June Newsletter: On Drawing on the Quiet Moments of a Film and Childhood Summers


 

Photos: Classiq Journal

 

“There was life everywhere, mysterious and energetic.
In time I came to cherish our surroundings.
We led our Peter Pan existence –
Bambi my spirit dog with the deep sad eyes.”

Patti Smith, Woolgathering

 
Summer is here. Are the engineered entertainment machines that we now call movies back, too? I am eager to go back to cinemas, but I hate the feeling of picking it up from where we left off. Stories told over and over again in prequels, sequels and franchises. I’m thinking I must choose wisely in order to make the best of returning to movie going. To mark the moment. To feel that something has changed for the better. Maybe I am too much of an idealist in thinking that we all have learned something from these past fifteen months, in hoping for even a small change in the way we see and do things. And when it comes to movies, I realise I may be dreaming too big. My first experience returning to cinema would be an open air cinema, where I could watch a classic, a return to form, to the magic of cinema. It would be the right place, small yet big enough for people to join and dream together and laugh together and be awed together, with their eyes “upwards, into the horizon, with perspective”, as Maialen Beloki, the deputy director of the San Sebastián Film Festival, beautifully expressed it in our conversation last year. The collective imagination is more likely to be born out of a moment carefully building tension, out of the quiet moments of a film than out of the noise and constant distraction of blockbusters. In his book, My Life and My Films, Jean Renoir recounts how his father believed that the empty spaces in a painting were as filled with life as the parts crammed with matter, and continues to express his own beliefs that “a pause in music can be as resonant as a fanfare by a dozen military bands”.

Remember those childhood summers, Generation X? When there was so much play, but also so much time to dream away, to be in your own world? A long country road would put your own imagination in motion, the dirt path stretching ahead paved with ideas. The surroundings and the books you read would weave their stories together. And again I am thinking of the films of Hayao Miyazaki, and those of Satyajit Ray, too, when there are moments when nothing seems to happen, moments which give both the characters and viewers the respite to just be present, leaving time to breath, but feeding the imagination, too.

In the same conversation about the experience of movie going mentioned before, Alessandro de Rosa, film music composer and author of the book Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words, recounted one of his experiences, from San Francisco: “While walking around and exploring the city, I ended up in the Union Square area. It was a relatively cold and windy night, and from far I thought I heard a music I knew, a beautiful song sung by Bing Crosby. When I finally turned the corner and got to the square, totally unexpectedly for me I saw a lot of people gathered in the middle of the square around a big screen on which they were projecting Rear Window by Alfred Hitchcock. The audience was so varied: children, elderly and young people, families, homeless, all watching this masterpiece together. I described this unique moment in the last novel I wrote with my brother: “The guitar which survived the desert” (“La chitarra sopravvissuta al deserto”, yet to be translated in English). That unity, in spite of differences and distances… that night I seemed to see a photograph of the United States of America.”

This is it about cinema. It brings people together. But I also feel that the world is becoming so preoccupied with catching up speed again, too fast. Like the fleeting exhilaration (for whoever feels that) of a summer blockbuster. I would rather ride on summer’s quiet moments that can take you higher and further away long after the special effects have stopped. I wish I could find some of them at the movies, at a special summer gathering, at a cinema as a nature film set of sorts.
 

 
Viewing

After young Mary is orphaned by an earthquake in India, she is sent back to England to live in her uncle’s castle. Soon, she discovers some dark secrets emerging from the castle wrapped in fog, but a beautiful garden, too, and sets out to explore its own secrets. The Secret Garden (1993), directed by Agnieszka Holland and adapted from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book by the same name, has both beauty and darkness in it, which I think is enriching for a child and everyone watching. And, most of all, I love the character of Mary Lennox (played with such feeling by Kate Maberly), how genuine she is. Rarely is a child depicted on screen as innately having both good parts and bad parts (which I think is very true with every child, as with every individual) and it’s beautiful how the story, and the film, charters this character, not by taming her, but by letting her shine in her own time.

There is an American patina and texture in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984), but it is so offbeat and deadpan funny and perfectly minimalist that you sense that the drive behind it was a desire to express things independently and as freely as possible. It is a movie and a road movie with a narrative so unconstricted that it allows the viewer incredible freedom of interpretation. It has that “make-it-in-the-garage” aesthetic, as Jarmusch himself described the filmmaking and musical scene of the late 70s-early 80s, that was not about “trying to be famous or have a career, or be a virtuoso, or be flashy”, but about “having real emotional feelings that you expressed through whatever form” (and this is why I love the 80s so much). Stranger Than Paradise is filmmaking in the most raw and free and genuine form.

Max Ophüls’ Le Plaisir (1952) is formed of three parts, three different stories, three people of different backgrounds who experience pleasure in different ways – an old man who wears a mask of youth in the first, a man’s lust transformed into life devotion in the third. It is the second part however, La Maison Tellier, I loved the most because, quite frankly, it reminded me of Jean Renoir. Julia Tellier, who owns a small-town brothel in the city, takes her girls on an outing to her brother’s village to attend the First Communion of her niece. Their loyal clients are taken aback when they discover the brothel is closed, the villagers are taken aback by the presence of the girls, the girls are moved to tears by the ceremony, and Julia’s brother, Joseph, played by Jean Gabin (who so beautifully gets his greatest effects with the smallest means, as Renoir remarked), becomes infatuated with Madame Rosa (Danielle Darieux), one of the girls. Everything is as funny as it sounds, and Joseph’s amorous intrigue seems to be his only object in life, but there is a realism behind this ludic spirit that is subtly felt. The shot towards the end of this second part, when Joseph stops his carriage on the way to the train station so that the girls can pick up flowers from the field seems depicted from a Renoir-the father painting.

I could watch Jeff Bridges (a former shock DJ who has a breakdown after an incident caused by an unstable caller) and Robin Williams (a former professor who lives in a world of his own creation to insulate himself from a tragedy in his past) over and over again in The Fisher King (1991). But the surprise for me was Mercedes Ruehl in the role of Anne. She is right there besides them. One of the great, memorable, completely natural comedic roles.

I hardly ever like the endings in romantic comedies (I hardly ever watch romantic comedies in fact). But there is The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996), with Jeff Bridges and Barbara Streisand, and its ending, when the credits are already rolling. I love that sense you get that a great love story is about to begin. You don’t think that you’ve just watched a great love story throughout the film, you in turn imagine what’s about to come, that the most beautiful part is just beginning, and I won’t admit this often, but I think it’s wonderful to be left with that feeling of hope, and wondering, and happiness smeared all over your face.

In Marcel Pagnol’s The Marseille Trilogy (Marius, Fanny, and César), Marius and César (Raimu), his father, own a bar on the harbour front of Marseille. Marius is in love with a local girl, Fanny, whom he seems destined to marry, but can not overcome his urge for the unknown that the sea holds for him. Everyone’s life changes with Marius’ leaving and it’s beautiful how Pagnol presents us throughout the three movies the different destinies that life has in store for each of them. The atmosphere of old Marseille, the typical south of France culture, the way people talked and interacted. These films are fundamentally French yet incredibly universal. “Not only did he restrict himself geographically, like Bergman,” Jean Renoir wrote about Pagnol, “but he did so also in the historical sense. His company, Les Films Marcel Pagnol, operated like a medieval workshop. While I was working on my film Toni, I saw him constantly. He used my Vieux Colombier electrical equipment. He collected technicians, actors and workpeople in his country house like a fifteenth-century master-carpenter.”

That pastoral holiday cottage house in the Provence hills in Le château de ma mère (My Mother’s Castle, 1990)… I am not usually one who looks for escapism in movies, but I loved the effect this film, based on Marcel Pagnol’s childhood recollections, had on me, as I drifted to another time and place, as if joining my mind elsewhere.
 

 
Reading

Patti Smith’s writing somehow reminds me of the characters in Yasujirō Ozu’s films. But in saying that, I don’t want to take away anything from the uniqueness of her writing. On the contrary. There is something so nobly quiet about her. It seems that hardly anything is allowed to interfere with her interior life and art, and this lack of artifice, her pared-down way of being is what draws you into her story and reasoning and feeling, into understanding the soothing nature of life, despite whatever may come its way. If you read Patti Smith, try to read it uninterrupted. I usually do, because I don’t want to interrupt that beautiful, natural flow of the narration, floating between present and past. She’s living so many lives in her writing, and it just fills “the reader with a vague and curious joy,” as she hoped she would when she wrote Woolgathering, as she confessed in the preface to the book. “The air was carnival, responsive. I opened the screen door and stepped out. I could feel the grass crackle. I could feel life – a burning coal tossed on a valentine of hay. I covered my head. I would gladly have covered my arms, face. I stood and watched the children at play and something in the atmosphere – the filtered light, the scent of things – carried me back…”

I am an admirer of Sylvie Lancrenon’s photography and I am happy she has published a book, Ombres et lumières – in a time when everyone seems to be releasing a book, whether they have something to say or not, I long for books telling the story of truly deserving artists. “I love natural light from dawn to dusk,” she told Elle France in an interview discussing her book. “I hate flash, heavy makeup, touch-ups that take away the magic. I seek the soul of those I photograph, the moment of abandonment. It’s just a fleeting moment, a look that suddenly is given to me and must be caught.”

I had only watched the film. Now I have finally read Paul Theroux’s book The Mosquito Coast. It’s the storytelling and the writer’s imagination (the story is much darker than the film, as I thought it would be) that grabbed me. Allie Fox is such a vivid creation as the man who uproots his family from the US for a deluded utopian mission in Central America that it’s both unnerving and fascinating. It’s just as unnerving and fascinating for his son, Charlie, whom River Phoenix so flawlessly brought to life on the screen.

In April, Paul Theroux’s new novel, Under the Wave at Waimea, was published and he was interviewed by Penguin Publishing House. He mentions Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (mentioned above) as the first book remembers loving as a child. When asked what his favourite book is, he answers: “For all sorts of reasons, I would have to say The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. […] The writing of this book is just magnificent. But your question is a cruel one.”

In commemoration of 100 years since the birth of Satyajit Ray, two new books of his are being released this year. Another Dozen Stories is a collection of 12 stories for children. Actress Sharmila Tagore has penned the foreword of the upcoming book: “It is such a joy to be able to revisit some of Manik-da’s most memorable works in this genre. The stories translated by Indrani Majumdar highlight everything we have come to love and admire about Manik-da’s multifaceted creativity. It’s all here—the element of the unexpected, a hint of the supernatural, a whiff of the macabre with a generous measure of humour. This is a collection that makes me want to curl up in my bed with a pleasurable anticipation and let my imagination soar to the power of these timeless tales. This is a befitting tribute to the master on his 100th anniversary.”
 
 
Listening

Brian Johnson of AC/DC interviews musicians for his interview series Life On the Road, and a little while back he met up with Dave Grohl. Will you look at Dave’s look on his face at the beginning when Brian Johnson arrives in his van? Great recollections, great musicians, great fun.
 
 
The playlist*


 
 
Making

Sometimes, often times, it takes a new comer to clearly see the uniqueness of a place and the dormant values of a community. That is what happened when a couple, sculptor Virgil Scripcariu and art historian Adriana Scripcariu, moved to a little village fifteen years ago. In Piscu, a village about 35 km from Bucharest, they found a community of potters. Romania is a country packed with peerless craftsmanship, and this village has been making pottery, functional, simply adorned vessels and plates, for generations (one of the most valuable piece in the museum’s collection is a traditional wedding pitcher that one of the elders of the village donated to the museum a couple of years ago), even if today there are only two potters in the village still honing their craft. Despite their tradition, the village had a low name recognition, and that’s why the founders wanted to bring it the appreciation it deserved.

The Piscu School museum (images 2 and 6 in this article) wants to connect children (and adults alike) with the local cultural heritage, with its beauty and historical relevance, and to be an inspiration to all those who wish to gain a fascinating glimpse into the riches of the Romanian cultural heritage and become acquainted with its values. The museum gathers ceramics from all over the country, but its emphasis is on celebrating the place and community where it was born – imbued with the natural warmth of wood, the building itself was projected to fit in harmoniously with the surroundings and celebrate its landscape. Workshops, summer schools, exhibitions and online courses are regularly organised, and a heritage specialist school, Agatonia Elementary School, is how an important part of the community. It combines traditional and non-traditional teaching, classic methods and play, encouraging a great sense of freedom and curiosity.
 
 
The regulars: The interviews, newsletters and podcasts I turn to every week and/or every month because they are that good. Craig Mod’s all three newsletters: Roden, Ridgeline, and Huh. Wes Del Val’s book-ish interviews. Soundtracking, with Edith Bowman. Here’s the Thing, with Alec Baldwin (he has recently interviewed Hans Zimmer). Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter. Monocle magazine, in print.

*Note: As Alicia Kennedy writes in her latest newsletter, “I’m also aware that Spotify is terrible, which is why I purchase albums, concert tickets, and merchandise as much as possible to support the artists I love”. These are songs I gather from the vinyls, from the CDs, and from the soundtracks of the films in my library. I hope you opt for the whole, immersing experience of listening an album on the turntable and watch a film uninterrupted on a big screen or at least in the player at home on a big enough screen.
 

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