AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
THE THREE LOCKS
‘BERG, BACH AND THE BLONDE’
by Harlan Kennedy
We have all heard of being given the keys to a city. It happened to
those brave air-folk who put their passenger plane down on the
But what if, on arriving in a major city in
Thus felt I on encountering one magical movie
and two magical piano recitals. Each held a clue to the soul and identity of
For that is the snag, isn’t it, with getting the keys to a city? What do they unlock? Into what hole or holes does one put them? But with a lock you know exactly where you are. You are at the opening of the heart and core and essence. All that is to be puzzled over is how to enter it.
So let us start with Manoel De Oliveira’s ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLONDE GIRL. We all know this Portuguese auteur was 100 last December, making him the world and history’s oldest working filmmaker. He has gone so far beyond predictability that with the approach of each new movie we ‘expect’ the unimaginable, the weird, the mad, the futuristic-antiquarian, the visionary.
The new film sets new – or old – parameters from the start. A man in a railway carriage starts telling the story of his recent life, a story of romance, of tragedy, to a gracious and responsive lady passenger at his side….
The man (Ricardo Trepa) recounts how his
office window, above the bookshop owned by his uncle for whom he then worked
as an accountant, looked across to a window in which there stood each day, in
an aureole of darkish-blonde hair and with lips as ripe with romantic promise
as the filled sails of a ship, a beautiful teenage girl. He fell in love; his
uncle threatened to cut him off without an escudo; he tried to make his
fortune with a trip for another businessman to
De Oliveira tells the story with barely a single expressionistic inflection, yet allows emotion to surge through it like water filling a delta at high tide. (If the film had been in competition, rather than showing in the VIP sideshow ‘Berlinale Special’, it would surely have had a shot at the Golden Bear). The hero is tormented; his rail-carriage listener is concerned and enthralled; the beautiful girl is a siren born to lure men onto rocks. (The main ‘rock’ here is a diamond ring integral to the plot’s denouement). The film presents these episodes as neutrally and formalistically if they were the pages of the book – which makes the film, paradoxically, as tingling as if it were the lock to a safe. We cannot open it, but we feel we know what is inside: important questions with invisible answers. Questions such as. Why do men hazard everything for love? Why do other men – and women – deny them the fulfilment they pursue? Might it be, attributing the finest motives for that frustration, because the consummation of a dream or desire will simultaneously be the death of it?
We can only pursue what must be pursued, the film asks us to conclude, with conviction even if simultaneously with despair. The famous Portuguese actor and screen veteran Miguel de Cintra appears as himself, in the film, at a high-toned soiree where he recites a poem. “To exist clearly,” says the poet, is the sum of our aims. The soul must always sing, even if no one applauds and no orchestra arrives to accompany it. To make the point clearer, De Oliveira hires another Portuguese artistic luminary, the pianist Maria Joao Pires – possibly the greatest pianist in the world and legendary as a piano teacher – to show that the silent eloquence of music, and of this particular instrument, is the austere affidavit of integrity of feeling.
So it is with Alban Berg and Johann Sebastian Bach. If ECCENTRITIES OF A BLONDE GIRL makes the case for individual feeling, and the costly pricelessness of keeping faith with that feeling in a world blown about by correctness, pragmatism and consensus, two composers do that and more in two great works. A piano’s ivory hammers are called “keys” because they unlock things: sounds, feelings, ideas, individualities of vision.
There couldn’t be two more contrasting players than Martin Stadtfeldt and Mitsuko Uchida. The Japanese performer played Berg’s only piano sonata – his first opus number and first atonal brainstorm – with proper courage and awe, as if on one of those boats that go up to the foot of Niagara Falls and are then swirled away, their engines cut, by hurricane wind and spray.
Since she wore the music’s heart on her sleeve, it was apt, if unplanned, that the pertaining sleeve – the left one – kept unscrolling as she played, necessitating frequent lightning-fast adjustments. Berg builds the same pattern of spray-notes into countless figurations and crescendi, into falls and shimmers and explosions. The lock that Berg’s key(s) open is the lock to terror, wonder and discordant beauty. (And yes,all eyes were on the sleeve!)
A few days later in the same hall, the Kammersaal
And what does Bach unlock with these keys? The mystery of sound, the secrets of harmony, the soul and sensibility of auditory beauty.
Bach himself had an encounter, a literal one, with locks and keys a
few years before composing Book One. He was put in jail for a month by his
patron, to prevent him moving, for innocent career reasons, to another city.
In 1719, between the slammer and the start of writing KLAVIER ONE, he made
one of his only two visits to
Soon the harpsichord evolved into the familiar piano, as played by the
practitioner of our
Isn’t it, also, the spirit that opened or broke the locks, 20 years
ago to this twelvemonth, to a prison half of
For, yes, 2009 is the year in which we celebrate the two-decade
anniversary of the fall of the
POSTCRIPT: ‘ONLY HERE FOR THE BEAR’
There are folk in
So a critic must put pedal to metal. Here in précis are the prize-winners.
The Golden Bear for Best Film went to Claudia Llosa’s THE MILK OF SORROW (LA TETA ASUSTADA), the story of a woman with a potato in her vagina. Magic realism goes thataway in this Peruvian movie, its first-time writer-director favouring an in-your-face sur-realism at once deadpan and tragicomical. The heroine’s fight against sexual intrusion is inspired by folk beliefs that women hand down sadness in their breast milk and that the next generation’s best defense against ravishment is to weaponise – even potato-ise – their pudenda. Weird, whimsical, promising.
The Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize was shared between
won Best Actress for EVERYONE ELSE.
Best Actor went to the Burkina Faso-raised Sotigui
Kouyate, quietly powerful as the parent of a victim
of the 1975
The Silver Bear for Best Director went to
But the sky is streaked with red and gold and snow. The banners are being re-furled, the last
trumpets sound. My plane is departing,
after I have briefly streaked (He’s at it again!) into the
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved