Guards at the Taj

This play by Rajiv Joseph was a thought- provoking exploration of the themes of beauty, power and class.  Two guards take the dawn shift at the site where the Taj Mahal is being built.  They cannot look at the building as it is not their place to do so and neither can they turn their backs to take a look.  The building is beautiful, some say the most beautiful building in the world.  It was built with the hands of 20,000 men.  These hands become important as the play moves towards its end.  We do not see these other men, or indeed any other characters other than Babur, played by Darren Kuppan , and Humayun, played by Danny Ashok.  Babur is the curious one, ready to dream of a different life, while Hamayun is the guard who knows his place and who follows orders… any order that is given to him.  This too becomes important as the play moves on.

The play uses a legend that the workers who built the Taj Mahal had their hands cut off so that they could not build anything as beautiful again.  The two characters carry out this gruesome task but struggle with the idea that beauty can be protected in this way or that anyone could want the quest for beauty to end.

There is one flashback, included to throw the ending into sharper relief. Otherwise the play progresses from an ordinary dawn on one day to a tragic ending.  Both actors were terrific with their own British accents used in part to remind us that the themes and circumstances are with us still.  The poorest of the world are still used as labour in big building projects around the world and rulers still wield power in unexpected ways.

 

The Red Violin

This 1998 Canadian film tells the lives of people in five countries over four centuries who come into contact with the red violin of the title.  The instrument was made in Italy in the seventeenth century.  In this segment, the story is told in Italian of the violin maker and his wife and child.  We find out why the violin is red, a particularly sad part of the film, before moving on a century to Vienna where we meet a young boy who is a musical prodigy.  He is given the violin by the monks of the orphanage where he lives.  He has a bright future and his music master sees a great future for them both. Another tragedy strikes, though, and the violin moves on to Oxford in Britain.

From Oxford in the late nineteenth century to Shanghai, China in the grip of the cultural revolution and on to Montreal, Canada in the late 90s, or what would have been the present at the time of the film’s release, we follow the violin as it passes from one owner to another.

What the film does, rather cleverly, is to show the importance of music in the lives of all sorts of people.  Over the centuries, the violin becomes more valuable, especially as stories about its provenance emerge.  The owners throughout its history see the instrument not as a valuable item in itself but essential because of what they create on it.  In the final scenes in the auction house it seems as if this important message has been lost.

Episodic films can be problematic; if one segment is much weaker than the rest, the whole film is affected.  In ‘The Red Violin’, though, each part of the story serves the greater narrative.  It was directed by Francois Girard with a screenplay by Don McKellar.  It is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Death in Venice

I saw this movie one late night in an Oxford cinema back in the early 80s.  The film. itself, was released in 1971 but I saw it when I was a student, having first read the novel by Thomas Mann.  I was always keen to see a performance by Dirk Bogarde and I was fascinated by the fact that he turned his back on a career in popular films, he chose an art house route, one that involved him in great work like this picture.

It was directed by Visconti so the visuals are amazing.  The subject matter of the novella translates well to film since dialogue is at a minimum and the interior monologue becomes slow moments of focus on expressions.  Bogarde’s face is the most important ‘tool’ in the film.  The central conceit is that the main character, a composer in Venice to recuperate, observes a pretty boy with his family of older sisters and mother and becomes fixated with him since he is a thing of beauty.

The difficulty of translating this to film is that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder and the final version has to reflect one person’s vision.  Yet Bjorn Andreson, chosen for his looks, does a good job of looking like a pretty young man might in the early years of the twentieth century.  What is convincing about the film is the notion that an artist can be transfixed by beauty.

The ending is tragic but as the whole film has a melancholic feel, somewhat at odds with the theme of artistic beauty.  ‘Death in Venice’, directed by Luchino Visconti is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?

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Jesus of Montreal

This 1989 film from Canada is a charming exploration of the creative process.  It follows a group of actors who put on a passion play in Montreal.  The church authorities take against the main actor, playing Jesus, and, as he and his group deal with the hostility, his life starts to mirror that of Jesus himself.

It is a French- Canadian film from director Denys Arcand with Lothaire Bluteau in the main role of Daniel. At the start of the film Daniel is encouraged to modernise the passion play to bring a new sense of purpose to a tired format.  It is the hope of the priest that there will be renewed interest in the play as a result.  This mission inspires Daniel who throws himself into research only to come up with an interpretation that offends the catholic church.  As the play continues, the church resorts to stronger tactics to stop it.

The film works well when it mirrors the gospel story.  Daniel collects his troupe of actors from among the less desirable of society, he is accepted and then rejected by the authorities, he has an outburst when he thinks others have desecrated his craft.  The ending is the most problematic because of the obvious links with the bible but it is a satisfactory way of drawing the film to an end.

‘Jesus of Montreal’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

 

Read All About It

Thinking about the Kingsley Amis novel, ‘The Alteration’, reminded me of how I found out about it back in the time before the internet and access to large book shops.  I was a keen reader as a boy.  School provided most of my reading material but, as I grew older, I came to see school books as school work and I wanted reading material from elsewhere.  This is where a television programme called ‘Read All About It’ came in.  I discovered it by myself on a black and white television set we had left over when the family colour one came in.

On my own in a room, I watched it every other Sunday night.  (As I recall, it was alternated with the BBC’s film programme hosted by Barry Norman, which I also enjoyed.)  Each week Melvyn Bragg presented a show with three guests.  Each guest recommended a book and everyone discussed each other’s choices.  That was the simplicity and the strength of the programme.  The gift to me was that these were all paperbacks so affordable.  Also, the books were not always new to bookshops so I could find old copies or even locate them in the local library.  This was not the marketing machine at work but a celebration of books and readers- it worked.

Melvyn Bragg went to ITV to present the major arts programme in 1978 and I don’t remember ‘Read All About It’ surviving his departure.  Instead, it remains as a happy memory of a time when I was eager to find books for myself and not rely on school any more.

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What to read next…?

I am the sort of person who has a pile of books sitting on my ‘to read’ shelf, all looking inviting. Most were bought because I was keen to read them and I just knew I would get down to them almost immediately. Why is it then that some sit around for a year or more? The same thing happens on my Kindle; I buy books because I want them rather than need them.

Last year, I made a concerted effort to read more female writers since a quick survey of my reading habits showed I read more men than women.  I also aimed to read more writers in translation and/or from countries other than Britain and USA.  It turned out to be the year of ‘balance’ since I alternated between male and female writers and between e-books and physical books.  I also read more international writers.

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This year, by way of a change, I decided to let chance and serendipity enter. So I have prepared cards with topics, themes and continents on them to pull out one at a time. Whatever is on the card has to direct me to a book that fits the theme.  Cards include general ideas (diversity, identity etc), places (Asia, Africa etc) and specific sources (mentioned in an Observer review).  Who knows if this is a good way to do things but I am going to give it a try.  I might even reduce the number of books on that ‘to read’ shelf.

I intend one thing from this exercise above all others.  The USA set itself on a new direction, starting today.  It is not a direction I intend to follow.  I intend to develop a wider world reading list and one that reduces the American presence on it.

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The Red Shoes

I have never watched the classic film ‘The Red Shoes’ all the way through but I have seen parts of it at various times, mostly when it is shown on television.  I am a fan of Matthew Bourne, though, so a trip to London to see his new ballet was essential.

The production was unusual in that for the opening scene Bourne’s dancers looked like conventional ballet dancers.  Throughout the story we return to scenes of rehearsals and there is the central ballet of The Red Shoes also performed for us. But this is Matthew Bourne so we know we are to see a creative representation of the film’s plot.

Vicky is the dancer who wants to catch the eye of the ballet impressario called Boris Lermontov. She joins the company along with Julian Craster, a young composer.  The two flourish under the patronage of Lermontov until their growing feelings for each other get in the way. Vicky dances the star role in the ballet of the Red Shoes that ends the first act.

When Vicky and Julian have to leave the company, they end up in an East End music hall for the productions funnier scenes although this is not an enjoyable time for the young couple.  The need to create and the need to dance consume them and as Vicky is reunited with the red shoes she is consumed by ballet in a way that mirrors the role she played in the ballet within this dance production.

Matthew Bourne’s dance productions are in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

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