Concert Review: Max Richter (23 November 2014)

Despite the City Circle trains being down (never convenient for a concert at the Sydney Opera House) and it being Sunday night (I’ve decided I’m not a fan of anything being on Sunday night, really), the House was reasonably full for this performance by German-born English composer, Max Richter, performing with members of the Wordless Music Orchestra from New York.

Richter’s music is a bit hard to describe unless you hear it yourself. It’s often referred to as “neo-classical” but this is a strange term, because while it means it’s close to classical music, does it fall into the dreaded crossover basket (that realm inhabited by André Rieu and Andrea Bocelli)? Or is it something that is more respectable?

The answer is, I’m not really sure. Working for the SSO as I do, I have to say they looked a bit different from our regular customers. In fact, I really would have loved to poll the audience and find out, “Who are you? How did you get into this music? What do you normally listen to?”

The answer may be they come from all sorts of musical backgrounds. Richter can certainly get you from a number of angles, being similar to classical music, film music and electronic music. His previous work up till recently was of a more ambient variety, mixing electronic and acoustic instruments together in simple, but quite emotionally powerful ways. (Have a listen to his Memoryhouse album sometime and you’ll hear what I mean.)

The work in the second half of the program was a good example of this kind of work. It was a ballet score called Infra which consisted of an amplified string quintet, Richter on the grand piano, electronics, and a simple but fascinating graphic of stick figures walking backwards and forwards on a black screen above the musicians.

But the first half was the crowd pleaser – the fact is, Richter has hit it out of the park with the piece that opened the concert – his Vivaldi The Four Seasons Recomposed. Almost as if mixed by a DJ (and Richter does stand out the front of the ensemble with his keyboard and Apple laptop at the ready), the Four Seasons Recomposed follows the same pattern of movements as Vivaldi’s original, but each movement is wildly re-jigged.

The genius of it all is that there are enough familiar remnants of the original to make the works instantly familiar, but the emotional effect of what Richter does with each section is entirely original, and some movements are just fantastic.

For example, take the opening movement of Spring. It begins with the bird call motifs from the original piece, played repetitively as a sort of loop or ostinato, but then, underneath, a much slower, more powerful theme begins underneath it. Have a watch:

Oddly enough, what this reminds me most of is a famous piece by Moby that was used at the end of the movie, Heat,  called God Moving Over The Face Of The Waters, which you can have a listen to here to compare:

Two thoughts were with me after this concert:

1) Would modern composers (I’m thinking of the ones whose works actually get performed nowadays by regular classical ensembles) be more popular with the mainstream if there was a little bit more tonality? (I know, I know – it’s almost like a hit and run to drop a comment like that and then not talk more about it …)

2) The Wordless Music Orchestra were good but not absolutely top-notch musically – and yet they won the crowd over. What is it about some performers and performances that can win audiences over on one level, despite technical precision and musicianship not being of the highest calibre? What is it that connects? (Or maybe it’s just that after playing the Richter, the WMO decided to regale the audience – and remember, these guys are from New York – with a rendition of “Never Tear Us Apart” by INXS which as well as playing, they actually sang too. How often do you get artists making that kind of nod to the country they are visiting?)

Old Forgotten Blogs

I have recently been thinking about returning to blogging.

It was something I used to do a lot more often but I kind of stopped doing it a few years ago and haven’t really come back to it much.

So I decided recently that I wanted to start blogging again. But I find this strange sensation that returning to an old blog is somewhat like calling that person you used to be friends with several years ago that you haven’t spoken to in a long while.

Now it’s all awkward. Will they be annoyed if you ring them up? What excuse do you make for the long absence?

Seems to be the same with blogging. Part of it is to do with what stopped me blogging in the first place. Which I’m still not sure about.

Was it just that I ran out of time? Hey, I’ve got three kids. It’s possible.

Did I start to get more precious about what people feel about my opinion? Possible as well.

Is it just a vague notion that nobody reads blogs nowadays?

I’m not sure.

Anyway, I figure that if I’m going to re-open the blog after a while, I can’t just write any old random post. So this one can be the awkward one that breaks the ice.

And then – like that old friend that you finally get around to ringing – maybe I can organise a coffee and catch-up for the next one.

We’ll see.

Cloud Atlas: A New Trailer and a Divisive Premiere

Sadly, my attempts to make this blog cutting edge failed rather miserably when I went away for last weekend out of internet range and then came back to find that I had great difficulty finding time to sit down and write. What I missed being able to blog during that time was that, first of all, Warner Brothers has now released a shorter 2:30 trailer for Cloud Atlas. It’s mostly the same things that we’ve already seen, but with a couple of other clips – most tantalising of all (at least to me as a classical music buff) is the small snippet of the Cloud Atlas Sextet that can be heard playing on a record at the beginning of the trailer. And I read somewhere that that is Ben Whishaw (who plays the composer Robert Frobisher in the 1930s story) as the record store attendant. Not that you can really easily confirm these things. IMDB still doesn’t have a full list of who’s saying who. Or are they just letting us have some surprises when we watch the film? I’d like to hope so. Needless to say, I don’t think this trailer is going to make the film any clearer for newbie audiences out there, so I’m not sure who it was pitched at. Also, sadly, it leaves off M83’s “Outro”, which so powerfully drove the last couple of minutes of the long trailer with its hyper-emotionalism. The first trailer neatly broke down into three movements – I. Drama II. Action Film III. Emotional Rollercoaster. By chopping off the third movement and only leaving the first two, I don’t think this new trailer is doing anybody any favours. Anyway, none of that matters too much now, because the film has had it’s premiere just last weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) so dozens of critics have been able to post their reviews at the same time. And the result? A completely divisive experience, it seems. What everyone does seem to agree on is that, when the film was finished, the filmmakers got a 10-minute ovation. But maybe that was just group peer pressure in action. Because the results were completely mixed. There was some absolute savaging.

Cloud Atlas” is like the entire “Matrix” trilogy in micro. It starts out absolutely brilliantly, then segues into a pretentious slog. Jordan Hoffman at film.com. Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski wanted to make a movie unlike any other, and they certainly did: Cloud Atlas is a unique and totally unparalleled disaster. Calum Marsh at slantmagazine.com

Henry Barnes at The Guardianis a bit more mild, suggesting that it’s all very silly, but there’s probably something everyone will like.

At 163 minutes Cloud Atlas carries all the marks of a giant folly, and those unfamiliar with the book will be baffled. Yet it’s hard to wholly condemn the directors’ ambition – this is fast-paced and cleverly assembled, with the best of the performances shining through the prosthetics (Hugh Grant makes great play of the clutch of villains he’s dealt). The Tykwer/Wachowski collective offer everything here. Chances are there’s something in the hodgepodge for you.

Another middle-of-the-road review from Tim Robey at The Telegraph.

Cloud Atlas is going to be far and away the most divisive film of 2012, but I don’t think it’s possible to fault it for shortage of chutzpah. David Mitchell’s 2005 novel – pipped to the Booker prize by Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, though in any other year it would surely have won – is a virtuoso plate-spinning exercise, an addictive feat of nested storytelling, and a sprawling treatise about human capacities for removing and reclaiming freedom. It’s amazing they’ve tried to adapt it at all, let alone as a single, near-three hour picture. In the hands of co-writers and directors the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer there was a danger of it mutating into a monstrous ballooning folly. So even more amazing is that it strays frequently in that direction but never quite bursts.

But then there were reviewers who could understand why others might not like the film, but nonetheless, thought the film was amazing.

It’s a massive cinematic accomplishment on the grandest scale, an utterly enchanting, moving, remarkable storytelling masterpiece. Let it affect you. Discover the revelations yourself. (Firstshowing.net)

And my personal favourite review so far, with the great title “CLOUD ATLAS Is Overwhelming, Odd And Utterly, Completely Amazing”:

Cloud Atlas is sometimes silly, and it’s sometimes pretentious and it’s sometimes overstuffed. But every single one of those things, to me, is a positive. It’s an exceptional piece of filmmaking, one of the bravest works I have ever seen. (badassdigest.com)

So really, the only question is – why do we have to wait so long to see it in cinemas down here in Australia?

Cloud Atlas: Why It Could Be Freaking Awesome (Intolerance)

My final comparison with the upcoming Cloud Atlas is a film that is actually very, very similar, albeit 96 years older. I am talking, of course, about the amazing spectacle that is D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance.

I’ve read a variety of stories about how this film came into being, but the one that makes the best yarn is that Griffith was stung by the criticisms of racism for his 1915 Civil War epic, The Birth of a Nation (criticisms which I will admit were well-founded). So, as a result, he decided to make a film getting all his thoughts about man’s inhumanity to man out of his head and up onto the screen.

The two best descriptions of this film I’ve ever head are that it is a “cinema sermon” or, to use a musical description, “a cinematic fugue” (a fugue, for those not familiar with classical music, is a piece of music where one theme begins on one instrument or voice, then shortly afterwards, a second voice will enter with the exact same theme and combine with the first voice, thus layering on levels of complexity into the music).

Griffith’s idea was landmark – to tell four different stories about man’s intolerance towards others, all set in different periods of history, and cutting back and forth between the stories. The stories were linked by an image of a woman rocking a cradle (to do with a line from a poem about “the cradle endlessly rocking, bringing the same joys and sorrows”).

Griffith’s gargantuan effort (the longest version out on DVD currently, runs for 200 minutes) starts slowly but picks up speed, as he introduces us to the different characters in his four stories. Story 1, which takes up the most screen time, is the “modern” tale (for 1916) of a young lower-class couple in love, being pulled by the temptation to join in local crime on one hand and being persecuted by over-zealous social workers on the one hand. I can’t think of any other film that has ever used “over-zealous social workers” as part of its plot synopsis, which just gives you some idea of the eccentricity of Griffith and what he would fixate on.

Story 2, which takes up the least amount of screen time, is the life of Christ – or, more correctly, famous vignettes from his life, because there’s not really enough screen time for it to have a storyline. But what it does do is lend an epic Biblical weight (which would have worked wonders for the more religious audiences back in 1916) to key scenes, by suddenly “cutting to Jesus”, as it were. That said, the attention to detail in the scenes (just look at all the characters in the opening marketplace scene) is amazing.

Story 3 is set in France in the 1500s, in the time leading up to the St Bartholomew’s day massacre, when the Catholic queen of France gave an order to massacre the Huguenots (the French Protestant political party). We see this primarily through the eyes of a Prosper Latour, a young Huguenot, and his fiancé, Brown Eyes.

Story 4 is the most epic of all, at least in terms of sets and production values. It tells of the fall of Ancient Babylon, and how one of the greatest civilisations in the world (according to Griffith) was destroyed by the intolerance of the high priests, who betrayed the city by letting the Persians in to destroy them.

The mix of metaphors and imagery is undeniably chaotic. (In fact, it’s very strange that Griffith, who is working with Biblical ideas in the Christ story, is such a champion for ancient Babylon. The Bible’s version of the fall of Babylon is that it was a good thing, because there were thousands of captured Jews living in the city that finally got set free from 70 years of exile by the invading army.) But as long as you don’t think about it too much, it’s an astonishing feat of cinema. Even if you think the message is heavy-handed, it’s mind-blowing just in terms of its sets and choreography, featuring mile-wide sets and at least three battle sequences.

What makes the film so amazing is that it only works in the editing room. If you took any of the four stories by themselves, only the modern story would give you anything coherent enough to stand alone, and it would be a fairly low-grade melodrama that nobody would talk about it. But instead, the film has an incredible fury and pace that leaves you gasping. There is something incredibly visceral about seeing four stories climax at once that makes the whole thing much more than the sum of its parts.

*** MAJOR SPOILER WARNING ***

As an example of why the film works – it’s something about the cumulative power of images. At the finale of the film, we keep cutting back to the modern story. The boy is on death row, the girl is madly pursuing the governor to get a stay of execution. If it was just this story, we’d probably say that it would end happily and not get as involved.

But instead, the Huguenot story ends on a devastating note – Prosper arrives to find Brown Eyes killed (and presumably raped) and carries her body out to scream at the Catholic soldiers – who promptly mow him down.

Then we switch to Christ on the cross, the mob howling for his blood.

Then to Ancient Babylon, where the Emperor and Empress commit suicide together, realising that the city has fallen and there is no hope. Finally, our hero, the Little Mountain Girl, gets wounded by an arrow and dies.

So three out of four stories have ended unhappily – this IMMEDIATELY raises the stakes on the boy being being led to the gallows and the tension is unbearable. It’s a powerful experience, and really paved the way for multi-strand cinema.
*** END OF MAJOR SPOILERS ***

The source material that the Wachowski / Tyker trio are working with in the novel of Cloud Atlas is remarkably similar to this. There is a recurring theme throughout the book of the strong oppressing the weak (sometimes subtly, sometimes completely in-your-face), thus lifting the story above a simple gimmick about different time periods and genres, and the word on the street is that the script has taken the six stories from Cloud Atlas and put them together in an interwoven manner.

In short, they’ve re-created Griffith’s Intolerance for the 21st century. If they can pull that off, it will not just be a great movie this year, but go down as one of the great movies of the century. We can only hope. It’s about time we had a movie that deserved that sort of label.

Cloud Atlas: Seems We’ve All Been Buying The Book

Just wanted to share a quick link. When the trailer arrived for Cloud Atlas, I got so intrigued, I dropped everything and bought the book on Kindle, if for no other reason than to make sense of everything I’d seen. Seems like everyone else had the same idea as well. The book went from about #2,500 on Amazon sales up to #7. And having finished the book yesterday, it absolutely deserves to. Review coming next week.

Cloud Atlas: Why It Could Suck (The Fountain)

As we continue this series of posts on some big-budget ambitious films that could indicate success or disaster for Cloud Atlas, we arrive at one that is particularly similar in my mind. Actually, The Fountain is so similar in concept that if you read all of the recent New Yorker article, you’ll notice that they mentioned that the studios were nervous because they used The Fountain as a comparison film to work out the stats on whether the film would be a success or not. Thus actually causing a debate on how do you economically model originality?

The Fountain, if you haven’t seen it – and it has disappeared into obscurity relatively quickly – was Darren Aronofsky’s big break-out film after the success of Requiem for a Dream and before he broke the big time with The Wrestler and, of course, Black Swan. It has three multiple storylines centred around the theme of the Tree of Life – which is used as a metaphor for conquering death, more than anything else.

One strand tells of a Spanish soldier running an errand for Queen Isabella in darkest South America to find the fabled tree of life, the second strand is of a modern-day scientist racing to finalise a cure for cancer before his wife dies. And finally, a bald guy floats in space in a giant bubble, accompanying the tree somewhere before it dies. (I should say that I haven’t seen it since the cinemas and I’m doing my best to recap it from my memory.) All three of these guys are played by Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz shows up in two of the storylines as well. Here’s the trailer, in case you never saw it.

The reason I draw a comparison between this film and Cloud Atlas is twofold: number one, it had an amazing trailer. Beautiful special effects, three timelines, and all of this for a movie that wasn’t a big blockbuster action film. I was impressed. And obviously, it shares many similarites in the stucture – cutting back and forth between different timelines, actors sharing multiple roles, etc.

But while I still love the concept, something went wrong on the way to the cinema. The film looked beautiful, but it became less and less clear what was going on, and we were left with an ambiguous ending that didn’t quite work. Now don’t get me wrong, I love arthouse cinema and ambiguous endings, but nonetheless I (and 49% of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes) weren’t quite satisfied with the way this worked. We were promised a masterpiece, but it never quite got there.

So will Cloud Atlas end up the same way? I’m a bit more optimistic on this one, because it’s based on an actual novel, which does have a narrative arc (or six narrative arcs, really). While there is certainly a touch of surreal to the proceedings, it should be part of the story, not just strangeness for its own sake.

Cloud Atlas: Finally A Great News Story

One of the reasons for putting out these blog posts is simply that there isn’t a lot of information out there on this film. It mystifies me. Here we have an astonishing trailer, indicating that the biggest film of 2012 is on its way, and there has been almost no publicity. The Dark Knight Rises (which, granted, would probably have had a much bigger marketing budget) was being plugged for almost a year before it finally came out.

So I find it mystifying that this amazing and mysterious trailer gets dropped in our laps, but then there is almost no other information out there. (That said, the mystery surrounding the production is one of the tantalising aspects at the moment, so I am enjoying having to dig around.)

The situation has improved a lot with the arrival of this new article for the New Yorker. It is about 8 screens worth of reading, so you may not have time to go into all of it, but the journalist seems to have been given unprecedented access to the Wachowski siblings, and has a complete overview of their career leading up to the making of Cloud Atlas.

A couple of highlights for me: one is the description of how the filmmakers are hoping to make Cloud Atlas as amibitious as 2001: A Space Odyssey was for its generation.

“ ‘Cloud Atlas’ is a twenty-first-century novel,” Lana said. “It represents a midpoint between the future idea that everything is fragmented and the past idea that there is a beginning, a middle, and an end.” As she spoke, she was screwing and unscrewing two halves of some imaginary thing—its future and its past—in her hands. If the movie worked, she continued, it would allow the filmmakers to “reconnect to that feeling we had when we were younger, when we saw films that were complex and mysterious and ambiguous. You didn’t know everything instantly.”

Andy agreed. “ ‘Cloud Atlas’ is our getting back to the spectacle of the sixties and seventies, the touchstone movies,” he said, rubbing his bald dome like a magic lantern.

The model for their vision, they explained, was Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which the Wachowskis had first seen when Lana, then Larry, was ten and Andy seven.

That’s a big call to be up there with 2001, but I’m somewhat optimistic that this is the kind of project to warrant that sort of comparison. The other great moment was their description of the script-writing process.

The main challenge was the novel’s convoluted structure: the chapters are ordered chronologically until the middle of the book, at which point the sequence reverses; the book thus begins and ends in the nineteenth century. This couldn’t work in a film. “It would be impossible to introduce a new story ninety minutes in,” Lana said. The filmmakers’ initial idea was to establish a connective trajectory between Dr. Goose, a devious physician who may be poisoning Ewing, in the earliest story line, and Zachry, the tribesman on whose moral choices the future of civilization hinges, after the Fall. They had no idea what to do with all the other story lines and characters. They broke the book down into hundreds of scenes, copied them onto colored index cards, and spread the cards on the floor, with each color representing a different character or time period. The house looked like “a Zen garden of index cards,” Lana said. At the end of the day, they’d pick up the cards in an order that they hoped would work as the arc of the film. Reading from the cards, Lana would then narrate the rearranged story. The next day, they’d do it again.

And one more quote – this time about when they pitched their David Mitchell their script idea:

By August, the trio had a completed draft to send to Mitchell. The Wachowskis had had a difficult experience adapting “V for Vendetta,” from a comic book whose author, Alan Moore, hated the very idea of Hollywood adaptation and berated the project publicly. “We decided in Costa Rica that—as hard and as long as it might take to write this script—if David didn’t like it, we were just going to kill the project,” Lana said.

Mitchell, who lives in the southwest of Ireland, agreed to meet the filmmakers in Cork. In “a seaside hotel right out of ‘Fawlty Towers,’ ” as Lana described it, they recounted for the author the painstaking process of disassembling the novel and reassembling it into the script he’d read. “It’s become a bit of a joke that they know my book much more intimately than I do,” Mitchell wrote to me. They explained their plan to unify the narratives by having actors play transmigrating souls. “This could be one of those movies that are better than the book!” Mitchell exclaimed at the end of the pitch. The pact was sealed with pints of Murphy’s stout at a local pub.

 

The rest of the article is a fantastic read, if you’re interested in more news on the process. Given how reclusive the pair are, Aleksandar Hemon has done an amazing job getting news out of them. I should also add that while the article focuses largely on the Wachowski’s, there are comments from Tom Tykwer thrown in that give more information.

In one more bit of final trivia, apparently author David Mitchell won’t be able to attend the film premiere of his own book.