The Culture Trip: January Newsletter

Left: “The silence between the years”, Classiq Journal Editions, photographic print available in original landscape size in the shop
Right: “A motion-picture Star was the most important commodity any studio could claim.”
(Veronica: The Autobiography of Veronica Lake)

 
 
I tried to inhale a good number of books and films towards the end of the year. I struggled with the films more than with the books. And, as it happens, in the absence of cinemas, the number of films I have watched online has gone considerably down. On top of that, after I tried to watch a few 2020 films that everyone was telling me I should see and didn’t like them, I just gave up. I returned to my archive shelves and plunged into watching movies nobody talks about on social media. What a great feeling.

I have been searching for a coverage from the beginning of the Sundance Film Festival, which has been held in January since 1979 and which this year will be a virtual event, because I feel I have to go that far back to recapture the movie experience as it should be. I settled on Roger Ebert’s piece from 1981, Declarations of Independence: Before Sundance Was Sundance. “What I came away with, after the week, was a genuine sense of challenge and exhilaration. I’d just finished plowing through the commercial Hollywood movies of 1980­ – the dreariest year in recent history for big movies. I’d survived the routine of the year-end “Best 10” lists, with all of their re­minders of how few good films there had been all year long. But now, in the darkness of a cozy little three-screen theater in Park City’s only shopping center, I was remembering how much fun the movies could be, and how easily they could open me up to new experiences and insights. There hadn’t been a week since the Cannes film Festival of… no, not 1980, but 1979… when I’d seen so many interesting movies.”

I was reading in Ian Buruma’s Tokyo Romance (his autobiographical book recounting his formative years spent in Tokyo between 1975 and 1981) that “Mishima once wrote, in an introduction to a book of photographs” that “late nineteenth century Japan had become ashamed of its popular culture, afraid that Westerners would be shocked by its earthiness”. This mention comes after Buruma writes that when he was a film student at the Nichidai art school (before deciding that his cinema education was not best served there and therefore he went on spending much of his time in the cinema, at the National Film Center in Kyobashi, which became his film school), Japan was a photographer’s dream. “Before photography entered the artistic mainstream everywhere, photographers were celebrated figures in Japan whose shows at major galleries were mobbed by crowds of enthusiasts.”

I often get the feeling that the abundance of images, as good and as profound as some of these may be, we see every day washes away any trace of earthiness from photography. It’s become hard to even imagine that feeling of seeing something special, seeing it in a designated space, the result of a truly intentional action not just because it happens to come up completely randomly, or worse, based on algorithms, on your Instagram feed. Arresting, this is a word that should be carefully considered nowadays. I still believe that sound visual knowledge comes from movies, magazines, exhibitions, books, from seeing with your own eyes, from searching your own truths. I still believe that, even today, restraint is something an artist should practice more. It’s about the abundance of less. Being sparing with sharing photos, for example, that’s what I would like to see, each one curated as a visual story, as if it’s being prepared to be part of an exhibition. This of course doesn’t mean it must fall into certain parameters, to be perfectly composed or aesthetically pleasing to conform with a certain style. It just means that you have to be present, to sit with your feelings, to take your time, to reach this way of seeing that often implies being alone, immersed in the act of seeing, of observing, it’s something very personal, of discovering or understanding something about the world or yourself, or just paying attention, without distractions. And, with that, comes the feeling of a real world that is still happening out there.

Do you still have friends who are not on social media at all? I do. They always offer the freshest perspective on every possible topic. They are not on social media, but they are the most read, most knowledgeable, most visually receptive, most travelled, sharpest observers, most authentic and exuberant people. They take their time and take good care their thoughts. How about that for feeling liberated?

In his “critical appreciation of the world’s finest actor”, The Big Bad Book of Bill Murray, Robert Schnakenberg reaffirms something everyone who loves Lost in Translation knows, that Bill Murray’s portrayal of Bob Harris has only grown in stature in time, and one of the reasons for that is the enduring mystery of the ending. Everyone has been asking what he whispers into the ear of Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte, but nobody really wants to know. I would be devastated if they ever decided to divulge those last lines. “Kurosawa hated being asked about the meaning of his films,” Ian Buruma writes in his recollection of his meetings with the director.
 

Left: Photo by Classiq Journal | Right: Robert Redford by John Dominis for Life magazine, at his home in Utah, 1969

 
 
The Classiq Journal newsletter goes out every month. It’s a culture trip.

Reading

Books

Veronica: The Autobiography of Veronica Lake* had been out-of-print, rare and sought-after for many decades, and was reissued this year by Dean Street Press. It is a good memoir. Veronica Lake was a star, “professionally conceived through Hollywood’s search for box office”, but she didn’t play the Hollywood game very much, she said what she thought and she certainly resented that her box office climbing came with her giving up “something in return. I had obliterated any inroads I’d made as an actress in Sullivan’s Travels. I was right back in the low-cut gowns and wearing the sexy hair.” Her book is not pretentious. It gives you a little taste of fame, more bitter than sweet, and a lot more taste of real life, with spurs to success, sour disappointments, limelight moments, gritty reality checks. It’s less of a pretty sight of Hollywood and more of a slice of hard-earned and hard-lived life. She doesn’t pretend to be someone she’s not and I wish all the adepts of the celebrity culture that’s riding so high right now could see behind the glitter. Veronica Lake tells her life simply, with no flourishes and no lingering over her successful Hollywood years, but her satirical touch enriches it beautifully. “They gave me a job wrapping packages, a dull routine except for the little bell I had at my disposal. I could ring it – ding-ding – and a teenage runner would appear to run errands for me. He would get me more wrapping paper or twine or Christmas stickers and the like. I was drunk with power.” I thought of Sullivan’s Travels when I read this, how good a comedienne she was.

Virginie Mouzat’s book, Ça va, cher Karl?, that she wrote for and with Sebastian Jondeau, the personal assistant to Karl Lagerfeld for 20 years, comes out this January. One of the best fashion journalists (she was fashion editor at Le Figaro and fashion and lifestyle editor at French Vanity Fair), Virginie Mouzat is also a writer, having written Une femme sans qualités (2009), La vie adulte (2010), Et devant moi la liberté: Journal imaginaire de Charlotte Perriand (2019). After her first two books, she said in an interview that “people in fashion don’t read my books, because people in fashion don’t read… Instead of becoming some sort of outcast because of the novels, I tried to turn them into tool for more freedom and richness. I tried to give my job more width.” About her new book, she wrote on her Instagram: “A rough and magic ride, from the 95 suburbs to the super luxurious Quai Voltaire, a story of fight, love, admiration and resilience.”
 
 

”He didn’t stay long. When he left, I wanted to run after him,
hold on to him and let him take me back to those days when
I truly meant something to someone. The whole thing, as brief
as it was, touched me deeply. But it was also frightening, that
momentarily slip backwards, too dangerous to dwell on.”

Veronica Lake in Veronica: The Autobiography of Veronica Lake

 
 
I have mentioned Ian Buruma’s A Tokyo Romance earlier. My fascination with the Japanese culture was kindled and fueled by the films of Kurosawa (my Toshiro Mifune 100 by Tony Stella is waiting to be framed as I am writing this), Ozu and Mizoguchi. Reading Ian Buruma’s book added to my knowledge about Japan in a very sensible way, especially that, or precisely because, he was an outsider living there, but one fully immersed in the Japanese culture and counterculture of the times. I have the same feeling when I read Craig Mod’s writings about Japan. And I couldn’t help rooting even deeper when he wrote: “What the movies made by Ozu, Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, Naruse, and many other lesser known directors had in common was an emotional realism. They approached the darker human impulses, sexual, social, spiritual, with a rare honesty less often seen in European or American films, this was not just the result of a lucky confluence of cinematic geniuses. Japanese audiences played an important role too. They were receptive to emotional realism.”

Online

One of my favourite things to read over the holidays was Harper Lee’s short story. How faith in someone can change their life.

I equally enjoyed Geoff Dyer’s essay. It’s about our relationship with books and a Christmas miracle. I had previously read But Beautiful, a book about jazz that has truly stayed with me. Geoff Dyer writes beautifully in such a way that you can not tell where the reality ends and where the fiction begins. Because he takes real facts, and quotes, and photos (how uniquely he reads jazz photos), and, most importantly, the way he hears the music, and he composes his own images and dialogue of scenes from the lives of the jazz musicians he writes about. They appear not as they were, but as he saw them, as the author himself reveals. That’s the beauty of his creative non-fiction.

Remembering Pierre Cardin, who passed away at the end of December, and his beautiful contribution to film costume design. He dressed Jeanne Moreau in Jacques Demy’s sublime Bay of Angels 1963 (he also dressed her in Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black): “But her personality isn’t laid bare, she is an enigma, she has an electric unpredictability, there is something not quite real about her. Her appearance, from her Marilyn Monroe hair and make-up and gestures, to the impeccable elegance, is clearly a creation of her artist’s imagination. But the beauty of this character is that she believes in who she is, she believes in walking on sand in high heels, and we believe it too.”

“For me, entering into a movie theatre is an unconscious experience. It’s about abandoning yourself to the vastness of the place in community with other people. What makes it special is a mixture of the individual feeling of immersion but also the beautiful sense of sharing. It’s really something unmatched. […] We need a Marshall plan for cinemas. I urge whoever has that power to do that. It is not banal. It is a huge worldwide industry that has to come back and become stronger. Also, help us filmmakers to make great films – not just bankable films – to be seen on the big screen. I am worried about the future of cinemas in Italy and everywhere. We need to become a united group and fight and make every kind of possible positive lobbying to make sure that help can be given to the system of the moviegoing experience. Luca Guadagnino, talking for Sight & Sound, as part of their #MyDreamPalace campaign, where filmmakers talk about what going to the movies means to them. Six months ago I was talking to filmmakers why movies still need cinemas right here in the journal.

The interview
After collaborating on the launch of Visioni: A Lens on Italian Cinema on MUBI, Issimo sat down with MUBI’s founder, Efe Cakarel, and talked movies and an epic night in (I will take that double-bill choice any time). “The thing that makes MUBI different, and keeps it special – is that we hand-pick every single film. We always have. (And always will.) […] Because our film choices are so human-driven – (no robots or algorithms) – we aren’t led by popularity or trends, or anything else. We just find the films that truly speak to us, whatever they may be, and bring them to more people. Some will be iconic films, classics and masterpieces. But many will be great movies, that you never knew existed.”

 

Left: Photo by Classiq Journal | Right: “Timeless Saint Émilion” by David C. Phillips, photographic print available in original landscape size in the shop

 
 
Viewing

To paraphrase my husband (my film buff companion), Vanishing Point (1971) is everything Easy Rider never succeeded to be. It was the 1970s and this is one of the films that defied conventions of mainstream American cinema. A countercultural, existential road movie that speaks on many levels, but what I ultimately liked so much about it was that it is a movie that grabs your attention with seemingly very little going on. It’s one of those films which, as it proceeds, allows your own movie to develop in your head. You may very well be riding that car yourself. And it’s a great car.

After having watched Druk (Another Round), which I included in my round-up of the best movies of 2020, I had to see Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt (2012), where Mads Mikkelsen gives another great performance (if you have only seen Mads Mikkelsen in Casino Royale, then you have missed out enormously). If I were to describe the atmosphere in Thomas Vinterberg’s films, I would resume to the words the director himself used when he talked about his Danish films as opposed to his English language movies: “It seems that when I dip my hands into my own backyard, it becomes universal. When I reach out for the universal, the opposite happens.” In The Hunt, Mikkelsen plays Lucas, a teacher by training but who now works as a daycare employee after he lost his job. He is professionally decent, caring, kind, and he is falsely accused by a kid of inappropriate behaviour. He suddenly finds himself standing alone in a hostile world. It shows how easily we judge, how easily we toss out friends. It’s heartbreaking and it shook me to the core. The only one who shows unconditional faith in him, besides his son, is his only true friend, his son’s godfather, and those scenes between them had a great effect on me, because they showed that it doesn’t take much, just a single word or gesture, to assure someone of your trust or shatter his confidence and make his world crumble. And the most harrowing thing about this remarkable film is that Lucas transmits what it must feel like to feel guilty about a crime he didn’t commit. Because when you are wrongly accused of something, even if you are proved innocent, there is an irremediable harm done, and everyone, except that one true friend, might still consider you guilty. That’s our society.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) depicts the 1969 Chicago Seven trial, in which President Nixon’s federal government charged seven anti-Vietnam war activists with inciting to riots at the previous year’s national democratic convention. The film keeps your interest up at all times, through the nature of the story, great performances (Mark Rylance stands out), and, what I always appreciate in a film no matter how good the narrative, the cinematography. This is a film where I couldn’t wait for the next shot (it was a film still that got my attention to watch the movie in the first place). Because even in a movie that is intensively focused on dialogue (this is a courtroom drama after all) and rhythm and performances, I like to trust the image to drive my emotions when watching a film. Phedon Papamichael (he is responsible for the crisp black and white cinematography of Nebraska – “On Nebraska it was made very clear from the beginning that no colour images were to be released – and I was so excited for that rare opportunity!,” unit still photographer Merie Weismiller Wallace told me in our interview – and the realistically-shot Ford v Ferrari which conveyed that sense of race, danger and passion that go into the sport, never losing sight of the human aspect) does that beautifully, elegantly allowing space for the performances.

I would watch Pietro Germi’s Un maledetto imbroglio (The Facts of Murder, 1959) again if only for the character of inspector Ingravallo, played by the director himself. It’s a distinctive movie character, that can distinctively be placed in that time and the Italy of those times.

A few films I am looking forward to this year: Ruben Östlund’s satire Triangle of Sadness, starring Woody Harrelson. A new Thomas Paul Anderson film is on the way and Bradley Cooper is among the cast. On a Half Clear Morning, starring Léa Seydoux, is a French film directed by Bruno Dumont about a journalist whose life is turned upside down after a car accident (it was again a movie still that got my attention).

Listening

Music
Vanishing Point movie soundtrack, No Love Lost by The Rifles, Bruce Springsteen’s first and latest albums, Greetings from Ansbury Park and Letter to You, respectively, on vinyl on repeat.

Podcast
Life on the Edge is the interview series from Shackleton that tackles the questions of what makes people push their limits, featuring today’s most inspiring adventurers, explorers and pioneers. One of my favourite travel writers, Sophy Roberts, is the host.

Making

Each month I highlight one lifestyle/design brand I believe in 100%. How about this time instead of products we celebrate a wordsmith, Betty Soldi, her calligraphic style and her imaginatively inspired projects?

The regulars: The interviews, newsletters and podcasts I turn to every week and/or every month because they are that good.

Craig Mod’s newsletters, Roden and Ridgeline.
Wes Del Val’s book-ish interviews.
Edith Bowman’s podcast Soundtracking. It remains my favourite podcast by far.
Monocle magazine, in print.
 
 

Mads Mikkelsen and Annika Wedderkopp in “The Hunt”, 2012
Danmarks Radio, Det Danske Filminstitut, Eurimages

 
 
*Note: For an easily accessible, official synopsis of the books recommended here, I have linked to the respective publishing house or author. However, in these trying times, our intention is to support artists and small businesses of any kind, especially bookstores, therefore I will not link to global online book chains or corporations, leaving you to make the choice of helping your favourite independent bookshop and placing your order with them. If you don’t have a favourite indie bookstore, here is how to find one you can support.

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