Words and Pictures — A Review

Words and Pictures
Words and Pictures

Words and Pictures, while perhaps not perfect, is a movie that is much better than its 6.6 user rating on IMDB would suggest, a rating earned probably because it’s not a Hollywoodish movie. It demands your close attention, and may not be for everyone.

In fact, the appeal will no doubt be mostly to viewers who read a review such as this one. If you keep reading this article without losing interest, you will probably like the movie.

The main characters in the story are a man (Jack Marcus, played by Clive Owen), once a successful writer, and a teacher of Honors English; and a woman (Dina Delsanto, played by Juliette Binoche), an even more successful painter and a teacher of Honors Art.

He is a brilliant teacher who engages and inspires students. He drinks too much. He’s an alcoholic. He has a son who appears in a minor but necessary role. There’s no mention of an ex or deceased wife or even an old girlfriend. The apparently gifted and becoming-successful son just exists, and the two are not close because of the father’s drinking.

She is a fine teacher, too, but somewhat on the stern and detached side. She has rheumatoid arthritis, which has affected her ability to paint, and is obviously unhappy about having to resort to teaching because of it.

When he shouts at his students, they get motivated. When she shouts at their students, they get discouraged.

The setting is a prep school in Maine. It’s not a stereotypical Hollywood prep school. It’s the sort of prep school that actually teaches students who want to learn stuff. It’s the sort of prep school I would have wanted my kids to go to if I’d sent them to one.

The script is scintillating and is the centerpiece of the movie. The Owen character and the Binoche character get into a spirited debate — edgy without being outright hostile — about the philosophical question of which has more value: words or pictures, a discussion that spreads school-wide. The dialogue is crisp, fast-paced, and thought provoking, like a discussion between Supreme Court justices.

And thus the title, and also the reason it’s not a Hollywood style movie. In the course of it we get to hear a lot of good words and see a lot of good pictures (paintings).

To me, Clive Owen’s character is the stronger and more interesting of the two. Yes, he has problems, but he’s got genuine passion for what he does, and he’s not really a horrible person. Owen is a terrific actor. His delivery and timing are impeccable, and he’s said to possess a phenomenal memory. The “Behind the Scenes” extra on the Blu-ray disc said he showed up the first day with a four-page monologue that occurs early in the film memorized cold; that he had to deliver it twenty-seven times to get various camera angles (his audience is a class of students); and that he delivered it with passion every time, never mechanically, and never dropped or fumbled a line. As such it was a performance and an acting lesson for the young actors playing students.

Juliette Binoche’s character is not a grumpus for the sake of being a grumpus, just to provide counterpoint and contrast, but a woman who is trying her very best to make the best of her unavoidable circumstances, like Stephen Hawking with ALS. Viewers understand and root for her to succeed.

What I did not know is that Ms. Binoche is herself a talented painter of long experience, and that she herself painted all the work shown in the film as being by her character. Part of her character’s development is to evolve her style from fairly average-size to small paintings with a certain amount of abstract semi-realism to finding new ways of painting … using large canvases, inventing new tools, brushes the size of mops, controlled by pulleys and cables, as she migrates into a new style of pure abstract painting. And you get to see a fair amount of Ms. Binoche actually working on it, in some cases gliding around on her stomach on chairs and dangling from slings and the like.

There is, of course, a love-hate relationship between the two, and it’s inevitable that it would develop into a romance. How that works out in the end, and how Jack Marcus deals with his alcoholism I will leave to you to discover when you see it, but will caution that the romance is not the most important element of the movie. The constant play of words against pictures is. So the movie is well named.

A Late Quartet — a Review

Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven

It’s not often that I see a movie on subject matter that I think I know something about. But A Late Quartet in some respects touches very close to home.

The story is about a famous string quartet struggling to stay together after its cellist, played by Christopher Walken, announces he’s in the early stages of Parkinson’s and will not be able to play much longer — in fact is already barely play at the level of consummate perfection required of a world class chamber musician. In that world there is utterly no faking it.

The very idea of small ensembles in music has been one of my very biggest driving interests in life since youth — not just string quartets, and not just classical chamber groups in general. I’ve long believed that in small ensemble playing the end result can be far greater than the sum of its parts, and that the best groups are those who stay with it a very long time to the point that the players become like family to one another, virtually living together — disfunctionally perhaps, but family nonetheless. When I think of great groups I think not only of the Juilliard, Amadeus, Takacs, and Emerson string quartets, but also of the Beatles, Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and yes (some will shudder), even the Rolling Stones. By coincidence I happen to be reading Philip Norman’s biography about Mick Jagger right now, and previously read Keith Richards’s autobiography wherein I have come to appreciate that although the Stones are a different category of musicians from the others I’ve mentioned, in terms of their commitment to music making, they fit right in.

With any great ensemble, it’s not about who has the best assemblage of solo concert artists (though most great classical chamber musicians can knock off a concerto any day of the week), but above all about the chemistry between precisely the right people. Change even one person, and the whole sound becomes different. For instance, rock and roll drumnmers abound, and half or more of them are as good as or better than Ringo Starr. But the Beatles would not have been at all the same without Ringo, even at the beginning, and even though he was clearly the fourth man. But what a fourth man he was! In the world of classical chamber music it’s not hard to find a musician who can walk onto the stage and sightread all the written notes right, or who has played everything in the standard repertoire many times before, but the end result is never the same thing when a substitute is required. It takes months to work a single new musician into a tight group — and the quartet in A Late Quartet is acutely aware of that reality. My own frustrated efforts to create a long-lasting ensemble back in the late sixties, thwarted largely by non-stop personnel changes, taught me that lesson on a personal level.

The story line of A Late Quartet is built around the group’s preparation for a concert on which they will play Beethoven’s Quartet Opus 131, one of the composer’s latest works, which the group’s cellist hopes will be his farewell performance. (With consequences that explain what happens at the end.)

Each one of Beethoven’s late quartets is among the greatest examples of music ever written. There are six of them, known by their opus numbers in the range 127 to 135, and of these not a few musicians regard Opus 131 as their personal favorite, including me. While I was an undergraduate music student, I went on a Beethoven quartet kick (which followed my Beethoven piano sonata kick), during which almost all I did for a week or so was play recordings of all the quartets with the scores in front of me. And when I got to Opus 131, which somehow at that point I had never yet heard (there’s a first time for everything), it was a revelation, moving me to exude a tiresome stream of superlatives about it that my friends surely tired of hearing. It took me a while to get down off of that particular cloud. (Today I still rank Opus 131 as my third all-time favorite piece of music, with the Bach Chaconne at the top, followed by the second movement of Beethoven’s Opus 111 piano sonata.)

But the story of A Late Quartet is not just about the music. It’s about the people who make it, and about how the disturbance of inevitably losing their senior member was the butterfly effect-like tremor that presaged a tsunami of difficulties and misbehavior to follow — some of which events are frankly cheaply melodramatic, even stupid, reducing the merit of this film from being a great film to merely a very good film.

Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in by far the best acting performance as the brilliant but oppressed second violinist, married to the violist. (They have a beautiful violinist daughter who also figures importantly into the plot.) He confesses that he sees his role in the ensemble as having being that of an accompanist to the younger first violinist for twenty-five years. He’s as dead wrong as if John Lennon had told George Harrison that he was going to take over the lead guitar role — which never happened. (I’m reminded of one day when Mick Jagger was fooling around on a guitar, Keith Richards said to him, “There are two guitarists in this band, and you’re not one of them.”)

There are conflicts between particularly the younger three members of the quartet that have little to do with the music itself (and which are extremely important to the plot — no spoilers here), but from which Walken remains quietly insulated as he begins to adjust to a new life with Parkinson’s.

What Hoffman’s character goes through, as self-centered as it all is for a period, seems very real to me; and it affects the ensemble and therefore the music.

Christopher Walken, who would seem to be an unlikely actor to choose to play the role of an aging, wise, and mature classical musician, handles his part well, but despite a great deal of coaching, handles the cello awkwardly, and is not convincing with an instrument in his hands.

Making an actor who is not a musician look like a musician (or an athlete who is not an athlete) is always a difficult trick to pull off in moviemaking. There is no group of musical instruments harder for a non-playing actor to fake on stage by going through the motions in front of a camera while someone else plays on the soundtrack than the instruments of a string quartet. Almost anyone can be made to look like a competent pianist. The actor can hide behind the instrument and just emote, if necessary, so you never even see their hands. And a woodwind or brass player just has to put the thing to his mouth and wiggle his fingers. But a string instrument involves the player much more completely. Of these, the violin and viola are almost impossible to get right. It takes a couple of years for a beginning player who is taking lessons and practicing daily just to learn to hold a violin or viola properly and not look like a dork. There’s absolutely nothing easy about it, as a player must twist his arm and shoulder into an unnatural position so as to bring his hands into a position so that his fingers strike the stings vertically — and somehow also play vibrato. I don’t know how they do it, and I’ve tried myself. And then there is the bow to deal with, which must be held and drawn exactly a certain way. It’s as hard as juggling even to fake it.

A cello is, in my opinion, somewhat easier, mostly because of an approximately ninety-degree shift in left-arm position to one that is absolutely natural. I’ve messed around myself just a little bit on violins, violas, and even many years ago on my brother’s cello. (The sum total of my string playing experience amounts to hours, not years.) I think if I wanted to try and fool someone on camera, I’d go for the cello part first because I’ve played guitar and electric bass, so can handle the appearance of left-hand dexterity, and would have to concentrate mainly on the bow.

That said, I think that all three of the other actors who were quartet members look more natural than Walken, who appears to be in pain (maybe he was supposed to because of the Parkinson’s, which is allegedly not painful), and more than stereotypically frowny-faced and serious, in harmony with Hollywood’s conception of the typical classical musicians as being nothing but stuffed shirts all the time, never having a moment of “fun,” especially when performing.

The other nit I have with this film is that the name of the ensemble is The Fugue (always spoken with reverence so you’ll know it’s supposed to be a great group, one that fills concert halls). It’s a silly name for a classical quartet, given that the fugue is primarily a baroque musical form, whereas the string quartet, both as an ensemble combination and a musical form, is something that emerged in the early classical era — Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all wrote many — remained strong throughout the romantic era, and is still a respected combination today, written for by many composers. And yes, plenty of post-baroque composers have written fugues, even in string quatets. In fact Beethoven’s Opus 131 starts with a slow fugue, one factor among many that makes this work utterly unique in the repertoire. But starting in the classical era, fugues are the exception rather than the rule. So why call your string quartet ensemble The Fugue?

But regarding the group’s discussion about music — comments about string crossings, fingerings, matching vibrato speeds, arguments about hairpins (how many non-musicians will know they’re talking about crescendos and diminuendos, not bobby pins?), personal markings on the music, the problem of keeping the instruments in tune for the non-stop duration of the seven-movement Opus 131, and all the rest — a declamatory Yes! Those are exactly the sort of things real musicians talk about and work on when preparing for a performance. All that makes the movie more real. And in this case, verisimilitude is good, and a welcome relief from the usual Hollywood dreck thrown at audiences as representing the world of classical music. (For the very worst of that in comparison, see the dreadful film Mr. Holland’s Opus. Check that — don’t bother.)

In the end, all the conflicts — musical, mechanical, and personal — revolve around the question of whether being able to play the music is important enough that those four fragile, vulnerable, and imperfect human beings who comprise The Fugue are able to resolve their differences in a way that will allow there to be a quartet that will continue. The answer is supplied with great dignity, but not until the movie’s final scene.

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About Legacy Posts

As of July 25, 2011, I have migrated over 130 articles from my Neologistics blog, where since August 2005 I have posted many unsorted articles, including items unrelated to editing, writing, or literature. The articles copied from the old site have all been labeled with the category LEGACY.

It has been a longstanding shortcoming of Google’s otherwise excellent blog service that authors cannot order the display in any way except chronologically, with the newest material on top. In contrast, WordPress allows assigning any number of categories to any post, allowing visitors variety in sifting and sorting.

In addition, it also makes sense to me not to have to support two blogs at once. This morning I posted my last article to the old site, announcing my intention to use this one exclusively from now on.

The job of migration is done. Each older article’s publication date has been revised to show the date of its original publication on the other site.

Readers may find some of these articles enjoyable. I invite you to explore and by all means provide feedback if you would like.

Metropolis — 2010 Restoration

Cover of
Cover via Amazon

Last night we saw the recently restored version of Franz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece silent film Metropolis, the progenitor of almost every later science fiction action film. The venue was one of my favorite places in Columbus, the Wexner Center for the Arts on The Ohio State University campus, in the theater that holds about 600 people. (It’s the same place we saw What’s Up Doc? a few months ago, with director Peter Bogdanovich present in person.) It was a packed house, and I hear it’s sold out for tonight’s showing as well.

This version of the film, of which I had never seen any part, has twenty-five minutes of additional footage over the 2002 version, previously thought to be definitive. The original was two hours and thirty-three minutes, but was cut down to ninety minutes by the first distributors, who were afraid no one would want to see a movie that long. The film now runs for two hours and twenty-seven minutes, so not it’s 100% complete, but they’ve recovered just about everything. The new version was first shown on February 12, 2010.

The copy with the missing footage, thought to have vacated the planet, was discovered in Argentina (where it was made) in 2008. Work proceeded immediately on cleaning up the missing pieces and merging them into the 2002 edition. It’s not hard to tell what parts are new, because the the print they worked from had deteriorated badly, and the aspect ratio of the screen is narrower than what later became standard. Some of it is so scratched it’s like looking through a room through a curtain of glass beads.  Fortunately, it doesn’t take long to get used to this and to accept it for what it is. This has all been converted to digital format for distribution, of course. The visual quality overall is superb.

Metropolis has everything a movie-goer could ask for: a great plot with revolutionary and eschatological themes; good acting, all stylized with exaggerated and melodramatic facial and physical gestures characteristic of silent films of the day; fabulous cinematography; almost non-stop action; enormous and complex sets; a profusion of special effects that are decades ahead of their time technically, including the flooding of a city as big as New York, the transformation of a robot into a woman, burning a “witch” (actually the robot), and depictions of massive machinery; difficult stunts such as people falling off roofs; a non-stop musical score written for the original film, with Wagnerian leitmotifs, and references to everything from “Dies Irae” to “La Marseillaise”; thousands of extras; endless shots of hundreds of people at a time rushing around in panic at top speed, in tightly packed mobs, like a school of fish (not good for extras with claustrophobia); and of course, epic length.

This is highly recommended viewing for any lover of classic film. I understand it’s been circulating in art theaters across the country. I don’t know if it’s available from places like Netflix, but I gather it is not, so watch for it at a venue near you.

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Julie & Julia

Julia Child's Kitchen on display at the Nation... Last night we watched Julie & Julia. Yes, we’re behind everyone else. All the movies we watch are borrowed from the library, so we have to wait until they are available. We haven’t rented a movie in nearly three years. The last time it was from Blockbuster or Hollywood Video. Today, as far as I know, neither company even exists any longer.

Julia, as everyone in the world knows by now, is Julia Child as channeled by Meryl Streep, who can do no wrong.

Julie is Julie Powell, which happens to be my mother-in-law’s name. Both the movie Julie and the real life Julie created a blog in which she reported on cooking her way through Julia’s famous book on French cooking, giving herself one year to cook all the recipes. In the movie, at least, she actually did it.

For once I actually liked a movie more than Roger Ebert, whose sometimes overgenerous reviews I always read, even if I read none other. Ebert’s insightful eye did serve to deflate my initial impression, but while he rated the movie with two and a half stars by his system, for reasons he articulates well, and I am impelled to agree with, I nevertheless registered nine stars on IMDB. I don’t go that high very often. And I did it because it was so much fun watching Meryl Streep caricature Julia Child and because I loved watching the two women cook with abandonment and enthusiasm, and maybe because I enjoyed watching a movie about two basically happy marriages where nothing bad happens to spoil the fun. (Well, Julie’s husband gets fed up with her obsession for a day, but that’s easily resolved.)

Perhaps I was just in a mood for a light, popular, romantic tale. I like the movies When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail and thought Julie & Julia has a similar sheen to it. Believe it or not, I did not realize until afterward that Nora Ephron wrote all three. Duh.. I guess you could say she’s an author with a recognizable voice.

I am not a cook, but believe I could be good at it. Yet I don’t want to get into cooking because I have some of the craziest eating habits on the planet, and am best off on a daily basis if I don’t even think about food and stay as far away from it as possible, eating only when absolutely necessary. I can barely eat at all without gaining weight, despite the miles I put in on the road, and if I cooked, I’d give up running and working out so I could do nothing but eat. And that would be Bad. So I’m glad that other people know how to cook and share their skills with people like me. Meanwhile I was content to be a food voyeur.

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Bright Star

Portrait of John Keats by his friend Charles B...
Image via Wikipedia

Last night we watched the movie Bright Star, about the (short) life of John Keats — or at least about the last part of it.

It’s a good movie. The dialog is captivating, particularly the snippy repartee between Keats’s romantic interest Fanny Brawne and his friend Charles Brown. Fanny and Charles never do learn to get along, consistently despising one another in their mutual possessiveness of Keats.

The costuming is extraordinary. Fanny Brawne was said to be a gifted seamstress who designed and sewed all her own clothes, and at least in the movie, apparently also for her whole family. Some of their attire is edgy and almost bizarre. The movie was nominated for an Oscar and also by at least one other organization for its costuming.

The cinematography, too, is simply astonishing, with a presence bordering on 3-D to the imagery. At the top of Roger Ebert’s review of this film is a picture of Fanny Brawne in a field of blue wildflowers, in a pose vaguely reminiscent of Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World,” but of an entirely different palette. In the film this scene took my breath away. Ebert makes special note of it in his review, describing it with the words: “There is a shot here of Fanny in a meadow of blue flowers that is so enthralling it beggars description.”

The acting is okay, not Oscar caliber. The main character in this portrayal is Fanny Brawne (Kerry Fox, also the best performer), not Keats; the story focuses on their brief, hopeless, and unfulfilled romantic relationship. Keats had no money or steady income as a starving poet, so was never able to marry Fanny or anyone else. He died in Italy at age 25, apparently of tuberculosis, leaving such a formidable legacy of work, largely unrecognized at the time, that he is remembered today as one of the great Romantic poets. Naturally, a great number of Keats quotes creep into the dialog, in greater proportion as the movie progresses. The closing credits roll over Keats (Ben Whitshaw) reading an ode.

Bright Star, I suppose, will appeal primarily to women. The style of the era being what it is, some of the verbiage, including even the quotes of poetry fragments, may seem a bit syrupy to some persons. Romantic era aesthetics focus on experiences that touch the emotions deeply, in contrast to (and in reaction against) the methodical, refined detachment and intelligence of the Enlightenment that preceded it. Matters of deep emotions would certainly include the type of love between members of the opposite sex that we today also label “romantic.” (I’m not sure if that term was used for it before the Romantic period in art, but the reality has been a part of our common experience since the beginning of human existence.)

I don’t think this movie got a lot of publicity when it came out last year, and it’s not the type of thing that is likely to be found on many people’s summer viewing lists. Nonetheless, it is very much worth seeing by those who aren’t afraid of a film designed to stir the heart.Enhanced by Zemanta