THIS JOURNAL DOCUMENTS MY INTAKE OF ONE BOOK, ZINE, CD OR DVD A DAY. RATINGS ARE: ***** = Godhead, **** = Great, *** = Good, ** = Fair, * = Why Bother?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Damned United

The Damned United
directed by Tom Hooper
written by Peter Morgan, based on the book by David Pearce
Cast: Michael Sheen (Brian Clough); Timothy Spall (Peter Taylor); Colm Meaney (Don Revie); Jim Broadbent (Sam Longson)
(Sony Pictures Classics, 2009, 97 minutes)

When It Reigns, It Pours

I saw this great film, penned by hottest-Brit-screenwriter-of-the-moment Peter Morgan (The Last King of Scotland, The Queen, Frost/Nixon) and starring hot-Brit-actor-of-the-moment Michael Sheen (he played Tony Blair in The Queen and David Frost in Frost/Nixon), at the Landmark over the weekend. I like British soccer and my girlfriend likes British films, so it wasn't a hard sell to get her to go to a movie ostensibly about the Leeds United football club and the dismal 44-day reign in 1974 of its enigmatically brilliant-cum-destructively megolomaniacal big mouth manager Brian Clough (pronounced "Cluff" as in "rough"), a former star striker (251 goals in 274 games for Middlesbrough and Sunderland) who at one time was called the Muhammed Ali of British football for his brand of brash trash-talking.

Besides, though my GF Amy would much rather watch Cops or the Home Shopping Network, she'll tolerate watching soccer games if Ray Hudson's announcing ("I like that crazy Geordie guy - he's funny!") or if Chelsea or Tottenham are playing - the former because she loves the band Madness and singer Suggs wrote the anthem "Blue Day" for his East London heroes...

Suggs Song Blue

...the latter because she loves their Shakespeare-derived name Hotspur (although everyone just calls 'em "Spurs"). She also likes Stoke City because their team name is The Potters (after the pottery industry in Stoke-on-Trent) and Hull City because they make her think of the Rutles song "Finding Your Bride in the Arms of a Scotsman from Hull." Plus she loves all the drunken singalongs in the bleachers and will start laughing the minute she hears a good "Here we go" or "Who are you?" from the stands. So, like I said, it wasn't a hard-sell.

I knew nothing about Clough or the Leeds United "glory years" of 1961-1974 when they dominated English football under manager Don Revie, but I remembered liking Leeds in the early Noughties during their last spell in the top-flight Barclay's English Premiere League - right before financial troubles at the big club finally saw them relegated to the minor leagues in 2004. (They currently toil in the 3rd-tier League One.) Under manager David O'Leary (1998-2002), Leeds routinely finished in the EPL's top five and I loved his lineup, which before financial woes included Robbie Keane, Alan Smith, Jonathan Woodgate, and Australian superstars Harry Kewell and "The Duke," Mark Viduka. I'll never forget seeing "Super" Viduka score four goals to single-handedly lift Leeds over Liverpool 4-3 at Elland Road in 2002. (It's hard enough to forget Viduka as is, because he bears an uncanny facial resemblance to comedian Fred Willard!)

Separated at Birth: Willard and Viduka

Super Viduka's 4-goal spree against the Reds

The big man's deft touch and ability to hold the ball up while being muscled in the box made him the definitive back-to-the-defender striker, the likes of which are only seen today in the form of Chelsea's Didier Drogba or Barca's Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

But I digress...back to the film, which despite all this talk of football isn't really so much about kicking a ball around as about things like male bonding, interpersonal relationships, ego and one man's Capt. Ahab-worthy obsession - not to mention that particularly Anglo "us vs. them" fixation about Northern vs. Southern that dominates all aspects of British sport and culture (whether it turns up in Morrissey lyrics or in rivalries like Mancunians Oasis dissing Londoners Blur). The Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips saw the film mainly as the story of a rocky marriage between Brian Clough and his lifetime assistant coach and best friend Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall of the Harry Potter films and BBC TV's The Street). In fact, it was Phillips insightful review "Small Soccer Tale Pays Off Big" (reprinted in last Friday's Baltimore Sun) that sold me, the soccer fan, on this film being more than just an 11-on-11 kickabout. His words, reprinted below, do more justice to this fine film than I am capable of.


Small soccer tale pays off big

by Michael Phillips
Tribune Newspapers critic
October 16, 2009

In most sports movies the big moments are big: Robert Redford's star-spangled mega-homer in "The Natural."

By contrast the best of many good scenes in "The Damned United," a winner for soccer fans and soccer idiots alike, is a small one. Brian Clough, one-time English footballer turned failed manager of the Leeds United club, spends a match alone in the changing room. Through smeared windows we see, and hear, the crowd roaring approval in between tense, uncertain passages of time. Michael Sheen, who played Tony Blair in "The Queen" and David Frost in "Frost/Nixon," portrays Clough, and he's marvelous, suggesting warring strains of confidence and doubt in his nervous pacing and darting eyes.

Sheen dominates director Tom Hooper's vivid examination of arrogance, pride, Humpty Dumpty-size falls and self-rehabilitation. He is not, however, the whole show. Drama is a balancing act, and one of the great strengths of screenwriter Peter Morgan lies in the way he juggles characters and shifts the expected emphasis from one playing field to another.

Morgan's work for the screen often pivots on a shadowy antagonist, as with dictator Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland" (which he co-wrote), or with Richard Nixon in Morgan's own adaptation of his play "Frost/Nixon," or with British royalty as embodied by Helen Mirren in "The Queen." The same strategy applies in "The Damned United" and its use of Don Revie, the successful manager of Leeds United before Clough's disastrous 44-day tenure. The reliable, granite-like Colm Meaney does a fine job with Revie's sneers and smiles, but it's not his story. Nor does "The Damned United" devote much screen time to how Clough and his invaluable assistant manager, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), went on to glory with the Nottingham Forest club.

Rather, Morgan sticks to his dramatic guns and gives us Clough, in present-tense 1974 and flashback sequences, as he realizes how much he needed Taylor, and how much his Leeds players detested him. The crucial story here is about a marriage dissolving and then reconstituting. Clough and Taylor are the symbolic spouses (they had real ones as well). "The Damned United" reminds us that backstage characters often have the most to tell, and Sheen and Spall are both first-rate character men who happen to be tackling leading roles.

The grim Yorkshire weather is captured just so by cinematographer Ben Smithard. The movie gives you its little dose of triumphalism in a coda, but one of the chief virtues of this unusually honest sports film is its determined focus on the losing before the winning, and the hard lessons to be learned from it.

Oh, as a postscript, I have to mention that while attending this weekend's Sherlock Holmes Society event at the Enoch Pratt Central Library, I sat behind a guy wearing a yellow-and-white English football scarf for...Leeds United! I had never seen anyone wearing Leeds gear in all my time in all the soccer bars in Baltimore until that Saturday afternoon. Something must be in the air...a strong Yorkshire draft coming across the pond to Charm City. Anyway, I told the guy about the movie and he was excited...

Private Eleanor

Private Eleanor: On top of the world

Thanks to the Enoch Pratt Central Library's local music collection, I just discovered my favorite local band: Private Eleanor. And as luck would have it, they no longer exist. Typical me: I don't miss my water 'til my well runs dry. The album I heard was their fourth and final recording from 2007, Sweethearting. As the band is currently on hiatus, it remains their swan song in absentia.

Private Eleanor
Beechfields (2007)

The band's introspective dreampop sound has been compared favorably to everyone from American Analog Set to Yo Lo Tengo, with nodding winks along the way to Big Star, The Go-Betweens, Mojave3, Red House Painters, Elliott Smith, and Wilco. Me, I hear SF's Sneetches in there for some reason. Whatever musical signposts they point to along the way, Private Eleanor's sound is (was?) definitely Twee with a capital T. And I like that. I mean, how can you not love a band that names an album Deciduous?

PE performing live

Though they've gotten some good national press, my favorite description of Private Eleanor comes from the Baltimore City Paper's Jess Harvel, who's a good a music writer as there is around town:
"Private Eleanor makes music so perfect for solitary drives on the cusp of late night/early morning that you want to rewind back a decade and listen to the band's music on an unlabeled C90 in your old beater's tape deck...The drizzly, cinematic sweep of Stahl's road-weary, twentysomething heartbreak is more sharply observed than ever, set to a lush swirl of bells, vibraphone, Hammond organ, and Rhodes piano meticulously arranged for the tingling of spines, crisply recorded and hitting all the band's now well-established sweet spots...Each song works beautifully as a little standalone slice of baroque indie-pop."
- Jess Harvel, Baltimore City Paper

PE performing live at Fletchers

According to the band's blog circa June 2009, leader Austin Stahl recorded a solo record that's available for free download at AustinStahl.net.

"It's a record I made by myself at home, just for fun (much like the earliest PE stuff) but I liked it enough to want to share it with you. This is the first music I've ever released under the name Austin Stahl. Go download it! If you like Private Eleanor music at all, I think you'll enjoy it." Heads up, Stahlinists!



Private Eleanor's back catalog is now available digitally at their digital store: privateeleanor.bandcamp.com.

Their first three records had never been available digitally, until now... And their first album, Deciduous (2002), had been out of print completely, unavailable in ANY form, for over five years. As Austin Stahl says, "Well, we've remedied that at long last. Go get them all!"


Here's the band's press bio from the Beechfields record label.


“Built upon sturdy melodies and the type of harmonies rarely practiced these days, they dared to be genuine and pretty, hurt and poppy, confused yet direct. They made pop that the likes of Teenage Fanclub and Mojave 3 would happily call their own.”
—John Foster, BrightestYoungThings.com

Private Eleanor was a band from Baltimore, Maryland, who over the course of little more than five years was responsible for four records of unfashionably lovely folk-pop. For now, they’re on indefinite hiatus, having left behind little but those remarkable records – full of sly hooks, sparkling textures, and evocative, poetic lyrics as good as any you’re likely to hear.

Songwriter Austin Stahl began the band on a four-track cassette recorder in the bedroom of a Baltimore rowhouse, crafting a pair of intimate albums with the help of a rotating cast of friends. Stahl was soon hailed as the city’s best songwriter by the local City Paper, and began performing live with a full-time band. The higher-fidelity No Straight Lines followed in 2005, gaining slightly wider release (via Maryland label The Beechfields) and earning critical accolades on a national level (75orless.com called it “the final album Elliott Smith should have made.”). Before long, the band was bringing its subtle, harmony-laden pop songs to half-empty rooms throughout the nation.

Sweethearting was released in 2007. Recorded and mixed with the help of T.J. Lipple (Aloha) and Chad Clark (Beauty Pill), the album was performed mostly live in the studio, and showcased more than ever the vocal harmonies between Stahl and fellow singer Marian Glebes. The shifting backdrop provided by Chris Merriam (drums), Bruce Sailer (bass), and Drew Stevens (Rhodes/piano/organ) made for the band’s most varied and sonically deep record – at times the hushed vocals and vintage keyboards call to mind American Analog Set; other moments resonate with the quiet emotion of Ida or Red House Painters; some of the louder, catchier songs could pass for Yo La Tengo tackling your favorite Big Star tunes. It was the band’s best-received record to date, but they were unable to tour behind it and went on hiatus soon after.

As of this writing, Private Eleanor has no current plans to perform or record. Two new compilations feature what are, for now, the band’s final recordings: Love Goes On, a tribute to Grant McLennan of the Go-Betweens, for which Private Eleanor was chosen to contribute a cover of the title track; and This City of Neighborhoods, a new compilation from the Beechfields Record Label.

The Beechfields Record Label
P.O. Box 6732
Towson, MD 21285



Thursday, November 5, 2009

Shepherds of Berneray

The Shepherds of Berneray
a film by Allen Moore & Jack Shea
(Canada, 1981, 54 minutes)

filmed and edited by Allen Moore
conceived and produced by Jack Shea
narrated by Finlay J. MacDonald
executive produced by Robert Gardner
principal characters: Kate Dix, John Ferguson, Angus Beag MacLeod, Angus and Chirsty Ann Munro, John and Christine Munro

The original Ram's Head, Live - from Berneray!

Last night I was among a handful of cineastes that were treated to a special screening of Allen Moore and Jack Shea's 1981 documentary The Shepherds of Berneray at the Hexagon on N. Charles Street. The event was the latest offering in Miguel Sabagol's continuing "Free Wednesday 16mm Film Series" at the Hexagon, which the Baltimore City Paper named "Best Multi-Purpose Space" in its 2009 Best of Baltimore issue.

Allen Moore

I only heard about the screening because, in addition to being an award-winning cinematographer for Ken Burns and a well-respected film instructor at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, Allen Moore is also a regular patron of the Enoch Pratt Central Library, where he often pops in to check out titles from our 16mm film collection. So when he mentioned last week that he was screening one of his films at the Hexagon, I had to give props to a filmmaker and lenser that I greatly admire. I wasn't disappointed. At the risk of sounding like a hyperbolic fanboy, I think film historians will rightly rank Moore's cinematography alongside that of the all-time great lensmen. And, beyond knowing how to frame and present "pretty pictures," Moore is also an accomplished director and editor, at least from I've seen of his own films.

Small wonder then that the film - made with funds from The Film Study Center, Harvard University, The Highlands and Islands Development Board of Scotland, and The Scottish Arts Council - won a CINE Golden Eagle, a Red Ribbon at the American Film Festival, and a Special Mention of the Jury at Cinema du Reel. Soon after completing The Shepherds of Berneray, which was shot over 12 months from May 1978 to 1979 and took another 18 months to edit, Moore received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in Filmmaking from December 1982 to November 1983.

So what and where is Berneray? Quickly searching the Internet for a Wikipedia article, I learned that Berneray (Scottish Gaelic: Beàrnaraidh, from Old Norse for "Bjorn's island") is a small island to the north of North Uist in the Sound of Harris, Scotland.

It is one of fifteen inhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides, measuring 2.5 acres with a population (as of May 2009) under 124 permanent residents. It is famed for its rich and colourful history which has attracted much tourism - including Charles, the Prince of Wales, who in 1987 visited the island to live a normal Berneray life as a "crofter" (small-scale farmer). (Prince Charles lived and worked with a crofter for one week and his visit spawned the 1991 television documentary, A Prince Among Islands; he returned to the island in 1999 to formally open the causeway connecting Berneray and Otternich on North Uist). Its main industries are fishing and sheep, but because seafood is a valued export to the mainland, the island's lifeblood is its sheep. Hence the focus of Moore's remarkable film, which documents one year in the life of the sheep and their Gaelic-speaking (and singing) keepers, split into seasonal chapters.

Berneray: Shaped like the headstock on a Fender guitar

The documentary begins and ends with an elderly woman (Kate Dix) speaking in her native Gaelic (thank God for subtitles!) outside her croft, a perfect bookending of the year's journal. Moore's print looked absolutely pristine and flawless, with nary a scratch on the screen. Shooting with a non-synch sound Bolex 16mm camera, he was able to follow the shepherds and their flock through every nook and cranny of the island, capturing both its natural beauty (the gorgeous blue skyline and shoreline in summer, the blooming flora in the spring) and the raw unpredictability of its stormy, wind-swept winters.

I liked his editing touches, little things like the footage at the island's church where the minister reads "The lord is my shepherd" to the shepherds, and the sheep point-of-view shots when they are being dipped into an anti-tic bath.

My fellow Pratt librarian (and fellow film geek) Marc Sober was also in attendance, and I knew the avowed vegetarian was in for a rough viewing experience during the no-holds-barred footage depicting the inevitable killing and eating of sheep (the islanders eat a lot of mutton - they save the tasty lobster for export to the mainland and the $$ it promises in return). As was the Maryland Film Festival's Eric Hatch, another vegetarian I spotted, sitting in front of Marc Sober (I'm pretty sure I saw Eric looking away during the more grisly segments!).

Moore leaves nothing out as far as documenting the sometimes harsh lifestyle entailing by living off sheep on a remote island. There's the birth and death of sheep, branding the flock by cutting off part of the ear, the inevitable wooly-bully sheep shearing, even an "old school" cirmcumcision of a ram by an old-timer who bites off the skins and spits it out! (I'm glad I ate before the screening and not after!).

Remarkable as the natural beauty of Berneray and Moore's cinematography are, the film is more than just a visual record of a remote land and people. Key to its translation of Berneray's culture is the poetic language of its people, which Moore captures not only in the Gaelic monologues of grande dame Kate Dix (who, Moore said afterwards, unfortunately passed away before the film's completion), but in the native folk songs of Mary MacAskill, Duncan MacKinnon and Christine Munro, and the poetry of the Bard of Berneray, Duncan MacLeod of Besdaire (1906-1980).

"Moore has become renowned in filmmaking circles for the way he portrays the intimate relationship of a culture to its environment, a vision he calls primarily poetic," wrote Baltimore Sun critic Linell Smith. He was referring to Moore's award-winning 1990 film Black Water (co-directed with Charlotte Cerf), which documented an artisanal fishing village in northeastern Brazil struggling to survive the impact of industrial water pollution, but he could just as easily have been talking about The Shepherds of Berneray. For Moore is an ethnographer as well as a photographer and documentarian, one just as interested in understanding the best way to present a foreign culture as a lensman is interested in the best way to present images to the human eye. Like his camera, Moore's eye is unflinching, direct, and true. And the impressions he leaves on our eyes are indelible.

Related Links:
Isle of Berneray website
The Shepherds of Berneray @ Internet Movie Database
Scottish Screen Archives
Allen Moore's MICA bio
Allen Moore @ Florentine Films
Black Water @ Icarus Films