Be careful! The E flat is Dead

In 2012 there was a French language film called In Your Hands (Director: Lola Douillon) which starred Kristin Scott Thomas.    This is relevant because there is a 2020 french language film out  called In Her Hands (originally Au bouts des doigts Director: Ludovic Bernard) which stars none other than Kristin Scott Thomas.    Wait. There is also a dance short film called In Her Hands starring Mathew Ball.   For the avoidance of considerable confusion – especially my own –  it is Ludovic Bernard’s film I am reviewing. I streamed this on the Curzon Home Cinema platform.

The owner of the hands matters in this story both from a gender perspective and from the point of view of taking personal responsibility, as well as metaphorically since the film is about a young pianist, Mathieu Malinski.

Mathieu is a teenage angst-y sort of person,  a working class lad from a single parent family with an understandably exhausted mother and various cute siblings.  Under circumstances which are not explained, as a child Mathieu has learned to play the piano – we see him having a first lesson from an elderly man –  perhaps a neighbour.  We later learn that this avuncular gentleman is called Monsieur Jacques.

When Mr. Jacques passes on from this vale of tears leaving Mathieu his beloved and rather ancient upright piano with a hand written note (‘be careful the E flat is dead’) there is no one to help Mathieu  further his musical studies.  This causes considerable tension at home as his mother, juggling various childcare and cleaning jobs, displays bemusement at being asked about piano lessons, as well she might given the cost of music tuition these days.  We presume Monsieur Jacques did not charge and was content to eat every third day.

Jules Benchetrit in Au bout des doigts (2018)

 

We pick up Mathieu’s  life again aged around 17 or 18. By this time he has got in with a bad lot but we see him playing the piano – Bach if my memory serves – on a ‘libre a jouer’ instrument in none other august arena than the concourse of the Gare du Nord.

The head of the Paris conservatoire happening by stops to listen.  He manages to hand the young man his business card and tells him to call.

Fast forward and Mathieu gets into big trouble – he is caught mid burglary  and is carted away in handcuffs.  Again our intrepid conservatoire head happens along in time for Mathieu to avoid a custodial sentence and get community service instead – 6 months of cleaning – guess where?  The Paris conservatoire.  You can see where this is going, right?  I mean subtle it ain’t.

The conservatoire is short of a genius for a prestigious competition upcoming.  So out goes the cleaning and in comes hours and hours of practise under the tutelage of La Countess, aka, Kristin Scott Thomas.

I’ve seen this film reviewed as ‘formulaic’ (Rotten Tomatoes).  And ‘sentimental, middlebrow, schlock’ (The Guardian).  I would say it is more accurate to describe it as  sentimental, derivative schlock.

The film leans like a ton of bricks on Matt Damon’s performance in Gus Van Sant’s  Good Will Hunting (1997) even down to the cleaning trope.  Remember Matt Damon mopping the night time corridors at the mathematics department of MIT?

Then there is Jamie Bell in Stephen Daldry’s iconic working class boy makes good tale  Billy Elliott (2000).  Add to that a scene somewhere near the end cribbed directly from Shine – Geoffrey Rush’s Oscar winning account of the life and times of virtuoso pianist David Helfgott – and what you have here is a mish mash of other much better films.

Formulaic yes, the well rehearsed trials of teen angst, exacerbated by poverty and too many temptations to nick a pair of branded trainers are all present, as are cupcakes and ample sprinkles of magical coincidence as well as forbearing benefactors willing to stake their considerable careers that they have no doubt  spent decades building up on a complete unknown with a volatile temperament.

Having said all of the above I have to admit to a guilty secret.  I actually quite enjoyed this film!  There is a  semi-chase scene towards the end which was quite gripping.  And also because I am a great fan of Kristin Scott Thomas who never disappoints.

But I wonder what  films like this do to create real opportunities for real young people who are never going to be discovered playing Bach on the concourse of the Gare du Nord?   Are we missing out on another Clara Schumann? Another Chopin?  Another Sviatoslav Richter? Yes of course we are.   What a silly question.     That is the whole point of no opportunity – it equals no one ever finding out you exist.

There is a lot of money in the film industry is there not.  Or at least there used to be pre-Covid-19.  How about using some of it to provide music scholarships for talented youngsters instead of inventing silly stories about fairy godmothers.

 

 

 

 

 

It Doesn’t Have To Be the Way It Is – Lessons from Fairytales and Fantasy

Come with me to another place,   a hall house perhaps, where torchlight glances off stone walls hung with scarlet and gold tapestries to keep out the bitter winter draughts;  a world where people are not always kind to each other but they are at least allowed to meet – sometimes next the bridge, on horseback with a sword in hand – and sometimes in someone else’s bedchamber.

In another life (or so it seems) I have been a storyteller.   Equipped with tales of dastardly deeds and magical spells, and together with my lovely friend B, we ran a story circle in a local venue.

Live storytelling is on hold for the moment of course although some have taken their art online. Part of me thinks it would take more ingenuity than even the great wizard of Earthsea possesses to create a suitable atmosphere online.

And yet? One of the things that struck me about the experience of telling stories to a live audience is that however digital and relentlessly modern society, and however mundane the hired room that surrounds, it still takes very little to transport us back in our imaginations to that forest, to sit round the fire, breathing woodsmoke, listening.

So again just for a moment or two, turn down the striplighting and all the neon, replace with fairy lights – the prettiest ones you can find. Add a tall, woven, round backed storyteller’s chair, some candles (sadly batteries essential these days – even the elves have a safety department now) a couple of low, round wooden tables that could double as mushrooms, and I’ll begin…

Once upon a time in a cottage deep in the forest there lived an old lady with two beautiful daughters…

How deeply the forest lies in all our psyches.

 

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In the second volume of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, Tolkein wrote of Ents, the tree shepherds, guarding their ancient realm of Fangorn Forest where a conversation between trees may take years but it will be one well worth having.  Other beings are scared to enter this forest, yet it is a place of mutual support, sustenance and regard where light, air and the earth’s nutrients are shared among all.

Our two intrepid hobbits Merry and Pippin ask Treebeard (the chief of the Ents) to marshall his forces in support of the war against Sauron and his odious orcs. Treebeard agrees to call a meeting – an Ent moot – to ask the others what they think. After some considerable days spent waiting Merry asks if a decision has been made, to which Treebeard replies: Yes. We have decided that you are not orcs.

It takes a long time to make a decision in Fangorn forest. Interestingly, the book presaged and foresaw the era of environmental catastrophe in which we now live in which Saruman the wizard who has gone to the bad, cuts down trees relentlessly to fuel his war efforts.

In a more scientific way Richard Powers’ stunning novel The Overstory references too the spiritual connections we are losing as we destroy the trees that have guarded over our air and our light for centuries. Powers’ book is more an elegy than a warning. It is almost too late for the latter. Yet there are still trees to save – and they are in our DNA. As are their stories. And there need be no idea of mutual exclusiveness between the realm of fantasy and the realm of science. Each needs the other.

 

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Tolkein’s first book The Hobbit (1937) was written with World War 1 in mind and with the intention of warning against a second world war. (Jack Zipes, Spells of Enchantment, Viking, 1991). Zipes further warns against the saccharine “Disneyising” effect of the film industry and especially its sexual stereotyping. It is fair to add that Zipes’ book is now 30 years old and thankfully in the 21st century some effort is finally being made to address at least this latter point in films such as Frozen.   It took a while.

In her collection of Essays No Time To Spare: Thinking About What Matters (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) 2017, Ursula Le Guin writes:

The test of fairyland [is that] you cannot imagine two and one not making three but you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail.

There are many people it our own world it might be said who don’t like that it doesn’t have to be the way it is. People who are used to pursuing their own ends and being what is regarded in cultural terms as successful. They are happy that everything should stay exactly as it is.  Within their control. People who have what Le Guin terms “rigid reality constructs” don’t like fantasy or the idea that things don’t have to be the way they are.

How, she asks, does the fantastic tale suspend the law of physics? There is a distinction, Le Guin tells us between It doesn’t have to be the way it is thus promoting the idea of other ways and other possibilities and “Anything goes” the latter invoking an idea of being completely irresponsible. The ultimate conclusion of the ‘anything goes’ philosophy is be damned to everyone and everything else.

Not everyone has such extreme views about reading fantasy fiction of course. Some just prefer to read something else – biography or crime or something – considering fantasy to be ‘escapist’. But then what is inherently wrong with escapism? As Le Guin points out, is not the purpose of an escape to move towards freedom?

And is not the whole point of literature to free the mind? So that we can truly believe it doesn’t have to be the way it is.

 

 

 

 

In the place where I grew up, and in the time that I grew up  I never felt safe on the streets. 

This is not because I grew up in a particularly violent place – not at all.   I never felt safe on the streets because I was an object.   An object about which or to which people could say or do more or less as they chose, and with impunity.  I did not understand this at the time.  Or if I understood it,  it was normal.  We objects, we just carried on, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, millions of us.   We wore hotpants,  thought we were liberated, worked in offices where single paragraph letters were dictated to us, as if we were the machines which would shortly be invented.

I was not a child in Victorian England (!) but I may as well have been.  But hey that’s all history, now.  We’ve moved on right?

I take my hat off to Keira Knightley. In a recent newspaper interview to promote her latest film Misbehaviour (2020 Dir.  Philippa Lowthorpe) about the Women’s Liberation Movement and the 1970 Miss World contest. she said she was keen to work with more female directors.  You go girl.  But it may not be the path to awards heaven, however good you are.

In 2019 The Souvenir directed by Joanna Hogg starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke.  The film is a lavishly photographed, beautifully restrained, semi-auto-biographical story of a young film maker student and her relationship with an older, enigmatic man.  It was completely ignored at the awards as were – from a directorial point of view –  Greta Gerwig’s two films Ladybird (2017) and Little Women (2019) both starring the inimitable and profoundly talented Saoirse Ronan.

This year’s celebratory awards went to a macho spin off from a 1950s comic book glorifcation of violence  (in the place where I grew up and in the time I grew up, I never felt safe on the streets)  and the ultra violent, gruesome and in my eyes completely pointless Parasite  which raised the spectre of equality to the level of ‘everybody dies’.  In that at least it was accurate.   

“Patriarchy kills off women and stories to maintain its power.  

(Rebecca Solnit)

And our film industry celebrates that.  One of the ways it does this is by either completely ignoring, or at least failing to promote,  stories about women told through the eyes of women.