A treat from Mali on Monday, seeing Amadou & Mariam live in the Melkweg. For well over two decades this blind couple of musicians have blended traditional Malian and Western pop music into an irresistibly catchy mix, led by Amadou's terrific guitar and Mariam's soaring vocals.
Live they traded in the bluesy and often wistful undertone of their albums, notably 'Dimanche a Bamako' (2005), for a more danceable sound that was somewhat heavy on the beats. But while they kept most songs brief, a few times they allowed themselves extended jams with some showoff percussion and oldschool guitar soloing. (Back in the '80s Amadou in fact started as a guitarist in Les Ambassadeurs, itself an offshoot from the legendary Super Rail Band, which produced some of Africa's finest guitar players.)
Swiss director Alain Tanner's 'Dans la Ville Blanche' (1983) has a uniquely weightless atmosphere as it floats through Lisbon, the white city, in search of the limits of doing nothing, and "abolishing space and time".
The story is simple and has an improvised feel. A sailor, Paul, jumps ship in Lisbon and explores the city, recording street life on his 8mm camera and savoring his newfound liberty. He writes rambling letters to his girlfriend back home, and has an affair with a woman he meets, Rosa. The hotel where Paul stays, and where Rosa works, features a clock that runs backwards - an apt symbol for the warped and weightless atmosphere that Paul finds himself in.
In the vacuum of his life, Paul wanders around the foreign city whose language he doesn't speak, drinks in seedy bars, gets mugged and with obstinate aimlessness let's his life unravel around him. At one point Paul is compared to an axolotl, and the film quotes (or actually paraphrases) Argentine writer Julio Cortázar from his short story 'Axolotl' to explain this.
What fascinated me was their stillness the first time I saw the axolotl, and I soon thought I understood their secret will: To abolish space and time with an indifferent quietness. They seemed to be spying on something, some remote extinguished realm, a time of an aloof and absolute freedom when the world belonged to the axolotl.
It's this "indifferent quietness", this waiting to see what life has in store for him, even to the point where Paul's identity starts to dissipate in existential questions, that gives 'Dans la Ville Blanche' its unique atmosphere. And a very alien one from our own goal directed, efficiency obsessed age.
'Dans la Ville Blanche' shares many characteristics with that other famous film about Lisbon, Wim Wenders' 'Lisbon Story' (1994). In both films Lisbon is more than just a backdrop and becomes a character, an elusive mystery that the protagonists try to fathom. Both films are also about the attempt to capture that character on film, with lots of time capsule scenes with the camera just winding through its narrow cobbled streets and documenting life in the Alfama and other neighborhoods twenty, thirty years ago.
In 'Dans la Ville Blanche', as the 1983 NY Times review put it, "the city of the title is less a particular place than a series of states of mind". By now those states of mind seem almost as nostalgically lost as the picturesque 8mm city life the film portrays - but this just provides another reason to watch this somewhat forgotten film.
His son Andrei Tarkovsky included this poem in his film 'Stalker', narrated by Arseny himself. More of his poetry featured in 'The Mirror'.
(Mosfilm has released most of Tarkovsky's films online, including 'Stalker', though I really wouldn't recommend trying to watch these cinematic masterpieces on a laptop screen.)
This poem particularly expresses a major theme in 'Stalker', and indeed in many of his films, of man's yearning for some form of metaphysical guidance in a postapocalyptic, disillusioned age of cynical Writers and pragmatic Professors (to name the two iconic characters in the film).