Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The Exalted Power of Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte”


The Metropolitan Opera in New York City broadcasts a few of its performances each season to cinemas around the globe, for those of us interested in the annual productions of one of the largest and greatest houses in the world and for whom the local operatic slate is not nearly sufficient. Ster Kinekor screens these performances in South Africa (in its Cinema Nouveau theatres, in Pretoria, Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town). The 2017-2018 season started off with a dramatically dark production of Norma, starring the Canadian soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as a truly great interpreter of the Gaulish priestess and a glowing Joyce DiDonato as her apprentice. The second production on offer is a revival of Julie Taymor’s perennially popular production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (“The Magic Flute”). Mozart’s momentous opera soared for over two centuries before Taymor got her hands on it — and I daresay it’ll outlive her brilliant work — but it loses nothing to her outlandish and variegated designs and devices, and I most heartily advise every reader of this blog to go out and see one or more of the final screenings of this production (see the Ster Kinekor website for details).

Mozart’s music has had to weather more overblown yet rhapsodic rhetoric than any other composer’s in the modern era (and the classical and ancient times, for that matter), but it’s difficult to find anything like a hyperbole among its descriptors. Best known as a child prodigy (and now a virtual fertiliser for the ears and minds of today’s children, in the hope that his freakish abilities are infectious), Mozart’s technical mastery and fertile prolificity are incontrovertible, but they’re only the first part of the story of his genius. It’d be true to say of him, as a composer and teacher friend of mine has, that, in all 700 works, in the face of many self-imposed challenges, he never set a single note in the wrong place or at the wrong time; every moment is composed (you’ll forgive the cliché) as if by divine configuration. And that heavenly order is a true and personal aspect of his art: More than mere phenomena of sensation and spectacle, Mozart’s works constitute a noble and exalted philosophy sought sublimely through sound.


Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Making Your Way, for Free

A still from the Malian film Yeelen, available for viewing on dailymotion.com

My apologies to readers who have come, as I hope you might have, to expect something from this blog’s weekend viewing recommendations that you wouldn’t find on just any old entertainment blog available to you. Last weekend, instead of a selection of films for you to seek out, I posted about a few sites and platforms where you can discover your own viewing paths and make your own selections of films to see and report back on. (I’ve received a few stories and recommendations from some readers on specific series they’ve found and enjoyed, but not heard anything about their feature film — or short film, for that matter — delights.)

The sites I gave were pretty obvious and very broadly mainstream, and no doubt already known in their entirety to most readers: Showmax, BoxOffice, iTunes, Google Play, and Netflix. They are also either subscription or rental/purchase services. The delightful array of South African independent productions on Showmax and foreign independent productions on Netflix aside, what about the works for those viewers who are looking for alternatives to the common feature viewing fare? And what about those viewers whose budget constraints preclude extensive viewing on sites that require you to pay for your pleasures?

I must admit that I myself am nearly as engulfed by the darkness of ignorance as any reader asking those questions. I know of pitifully few places where you can go to watch things for free — but, of course, at least one reason for that is that not many distributors are committed to releasing their films for free — and I know even less about alternative viewing that would interest some of you. All I can do here is point out to you the tiny handful of things I do know, and plead for more of you to let me know about the options that they know of so that I can inform more readers of what’s available to them. (I’ll only let you know about the legally permissible options here; viewers who disregard laws and copyrights do so at their own inconvenience.)

Saturday, 11 November 2017

The Allegories Packed Into “mother!”


Note: I’ve done my best not to spoil the plot or the effects of the film in any way, but readers who wish to retain the full jolt of surprise when they see the film should defer reading this post until after they’ve done so.

There are two literal mothers presented in the story of Darren Aronofsky’s latest film to which the title may refer; however, unsure as you may be of a whole multitude of things after seeing the film, it’s strikingly clear that Aronofsky has not concerned himself with the literal. The tumbling, nightmarish torrent of jump scares, hysterics, and eventual gore congeals, by starkly exploitative means, into even more ironic a horror film than this year’s brilliantly aware satire Get Out. That irony arises from Aronofsky’s strong allegorical purposes in making mother!, but just what he has presented an allegory of is the problem with which many viewers have found themselves burdened. (Or not. Aronofsky’s irony is sometimes so systematically laid into the film’s fabric, held so consistently right before the viewer’s face — just as the steadicam is before Jennifer Lawrence’s for most of the film — that some reviewers missed it entirely.)

The story of cyclical abuse and dependence could be taken for a number of political narratives of the moment. Exploitation and unwelcome presences are always easy targets for an exegesis on the evils of colonialism; specific incidents in the plot and the overtly sexualised view of the young and delicate woman at the centre resonate against the last few weeks’ resounding headlines of exposed sexual misconduct and the ubiquitous abuses of power they constitute; it could be read as a nerve-shredding depiction of what it’s like to try and lead a calm and sheltered life with someone who craves, and is eventually granted, celebrity in a media-sodden culture; Herman Eloff, in his review for Channel24, sees it as a critique of the unguarded openness and unchecked desires that our electronic and connective lives allow us to indulge; Aronofsky himself reportedly claims a parallel with “the rape and torture of Mother Earth” (in Lawrence’s words), which explains the title, and which is how I initially viewed the allegory, with the house as an analogue for Earth, and the increasingly aggressive characters representing us in our careless exploitation of natural resources. The problem is compounded by explicit allusions to Biblical paradigms and Aronofsky’s characteristically frenziedly subjective depictions.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

What to See This Weekend: Make Your Way


This weekend, instead of giving my recommendations of all the films you could look out for, I’m pointing out the directions in which you can undertake your own viewing expeditions. For all the downsides of technological advancement, the global and transnational connectivity and accessibility it has supplied is one of the greatest of its advantages. There are now more movies available to you than ever before, even after the growth over decades of television screenings and home video distribution; the problem now is to sort through the myriad of newly handy offerings to properly allocate your resources (chiefly, those of your time and your money) to those that you think you could gain the most from. Readers of this blog will know that I believe there is far more than mere entertainment to be gained from a good movie, and I find the hour-and-a-half spent watching The Darjeeling Limited or Good Time plus the two hours afterwards spent discussing it with your companions are well worth the energies and assets you’ll have invested in finding them, getting yourself to the right place to see them, and paying to see the screening.

Obviously, as before, the preferred option of many who wish to see a film at home over the weekend is to watch in on DVD. The range of films available is vast (though not as broad as many of us would like) and the options for where to get it are very widely varied. Nobody needs me to tell them that renting is cheaper nor that owning yields far greater returns (and I aim to own as many of my favourite films on DVD as possible, which offer inordinate value in repeat viewings and social screenings with various groups of friends). Most of you won’t need to be told where to go to get them, either (and may have better knowledge than mine on where to buy cheaper secondhand copies or where to rent), but I’ve found online stores such as Takealot and Loot to be competitively priced and to have the thankfully much wider range of products available (through international third-party sellers) than what you are able to find on shelves. For those conscious of bargains and price disparities, the site Price Check compares the price of a product offered by different sellers, including these online stores.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

What to See This Weekend: Collision Courses

Each weekend, The Back Row compiles a short selection of recommendations for readers’ weekend viewing. The links are for the convenience of those who wish to stream the films on the suggested websites (make sure it’s available in your territory before entering your payment details); readers may well prefer other sites with alternative arrangements for the streaming and downloading of films, and can’t be stopped from using those instead.

“The Darjeeling Limited” (Wes Anderson, 2007)




Available on Google Play; on iTunes; on DVD.

The Darjeeling Limited, which reached the tenth anniversary of its theatrical release this week, is perhaps the worst received feature film by Wes Anderson — at 69%, it has the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score, and, when I searched for them, I very quickly found a large number of decidedly negative critical responses to it online — but it’s one of my very favourites, and not only among Anderson’s films. It has in common with the others (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Grand Budapest Hotel) all the hallmarks of Anderson’s style and thematic interests, and the ways in which it’s different are mostly what brought about such strong reactions to it — strongly negative, in the case of some internet commentators; strongly disappointed, in the case of Anderson fans who prefer his earlier or later works (or both); and strongly ecstatic, in those, like me, who see something of great artistry and unparalleled beauty in it.

The story concerns three brothers, convened by the eldest, Francis (Owen Wilson), for a journey across India on a luxurious train known as The Darjeeling Limited. Francis, Peter (Adrien Brody), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) Whitman have recently lost their father, and Francis has survived a near-fatal motorcycle accident, prompting him to reconnect with his somewhat estranged brothers and mother, on a wishful journey of epiphanies and redemption. The pained and strained family relations are redolent of those in The Royal Tenenbaums, even more so when Anjelica Huston appears to play Patricia, the brothers’ mother. Anderson has once again taken a sharp and deeply empathic view of the unique energies of family life through the prism of bourgeois comfort and privilege, and it’s a marvel, as always, to feel how keenly the emotions represented and conveyed by his film are evoked while he maintains so loftily ironic a position in presenting it. (I find that the most distinctive moments of humour in Anderson’s films arise from the tensions, as well as felicitous alignments, between precisely this emotional force and grand, overarching irony.)

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

The Revelations in the Safdie Brothers’ “Good Time”


Josh and Benny Safdie are two filmmaking brothers whose new film stars Robert Pattinson as a petty criminal who manipulates and exploits those around him for his own purposes, named Constantine Nikas, a.k.a. Connie; so it’s entirely apt that the film begins and ends with the person closest to Connie, his brother, Nick (Benny Safdie), in therapy. Good Time’s story is one of a person who thinks of and sees everything only in terms of his own goals, even while upholding the the commonplaces of familial bonds and duties. Connie may genuinely think that he’s taking care of Nick, who is mentally disabled and has impaired hearing and speech, but his obliviously self-centred concerns don’t let him see that, even when he tries to uplift or protect his brother, the purposes of his actions are only ever to pursue his own agenda.

It’s not only Nick, but everyone he comes into contact with that Connie treats in this way. He uses each of them to achieve his own ends, without sparing a single thought for their perspectives, experiences, or needs. When he encounters a convicted drug dealer named Ray (Buddy Duress) and hears Ray’s story of his first night out after being released on parole and how a series of antics that involved a bottle of an LSD solution worth several thousand dollars landed him back in prison, Connie’s immediate and only reaction is not one of empathy with, interest in, or amusement for the story, but to plan to find the bottle of LSD, which Ray tells him he hid while running from the police, and to sell it for cash.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

What to See This Weekend: Unexpected Journeys

On Fridays, The Back Row compiles a short selection of recommendations for readers’ weekend viewing. The links are for the convenience of those who wish to stream the films on the suggested websites (make sure it’s available in your territory before entering your payment details); readers may well prefer other sites with alternative arrangements for the streaming and downloading of films, and can’t be stopped from using those instead.


“I Am Not Your Negro” (Raoul Peck, 2016)




Available on DVD.

When James Baldwin died, at the age of sixty-three, from stomach cancer, he left unfinished a manuscript of the memoir Remember This House, detailing his personal interactions with the civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. (Baldwin had also written a treatment of Malcolm X’s life for a screenplay, which he eventually adapted into his book One Day, When I Was Lost; this is what Spike Lee ended up developing into the script for his bio-pic Malcolm X, released five years after Baldwin’s death.) The Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck has now made a documentary to present his view of the story of black people in America, revealing that it’s the core of his idea of the story of America itself, and his text is derived entirely from the writings of Baldwin, with a particular focus on Remember This House and the three slain leaders.

Baldwin is a prominent fixture in the long and illustrious history of American literature, and especially noteworthy as a powerful practitioner of that strong American form, the philosophical-political essay, that developed from the republican revolution in the days of empire and colonies, the abolitionist movement leading up to the American Civil War, and through the various liberalising struggles of the twentieth century. It is now most potently remembered as a part of the civil rights struggle, where the great spiritual epiphanies were imparted in American political movements, and the anti-sectarian moralism and spiritualist aestheticism of Baldwin is closely related to the ecclesiastically awesome deliveries of King on the steps of national monuments. In fact, Baldwin himself spoke with the fervour of a preacher, a sight we’re treated to in the archival footage that Peck includes in I Am Not Your Negro, such as clips from Baldwin’s interview on The Dick Cavett Show, and his debate with William F. Buckley, Jr., at the Oxford Union. These are interspersed throughout the documentary, together with photographs and other footage of episodes in the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s, as well as contemporary material of the protest activities carried out by Black Lives Matter.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Critic’s-Eye View: “The Whale Caller”

Zola Maseko’s new film The Whale Caller opened this weekend in theatres, after playing at the Durban Film Festival in July, and the Joburg Film Festival last year, where it won the award for Best African Film. It stars Sello Maake Ka-Ncube as the sexually dysfunctional whale crier and Amrain Ismail-Essop as the woman keen for his affection, in a domestic melodrama adapted by Maseko from the novel by Zakes Mda. I’ve collected other critics and reviewers’ pieces on the film here, for you to gain a broader view of the responses the film has elicited. Let me know of any others that could be included.

Click here to read The Back Row’s review of The Whale Caller.

In his review for the City Press for the screenings at Durban in July, Charl Blignaut describes the film as “a grand, silly, audacious and metaphysical tale of love, loss and jealousy,” and declares that “The Whale Caller should be one of the great South African films, but it isn’t, not by a fairly long shot.” In diagnosing its flaws, he writes,

“In my opinion, it was the casting. There was lots of big old stage acting but very little onscreen chemistry between Sello Maake Ka-Ncube’s Whale Caller and Amrain Ismail-Essop’s Saluni. And it tore a hole in the fabric of an often exquisite piece of knocky, romantic magic realism bursting with blooms of African surrealism. …
In its art direction, its visual choices, and its score by Pops Mohamed, The Whale Caller matches the lyricism of Mda’s novel. … The Whale Caller also reinvigorates the tired landscape tropes in African cinema to display a nature that is alive and seething with messages from the other side.”

Saturday, 14 October 2017

The Dysfunction in and of “The Whale Caller”

“The Whale Caller”





Zola Maseko’s new film is an adaptation of the acclaimed writer Zakes Mda’s novel and is set in Hermanus, the small town on the southern coast of the Western Cape, famous for its whale watching during the winter and spring months. Before its theatrical release this weekend, it played at the Durban International Film Festival in July, and last year’s Joburg Film Festival, where it won the award for Best African Film. Mda’s novel, which Maseko adapted for the screen, centres on the town’s whale crier — Hermanus’s uniquely employed whale watcher, who stands on lookout on the cliffs and blows on a kelp horn to announce sightings of whales — who is played by the South African television star Sello Maake Ka-Ncube (of Generations), and the woman who yokes herself to his orbit, Saluni (Amrain Ismail-Essop).

The film has been billed a romantic comedy, which is categorically untrue — it’s a domestic melodrama — and reviewers have described its dimensions with words like “metaphysical” when really they mean “psychological,” but there is an appreciation for the admirable courage of the filmmakers to take on the risks of this production and to contribute work of particular interest to this year’s South African cinematic output. They display a significant visual consciousness and a commendable degree of visual invention, as well as an obviously earnest involvement in and consideration for the making of the film. The evident hard work and personal dedication of just about everyone working in the South African film industry makes it all the more unfortunate when their production demonstrates, as The Whale Caller does, a weakness in cinematic expression and narrative conception. Having not read the novel, I couldn’t say whether it or Maseko’s adaptation has faltered, though I have read other remarkably rich work by Mda, and I’d be surprised if any of the failures are down to his writing.

Click here to read what other reviewers have written about The Whale Caller.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Critic’s-Eye View: “Vaselinetjie”

Corné van Rooyen’s Afrikaans film about a white girl raised by brown caregivers in the Northern Cape, who is taken away to be schooled in Johannesburg, adapted from Anoeschka von Meck’s novel, was released at the end of last month, and, though I haven’t had a chance to see it yet, I’ve collected a few reviews of it here, for your perusal and for those interested in seeing the film. Let me know of any others I may have missed.

In what looks like a four-star review for the Beeld, Laetitia Pople writes that “the course that this young life takes will warm even a heart of stone.”

“Yet van Meck and van Rooyen don’t employ cheap sentiment. They tell, explore, and allow you to experience it as befits true storytellers. They hold up a mirror, without once judging or pointing fingers. … The acclaimed novel (prescribed for a number of years in schools) turned brittle identity politics on its head in 2004 and broaded the debate on colour. … Von Meck’s insider knowledge of the life of a children’s home, where she worked as a caregiver, brought much more to the table. Van Rooyen chimes in perfectly …
Nicole Bond plays the young Vaselinetjie with a primal wisdom and courage. … Indeed, all the young performers impress throughout in portrayals that tug at the heartstrings, but that also leave you rolling with laughter — because, even though their situation is dire, they find adventure and humour in highly unlikely places, exactly as children would. Vaselinetjie will affect you totally if it’s a first meeting; if you already know her, this film offers additional dividends of great value.”

Saturday, 7 October 2017

What to See This Weekend: Mind Games

“Masterminds” (Jared Hess, 2016)





Showing on DStv M-Net Movies Premiere (Channel 104) on Monday, 9 October, at 16:55; Saturday, 14 October, at 13:00; available on Microsoft; on Amazon; on Vudu; on DVD.

Though Jared Hess’s frenzied new comedy is far more conventional in flavour than the earlier two that I’ve seen — Napoleon Dynamite, from 2004, and Nacho Libre, from 2006 — it’s just as much a delightful and distinctive treat. It’s based on the real-life Loomis Fargo robbery in North Carolina that took place in October 1997, in which David Ghantt, a supervisor for the cash handling company Loomis Fargo, stole over $17 million in cash from the regional vault in Charlotte, North Carolina where he worked, collaborating with an ex-employee, Kelly Campbell, her associate, Steve Chambers, and a number of co-conspirators. I don’t know the precise degree to which the film has stuck to fact — from what I can see on the Wikipedia entry on the robbery, the main points of the story were all kep intact for the film, but a high level of invention and imagination is displayed openly by Hess in his telling.

Zach Galifianakis plays David, a decent and naïve security employee, who falls for Kelly (Kristen Wiig) when she starts working as his partner, even though he’s already engaged, to a rancorous store clerk named Jandice (Kate McKinnon). When Kelly leaves the job and moves in with her childhood friend Steve (Owen Wilson), who is now a professional thief and scammer, she keeps contact with earnest and infatuated David, who, through his indulgent affection and eagerness to win Kelly over, is persuaded by Steve to help them rob the cash vault one weekend. They then get David out of the country while keeping the cash to themselves, while Kelly’s continuing contact with David introduces unforeseen complications to their plans. Jason Sudeikis plays an unnervingly avid (and zanily funny) hitman who is roped in as part of Steve’s attempts to simplify matters, and Leslie Jones plays an FBI special agent assigned to the case of the heist, whose hilarious efforts to secure a confession from her suspects reminded me of the task of a director who seeks to extract a meaningful performance from his actors — both have to modify their methods from one individual to the next, the moment they’re looking for may not arrive when and where they had expected or planned it, and both have to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and to capture moments as they arise.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

How Are You Prepared for “Inxeba: The Wound”?


One of the sustained subjects on controversy I’ve observed on South African social media this year is the announcement of and marketing for the new isiXhosa-language film The Wound Inxeba, directed by first-time director John Trengrove and adapted from the novel A Man Who is Not a Man by Thando Mgqolozana. Responses to the trailer, released in the first half of the year, are divided between enthusiasm and outrage, and the topics of discussion on it cover a few different points of interest.

Firstly, and most prominently, is the topic of the film’s setting and overt subjects. The film is set almost entirely at the rural location of the traditional Xhosa practice of initiation, known as ulwaluko, and depicts certain experiences of the young men who undergo it. Ulwaluko is a sacred rite in its Xhosa heritage and the specific details of the process are meant to be secret to everyone except those who have undergone it (which is supposed to be all AmaXhosa men who have come of age); no AmaXhosa women ever find these details out, and certainly no outsiders are supposed to know them. Secondly, the marketing has revealed that the story of the film is told from the perspective of a homosexual man, and that homosexual experience and desire is incorporated into the film’s narrative. People defending the film against attacks and criticism online have said that commentators should first see the film before presuming its content, but the trailer I saw gives the distinct impression that the emotional and psychological effects of the experience of ulwaluko, same-sex attraction in the context of it, as well as varied reactions to that attraction, will be direct subjects of the film.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

“The Lost City of Z” and Mozart in the Jungle


A classic, in any art form, is a work that stands out as an authoritative and superior example of its genre, style, production circumstances, or purpose. The quality of being classical is the reliance on and use of well-established principles of composition, traditional forms and techniques, and recognisable approaches to presentation. In a strict and conventional sense, classicism would signify the taking on of the exemplary standards and styles of Greek and Roman architecture, Renaissance paintings, Age of Enlightenment music, either ancient Greek and Roman or Elizabethan poetry (depending on your perspective on literature), or the cinema of the Hollywood studio era that lasted from the 1920s to the early 1960s. James Gray’s new film (and the first that I’ve seen from this eminent director), The Lost City of Z, both epitomises classical cinematic principles and is an instant-classic in its brilliance as a genre film made at a particular time in a particular way — though I would regard it just as highly without the matters of genre, timing, and methods taken into consideration.

Consider first the screenplay Gray wrote, adapted from the non-fiction book The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann, a staff writer at The New Yorker. He sets it up in a recognisably conventional way, with a somewhat idiosyncratic officer in the British army, in the bright days of the Empire, who is disdained by his superiors, but recognised for his unique skills and achievements and suitability for a large, risky venture of combined exploration, diplomacy, and arbitration. The most obvious and famous correlate with this set-up is David Lean’s highly regarded queer epic, Lawrence of Arabia. Gray cuts just as abruptly from his officer’s briefing to the far-off wilderness he must confront, and even includes a few cursory, mutedly ostentatious shots of the vast natural wonders at hand, then continues with the exposition of his plot just like the page-turner pulp fiction adventures that so many classic Hollywood films were based on. (Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which spawned many film adventures, was reportedly based on the reports of Doyle’s good friend Percy Fawcett, who is the hero of Gray’s story.) Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is tasked with surveying parts of the jungle in Bolivia and Brazil, with the purpose of establishing their boundary to settle a dispute over valuable natural resources. That mission is cancelled not long after he arrives, though as he tries to continue with it, an Amazonian scout tells him of a mysterious city deep in the jungle, covered with gold, and inhabited by a multitude of people. After encountering a number of life-threatening dangers on his trip and, later, returning to England to great acclaim for his accomplishment, Fawcett finds that he is obsessed with finding the city he has heard of. His long-suffering wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), helps him unearth further evidence of it in archived conquistador texts, and Percy sets off to the Amazon again with the express purpose of finding what he calls “the Lost City of Z,” to signify the last realm of discovery in human development.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Ten Musical Recordings I Love

The eminent composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, recording his music for “West Side Story,” in 1988.

I’ve been neglecting my blog lately, which I regret, though I am not burdened by so heavy a weight of guilt as this regret may normally imply, because I’ve nevertheless been exulting in the sublimities of aesthetic, moral, and intellectual achievements in the arts that are available to those who seek them out. In the time since my last post, I have seen two excellent movies — one on DVD (Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret) and one in theatres (James Gray’s The Lost City of Z) — and two truly great movies — one on DVD (Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited) and one online (Nicholas Ray’s Bitter Victory) — about which, hopefully, you’ll hear more in a short while.

In the time I would have spent writing about these wonders, however, I’ve been focusing on a few instances of musical greatness instead. My levels of enthusiasm had been stoked somewhat by the announcement of the relaunch of the local band, the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra, and I spent much time going over different recordings of the pieces they would present in their special relaunch concert (the March from Act II of Verdi’s Aïda, Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, and Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony), which led me to revisit a few other favourites. I was further excited by last week’s commemorations of Leonard Bernstein’s 99th birthday (including my own, on Facebook) and the kick-off of the Bernstein centenary. In the hope it would encourage discussion on the opportunities of musical appreciation and wonderment to avid listeners in South Africa, as well as on various composers, works, and recordings in particular, I present to readers here a list of some of the recordings I’ve been listening to keenly, obsessively, passionately, rapturously, and defencelessly.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Band of Insiders

Reading Paul Boekkooi’s review of the local movie Finders Keepers that appeared in Friday’s Beeld, in which he bemoans the decline of South African comedy films, I was reminded of a number of complaints I invariably have about the local film industry and the work it produces; but Boekkooi provides some interesting points of discussion, indicating the vast difference in taste and ideas that he and I have regarding cinema, not only that of South Africa, but of the art form at large.

He suggests that the reason South African comedy movies are becoming less and less funny is that “all the things we could once laugh at have dried up”. Yet I find that the greatest humour arises from the breaking of rules — defying logic, surprising twists, the irony or campness of artifice, subverting (or perverting) mores and conventions have led to sublime works of comedic genius and great artistic insight from filmmaking proponents as diverse as Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, Judd Apatow, Charlie Chaplin, the Coen brothers, Paul Feig, Howard Hawks, Peyton Reed, Nicholas Stoller, Billy Wilder, or as evidenced in a multitude of humourous moments or scenes from any number of the other, less comedic directors mentioned in this blog’s posts. It isn’t possible for the things we laugh at to dry up, as long as we have a capacity for laughter. It may be true that a large number of socially and politically aware South African citizens are not, generally, in a laughing mood at this moment, but, when attention is given to an occasional diversion, any sufficiently imaginative, inventive, and energetic filmmaker could find any number of things for a South African moviegoer to laugh at.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

“Krotoa”’s Middling Middle Ground


Having finally seen Roberta Durrant’s hyped biopic Krotoa, about the Khoi woman who lived among the Dutch settlers of Jan Van Riebeeck’s Cape Colony as a mediator and translator, it’s difficult for me to believe that the film was made by a morally and artistically serious person — even less so by a woman who purports to be serious about discussing the historical treatment of women. It’d be boorish for me to use such words as “atrocious” or “abominable,” the staples for describing films one finds particularly distasteful, in the face of a story of actual historical atrocities and moral abominations, but I find that Durrant may well care less than I do about treating the subject with respect and good sense. The failures of her film are manifold, and arise from critical malfunctions on a range of levels of the film’s development.

(To read what other critics had to say about the film, click here.)

Most immediately apparent are the many failures of execution: Durrant and her director of photography, Greg Heimann, insist on eliminating any sense of personal or critical perspective on the shots they film, offering the blandest, most clichéd establishing shots of a beach, a fort, and the waves breaking on the west coast, and focusing squarely on actors’ faces during conversation, to the exclusion of all setting, context, and visual nuance, and with no consideration for meaningful framing, compositions, lighting, movement, or depth (except, perhaps, in what Durrant must consider the evocation of a painting, in the vulgar love scene between Krotoa and the Danish doctor Pieter Van Meerhof, and in the stunningly indelicate allusion to the famous painting of Van Riebeeck’s arrival in the Cape); Durrant and her cast refuse to step out of the woefully constrained soap-opera style of acting they learned on South African television and from pedestrian South African film productions, emphasising their exasperatingly simplistic emotions with a dreadful dependence on hackneyed expressions, and suffocating any hope for spontaneity and freedom in their performances; Durrant urges her composer, Murray Anderson, to churn the most prosaic emotional reactions with a vapid and overbearing score that treads all the wrong steps at all the wrong moments; Durrant and her costumers and makeup artists devise to present all the actors as awkwardly and obviously out of place as possible in what were probably the thoroughly-researched but ill-refashioned looks of the day.

Critic’s-Eye View: “Krotoa”

The new biopic on the Khoi historical figure Krotoa opened last week. Roberta Durrant’s film brought in mixed reviews, which is probably to be expected for any film dealing with a biter topic in South Africa’s colonial history. Before being released theatrically, it was shown at a number of international film festivals. It won Best Film at the Harlem International Film Festival in New York, and was in the official selection for the Artemis Women in Action Film Festival, the Nashville Film Festival, the International Film Festival for Environment, Health and Culture, and the World Film Awards. I’ve compiled here a number of reviews of the film for readers to get a good idea of the range of reactions to Durrant’s biopic — let me know of any that I’ve missed.

To read this blog’s review of Krotoa, click here.

Writing for Channel24, Leandra Englebrecht, who awarded the film four stars out of five, declares it “deserving of all its awards”:

“Krotoa is not an easy watch but it is a necessary watch — it explores colonialism, race, sexual violence, and identity. … The strength of this film is largely due to the brilliant Crystal-Donna Roberts as Krotoa. She gives a nuanced performance of a woman who is caught between two cultures and her own ambitions. Great care went into the Khoi representation; the cast who played the roles learned the Khoi language for authenticity. … 
Krotoa is a thought-provoking film that will stay with you long after the credits roll. This film is a must-see for all South Africans.”

Friday, 11 August 2017

What to See This Weekend: The Good Fight

Every Friday, The Back Row compiles a short selection of recommendations for readers’ weekend viewing. The links are for the convenience of those who wish to stream the films on the suggested websites (make sure it’s available in your territory before entering your payment details); readers may well prefer other sites with alternative arrangements for the streaming and downloading of films, and can’t be stopped from using those instead.

“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”



Now playing in theatres across South Africa.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the first Luc Besson film I’ve seen, and it’s nowhere near as disappointing as other commentators would have had me expect. The general consensus in critical reaction is summed up in a sentence from Herman Lategan’s review of the film (which awarded it two stars) for the Beeld: “The storyline is weak, but it’s a visual spectacle.” But South African reviewers have been considerably more generous to the film than international ones; for Channel24, Gabi Zietsman, who awarded it four stars, compares it to Besson’s cult favourite The Fifth Element, writing that “it surpasses the scope of that world into something that can only be described as magical.” She goes on to criticise its plot, dialogue, and lead actors (Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne), but affirms that it “deserves its four-star rating just because of the sheer volume and awe of the universe that Besson presents to us.” Leon van Nierop, in another four-star review, for the Rapport, writes, “One seldom sees such strange creatures, futuristic cities, weird beings, and a totally ordinary hero and heroine. … Luc Besson enjoys himself immensely, and, visually, it’s one of the most overwhelming experiences yet.”

I have had even more memorable, more wondrous, and more singularly original visual experiences in the movies myself, but Besson’s film is indeed a treat. It’s understandably often been compared to James Cameron’s Avatar, which also featured an entirely invented CGI-scape of planets, natural wonders, races other than human, and alien animal and plant species, set centuries in the future and far from earth. But, where Cameron toured across a single planet (based on a factual location in our own solar system) and the specific spiritual contours of a single society inhabiting a part of it, Besson bounds through the universe, from one solar system to another, including intriguing interactions with a parallel dimension and the material threats inherent to a movie-maker’s satire of virtual reality experiences. And, where Cameron set out a rather standard — in fact, clichéd — political fable, Besson spins something far more original and daring, which, though related, bears much greater import for the moment.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Twenty-Two Films to See by the Age of Twenty-Two

Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers,” in which young people watch the films they must watch.

Jean-Luc Godard said that you have ten fingers and there are ten films — ten films that define the cinema for you. For practice, at the halfway post on the way to the next decennial Sight & Sound poll of the greatest films of all time (which takes place in 2022), I really tried, but I’m not yet deft enough a commentator nor submerged enough a cinephile to be able to distil all my moviegoing experiences into ten titles. Here are twenty-two: a number chosen in the grim remembrance of my advancing age, and more than double the desired end result. I began with a list of forty-nine films and edited it down; the last few cuts were a little painful, until I remembered that nobody cares as much about this list as I do, and I can watch each of those redacted titles as many times as I’d like, whether or not I or anyone else recognises them as among the twenty-two best in history. Lists are only snapshots of tastes, and what gets left off can tell as much about our lives and loves as what we put on.

I note, when surveying the full list of movies I admire, miserable shortcomings and immense gaps in my film-watching experience. There were no documentaries from which to pick, for example, and woefully few films released before this decade. The fact that I can’t speak for a single African film that I love means I’ve not begun to see anywhere near an adequate proportion of African films; in fact, I’ve seen far too few films from any country other than the United States, and not enough from the United States, either. Of the top hundred films on the Sight & Sound poll, I’ve only seen seven, and the highest up are at the 20th (Singin’ in the Rain) and 21st (The Godfather) positions.

Friday, 21 July 2017

What to See This Weekend: Pain and Prejudices

Every Friday, The Back Row compiles a short selection of recommendations for readers’ weekend viewing. The links are for the convenience of those who wish to stream the films on the suggested websites (make sure it’s available in your territory before entering your payment details); readers may well prefer other sites with alternative arrangements for the streaming and downloading of films, and can’t be stopped from using those instead.

“Metropolitan” (Whit Stillman, 1990)




Available on iTunes.

This week, we passed the bicentennial of the death of the matchless Jane Austen, responsible for no less than six of the language’s favourite novels of all time and over thirty direct adaptations of those works for film and television, not to mention the host of other movies based on or inspired by stories and characters of her creation. I myself have seen very few of those adaptations (Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, from 2005, is the only one not featured in this blog post), but their number and popularity are enough to set them aside as a genre unto themselves. A far broader and more pliable genre is that of the loose adaptation, into which Whit Stillman’s remarkable indie comedy Metropolitan falls, as inspired by Austen’s Mansfield Park, along with better known films like Bridget Jones’s Diary (Pride and Prejudice) and its sequel (Persuasion), Clueless (Emma), and Material Girls (Sense and Sensibility).

I’ve never read Mansfield Park, but the characters themselves of Metropolitan make a pretty strong case for the novel when they debate its value, and the one championing it is revealed to be an Austen fanatic (which is hardly to put a foot wrong for Carolyn Farina’s level-headed and sensitive debutante Audrey) while the one against it — Edward Clements’s young socialist Tom, whose class-consciousness and self-consciousness are closely linked — has not only neglected to read it, but eschews the reading of novels altogether in favour of literary criticism: “That way, you get both the novelist’s ideas as well as the critic’s thinking.” It’s particularly shrewd of Stillman, who wrote and produced the movie in addition to directing it, to reference Austen in this way, and by it he shows how Austen has become an entrenched part of elitist culture, even (really, especially) when her name and work are thrown about in conversations that discuss the hubris and decline of that same American elite. (A peculiar delight of Stillman’s script is the bandying about of one character’s coined abbreviation for the class under discussion: U.H.B., which the others shorten to an acronym, “uhb,” standing for “urban haute bourgeois,” because none of the other terms like “preppy” or “Wasp” seem quite accurate.)

Friday, 14 July 2017

What to See This Weekend: Breaking Free

“I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” (Dennis Dugan, 2007)




Available on iTunes; on Amazon Video; on Microsoft; on DVD.

There is a tendency among nominal liberal and progressive moviegoers to attend the explicit art-house political saga, and evade the ribald comedies obviously aimed at much broader, less discerning sectors of the population. It’s exactly the constituency that the Weinstein Company often depends on, as well as the one that had, until recently, provided the bulk of outside support to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. The misguided refinement and unconsciousness prejudices of this interest group explain why one sees enthusiastic acclaim go to such disobligingly cautious works as The Imitation Game and Dallas Buyers Club, and little worthy recognition be afforded the sharper, more revealing, more personal, more daring — and, yes, more popular and entertaining — works of Judd Apatow and Eddie Murphy. The predominant disagreeable factor of the bulk of these recent outright liberal movies is that they reflect the views and verities of the liberal media establishment back upon itself with little of the insight or tension that leads to true art; the comforting platitudes and affirmations of these movies are generally yoked to a similarly complacent and unchallenging aesthetic. They expand the echo chamber shared by their well-meaning filmmakers and audiences, and do little to advance the political causes they’ve ostensibly taken up, or to influence the culture into which they’re released.

Into this palliative division of the cinema, the drop of something effervescent like Dennis Dugan’s 2007 bawdy entertainment I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, which this week crossed the 10th anniversary of its theatrical release, is most welcome. No doubt a number of readers groaned at the sight of Adam Sandler in a movie recommendation by this blog, and the rest were disconcerted by the raucous bulk of his frequent comedy partner Kevin James. The film is popular enough to have been seen by most of this blog’s readers already, but those who haven’t, despite what you may have heard or previously experienced by way of Sandler’s Brooklyn-bro vulgarity, are heartily encouraged to indulge its frank sentimentality and ultimate moral message of homophilia, which it couples with a warm and heartfelt tone of sincerity and political activism. It’s not in quite the same aesthetic class as the films of Judd Apatow (though, frankly, few films of this century are) but it brings a forthright approach to satirising and transforming mainstream perceptions of the homosexual community it depicts. In that it delves into the personal lives of its characters and portrays private impulses and desires that don’t conform neatly to a conventional political cause — thus illustrating how politics are necessarily driven by the chaotic, multivalent individual lives they affect — it’s superior to the abovementioned issue-oriented films of overtly liberal politics. What’s more, at the time of its release, it was deliberately aimed at precisely the moviegoing market that generally had little interest in or exposure to LGBTQ causes, and did considerable more work in reaching out to a broader, more intersected group for support and empathy.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Neither Here Nor There

“Nul is Nie Niks Nie”





What can a movie do for a person? What can making that movie do for a person? What can making a movie do for the community involved? What are the problems burdening South African society and what can movies do to solve them? These are the subjects of the new film Nul is Nie Niks Nie (“Nil Isn’t Nothing”) by Morné du Toit, who previously directed the Afrikaans comedy Hoofmeisie. His new film follows two pre-pubescent boys through their excursions in and around Waterval Boven, their home town, as each confronts and deals with the issues that face him. The plot and the director’s competent handling of it allow for a genial sentimentality, and anyone who’s been through that part of Mpumalanga knows that the natural surroundings of the town are magnificent — and will seem that way no matter how a film crew may photograph them. Would that those geological and botanical splendours make their way into more movies and — far more importantly — inspire South African artists to aesthetic equivalent heights of richness and nobility.

Nul is Nie Niks Nie was adapted by Lizé Vosloo from Jaco Jacobs’s children’s book Oor ’n motorfiets, ’n zombiefliek, en lang getalle wat deur elf gedeel kan word (“About a motorbike, a zombie movie, and long numbers that can be divided by eleven”). It involves the thirteen-year old Martin (Jaden Van Der Merwe), whom everyone calls Hoender (“Chicken”), both derisively and affectionately, because of the chickens he keeps. He sells the eggs to people in the town for pocket money, while his older sister, Cindy (Reine Swart), cavorts with her shady, older boyfriend, Bruce (Luan Jacobs), and his mother, Trisa (Antoinette Louw), formerly a lauded film actress, hides herself away from the world in their old farmhouse while mourning his father, who died two years before the film’s action begins. One day, Martin comes to meet the son of the new neighbouring family, Drikus (Pieter Louw), who has Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is kept under strict and constant supervision by his anxious parents (Marisa Drummond and Morné Visser). Drikus has an ardent fascination with and attachment to old zombie movies — he’s projecting an old print of Victor Halperin’s White Zombie, from 1932, when Martin first sees his bedroom, and film posters adorn the walls — and he intends to make his own zombie movie while he still can. He is the film’s obvious symbol of hope and catalyst of zeal, and his brisk, forthright manner clashes jarringly with Martin’s clenched unease. In a moment of unleashed anger and grief, Martin punches Drikus and breaks his camera, and, to make amends, he agrees to appear as the zombie in Drikus’s movie. Chris (Daniah de Villiers), a classmate of Martin’s, stumbles upon their production, and is recruited as the lovely damsel whom Drikus’s character, Brad, saves from zombie terrors.


Friday, 7 July 2017

What to See this Weekend: Sucking Up

“Gosford Park” (Robert Altman, 2001)





Available on iTunes; on Amazon Video; on Microsoft; on DVD.

Those who love Downton Abbey will love Gosford Park just as well. Those — like myself — who detest Downton Abbey and all the trends that bring it great success will love Gosford Park much more. I had the advantage of seeing Robert Altman’s superb country house comedy a few years before the lumbering, sodden Julian Fellowes soap arrived on television, and the film shone too brightly in my mind for the series to obscure anything good. But I think that watchers of the series will find great delight and refreshment in the film as well, even if it doesn’t work powerfully enough to supplant all television from their lives.

I remember the sudden drop in my spirits when watching Downton Abbey, seven whole years ago, in the first ten minutes of the first episode. The earl’s cousin and nephew have tragically perished on the RMS Titanic and the family is consequently thrown into a constitutional crisis, since the next in line for the hereditary position of earl and holder of the estate — i.e., the next closest male relative — is some very distant middle-class cousin, and the eldest daughter of the family no longer has a second cousin to securely marry. The entire situation, from our vantage point of the 21st century, is absurd, and, surely, any contemporary film or television show can only approach this story from the position of recognising its absurdity. But — lo! — not only did Downton Abbey not note and lampoon this idiocy — it positively extolled the old ways, and its six seasons merrily embraced the feudal traditions of living and thinking and oppressing.

I suppose it took an American to go at it the right way. Robert Altman merely begins by acknowledging what contemporary culture often seems eager to forget: that class distinctions exist, that the divisions are often jarringly visible and viscerally unpleasant, and that the system that requires you abide by those distinctions is barbarous. Here, the discrepancies between Gosford Park and Downton Abbey are so vast as to seem astronomical. A reasonable reader may ask why I’d bother mentioning them together in the first place. The reasons are clear and serve a simple purpose: the common ground between the two should prove good enough to lure any ITV-lovers into the cinematic fold. First, both are set before World War II and in an old and sumptuous country house in England, owned by some aristocrat and crawling with well-heeled inhabitants and servants who know their places. Both pay close attention to the minutiae of the social and political order and trappings of high English living. Both were filmed from scripts written by Julian Fellowes. And, most enticing, both star Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess. Gosford Park brought the grand Dame her last Oscar nomination, and, aside from the acerbic remarks given to her by a screenwriter, it gave her a chance to bite at the others on set in her own words as well. Hence, we have one of my favourite and one of the most enduring lines from all of cinema in 2001: “Difficult colour, green.” Not much to look at, but a thunderbolt from her lips when caught by an able-bodied director.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Their Agonies and The Ecstasy

“Song to Song”




It’s unlikely that I’ll see a better film in theatres this year than Terrence Malick’s newest feature, Song to Song. It’s equally unlikely that a South African reader who looks up a review of the film will find anything like a positive reaction to it. Fans of Malick’s features have become used to this – the last two films he’s made in this most fertile and most far-reaching period of his career that were shown here both achieved Rotten Tomatoes scores of 46% – and a lack of critical support for their enthusiasms has done nothing to abate them. It is my own view that Terrence Malick is the most radical filmmaker working today, and one whose work reaches the highest strata of beauty in contemporary art.

The main contentions brought up in reviews in this country are that Malick’s film – in stark contrast to his earlier hits such as The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line, and Badlands – contains little more than art-conscious pretension and self-indulgence, and, to the extent to which there is more to it, Malick’s ostentatiously rarefied filmmaking methods are too confusing to allow us to grasp it. Leon van Nierop, in his Silwerskerm column for the Rapport, wrote, “It borders on pretension and takes almost two hours to say very little. If you confuse this movie film with an art movie, you’ll have been deceived.” On his weekly slot on the radio station RSG, he said, “I don’t know what it was about, and I’m also not interested in figuring it out. … For almost two hours, you look only at people who flutter, are in love with pretty places, and walk around endlessly and chill.” In his Channel24 review, Ilan Preskovsky wrote that Malick is “inarguably pretentious” and has “nothing whatsoever of value to say”. On her blog, Gabi Zietsman described it as “a convoluted pretentious piece of work that will kill you with handheld camera work and zero story. … Maybe Malick was focusing too hard on everyone’s butts rather than creating believable people, and no number of ‘but it’s art!’ exclamations is going to make this film any more watchable.”

I can’t think of a less fair assessment of Malick’s work – here or elsewhere – than pretentious; what is it they find him to be pretending and not delivering on? No moviegoer is promised a film that will meet their expectations of how a movie should be made and presented, and I find that no moviegoer in this country will witness a more sincere, devoted, intensely heartfelt, and wondrously inventive form of filmmaking in the present day than in Malick’s films. He doesn’t pretend to have loftier, nobler notions of life nor of art than he has; he doesn’t pretend his work is of more value than anyone else’s; he doesn’t pretend to be making films that follow an esoteric and inaccessibly intellectual model of elitist contemporary (or classical, for that matter) art. It’s equally unfair – and so badly mistaken as to seem willful – to accuse Malick of adding nothing of substance to a distinctive photographic style, or of making a film out of little more than picturesque images that amounts to little more than that. To say that it has “zero story” or that nothing happens is to say that very little story was observed, which means that either the reviewers weren’t paying due attention to a film it was their professional duty to watch and consider and contemplate for the purpose of a critical report on it, or that they were unprepared for the singular conceptions of and approaches to storytelling that Malick bears out in his remarkably inventive films. The group of ordinary viewers that I attended a screening of the film with – none of whom is trained in film analysis, media studies, narrative decryption, or artistic demystification – grasped the contours of the film’s story easily enough, and additionally observed the vast wealth of life and wisdom that Malick adorns and fills in those contours with.

Friday, 30 June 2017

What to See This Weekend: Battle Scars

“Transformers” (Michael Bay, 2007)




Available on M-Net Movies Action+ (DStv channel 106) on Sunday, 2 July, Thursday, 6 July, and Monday, 10 July; on ShowMax; on Google Play; on Microsoft; on Amazon Video; on iTunes; on DVD and as part of a DVD boxset.

As the fifth entry in Michael Bay’s Transformers film series holds consumers in thrall, readers of this blog are invited to revisit its earliest predecessor, simply Transformers, which recently enjoyed the 10th anniversary of its theatrical release. Many other bloggers I read delight in taking cheap swipes at the blockbuster frenzy of Bay’s vulgar excesses, but I, like many other expectant moviegoers I know, never received the memorandum to deride the traditional forms of studio formula-tested tentpoles, nor the technological innovations of computer generated imagery, nor the primal thrill of blowing shit up. If you’ve seen a Transformers film, you’ll already know whether or not you can take what it’s giving, and, if not, this blog encourages you to try it out.

Bay links an intergalactic struggle, and our complacent obliviousness to it, to a far realer conflict that rages in the Middle East while a high school teenager tries to secure the affections of a girl. He glosses his traditionalist values (of family, civil liberties, and the troops) with a dazzling attention to detail, obsession with quality, and quick-witted tone of smooth dynamism. The cast he has gathered fills out his extravaganza with shining cinematic qualities and charisma (Shia LeBeouf, Tyrese Gibson, Josh Duhamel, Megan Fox, John Turturro, Jon Voight, and Bernie Mac all carry remarkable presence) and blend their moments with the special effects with an effortless fluidity that brings the fantasy to life. Leon van Nierop, in his somewhat positive review of the new film, describes the images as “assaulting every one of your senses”; I contend that they charm and engage your senses with an alluring swagger, as does the personality of their creator, which is illuminated clearly in every moment of the film’s 143 minutes.