Friday, 18 April 2014

Tate Modern - Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs
Tate Modern (17th April 2014 – 7th September 2014)

Cut-outs can easily be considered a less-complex manner to create art. Indeed, creating collage by cutting and arranging images or patterns is something often attributed to childhood. But, like all art forms, developing a skill requires patience, experimentation and a passion that borders on obsession. Though cut-and-paste projects at primary school can be an afternoon’s pleasure or an integral part of a group puzzle, Henri Matisse devoted himself to cut-outs when restricted to a wheelchair in 1941. Gouache-painted sheets of paper, subtlety coloured in specific tones, accentuating the diverse range of colours were Matisse’s medium of choice in his final years.

The Tate Modern has showcased, and organised, an exhibition that charts Matisse’s final years. His initial experiments with collage (arranging and re-arranging simplistic bowls and fruit for a painted final piece) through to his obsession with patterns, colour and natural forms. Akin to a majestic performance, the exhibition saves his greatest act till last as, following his blue nudes, are his enormous cut-outs and window-designs that dominate walls, filling the final rooms.

Exiting through gift shop, the blue nudes are clearly the saleable and popular art pieces on show. The various experiments consisting of an elongated leg held by a crouching woman, composed of merely cobalt blue figures on a white surface is simply perfect. In this exhibition, we see the evolution of a version consisting of multiple papers, tweaked and layered to create the nude, and then the same nude composed of only one, perfectly cut, single sheet. The smooth, sharp slice of metallic scissors to cut out the arch of her back and the length of her thigh is surely as satisfying as hearing the long, smooth sound of a saxophone. Indeed, the playful, improvised and vibrant arrangements became a book, titled ‘Jazz’. He illustrated, supported by notes, and though unrelated to the music style, it remained an appropriate title.

Due to his sickness, his work becomes more abstract and spiritually dominant as you work your way through. Though the shapes are clearly integral to the images, he becomes more obsessed with colour in his later pieces opposed to the figures, shells and leaves seen originally. There is poetry to his contrast between curved and expressive shapes against the sharper edges of squared frames and defined edges. The larger the scale, the patterns become clearer and symmetry becomes an important way to balance the composition - but colour is larger and over-powering. With this in mind, it seems natural and purposeful that his work became more spiritual. The final room, demonstrate how natural his cut-outs are when converted into stained-glass. Christmas Lights (1952) showcases a true combination of considered tones and arresting shapes. Your eye looks up to the glorious light, demanding your attention in the centre of an abstract arrangement of form and colour. There is no Christ in a manger, or God touching the hand of Adam. It is proof that simplicity, such as the innocence in a child’s art piece, hides the greatest beauty.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

My Neighbour Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)

Totoro is the symbol of Studio Ghibli. The smiley, grey beast began life as part of a double-bill with Grave of the Fireflies because financiers didn’t believe My Neighbour Totoro alone would make money. By screening the cute and cuddly My Neighbour Totoro with the harrowing, deeply moving Grave of the Fireflies, the assumption was it was bound to succeed (despite the jarring tone of each tale). Following the release, the films were initially only mildly successful – critically acclaimed maybe, but not enough to financially secure the studio. What ensured the longevity and creative freedom of the studio was exceptionally successful merchandising from the characters created in My Neighbour Totoro (and, over time, the steadily-growing audience of each film).

The story itself is relatively simple. A father and his two daughters move to rural Japan, to be closer to their mother, who remains in hospital (possibly based on Miyazaki’s own experiences as his own mother was in hospital during his childhood). In the new house, the two children Satsuki and Mei find dust-creatures named susuwatari. This begins a fascination with forest creatures and the spirituality of nature. One afternoon, as Satsuki is at school, Mei explores the forest and chases after a small, vanishing creature. Akin to Alice chasing the White Rabbit, Mei chases the creature through the forest and, falling down the rabbit hole, finds the magical and majestic forest spirit Totoro. He sleeps and snores. He doesn’t speak her language, but there is a connection. Satsuki convinces her sister and, with father in tow, tries to find Totoro. Their father explains how Totoro revealing himself to them shows a mutual respect and is a great honour. In an unforgettable sequence, we see a nekobasu – a cat-bus – collect Totoro after Mei’s first encounter with him at a rainy bus-stop. We witness the girls as they see Totoro play his Ocarina on a branch and prove his ties to the environment, forging a tender relationship.

Nature, spirituality and the wonder of childhood are prominent features in the Studio Ghibli canon. Whether it is the way humans interact with nature in Princess Mononoke or the destruction of nature by man in Grave of the Fireflies; a ghost spirit of No-face in Spirited Away or the child at the centre of Ponyo; My Neighbour Totoro includes these thematic elements throughout. The final act of My Neighbour Totoro even includes a wonderful flying-sequence as the nekobasu flies the two girls to see their mother, as the wind rushes through the fur of the cat, we join them in the sky. As we fly in so many of his films, this is a joyful reminder of the incredible imagination of Miyazaki and how he captures the lush, green fields and blue skies in animation.

This was 1988, four years after the world wide success of E.T. and six years after The Snowman. In both cases, a mythical creature enriches the life of children, carrying them over the wonders of nature. This may be a surrealist fantasy, but it’s about friendship and the connection we have with these spiritual forces (and what spirituality teaches us too). Considering the backstory of the Mother’s sickness in My Neighbour Totoro (And, in the double-bill, the history in Grave of the Fireflies), there is a sense that nature and the innocence of childhood, in the face of adversity, should be treasured above all. The fun and friendship of Totoro and his companions keeps these particular children happy. Their mother and father are going through a horrific period (is it life-threatening? Will these poor girls lose their mother?). Is this when children should be taught of the fragility of life? When Satsuki finds out about her mother, she puts her own life in danger as she walks the long and lonesome road to the hospital. Perhaps, the innocent child has to slowly and gently learn about the world.

A distinctive charm is what maintains My Neighbour Totoro’s ever-lasting power. Such sincerity and a terrific sense of wonder means that we can, for a moment, be a child again ourselves. Through the looking glass of cinema, we can see Totoro and the creatures too – and what a memorable sight it is.

This was originally written for Flickering Myth on 18th April 2014

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988)

A Studio Ghibli season at the BFI has highlighted the very best of Japanese animation. We can define the cuddly Totoro or fantastical world of Princess Mononoke as what Studio Ghibli stands for – but Grave of the Fireflies proves otherwise. In fact, Isao Takahata’s 1988 film(released alongside My Neighbour Totoro) is a sobering, heart-breaking tale of those final years in Japan at the end of World War II, told through the eyes of two children, Seita and Setsuko. Grave of the Fireflies may be one of the most impressive, and surely ground-breaking, animations from the studio and challenges Disney – and western animators - to make such mature, intelligent and brutal films for a young audience.

Based on a novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, it is semi-autobiographical as he himself survived the fire-bombings of Japan while his sister died of malnutrition. This truth is loud and clear as the story is open and frank about the horrors of war. Indeed, aimed at children, this will surely establish a sense of pacifism in the youngest of minds. “September 21, 1945... that was the night I died.” is the first line. Seita is dead. We hear this narration from beyond the grave, and merely seeing his starved corpse in the centre of Sannomiya Station is a shock unto itself. Does author Nosaka believe this should’ve been his fate? But his soul is reawakened and we flashback to the countless moments of injustice that he, and his sister Setsuko, are forced to bear to stay alive. Something, known from the outset, they fail to do.

The spectacular backdrop of nature and blue skies, and the neon glow of the fireflies, contrasts against the war time horrors. Bandaged bodies and ashen corpses litter the streets. Setsuko herself – a baby-faced four-year-old - has red-rash skin, diseased by malnutrition, whereby her rib-cage, even in animated form, evokes such sadness. We know Setsuko was not the only young child affected.

But Grave of the Fireflies rests on the shoulders of 14-year-old Seita. His downward spiral of sorrow begins as he desperately runs from the fire-bombs hitting his home-town, as Setsuko clings to his back. His only goal is to find his Father and look after his sister. Irrespective of the burnt towns and desperation on their faces, Seita and Setsuko try and laugh. They play on the beach and carry gem-like fruit-sweets in a tin. Setsuko’s laugh highlights her happiness and her innocence, but we know it won’t end well. Seita steals to stay alive and a cruel aunt abuses the limited rice they gain (accumulated by selling their deceased mothers kimono). These are desperate times and, too young (and rightfully scared) to support the nation, but too old to be pitied and helped by others. Seita is trapped in the grey area whereby adults can’t comfortably ignore his troubles.

Compared with films that tackle the destruction and decimation of war in the context of childhood, such as War Horse, it doesn’t do the film justice. Grave of the Fireflies stands tall alongside Schindler’s List considering the emotional honesty revealed in the death of two children; the lead roles. Roger Ebert notes the influence of Hiroshige and Hergé in the animation, detailing how it the narrative “mediates on the consequences” of action rather than exploiting it. Indeed, the patience and calmness is overpowering as we see the humanity in the story. Ebert goes so far as to state that Grave of the Fireflies “belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made”, and I’d be inclined to agree. As part of the Studio Ghibli season, it is amongst the very best.

This post was written for Flickering Myth on April 16th 2014

Thursday, 10 April 2014

150W: Another Woman

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Another Woman (Dir. Woody Allen/1988)

Marion Post (Gena Rowlands) didn’t realise she was hated. An upper middle-class intellectual (like many of Woody Allen’s characters), she’s a professor of Philosophy who overhears a neighbour (Mia Farrow) revealing her private life to a psychiatrist. Self-disciplined and successful, Marion should be considered an inspiration – but alas, she lacks passion. Her husband (Ian Holm) mocks the idea of sex on the floorboards and the potential lover (Gene Hackman) that got away was rebuffed despite a mutual attraction. Bearing similarities to his latest film, Blue Jasmine, our female, central-character goes through a crisis - yet Another Woman resolutely builds her up as a strong, dominant woman. The tragedy is how, despite such bold characteristics, she is flawed by her well-planned, ordered goals. Her narration is matter-of-fact and purposefully specific and therein lays the rub. As enlightening as the story may be – Marion is a tad boring dragging the film behind.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014


On April 18th, Spider-Man will be web-slinging his way through New York City again. The Amazing Spider-Man was a reboot of the popular comic-book hero and, now they have placed the foundations of our awkward teenager into place, they can build upon the story. Repeating the beats on Raimi’s Spider-Man, the 2011 blockbuster showed us again how the arachnid bit the boy; the Uncle killed and a love-interest was turned down after a whirlwind romance. Thank God, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 can now go in whatever direction it wants, and indeed, after watching the first film I’m glad we are finally here.

Witnessing a thirty-minute show-reel screening, I can honestly say that I am excited about the next instalment. Marc Webb introduced the video by telling us how The Amazing Spider-Man 2 portrays Spider-Man at the “top of his game” while Peter Parker is trying to be a “regular kid”. The missing back-story of Peter Parker’s father, alluded to in the previous film, is expanded upon in the opening moments of the upcoming film with a rough and messy hand-to-hand fight set within a jet recalling the type of directing Paul Greengrass has shown us in The Bourne Supremacy. This flashback soon cuts to Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) saving the Big Apple as Rhino (Paul Giametti) ploughs through downtown, smashing cop cars and yellow cabs to the side of the road. Andrew Garfield is cheeky and cheerful, while retaining a certain amount of smug arrogance that immediately gains our attention. We like him, and for me, we like him more than Tobey Maguire’s slightly-too-awkward portrayal in the 2000-2008 series.

Lead-villain Electro is played by Jamie Foxx and, though showcasing some incredible special effects and strong, effective use of 3D, his one-liners (“It’s my birthday – it’s time to light my candles!” BOOM!) and blue make-up seems to recall our favourite Batman villain - Mr Freeze (from the critically-panned Batman and Robin). But this is Spider-Man! He’s our favourite guy! He is fun and games; a geek we can relate to; an optimistic lad who can’t quite believe how crazy-cool his supernatural powers are! The Avengers are building a universe that is epic in scale – reaching from earth to Asgard. Man of Steel seems to be so serious while X-Men: Days of Future Past is so political. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 looks like it will be fun – and pronounce f-u-u-u-un, with a huge grin on your face. Over the top villains, snarky heroes and gorgeous romantic interests (with perfectly-balanced chemistry between Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield) is what we want to see. While he may be limited to the Manhattan skyline, that’s not a bad thing. It means it looks like the comic book we know and feels like the gloss and shine of New York blockbusters. This doesn’t look like throw-away fun but maybe the fun you’ll revisit time and time again. April 18th will answer out questions…

This post was originally written for TQS on March 25th 2014