The bullet that killed Nelson

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Death of Nelson by West

I saw an exhibition last Saturday called ‘Nelson and Norfolk’ at Norwich Castle Museum. Everyone in Norfolk knows that Admiral Lord Nelson was born in Norfolk and went to school in Norwich, but this fact may have escaped others not born in or not living in Norfolk. Never mind the Norfolk connection, it is a fascinating exhibition, really about the creation of the Nelson legend.

So, in Nelson’s case, given the choice between fact and legend, do you only print the legend? Not quite: in his case the facts firmly underpinned the legend. It made me think of a Death of Nelson film, on the lines of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, that is to say from the different viewpoints of those involved.

It opens in the midst of the Battle of Trafalgar, all smoke, fire, destruction, dead and dying, above all action from the still living (a bit like the film Dunkirk). The camera in a long crane shot comes to focus on a French soldier preparing his musket and crossing himself. He inserts the little round bullet, he kisses it, he shins aloft the mizzen mast carrying the musket (not easy, surely?), and proceeds to scan the decks of the Victory seeking suitable targets. Then he spies the Admiral himself – or is it the Admiral? Yes, it must be, he’s only got one arm. So he manoeuvres himself to a good position, except Nelson keeps moving about a little, and his officers and midshipmen keep getting in the way, so will he, won’t he get his shot in before he loses his chance. And then the way clears, the Admiral stands in view, the music comes to a crescendo. The Frenchman shoots; Nelson sinks into legend.

After the Long Shot, a Middle Distance view. Rewind. Do the same scene viewed by a British midshipman running messages, clearing a passage and so on. We watch the midshipman watching Nelson and then gasping when he sees him shot. (It’s a ‘Where were you when JFK was assassinated?’ moment.)

Rewind again. This time it’s a close-up view, from Nelson’s close friend, Captain Thomas Hardy. Hardy’s shock: he quickly looks where the bullet came from and sees, from a long way off, a Frenchman exultant in the rigging.

After Nelson is struck, we get the doctor’s view, choosing not to remove the bullet because the case is hopeless. Nelson only has hours to live.

The dying Nelson asks for a progress report on the sea battle. Flashback to him briefing his admirals before the battle. Digital/animated reconstruction of scenes from the battle in the manner of contemporary marine painting. Narrative up to point where Victory tangles with Redoubtable. Scene of French officer ordering sniper aloft with orders to pick out Nelson.

Scene of report given to dying Nelson of victory.

A series of tableaux of the Death of Nelson: was it like a photograph, unglamorous fact? Was it like a catholic apotheosis on the lines of a Deposition from the Cross? Was it on the orlop deck (a public spectacle)? Or in the stern cabin (a private spectacle)? The fact that it is public is important for the legend.

Armitage, Edward, 1817-1896; The Death of Nelson

Death of Nelson by Devis

Death of Nelson by Legrand

End with news of the victory and of the death of Nelson being brought to the Admiralty in London. After the sound and fury, silence.

Final sequence: the bullet that killed Nelson is extracted by the doctor from the corpse of Nelson – gruesome, Baconian close-up. What to do with the bullet? Hardy takes the bullet and resolves to mount it in a locket and give it to the King. The final image is of this sacred relic on display in an exhibition in the Queen’s Collection.

Nelson's bullet

‘Nelson and Norfolk’ is on at the Castle Museum in Norwich until Sunday, 1 October 2017.

http://www.timcawkwell.co.uk

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DUNKIRK REVISITED

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Seeing Dunkirk  a second time made me spot something which had passed me by in the IMAX image-blitz of the first viewing (see previous post). Nolan deals with three time-frames in the film: a week for the infantryman, a day for Mr Dawson and his boat, an hour for the flight of three Spitfires, and they all come together at a key point around three-quarters of the way through the film. To cope with this, Nolan puts the narrative on pause: we see a Heinkel attack a minesweeper from the air, then we cut away to something else, we then resume the narrative (actually Nolan has wound it back slightly, I think) from a viewpoint in Dawson’s boat. Secondly, the film’s cross-cutting is far from simple since the three stories on land, on sea and in the air are being shown ‘simultaneously’ but did not happen all at the same time.  I hadn’t glued these things together when I first saw the film, but now I have at least a little.

I like time puzzles in films so I like this one, but there is another pleasure because it connects the film to some of Nolan’s others which opt for a labyrinthine manipulation of time and memory: Memento, The Prestige, Inception.

Still pursuing the auteur theory after all these years, I watched The Prestige again to see if I could see how one film-maker made both it and Dunkirk. They share top production values of course, as they do with a lot of Hollywood films. Prestige is much more labyrinthine, and consequently for all the fascination it engenders rather heartless, not an adjective that applies to Dunkirk. However, they do come to some degree from the same mind, although this is significantly complicated by the fact that Christopher’s brother, Jonathan, helped with the screenplay for Memento and Prestige. If Dunkirk is less labyrinthine, is that because Jonathan was not involved in the screenplay? I doubt it because Inception, Christopher Nolan’s most intricate film about time and space, did not involve his brother.

As it happens Prestige has a strand quite of its own. Is it a metaphor – I am sure other commentators have picked up on this – for the invention of the cinema? The film carefully makes sure that the spectator understands the trick behind each illusion of magic, while still preserving the magic. The birth of the cinema, which like the setting of Prestige belongs to the end of the 19th century, is both a mechanical process (projecting each image for a fraction of a second) and a scientific one (the phenomenon of persistence of vision on the retina means we see differently from a camera mechanism). We want the illusion created by moving images but once you know how this comes about you ‘see’ film is a rapid sequence of images.

One of the earliest filmmakers, the Frenchman George Méliès, was a magician before he was a film-maker. Prestige enjoys showing us conjuring tricks as if filmed in real time when film-editing makes them the easiest thing in the world to re-create. But the film narrative, in its pursuit of the Tesla transporter, wants to tell us, just as Méliès did, that there is a magic (or so it seems) beyond the magic: the trick is that there is no trick.

I had to re-see Prestige to get some sort of grasp on the film, and no doubt need to re-see it again to get a better one. Will Dunkirk need these repeated viewings? Maybe, but one would do it more for the pleasure and excitement of images than to fathom what is going on.

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BREXIT FROM DUNKIRK

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So far Dunkirk has grossed $129 million (figure on 27 July) against costs of $100 million. It has done well in the UK which is what you would expect, but it has also taken around $75 million in the USA which strikes me as not expected. In South Korea it has taken almost $13.5 million (27 July). This figure is not just unexpected, since it is more than the UK, it is barely credible. (The Harry Styles effect, I am unreliably informed.)

I think the story of the Dunkirk evacuation in the Second World War in 1940 is essentially a British one, and so unlikely to travel. But Nolan’s Dunkirk film is essentially an action film, and thus has the potential to travel anywhere. It was shrewd of him to spot its potential as an action narrative.

I liked especially the way Nolan intercuts his three stories set on land, sea and air, and then as the film progresses he speeds up that intercutting in his aim of creating a visual symphony. To underpin this I found the dialogue largely inaudible (maybe because I’m 69), but it hardly bothered me. And when I could hear the words spoken by the diction-trained Shakespearean Kenneth Branagh, I felt an abrupt change of mood in the film, and a drop in the temperature. On the other hand, the reading out of Churchill’s famous post-Dunkirk speech from a newspaper report is a masterstroke, as the words are read in an anti-Churchillian manner (Bressonian almost, if you know what that means) and suit the ‘desperate-heroic’ tone of the film.

Film is ideally suited to battle action. [See chapter 4 of my book Film Past, Film Future on battle films – available on Amazon.] Seeing Dunkirk made me watch the magnificent BBC/Lionsgate film, First Light, about the Battle of Britain pilot Geoffrey Wellum, since, like in Dunkirk, the aerial sequences are so terrific. Also, it made me want to re-see the BBC’s 2004 docu-drama recreating the strategic background to the evacuation and the tactical difficulties in achieving it.

Dunkirk (2017)

Brexit hell

Now, costume dramas, of which this is one, speak to the time in which they are made as much as to the historical events being portrayed. Five minutes into watching the film, I thought, “Why has Nolan made this film? Why are Time-Warner funding it?” The answer came loud and clear: it is to tune into the Brexit mood in the UK. This was a foolish strain of thought. It doesn’t account for the film’s success in the USA, never mind South Korea (although it may account for only modest box-office success in Europe). Nor does it allow for the fact that Nolan has been nursing this project for two or three decades.

The UK general election in June upset me greatly (and I have written about it in Belaboured. Bats Broken. Britain Shaken  – see http://amzn.to/2eN3irH.) Churchill’s wise pronouncement that wars are not won by evacuations made me think that Britain does not regain its poise and place in the world by its current exit strategy. But maybe it can do so after the EU exit just as the British army went on to success after Dunkirk. And then I realise that history does not repeat itself, necessarily.

http://www.timcawkwell.co.uk

Buildings and oppression

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Nowhere to go is an obscure British thriller made by Ealing Studios in 1958 and directed by Seth Holt, his first film. It is well worth catching, and has shadowy parallels with the gangster cycle Jean-Pierre Melville was shortly to embark on in France (starting from Le Doulos, 1962) such as prison backgrounds, loyalty and disloyalty, and an absence of moral judgement. It displays too a familiarity with American low-budget crime thrillers.

The film opens with a taut, largely silent prison break (as does Melville’s Le Deuxième Souffle) and includes this terrific shot of the prisoner running between tall buildings to reach the wall where an escape rope awaits him.

Nowhere to go

It was Antonioni who so strikingly explored the relation of the human figure to the urban landscape and large buildings that offer a threat as much as a setting,

Notte 5

but Holt does it in Nowhere to go too in order to set a tone for the film, picking up on, for example, He Walked by Night (1948) with its terrific climax set in a sewer system,

He walked by night 3

and on The Third Man (1949) with a similar setting.

The Third Man 1

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SEEING INTO DEEP SPACE: BRAKHAGE AND SAM FRANCIS

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Sam Francis, Untitled 1987 - detail       Sam Francis: Untitled (1987) – detail

Sam Francis, Tokyo 1974 - detail       Sam Francis: Tokyo (1974) – detail

Panels fm the walls of hvn

Stan Brakhage: Panels for the walls of heaven (2002)

Seeing paintings by the abstract expressionist Sam Francis (1923-1994) at a London gallery in May put me in mind of the late abstract films of his contemporary Stan Brakhage (1933-2003). There are intriguing links between the two artists. Francis is emphatically a Jackson Pollock disciple, fascinated with the techniques of flicking paint across the canvas or sheet of paper; less Pollockian in technique but Pollockian in spirit is his tactic of letting small pools of colour bleed into one another. Brakhage, to my mind, is another Pollock disciple in that Pollock’s crowded, all-consuming canvases of the 1950s, more than anything else at the time, encouraged Brakhage to use film as a mark-making process, frame by frame, that overwhelmed the spectator’s retina. In time he embraced abstraction pure and simple.

Second, you feel that Francis wants to express some macrocosmic view of the world, especially in those paintings with an ‘empty centre’ that offer a window onto infinity. He wants to emulate in paint the expressiveness of magnificent colour photographs of far-off galaxies.

Galaxy image 1

Galaxy image 2

Brakhage had similar preoccupations in his cosmic view of the world whether in the microcosm of Mothlight or the solar flares of the macrocosm in Dog Star Man, both from the 1960s. By the time of his pure abstract films of the 1990s, he pursues a fascination with light through stained glass (Chartres Series), and with the way the dull opacity of the film strip is made luminous by light passing through it. Francis too revelled in the pleasures of colour being made luminous when applied to a white background.

Both liked the colour blue:

Sam Francis, Chari Leiva

Sam Francis: Chari Leiva

Three Homerics 3

Stan Brakhage: Three Homerics (1993)

However – I should not get carried away. The way a Francis painting is perceived is in a different category  from the way a Brakhage film is perceived. You see a painting as a whole in a frozen moment even if you then choose to examine different areas of the picture. A film on the other hand is seen in time, as a sequence of parts, or if the film is made frame by frame, rather as a sequence of ‘atoms’ , and it is only when it is finished that you have a sense of the whole. The effects are very different: Francis has to be fixedly contemplated; with Brakhage you have to climb aboard the eyeball express.

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DESCENDING TO HADÈS part 2: THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL AS FILM AND AS OPERA

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We are familiar with disaster movies, and have been for some time – not just Titanic in 1997 but also the 1953 version. Then there’s the British take on the same disaster, A Night to Remember (1958), the latter title displaying British understatement. American overstatement, titanic you could call it, favoured concepts such as a group stranded on the top floor of a skyscraper in The Towering Inferno (1974). The genre is embedded enough to earn its own spoof title, Airplane! (1980), which exploited its comic possibilities and was wildly successful.

Where did the idea for Buñuel’s disaster movie come from? It had been suggested to him as a young man in the 1920s that Géricault’s narrative painting of 1819 ‘The Raft of the Medusa’ would make a terrific film. It was only in the 1950s that he and his regular scriptwriter at the time, Luis Alcoriza, picked up the idea and wrote a short story, ‘The Castaways of Providence Street’, from which Buñuel later worked up a screenplay. Six years earlier in Mexico he had made La Mort en ce Jardin / Evil Eden about a group of disparate and desperate people stranded in the jungle in a situation like the castaways in Géricault’s painting. The short story gave him an opportunity to tackle the subject again and to inject a darkly comic element. That comedy was partly contributed by the Catholic religion, the mocking of which motivated Buñuel throughout his career. He used the idea here to invert Christian ideas in a sort of ‘transvaluation’. The disaster takes place on the Calle de la Providencia,

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and the victims find themselves damned by Providence rather than saved. Secondly they are imprisoned in a room by a ‘miracle’ (they discover they lack the will to leave even though there are no physical obstacles to their doing so), an event Hume defined as something “beyond custom and experience”: they then find themselves taken by this miracle not to heaven but to hell, which by Act 3 is Hell Cubed.

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Buñuel’s film is satirical, subversive, made for revolutionaries. Although there are plenty of surrealist touches – a disembodied hand, the feet of a dead bird, the amour fou  between Eduardo and Beatriz –

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it owes just as much to the theatre of the absurd, the godfather of which is surely Kafka’s ‘The Trial’, less terrifyingly comic than comically terrifying. Another key feature of the film is the fluidity of its treatment of time, not to mention the ‘joke’ about physical space, an echo of the fantastical disruption of space and time that marked Buñuel’s first film, made with Salvador Dali, Un Chien Andalou.

Finally, it has no film score, hard to imagine as that is when we are burdened so much by music-saturated television. So, that makes it right for reinventing as an opera? Thomas Adès thought so, although there were other reasons such as the story’s dramatic premise and its claustrophobic atmosphere. In the production in the Royal Opera house, the surrealist touches become a bit contrived – film is so much better at these things –

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but the hysteria inherent in the situation is wonderfully heightened. The film’s visual patina of light and black, created by Gabriel Figueroa’s camera, beautifully crafted as it is,

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the ultimate barbarism: Nobile’s cello is destroyed for fuel

cannot match the musical flourishes of Adès’ score. The film can be criticised too for the difficulty of distinguishing the individual characters who in a way all look the same, the men in their dinner jackets, the women in their evening gowns. Adès and his librettist, Tom Cairns, do something clever here by using what they call the ‘encantada’ (as in ‘enchanted to meet you’) sequence to introduce the twelve characters (down from seventeen) to the audience.

What really distinguishes the opera from the film, however, is its tragic quality. These people are not so much condemned to hell by their bourgeois, ruling-class origins as by the condition of being human. And the opera is to be appreciated not so much by would-be revolutionaries as by people who are a mirror to those on stage: after all the characters are gathered for dinner after a night at the opera listening to ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’. The effect was so powerful that as we left the building it crossed my mind that we would lack the will to exit it, even with all the doors unlocked. Are we meant to like the people in the story? I think the people in the film not, but the people in the opera yes, or at least perhaps – they are our tragic selves.

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This is Adès’ third opera. His first one, ‘Powder Her Face’ (1995), was also tawdry, and makes full use of the modest musical resources of a 15-piece ensemble. Here such forces are of the fullest and lessons from his symphonic work, such as ‘Asyla’, ‘Polaris’ and ‘Tevot’, make the score sometimes searing, sometimes blasting. Acts 1 and 2 were performed without an interval, and separated by a musical interlude marked by pounding drums, an idea taken from the Good Friday tradition of communal drumming (for 24 hours!) in Calanda, the remote town in Spain where Buñuel was bought up. (That it made a powerful impact on him is witnessed by Buñuel giving it a chapter in his autobiography, ‘My Last Breath’, and in the fact that his son Juan-Luis made a documentary about it in 1960, which can be watched on YouTube – see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jbu6qqdxj8&t=2s)

Act 1 of the opera puts us in the vice, and Act 2 turn the screws on us. Act 3, I felt, was less successful. This may be due to the curse of the interval but the question Act 3 poses without quite answering is how it will all end. In disaster movies, the people are saved (with the good ending happily and the bad unhappily), but would this happen here? The film has an elegant solution which seems to arrive seamlessly and ends with a twist, the most comic moment in the whole story.

In the opera I got confused. In the film the offer of suicide by the host, Edmundo Nobile (noble by name and by nature), is treated in an off-hand away and superseded by Leticia’s eloquent and clever solution.

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Nobile gets the gun with which to shoot himself

In the opera it is a big moment that teeters on the idea of Christian atonement: one man’s death can save others. But then this premise is choked off by Leticia’s big aria, an unmotivated Ladino song, sung in her shrill manner (Ades’ intention, not the singer’s poor technique), that fits very oddly into the whole.

Of course, I have only heard the opera once, and the ending might make much more sense after it has been heard half a dozen times. What will they say in 30 years’ time, and 100 years’ time, and 500 years’ time? I have no idea but I do foresee a long life for this piece, as well as for the film.

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DESCENDING TO HADES part 1: BUÑUEL’S ‘EXTERMINATING ANGEL’ AT THE ROYAL OPERA HOUSE, LONDON

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It is the late 1960s: Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel is on at the cinema, and I am drawn to it like a moth to a flame. Half a century on, I am drawn from Norwich, like a lone iron filing to a far-off magnet, to the Royal Opera House in London on the 3rd  May to see the new opera ‘The Exterminating Angel’ by Thomas Adès (or Hades in certain imaginations), with a libretto by Tom Cairns drawn from the script Luis Buñuel wrote for the film.

I am preparing some treasure-able words on a comparison between the opera and the film for my next blog piece. Suffice it to write now a Trip-Advisorish comment on going to the ROH in Covent Garden.

Oh, splendiferous temple to grand opera and high art. You cannot enter the building without a palpable sense of entering a sanctum of civilisation at its most civilised. Its elegant luxury, and the emanations of power, financial and cultural, that it exudes make me gasp in admiration.

But then, what is this? We paid £72 for our two seats, admittedly not at all a bad price by London standards for a theatre seat, but we were seated on the Left Balcony, which means that by the design of the building – extraordinary when it was first built and even more extraordinary now – you only see two thirds of the stage. We’ve encountered this problem before but never until now have we been so short-changed. The stage design is brilliant in every way, except that a lot happens at the side of the stage and is therefore out of sight to spectators in the left-side balcony. To rub it in, the ROH has ditzy little wall lights all way round which no doubt were le dernier cri when it was built but when you lean over the balcony to see better (thus blocking the view of the person behind you) these pesky objects get in the way. Banish them, I say. Replace them with flat lights from John Lewis.

The photo was taken before the performance began when the sheep that feature in the opera (yes, sheep) were paraded on stage. You can see what I mean about the lights.

ROH 2 - May 2017.jpg

The real story however is the opera, which is a drama about a group of wealthy socialites at a dinner party held after an evening at the opera (‘Lucia di Lammermoor’) that all goes wrong, the dinner party from Hades you might say. When it finished and we were seeking to leave, I had a curious feeling: will we in fact be able to? But that is for the next post . . . coming soon, I hope.

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ASSASSINATION STORIES

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Consider two narratives. One is from the Modern World: a car travels up a drive to a house and two men get out. They ascend the steps to a balcony to talk to the man of power, bloated with age and the fruits of living, who is taking his siesta. His gunmen see there is no threat and retire. The first man is very respectful and asks to introduce his friend – as a mark of respect. The second man steps forward and asks for the man of power’s blessing, and receives it: the man offers his hand to be kissed, and the second man kisses it. The man of power asks for his name, the second man gives it. But the man of power ‘don’t hear so good’, so the second man leans forward and tells him again, and then adds, ‘And this is for you.’ With that he takes the knife hidden under the coat draped over his left arm and rips open the man of power’s belly. The second man steps back and with the first makes his escape, not without gunfire.

The other narrative is from the Ancient World, indeed the very ancient world. A man goes to a king’s house, to the upper chamber, in order to deliver the tribute of the people under his charge. Those with him then retire, and the man says, ‘A secret word I have for you, King.’ So the king in turn sends away his courtiers. The man says, ‘A word of God I have for you,’ so the king stands up. And the man, with his left hand, takes the double-edged sword strapped secretly to his right thigh, and plunges it into the king’s belly. The king was a very fat man, we are told, and the fat of his belly closed over the blade. The assassin went out, locked the doors, and made his escape.

Speculum Humanae Salvationis, 1360

The first, as you have spotted, is from Godfather 2, a flashback to the episode in which Vito takes revenge on Don Ciccio for having murdered his father, his elder brother, and finally his mother. Aged nine at the time Vito only just escapes with his life – to New York and Godfatherhood.

The second is less familiar. For Lent I read the Book of Judges in the translation by Robert Alter. Not your normal reading, but there it is: the Bible and Lent go together. Choice episodes include the Israelites chopping off the arms and big toes of Adoni-Bezek (‘master of Bezek’): Jael driving a tent-peg through Sisera’s head; Gideon harrowing (literally) the men of Succoth with thorns and thistles; Abimelech burning a tower filled with 1000 men and women; Abimelech killed by a millstone flung from a tower that shatters his skull; a Levite man and a concubine ‘abused all night long until morning by Benjaminites’; not to mention the story of Samson which includes slaying the Philistines, being seduced and blinded, then acting the force of an earthquake in the Philistine temple. The Book of Judges does not just contain death but cruel, violent and degrading death. It is the shockingest kind of pulp fiction.

The story of Ehud’s assassination of Eglon the King of Moab is as vivid and episode as any in Judges, I think because it occurs in a cool upper chamber under a veneer of formality and respect surrounding the delivery of tribute by a subject commander, a scene exploded by an eruption of violence and repulsive detail. When I read it, I instantly thought of the scene in Godfather 2 and instantly concluded that Coppola, and his screenwriter Mario Puzo, were referencing the passage in Judges. Ehud, the assassin, was a left-handed man and it was his left hand that committed the murder; when Vito approaches Ciccio he uses his right hand to kiss the offered hand, the weapon veiled under the coat draped on his left arm. But no, Vito uses the knife in his right hand to kill Ciccio, and the parallelism between the two narratives is just coincidental.

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Gf 2.3Gf 2.4Gf 2.6

Yet, if one has not influenced the other, they do echo each other in their world-view, of a violence in the world that is tragic without even being cathartic. They both proclaim, “This is what the world is like,” behind our façade of civilisation and of human relations conducted with respect. The idea is so far from edifying to the extent that both stories should be shut out from our lives. Yet this is impossible to do: both of them bewitch us; we watch or read fascinated; and they have that extraordinary quality that when we have read or watched them once, we want to do so again and again, to renew our acquaintance with the ghastly detail.

The biblical narrative is paratactic, in other words an ‘and . . . and . . . and . . .’ narrative distilling it into a series of essential details. ‘Cut. . . cut . . . cut. . .’ Coppola’s film narrative has similar qualities: the sequence starting from the car arriving at Ciccio’s villa to its leaving in haste, the deed done, lasts four minutes and comprises some 45 shots, and the sequence on the balcony is a series of shots and reverse shots starting in medium shot and ending in closer shot (but not in close-up). As you watch for the first time, you are lulled with the heat of a Sicilian late summer afternoon, then you palpitate with unease – the rest of the film has taught you that something unpleasant is going to happen – and then you gasp at the sight of the knife being ripped up Ciccio’s front.

I first read Judges as a boy in the King James Version, its violence clear but the detail toned down by the obscurity of the language at certain points. Try Robert Alter’s translation, with his essential commentary, to feel the full starkness of the event.

Finally, I cannot help reflecting in a melancholy fashion that these are both religious narratives. The cultural Catholicism of the Godfather is essential to its atmosphere: the episode of Ciccio’s murder is followed by the sight of Vito and his family leaving church after Mass. And Judges? It is possibly the most violent, God-forsaken book of the Bible – but it is not really God-forsaken since the events happen within the total story of Israel, God’s chosen people. The Bible, like life, ‘contains multitudes’.

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Goodfellas versus The Godfather

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Goodfellas poster      versus     Godfather poster

I seem to be in a gangster-film fascination at the moment, a consequence of a Scorsese fascination in the UK at present. At the beginning of March, I saw the newly restored Goodfellas in the cinema in Norwich.

This is hyperbolic cinema: a lot of shouting and over-the-top psychopathic behaviour, with performance foregrounded before all else. There were a number of sustained tracking shots (I like these), but also music getting louder all the time (and somehow particularly annoying).

And what crudity, of dialogue and of characterisation, the first perhaps shaping the second. Compare the way Ford humanises his minor characters, or the way Hitchcock ‘highlights’ his marginal characters to make them more interesting.

Look at Tommy (Jo Pesci): his monstrousness needs some inner motivation like Shakespeare gives Richard III to make him compelling. Tommy by contrast is all repellent surface, with not one iota of charisma. And Henry should surely be more like Charlie in Mean Streets, so that some inner disturbance is seen to be working in him. This would help signpost the climax to the audience. Instead the betrayal Henry undertakes just happens, rather than the audience foreseeing it – and fearing it.

It all feels twenty minutes too long. I have been looking at the crime thrillers Anthony Mann made in the late 1940s – Railroaded, T-Men, Raw Deal and so on, which are no doubt admired by Scorsese – and they are tight as a fist, sometimes under eighty minutes, and since they have a kino-fist quality they leave you pummelled.

Compare Goodfellas too to The Godfather: a satyr to a Hyperion, surely. The popular music in Goodfellas is especially crude. It is used to mark the passage of time, ‘the soundtrack of our lives’, but it is Scorsese’s life not that of his characters or even of their milieu. The Godfather on the other hand has a memorable musical theme, the Sicilian essence of which speaks volumes on behalf of a whole culture. And The Godfather has a vivid cast of characters who generate their own drama: the Corleone family versus Salozzo, the non-italian consigliere Tom Hagen,  a grotesquerie like Luca Brasi, and so on. The narrative arc of Goodfellas has Henry starting as a gangster but turning into an informer – a very good story – but The Godfather has an arc transforming Michael Corleone from war hero into godfather living in grim isolation – not just a good story but a tragic one. It is sombrely melodramatic, like nothing so much as Jacobean revenge drama, a dimension which for all its pyrotechnics is missing from Goodfellas.

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A ‘Stabat Mater’ for our times

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James MacMillan’s new choral piece, his Stabat Mater, was premiered in Norwich last October and while I don’t think Norwich’s was the very first performance it was almost the first. It was performed by The Sixteen and the Britten Sinfonia, both ensembles being ones that have forged a close relationship with MacMillan in the past decade or more. The performance was outstanding . . .

. . . but then so was the original music. I am writing about it here because not many masterpieces of music have their premiere in Norwich, yet this was one of them.

It is in 4 parts:   1   Stabat mater dolorosa;   2   Quis non posset contristari;   3  Sancta Maria, istud agas;   4  Fac, ut portem Christi mortem.

Each individual section has its own quality and the whole quartet contains its own dramatic progression from a plangent start to a quiet amen. The violins keen, the cellos growl and rumble, and the players slap their instruments with the bow. The violin melody is plaintive; but there are also stabbing chords like Bernard Herrmann’s music for Psycho. I thought too of the opening of Act 3 of Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’, with its powerful premonition of darkness, and of the pain articulated in Shostakovich’s string quartets. Praise too must go to the rhythms of the Latin, words that are plain, direct, and dignified.

S Maria della Vita: Lamentation by Niccolo dell'Arca – Version 2      Version 2

Version 2

A month before the performance I had been in Bologna in Italy, and saw for the first time Niccolò Dell’ Arca’s ‘Lamentations’, a group of six sculpted figures gathered round the dead Christ (to be found in the sanctuary of the church of Santa Maria della Vita). This is in effect a visual version of the Stabat Mater, created in 1463. It is startlingly different from the normal perception of Mary’s pain in paintings of the crucifixion or the deposition, which paint tends to distance from the observer. Instead you are made starkly present. The route runs directly into our feelings via the emotions, not through our thought processes.

As ever at performances of such religious choral music I am struck with puzzlement at what this subject, whether in sculpture or in music, must mean for a secular audience, or even a Protestant, non-Marian (anti-Marian even?) one. And yet it communicates something visceral.

We live, I think, in a culture that responds more to feeling than fact, to emotion more than thought. That is why the Dell’ Arca sculpture has been rediscovered, as it were, and why a work like MacMillan’s Stabat Mater can burst through our secular carapace to an inmost response.

James MacMillan was present at the concert in Norwich and with Harry Christophers, conductor of The Sixteen, talked to the audience about the work in advance of the performance. Memorable.

The CD of the piece has just come out on the Coro label. See https://thesixteenshop.com/

http://www.timcawkwell.co.uk