Antonioni’s Metaphysical Cinema

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In Antonioni’s La Notte, Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) is in his study, aimless as usual, much as he drifts throughout the film. When he bends over his desk, a painting is visible on the wall behind him, not just any old painting but one by Morandi.

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Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) is famous for his obsessive painting of grouped bottle and vases, an idea which preoccupied him all his life. He lived in Bologna, down the road (well, 50 kilometres) from Ferrara, where Antonioni was born and brought up. When Antonioni left home it was to go to study Economy and Commerce at Bologna University. There he began to develop his interest in art and theatre which led him to the cinema and Rome.

Did he encounter Morandi’s pictures during his time in Bologna? And in doing so, did he connect them with the paintings of Giorgio De Chirico, whose brief sojourn in Ferrara from 1915 to 1918 led to a number of his key paintings? If there is a metaphysical school of painting, De Chirico and Morandi are its most notable figures. But what connects them? De Chirico’s troubled reality is populated by architecturally strong but unadorned buildings: arcades and porticoes, such as Bologna is thronged with, especially attracted him, and in some of the Ferrara paintings the brute majesty of the Castello Estense. These townscapes are depicted with strong if colliding perspectives, and by their unexpected juxtapositions, they produce a surrealism before Surrealism. In the streets and piazzas figures are silently frozen in time. Morandi’s bottles and vases are in the ‘still life’ genre but stillness is an absent quality. He paints them so that they jostle with each other as if they were not always comfortable in each other’s presence. I have always thought of them as people, or at any rate objects with distinct characters of their own.

What connects the two painters? De Chirico turns the urban scene into a still life; Morandi takes stillness and sets it quivering. So, in that respect they contradict each other. On the other hand the atmosphere of the paintings in both feels melancholic, and often unsettled, even troubled. The ordinary aspect of things and of places is replaced with something spectral in De Chirico’s case, and in Morandi’s with something disconcerting. Both take everyday reality and make of it something strange, and it is in this I believe that they earn the title of ‘metaphysical realists’.

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Film criticism has for some time now made the connection between Antonioni’s visual style and Metaphysical Painting, and I am especially grateful to Donato Totaro for alerting me to the echoes of De Chirico in Antonioni’s films.

While Antonioni’s film-making mindset was forged by the neo-realist films being made around him, and the intellectual atmosphere in which they were created, from the beginning his feature films looked for a different appearance of the world than the purely realist one. When filming interiors, he was very attentive to objects as adding a specific tone to a scene, and when he was filming places, or rather spaces, he wanted – and found – a new photographic language to depict people within them. There are echoes here of the exploration of perspective by Italian Renaissance painters whereby people were placed into a grid of lines. Antonioni sees the world if not geometrically then as planes and shapes to which his figures must conform themselves, rather than the other way around.

Can we speak of Antonioni as an exponent of metaphysical cinema because he was drawn to the metaphysical painting of De Chirico and Morandi? This feels insufficient. Nor is he ‘metaphysical’ in the sense of Bresson, Tarkovsky or Kieślowski, to take three important names who all look beyond realism for a spiritual realm. (See my essay ‘Kieślowski before Kieślowski’ at: http://www.timcawkwell.co.uk/kieslowski-before-kieslowski.) However, Antonioni’s metaphysical cinema is close to the concept of ‘metaphysical rebellion’ that Camus proposes is the proper position for artists of all kinds, as articulated in his book L’Homme Révolté / The Rebel, published in 1951. This rebellion is a “necessary blasphemy against the created order” which disputes “the end of man and of creation”. In Antonioni this did not produce revolutionary rage as it did in some, but it did produce a deep melancholy about human relations and human purposes. This attitude allowed him to distil something essential about the twentieth century.

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FERRARA MADE ME (3): the search for Antonioni’s tomb

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In searching the internet in September, prior to my visit to Ferrara, I was pleased to come across a page inviting you to discover the places that had influenced Antonioni’s thinking, “the corners of the city bound to the life of the great director and his masterpieces such as Cronaca di un amore, Le amiche and Beyond the Clouds.”

I was particularly looking forward to a visit to the Antonioni museum at Corso Ercole 17, next to the Palazzo dei Diamanti, as flagged up in our Blue Guide to Northern Italy (12th edition, 2005), only to discover on my arrival that it was now closed, whether for lack of money or lack of interest I could not determine. We had to content ourselves during our walks and cycle rides in taking advantage of the map supplied by the internet site to see these places for ourselves.

I wrote about the Corso Ercole and Corso Rossetti shot used in Cronaca di un amore in my post of 12 October. But in an act of homage I went to see the family house at San Maurelio 10 in the south-east corner of the city, where Antonioni (born 1914) spent life from 1918 to 1929. I hired a bike at the shop at the Porta Romana and looking across the river there was the church of S Giorgio, the very same tower that can be seen in Visconti’s Ossessione. The film has a notable Ferrara episode, when Giovanna goes in search of the wayward Gino, and this still shows Gino jumping onto a lorry in the square very close to the Antonioni house.

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Did Antonioni witness the filming? It is possible, and the film must have made an impact, perhaps as much for the story as its pioneering realism. It is taken from James Cain’s novel ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’. Giorgio Bassani (whom Antonioni knew, see post of 20 October) translated it into Italian at the end of the war, and Antonioni used the skeleton of the story in Cronaca di un amore. There is something enticing about a film masterpiece being made so close to a house you had lived in. The house itself has a helpful plaque identifying it, and here’s what it looks like now across the piazza (San Maurelio 10 is at the near corner of this block).

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The other Antonioni house is at the via Brasavola 14 (no plaque this time). This is located in the dense streets that form the south-east quarter of the city, quite close to the Bassani family house at via Cisterno del Follo 1 and the Tennis Club Marfisa, where Bassani and he played tennis.

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Antonioni went to study at Bologna University and began to be drawn away from the city, so that the making of the first episode of Beyond the Clouds (1995) in Ferrara and nearby Comacchio was a homecoming of a kind. I knew that he was buried there.

On my last morning there, I just had time to rush to the Certosa Cemetery. On arriving, I was dismayed at the thought of finding the tomb in such a large place,

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but a helpful office for the cemetery directed me to block M12 and gave me a map. I arrived, finally, at M12 and spent several minutes inspecting all the tomb slabs for his name. I was about to come away unrequited when I noticed a street of tomb-houses

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and sure enough there was an Antonioni family mausoleum

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and peering in, I could see Michelangelo’s name.

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Quest accomplished, mind fulfilled, I rushed back in order to catch the train to Ravenna. Ferrara, I concluded, was a wonderful place.

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FERRARA MADE ME (2): GIORGIO BASSANI

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Ferrara in the Romagna, Italy was the hometown not just of Antonioni (see previous post) but of the novelist Giorgio Bassani. Antonioni’s dates are 1912 to 2007, Bassani’s 1916 to 2000, so they are close contemporaries, even if not so close as to have been in the same class (assuming they went to the same school). However they did both play at Ferrara’s  Tennis Club Marfisa. I am uncertain about Antonioni’s tennis prowess, but Bassani’s name can still be seen on the championship trophy.

entry to Club Marfisa

The Tennis Club is still there at 44 Via Saffi (see photo), and thereby hangs a tale: for it is the expulsion of the Jews from the club under the racial laws of 1938 that provides one of the starting-points for Bassani’s novel ‘The Garden of the Finzi Continis’. The book is ostensibly a story about the narrator’s amorous pursuit of the elusive Micòl, but it is really a story about the degrading and destruction of Ferrarese Jewry under Fascism: Micòl flees from the narrator’s arms, and is disappeared into the inferno at Auschwitz. In 1938, some 57,000 Jews lived in Italy, and 8,000 of them were annihilated by the end of the war, around 150 of them from Ferrara.

Bassani was not one of them, a small gain to balance against the corkscrew pain of the larger loss. On the other hand, his survival is especially important, since he used his gifts to render witness to what one Jewish family in one Italian city suffered, the snatching away of their Italianità, of their home and roots, of all trace of identity, and in narrating the story of this one family he speaks for all the others. The family includes the clever, attractive, teasing, maddening Micòl who lives for the past and for the present; “for the future, in itself, she only harboured an abhorrence.”

Bassani’s novel was published in 1962, and found an international audience with the film of 1970. Bassani for his part kept his distance from it, even asking for his name to be removed from the credits. When you read the novel, you can see why: where it is delicately expressed, the film blunders about, and in doing so reduces it to a superficiality. Secondly, I have a particular thing about costume dramas: only the cleverest directors can deal with their inherent inauthenticity, a failure which the film exemplifies. Here is the group of young people waiting to enter the Finzi Contini house in order to play tennis: their hairstyles, their clothes, the colour quality of the film are meant to look like 1938, but all they do is evoke 1970. They look to me quintessentially inauthentic.

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The director of the film Vittorio De Sica was a neorealist, whose Bicycle Thieves feels famously authentic, but he lacks the sensibility to register the subtlety and the melancholy of Bassani’s novel. Naturally, it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1972, but then who needs the Oscars?

Bassani’s book is very much rooted in Ferrara, and where the names have not been changed by him, a number of the places mentioned – the wall at Montagnone, S.Maria in Vado, the Corso Ercole d’Este (whose poetry appealed to Antonioni too*), the Temple in the Via Mazzini in the heart of the old ghetto – can still be seen.

Worth a visit in particular is the Jewish cemetery at the end of the Via Dei Vigne. It contains the tomb of the Finzi Magrini

entry to Jewish cemetery

but in describing that of the fictional Finzi Contini near the opening of the book, Bassani in his fictionalising is not so much thinking of the Finzi Magrini one as of this tomb, “which could be mocked as ‘a monstrosity’”.

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Giorgio Bassani himself has a grave in the cemetery, which judging by the stones placed on it in acts of remembrance, is much visited.

* When the narrator goes into the town at night Bassani writes: “There was no one, almost no one on the streets, and Corso Giovecca and Corso Ercole 1 d’Este, smooth, empty and of an almost salt-like whiteness, opened up in front of me like two huge ski-tracks.” Antonioni would have known what he is talking about in view of his use of such an image in Cronaca di un amore (see previous post).

Next post: the search for Antonioni’s tomb.

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Ferrara made me (1): Antonioni

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In Michelangelo Antonioni’s first feature film of 1950, Una Cronaca di un amore (‘Story of a love affair’, but better in Italian), the private investigator commissioned by the husband of Paola Molon to find out more about her and her past, spends time in her home town of Ferrara. He goes to the liceo, Ferrara’s notable school,

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he goes to the tennis club to talk to the caretaker,

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he is seen strolling along Corso Ercole I

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then round the corner,

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and the camera follows him to look up Corso Rossetti.

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This last shot is cinematic dead time because it tells us nothing about the story. On the other hand it tells us a great deal about its mood, and foreshadows the end, that this love story will lead to a fruitless, unconsummated, unredeemed end.

Antonioni was born (1918) and brought up in Ferrara, a city of long streets, high walls and the formidable Castello Estense, moat and all, at its centre.

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He went to the Liceo Ludovico Ariosto (on its old site, in Via Borgo dei Leoni);

old Liceo Ginnasio

he frequented the tennis club in Via Saffi (made famous in Giorgio Bassani’s novel, ‘The Garden of the Finzi Continis’);

Club Marfisa

he also must have liked to stroll up the Corso Ercole

Corso Ercole I

to the crossroads with Corso Rossetti, past the Palazzo dei Diamanti and the Palazzo Prosperi-Sacrati (below).

Pal. Prosperi Sacrati

Another important Ferrarese denizen in his mind must have been Giorgio De Chirico, who while not a native was invalided there from 1915 to 1918, and painted some notable pictures there. ‘Le Muse Inquietanti’ [s.v. Wikipedia] of 1918, for example, features the Castello Estense. His imagination made something quite new out of empty streets, shadowed porticos, statues in the piazza, and lone figures. The bleak absence of the ordinary living human must have informed Antonioni’s own imagining of cities, explored in several of his films, and most famously in the final sequence of L’Eclisse (1961).

The shot of Corso Rossetti in the winter light of an evening is powerfully imagined. This image

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is crucially different from the one above, since it shows a person stepping, like a figure from a De Chirico painting, into the building on the right, defined as much by his shadow as by his figure.

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Intriguingly, it echoes the comments of English visitors found in the Blue Guide to the Romagna, which I was using on my visit. Hester Piozzi wrote in 1789: “My pen was just upon the point of praising its cleanliness . . . till I reflected there was nobody to dirty it.” In 1826, William Hazlitt wrote in his ‘Notes of a journey through France and Italy’: “You enjoy the most perfect solitude, that of a city which was once filled with ‘the busy hum of men’”; in his ‘Pictures from Italy’ of 1846, Charles Dickens described old Ferrara as “more solitary, more depopulated, more deserted than any city of the solemn brotherhood”.

It’s not like that now. Here is the Corso Rossetti from a position close to the one above. (If you took the photo from the middle of the road you risk being run over.)

Pal. dei Diamanti     Corso Rossetti

The extensive pedestrianisation of Ferrara, preserving cobbles where possible, and the high prevalence of bicycles preserve the poetry of the city but in parts that poetry has been put paid to by the ubiquity of the car whether driven or parked, and the fact that cobbles have given way to asphalt. The city seems to be economically prosperous and there are coachloads of tourists, indeed I was one myself, which drains the poetry of solitude away. I wonder if Antonioni ever regretted this.

Next post: ‘Ferrara made me (2): Giorgio Bassani’

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“in the gloom, the gold”

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This refrain recurs in Pound’s Cantos, most fully as, “In the gloom, the gold gathers the light against it” (Canto 11) and in Canto 21 he links it to the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna: “Gold fades in the gloom,/ Under the blue-black roof, Placidia’s”

Maus. di Galla Placidia

This mausoleum is a jewelled appendage to San Vitale in Ravenna which holds the best-known ceiling mosaics in the world (and almost as good as the ceiling mosaics in Monreale in Sicily, albeit they are 600 years earlier than those). I have always thought the reference to gold is to the golden tesserae of which the mosaic is composed adjacent to the blue ones (see photo). These are set on the ceiling catching the light in the gloom as the spectator peers upward.maus-2

But to actually be in the mausoleum in the late afternoon, what is really golden are the windows catching the declining sun since they are made not of glass but of alabaster, a translucent stone cut in thin slabs to make windows. They have an inherent wave pattern in them, like grain in wood, and the light effect they produce is of catching flame. So now I think that this is what Pound may have been referring to rather than the gold tesserae.

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In my mind a further imaginative leap can be made, for the words are an apt description of the screen in a darkened cinema.

This is the first musing on a recent visit to the Romagna in Italy. The next two will be on Antonioni in Ferrara, and on Giorgio Bassani whose great novel The Garden of the Finzi Continis (made into a so-so film in the 1970s) is set in Ferrara.

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Down in the crypt . . .

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Last Wednesday I descended to The Tanks at Tate Modern in London, the crypt-like space made from where oil was stored in the days the building was a power station, Tate Modern’s past life so to speak.

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Here there is an installation worth catching of nine screens of the work of the Thai film-maker and installation artist, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Go for the experience first of all, which is immersive: you can lie on the floor and lose yourself in time and the darkness, and soak up several screens that are separated in space at the same time. With the focus film, Primitive, one screen was on top of the other; while I have seen screens side-by-side, I have not seen this before. But putting aside the novelty, go for the images. AW has a thing about fire. You can see some young men playing flaming football, i.e. as they kick it about the ball is on fire. You can see artificial lightning flashes. These are intriguing because I thought at first they were ground-to-air fireworks, but as I looked I concluded they were activated by an electrical flash transmitted from above the camera frame, and therefore offscreen, to a lightning conductor in the ground. The ambiguity about how it was done is suspenseful, and anyway, the result is spectacular. Most extraordinary was the moment in Primitive when a figure in a white garment moves through a deep twilight landscape, and suddenly the garment bursts into flames, giving a vision of an animated flame-sculpture moving in the darkness.

I tend to be wary of modern film-making, because the technology has caused film-makers to jettison the chemistry that comes from between shots, from juxtapositions of forms and meanings, in favour of letting the camera run, and of running the risk of losing the visual excitement that editing can give. But here AW creates spectacular thrills for the camera to film, which are beautifully presented in this cavernous space.

Here is a list of the films on screen (all 2009):

  • I’m Still Breathing (11 min)
  • Nabua (9 min)
  • Primitive (30 min)
  • Nabua Song (4 min)
  • An Evening Shoot (4 min)
  • Making of the Spaceship (28 min)
  • A Dedicated Machine (1 min 35 secs)
  • Phantoms of Nabua (11 min)
  • A Letter to Uncle Boonmee

If you go, give yourself time.

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Stan Brakhage – the works

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Émilie Vergé (ed.)

STAN BRAKHAGE: FILMS (1952-2003)           Catalogue raisonné

446pp. Paris Expérimental [www.paris-experimental.asso.fr], 65 euros, ISBN 978 2 912539 49 6

‘Catalogue raisonné’? ‘Filmography’ is the usual word to connote a film-maker’s list of films with dates and collaborators. So, why apply the idea of the catalogue raisonné, normally used of painters, to the work of the film-maker Stan Brakhage? The answer is that Brakhage was such an unusual film-maker. When he died in 2003, at the age of 70, he had more than 350 films to his name, the longest 260 minutes, the shortest 31 seconds. Up to now it has not been easy to get to grips with the totality of his work, only a portion being available on DVD. Paris Expérimental is to be congratulated on this bi-lingual catalogue that at a stroke allows an overview of all five decades of Brakhage’s career. The idea of a catalogue is apt in another way too: Brakhage was a visual artist like a painter and not a film director who collaborated with others.

This is the opening paragraph of my review of this new book cataloguing Brakhage’s large output of films. For the full review, go to: http://bit.ly/brakhage_cr

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Dachas on film 2 – Burnt by the Sun

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Image result for Burnt by the sun

Of course, Mirror (see previous post), is not the only film about dachas, families, the Russian summer and the intersection of private lives and public events. So is Burnt by the Sun, made over twenty years later. That film, made after the fall of Communism, is a bitter story about how Stalin’s Terror intrudes on the life of a family gathered in their dacha – if you are unfamiliar with the film see the plot summary on Wikipedia. It is not a corrective to Mirror, nor even an antidote, but it is a striking contrast. Personally, I am of the opinion that Mirror is the greater film, but many would prefer Burnt by the Sun.

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Dachas on film 1 – Mirror

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The measured unrolling of a Tarkovsky retrospective in arthouse cinemas has been one of the pleasures of this summer, at least in the UK, and no film has been more welcome to watch in a darkened chamber on a large screen, with an appreciative audience creating a rapt mood, than Mirror.

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Tarkovsky strikingly said that he knew this private, sometimes baffling film – to the reason, if not to the eye – would strike a deep chord in a Russian audience. So it proved. This intersection of the intimate life of a family with public Soviet history (the episode at the publishing house in the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War, crossing Lake Sivash during WW2, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, clashes on the Soviet-China border at Damansky Island in 1969 etc.) is a way many of us experience great events: where were you when Kennedy was shot, when the Berlin Wall was breached, when the Charlie Hebdo offices were attacked, when the UK voted Brexit? But as important is the film’s re-creation of the Tarkovsky dacha, this plot of memory-freighted space, this bit of bourgeois property-enjoying, this summer refuge from winter misery. This element is instantly appealing to anyone who has had a family holiday cottage or a regular family holiday destination, the pleasure of first acquaintance being reinforced by subsequent encounters and renewal of the magic. I feel it especially acutely at the moment because I am editing (digitally) my 8mm film diaries from the late 60s and 70s in which Scottish holidays regularly feature.

What baffled me when I first saw the film was a failure to unravel the relationship between the different generations of the family; I learnt on subsequent viewings that Maria is mother, wife and grandmother, that the narrator is looking back to childhood before the war and boyhood during it, and then as father of a boy. Get some sort of a handle on this and you can open a door to the time layers in the film. It is all beautifully explained in Natasha Synessios’s study of Mirror (IB Tauris 2001) which also includes photographs by Lev Gornung of the Tarkovsky family at their dacha in the 1930s. Even when ropily printed, you can see what evocative photographs they are, the potency of which the making of the film has doubled.

Mirror - Gornung's photo

Gornung’s photo of T’s mother, Maria, in 1932 (above) Mirror - NS's book

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The unmade film of ‘In Parenthesis’

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Transferring books from stage to screen is a staple of modern culture, but you would not necessarily choose David Jones’s ‘In Parenthesis’ to work your magic on. ‘In Parenthesis’ is a First World War memoir published in 1937 and so a little late in the day compared to Edmund Blunden’s ‘Undertones of War’ (1928), Robert Graves’s ‘Goodbye to All That’ (1929), and Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer’ (1930). But it was worth Jones taking his time, for ‘In Parenthesis’ is the most original of these memoirs and to my mind the most vivid. I first read it in the 1970s, and have cleaved to it ever since.

Its potency is in the way it fuses the vernacular with the poetic, the realistic with the mythological and religious. It is superlative in a number of ways, one of which is the rendition of soldiers’ speech. Since Jones was a private, we are reading here the words of the ‘poor bloody infantry’ not those of the officer class. It is a mixture of Cockney and of Welsh manners and words, for Jones, whose father was Welsh (and mother a catholic) and who was born in London, served in the Welch Fusiliers recruited from London and Wales. This speech would work well on stage, or even better as a radio play – and indeed there was a notable adaptation done for BBC radio. Yet the mythological/religious element presents more of a challenge, even though it is poetry, and poetry is best spoken.

For the challenge with a stage version is doing justice to the visual drama of the story, which runs from the assembly of the Regiment in Wales, through embarkation to France and into the front line (‘cushy, mate, cushy’ as we are unreliably informed). Part 6 is about the wait for the Somme offensive to begin and Part 7 about the attack on Mametz Wood *, a bloody affair in which Jones saw his comrades mown down and himself wounded in the leg, crawling to safety with great difficulty. In the final pages the Queen of the Woods distributes garlands to the fallen soldiers, German as well as British.

In Parenthesis

from Act 2 of the opera – photo by Bill Cooper

So far the book hasn’t got its film; what it now gets is an opera, commissioned from composer Iain Bell by Welsh National Opera, and premiered by them on 13 May 2016 within touching distance of the centenary of the first day of the Somme, 1 July 2016, which is when I saw it performed at the Royal Opera House in London. Opera is wonderful for making the dramatic intensely dramatic and the words memorable through musical phrases. Nothing pierces the heart like it. To see it and hear it for the first time, without preconception, was an intense experience: the production, stage design, movement and gesture; the words sung by a cast of eleven; a full orchestra straining to make all the sounds it can muster. I knew Jones’s text beforehand but it was demanding to watch the action, follow the words on the surtitles, and absorb the score, all at the same time, and hard as it is on the composer, it was his music that I absorbed least. But salvation was at hand because two days later I listened to a broadcast of the opera on radio 3: in this case the visual aspect was absent and the sung words present. In particular the beauties of Bell’s orchestral score were able to assert themselves. Within the space of forty-eight hours I had a second intense encounter with this extraordinary work.

What I want now is a film version. Not one of those anaemic streamed performances to your local arts cinema that are so popular now, but the full synaesthetic experience: in addition to the words as subtitles and the music coming through a full sound system, we should get on the screen the full optical experience of the soldiers in close-up, the flash and crash of the whizz bangs at the front, a realisation of the mystical ending using the full resources of CGI. A 3-D IMAX version would do nicely. And as a film it would have the merit of being digitally available for repeated encounters.

We are still a long way from this. The opera was commissioned by the Nicholas John Trust and supported by the National Lottery and the Department for Culture. Opera is an expensive pastime and has to be subsidised. Making a film is another expensive pastime, but if it is subsidised it is only on a basis of break even and then turning a profit. Fair enough, but on this basis my film of ‘In Parenthesis’ is unlikely to get made.

* “There was some bastard woods as Jerry was sitting tight in and this mob [the Welch fusiliers] had clickt for the job of asking him to move on – if you please – an’ thanks very much indeed, signally obliged to yer, Jerry-boy.”

for a dyspeptic review of the opera by Stephen Walsh go to http://www.theartsdesk.com/opera/parenthesis-welsh-national-opera

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