14.12.17

"Tudors: The History of England Volume II" by Peter Ackroyd


Sometime previously this year - during the summer, to be precise - I purposely searched Peter Ackroyd as antidote for my than-current obsession with horror genre. I enjoyed horror very much to the point, but honestly there was nobody around who could even kiss the hem of Shirley Jackson's garment so I needed a break and decided to check out this celebrated writer whose body of work actually appealed to me greatly, since I am a bit of history nerd. First I listened the BBC radio episode of Desert Island Disc with Ackroyd as a celebrity guest and liked what I heard, than read the first title of his "History of England" ("Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors") which was actually surprisingly delightful - Ackroyd managed to somehow clear up the mess of centuries, kings, emperors and long forgotten names, making it all slightly easier to understand (if not necessary remember) and I promised myself to continue with this saga eventually. Well, the time has come - I had very unusual month-long absence from reading (first time in my life, as much as I can remember) where I just didn't have interest in books at all and now since I am comfortably nested at work again, reading before sleep is again my favourite pastime. Naturally I had to face the consequences of hoarding e-books in my virtual library so it feels like Ali Baba's cave, instead of choosing for days between 1597 titles, I simply picked up sequel to Ackroyd's "Foundation" and this one concerns exclusively Tudors - it continues exactly as the previous volume ended, with death of Henry VII and now the first chapter deals with coronation of his seventeen year old son Henry VIII who will eventually become history's most famous Bluebeard.


So far it has been the most enjoyable surprise, because tons of books I have read previously were too fascinated with Henry VIII and his numerous wives - this book actually takes a wider perspective and deals with what was going on during his reign - religious reformations, political machinations, uprisings, wars and such. Wives are mentioned but they are not necessary the main focus, in fact they are in the background just as they were in the real life ("The wives of kings were generally considered to be little more than brood mares." notes Ackroyd, matter of factly) With Henry's passing, his underage son (who sounds dangerously obsessed with religion and could have been grand inquisitor in making) Edward VI was manipulated around by various powerful dukes from the Regency Council and perhaps its better that he died as young as he was, because the friction between him and council would surely lead to a civil war. Right now I am exactly at the point when his long-suffering half-sister snatches the crown from would-be-usurpers, but she is still not known as "Bloody Mary" as posterity would remember her later. Elizabeth is somewhere around but not in the centre yet, so far only Thomas Seymour shows great interest in her buttocks - which would lead to his beheading (signed by his brother!) and Elizabeth herself will get so close to danger that the traumatic experience will forever make her increasingly cautious when it comes to any kind of relationships. Tudors were naturally extremely well covered in popular culture so yes, I am familiar with many of the stories here but Ackroyd still weaves very interesting story, gripping and fresh enough to enjoy like we hear it for the first time. 

I see Asia

Dear reader, I have actually stepped my foot in Asia for the first time - not just passing trough some international airport on my way elsewhere, or accidentally from one ship to another but actually, genuinely arriving in Asia. Its quite a big deal because I have been travelling for work more than fourteen years now and the routine kind of killed my excitement, I really had enough of same old Caribbean, Mediterranean and Baltic itinerary year in & out, even occasional new place like Iceland soon becomes old news so yes I was really thrilled upon hearing that this time I will sail somewhere else.

First, my arrival in Singapore was extremely traumatic. 
Not because the length of the flight (fourteen hours) since I was prepared for this, but because local immigration grilled me for another four hours for not having some very extra special documents that no other country in the world demands except Singapore - not having them, I actually faced deportation, which already happened to some of my colleagues. After several tense hours and desperate attempts to contact officials in Miami, I was eventually let go trough the border but my documents were still not in order and I was grilled again upon embarkation on the ship. On top of it all, this ship just finished so called "dry dock" so the crew area was in total disorder - apparently it takes some time to get everything working out properly as it should - so not only there was a dust, dirt and pieces of carpets & furniture everywhere but my own accommodation was not ready: the cabin door could not be closed, half of a carpet was missing, there were no bedclothes, no pillows, no air condition, no towels, no wc paper, shower not working, sink blocked... and Jet Lag just hit me so I had to lie down and snore on the bed the way it is, sheets or no sheets. Surely I reported all of this but guests cabins are priority and we will deal with crew later. On the fifth day the captain came to inspect crew cabins and when he saw my blocked sink, he kneeled down himself and used his Swiss army knife to fix the darn thing. 


My very first port was place called Laem Chabang in Thailand. Alas, dear reader, I was on port manning duty (don't ask - one of the extra duties everybody on board has on top of regular job) so couldn't go anywhere further than just top of the ship, from where I took this pictures of very picturesque and magical industrial terminal that stretches for miles around - in fact, there is a shuttle bus service to Pattaya and Bangkok but it takes hour or two if you are interested. What I expected previously (experience talking) proved to be true, some of our ports are simply extremely far away from any civilisation so there is absolutely no way one can simply walk out into town, shuttle buses and taxies are necessary. Even if I could go out, I probably wouldn't because at this point I have $15 and shuttle bus was $10 so why bother with driving two hours somewhere just to have tea and drive back again. Unfortunately both me and my roommate were on the same duty, so we were both dying from boredom in that stuffy cabin with no air condition. 

I asked all of my colleagues about the next port in Cambodia but they all appear completely uninterested. 
"I don't know", "I was sleeping", "It was raining", "Nothing to see there". Listening to them one wonders why on Earth these people applied for this job where travelling takes them around the world, if all they do is sleeping and drinking in crew bar. I was also a bit shaken with official message from the ship - warning for the crew to keep in groups and not to go out alone because of the noticeable crime rate in town - but decided that I need to poke my nose outside or else I will become too grumpy, locked inside all the time too long. Even the official Wikipedia page about Sihanoukville is not very flattering, warning about chaotic traffic ("Drivers of motorbikes often do not wear helmets, drive indiscriminately on any side of the street and it is common to see motorbikes with more than two passengers or vehicles driven by children and under aged people. Traffic lights are often ignored.") and lots of crime everywhere. I bravely took the shuttle bus along with several other cruise guests and we all laughed when we met on the same bus in roughly fifteen minutes - all we saw was ugly and smelly local big market, very exotic looking but all sorts of non-appealing food was mixed with inexpensive items like luggage and clothes, the odours were distinctively nauseating and of course beggars were pulling my sleeves at every step. The city looked ugly and desperately poor, there was no sidewalks - they are all taken with local "businesses" or should I call them what precisely they are, cheap stalls - which forces you to walk directly on the road, behind the cars and motorbikes. I perfectly understand that one can't expect same standards all over the world but this was not appealing - I saw it and quickly assessed the situation, decided this is not for me and went back to the shuttle bus. I really wonder will I enjoy my Asian adventure at all, because I am creature of comfort and all this dirt, dust and poverty don't appeal to me at all. As for the celebrated beaches, I am not interested in beaches or suntanning so it all sounds relatively depressing. Even the food I have seen was all deep fried and unhealthy looking - having a serious conversation with my doctor I changed my diet completely so the only food I am eating these days is fruits and vegetables - all this oil dripping from everywhere was just alarming. Strangely, people seems to eat absolutely everywhere on this heat and out of any old plastic container. I have no idea why in the world would any tourist want to visit such a dirt-poor place like Cambodia if not for bragging later. You might as well go to Albania instead, at least its in Europe. 


Next port was Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam - at least this is how it was advertised - unfortunately we are nowhere near that place, in fact we are docked in a port from which you need to travel two hours to town. There is absolutely nothing outside of the ship, no sign of life except hawking cab drivers who demand $ 85 for a drive so forget about Ho Chi Minh City, not only that I don't have money for that kind of excursions but after driving around all day long I still need to work in the evening & there's nothing that I need so desperately to drive four hours. As much as I heard, tomorrow is another place in Vietnam (Nha Trang) where its possible to simply walk out from the ship to town, so I will skip Ho Chi Minh City indefinitely. 

Conclusion: 

It might be too early to say, after all its been only a week but for now I can tell that this is far from what I expected. Where in Europe and in Caribbean ships were docked in spots relatively near to cities (so it was possible to just walk outside, no matter how ugly these docks and terminals usually are) here in Asia for some reason shipyards are extremely far from any human habitations, I mean, there's nothing and nobody around unless you are ready to empty the wallet every day for a cab ride or tourist excursion somewhere. In my first week I have seen only one place (which makes what, four times going out in a month?) and it was such a dirty, smelly shit hole that I thoroughly scrubbed my sandals upon return to my cabin. If this is how it's going to be, than I'm not looking forward to the next six months. At all

30.11.17

"The Limehouse Golem" by Juan Carlos Medina (2016)



Interesting variation on Jack the Ripper crimes, but this serial killer operates under the nickname "Golem" and leaves his grisly mutilated victims all over Victorian London shrouded in foreboding mist, fog and all sorts of toxic fumes. Inspector Bill Nighy (the only actor for whom I feel completely irrational affection and something close to infatuation) is pushed on the case and connects four possible suspects who might have been involved. As director Juan Carlos Medina cleverly suggest, each of these four was potentially "Golem", the only inconvenience being that one of them (Sam Reid) just died from apparent poisoning and his pretty wife (Olivia Cooke) finds herself accused by sneering servant (excellent María Valverde). While audience in the court is amused by her public humiliation, Nighy is moved by young widow's suffering and - to great exasperation of his helper, policeman Daniel Mays - tries simultaneously to help her, while solving the case.

Lots of visual pleasure here - in spite mutilated victims, but thanks to TV we are unfortunately accustomed to this by now - London looks just spectacularly dangerous and nasty under gaslights (poverty and degradation in the slums is heartbreaking) and we are treated with interior of gaudy music-hall where charismatic young Douglas Booth reigns as undisputed star of lowbrow shows, tailored for barely controlled mob of audience. In fact, crowd and people themselves are far more monstrous than "Golem" which is evident in the way journalists treat Nighy, mocking laughter in the court or in the music hall - they want blood and this is what "Golem" gives them. There is a hint that Nighy might suffer career setbacks because of his private life and we are to understand that even Mays accepted his position because of solidarity. David Bamber has a short but effective turn as public prosecutor and Henry Goodman is delightful as one of suspects - Karl Marx. With Nighy in lead, I thoroughly enjoyed "The Limehouse Golem" and loved every twist and turn until finale that surprised me despite the lifetime of watching movies.

"VIS Idoli Mini LP" by Idoli (1981)


Harbingers of the something fresh, rebellious and immensely different from stale toothless pop served at the time, Belgrade's rock band "Idoli" were caught here in the first bloom of the most appealing chapter in any musicians life, that initial energy and nerve that wants to break all the rules and barriers. It was the most inauspicious debut - simple, mini album with only six songs that Siniša Škarica from Zagreb's "Jugoton" somehow recognised as worth promoting and releasing on the most important recording company in the country. 

Only six songs, but oh, what a collection. Today when we have artists overloading their CD albums with twenty-plus filler, this appears as genuinely encapsulation of everything that is essential about the band: fierce musicianship, sneering vocals and off-the-wall sense of humour. Considering that during the previous decade country was enamored of rough and decidedly rural "shepherd's rock" by Goran Bregović and his band "Bijelo Dugme" this was something completely different and urban. You can immediately tell that Vlada Divljan and his guys are not shepherds but city guys, probably nerdy students obsessed with girls and sex. Considering that these young punks wanted to turn they backs away from schlager establishment its somehow ironic that their biggest hit and song that put them on the map was old 1961. number by Đuza Stojiljković ("Devojko Mala") but to their defence it must be said they performed it without irony, with genuine sincerity and it it was a massive radio hit. (My music teacher in elementary school never recovered from it and she played it non-stop for in the breaks between the classes. Not surprisingly, at the ceremony of her retirement she made the assembled choir singing it.) On the other hand, me and my little pals in the school screamed "Malena" everywhere, it was just the coolest thing we ever heard, although we were just eleven and didn't even know what sex actually is, but we took it in all seriousness (today I find it hilarious). 

Its been 36 years since and I listened it this morning several times, completely delighted - I still remember every single word and find it just delicious from the start to all-to-short finish. Nothing they ever did later thrills me as much as this debut mini album.  

29.11.17

"Sei mir gegrüßt" by Peter Schreier (1972)


Outside of pop music - where tastes are influenced partly by social background, partly by personal inclination - everything else I have discovered by myself. These, often clumsy and auto didactic steps into fields of such various genres as jazz, blues and country music often brought me immense pleasure and prompted even more excursions into whizzing eclecticism but nothing thrills me as much as classical music. How on earth I came from my working class background to Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann is one of the biggest mysteries and wonders of my life, but arrived I did and sometimes, when in the right frame of mind, I genuinely suspect its the only music worth listening. 

At first, Lieder was not really my thing. With so much to chose from, it kind of appeared too stiff, too rigid, too formal. Where operas could be fun in their overblown way, singers sincerely moving and instrumentalists dazzling in their virtuosity, lieder was initially my worse enemy. Either I changed or gradually warmed up to the genre (or discovered right recordings) but at this point you can hear me actually humming along with darn thing, to my biggest surprise. German tenor Peter Schreier is celebrated for the beauty of his voice and rightfully so - like mythological Orpheus, his seductive, sophisticated singing tugs at my heartstrings with such power that it almost makes me tingle. On this album its all about romantic Lieder, previously mentioned composers plus Felix Mendelssohn with whom I am not so well acquainted yet, but Schubert and Schumann I know so well that I can tell this is sensational performance of the highest order. The album opens with a song from "Die Schöne Mullerin" and it just rolls nicely on further trough some of the most beautiful melodies from Lieder repertoire, like "Du bist die Ruh", "Die Lotosblume" and hypnotic "Mondnacht" (that I heard first on classical album by Barbra Streisand, of all places!) - Schreier gently caresses these lyrics with almost unbearable tenderness and everything is pleasantly dreamy. Pianist Walter Olbertz is much more than mere accompanist, his is the perfectly distinctive voice flowing like a mountain stream. So far the only other piano & voice recording that got me so enthralled was 1950."Gabriel Fauré ‎Recital" by Gérard Souzay but Fauré is different experience, his music is almost painfully otherworldly to the point that I just want to sit somewhere and purr with my toes curling. 

"To Je Tereza..." by Tereza Kesovija (1970)


With few notable exceptions, majority of early 1970s LP albums released by "Jugoton" were compilations of singles and archive material. Arsen Dedić, Drago Mlinarec and Josipa Lisac insisted on recording completely new music for their debuts, but other contemporaries were content with this sort of "albums" which served as recapitulation of greatest hits up to that point.


It is little forgotten now, but initially Tereza Kesovija made bigger splash on international market than at home - her homegrown recordings were mostly assembled on various festivals and occasional single/EP for "PGP RTB" and "Jugoton" while French "Columbia" gave her completely different treatment and not only she recorded dozen EP recordings for them but there were even two LP compilations released for French market prior to this album. Graced with striking cover, "To Je Tereza..." finally brought her home in a big style, with selected material written specifically for her by celebrated songwriters like Dedić, Ivica Krajač and Đelo Jusić. There is marked development and transformation in her singing from previous 1960s recordings, like French experience gave her completely new impetus and although this kind of music sounds very dated now, Kesovija sounds confident and authoritative. Stamping each of this song with her distinctive passion and dramatic delivery, she soars trough her greatest hits up to that point ("Nono, Dobri Moj Nono", "Znam Da Ima Jedna Staza", "Adio") which were combination of local and international successes. For all her exaggerated theatricality, Kesovija was exceptionally distinguished vocalist with easily identifiable sound and just like her international colleagues Nana Mouskouri or Dalida she had a huge following. 


28.11.17

"Ko Me To Od Nekud Doziva" by Neda Ukraden (1976)


Even more impressive than its prequel "Neda Ukraden i Kamen na kamen", this second album by young Neda Ukraden is perhaps the culmination of first chapter in her career. The brain behind it all was producer/composer Nikola Borota Radovan who tailored material specifically for singer, with strong vision how to build her up as artist who bridges both folk and pop music. Since the newest current thing in local pop music was Bosnian rock band "Bijelo Dugme" who experimented with similar approach, Radovan not only combines rock guitars with themes about shepherds and livestock (critics called it shepherd's rock at the time) but actually brings the celebrated band (guitarist Goran Bregović, bass player Zoran Redžić and keyboardist Vlado Pravdić) as special guests - this kind of music, rough around the edges, suited the singer to a T.



Its light years of direction Ukraden will take later, when she enthusiastically embraced synthesisers-heavy 1980s pop and beyond, but it must be noted that she intuitively knew what works for her and eventually managed to achieve spectacular commercial success, even if her future music have no connections to these beginnings. The only odd ingredient here is inclusion of song by Đelo Jusić "Proći Će Jednom Ovi Dani" that pretty as it is, nests somehow uncomfortably amongst decidedly rural material - despite imaginative arrangements, its still a schlager more suitable for Tereza Kesovija (who in fact, recorded it herself later) and it signals that Ukraden had already set her eyes on further advancement - this was her last album with Radovan.

"Neda Ukraden i Kamen na kamen" by Neda Ukraden (1975)


In her first incarnation, Neda Ukraden was wholesome, folksy May queen with a enormous family appeal - her initial charm and beauty left some serious impression - but music-wise she was actually quite interesting. Just like probably every local girl singer at the time, Ukraden depended on composers and producers who would know how to successfully present her and in this case her Pygmalion was Nikola Borota Radovan who basically wrote, arranged and produced the whole album. Radovan's idea was very inspired - finding a still untested position in local pop music, he brought something completely new in combination between folk and pop, where his songs sounded deceptively simple and almost familiar but they were in fact quite sophisticated and eloquent variation on traditional folk with just a right touch of pop.

"Jel' To Taj", "Zemlja Nek Se Kreće" and  "Srce U Srcu" were hugely popular and clearly show Radovan's vision - he backed young singer with capable band ("Kamen Na Kamen") and a backing vocals ("Strune"), carefully giving her a star spotlight and she was talented enough to welcome the challenge. Where on her 1969. single debut listener would never find anything remotely interesting, here Ukraden genuinely sound comfortable and happy. Because she was so stunningly beautiful and her music was breath of fresh air amongst mammoth orchestration from pop festivals, this was warmly welcomed by audiences and even today it sounds surprisingly good. 

27.11.17

Photography by Iva Lulić

My vacation spot lies amongst picturesque hillsides of Northern Croatia called Zagorje - its just an hour drive towards North from Zagreb, sleepy little villages and towns comfortably nested amongst the hills but not so distant from the capitol, convenient for weekend visitors escaping hustle of the big city. Thanks to its unique geological properties, Zagorje has abundance of natural health spas and all sorts of cutest old chapels and medieval castles - one of them is just a short walk away from my cottage, huge imposing castle called Veliki Tabor (Great Castle) that used to belong to various aristocratic families trough the centuries, recently beautifully restored and it serves as museum/exhibition place now. I will write more about the castle on another occasion, but right now I want to share with you something I have discovered yesterday during my walk.

It might sound as a paradox that I enjoy my vacation here, since usually work leads me to such various celebrated tourist destinations all over the world as Athens, Istanbul, Rome, Monte Carlo and Barcelona but its exactly because I am constantly there, that I find peace and tranquillity here in the shadow of the great castle. In the daytime the view down the hills towards the village is heart-warming and in the evenings there is absolutely no sound except occasional deer, fox or hedgehog (hedgehogs apparently huff and puff a lot while rustling amongst the leaves, which used to freak me out until I found out where this sound comes from). Frequently the visitors arrive here with a bus and the whole line of visitors invade the road towards the castle - to my embarrassment, I must admit that I walk very rarely towards what is the biggest local attraction simply because its so close that I take it for granted as a part of "my" land but yesterday I walked there, out of curiosity to check out exhibition of art by Croatian soldiers. As usual, I arrived for one thing just to get completely distracted by something else. 

Instead of what I came here for, my attention was piqued by beautiful posters with stunning photographs from another, probably previous exhibition and I simply had to find out who is the photographer. Her name is Iva Lulić and she is brilliant artists indeed, apparently inspired by Croatian folk legends and mythology as you can see from her creations - since I have never seen anything like this before (kind of combination of dreams, mythology, costumes and theatre) I just talked about it the rest of the day and now decided to share her work with you here, because it makes me very proud that we have somebody so creative and talented.


23.11.17

"Les Misérables" by Tom Hooper (2012)


As an unhappy little child, placed in a cold foster home, I had found the solace and escape in the books - naturally I read absolutely anything that came my way via local public libraries and in this novel by Victor Hugo I discovered, for the first time, the fictional character that hugely mirrored my own experience. Yes it was Cosette and the intervening years didn't change one single bit how it strongly affects me to this day. Mention orphan kids and something inside me  falls apart in utter sadness, even lifetime away from it all. 


Amazingly, the idea that sprung in Hugo's mind continues to live on and on, its quite immortal by now. From 19th century bestselling novel to hit musical and now the screen adaptation, it just won't go away and still has a power to affect the people, quite amazing when you think about it. This, of course is a movie version of a celebrated musical so if you are not familiar with the genre, it might appear overtly melodramatic and overblown. Well, musicals are populist version of opera, so there you go, its not supposed to be realistic. They are highly stylised experiences and more you know about them, the more you can distinguish between what is genuinely great and what is not. I have actually seen live theatrical performance in London's West End back in the day when I was so green that I paid too much just to realise the ticket placed me too close to the stage (I had extremely cramped neck all the way trough it) but the sheer power of the performance, energy and the music left me weeping. For an hour and a half I completely forgot about my own miserable life because the sweeping waves of melodrama sucked me in a whirl and would you believe, I still cherish the memory of it. 


By bringing it on the big screen, director Tom Hooper could use countless cinematic visions but he mainly focuses on close-ups, often very sordid and unpleasant - they actually often take the focus away from what is the important (the story, the music). He also makes a completely ill-advised decision of engaging non-singing actors who might have star value but compared to countless experienced stage artists, they can not hold a candle to them. This is a musical after all, so to hear Hugh Jackman clumsily attempting to sing "Bring Him Home" (which is one of the most moving highlights on the stage) is painful indeed, it made me squirm. Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, was simply sensational and the whole brutal, heartbreaking reality of her despair is something I have never seen before in any previous Fantine, it could hardly be surpassed. Strangely enough, once she's all grown up, Cosette don't matter much anymore and Éponine (as played here by excellent Samantha Barks) steals our hearts completely. I have huge problem with Eddie Redmayne and no critic in this world can make me enjoy watching him on the screen, so the double treat of having him singing and acting simultaneously as supposedly dashing young student was unfortunately very uncomfortable experience. Frankly, it is a sensational stage show with a occasionally very moving music but I would prefer vastly different cast, with more attention and respect towards artists who nailed it earlier in theatre. Check out how Alfie Boe sings Jean Valjean and once you hear him doing "Bring Him Home" you will get the idea. It makes you wonder why Wolverine even bothered. 

22.11.17

"Koncert U Čast Karla Metikoša" by Josipa Lisac (1995)


I still remember - some twenty six years later - the conversation between my colleague and me at work, in late 1991. It was right in the middle of the war and horrible, inexplicable things were happening all over the place. Bombings, concentration camps, snipers shooting at the bus with orphans in Sarajevo, something evil seems to have possessed people.
I came trough the door bursting with the latest news: "Imagine, they totally burned the house of Tereza Kesovija in her hometown!" 
"Karlo Metikoš died last night!" she snapped back. 
And we both stood there, motionless in our astonishment.
"She will go mad now, surely" we both agreed solemnly.



Everybody knew that Josipa Lisac and her Pygmalion Karlo Metikoš lived for each other. They were accepted as a couple although they never actually got officially married on the paper (very endearing case of love that needs no formality) they tied the knots in their hearts and that was it for some twenty years filled with creativity, music and loyalty. He composed songs only for her, she sang what he wrote for her. With great reluctance, Lisac eventually had some hits written by others but her soul was forever intertwined with his. When her hero passed away, Croatian über diva appeared slightly unhinged - who could blame her - and although by now (2017) she lives alone longer than she ever lived together with him, I have feeling she never truly recovered. Despite the fact that the life goes on and professionally she was forced into collaborations with other authors, the main mission of her life became keeping the memory of Metikoš alive trough the annual concert tributes to him.

 I was present in the audience on the very first one (in ZKM with all-star assembly, recorded as "Ritam Kiše" that gave impetus to reappearance of by than long-forgotten Zdenka Kovačićek) but this particular concert was grand affair, where she sang exclusively repertoire written for her by Metikoš in various stages trough their love affair. Preceding similar Symphonic recording by Joni Mitchell, Lisac is backed by enormous Symphony Orchestra conducted by Igor Kuljerić and a massive choir, dressing all those pop hits into semi-classical garb and the sheer sincerity of her conviction makes this works despite malicious comments of her colleagues (I won't mention any names, but I heard them firsthand). It does sound magnificent and quite impressive but Croatia is a small country and we simply don't know what to do with someone as remarkable, so it mainly appealed to fans. Mitchell did similar project not long afterwards and she was awarded with "Grammy" for her vision. Caged inside her provincial surroundings, Lisac took a deep breath and went back to pop music.

"Letter from an Unknown Woman" by Max Ophüls (1948)


As a nerdy kid, I was of course familiar with books by Austrian literary giant Stefan Zweig - his 1930s biographies of royalty affected me greatly and probably made me history enthusiast for life, but curiously, I never read this particular novel because the title didn't appeal to me. Now, after this movie was recommended to me and I enjoyed it greatly, my curiosity is tickled since allegedly Hollywood did their typical reconstruction and tampered with the original story in order to whitewash potentially scandalous subject.


Lovely as it is - and its perfectly magical to watch, with a beautiful cinematography and unforgettable images - "Letter from an Unknown Woman" is one of those rare classics that are really triumph of style over substance: story itself (told mostly in flashbacks) is quite silly and melodramatic saga about unknown woman obsessed and so besotted with a seductive neighbour that she throws herself at him, while he is not even aware of her. Back in 1948. audiences probably found this all very romantic, but today her character appears quite unhinged and definitely masochistic. Give it to wonderful German director Max Ophüls to create a true beauty out of this mess - this is my first encounter with his work and guy was true genius, not only that he skillfully and artistically weaves magic but somehow everything looks so dreamy and beautiful that we are caught up in it without asking any questions. From the very beginning to the end, Vienna looks nothing like real geographical place but directors dream of what Vienna should look like - cobblestone streets, rain pouring on the rooftops, labyrinth of strange apartments where one  opens window into another apartment and soaks in the sounds (& smells, probably), amusement parks, dance halls, its all like a stardust. 


In hindsight, real star of the movie is its director although in 1948. all the praise was heaped on Joan Fontaine and her transformations from a teenage girl to a full grown woman and mother. Strangely enough, I couldn't care less for her character - despite the fact that movie is created around her - finding her not romantic but neurotic and even slightly retarded. Everything about her lovelorn gazes, sighs, smiles and open mouth acutely embarrasses me today - let's face it, she is a stalker - but curiously, my attention was focused on Louis Jourdan whom I understand much better. He is debonair man of style and grace, who has his own problems and actually grows as character much more trough the movie (where Fontaine only matures outwardly) - he even made me think of my younger self and how many times I toyed with affections, blinded by confidence of youth, not giving a slightest thought about consequences. Frankly, if I have a neighbour who plays Franz Liszt so seductively trough the night, I would probably roll myself in that carpet. And how cool it is to have a mute servant? (In my next life I want to be Jourdan and definitely I need a mute servant). Marcel Journet is excellent as a genuinely nice, silently suffering husband living with self-delusional wife. Just think for a moment, what kind of a future Jourdan and Fontaine would have if they actually lived together - he would probably got tired of her and she would sit on the stairs, wallowing in her masochism, until somebody sweeps her away with a broom. 

21.11.17

"Blanche Fury" by Marc Allégret (1948)


Grim period piece obviously modelled on successful Gainsborough melodramas - it has basically very much the same ingredients but its centre is much darker, despite glorious Technicolour. Perhaps because it was inspired by the true story so its not really as far-fetched as "The Man in Grey", except that towards the end scriptwriters clumsily had to untangle everything they weaved before, resulting in what appears as quickly patched up finale.


The first time I saw Valerie Hobson was in 1946. "Great Expectations" where she had impossible task to play grown up character of Jean Simmons and suffice to say, she was only memorable as inadequate Simmons. Here, on the other hand, she appears as a stunningly beautiful, statuesque and regal woman - it could be technicolour or camera, in any case she is pleasure to watch as long as her character is strong, wilful and passionate. When towards the end of the movie, her Blanche Fury succumbs to pressure and inexplicably becomes all soft and weepy, the whole story slides downhill. The story is fairly interesting - impoverished governess arrives in a wealthy estate, just to find herself in the middle of inheritance drama - but in the second half the characters of Hobson and Stewart Granger complete change and this transformation is so quick and sudden that it leaves you confused. One moment they are capable to fight off the whole bunch of horse thieves and before you know it, they metamorphose into different people whose words and motivations appear very confused and contradictory. Sybille Binder has a nice, unfortunately underused turn as a sinister servant and this role could have been explored much more if only scriptwriters planned it differently. Strangely, the movie was not great success as expected - it could have been that at this point audience was saturated with costumed histrionics or the characters were not likable, in any case it actually looks much better and more serious than movies that preceded this. Perhaps the remake would be good idea? 

20.11.17

"The Man in Grey" by Leslie Arliss (1943)


First of the famous Gainsborough melodramas and the one so wildly successful that it spawned the whole genre in itself during 1940s, "The Man in Grey" is still eminently watchable costume extravaganza but what initially impressed me the most was the fact that wartime Britain managed to produce something so opulent that it actually almost matches "Gone with the Wind". And for the people who are supposed to be tight-lipped, reserved and class conscious, these characters are extremely passionate and wildly melodramatic indeed. 


I have never, ever, in my wildest dreams expected that I would enjoy this as much as I did. The more I sipped my wine, the more everything appeared unbearably exciting, until I finished the movie pleasantly sloshed and convinced this is one of the best movies ever made in the history of the world. Naturally, the morning after my head is a bit clearer and with some embarrassment I realise that it all sound as I wrote the script myself at the age of fourteen (after too much coffee), though its perfectly clear why it appeal to wartime audiences so much - its a pure screen escapism, packed with sex, passion, jealousy and torment, it depicts people who are unhappy despite their wealth and it basically served lowbrow masses a cardboard, tinfoil pulp story brimming with titillating winks. The script (based on a novel by Eleanor Smith) pit British Scarlett O'Hara against Melanie Hamilton‍ and its a very obvious fight between good and evil, dark haired beauty against blonde fairy princess, two archetypes representing opposite sides of social and psychological spectrum. We know who is good and who is evil, though both Margaret Lockwood and Phyllis Calvert have their redeeming qualities and story makes clear that nothing is completely black and white. Tons of what today we would describe as politically incorrect - little gibbering servant is obviously white boy in a blackface (?), eligible girls are paraded as mares on elegant balls that are nothing but marriage markets and forced into loveless pacts that allegedly bring them social status and happiness, adultery is accepted as long as is discreet, sex is used as a weapon, etc. With all of this - and probably because it unabashedly plays with it, the movie is still compulsively watchable and it deservedly made stars out of the actors, kind of screen equivalent of salacious bodice-ripper but a darn great entertainment. 

18.11.17

"Koštana" by Divna Radić Đoković (1964)


Incidental music for a famous theatre play by Borislav Stanković, this was a very popular rendition of traditional folk music from Serbian district of Vranje and deservedly so, as music is genuinely beautiful. To my knowledge, "Koštana" is one of those plays that never left the stage since the days of its first performance and always attract the most magnificent actors as it gives them chance to really sink their teeth into dramatic roles. If I remember correctly, the title role is actually not the main focus of the play - other characters are far more prominent as this is about traditional village where order and rules are disturbed with potential scandal and people are eventually forced to conform and accept their caged lives as inevitability. Gypsy girl Koštana with her seductive song and dance is just a catalyst that cause all this unravelling, sort of local femme fatale who is unhappy in her own way, as her beauty is a curse. 

Operatic star Divna Radić Đoković played this role for twenty seven years and became forever associated with it, although she actually had pretty respectable background in classical music and apparently was schooled in Vienna conservatory. Despite successful roles in operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Charles Gounod and Christoph Willibald Gluck audiences adored her turn as gypsy siren and on this 1964. recording we could hear some part of her appeal. I purposely use words "some part" as prima donna was already fifty years old at this point and hers is not a voice of a young girl - my initial reaction was that she sound matronly indeed but with repeated listening I grew to love the music so much that now I'm over that small objection. Since the singer comes from a completely different environment and hers is a classical background, this is quite far from sexy and seductive gypsy girl but I understand that cultural atmosphere at the times preferred this kind of refined depiction than something authentic and raw. To her defence, Radić Đoković carefully avoids operatic thrills and coloratura swoops, her approach is best described as genteel variation on traditional folk music and as such this recording is perfectly acceptable, although perhaps more as historical document than genuine artifact - where music is truly sizzling with passion and fire is in instrumentals ("Čočečka igra", "Tema") that are fortunately not encumbered with socially acceptable notions of the times. Under all this cellophane it is still a beautiful, haunting music but listener has to deal with decidedly kabuki performance.