Marvel continues. The remembrance of the Armenian genocide (1915) inspired the Boghossian Foundation to bring a selection of collages by Sergei Parajanov to Brussels. Parajanov is most known for his exceptional films Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964), a personal blend of folklore, color and vision, and the stunning Sayat Nova (The Color of Pomegranates, 1969), a tableau-like celebration of the Armenian poet Sayat Nova.
The films being too experimental for the social-realist paradigm of the USSR, and Parajanov expressing a critical voice as well as being openly gay resulted de facto in a ban on filming for about 15 years, and years of imprisonment in a labor camp. In this period, Parajanov started to work on paper collages, to create ‘mini-films’. He also made lots of three-dimensional cabinets and boxes. His film shots already often combined several layers into one image, but his collages thicken this multiplying effect and combining of several influences, spheres, colors or significations. James Steffen, who published the first English-language study on Parajanov’s films, wrote a nice introduction for the catalogue of a similar exhibition in 2014 in New York.
In September, the filmmaker Artavazd Pelechian is coming to the Centre for Fine Arts BOZAR in Brussels, for an introduction, masterclass and screening of his films. The Armenian filmmaker only made eleven films, most of them short films. These films, primarily experimental documentary films, are most known for their distinctive montage. Pelechian himself calls it ‘distant montage’. One could describe it as organic montage instead of logical montage. Shots are often linked not by a direct, but by an indirect connection. Hordes of running animals can be followed by a mass of people moving in the same direction, stressing parallels and differences between them. Furthermore, in Pelechian’s films, associations are not predominatnly made between juxtaposed shots, but also between remote shots, between sequences and single shots, or by interrelated sequences. Sometimes singular images come back at several moments throughout the film, slowly developing more nuance in their possible interpretation.
Another characteristic of Pelechian’s films, is the use of sound as a key element. Not only in the montage, where the music can enhance or alter the interpretation of the images, but as he stated himself,
I can not conceive my films without music. When I write the scenarios, I must preview the musical structure of the film, the musical accents, the emotional and rhythmic character of this music, which is necessary, indispensable for each scene. (citation taken from Senses of Cinema that features an elaborate article on Pelechian)
These things become clear when watching his first film after graduating from the Russian films school VGIK, The Beginning (1967).
Commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the Russian revolution, the nine minute film, mainly consisting of archival newsreel material, offers a fast forwarded glimpse of 50 years of (Soviet) history. No voice-over, no text cards, no diegetic sound at all. At the opening of the film, church bells announce the beginning of something; some seconds later, non-diegetic shot gun sounds announce the revolution – stressed by a stroboscopic effect by interweaving black or white frames. The sounds and shots used here, come back several times. When an image of Lenin appears, the frantic music begins, evoking the sound of a riding train, an image emerging a little later. The agitated musical rhythm makes the fast cutting montage appear even faster. The composition used is ‘Time, Forward!’ by Gyorgi Sviridov, a theme that was commissioned for a propagandistic film two years earlier.
This brings us back to a previous post on The Heart of the World by Guy Maddin, a film with similar fast cutting pace, using the same musical composition. In my earlier post, I missed the connection between these two films, but music, images and montage in both films are clearly related. Another sign that the influence of Pelechian is more present than visible at a first sight.
April 30 is called International Jazz Day
Although jazz purists may not label this as jazz, I’d like to highlight one of the most fascinating releases I bought the last time: a pairing of John Scofield with the rockers of Gov’t Mule. This album consists of recordings of two live gigs in 1999 that apparantly aquired cult status. However, this album sounds as fresh as early birds in springtime. Songs of Gov’t Mule are paired with compositions written by James Brown, Wayne Shorter and Hottentot by John Scofield (first heard on the magnificent album A Go Go that John Scofield recorded with Medeski, Martin & Wood).
There is a nice review on AllAboutJazz that sums it up beautifully:
Sco-Mule isn’t a jazz album by any standard definition; it rocks way too hard for that. Still, with Scofield’s intuitive way of taking the music ever so slightly out, only to bring it back in again with the kind of effortless aplomb he’s developed in a career now entering its fifth decade as the guitarist moves into his mid-sixties, Sco-Mule ain’t your typical jam band album either. Instead, it sits somewhere in-between, with everyone forgetting about artificial delineation. Sco-Mule is, quite simply, great songs played by a terrific group that may have been performing live for the first time, but was already imbued with a profound connection that went deeper and broader than any one genre.
The album even comes in colourful cover art. If you buy the vinyl version (that sounds very good), you’ll even have two pieces of art (the cover and the music) that will stay with you for a long time.
Tomorrow, I’ll give a lecture at Ghent University on the use of jazz in film noir.
Contrary to the common idea, jazz is not frequently used in film noir. It’s more the dark setting, the connection with the night (the prefered time slot in film noir), femmes fatales that makes one think that jazz is so present in film noir. On a list of about 300 film noir, someone counted only 30 featuring jazz in any way.
Most of the film noir feature a traditional, orchestral score – and sometimes a diegetic (present in the image) use of jazz, preferably when criminals or their victims visit a club.
Furthermore, contrary to what one might expect, bebop or cool jazz are nearly absent. The jazz styles with which Charlie Parker and later on John Coltrane and Miles Davis and many others turned the musical world upside down, were not only seen as too difficult and too intellectual for film. Bebop and cool explicitely fighted for a recognition of on the one hand jazz as an art style, and not only simplistic or (as often presented in films) inferior expression, and on the other hand also played a role in the fight against segregation. Instead, most of the jazz sequence in film noir use swing, bigband or more easy-listening jazz. The use of jazz and depiction of it also reflects on social codes and context of the time.
Some examples of the use of jazz, and the shift that occurs with the years:
- Blues in the Night by Anatole Litvak (1941) features a white jazz musician – who outclasses his black tutor
- Mildred Pierce by Michael Curtiz (1945) features one jazz song – and it symbolises the fall of the daughter who should have become a lady with class and who ends up singing simple songs for the entertainment of hungry men in a club
- D.O.A. (Death On Arrival) by Rudolph Maté (1950) features black jazz musicians, but was not allowed to show them in one and the same shot with the white audience…
- The Man With the Golden Arm by Otto Preminger (1955) makes the jazz sound more explicit, even in the more traditional, orchestral parts of the score
- I Want To Live! by Robert Wise (1958) features the black musician Art Farmer in a white band
- Anatomy of a Murder by Otto Preminger (1958) features the first score fully composed by a black composer, Duke Ellington
More info during my lecture or in the book Jazz Noir by David Butler.
Guy Maddin’s dreamlike and often surreal films are mostly in black and white and contain a lot of echoes of films of the 20ies and 30ies. He is mostly known for his feature film The Saddest Music in the World (2003), featuring a mesmerising Isabelle Rossellini, and his personal documentary vision of his home town My Winnipeg (2007) . Maddin also made a lot of experimental short films.
The Heart of the World was made in 2000. For the 25th anniversary of the Toronto Film Festival, several directors were asked to create a short film that would be screened prior to feature films during the festival. When Maddin heard that other directors planned films with a small number of shots (Cronenberg’s Camera for example has less than sixty shots in its nearly 6’40 minutes), he planned to make a film with about 100 shots a minute.
This film not only features lots of characteristics inspired by silent film and early sound film, such as the experimental camera angles, irises to focus or blend, actors either over-acting, either under-acting. The film was also digitally manipulated to give it the look of an old and fading print, and last but not least, this fascinating short film is full of allusions and references to German expressionism as Murnau’s Metropolis or Von Sternberg’s Der blaue Engel ; surrealist film as Dali & Buñuel’s Un chien andalou ; or Lotte Reiniger’s shadow animation. The most explicit one – and mentionned by Maddin himself – is the connection with Russian constructivism. This reminiscence of Russian constructivism is enhanced by the use of music by the Russian composer Georgy Sviridov (1915-1999). The theme used here was written for the film Time, Forward!, a Russian propagandistic drama film from 1965, and became a sort of calling card for the Soviet Union itself. Since 1986 it was used as the signature tune of Vremya, the TV news program on USSR Central Television and Russian Channel One. Filmic influences from Russian constructivism are also palpable, from Eisenstein’s dialectic montage in Potemkin to Vertov’s The Man With the Movie Camera and Pudovkin’s Mother for example, and most of all the proto-science-fiction of Aelita, a 1924 film by Iakov Protazanov that in its turn inspired Murnau’s Metropolis.
As such, The Heart of the World not only functions as a fine introduction to Maddin’s universe, but as a condensed trip into film history as well.
Great was my surprise lately when I heard Herbie Hancock’s album Directstep (1978) for the first time. In the second half of the seventies, Hancock was not only touring with V.S.O.P., essentially the fabulous Miles Davis Quintet from ’64-’69 (Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on drums and Wayne Shorter on saxophone) with Freddie Hubbard instead of Miles on trumpet. In the same period, Hancock also released a very beautiful duet album with Chick Corea, and experimented with pop, funk and disco on albums such as this Sunlight (1978) and Mr. Hands (1982). Directstep is such a pop-jazz crossover album. It was originally only released in Japan and was one of the first albums to be released on CD. For this album, Hancock re-recorded the track I Thought It Was You from Sunlight, turning its sound even more in an electronic direction than on the first recording.
Impossible not to think of Daft Punk’s The Game of Love from Random Access Memories (2013):
It’s not only the use of the vocoder that creates an echo of Hancock. Rhythm, bass, melody, it all contains clear echoes from Hancock – too close to be pure luck. Even the part of Daft Punk’s text “and it was you” sounds almost like Hancock’s line “I thought it was you”.
Actually, it’s no surprise, since Random Access Memories features many echoes from that time period, becoming very explicit in the track Giorgio by Moroder, featuring Giorgio Moroder who made extensive use of the vocoder on the albums Einzelganger (’75) and From Here to Eternity (’77).
But in the case of The Game of Love, Daft Punk should have credited Hancock too, or change the title of the track into The Game of Herbie, or Herbie by Daft Punk.
ps: Too nice to withold: Hancock continued to play games, as can be heard in the eighties hit Rockit, according to wikipedia the first popsingle that featured scratching.
I didn’t print any photograph on paper for more than two years. As I still like the physical touch and because looking at a picture on paper is different from watching a screen, I’m browsing through thousands of stills, selecting some for a print order.
As such, I stumbled upon these pictures taken in London in 2012. On Leicester Square I stumbled upon a building devoted to m&m merchandising. I did not go inside (I wouldn’t know why), but the changing lights on outside of the building inspired me to take these colorful abstract pictures.
This version of Way To Blue by Nick Drake, solo on piano (the version on Five Leaves Left, 1969, also features strings) suits well with all this blue…
The exhibition WOMAN. The Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s at Bozar, Brussels, features a beautiful collection of images by Francesca Woodman.
To state the obious: her images are very poetic. To quote this nice article:
Taken between 1972 and 1981, Woodman’s photographs are almost all black-and-white and have a general softness of focus not often seen these days. They depict a world almost identical to the one captured by earlier generations of photographers, as if Woodman’s camera were a filter through which the neon clutter of contemporary life could not pass.
I had seen images before, but never such a big collection (about 50 I guess). To see a multitude of her images, makes it an even more intense experience.
Her photographic language was one of subtility. Her nakedness expresses more fragility than temptation. Nothing seems forced, although a lot of pictures feature a sophisticated scenography. In these, Woodman often seemingly attempts to come into union with the desolate setting – be it the roots of a tree, inbetween the cracks of earth in a dry field, or a window or a door in a squat. But if angel wings appear in the setting, she seems to run away from them. Or do they elevate her?
What struck me the most is that these images, as good poetry, are delicately multilayered and open for interpretation, as the angel wings in the picture above.
Take this beautiful image for example, taken in Rome.
At the exhibition, where the pictures were presented in 14 x 14 cm (5.5×5.5″) prints, I thought the object behind the corner was a stick and mask. As if Woodman had discarded a mask, or was dubious to put it on. Only at home, when browsing the internet and watching the image on my computer screen, I saw that it had nothing to do with masks. It is actually a Calla lilly (from the arum family). A beautiful white flower – the word kalla in ancient Greek means beautiful. Does the female figure wait for the flower to be handed over to her, or is she refusing it?
Reading about the origin of the name of the flower in Greek mythology, a first new layer opens:
The myth is that Zeus brought his mortal son Hercules to his wife Hera to nurse from her as she slept. Zeus wanted his son to have divine powers from drinking Hera’s milk, but because the child was from another woman, Hera flung Hercules away from her when she woke up. Her milk flew out through the universe to create the Milky Way, and a few drops fell to Earth, where beautiful white lilies sprung from the ground. In Roman mythology, Venus, the goddess of love and lust, saw the flowers, and in a fit of jealousy over their beauty, she made them grow a large pistil in their center.
When looking at the symbolism of this flower, the picture becomes even more intriguing:
The calla lily was by the Romans in association with the winter solstice. The lilies were forced to bloom indoors during the darkest time of year to celebrate the preservation of the light and bringing the light indoors. Calla lilies were often associated with funerals, only later to become a popular wedding flower.
The lily was a sacred flower to the Minoans and also prized among the ancient Jews. In Christian iconography, the flower came to represent purity and chastity. In contrast with this, the flower’s large spadix, a phallic flower stalk containing many male (pistillate) and female flowers, was symbolic of lust and sexuality among the Romans. As mentioned above, calla lilies have been viewed as a symbol of death and associated with funerals. In this capacity, they have been placed on the graves of youth who have suffered untimely deaths.
Purity and chastity but also lust and sexuality; winter, death, but also rebirth:
The calla lily plays a role in the Christian Easter service as a symbol of Jesus’ resurrection. In many paintings and other works of art throughout history, the calla lily has been depicted with the Virgin Mary or Angel of Annunciation. For this reason, it has been associated with holiness, faith and purity. Additionally, as the cone-line flowers blossom in spring, they have become symbols of youth and rebirth.
(…) they are traditional symbols of divinity, marital bliss and true devotion. More specifically, the calla lily marks the 6th wedding anniversary. However, they have also been used at funerals to represent sympathy and the purification of a departed soul. The exquisite calla lily is an appropriate flower for any occasion that involves major transitions, rebirths and new beginnings.
All these multiple possibilities suit well with the figure of Francesca Woodman. For me, this picture has now become the symbol of the power of her images.