Let It Be A Good Film

I had written a whole different kind of post for my last blog entry of the year. My holidays manifesto of sorts – shop mindfully; choose local artists, designers, makers; pay it forward; donate books to children; say thank you; be kind; stop running for presents and instead be present for your family; learn to shut off and just live. All these are things I truly believe in and which I try to have as guidelines every single day, not just for the season. But then I thought of one thing out of the box that I would really like to recommend and which I believe would matter, too: Watch better films.
Certain Women 2016 
Movies are important. Movies truly open minds and doors (I’ve taken the liberty to quote Mr. Scorsese). I was recently shocked of how many respectable publications recommend questionable and poor movies in their selections of best films of the year. And most of the films are, naturally, American. It is really sad when you realise that most newspapers and magazines have forgotten that their journalistic job is to inform the readers. Of course not all movies that don’t get the spotlight are good, just as not all big budget movies are bad, but the selection for the wide public is so narrow that this becomes unfortunately a much more complex problem. A couple of months ago when I wrote about my favourite films of the year (that far) and a reader thanked me, saying that it was really difficult to catch good movies in her area, especially foreign ones, but that she’d save them on a list for future reference, it made me glad, but also sad, because it struck me that so many people who love good films don’t get to watch them because nobody talks about them and nobody distributes them in cinemas properly.

So my sincere advice to everyone reading this is to make the effort and look for good worldwide films, to go to the cinema and see more under-the-radar films, to attend the small festivals organised in your town, to invest in a favourite film on DVD, not stream it online. It makes all the difference. And I would like to end by recommending something new. To my embarrassment, I only discovered Kelly Reichardt’s work earlier this year when I watched Certain Women (but I’ve started to catch up and have also seen Meek’s Cutoff in the meantime). Reichardt’s latest film is quiet yet powerful, a subtle yet effective portrayal of small-town America, coming from a true independent American filmmaker. There is nothing loud about this film, no big revelations, no solutions for everything. It’s about real life and ordinary people, about the importance of every single person crafting their own lives. I hope you’ll have the chance to see it.

I wish you a Merry Christmas! May your holidays be filled with laughter, good food, a good film and a good book, and the people that you love. Thank you for your readership, friendship, and for your kind words and support for the launch of my movie stories shop.
Watch a good movie 
Related content: My Favourite Films of the Year (So Far) / Watch A Non-Christmas Christmas Movie This December / The Rocket

photo: film still from Certain Women | Film Science, Stage 6 Films

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The Best Books on Film, Photography, Fashion and Music I’ve Bought This Year

Best books I bought in 2017 
What came first? My love for film or my love for books? Definitely, the latter. And if you have been reading my blog for a while, you clearly know that I love books, at least just as much as I love movies. But you may have also noticed that I rarely recommend fiction. One of the reasons is that I seldom read novels these days. I prefer books on film, photography, art, autobiographies of all kinds (although this has definitely been the year of musician autobiographies for me), travel journals. In short, writings that tell us something about the real lives and interests of others – it’s what motivates me most. The second reason is that I always find it hard to come across good recommendations on these selected fields. Sure, the tastes differ, but what I am trying to do is curate a truly great selection of titles any cultured person would appreciate. And when a reader recently told me that she always finds my features on books helpful and that her bookshelf is a subset of the books I write about, I rejoiced. Mission accomplished, and it’s heartwarming.

So today I thought I would gather the best publications on film, photography, fashion and music that I’ve bought this year. Maybe you will feel inspired to get one of them for yourself or gift it to someone dear. I have already featured most of them on the blog throughout the year and you can read my detailed thoughts on each one of them by following the respective link.

And, yes, the notebook you see in the top photo will soon be available in our online shop. Can you guess the inspiration source? Naturally, it’s for book lovers, movie lovers, dreamers and scribblers alike.
Saul Bass A Life in Film and Design

Left: Saul Bass poster design for Bonjour Tristesse / Right: book cover

Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design, by Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham. I own a lot of film books. A lot. Most of them are about cinema in general, about film genres, or directors’ retrospectives (as you will see below). But there are other books related to film that I appreciate just as much. Like costume design (so few unfortunately, and even fewer good ones), or title sequence and poster design, another artistic field that is very much part of the cinematic story. Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design is not just about film (he was an all-around talented artist), but it is because of his visionary, unconventional, brilliant, out-of-the-box sequence titles and film posters that I bought this book for. The opening credits didn’t get the importance they deserved until Saul Bass transformed them into an artistic expression, a cinematical and psychological experience, his minimalist, yet highly effective, simple, yet expressive style cleverly setting the tone for what was to come.

I had already read a lot about Saul Bass and occasionally wrote about his film work, watched most of the films he did the title sequences for (I have come to recognise his work instantly) and knew many stories behind his legendary designs. But having all that artwork on paper, in the same place, is special. A book is (still) special. Because a book still is the most reliable source of information (I literally fret whenever I have an idea for a new style in film article and realise there is not much material I can leaf through and have to rely on Google). But, most importantly, a book is a beautiful thing to have and to hold. I like the book jacket, too, by the way (the artwork for The Man with the Golden Arm, 1955). But I love the cover – the artwork for Otto Preminger’s 1958 Bonjour Tristesse. Such a nice finishing touch and lovely surprise to discover.

Du cinématographe, by Jean Cocteau. Bold, witty and discerning, this book expresses some of the most eye-opening ideas about film, but also some of my fundamental concepts about cinema. If you are interested, our shop is carrying another book by Cocteau.

Making Movies, by Sidney Lumet. This is the kind of book you can’t just leaf through. You read every word and you do it on one reading, just like the director said he always used to read the scripts. Here are a few movie-defining things that stayed with me after reading it.

Woody Allen: A Retrospective, by Tom Shone. It has everything I like about Allen’s films, from writing, to cinematography and character study.

Terry O’Neill, by Terry O’Neill. I found this one on huge sale at a book fair. I grabbed it looking over my shoulder, paid for it in a hurry (almost feeling guilty, but mostly giddy for such bargain) and ran. I ran with a story book. Because each photograph has its own story to tell. And when my mom recently visited and couldn’t put it down, happy to see so many loved actors and musicians and personalities in one place and learning about the behind-the-scenes stories, that was the ultimate proof of how valuable this book is. I am thinking about buying it for her, too.

The Mind’s Eye, by Henry Cartier-Bresson. Lessons in looking, seeing, and simplicity, from the pioneer of street photography, the man responsible for the term the “decisive moment”, and one of the most influential photographers of the twentieth century.

Diane Arbus Magazine Work. Arbus’ magazine photographs were seen by a large audience and were instrumental in establishing her reputation, but they have since been overlooked and become virtually unknown. Most of the work she did for magazines form a cross-section of 1960s popular American culture. Her style was direct, uncompromising, embodying a distinctive personal viewpoint.

In all honesty, my interest in fashion has significantly wound down in the last couple of years, but I still appreciate a good book about fashion, just as much as I do any other kind of book. Joe Eula, by Cathy Horyn, was a revelation. It is the first published work on the designs of Joe Eula, whom I consider a bit of an unsung hero of the 20th century fashion illustration.

As I was saying above, when it comes to autobiographies, the ones written by musicians sparked the most interest in me this past year, from the one that clearly stood out for me, Morrissey, to Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume One. But I also have a particular liking to Sidney Poitier’s memoir The Measure of A Man, which I also added to our online shop. It reveals the undeterred spirit, inner depth, emotion and intellectual fervour that have driven this actor’s, this man’s remarkable life.

And last, but not least, one of the best and most inspirational lifestyle books I have read in recent years, The Abundance of Less, by Andy Couturier.

Special mention: I love children’s books, too, and I have been sharing (and will continue to share) some of my son’s and my favourites on Instagram.
Related content: The Gift of Books / Truffaut, Kar Wai and Film Noir / The Abundance of Less

photos by me

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Watch A Non-Christmas Christmas Movie This December

The Thin Man  
Note: This is a revised edition of the article that originally appeared in December 2016 on the blog.

I may have some favourite classic Christmas movies, but, truth be told, I have always preferred more non-traditional films this time of year. So here are some alternatives. Some of them are not about the holidays at all, but they are more magical than most Christmas movies, even the best ones. Others might take place around the holiday season and have that hint of Christmas, but they don’t hinge on Santa coming down the chimney, finding the right gift or Ebenezer Scrooge, or learning the real meaning of the holiday. I am sure there will be other titles I will add to the list in time (and update this post accordingly), so if you have any favourite non-Christmas movie that you most enjoy watching in December, I would love to hear.
The Thin Man (1934)

The Thin Man is just the right kind of non-traditional Christmas movie for me. It has comedy and mystery and an irresistible, stylish couple, all wrapped in a festive atmosphere, as it takes place around Christmas and New Year’s Eve, without really being about the holidays. William Powell and Myrna Loy, as Nick and Nora Charles, are in perfect chemistry and very elegant – one of the film’s real secrets is its style, and this is the perfect time of year for a little Old Hollywood glamour. Besides, the carefree lifestyle, great sense of humour and eccentric relationship of the two are the right antidote to the usual sentimental Christmas movie. You might want to check out the entire The Thin Man series.
The Apartment  
The Apartment (1960)

One of the finest satirical comedies, The Apartment is different from the formal plot of romantic comedies, old and new. It has subtlety and an adult sensibility, which is what makes the story so good and poignant and real. It is set around the holidays, but there is no family gathered around the festive table, just two lonely leading characters, played by Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, for whom this is a time as any other time of the year, but the fact that the story is set around the holidays adds a touch of melancholy to it all. Therein lies the beauty and strength of the movie – life comes with good and bad, you can’t have one without the other. This film hasn’t dated one bit.
Three days of the condor  
Three Days of the Condor (1975)

There is no movie I enjoy more than a noir or a good thriller, even for Christmas. Three Days of the Condor represents a landmark as one of the best political and conspiracy thrillers of its time. A tour de force from start to the open-to-interpretation end, the film happens to be set in a cold, wintry New York City, and there are even a couple of carols playing in a scene or two. As a side note, this is also one of the films men take their sartorial cues from, and Robert Redford’s simple, preppy, all-American clothes are indeed worth taking inspiration from. But the bottom line is this: this is a great film and that’s the only criteria you should use when picking a film to watch, this time or any other time of the year. And now that I’ve been watching movies less often than ever (hello, motherhood and no tv watching allowed in the house!), I believe even more so than before that this is the kind of film that offers its own cinematic respite.
Wings of Desire Wim Wenders 
Der Himmel über Berlin (1987)

There are angels hovering over Berlin and walk unnoticed among its citizens, seen only by other angels and occasionally by children. They listen to people’s thoughts and, at times, they take an active role of guardian angels assisting those in need, stirring feelings of comfort, hope and optimism in them. The human drama fascinates Damiel (Bruno Ganz), one of the angels, and he yearns to touch, taste, and feel, and experience the ephemeral moments of simple joys. Wandering around, he finds his own angel at the circus: Marion (Solveig Dommartin). She’s a trapeze artist and, for her, he takes a monumental decision. Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire is not a Christmas movie, but there is more magic in it than in any Christmas movie. As I was writing above, from all human beings, only children can see the angels – and there it is, the most beautiful, magical message.
Eyes Wide Shut 1999 
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Eyes Wide Shut is probably the most unvonventional Christmas movie. Kubrick planted a Christmas tree in nearly every scene. This was intentional, of course, as the director’s attention to detail is well known. Come to think of it, the beautifully decorated Christmas tree in the Hartfords’ living room can easily evoke the kind of relationship they have, a beautiful appearance that has lost its roots. In Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrik paid particular attention to colours and lights, lamps, streetlights and Christmas lights to get a special look, a terrific exposure and depth. His last work is a visual masterpiece and a great film. Upon finishing the film, Kubrick told family members and close friends that this was the best work of his career (he died before the film’s release). “Kubrick’s film navigates the treacherous, gray area between waking life and dreams, between ‘reality’ and fantasy, between actions and desires, between fidelity and deception, between the conscious and the unconscious”, it is summed up in the book The Stanley Kubrick Archives.
Trading Places 1983 
Trading Places (1983)

Trading Places is a 1980s film, but it reminds me of classic comedies. It is very funny. It also manages to tell us something about human nature, without stopping being funny. Eddie Murphy and Dan Akroyd are just a perfect match. Plus, the film has the best idea of a New Year’s Eve party: it takes place on the train, making it probably the only kind of party I would like to attend on the night between the years. Not my favourite night, you’ve guessed, I usually just want to get it over with and move on – hence my take on the train setting.
Carol 2015 
Carol (2015)

Todd Haynes’ subtle and immaculately crafted Carol is a beautiful film. Not only visually, but as hugely accomplished cinema. Taking place around the holidays, dressed in a gleaming light, it makes the contrast between the appearances and the reality and inner-world of the characters so much more striking. This is far from the feel-good Christmas classic. And the kind of love story it depicts is rarely seen on screen these days. Reserved, full of quiet longing, it is more about telling glances than of repeated “I love you” told to each other – and it is very much real and passionate.
Force Majeure 2014 
Force Majeure (2014)

A Swedish family travels to the Alps for a five-day skiing holiday and during a lunch at the resort’s rooftop restaurant, an avalanche turns everything upside down, after Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), the mother, desperately tries to protect the two children, while Tomas (Yohannes Kuhnke), the father, grabs his cell phone and runs for his life. A great satire, reminding of Ingmar Bergman’s movies, about a family shaken to its core, with a beautifully written screenplay, beautiful cinematography capturing the alien nature of not only the ski slope, and excellent acting, including the two little children. The film (still my favourite from director Ruben Östlund, despite his winning the Palme d’Or this year with The Square) is a great character study and sometimes wickedly funny, without diminishing the permanent anxiety hovering over though, as if you are expecting another dramatic thing to happen any moment. Do try this if you, too, feel the need to give the roiling sentimentality of the usual Christmas movie a rest.
La belle et la bete 
La belle et la bête (1946)

And finally, probably the best film to reflect the bittersweetness, longing and beauty of the end of the year is Jean Cocteau’s magical La belle et la bête. Never before has such a romantic fantasy been treated in such an artistic and poetic manner on screen. As a side note, the cinematographer was Henri Alekan, the same one who would film Wings of Desire mentioned a little earlier. There has been much talk about the screen adaptations of this classic fairy tale, especially about the latest feminist take on the story, and I was pretty clear about my point of view on a few occasions, so now I will just say this: if you are going to watch a Beauty and the Beast film, make it this one.

Discover our movie stories shop – inspired by the fascinating world of cinema
and by the never-fading beauty of the tangible

photos: The Thin Man (MGM) / The Apartment (Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar/United Artists) / Three Days of the Condor (Wildwood Enterprises, Dino De Laurentiis Company) / Wings of Desire (Road Movies Filmproduktion/Argo Films) / Eyes Wide Shut (Warner Brothers/Stanley Kubrick Productions) / Trading Places (Cinema Group Ventures/Paramont Pictures) / Carol (Weinstein Company/StudioCanal) / Force Majeure (Beofilm/Film Väst)/ La belle et la bête (DisCina)

Posted by classiq in Christmas time, Film | | Leave a comment

The Gift of Books

The Gift of Books 
Ever since childhood, books have been my absolute favourite present to receive, for Christmas or for any other occasion. And it is incredible to see how my toddler son is starting to feel the same. The advent calendar is not a tradition I grew up with, but I have started to embrace it this year (I love the entire part of December leading up to the 25th and I find this tradition to be such a great way to celebrate and embrace this special time of year), but make it my own – children’s books as our advent. Because I believe there are few things more beautiful than instilling the love for books and reading into your child and seeing how his imagination and joy for storytelling flourish.

We have already unwrapped a few books from under our tree, both Christmas and non-holiday related stories, and this one, The Christmas Wish, is the latest one, which also doubled as a gift from Saint Nicholas, one of my favourite holidays – because it’s one of children’s winter joys (and everyone else rejoices with them), because of this beautiful tradition, because of the wonderful childhood memories when my brother and I used to receive games and books instead of sweets (the same twist I want to put on the Advent calendar).

The Christmas Wish began as a family Christmas card, from the other-worldly photographs Per Breiehagen took of his daughter, Anja. I discovered Per’s photography years ago, but had no idea that in the meanwhile it had evolved into a beautifully crafted book for children and adults alike. Lori Evert, Anja’s mother, weaved a narrative about a child, a wish and a magical journey around these striking images of her snow-loving daughter dressed in traditional Norwegian clothing. It is about the power of dreaming and believing. We are already waiting for heavy snow and looking for a bell from Santa under the tree.

photo by me

Posted by classiq in Books, Children's books, Christmas time | | Leave a comment

Through the Lens of Joni Sternbach: SurfLand

Minnie+Lulu Joni Sternbach

Minnie+Lulu, 06.09.30

How often does it happen to you these days to go back over and over again to a photograph you’ve seen and wonder: How was it made? Very rarely indeed. And how often does it inspire you to describe it as made by hand? Exactly, almost never. But this is what happened when I discovered Joni Sternbach’s singular photographic series titled Surfland – evoking a feeling of both wonder and tranquility, an acute sense of time and place, a perfect imperfection that only handmaking and artistic intuition can achive, standing apart in this age of ubiquitous photography, and relating so well to the world of surfers and their spirit, their passion, their patience, their calm, and the certain state of mind it takes to ride above.

Using large format cameras and hand-poured plate collodion process, Joni Sternbach creates unique and strikingly beautiful portraits of unrivaled texture and depth along coastlines across the globe. She has been working on her ongoing series Surfland since 2006, documenting the surfing culture across the world, capturing and celebrating the diverse range and the way of life of people that are devotees of the sea. This is photography made by hand. It has soul. It’s one of a kind. There is something so extraordinary and mystifying about Joni Sternbach’s photography and I was thrilled that she could do an interview with me, giving me the chance to learn more about the artist and her art. Meet Joni.
15.11.07 #3 Water Connection Joni Sternbach

Water Connection, 15.11.07


“Tintypes are handmade and
have characteristics that other methods
of photography do not. There is a magical,
primitive quality you cannot achieve
any other way. It is chemistry,
and the results cannot be totally controlled.
That leaves a lot open to chance,
and I think that is pretty spectacular.”

Joni, your tin-type portraits of surfers are remarkably different from the sort of digital images that have become the tradition of surf media these days. I think the best way I can describe your photography is that it has soul, it looks tangible, a moment captured in time. Not only that, but it also expresses a visual interest in this great subculture’s history and ethnography. What inspired you to embark on this project?
Before Surfland, I was shooting the series Ocean Details. These are large format, abstract seascapes of the ocean surface with a very narrow focus. I was positioned on a bluff ready to make a photograph when surfers found their way into my landscape. It turns out my narrow little perch was a surf break. At first I wasn’t so happy about these intruders, but then the sun broke through the clouds and cast the most incredible light on all these beings, and it seemed like we all shared a collective sigh of relief and happiness. I realized then that surfers are an essential part of the seascape.

Is collodion the closest to handmade photography as it can get, to “making” not “taking” a photo? Can you tell me a little more about this photographic process? And what is the most fascinating part of it? What about the most challenging aspect?
Tintypes are handmade and have characteristics that other methods of photography do not. There is a magical, primitive quality you cannot achieve any other way. It is chemistry, and the results cannot be totally controlled. Collodion has its limitations, and surprises. There are a lot of things you can’t necessarily prepare for or know that are going to happen – a lot of my shooting depends on the weather – it is a UV and temperature-sensitive process. That leaves a lot open to chance, and I think that is pretty spectacular.
Lone Surfer Joni Sternbach

Lone Surfer, 06.07.12

Len by Joni Sternbach

Len, 09.08.24

Are you a surf enthusiast? Why surfers?
I now think of surfers and the oceanic horizon in a similar way to the way we once thought of cowboys and the western mythology. The writer Trey Heighton describes the icon of the surfer as supplanting the place of the cowboy within the American imagination. Maybe it’s the spirit of adventure and the unknown that photographing surfers along the ocean’s edge brings each time I set out on a location to shoot.

How do you select your subjects? Are they difficult to photograph? The way I see them, these are adventurers, free spirits, wild hearts who don’t necessarily like to pose for a photograph. Catch them if you can, while in action. That’s how I’ve always considered surf photography until I discovered your one of a kind work. So how do you do it? How close do you have to get, physically, emotionally, mentally, in order to get a good shot? How do they respond to your camera?
Sometimes I go to a location with a few subjects in mind and scheduled to photograph, but most of the time, I find surfers as they are on their way in to or out of the surf. The tintype set up looks like a bit of a sideshow – usually beach goers are pretty intrigued to see what I am up to. The trickiest part of a shoot is getting my model to stay still for the fairly long exposure, especially when the sun is in their eyes!
Meg-Joni Sternbach-Surfland

Meg, 09.08.25

Is there a favourite moment of the day for photographing on the beach?
The first shot of the day is usually a pretty good marker for what the rest of the day is going to be like. It serves as a test of the chemistry, the weather, and my mood! Sometimes everything lines up perfectly right at the beginning and that first shot turns out to be the best one of the day.

What lead you to photography?
Art in general.

Do you also like shooting on film? Would you ever consider a digital camera?
I love to shoot film, and I typically carry a Leica with me when traveling or shooting. I also work with digital cameras (iphone, go pro etc) and love the ease of digital photography, especially with Instagram.
Yuko+Milo - Joni Sternbach

Yuko+Milo, 13.08.30

You are a native New Yorker. How has New York influenced you creatively?
I grew up spending summers at beaches all over New York City, and began photographing the ocean off eastern Long Island in the late 90s. The energy of a city beach is so crazy and unique – the boardwalks across NYC are just ripe with photographic material.

What is the most rewarding thing about being a photographer?
Random chance meetings with total strangers (who usually become good friends).
16.02.20 #3 For+Four - Joni Sternbach

Four+Four, 16.02.20

Your series Promise Land, depicting the demise and destruction of homes on the eastern end of Long Island, is a stark and poignant elegy to the ghosts of failure that stalk the American Dream (and that’s even more relevant in the current situation of the country), and addresses the perception and significance of home. You are a photographer, you travel a lot. Where have you felt most at home? Do you think it’s important to feel that you belong to one particular place?
I feel most at home being and working in Montauk, Long Island. I had been working in Montauk for seven years before I started the Surfland project, so I had a pretty strong connection to its landscape and community. Over time I have watched the beach physically erode and evolve. I feel like I know its history.

In this time and age, you wish people appreciated more:
The process.

If you could be anywhere in the world right now (old or new location), preparing to make a photo, where would you want to be?
I am going to Hawaii very soon! It is a dream come true. For the past 11 years, it has been on my ultimate photography bucket list.
Kyuss + Rasmus - Joni Sternbach

Kyuss + Rasmus, 11.03.14


Website: jonisternbach.com | Instagram: @jstersurf

photos: courtesy of Joni Sternbach

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