Seymour: An Introduction [2014)

Big gigantic balls.

It took Ethan Hawke.

Whom I formerly mistook for a hack.

To not even dabble in détournement.

But rather.

Straight-up.

Call it.

Seymour:  An Introduction

After Salinger.

But let me dispel all uncertainly early on.

This film, directed by Ethan Hawke, is a masterpiece.

The premise seemed interesting.

On Netflix.

“This should,” I thought, “be an easy one to jettison after a few painful minutes of shabby mise-en-scène…[after ignoring it on my ‘list’ for quite some time]”

And though there is no Liszt (ha!), Ethan Hawke tells one of the most touching stories I’ve ever seen.

Yes, that is the correct verbiage.

In the synesthesia of cinema.

It is the story of Seymour Bernstein (and not, as the title might lead one to believe, that of Seymour Glass).

Seymour did not become the supernova which his fellow Bernstein (Leonard) became.

No, Seymour Bernstein stepped away from the stage early.

As in, curtailed his career.

As a performer.

A pianist.

[but always a son–a man]

And so what makes Ethan Hawke’s film particularly special for me is the synergy created from two colliding ideas of great power:  music and anxiety.

Ah, to perform…

It’s hard (really, very fucking hard) for me to recall the good times which make me sad.

Those would be my four short years as a professional music performer.

[three of which coincided with a parallel mini-career as a studio (recording) musician]

Why did I step away?

To paraphrase Bogart in The Big Sleep, I must rank pretty high on insubordination.

I’m a rebel.

And though I pray that I never follow in the darker footsteps of Phil Spector, I was very much in what one would term popular or pop music.

But it wasn’t from a lack of training.

My bachelor’s degree, from an esteemed institution, is almost exclusively due to courses in Western classical music.

Though I am but an amateur pianist compared to Mr. Bernstein, I have a deep appreciation for what he is doing all throughout this film.

As a trained music theorist (my specialization).

And a trained composer (the activity to which I dedicated the bulk of my undergraduate hours).

But there is something more.

Seymour:  An Introduction is very much about hard work.

About craft.

What I’m doing right now.

What you are reading.

It is my craft.

Now.

Music has flown…like a fleeting bird.

And I have had to transpose my urge to create from “EveryGoodBoyDoesFine” by way of copious vicissitudes to “PleaseExcuseMyDearAuntSally” and other far-afield mnemonic devices.

Yes, dear friends…I identify with Ethan Hawke’s struggle.

And it is painful to watch him.

But he has redeemed himself with this film.

Through great doubt we travel…

What the fuck am I doing in business school?

Does my acting mean anything whatsoever to ME anymore?

To weave it, my problems were/are different than those of Mr. Hawke.

He is standing on the stage…[places, everyone]…on the X where I wish I was.

Directing a film.

You need a producer.

An “executive” producer.

You need a law firm.

Legal counsel.

[for all those archival clips you want to interpolate]

Yes…there is a long list of credited individuals at the culmination of Seymour:  An Introduction.

It doesn’t just say “Ethan Hawke”.

Those are the realities of film.

Godard has illustrated it as a process of check-writing.

$50 here.  [more like]  $3,000 here.

And again.  And again.

But it is obvious this was a project of love for Ethan Hawke.

And it worked.

Mr. Bernstein is 89 and still (apparently) teaches at NYU.

And what a gifted soul!

Ah…

This documentary reminded me of so many beautiful, important things!

It all moves too fast…

The pictures with Nadia Boulanger…

But Korea sticks.

At the front lines.

As jaw-dropping as Messiaen in his prison camp.

But let me speak to the choir now…

Friends of Deutsche Grammophon et al..

It’s important.

That extra dot.

To point out.

No pun intended.

A service.

PRACTICE in front of your audience (Warhol advised).

Dear Messrs,

[and scholarly, epicurean (?) womenfolk]

We have, in these minutes, footage of the great Glenn Gould.

We learn the chair.

How low.

Carry out folded.

Like a shabby parcel of manuscripts.

But Mr. Bernstein gives us the cinderblocks.

And while it is scary (Glenn Gould) in its proficiency.

The ear of God.

We get an even greater surprise.

Yes, most startling.

Clifford Curzon.

And the passion of a boy from Islington.

Precision.

Snap!

Unfurling arpeggios effortlessly.

While the baritone fingers surface the melody.

Just breathing above the water’s surface.

Curzon.

Those glasses.

We fall in love.

1977.

Year after I was born.

By 17 days.

Seymour Bernstein’s eight-year career was over.

As a public performer.

Debuting with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (!) a Brazilian piano concerto in world premiere (the 2nd by Villa-Lobos).

1969-1977

Double my career 🙂

[in more ways than one, I’m sure]

But as an astute student in the film observes, it was many thousands of hours (of practice and other dedicatory acts) to get to that point.

Mr. Bernstein didn’t sit down with the CSO and sightread the Villa-Lobos concerto.

It wasn’t his first time playing.

And so it comes back to work.

And anxiety.

& music.

Seymour Bernstein:  God bless you for knowing the quadrivium.

That MUSIC was one of the four higher liberal arts.

For the ancient Greeks.

Along with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.

What isn’t mentioned is that in which I am currently dabbling.

[dabbling my ass off]

The trivium.

Those “lower” three of the liberal arts.

Grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

And the liberal arts…in opposition to the practical arts.

[the latter being such as medicine…or architecture]

{Footnotes to be provided when hell freezes over}

And so I heartily recommend you watch this documentary.

Appreciate the importance of music.

See Abraham ready to sacrifice Isaac.

[he will laugh!]

Because God gives back.

Even though Mr. Bernstein doesn’t believe.

It makes no difference to me.

I am but human.

And I have a right.

To believe.

In God.

In music.

He just disappeared.

One last concert.

At the YMCA.

Knowing when to end.

When the notes fade.

And if on a good piano,

they almost seem to swell first.

As if by magic…

-PD

Marketa Lazarová [1967)

The epic of Czech film.

Its reputation precedes it.

And I have much to say about this gargantuan length of film.

For when last I delved into the canon, I was greeted with a short watch.

It was pleasant.  It was complete.  Everything which needed to be said was said.

This film is in some ways the opposite.

Two hours and 42 minutes.

I have not had such trouble viewing a film since Jeanne Dielman…

And I want to say this is the equal of that Belgian gem.

Marketa Lazarová is played by the stunningly-beautiful Magda Vášáryová.

Magdaléna if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.

A Slovak actress.  Who lives!

But sadly Ms. Vášáryová is in this film far too little.

When she appears, she usurps the screen with her loveliness.

She is as fleeting as a lamb…

Visions fugitives…[…]

She is our lamb we try to save.

To no avail.

My beard is invisible.  I am twice my age.

Mostly from sitting through this film.

This is the Czech Gone with the Wind.

Overlong.  Underdone.

But there is a reward in its totality.

It’s as if Buñuel greets us upon the start of Part II.

Yes, there’s an intermission of sorts.

Good God…

The internal monologue of the Almighty.

When He’s least enamored with us.

Appreciates our simplicity.  And breaks the fourth wall with a critique of our oratory skills.

So director František Vláčil did have some truly genius tricks up his sleeve.

But most of this film is bleak.  Bare.  Plodding. More ennui than boredom.

Which is to say that misery sounds more artful in French.

The misery of a convoluted story told by a mediocre bard.

And so someone didn’t do somebody justice.

František Vláčil had real facility.

Then do we find fault with novelist Vladislav Vančura?

Perhaps it was just a bad match.

But it’s not a bad film.

It’s just not the greatness which so often accrues to length.

Long doesn’t necessarily mean important.

Did Kissinger really need 912 pages to relate Diplomacy?

I’m not even a fan of Tolstoy.

There are, in fact, few behemoths behind which I can get.

The Brothers Karamazov is one.

And I would argue that Marketa Lazarová has some of that pithy, earthy grit to it.

A little witchcraft.

Some battle-axes.

Missing limbs.

But Vláčil manages to add very faint, subtle hints of psychedelia to this story.

It was, after all, 1967.

But it’s more ergot than LSD.

Ennui/boredom.

A slight différance.

 

-PD

Rozmarné léto [1968)

I’m not going to blow smoke up your ass.

This one starts out slowly.

Too long at the first location.

The river bathhouse.

The dread of boredom begins to creep in.

No girl.  No gun.

Until Jana Preissová makes her first appearance.

It was unbearable.

A rainy summer.

Every day the same as the last.

In a small town.

A closed circle.

But like Fellini, the circus comes to town.

Thank God for the circus.

Cotton candy.  شعر البنات

Is it girl’s hair?  Pink.  A one-piece pajama.

Or a pig.

It is like the sweet words of the beautiful Haneen Elhaj in Bethlehem.

Girl’s hair.

Running on the electricity of a car battery.

Spinning sugary magic.

Sandy stone (when the mirror of translate is turned upon itself).

We want to know literally what Heidegger Derrida was talking about.

And so it only took director Jiří Menzel two years to lose his voice.

It was perfection in ’66.

Ostře sledované vlaky.

That is the cynical view.

But we must realize that Menzel was literally walking a tightrope.

It’s not funny.

It’s not engaging.

It’s slow.

It’s effective.

By the end you see that Fellini is the right reference.

Capricious Summer (our film) bridges the gap between the antics of La Strada and the lovable freak show of local color that would be Amarcord (1973).

But this was 1968.

A very serious year.

The Czech and Slovak (respectively) socialist republics came into being the following year.

We know the legend.

Mai ’68.

All hell broke luce.

Even Cannes was cancelled.

[Cannescelled]

But what is a film festival compared to an invasion?

Before our Capricious Summer was the Prague Spring of 1968.

Lasting well into the summer.

And blooming well before winter had ended.

January 5 – August 21.

Then the invasion.  The Warsaw Pact countries.

Operation Danube.

Romania (and Albania), to their credit, refused to participate.

108 Czechoslovak civilians killed.

Liberalization.  Decentralization.  Democratization.

Like the beautiful Anna.  Fleeting.

Because the circus always has to pack up and leave town.

Our film.

Released May 24.  During the Prague Spring.

Pražské jaro (or jar).

Czech.  Slovak.

The only difference between my bank balance and Bill Gates’.

More zeros at the end.

Infinitely more.

Later these “Springs” would become manufactured (if they weren’t already).

Libya…

We all know about color revolutions…but the Czechs would have a textured revolution in 1989.

From velvet…we could have had the corduroy revolution (ribbed, for her pleasure), silk revolution, cotton (the revolution of our lives)…etc.

The “nonviolent” Prague Spring resulted in the deaths of 96 Soviet soldiers.

84 of them by “accident” (friendly fire?)

and the accidental/”suicide” deaths of 10 Poles.

Apparently none of the Poles died conventionally.

At least the two Bulgar soldiers killed perished from intent.

The four Hungarians all slipped on banana peels in front of Škodas.

This is the tone.

Lola Montès.

Plucking the feathers from chickens.

The chubby wife returns.

Drench the nubile.

Menzel, then, was many months ahead.

Knowing that summer would really begin when autumn usually fell.

Another 20 years before the circus returned.

 

-PD

#6 Mr. Bean Rides Again [1992)

This one is darn near perfect.

And I needed it.

After an all-nighter devoted to a Power Point presentation, this got a hearty laugh from me throughout.

We really see Bean’s dark humour start coming to the fore here.

Likewise, we start to realize by now that Bean’s middle name must certainly be “Ingenuity”.

But his genius is a sort of Rube Goldberg variety.

For Bean, it’s all about the process…the journey.

It must be:  he seems to miss his destination an overwhelming majority of the time.

Whether he makes it to the beach or not is immaterial.

It’s that he starts off by packing six cans of Heinz Baked Beans.

No can opener.

Just the beans, thank you very much.

For those of us in America, this makes less sense without a bit of experience.

My one and only trip to Great Britain was an eye-opener.

The English eat beans for breakfast!

Not only that, but some sautéed mushrooms and maybe a boiled tomato.

Sausage and a rasher of bacon.

And eggs:  runny as Usain Bolt.

It all mixes together into a mélange of heartiness.

THAT is a true English breakfast!

A working-man’s meal.

Ahh, I miss those days.

So short and fleeting.

But with Mr. Bean, I am back in the magical mundane of English society.

The Royal Mail.

The politeness.

The grasp of my mother tongue.

Feeling rather “poorly”…

Yes, a glorious grasp on the language.

Of course, I could listen to the lads in Oasis talk all day long.

High and low.

And the Midlands.

God save the Queen!

We mean it, man 😉

 

-PD

 

 

Ostře sledované vlaky [1966)

There is no precursor for this delicious film.

Closely watched trains…

There is no warning.  No real foreshadowing of what awaits Miloš Hrma.

And I, of course, will not give away the game.

But let me tell you about this watershed moment in cinema.

You could say Czech New Wave.  You could also say Czechoslovak New Wave.

In the case of the auteur in question, Jiří Menzel, it is the former.

The movement was already going by this point.

1966.  Almost the midpoint, if we say 1962-1972.

But none of that matters too much.

What matters is this film.

Closely Watched Trains.  Ostře sledované vlaky.

And so we started with Romania.  A new wave.  A current phenomenon.  Briefly in vogue.  And completely deserving of the praise.

And we made a point to look elsewhere.  To Iran.  Because of Kiarostami.

And now we add a much older New Wave.  It is of particular interest to our first location (Romania).

In globetrotting through movies we hit some odd, beautiful destinations.  Nations.

Czechoslovakia.  No more.  Today.  Czech Republic.  Slovakia.  And Ukraine.

But none of this matters much either.

What matters is Miloš Hrma.  The shy boy.

We know.

Intimately.

Not easy.

If the meek shall inherit the earth (Earth?), then it’s a long time in coming.

I am fond.  Quoting Neil Young.

“Vampire Blues”

“Good times are coming/But they sure coming slow”

Indeed.

That is the situation of Václav Neckář’s character Miloš.

He has the delight of love.  Snow in the air.  Smoke from a steam locomotive.  A cloud of fleeting sparks.

Our heart beats rapidly for cute Jitka Bendová.  And we think of football.  We try to ignore the Bond girl essence of her name.

Because she is one of the most poetic faces in cinema.  No Wikipedia page for her.  At least not in English.

But it is this love between Miloš and Máša which gives us hope.

An adieu from the caboose (football, football).

No doubt Wes Anderson plumbed the depths of Closely Watched Trains while searching for his own cinematic language.

In fact, the beginning of this film is very much like the beginning of every Wes Anderson film.

An exposition of characters.

Some with peg-legs.

An old crazy uncle.

A cow with too many udders.

But the most crucial is the hypnotist.

If there is a precursor to Jiří Menzel (and there must be), then it is Renoir.  Renoir meets Eisenstein.  And sex.

Did I fail to mention?

Closely Watched Trains is a sexual tension which can no longer be crystalized.

And thus history served us well by preserving this document of a different age.

It is a naughty film, but not by today’s standards.

It is sex…as directed by Hitchcock.

And for that it is sexier.  More tense.  Taut.

Consider, for instance, the stamps.  Ooh la la.

If you go ga-ga for Gyllenhaal in Secretary, then you must see the breakthrough moment.  In cinema.

Like the first kiss.  May Irwin.  Thomas Edison.  But actually William Heise.  1896.

Big black maria.  Something/Anything?

Yes, in fact.

First, and most importantly, the telegraphist (as played by Jitka Zelenohorská).  Almost like Chantal Goya in Masculin Féminin, but better.  Same year.  1966.  Maybe Menzel got an idea from Godard.  In any case, Zelenohorská gives one for the ages.  Deliciously naughty.

And lest you run off feeling less-than-substantive edification, it is political as anything.  That’s where Eisenstein comes in.  A brief moment of cinematic intercutting.

And the war.  Like Les Carabiniers.  1963.  The Rossellini inspiration via Godard, perhaps?

But really it is a new cinema.  Czech!  Mind-blowing…

Sex is more erotic with a laugh.  Surreal.  Real.  More real than real.

In a stunning final coup Menzel brought us Naďa Urbánková.

One minute you’re thinking about a girl, another you’ve been rounded up by the state security apparatus.

And then they realize you’re nuts.

And they have pity on you.

Release you into the swaying grass.

And like Chaplin you waltz off into the sunset to fulfill your destiny.

What a film!

-PD