Archive for December, 2019

A very Happy Christmas and New Year

I see that time of year has crept up on us again.

I know I have been neglecting this blog of late, but I’ll try to make it a New Year resolution to renew attention to it, come January. After all, I haven’t finished by series of yet on the Ibsen plays.

So may I wish you all a very Happy Christmas and New Year, and I’ll see you next year.“Adoration of the Magi” by Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy Uffizi Gallery, Florence

“Adoration of the Magi” by Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy Uffizi Gallery, Florence

#Beethoven250 #Wordsworth250

There’s a lovely Peanuts cartoon strip by Charles M Schulz that I won’t reproduce here for fear of breaching copyright laws. I think I can describe it, though, without incurring the wrath of the courts. Schroeder is playing away at his little piano, his head bent towards the keyboard, lost to everything but the music he is making. And Lucy, who has a crush on Schroeder, sits by the piano, and tries to make conversation. She is looking, she says, for the answer to life. What is the answer, Schroeder?

Suddenly, without warning, Schroeder stops playing, and erupts. “Beethoven!” he bellows at her. “Beethoven is it, clear and simple!! Do you understand?” Such is his ferocity, that Lucy literally flips back into the air. When she lands again on the ground, Schroeder is back playing his music again, head down towards the keyboard, oblivious once more to all save the music.

I suppose this can be read as a joke at Schroeder’s expense – of a man who, immersed in his private passion, has no time for, or interest in, the human relationships he might be cultivating. But actually, I am on Schroeder’s side in this. For what is the answer to life if not Beethoven?

I suppose those on Lucy’s side (“Good grief!” she ends up saying to herself) will insist that cultivating human relationships, and thereby acknowledging our commonality and our shared humanity, overrides all else, and renders private obsessions at best trivial. But I can’t say I am entirely happy to go along with that. I don’t think it is to devalue the importance of these aspects of life to assert, or to re-assert, that aesthetics are also vitally important. Nietzsche famously asserted that life could only be justified as an aesthetic phenomenon, and, while I don’t know that I’d entirely go along with this either, I don’t think I have the temerity to disagree with old Freddie on this matter: for, really, if the answer to life isn’t Beethoven, then what is?

Or Shakespeare. Or Michelangelo. Of course, when we list the names of artists, we are referring to their works; and those works that strike us with awe and with wonder, that give us glimpses into the fullness of life, and impart a sense of something far more deeply interfused, are more, much more, I’d submit, than of merely peripheral importance, something merely to be indulged in when one has nothing better to do.

Next year is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. Now, some may argue that it’s pointless to celebrate the birthday of someone who is no longer around to accept birthday felicitations, but, since the only really objective test we know of for artistic greatness is the Test of Time, passing this almighty test does seems to me well worth celebrating. I knew nothing of Beethoven till my late teens: he had been, to me, just a name. When, aged seventeen or so, I started to take an interest in this classical music lark – purely out of curiosity – I went first of all to those composers I knew to be the “heavyweights” – Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Bach took a bit of time, I must admit, and even now I’m not sure I have come close to absorbing his music adequately; but the other two won me over right away. I have particularly fond memories of the summer of 1978. I was 18 years old, and, earlier that year, with the cheque my parents had sent me for my 18th birthday, I had bought a box of long-playing records of the nine symphonies of Beethoven. (For those interested in these matters, the performances were by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Karl Böhm.) What an era of discovery that was! I remember listening to those works, and pacing up and down the room in excited agitation, my fists clenched, my head whirling, unable quite to believe that mere music could affect me so powerfully.

Years have passed since then. Indeed, decades have passed since then. And that sense of discovery is, inevitably, no more, since one cannot discover afresh what one has already discovered. So, although I no longer pace up and down the room like some inebriated arse, these symphonies have now, as it were, entered my system, in much the same way that the plays of Shakespeare have: they are permanent fixtures inside my mind,  things that I am aware of even when I am not consciously thinking about them.

Soon, other works by Beethoven followed – concertos, string quartets, piano sonatas, the titanic Missa Solemnis, that flawed-but-who-cares opera Fidelio … all works that have taken possession of my mind, that are now part of me. And if this isn’t worth celebrating, then what is? If this cannot give life some semblance of that meaning that Lucy was asking about, then what can?

There is another important 250th anniversary next year of another great artist: William Wordsworth. Wordsworth didn’t enter my mind so dramatically as Beethoven had done. Perhaps appropriately, given his quieter voice, he entered my mind more insidiously. Indeed – and it pains me greatly to think what I prat I must have been in my younger days – for many years, I thought his reputation overblown; I thought of him as somewhat effete, blabbering on childishly about how lovely the daffs were beside the lake and beneath the trees. It took several years, and what I like to think of as a greater maturity, to realise that this very well-known poem wasn’t talking about how lovely the daffs were this year: he was describing how our minds may find significance – meaning, if you will – in earthly things, in seemingly minor things, and how it is possible for memory to re-create this significance in our minds. And that he can talk about matters so profound in a language that even a child could understand is a testament not to childishness, but, quite the contrary, to an extremely high degree of sophistication. Over the years, I can think of no poet whose work has come to mean more than me. So much so, indeed, that, as perspicacious readers of this post will no doubt have noticed, I find it hard to express my thoughts without borrowing a line or two from him.

Different though these two figures were in temperament, there are points where their minds do seem to touch. Both were initially enthused by what was happening in France, only to recoil afterwards. And both found in Nature a sense of divinity – not a Divinity that, as Creator, stands outside and above Nature, but one whose presence is immanent within it.  The “still, sad music of humanity” that Wordsworth heard in Nature is also the music Beethoven often composed. And in the final movement of Beethoven’s 6th symphony, the “Pastoral” – still possibly my favourite of the nine – Beethoven inspires a sense of reverence and of awe – not in contemplation of some other world beyond this one, but in this world, right here, in the here-and-now.

If all this sounds very facile, I can only plead that it is pointless my trying to express in my own inadequate words what Wordsworth expressed in his. This is why I find it so damn difficult to write about poetry. To express adequately what Wordsworth’s poetry makes me feel, I really need to have Wordsworth’s own genius with language. And of music, I am even less qualified to write. But such considerations haven’t, frankly, inhibited me yet. And since I am, after all, a blogger who blogs specifically to talk about all the things I love; and since it is only right that Wordsworth and Beethoven should both be celebrated next year; I suppose I should risk the reader’s ridicule and at least have a go.

Watch this space, as they say.

Cinematic hat-tricks

Here’s an interesting one:

Before I get on to it, I’d like to acknowledge that the idea for this, such as it is, came from a Facebook post I saw recently from a friend. He knows who he is. I won’t embarrass him by naming him here – unless, of course, he specifically asks me to. I think he comes on to this blog from time to time. However, if this idea turns out to be a bad one, I take full responsibility for this upon myself.

Now that’s over with, let’s move on.

Can you name an instance of a film director who has made three great films in succession?

Of course, much depends on what you consider “great”. The example my friend gives is Carol Reed, who made, in succession, Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, and The Third Man – and I reckon all three deserve to be called great. But what other examples are there?

There are surprisingly few. Usually, looking through even the most distinguished of filmographies, great films – or, rather, films I would consider great – are interspersed with minor works. For instance, I know Satyajit Ray started his career with the justly renowned “Apu Trilogy”, and that between the second and third of these films, he made Jalsaghar (The Music Room), which is also a masterpiece. So that’s four great films in succession. But looking at the full filmography, I see that in between those films he also made Paras Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone), which, to my mind, is a rather lacklustre comedy, so that spoils that one. I suppose one could go for Jalsaghar, Apur Sansar (the final instalment of the Apu Trilogy) and Devi, but the last of these, fine though it is, isn’t, perhaps, quite in the class of the others. (Ray continued to make great films right up to and including Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1984), but they are all interspersed with lesser works.

So, presumably having nothing better to do, I started looking up filmographies of some of my favourite directors, and I was surprised how rare these hat-tricks were. The directors of classic Hollywood are generally a bad bet: they often regarded themselves primarily as craftsmen rather than as artists – even when they were artists – and made whatever the studios asked them to make (John Ford, say, is a prime example of this). Even with the very individual Billy Wilder, it’s difficult to find three consecutive works of comparably high standard.

I suppose it must be difficult, in any art form, and especially in cinema where so much depends upon collaboration and upon budgeting and finances, to maintain high levels of creativity over a concentrated period. And I suppose many film-makers may quite deliberately make a lighter film in between the heavyweights. But this makes all the more impressive the various instances where film-makers have indeed made great films in close succession.

Take Ingmar Bergman, for instance. In the late 50s, he made Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries in close succession. And he repeated the trick between 1961 and 1963, he made the three films known as the “Faith Trilogy” (don’t ask me why: that’s what it says on the cover of my DVDs!) – Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Night, and The Silence. And Luis Buñuel finished his distinguished career with three of his finest films – Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie, Le fantôme de la liberté, and Cet obscur objet du désir.

And going back to my own favourite era of film-making – the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood – despite all the strictures imposed by the studio system, Preston Sturges, between 1941 and 1944, made  not three, but five consecutive films that I, for one, would place in the  top bracket – The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and Hail the  Conquering Hero.

But perhaps the most impressive uninterrupted sequence of masterpieces came from Robert Bresson, when, in succession, he made Les dames du bois de Boulogne, Journal d’un curé de campagne, Un condamné à mort s’est échappé, Pickpocket, Procès de Jeanne d’Arc, As hasard Balthazar, and Mouchette. I guess the only sequence of films to match that would be the seven films made by Andrei Tarkovsky.

I suppose Bresson went into the doldrums a bit after those seven films (in my opinion, at any rate), but, again in my opinion, he came back to form again with his last film, L’Argent: here, he took his spare, detached style about as far as it could possibly go, and came up with a film that haunts my mind. It is a film that does, I know, split opinions, but I doubt anyone can take serious issue with that extraordinary sequence of films he had made earlier in his career.

I’m sure there are many other sequences of uninterrupted creativity in film-making. So now it’s time to throw this open: what is your favourite cinematic hat-trick?