Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Moments in Live Music Vol. 1

Otis Redding brings “I can’t turn you loose” to what appears to be a close, then yells “I KNOW YOU THINK I’M GONNA STOP NOW, AIN’T GONNA STOP, WE’RE GOING ONE TIME, WATCH ME NOW” and dementedly raves on for another two minutes.

Bob Dylan, battling a combative crowd, mumbles incoherently into the microphone. When the hecklers finally quiet down to hear what he’s saying he ends his flow of gibberish with “…if you only wouldn’t clap so hard” and launches into “One Too Many Mornings”.

Three-quarters of the way through “Mountain Jam” at the Fillmore East, Duane Allman picks up his slide and burst forth with a series of licks so wild and joyous you understand why he’s ranked amongst rock’s best guitarists even though he didn’t live to see twenty-five.

Simon and Garfunkel, Central Park, New York City. Capping an evening that sounds like it was sprinkled over with magic dust, Gerry Niewood’s sax emerges out of a burst of horns with a short solo that’s absent in Simon’s studio version but captures perfectly the wistful ache of “Still Crazy After All These Years”.

Jesse Ed Davis’s syncopated solo in Taj Mahal’s performance of “Ain’t That a Lot of Love” in Rock ‘n Roll Circus. It’s the supreme guitar moment in a show that included Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton.

After performing for an hour and a half at the intensity levels of a man half his age, Bruce Springsteen is joined by the gathering dusk and every singing member of the E Street Band in a goosebump-raising rendition of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More”.

The albums: Otis Redding, Live in London and Paris; Bob Dylan, Live 1966: Royal Albert Hall Concert; The Allman Brothers, Live at the Fillmore East; Simon and Garfunkel, Concert in Central Park; Various Artists, The Rolling Stones Present The Rock 'n Roll Circus; Bruce Springsteen, Live in Hyde Park.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Flash mobs

This piece was written to coincide with a lecture on social documentary photography by Ram Rahman. That was a while back, but since it was one of the more interesting stories I'd meandered into, I thought I'd post it anyway.

Rome, 1958. An Armenian dancer called Aïché Nana does an impromptu striptease at a high-society party. Terni, 1958. A large crowd gathers after word spreads that children have seen the Virgin Mary. Rome, 1960. Anthony Steele, husband of Swedish starlet Anita Ekberg, tries to assault a member of the press who was attempting to take their photograph.

Ask a keen cineaste about the link between these images, and they’ll reply that all of them correspond to scenes from Frederico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, a legend of Italian cinema which won the Golden Palm at Cannes in 1962 and had Fellini nominated for the Best Director Oscar. This is not wrong, but it’s only half the story. The real link is a man less well-known, a tabloid photographer named Tazio Secchiaroli. In a lecture on social documentary photography at The Attic this fortnight, photographer and Fellini-lover Ram Rahman talks about how Secchiaroli’s snaps of Rome’s high-society scandals served as inspiration for the much-lauded 1960 film.

“The still photograph, if you’re looking at it in its deepest sense, can be like the language a novelist uses – a visual novel, if you like,” Rahman said, explaining the importance of the photograph as social document. It’s unlikely that many at that time would have seen that quality in the photographs shot by Secchiaroli and his compatriots. Much like today’s Page 3 snaps, they were just good, salacious fun. But Fellini recognised potential for building a film around this profession and its ethical compromises. The central character in La Dolce Vita, a morally flexible reporter played by Marcello Mastroianni, was in some ways a stand-in for Fellini – an observer, detached from the scene, and an outsider to Rome.

Mastroianni’s partner in the film, though, had the more lasting contribution. A high-society photographer based on Secchiaroli, his name – Paparazzo – was adapted to describe a new profession, the paparazzi. According to Rahman, Fellini almost cast Secchiaroli himself for the part, but then went with Walter Santesso. The real-life Paparazzo went on to do the stills for the film, and later established himself as a still photographer much in demand at Rome’s Cinecittà studios (at one point, becoming the personal photographer to Sophia Loren).

Rahman plans to juxtapose photographs from his collection with scenes from La Dolce Vita, to illustrate how keenly art was imitating life in Fellini’s film. The director spoke with many photographers and used their stories to create scenes like the suicide of Marcello’s friend and the climactic “orgy” sequence. Anita Ekberg’s romp in the Trevi fountain, one of the movie’s iconic scenes, was based on a real-life incident. Rahman also pointed out that Ekberg had been photographed in “situations of scandal and confrontation” by Secchiaroli years before the movie was made (a fact that’s unlikely to have escaped Fellini’s attention). The style of the tabloid photograph even dictates the way some scenes are framed. A number of stills from the movie, Rahman said, could easily be substituted with samples of the photojournalism of the time.

Rahman’s talk will also zoom out to the broader story of social documentary photography. He will discuss his own work in this field, as well as the diverse styles of Sunil Janah, Walker Evans, Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Brassai. We recommend watching La Dolce Vita beforehand, but in case you’re strapped for time, just bring along page three of the day’s newspaper.

Below: A Tazio photograph recreated in the movie; Anita Ekberg, on and off screen

Monday, April 18, 2011

North to Alaska

North to Alaska has the some of the characteristics of a Howard Hawks film but nothing resembling the same execution. In the hands of Henry Hathaway, everything gets swept away in an avalanche of clichés. Sam McCord (John Wayne), a misogynist gold-miner, is sent by his friend (Stewart Granger) to pick up his French-speaking bride-to-be and bring her to Alaska. When McCord finds her, however, she’s already married to someone else. This is hardly a roadblock in a film whose view of sexual politics is about as subtle as a rabbit in heat. McCord can simply go to the whorehouse, pick out another “Frenchie” and bring her back as a substitute.

That unfortunate role is played by the French actress Capucine, and it’s to her credit that she manages to salvage some dignity despite her character being treated like a piece of meat, handed back and forth by Wayne and Granger. She looks so poised and lovely (there’s a bit of Jeanne Moreau in her features) that it’s not difficult to imagine men making fools of themselves over her in a much better movie. Here, though, she must make do with one sorry quartet: Granger, smarmy villain Ernie Kovacs, pop star Fabian (terrible in a bit role as Granger’s kid brother) and ultimately the Duke himself, reluctance written all over his face and muttering lines like “Women…I never met one yet that was half as reliable as a horse.”

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Heaven Can Wait

Billy Wilder, the great American director, used to have a sign over his door that read “What would Lubitsch do?”. Wilder, who got his start writing for Ernest Lubitsch, was his biggest fan, and in Cameron Crowe’s book-length interview, he put his finger on a vital element to the German-born director’s success. As he explained, “[Lubitsch] realised that if you say two and two, the audience does not have to be told it’s four”. No matter how mannered it may seem at first glance, Heaven Can Wait has two and two all over it.

The film begins in hell’s lobby, with an aged Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) recounting his life story to a dapper, courteous Satan (Laird Cregar, addressed throughout as “Your Excellency”). Henry’s convinced his love crimes warrant a place in the netherworld, and counts down a list of his infidelities, beginning with his French teacher and continuing up to his cousin’s fiancée Martha (Gene Tierney), who he elopes with and marries. Though their marriage is a happy one, his eye continues to rove. None of this, of course, is meant to be taken seriously. Heaven Can Wait unfolds like a stage musical without music, set to the sounds of Sam Raphaelson’s sly script and Ameche’s mellifluous line readings.

By the time this film released in 1943, Lubitsch had a deteriorating heart condition. He died four years later – in bed with a young starlet, his biographer Maurice Zotolow claimed. If that is so, then Henry’s end in the movie, with death interrupting implied coitus with a nurse, was an uncanny foreshadowing of his own fate. “No more Lubitsch,” said Wilder at the director’s funeral. “Worse than that,” replied fellow-director William Wyler, “no more Lubitsch pictures.” They weren’t exaggerating.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Honour Roll

Virender Sehwag
Sachin Tendulkar
Gautam Gambhir
Yuvraj Singh
Mahendra Singh Dhoni
Suresh Raina
Harbhajan Singh
Zaheer Khan
Munaf Patel
Shanthakumaran Sreesant
Yusuf Pathan
Ashish Nehra
Ravichandran Ashwin
Piyush Chawla
Gary Kirsten (coach)

And a shout-out to those without whom this would not have been possible:
Sourav Ganguly and John Wright, who built India's most competitive team, on whose foundations this team was built
Rahul Dravid, who donned gloves during the 2003 Cup, not because he was a wicket-keeper but because his country needed him to
VVS Laxman, still the most underappreciated cricketer in this country, and with as big a role as anyone in India being the number one test team
Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath, who bowled their hearts out for years on flat pitches
Ajay Jadeja and Robin Singh, templates for future Indian ODI players
Mohammad Kaif, whose death-or-glory dives in the Natwest Final are branded into every Indian cricket fan's brain
The Class of '83, whom no one gave a chance