Friday, November 20, 2020



David Fincher: Mank (US 2020).

Mank / Mank.
    US © 2020 Netflix. PC: Netflix International Pictures. P: Ceán Chaffin, Eric Roth, Douglas Urbanski.
    D: David Fincher. SC: Jack Fincher. Cin: Erik Messerschmidt – b&w – 2.20:1 – source format: Redcode RAW 8K – digital intermediate 6K – release format: D-Cinema. PD: Donald Graham Burt. AD: Dan Webster. Set dec: Jan Pascale. Cost: Trish Summerville. Makeup: Gigi Williams. Hair: Kimberley Spiteri. SFX: John C. Carlucci. VFX: Territory Studio, Artemple Hollywood, ILM, Ollin VFX. M: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross [Wikipedia lists 52 titles in the original score track listing]. S: Jeremy Molod. ED: Kirk Baxter. Casting: Laray Mayfield.
    CAST as edited in Wikipedia:
    Gary Oldman as Herman J. Mankiewicz
    Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies
    Lily Collins as Rita Alexander, Herman's secretary, from whom Susan Alexander Kane gets her name.
    Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer
    Tom Pelphrey as Joseph L. Mankiewicz
    Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst
    Sam Troughton as John Houseman
    Ferdinand Kingsley as Irving Thalberg
    Tuppence Middleton as Sara Mankiewicz, Herman's wife
    Tom Burke as Orson Welles
    Joseph Cross as Charles Lederer
    Jamie McShane as Shelly Metcalf, test shot director and Herman’s friend. Although Metcalf is fictional, Felix E. Feist was the test shot director at MGM, who shot the propaganda films against Upton Sinclair that Metcalf shoots in Mank.
    Toby Leonard Moore as David O. Selznick
    Monika Gossmann as Fräulein Frieda, Herman's housekeeper
    Leven Rambin as Eve, Metcalf's wife
    Bill Nye as Upton Sinclair
    Jeff Harms as Ben Hecht
"Many other Hollywood icons are portrayed, including George S. Kaufman, Greta Garbo, Josef von Sternberg, Norma Shearer, Eleanor Boardman, Joan Crawford, Charlie Chaplin, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Billie Dove, Rexford Tugwell, Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Charles MacArthur, Darryl F. Zanuck, S. J. Perelman, Carole Lombard, and Eddie Cantor." (End of cast listing from Wikipedia).
    Loc: Victorville, Los Angeles, Los Angeles Center Studios, 1 Nov 2019 – 1 Feb 2020.
    In memory of Jack Fincher.
    131 min
    US premiere (limited): 13 Nov 2020
    Netflix release: 4 Dec 2020
    Finnish premiere (limited): 20 Nov 2020 – released by Cinemanse with Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Annemarie Oksanen / Anne Norman.
    Corona emergency security: 25% capacity, face masks, distancing, hand hygiene.
    Viewed at Kino Engel 1, Helsinki, 20 Nov 2020.

IMDb synopsis: "1930's Hollywood is reevaluated through the eyes of scathing social critic and alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he races to finish the screenplay of Citizen Kane (1941)."

AA: Mank is the best movie of the year 2020.

How can I say this although Mank does gross injustice to Orson Welles?

For three reasons. Because of all the films I saw in 2020, this is the one in which I most repeatedly had the feeling that I need to see it again as soon as possible. Because of all the films discussing the boy wonder this is the one with the panache to match. And because, despite the character assassination approach, the film nevertheless conveys the singularity of Orson Welles's achievement better than any other fiction.

I had had a similar experience before. When I wrote my first piece on Citizen Kane, a program note for the film society Monroe in Tampere 45 years ago, my main sources were The Citizen Kane Book containing an ignorant essay by a critic colleague, and Charles Higham's The Films of Orson Welles. I had blithely dived into a pool of sharks, but the power of Citizen Kane and the pleasure of reading its screenplay were so overwhelming that they transcended the attempts of the feeble sharks. (I still possess my 45-year-old paperback copy of The Citizen Kane Book, invaluable because of the manuscript, reduced long ago into a loose-leaf wad held together by rubber band).

Every time Citizen Kane is different, and every time it is about the pleasure of the cinema. Herman J. Mankiewicz's credit is undeniable. But so is the fact that Orson Welles electrified his colleagues to an achievement unique for all.

The real conditions of making Citizen Kane have been documented by Andrew Sarris, Joseph McBride, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Robert Carringer, Harlan Lebo – and Peter Bogdanovich fronting for Orson Welles, himself. There are fact-checking reviews of Mank the movie online by Joseph McBride, David Walsh, and others.

The entire movie plays fast and loose with facts. Dozens of references are half-accurate at best. David Fincher creates a parallel Hollywoodian universe with familiar characters, but everything has been altered. In a way Mank resembles Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood.

Of Fincher's own movies, Mank is closest to The Social Network, also set in a real institution (Facebook) and with a real celebrity as protagonist (Mark Zuckerberg), but it did not do justice to either. It was also a brilliant satire set in a plausible parallel universe.

Mank is a reflection of Citizen Kane in many ways. In Citizen Kane, reporter Thompson embarks on a quest to divulge the secret of Rosebud (sujet) and the reminiscences of his interviewees are seen in flashbacks (fabula). In Mank, Herman J. Mankiewicz writes the screenplay of Citizen Kane (sujet) and reverts to his memories of Hollywood and San Simeon, seen in flashbacks (fabula).

In the center is a great performance by Gary Oldman as the alcoholic screenwriter who is given a golden chance to immortality by Orson Welles. Mank is both a brilliant wit and a mess as a human being. He is capable of generosity (helping persecuted Jews in Germany as a premature anti-fascist) and betrayal (his Susan Alexander caricature based on his good friend Marion Davies is unjust, mean and cruel).

The protagonist is a screenwriter, and the movie does honour his art and craft by breathtakingly witty dialogue. Like The Social Network, written by Aaron Sorkin, Mank is dialogue-driven. Like in The Social Network, women are belittled and marginalized, and it is difficult to say if this is a feature of David Fincher's cinema or the Hollywood of the 1930s.

Mank is also a political drama, featuring a mighty capitalist, William Randolph Hearst, and an idealistic socialist writer, Upton Sinclair. Like in Citizen Kane, freedom of the press and the power of money are at stake. Money talks, and with money it is possible to produce phony newsreels to discredit a rival candidate. The issues are based on reality, but details are again far from accurate. Mank is drama, not historiography.

Why was Orson Welles so hated by some?

There is a Finnish poem by Eino Leino called "Laulu onnesta" ["The Song of Happiness"] that starts with with the line "Kell' onni on, se onnen kätkeköön" ["If you find bliss, you must hide it"]. Poetry is what gets lost in translation, as Robert Frost said, but you get the idea.

Orson Welles was in trouble almost all his life, but he found bliss in his talent, creativity, friends and loves, a bliss he did not hide.

He must have been hurt by The Citizen Kane Book, and he would have been offended by Mank, but he would have soon overcome them, putting things into perspective as a modern Renaissance man, at home in the wavelengths of Shakespeare, Cervantes, Faust and Don Giovanni.



James Erskine: Billie (2019), a documentary portrait of Billie Holiday, based on the research by Linda Lipnack Kuehl.

Billie / Billie.
    GB 2019. An Altitude and MPC presentation of a New Black Films and Reliance Entertainment Productions Documentary in association with Concord Music, BBC, Belga Films, Multiprises LLC and UMG. P: Victoria Gregory, Barry Clark Ewers, James Erskine, Laure Vaysse. Co-P: Shianne Brown. EX: Michelle Smith, Alex Holmes, Sophia Dilley, Emma Cahusac, Will Clarke, Andy Mason, Mike Runagall, Deepak Nayar, Emil Elmer. Co-EX: David Blackman, David Inkeles. Consultant P: Toby Byron.
    D+SC: James Erskine [based on the interviews made by and manuscripts written by Linda Lipnack Kuehl]. DP: Tim Cragg. S: Tom Wollaert (sound supervisor, audio restoration engineer), Patrick Hubart (re-recording mixer, sound editor, sound mixer). ED: Avdhesh Mohla.
    [A documentary portrait about jazz singer Billie Holiday (1915–1959), born Eleanora Fagan, and Linda Lipnack Kuehl's (1940–1978) quest to write her definitive biography.]
    Featuring: Credited: Billie Holiday, Linda Lipnack Kuehl, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, narcotics agent Jimmy Fletcher, Bobby Tucker, Jimmy Rowles, Sylvia Syms, etc. – Not listed in the end credits: Michele Smith, Louis Armstrong, Skinny Davenport (pimp), Jonathan "Jo" Jones, John Simmons, Melba Liston, Barney Josephson, John Hammond, Memry Midgett, Pigmeat Markham, Detroit Red, Billy Eckstine, Benny Goodman, Lester Young, Artie Shaw, Sid Weiss, Mae Weiss, etc.
    [M: not credited: Billie Holiday as composer, writer of lyrics and / or singer.] ["Billie Holiday's estate, acquired in 2012 by music company Concord, came on board as producers." The Guardian, 6 Nov 2020.]
    [Soundtrack album, Verve Records 2020:]
1. Now Or Never (feat. Sy Oliver & His Orchestra) – Billie Holiday (3:18)
2. God Bless The Child – Billie Holiday and Her Orchestra (3:10)
3. Hoppin’ Around – The Sonhouse All Stars (2:37)
4. The Blues Are Brewin’ (feat. John Simmons & His Orchestra) – Billie Holiday (3:04)
5. Funeral In New Orleans – The Sonhouse All Stars (2:11)
6. Fine And Mellow – Billie Holiday and Her Orchestra (3:17)
7. Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday and Her Orchestra (3:12)
8. Just One More Chance – Billie Holiday & Ray Ellis and His Orchestra (3:46)
9. My Man – Billie Holiday (2:58)
10. I Only Have Eyes For You – Billie Holiday (2:54)
11. I’ll Never Smile Again – Billie Holiday & Ray Ellis and His Orchestra (3:27)
12. Don’t Explain (Live At Carnegie Hall / 1956) – Billie Holiday (2:28)
13. Porgy – Billie Holiday (2:54)
    [Also in the film: "Saddest Tale"].
    Colourized. Colourist: Marian Amaral.
    98 min
    Festival premiere: 5 Sep 2019 Telluride Film Festival.
    French premiere: 30 Sep 2020.
    British premiere: 13 Nov 2020.
    US premiere: 4 Dec 2020.
    Finnish premiere: 20 Nov 2020, released by Cinema Mondo with Finnish / Swedish intertitles and subtitles by Outi Kainulainen / Joanna Erkkilä. Intertitles in Finnish and Swedish only.
    Corona emergency security: 25% capacity, face masks, distancing, hand hygiene.
    Viewed at Kino Engel 1, Helsinki, 20 Nov 2020.


"Crafted from extraordinary unheard interviews, and restoring key performances into color for the first time, BILLIE is the story of the singer who changed the face of American music, and the journalist who died trying to tell it."


"Billie - BILLIE HOLIDAY, one of the greatest voices of all time, a woman of breath-taking talent and global popularity, was throughout her short life a figure of controversy - a black woman in a white man’s world, a victim and a rebel whose infamous Strange Fruit, the first protest song, earned her powerful enemies. She was also an enigma, her telling of her own life story a mix of half truths and free-form improvisations."

"Then in the late 1960’s journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl set out to write the definitive biography of Billie. Over the next decade, she tracked down and tape-recorded interviews with the extraordinary characters that populated the iconic singer’s short, tumultuous life."

"Raw, emotional and brutally honest, these incredible testimonies ranged from musical greats like Charles Mingus, Tony Bennett, Sylvia Syms and Count Basie to her cousin, school friends, lovers, lawyers, pimps and even the FBI agents who arrested her. But Linda’s book was never finished and the tapes unplayed – until now."

"With unprecedented and exclusive access to Linda's astonishing 200 hours of never-before-heard interviews, BILLIE showcases an American legend, capturing her depths and complexity through the voices of those who knew her best. Painstakingly restored with footage and stills colorized by one of the leading color artists, it is an arresting and powerful tale of one of the greatest singers who ever lived, and of Linda Lipnack Kuehl, the woman who would sacrifice her life in trying to tell it.

TELLURIDE 2019 PROGRAM NOTE (Fiona Armour): "By the late 70s, journalist and Billie Holiday superfan Linda Lipnack Kuehl had amassed hundreds of hours of recorded interviews in an effort to finish a book on the mysterious and tragic jazz icon. These tapes—with Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Sylvia Sims, Sid Weiss and others—remained unreleased following Kuehl’s sudden death. Forty years later, director James Erskine weaves Kuehl’s recordings into a powerful portrait of a thoroughly modern woman, as complicated and layered as her music. BILLIE reveals the singer’s magnetism, her darkness, her struggles against discrimination and segregation, and with addiction, tales of the men who couldn’t control her ... a hero who was victimized but never a victim. And Kuehl never shied away from the tough questions—this is a ruthlessly honest story of one woman told by another, the two united in their quests for authenticity." – Fiona Armour

AA: I don't know if it's a commonplace to make a comparison between two great performers who were born in the same year, became victims of untold suffering in childhood, changed their names, transcended their circumstances, created vast legacies of timeless interpretations as singers and songwriters, both globally known for their instantly recognizable voices, and died before they reached the age of 50: "La Môme" Édith Piaf (1915–1963) and "Lady Day" Billie Holiday (1915–1959).

Watching James Erskine's richly rewarding portrait documentary made me think about Olivier Dahan's Édith Piaf biopic La Môme (2007) in which Marion Cotillard gave a legendary performance in the leading role. Piaf and Holiday experienced things far beyond what anybody should endure, and agony was palpable in their performances until the end.

Already as a child, Holiday became a victim of rape, abuse and prostitution, and all her life she had to endure brutal racist persecution, sexual violence, duplicity, fraud and theft from the men and the managers in her life. The injustice she was made to suffer was extraordinary, but even more extraordinary was that she refused to assume the role of a victim.

Instead, Holiday became a fighter who lived her life to the extreme, becoming rich and famous despite racist discrimination, singing defiantly "Strange Fruit" every night although it meant losing her most lucrative gigs, burning her candle from both ends as an alcoholic, drug addict and "sex machine", and giving great performances as a singer to the end.

James Erskine bases his movie on the fabula and sujet narrative structure: the fabula is the mystery of Billie Holiday's life, and the sujet is Linda Lipnack Kuehl's eight-year quest to interview everybody who knew her. We keep meeting and hearing key colleagues and witnesses from John Hammond to Lester Young, from Sylvia Syms to Michele Smith. But incredibly, we also get to hear the cynical confessions of her abusers, starting from the pimp of her childhood.

In the age of Me Too and Black Lives Matter, this movie is burningly topical.

But Billie Holiday's artistic legacy is ageless. "I heard a singer who was like an improvising horn player", said John Hammond. "There was a truth in every note" says Sylvia Syms who also quotes Billie Holiday's own definitions of her interpretations: you have to sing like you almost cry to make the audience cry. You have to sing like you almost laugh to make the audience laugh.

For me, Billie Holiday has always been an impressive presence, but I'm not a Billie Holiday person. I acknowledge the power of her personality, the originality of her interpretation and the subtlety of her sensuality, but I sense something unsettling in the melancholy that I cannot relate to.

Jazz is terra incognita for me, which is why I five years ago embarked on a project to start from scratch and asked Emu Lehtinen of Digelius Music to select for me a "jazz record of the week". Billie Holiday was Emu's greatest favourite, and unsurprisingly, one of his first selections was the ten disc box set Lady Day – The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 19331944 (including Columbia's Brunswick, Vocalion and OKeh labels). So I was on my way, and I even liked the five disc box set of her late albums, including All Or Nothing At All, one of her very last ones. Although Billie Holiday had become physically ravaged, I sensed her spirit growing stronger.

James Erskine's film increases my admiration for Billie Holiday, most impressively because of her commitment to "Strange Fruit". It was a favourite for Peter von Bagh who discussed it in his radio programmes and concert specials since the early 1970s. It would have been rewarding to hear Emu Lehtinen and Peter von Bagh discussing this impressive film.

It must have been a daunting project to restore and make fully audible the hundreds of interviews and to collect the mosaic of film snippets and rare photographs. The movie has been made to look and sound as smooth as possible.

Too smooth and Photoshopped to my taste. The colourized images and passages are marvels of modern digital technology, but I prefer to remain a partisan of rough authenticity.


Naurun varjolla / Laughing Matters

Reetta Aalto: Naurun varjolla / Laughing Matters (FI 2020) starring Joonas Saartamo (Tommi) and Elena Leeve (Maria).

Reetta Aalto: Naurun varjolla / Laughing Matters (FI 2020) starring Aino Sirje as Kira.

På skämt.
    FI 2020. PC: Zodiak Finland Oy. P: Sari Lempiäinen.
    D: Reetta Aalto. SC: Anna Ruohonen. Cin: Jarkko M. Virtanen. AD: Sasu Joutsi. Cost: Ninni Lahtinen. Makeup: Hanna Ilkko. M: Artturi Taira, Samuli Kukkola. S: Pinja Mustajoki. ED: Hanna Kuirinlahti.
    C: Elena Leeve (Maria), Joonas Saartamo (Tommi), Aino Sirje (Kira), Ernest Lawson (Karri), Minna Kivelä (Riitta), Heikki Silvennoinen (Kale), Satu Tuuli Karhu (Laura), Miika Laakso.
    Loc: Tampere, Hämeenlinna, Turku, Forssa.
    88 min
    Premiere: 20 Nov 2020 – released by Oy Nordisk Film Ab.
    Corona emergency security: 25% capacity, face masks, distancing, hand hygiene.
    Viewed at Tennispalatsi 3, Helsinki, 20 Nov 2020.

AA: Laughing Matters is the debut feature film of Reetta Aalto, who has attracted attention with a string of short films such as Marja-Sisko (a documentary about a priest who came out as transgender) and Bittersweet (a sensitive drama about the friendship of two teenage girls). Pussy for Beginners, a funny animated "instruction manual" about the atavistic topic, won the Domestic Award at the Animatricks Festival. Boudoir / The Bedroom was a drama about "when no means no" in the feminist portmanteau project One-Off Incident / A Force of Habit.

Stand-up comedy, called by that English term, started to gain popularity in Finland in the 1990s, but there had been an indigenous tradition since forever, popular in soirées (iltamat), during wartime, and also in the early cinema period when short films alternated with programme numbers, including comedy skits. Among film culture personalities, Peter von Bagh as an emcee had a talent for stand-up, but laughter for him was not an end in itself.

Stand up has emerged into the forefront of attention in recent high profile films such as Joker last year, and in Laughing Matters it becomes a subject for a multi-layered reflection. There is a stand up class, and a rookie stand-up tour is mounted to test new talent.

The tension is enormous. No form of performance is as merciless as comedy. If you fail, you are likely to fail utterly. We learn that main driving forces of stand-up comedy include humiliation and self-revelation. It's a contradictory and paradoxical art.

The four members of the stand-up tour each offer caricatures of identity politics. There is a Black comedian (Ernest Lawson as Karri), a non-binary performer (Aino Sirje as Kira), a male chauvinist (Joonas Saartamo as Tommi) and a feminist intellectual (Elena Leeve as Maria).

The main conflict is between Tommi and Maria. Tommi's routine is a jaw-droppingly reactionary misogynist rant where the punchlines are true knock-outs against wives and mothers-in-law.

Tommi elicits laughter, disturbingly not because of fun but because of hate. This is something so existential that I am reminded of Jules Feiffer's remarks around Carnal Knowledge, for him "a picture of men's hatred of women", expressing his view that "all heterosexual men hate women", or at least that this was the case during the sexual revolution.

Maria is so stunned and stupefied by Tommi's poisonous and bilious rant that she feels physically ill. Gandhi's motto "be the change that you wish to see in the world" is evoked in the movie, but Maria turns into Gandhi II, no more Ms. Passive Resistance, not winning Tommi with love but demolishing him with his own weapons, and, using feminine wile, stinging him to the quick.

The stand-up contest turns into a battle of the sexes, and although there is an attempt to transform the narrative into a romantic comedy, instead it proceeds from misogyny and misandry into misanthropy, as far as Tommi and Maria are concerned.

Karri and Kira appear as centers of sanity. I don't immediately recall another so memorable a non-binary character in Finnish cinema as Aino Sirje's interpretation as Kira. Although Kira's role is underwritten, there is a quiet and compelling presence that elevates the whole movie and becomes a promise of exciting things to come.

PS. Reportedly there is an impressive non-binary character also in Hannaleena Hauru's Fucking With Nobody, seen at Venice Film Festival, but its Finnish premiere has been postponed into 2021.

PS 2. Thinking about Finnish talent in bringing non-binary characters to the screen we may also remember Susanna Salonen's Patong Girl (2014) and Stina Ekblad's interpretation of Ismael in Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander (1982) in a sequence that was for Robin Wood the final key moment in Bergman's oeuvre.

PS 3. I confess that I am out of my depth in discussing gender diversity and intersex, and my command of the vocabulary leaves a lot to be desired. There is a Finnish online vocabulary updated 22 December 2020 on the SETA website.


Monday, November 16, 2020

Beethoven 250: Piano Sonata Number 27 (Stephen Kovacevich, 1992)

Antoni Lange (1779–1844): Frühlingslandschaft mit Teich / Spring Landscape with Lake / Wooded Landscape. 1839. Oil on canvas. 85 cm x 113 cm. Sold at Sotheby's, London, 1 December 2005, lot 3. Sold at Galerie Koller, Zürich, 18 September 2007, lot 3196. Signature and date bottom right. Wikimedia Commons. Gemeinfrei. Please click to enlarge onto a big screen.

Beethoven: The Complete Works (80 CD). Warner Classics / © 2019 Parlophone Records Limited. Also available on Spotify etc. I bought my box set from Fuga at Helsinki Music Centre.
    Ludwig van Beethoven 1770–1827.
    Beethoven 250 / corona lockdown listening.

From: CD 23/80  Piano Sonatas Nos. 26, 27, 28, 29
Stephen Kovacevich, 2002 (No. 26), 1992 (Nos. 27, 28) and 1994 (No. 30)

Opus 90: Klaviersonate Nr. 27 in e-Moll (1814)
Dem Grafen von Lichnowsky gewidmet. [Moritz von Lichnowsky].   
    Erster Satz: Mit Lebhaftigkeit und durchaus mit Empfindung und Ausdruck, 5'22"
    Zweiter Satz: Nicht zu geschwind und sehr singbar vorzutragen, 7'10"
Stephen Kovacevich (1992): 13 min

AA: The first of Beethoven's late piano sonatas. For Wilhelm von Lenz, who first divided Beethoven's output into three periods, it was the last of the middle period. Passions are no longer raging, but there is an extraordinary fullness and depth of feeling.

It starts with striking, dynamic, vigorous questions and proceeds with tender, gentle and undulating answers. A spirit of nobility and generosity prevails. The emotions are direct and gentle. It has been said that for Beethoven, the first movement was about the struggle between head and heart, and the second movement about a dialogue between lovers. Indeed, András Schiff registers the second movement as a duet between a soprano and a tenor.

The sonata is simultaneously extroverted and introverted. Commentators have found in the first movement contractions, expansions, inhibitions, accelerations, connections and disconnections. Intonations in calm, gentle voices, and memories: Romain Rolland states that memories are always in high register.

In the second movement we meet Beethoven the melody maker. The movement is "very singing", as Beethoven himself instructs. The melody is sober, fresh and cheerful. A misleading simplicity contains unfathomable depths.

During the Congress of Vienna, 1814–1815, Beethoven was at the top of his fame, but that was due to hack work such as Wellington's Victory. In the same year he finished his opera Fidelio. By this time, Beethoven himself was no longer able to play his compositions the way he wanted.

András Schiff's Guardian Lecture on piano sonata No. 27 is again a deeply moving work of art in its own right, a companion piece full of reminiscences of predecessors (Bach, Mozart, Haydn) and connections with followers, most prominently Schubert.

I'm beginning to realize that besides Schiff an exceptional commentator of Beethoven's piano sonatas is Anton Kuerti who writes about the ending: "The bitter taste and the unrest that is evoked and left behind by these passages forms a contrast to the songful health of the main theme, and this contrast is dissolved wonderfully in the coda, when the theme swells on majestically in order to present its hidden passions." See more beyond the jump break.


Friday, November 13, 2020

Nabarvené ptáče / The Painted Bird

Václav Marhoul: Nabarvené ptáče / The Painted Bird (CZ/UA/SK/PL 2019) starring Petr Kotlár as Joska.

The Finnish edition of Jerzy Kosiński's The Painted Bird (Kirjamaailma, Rauma, 1967, translated by Asko Salokorpi).

Kirjava lintu / Kirjava lintu – The Painted Bird / Den målade fågeln.
    CZ/UA/SK/PL © 2019 [10 companies]. PC: Silver Screen / Ceská Televize / PubRes / RTVS / Directory Films. Supported by: Ukrainian State Film Agency / Státní fond kinematografie / Audiovizuálny fond. P: Aleksandr Kushaev, Václav Marhoul.
    D+SC: Václav Marhoul – based on the novel (1965, original in English) by Jerzy Kosiński – Finnish translation by Asko Salokorpi (Kirjamaailma, 1967). Cin: Vladimír Smutný – negative: 35 mm – b&w – 2.39:1 – release: D-Cinema. PD: Jan Vlasák. Cost: Helena Rovna. Makeup: Ivo Strangmüller. Prosthetics designer & special makeup effects artist: Rene Stejskal. SFX: Martin Kulhanek. VFX: David Vána. AN: Jaroslav Polensky. M: no original score composition – soundtrack listing: see after the jump break. S: Pavel Rejholec – 12-Track Digital Sound. ED: Ludek Hudec.
    CAST from Wikipedia:
    Petr Kotlár as Joska
    Nina Šunevič as Marta
    Ala Sakalova as Olga
    Udo Kier as Miller
    Michaela Doležalová as Miller's Wife
    Stellan Skarsgård as Hans
    Harvey Keitel as Priest
    Julian Sands as Garbos
    Júlia Vidrnáková as Labina
    Lech Dyblik as Lekh
    Aleksei Kravchenko as Gavrila
    Barry Pepper as Mitka
    Petr Vaněk as Nikodém
    Radim Fiala as Cossack
    Jitka Čvančarová as Ludmila
    Alexander Leopold Schank as SS Officer
    Alexander Minaev as Red Army officer
    Pavel Kříž as Avid man
    Zdeněk Pecha as worker
    Milan Šimáček as Horse owner
    Martin Nahálka as Red partisan
    Dominik Weber as Captain
    Andrej Polák as Doctor in orphanage
    Filip Kaňkovský as Merchant
    Lukáš Hložek
Loc: Poland (Dolnoslaskie), Ukraine, Czech Republic (Brno), Slovakia.
Wikipedia: "It is the first film to feature the Interslavic language; Marhoul stated that he decided to use Interslavic so that no Slavic nation would nationally identify with the story."
169 min
Festival premiere: 3 Sep 2019 Venice Film Festival.
Finnish festival premiere: 21 Nov 2019 Night Visions International Film Festival.
Czech premiere: 12 Sep 2019.
Finnish premiere: 6 Nov 2020 – released by Night Visions Distribution with Finnish / Swedish subtitles n.c.
    Corona emergency security: 25% capacity, face masks, distancing, hand hygiene.
    Viewed at Kinopalatsi 10, Helsinki, 13 Nov 2020.

AA: Václav Marhoul's The Painted Bird is a brilliant, impeccable and constantly disturbing account of a little Jewish boy's ordeals in Eastern Europe during the Nazi Feldzug im Osten (the Eastern Campaign), also known as Operation Barbarossa.

It is based on Jerzy Kosiński's acclaimed novel that was believed to be autobiographical until it turned out that Kosiński's family had been rescued by a courageous Polish Catholic family that risked their lives by helping them.

Yet Kosiński's novel is based on personal experience in a wider sense. The atmosphere of unimaginable cruelty and terror is something that he had observed first hand and gave expression to. Perhaps the connection between truth and imagination in this Bildungsroman of childhood is not so different from Dickens's David Copperfield or Tolstoy's Childhood.

The title of the novel and the film refer to a bird painted by children. When it rejoins its flock, other birds peck it to death.

Marhoul's film belongs to a distinguished cycle of Eastern European Holocaust films of the 21th century. Roman Polanski's The Pianist was the true story of the persecuted Wladyslaw Szpilman, supplied with the director's personal memories. Lajos Koltai's Fateless, based on the novel of the Nobel laureate Imre Kertész, boasted perhaps the strongest performance of all in the leading role, that by Marcell Nagy, and went further than any other in the sense that the most disturbing part of the story starts only after the liberation of the concentration camps.

I have not seen Saul fia / Son of Saul by László Nemes, because something in the universally laudatory reviews seemed to betray that this is not a film that I need to see. The same warning feeling I felt also with The Painted Bird.

I admire the impeccable period reconstruction and the astounding cinematography. But I cannot relate to the way in which the depressing cavalcade of sadism is being displayed. I do not understand the approach, the selection of the observation point or the inner core of the director Václav Marhoul in all this.

A controversial book by Norman Finkelstein is called The Holocaust Industry : Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (2000). I distance myself from Finkelstein, and his book has nothing to do with novels and their film adaptations.

But "a Holocaust industry" and "an exploitation of Jewish suffering" are also phenomena in culture in a wider sense. There is something unsavoury in the flood of publications about Nazi atrocities. They don't increase our understanding, but they often sell well and win prizes and awards.

These things are complicated. I'm grateful for The Painted Bird the movie for making me think about the mysterious lives of Jerzy Kosiński and Norman Finkelstein, the former a Holocaust survivor and the latter a son of ones. Their works are complex houses of mirrors like the life of The Man in the Glass Booth.

The movie was brilliantly shot on 35 mm black and white stock. In the digital transfer the ultra-sharpness makes nature seem denatured, which may be intentional.


Viimased / The Last Ones


Veiko Õunpuu: Viimased / The Last Ones (EE/FI/NL 2020) starring Pääru Oja (Rupi), Tommi Korpela (Kalastaja-Kari) and Laura Birn (Riitta).

Viimeiset / De sista.
    EE/FI/NL ©  2020 Homeless Bob Production (EE), Bufo (FI), PRPL (NL). P: Kartin Kissa, Mark Lwoff, Misha Jaari, Ellen Havenith.
    D: Veiko Õunpuu. SC: Heikki Huttu-Hiltunen, Eero Tammi, Veiko Õunpuu. Cin: Sten-Johan Lill – 2.39:1. AD: Otso Linnalaakso. Cost: Jaanus Vahtra. Makeup: Kaire Hendrikson. M: Sven Grünberg – 5.1. S: Mark Glynne. ED: Wouter van Luijn, Xander Nijsten.
    C: Laura Birn (Riitta), Tommi Korpela (Kalastaja-Kari), Pääru Oja (Rupi), Elmer Bäck (Lievonen), Samuli Edelmann (Tatu), Sulevi Peltola (Oula), Jarkko Lahti (the foreman), Indrek Spungin (Kinnunen), Emmi Parviainen (Sanna), Juhan Ulfsak (butcher), Taavi Eelmaa (Dieter), Veiko Õunpuu (Bohlen).
    Soundtrack selections: "Syksyn sävel" (Juice Leskinen). "Working Class Hero" (John Lennon) perf. Indrek Spungin. "Herrojen kanssa pellon laidassa" perf. Carola. A Brandenburg concerto by J. S. Bach. "Joyride" (Roxette, Laura Birn sing-along). "Drive" (karaoke interpretation by Tommi Korpela). "Lay Lady Lay" (Bob Dylan). Russian spiritual music.
    Locations: Finland: Kolari, Kilpisjärvi; Muonio (father's house); Rautavaara (mining locations). Estonia: Tallinn. Norway: Birtavarre (mountain hut), Skibotn, Skjold leir Military Base (studio).
    Languages: Finnish, English.
    117 min
    Festival premiere: 22 Sep 2020 Helsinki International Film Festival / Love & Anarchy.
    Estonian premiere: 25 Sep 2020.
    Finnish premiere: 13 Nov 2020 – released by B-Plan Distribution in 2K DCP
    Corona emergency security: 25% capacity, face masks, distancing, hand hygiene.
    Viewed at Tennispalatsi 4, Helsinki, 13 Nov 2020.

IMDb synopsis: " A struggling mine owner supplies his workers with drugs so they'll forget a tough existence. Nearby a small community of reindeer breeders also struggles. This critique of capitalism unfolds against a Western like Lapland landscape. "

AA: Lapland films and "Northerns" are no genre but may assimilate genre characteristics. The Northern's most obvious connection is with the Western, an affinity first revealed by our American brother William S. Hart in his lumberjack drama Blue Blazes Rawden (1918).

In Finland, lumberjack films evolved on a track of their own, adapting popular sources by Pakkala and Linnankoski. The magic of Lapland was celebrated in prominent studio era films by Vaala, Blomberg and Witikka. There was even a spoof "Wild North" fantasy cycle of films starring Tapio Rautavaara as Tundra Tauno.

Later, celebrating the sublime, Lehmuskallio and Mollberg displayed pantheistic visions of Lapland, as does Marko Röhr in the topical Tunturin tarina (The Tale of the Sleeping Giant, 2021). The sunless kaamos season of Lapland has provided a milieu for popular hit films in the Napapiirin sankarit [Heroes of the Polar Circle] cycle.

Indigenous Sami cinema was launched by Nils Gaup and Paul-Anders Simma, recently reinvigorated by Katja Gauriloff (Kaisa's Enchanted Forest). The Rovaniemi-born Miia Tervo has also brought fresh inspiration into the Lapland cinema (Aurora).

A mythical dimension exists in certain trends of the Northerns and Lapland films: the theme of the ultima Thule, the place beyond the borders of the known world, "the edge of the world", perhaps even this launched by William S. Hart, sustained in Flaherty and Arctic exploration films and finding expression in movies such as Jacques Feyder's La Loi du Nord (in Finland Pako pohjoiseen [The Flight to the North]) and Ingemo Engström's Flucht in den Norden (also called Pako pohjoiseen in Finland).

The "escape from civilization" or "retreat" theme was most prominently discussed in Risto Jarva's The Year of the Hare, based on the novel by Arto Paasilinna. Lapland has also been a setting for existential road movies by Mika Kaurismäki (The Last Border, The Road North). Anssi Mänttäri has also set irreverent stories of his in Lapland (Saunavieras).

There is a striking contrast between the sublime of the nature and the parlous state of humanity in many of these films, including the crime films of Jussi Hiltunen (Armoton maa / Law of the Land) and Matti Ijäs's Kaikella rakkaudella / Things We Do For Love.

Veiko Õunpuu, our Estonian brother from south of the Gulf of Finland, seems to have been aware of these trends when embarking on his own existential Lapland odyssey, its title The Last Ones signalling the mythical ultima Thule dimension with a tinge of irony.

In Lehmuskallio's cinema, the theme was, like in Flaherty, a search for a lost paradise. In Õunpuu, paradise has been lost long ago. We find ourselves in a desolate mining village in makeshift circumstances. There is an absence of beauty in the lived space. It's a world of exploitation: of nature, and of the workforce.

The company is here merely for instant profit, on the verge of selling out to the Chinese in the spirit of globalization. The big boss, called Fisherman Kari, doubles as a drug lord, keeping the workforce in a state of addiction. He displays blatant disregard for work safety in the dangerous mine. As for women, he seems to be inclined to the attitudes of a Feudal lord.

The period of the meta-Western and the Superwestern emphasized the theme of "the end of the West". In a similar way, Õunpuu's film is an "end of the North" film, an anti-romantic film about commercial extraction from the wilderness, leaving behind only ruins. The old reindeer herder fights to the end, until a Pierrot le fou climax.

We are left contemplating a miserable carnage, set against breathtaking landscapes shot in glorious scope.


Monday, November 09, 2020

Beethoven 250: Piano Sonata Number 26 "Das Lebewohl" / "Les Adieux" (Stephen Kovacevich, 2002)

CD cover art: Antoni Lange (Austria, 1774–1842): Landschaft mit Fischern / Krajobraz z rybakami / Landscape with Fishermen. 1840. Source/Photographer: Dmitrij Szelest, Lwowska Galeria Obrazów Auriga Warszawa (1990). From: Wikimedia Commons. Please click on the image to examine it on the biggest screen. God is in the detail.

Beethoven: The Complete Works (80 CD). Warner Classics / © 2019 Parlophone Records Limited. Also available on Spotify etc. I bought my box set from Fuga at Helsinki Music Centre.
    Ludwig van Beethoven 1770–1827.
    Beethoven 250 / corona lockdown listening.

From: CD 23/80  Piano Sonatas Nos. 26, 27, 28, 29
Stephen Kovacevich, 2002 (No. 26), 1992 (Nos. 27, 28) and 1994 (No. 30)

Opus 81a: Klaviersonate Nr. 26 in Es-Dur "Das Lebewohl"/ „Les Adieux“ (1809)
    Erster Satz: Das Lebewohl. Adagio/Allegro, c-Moll/Es-Dur/2/4-Takt/alla breve
    Zweiter Satz: Abwesenheit. Andante espressivo (In gehender Bewegung, doch mit viel Ausdruck), c-Moll, 2/4-Takt
    Dritter Satz: Das Wiedersehen. Vivacissamente (Im lebhaftesten Zeitmaße), Es-Dur, 6/8-Takt
    Widmung: "Lebewohl, Abwesenheit und Wiedersehn. Sonate für das Pianoforte in Musik gesetzt und Seiner Kaiserl. Hoheit dem Erzherzog Rudolph von Oesterreich zugeeignet von L. v. Beethoven."
    Stephen Kovacevich (2002): 16 min

AA: The last of Beethoven's middle sonatas is among the most famous of them (Waldstein, Appassionata, Lebewohl).

Again, a sonata different from its predecessors. "A programmatic tone drama", "a characteristic sonata", it is a work of appealing maturity. The regret for the departure of a beloved friend is balanced with the higher joy about the existence of the friendship itself. We often notice the value of the best things when in danger of losing them.

This sonata is a three act drama: Farewell – Absence – Reunion.

In the first movement, a lyrical dimension of interiority intertwines with the external action conveying urgent hoofbeats and happily leaping dogs. The brief second movement is like an inner monologue full of questions and uncertainty. In a breathtaking transition, without a break, it transforms into the third movement full of "riotous merriment". Bells are ringing, a full orchestra is playing, and there is a joyous ball to celebrate the best friend's return. There is a sincerely cheerful surge in Beethoven's "full orchestral" sonority. The music rushes forward, abates backward and climaxes con brio.

It's a virtuoso piece that does not flaunt its virtuosity. A sonata that sports both action and contemplation. A display of a profound sense of generosity. This sober warmth is different from the passion of the romances. This is a saga of friendship, not a love story.

In the third movement, bigger powers than mere Mannheim rockets are activated. Magnificent fountains are opened. Wellsprings and fountainheads reach deep into the earth. The definition of groundswell in Merriam-Webster: "a broad deep undulation of the ocean caused by an often distant gale or seismic disturbance". This sonata is a cheerful celebration of the élan vital.

András Schiff in his magisterial Guardian lectures reminds us that of all Beethoven's dedicatees, the archduke Rudolph was the most highly valued. Besides Das Lebewohl, Beethoven dedicated to him two piano concertos (4 and 5), the Grosse Fuge, the Archduke Trio, the Hammerklavier sonata, the last piano sonata (no. 32), and Missa Solemnis. Their friendship was immortalized in the most beautiful fashion.

Extra-musical circumstances during the composition include the death of Haydn in the end of May and the attack on Vienna (the battle of Wagram) in July by Napoléon, the former revolutionary liberator turned into a reactionary imperialist. Beethoven handed the first movement to Rudolph and signed it on his day of departure, 4 May, 1809. The two other movements were completed by 1810.

This sonata gives a lot of room for personal interpretation. I remained with Kovacevich and Schiff, straying also to Barenboim and Levit. Claudio Arrau, Alfred Brendel, Bruno Leonardo Gelber, Emil Gilels, Friedrich Gulda, Maurizio Pollini, Rudolf Serkin and Solomon have also been quoted among the major interpretators.

Napoleon attacks Vienna in 1809. Horace Vernet (1789–1863): Bataille de Wagram. 6 Juillet 1809. 1836. Oil on canvas. 465 × 543 cm. Palace of Versailles. Galerie des Batailles. Wikimedia Commons. Please do click to enlarge the image.