-Pekka Salonen's interpretation is cool and oceanic. Intelligent and spiritual.

Remarks on Bill Viola in a separate entry above.

Bill Viola: Moving Image World for Tristan und Isolde (an introduction)

A note from  Bill Viola

"The wound is the place where the light enters you"
- Rumi

Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde is the story of a love so intense and profound that it cannot be contained in the material bodies of the lovers. In order to fully realize their love, Tristan and Isolde must ultimately transcend life itself. This theme of the spiritual nature of human love is an ancient one whose roots can be traced out beyond the specific medieval origins of the Celtic legend, and deep into the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of Tantra that lie submerged in the Western cultural unconscious. It was Peter Sellars who first made me aware of Tristan's connection to the Eastern sources that have long preoccupied me. I was soon drawn into Wagner's 19th century work by the latent trace of their magnetic pull and the stark but rich simplicity of the composer's conception.

In terms of working method, I first listened to various versions of the music but then worked primarily from the libretto to visualize an image world flowing within, and without the dramatic storyline being enacted on the stage. Moving images live in a domain somewhere between the material certainty of painting, and so are well suited to link the practical elements of stage design with the living dynamics of performance. I knew from the start that I did not want the images to illustrate or represent the story directly. Instead, I wanted to create an image world that existed in parallel to the action on the stage, in the same way that a more subtle poetic narrative mediates the hidden dimensions of our inner lives.

The images are intended to function as symbolic, inner representations that become, to echo the words of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, "reflections of the spiritual world in the mirror of the material and the temporal". They trace the movement of human consciousness through one of its most delicate, poignant states: the surrender to an absolute, all-consuming love. The range of experience of this power extends over an entire lifetime, from the excited, naive heartbeats of a teenager's first love to the expansive realization of a much larger Love that is the fundamental, universal principle of human existence, glimpsed later in life and described in detail by saints and mystics in all cultures throughout history.

The images in the three acts contain interweaving, recurring threads but are distinct in reflecting different stages of the lover's path toward liberation.

Act I presents the theme of Purification, the universal act of the individual's preparation for the symbolic sacrifice and death required for the transformation and rebirth of the self. The mutual decision to drink death plunges the lovers beneath the surface to reveal the infinite ocean of an invisible immaterial world.

Act II concerns The Awakenening of the Body of Light - the release, through the cleansing illumination of love, of the luminous spiritual form encased within the dark inertia of the material body. The theme is bringing light into the world, but when the outer world finally encroaches on their ecstatic union, a temporal and material darkness descends on the lovers whose only release lies in the pain of separation and self-sacrifice.

Act III describes The Dissolution of the Self in the stages of dying, the delicate and excruciating process of the separation and disintegration of the physical, perceptual and conceptual components of conscious awareness. We are plunged into the agony and delirium of death and suffering, replete with visions, dreams and hallucinatory revelations that play across the surface of a dying man's mind. When the flames of passion and fever finally engulf the mind's eye, and desire's body can never be met, the reflecting surface is shattered and collapses into undulating wave patterns of pure light. Finally, the lovers ascend in turn and are drawn up in peace to a realm beyond the polarities of male and female, birth and death, light and darkness, beginning and end.

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (synopsis by Peter Sellars)

Act 1

Two damaged, angry, desperate, and hurt human beings are on a long trip in the same boat. Neither expects to survive the journey. For Isolde, suicidal despair takes the form of violent, destructive mood swings, bitter sarcasm, uncontrollable weeping and the need to talk everything out. For Tristan, it is the scarred, painful silence of emotional blockage and denial (during the entire trip Tristan has refused to acknowledge Isolde’s presence). Their closest friends, Brangaene, a healer and seer, and Kurwenal, an old soldier, are determined to help them through their darkest hours, and to prevent them from infl icting more harm on themselves or each other.

Years before, Tristan had killed the Irish knight Morold in combat and himself been wounded by Morold’s poison-tipped blade. This wound could only be healed by Morold’s fiancée, the princess and shamaness Isolde. Under the name “Tantris” he went to her to be cured. She removed the poison and cured the wound, saving his life. When he looked up into her eyes, she put down her weapon. He went back to his own country.

Now he has returned, but not, as Isolde had hoped, to deepen and consummate their relationship. Instead, he has come to collect her, as a kind of courier service, to present her as a trophy bride to his friend, King Mark of Cornwall. She is privately devastated and publicly humiliated.

The women have brought with them on the journey a secret stash of potent ointments and elixirs, a gift from Isolde’s mother. Among them, the most sacred and beautiful is a philter of nectar of the purest, most distilled essence of love. Alternatively, there is a death drink, a quick solution to snuffing out a wasted life when the pain becomes just too unbearable.

At the climax of the trip, Isolde toasts Tristan with the lethal cocktail. They look into each other’s eyes and drink avidly, each eager for a blessed exit and extinction. What they do not realize is that Brangaene has switched the vials, and they are drinking in pure love. For an infinite instant they think they have crossed the barrier from life into death; their hearts are free. Their secret love begins to flow in an irresistible, transforming torrent as the ship comes into port and King Mark is announced with blazing trumpets.

The bright lights of the world of power and prestige eclipse their dream, and they are left confused and amazed.

Act 2

As dusk deepens the sound of hunting horns echoes through the woods. Tristan’s “best friend” Melot has organised a night hunt for King Mark. In the dying light Brangaene foresees that the true quarry is Tristan himself. Isolde has eyes and ears only for the beauty of nature, the harmonies of the evening and the better self that lives in every human heart. Her heart is illumined by the moon, the goddess of love, the feminine power that surges through the universe. When she puts out the last torch, Tristan, who is waiting deep in the forest, will join her in the moonlight. Brangaene senses that spies are everywhere. She begs Isolde to keep the torch burning, and leaves for her watchtower. Isolde smothers the flame and waits for her lover’s approach in the dark.

Their initial adrenalin rush of danger and exhilaration gives way to disbelief, then to slightly awkward banter, and, finally, to hard work. Isolde asks Tristan directly why he tried to betray her. What possessed him? With her help, and in painful bursts of self-recognition, gradually everything that Tristan sealed off comes pouring out. The allure of brilliant fame, the world’s honours, and the flash of success warped his personality, making him a stranger to himself. He hurt his closest friends without realizing it, and the growing disparity between his public image and his always low personal sense of self-worth produced a seething self-hatred. He felt unworthy of the woman whose praises he was singing, and tried to compensate by plunging into military adventurism.

Isolde begins to understand that the man she saw as arrogant and cold was in fact frightened and desperate. But she also has to acknowledge how deeply she was hurt, and how much of that hurt she still carries. The basis for a serious relationship now can only be built as they deal with each other’s failures, disappointments and deceptions, separating the empowering and transforming imagination that sustains romance from the lies, evasions and falsehoods that poison trust.

Together they step into the realm of night, the nocturnal self, the vast space in every human being that has nothing to do with anyone’s day job. All thinking, all appearance, all remembrance are  extinguished in a night of perfect love “heart on heart, mouth on mouth, merged into one breath”. As their rapture reaches its peak, Brangaene’s warning voice peals across the night sky like clouds rolling in from the sea. The reality that all joy in this world will pass away, all beauty will die or be killed sublimates and elevates the love music – we hear the celestial voice of compassion expounding the Buddha’s four noble truths to mortals.

Isolde begins to wonder what will happen in the morning. Mark and Melot are watching in the woods. Tristan has a strange premonition of his own death and declares that he is ready to die tonight. Isolde gently reminds him of the little word “and” in “Tristan and Isolde”. From now on he should try to include her in his dreams and nightmares – he is no longer alone. Tristan is Isolde and Isolde is Tristan. Even in death they will live in a love without fear, nameless, endless, with no more suffering and no separation.

The day breaks. Melot takes the direct path to political power, denouncing forbidden love with great moral indignation and calling for maximum penalties to be imposed on vulnerable people. King Mark knows this path offers neither restitution nor justice. As he pours out his heart we realize that the king is just a man, that he was Tristan’s first lover, and that the “love that dare not speak its name” is as strong as any other love. He is infinitely tender with the man who betrayed him. He is in hell. He hopes one day to know why.

Tristan ran from King Mark to find Isolde, and then he ran from Isolde by offering her to Mark. Covered in shame, Tristan sees that the only thing he has to offer Isolde, if she chooses to stay with him, is a life of failure and death. He has no home. He never had a home. He never knew his father or his mother, who died bringing him into the world. Isolde’s words of comfort are miraculous. Wherever they go together will be their home; she loves Tristan more deeply in his failure than in his success. Thirty seconds later he is dead. After provoking Melot, he is killed without resistance.

Act 3

After love, the last task in a human life is death. We plunge into a dying man’s last agony, hallucinations, flashbacks, visions. The senses are intermittent, but the pain is continuous. One door is opening and another is closing. Tristan is in a coma for weeks. Kurwenal brings the body back to the ancestral home in Kareol. On a cliff overlooking the sea he waits and watches his best friend’s long, slow descent into death. A shepherd farther up the mountain plays on a pipe an endless ancient
melody drifting in the chilly air as the day wanes. Kurwenal has asked the shepherd to change his tune if he sees a ship approaching. He has sent for Isolde who, if she is still alive, is the only healer who can bring Tristan back from the realm of death.

Tristan stirs. The ancient melody is calling him back into this world. He tries to describe the land on the other side, a state of infinite, ultimate forgetfulness. Here, the sunlight is blinding, the searing pain in his body is unbearable. Within “the light is not yet out, the house is still not dark: Isolde lives and wakes; she called me from the night”.

Tristan is sure that he sees her ship in the distance, that she is coming to him again to heal his wounds. But there is no ship. His life keeps passing before his eyes as he slips below the threshold of consciousness. Childhood memories, thoughts of the parents he never knew mingle with the intense re-living of his previous near-death experiences. Pain floods his brain. The heat of his body is unendurable, the spirit is tearing at the flesh. At the maximum breaking point of mental and physical anguish, an instant of blazing, fiery clarity: the magic drink – was it poison or love potion? – was brewed by no-one other than himself, from all of the hurt, sorrow, suffering and joy of his own life.

A ship appears on the horizon as Tristan sustains his final heart attack. Kurwenal runs to receive Isolde. In a final paroxysm of indescribable waves of pain, Tristan tears off his bandages and bleeds freely and joyously. He hears Isolde’s voice coming to him as he dies. Could he not wait for her one more hour? She pleads for him to continue breathing. She has so much to tell him. She came as his bride, how can she be punished with his funeral? Her shock and overwhelming grief deepen into silence.

A second ship is sighted. Mark and Brangaene are landing. Melot leads their advance party. Kurwenal kills Melot and then himself. The group have come, too late, on a mission of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Now Isolde stirs. Looking deeply at Tristan, she sings “See him smiling, softly, softly, see the eyes that open fondly, oh my friends, don’t you see, don’t you feel and see? Is it only I who hear these gentle, wondrous strains of music, joyously sounding, telling all things, reconciling, coming through him, piercing through me, rising upward in the ocean of sound, in the infinite all of the cosmic breath, to drown, descending, void of thought, into the highest, purest joy.”