There is a stock image of the composer of classical music that we will all recognise from countless bloodless biopics: Gary Oldman’s Beethoven in Immortal Beloved, Richard Burton’s Wagner in the Tony Palmer series that bears the composer’s name, and more recently, Mads Mikkelsen’s Stravinsky in Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. Each of them cut from the same cast-iron mould of intense, tempestuous, misunderstood genius. Each performance interchangeable with the rest, as though in order to compose classical music one were required to pull just such a personality off the rack and wear it like a gown as condition of entrance to the conservatoire.
And then there are Ken Russell’s films about composers. Such larger-than-life creations as Roger Daltrey’s Liszt (Lisztomania) or Robert Chamberlain’s Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers) may be caricatural – even comic book – inventions, but they are at least their own caricatures. For all their largeness of life, they speak to some truth about the individual composer in question rather than reaching for some imponderably vague cliché about the eternal nature of artistic genius or some such.
Because of his real feeling for historical periods and the artists of the past, the personalities revealed as much by their music as by the lives they lead, along with the overblown and the two-dimensional (‘Satan himself – Richard Wagner’ from Lisztomania), we also get such enduring and curiously endearing characters as Max Adrian’s irascible Frederick Delius in Song of Summer, and Robert Powell’s febrile, neurotic Gustav Mahler. Such affectionate character sketches genuinely seem to bring to life the world from which their music has sprung.
And after all, it is clearly the music that Russell, who as a boy had harboured ambitions to be a ballet dancer, is most interested in. ‘Oh, I’ll tune to the fields and listen to the music of nature. Forget the immortals, I finished with them long ago,’ crows Delius, and it could almost be a personal manifesto for Russell’s approach to the composer biopic. So we have these beautiful images of the young Elgar horse riding through the Malverns to the sound of his Introduction and Allegro for Strings, or Georgina Hale (as Alma Mahler) frolicking in the Cumbrian hills (standing in for the Alps) to the strains of the Leider eines fahrenden Gesellen. Like all Russell it teeters on the edge of the absurd, the pompous, the bombastic, but somehow this road of excess leads us to some sort of palace of wisdom, opening up the music and bringing it to life.
The second Zipangu Fest, celebrating the best of cutting-edge and avant-garde Japanese cinema, will be held at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts and Café Oto from November 18 to 24, before moving to venues around the UK. The festival will showcase a selection of Japan’s finest features, documentaries, shorts, animation and experimental films. This year, it includes a strand exploring sound and film, which is previewed below by Eleanor McKeown and Tom Mes.
KanZeOn begins on a tranquil note. A young Buddhist priest kneels, softly chanting while the camera produces languid shots of the temple’s interior. The calm is punctured when he leaves the floor, picks up a set of headphones and starts spinning hip hop records on a set of decks. It is one of many magically strange scenes that make up this thought-provoking exploration of links between Japanese Buddhism and sound.
The documentary follows three individuals in Kyushu: Akinobu Tatsumi, the hip hop-loving priest; Eri Fujii, a master of the Sho, an ancient bamboo instrument that mythically mimics the cry of a Chinese phoenix; and Akihiro Iitomi, a jazz-loving performer of Noh theatre. Divided into elliptical segments, the film switches between the three musicians as they perform their art and discuss what sound and music mean to them. The beautifully filmed sequences leave behind strong images, from the shadow of beat-boxing Tatsumi reflected onto perfect turquoise river water to the inspired performance of Fujii, set against a backdrop of crashing waterfalls. The sounds of nature and human endeavour combine to create exquisite duets. The languorous pacing allows the audience to absorb these fascinating combinations and contemplate the part that music and everyday sounds might play in their own lives. Accompanied by a discussion between SOAS lecturer Lucia Dolce and filmmakers Neil Cantwell and Tim Grabham, the Zipangu festival screening should provide a thoughtful insight into the role of sound in Japanese society and religion. EM
Listen to directors Neil Cantwell and Tim Grabham discuss the film + Tatsumi Akinobu give a performance of his Buddhist chanting and beat-boxing skills on the Electric Sheep’s I’m Ready For My Close-Up radio show on Resonance FM 104.4, Friday 18 November, 5-5:30pm.
We Don’t Care about Music Anyway (2009)
Those who care as much about music as about movies will find a rich harvest at Zipangu again this year. Not least in the shape of We Don’t Care about Music Anyway, Cédric Dupire and Gaspard Kuentz’s rather fascinating documentary on some of the leading lights of Japan’s noise scene. Alternating a round-table discussion between the participants with their individual performance pieces, the film is less radical in its form than Kikoe, Iwai Chikara’s documentary tribute to the great Otomo Yoshihide from three years ago – not to mention Ishii Sogo’s pivotal film on German noise pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten, Halber Mensch (1986) – but it is all the more accessible and emphatic as a result. The debate/performance structure conveys the theory and practice that inform the divergent methods of these musicians. The sparse set-up of the round-table talk contrasts greatly and effectively with the more exuberant mise en scéne of the performance pieces, which see the participants at work on scrap heaps, in underground tunnels, in ruined buildings and – in the most eye-catching sequence (which also provides the film’s main promo visual) – on the beach. Those looking for a history lesson or a broad overview of Japan’s noise scene will be left wanting, since the focus of We Don’t Care about Music Anyway is firmly on the small group of featured artists. As a brief immersion, however, it is a genuine delight. TM
Enter the Cosmos: Takashi Makino Special (2004-2011)
As part of its exploration of Japanese sound and film, the Zipangu festival will be screening a showcase of three films by acclaimed experimental filmmaker Takashi Makino. Makino’s films provide bizarre journeys through enigmatic soundscapes, composed of various sonic textures from the dislocated organ of a carousel to discordant piano notes and extreme feedback. The whir, crackle and drone of machines are accompanied by the imperfections of film and pixelated distortions of video. The visual scale is vast and the pacing is slow, like a 45rpm record set to 33rpm.
The first work, Intimate Stars (2004), provides the most recognisable sounds and visuals of all the films with occasional glimpses of vaudeville performers and fairground rides. The film offers representations of both exterior and interior landscapes as shots of branches and rushing skies segue into images so enlarged as to be wrought into completely abstract forms. The later films to be screened show an even greater exploration of abstraction. Elements of Nothing (2007) and In Your Star (2011) take the audience on trips through different emotional states and immersive sensations from the peaceful plucking of strings to uncomfortably intense feedback. Not for the faint-hearted, these bold, challenging, extreme odysseys provide a fascinating introduction to Makino’s work. EM
Coming soon: Comic Strip Review of Abraxas, about a ex-punk musician turned Buddhist monk.
On a grim mid-January Saturday afternoon, the Roxy Bar and Screen was packed to the rafters with a lively audience waiting for the LSFF programme of music and video shorts. It was impossible to move for the people sitting on the floor, and still they kept coming. Their eagerness was justified: once more, LSFF delivered the goods in a selection of shorts that innovatively combined sound and image. The programme was bookended by Max Hattler’s Heaven and Hell, two films inspired by the visionary paintings of Augustin Lesage. They are constructed as loops, with patterns of coloured circles moving in a circular movement to repetitive percussive sounds in Heaven, while in Hell, dark grey machine imagery opens like the wings of an eagle to the noise of a sinister drone. Hypnotic and immersive, with complex variations on visual and aural patterns, they perfectly framed the programme.
One of the most impressive films was Franck Trebillac’s Calculus, the video to an electronic track by Stretta (scroll down to watch the film). Images of organic matter and insects are set to the throbbing music, with a beetle and a praying mantis moving in time to slower and faster rhythms, before a woman comes out of a chrysalis with a butterfly covering her eyes and nose. The pulsation of the music and the emphasis on the texture and palpitation of the insects’ bodies work together superbly to create a heightened sense of life’s matter, culminating in the creation of this beautiful, deeply alien creature. Another of Franck Trebillac’s videos was included in the programme, for Tricil’s ‘The Emancipation’. This time, the focus was on mechanisms and automata, with a ballerina in an old-fashioned music box dancing to a dark, heavy complex electronic beat. Her movements were jerky like a doll’s, and as the music progressed, her image was multiplied and superimposed, creating wonderful abstract patterns that fitted the music perfectly and underlined its dark, oppressive feel.
In Alex Harrison’s video for Aspirin’s electronic instrumental ‘Cutter’, a gloved hand tests brightly coloured 80s plastic toys in a white lab-like environment. As the music becomes more discordant, the toys spin out of control, until the lab tester sets fire to them. The Day-Glo 80s imagery was a perfect fit for the music, and the movement of the toys precisely matched the rhythm of the music. In a completely different style, Friends was a video directed by Edwin Mingard for FranÃ§ois and the Atlas Mountains. FranÃ§ois is introduced as the ‘curator’ of the ‘Atlas Mountains’ Memory Archive’ and he sings the song with an old Super8 projector behind him. This is intercut with images of a young man in various settings, who wipes words such as ‘Kissed a Girl’ and ‘Got Scared’ off his face. This is filmed backwards, the words appearing as the wiping is reversed. This temporal trick emphasises the melancholy of the song.
Among the films that were not music videos, one of the most interesting was Paul Cheshire’s The Cursed Cassette, which established a convincingly strange world in just one minute. A man receives a mysterious cassette in an envelope on which is drawn a moustache; when he plays it, high-pitched electronic noises and what sounds like a bassoon or a tuba are heard, while a moustache appears on his face. Weird electrical impulses are triggered and the man goes through a number of transfigurations; he multiplies and is transformed into a sinister masked figure. The Cursed Cassette brilliantly uses simple visual and musical elements to create an intriguing and evocative story in a remarkably short time.
Not all of the films were as successful, but in a programme that included 26 shorts, that was to be expected. Some of the music videos were not particularly interesting, and the two fashion films included seemed entirely unnecessary: Leaving Dreamland (Ivana Bobic and Rain Li) told the silly, clichéd story of a girl who looked like a model and whose only purpose seemed to show off hip clothes, while Cassia (Zaiba Jabbar) seemed like a self-indulgent portrait of Hoxtonites. But despite these bum notes, the screening was hugely enjoyable and interesting overall, and the audience certainly agreed, enthusiastically applauding every single film.
The Music and Video programme screened on Saturday 15 January 2011 at the Roxy Bar and Screen.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews