Ana fil houb

أنا في الحب
By Lili Boniche

Lili BonicheThe song begins with a long plaintive violin solo over tremolo piano. It could be something from the Warsaw ghetto, the Russian steppe, something like Loyko, maybe? – somewhere familiar to the central Europe folk tradition. The violin solo ends with a flourish in the piano. The clarinet takes over, unaccompanied, with a low trill. We’re still in the same middle European territory, but darker maybe. Breathy and woody, it feels like centuries of sadness and yearning have found their expression here. The piano returns and a syncopating triple rhythm (a malaguena?) in the pizzicato violin jolts you onto the dancefloor of a rundown old cabaret, maybe, in flamenco heels, with your partner now, just beyond your reach. The piano and the violin are adversaries, toying with time, like dancers acting out a tragic love story. After a short, brilliant cadenza played by the pianist, now with a rose clenched between his teeth and thrown to the ground in a fit of pique, everything slows to a heartbeat, and introduces the first we hear of the singer, Lili. He delivers a long one-breath vocalise – a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, a heart spiked by a discarded rose, a lost gypsy soul. He is joined in his cry by the violin, which darkly, almost seductively, lurks around and behind the voice as it spins around and around, the soul and its shadow, a dazzling romantic duet. And as the band kicks in with a swaggering paso doble run-through of the melody, Lili returns, at last, with the line: Ana fil houb. I’m in love.

There’s no way my description can do justice either to the song and the musicianship that realise it so perfectly, or to the impact that it had on me when I first heard it. It was visceral and immediate. It was sung in Arabic, but I got the picture. This was the story of a heartbreak of tragic proportions, of louche late-night emotions given free reign, a wandering soul lost among the centuries and the continents. It was a song that seemed to celebrate melancholy, to revel in sorrow. It gave voice – beautifully, agonisingly – to the best and the worst that our heart is capable of.

Whatever I was doing when that song came on, it had to stop in order that as much of what was happening in the vibrating air around my head could be communicated via the clumsy apparatus of brain and ears, directly to my core.

It was the height of summer 2003 and my then girlfriend C- and I were in a seafront cafe/ restaurant in Dahab, a ramshackle resort in Sinai on the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea. We had come via Cairo for a fortnight’s scuba diving. One of C-‘s dive buddies from her advanced scuba course, who was also staying at the same hotel as us, was there. They were talking about diving, I guess.

I had nothing much to offer the conversation. I had enrolled in a beginners’ scuba course and found out on the first day that being underwater wearing all that weird gear really wasn’t for me. It meant that I could tune out the chat, and absorb more of what was going on around us.

I’d been to Dahab before, nearly ten years before, with my Swiss-Lebanese girlfriend Ch- at the end of our time at Regavim. We stayed for a week in a concrete chalet and I contracted food poisoning from some dodgy sahlab. She spoke Arabic as one of her three native languages, which proved useful on occasion. Dahab is a Bedouin village that was “discovered” by Israeli soldiers when Sinai was occupied by Israel in the 1960s. Since then, it has been a place for hippies, backpackers, divers (and dodgers) who want to avoid (or can’t afford) the charms of Sharm el Sheikh further down the coast. It was interesting to note the changes all these years later – more businesses, more name hotels, more money, and a proliferation of scuba diving schools – and to try and see past that to what remained of the old place. God knows what it’s like now.

My first diving lesson was a day’s worth of obligatory safety chat, video watching and pally reassurances from a pair of complacent New Zealander girls and instruction from a serious looking Arab guy. I hated it all from the get-go, but I was keen to disperse my initial skepticism and give it a good try. I liked the sound of scuba diving. My uncle Dave was a brilliant diver in his day and I looked up to him enormously. I also wanted it to be a thing that C- and I did together.

But the reality was too much to bear. One of the exercises they make you do early on, to test your suitabilty for scuba, is a buoyancy test. You go out into fairly deep water and lie back and ‘just float’ for 30 seconds. But as soon as any water got into my mouth, eyes, nose or ears, I flinched and panicked and sank, sending a spray of water over everyone. I tried again. Same thing. I tried again. Same thing. I was getting flustered. The New Zealanders were getting impatient. “It’s easy. Just relax. It’s easy if you just relax.” I tried again. I couldn’t do it. And I knew they hated me for it.

We decided to come back to the buoyancy later so that we could get on with the essential business of using the scuba gear. The whole experience of being underwater with a pipe in your mouth and a bunch of stuff strapped to your back to keep you alive is not a natural one. For those who do it, I guess, it’s a means to an end, a bit like putting on the seatbelt in a car before you go for a drive, or clipping in to a pair of pedals before you go for a bike ride. I felt millimeters from death at all times. It was terrifying and claustrophobic, like being buried alive, like my lungs were about to become flooded with water at any moment. My lungs and brain and eyes couldn’t work together to convince each other that I wasn’t about to die right now.

Then, just when you’ve started to get used to the life-saving genius of the scuba gear, they make you take the whole thing off and put it back on again under water, while sharing someone else’s air pipe.

Scuba has developed its own primitive sign language so that you can communicate with your buddies. Giving and receiving thumbs ups is pretty constant, particularly in these early, fraught stages where anything can go wrong and the more experienced divers need to know that you’re ok and not about to drown. I managed eventually to unclip and unshackle the oxygen tanks from my back, I think, and at each stage the instructor was giving me the thumbs up with a questioning look, and I was returning it – but with a kind of white-eyed terror that only deepened with every thumbs up lie I signalled in return.

After that, to my relief, we went snorkelling, which I liked a lot. I liked the flippers – sorry, fins – that seem to propel you effortlessly through the water, and I loved being able to see the world under the waves. But that was real air I was breathing through that wee tube, not some bottled, Matrixy virtual air, and I could poke my head up from the sea surface and feel like I was back in my own world again. No apparatus, no clips and belts, no tanks of oxygen, no pipe down my throat.

When we got back to the base, I secretly left the decision on whether to return and finish the course to my subconscious. If I had bad dreams that night, I would listen to them and act accordingly. On the other hand, if I slept soundly, then I’d get over my bullshit pansy-ass flenchy-flinchy flip-flopping and get with the fucking programme.

Well that night, I dreamed the terrors of the deep and woke sobbing. I went back to the scuba centre the next morning, who were pretty good about giving me my money back, fortunately, bid goodbye to C- as she hooked up with her advanced diving pals, then went to go and lie out like a mad dog somewhere in the heat of the midday sun getting sunstroke while reading The Lovely Bones.

When the song came on in that restaurant, I was utterly lost to it, possessed by it. As soon as it finished I asked the waiter in the restaurant to find out what it was. He didn’t know. The best he could do was to tell me he thought it was from a compilation called Buddha Bar, which I bought from one of the many counterfeit CD shops in town as soon as they opened the next day.

The rest of the stuff I heard that evening was forgettable. A sort of clubby, loungey update on the easy listening exotica of the 1960s that brought the likes of Edumdo Ros and Mantovani to worldwide prominence. I have no idea what a Buddha Bar is, if it’s a franchise, a venue, a state of mind, nor do I have any idea about the identity of Claude Challe, who lends his name to the enterprise, or what the whole shebang has to do with Buddhism. But it brought Lili Boniche into my life, and for that I will always be grateful.

None of this backstory lends any credit or insight into the song, of course, but listening back to it, I am transported once more. I can still see the faded cabaret, the empty dancefloor, the discarded rose and the louche lost lover, singing his soul back to health with an eternity of longing and centuries of musical lore to draw upon for strength and inspiration.

I bought the original album from which the song is taken as soon as I could get to an internet-enabled computer with my Amazon account details. Trésors De La Chanson JudéoArabe. The title made a lot of sense of the music. Lili Boniche was still alive then; he died some five years later, in 2008. Before he did, he recorded an album with Bill Laswell called Boniche Dub, which you can hear here.

Ana fil houb. I listened obsessively to that song for months as I travelled back and forward to Edinburgh, working on a very iffy freelance contract, the fabric of my relationship with C- disintegrating by slow degrees, day by day, less in love.

Ana fil houb always took me to a magical place, where heartache and sorrow and loss are transformed into inner landscapes of untouchable beauty, where sad feelings fit like old clothes, and where language of any kind is inadequate. Only gesture, melody, rhythm, timbre, tone hold any sway.

Ana fil houb. I learned the meaning of the phrase exactly two years later, the summer I finally fell out of love with C-. I took a trip across Canada and met up with Ch- in her adopted Montreal. I played it to her on the car stereo as she drove round showing me the parts of the city she loved best and I longed, as I always did, to know what it felt to be the singer of that song.

Brel

BrelI have loved Jacques Brel deeper and longer than I have loved any singer, with the possible exception of Tom Waits – whose lyrics I can understand but still perversely choose not to really pay all that much attention to. I did try to get into Brel’s words – a book of his lyrics sits on my shelf, pretty much untouched from when it came home with me from a trip to the Gibert Jeune bookshop in Place St Michel – but it’s always been about the music for me, his emotional content (as Bruce Lee might have put it). And I didn’t just listen to Brel’s music, but to every nuance in his voice, to every breath, to every rolled or growled or clipped or popped consonant, to every hushed or barked vowel, to the lively universe of characters that he invented for you and the drama he invested them with.

More than any other singer, he made me want to sing. He made me want to find and give voice to the well of otherwise inaccessible, inexpressible emotions – the kind that language always disappoints. In Brel, they found their way into the world with an immediacy and a clarity that was utterly astonishing, frequently breathtaking, rarely less than moving. It still thrills me to hear the intensity of feeling in that voice carried by the beauty of the melodies he invents. I still want to sing. And to sing like that.

The closest I got to manifesting my love for the man and his music was, well, I made a bust of him – a canny unlikeness – for my proposed pantheon of personal gods that never really evolved beyond a trinity. He sits on my shelf, coarse hewn and tragically earnest but permanently on song, like a Hogmanay drunk.

Amsterdam: I listened to Jacques Brel for the first time in my flatmate’s bedroom in Spain some time in 1996. V- thought I’d quite like him. And she was right; I loved his voice instantly. I’d never heard anything like it. Which is because there is no-one like Jacques Brel. V- had French; I hadn’t a clue what he was singing. Then, I’ve never been big on words in songs. Never been big on songs. But whatever that man was feeling when he put that track on record, I was feeling every single shred of. V- translated but it didn’t really go in. Something about drunks and whores and accordeons.

Au Suivant: Once you’ve heard The Sensational Alex Harvey Band doing this, you kind of want to hear Brel bite a bit harder. Which isn’t to diminish Brel’s version, rather to underscore the sensational ferocity of Alex Harvey’s.

La Chanson de Jacky: Singing the English version unaccompanied at a New Year party to a room full of mortified strangers, relatives of my brother’s then-girlfriend, who had demanded that everyone sing a party piece. I listened to myself, in a kind of disembodied horror, as my already quite shaky grasp of the melody modulated into a lost continent of uncharted harmonics and unattainable registers. The host, an insufferably smug woman with a nasty streak, smirked uncontrollably throughout.

Not sure which is worse: that memory, or the recollection of the first time I heard the song  – before I’d even heard of Brel – in an abominable, unforgivably flaccid, version by Marc Almond. If you need to hear it in English, Scott Walker sings it like he at least means the camp insincerity.

Many years later, trying to shoehorn karaoke versions of Jacky and Jacky Wilson Says into a failed play about Jocky Wilson playing darts with himself in a nightclub in hell.

Les Coeurs Tendres: In maybe 1999/ 2000, I was in a band of sorts with my brother that existed for maybe four or five rehearsals and possibly only two performances. We played Jacques Brel songs and Serge Gainsbourg songs and a song by Charles Trenet.

And the band was definitely born in Oblomov on Great Western Road, on a snowy winter’s night early in the new year. Graham and I were out with his flatmate A- and his pal, who were both busy gigging jazz musicians and fancied a bit of the exotic. Graham was just about to graduate in French and could also sing. I could play accordeon (a bit). We called ourselves Jacquesattaques – or Jacques Attack, I don’t think we ever wrote the name down.

We played our first gig at a graduation party for Graham’s French class at a pub in town for which he earned much respect from his – mostly female – classmates. This was one of the songs. The slow and loping rhythm insinuates itself into your ear. It’s coarse rather than tender, I think, and fails to take on much of a shape. I prefer Mary Coughlan’s version to Brel’s, unusually, though I fancy we treated the song with equal tendresse.

Tenderness of a brotherly kind was missing from our second and final gig at the old Uisge Beatha in Woodlands. We had a set-to about something that felt very important to Graham at the time, and a punch was thrown. But time heals these lesions and we all learn our lessons. A- still calls us the Gallagher Brothers.

Mathilde: Playing the Scott Walker version full volume in the car and singing “Matilda’s coming back to me!” at the top of my voice, full of excitement and longing heading to the airport to pick up my (long-distance) girlfriend (not called Mathilde) trying to drive away the bitterness and sadness of the realisation that the end of our relationship was inevitable and drawing closer, as she drew closer, temporarily tethering our diverging paths.

Ne Me Quitte Pas: Brel recorded two studio versions I know of, one with a weird annoying musical saw intro, and one that sounds like they raised Ravel or Debussy from the dead to record the piano accompaniment. Both will shatter your stone hard heart into innumerable pieces and cast them into the coldest corners of your life where they will bleed for Eternity.

Vesoul: Judith’s party. Playing DJ with the less popular CDs in the collection at an age when these things really mattered (to me). My stint on the decks resulted in a snack fight, throwing cheez puffz around the room, mostly at a girl who wanted to get off with me. Ended up getting off with her better looking pal. The song has that kind of frantic madness about it. And accordeons.

Voir un Ami Pleurer: For every friendship squandered, for every love lost, for near souls once so dear to us but never again to be encountered. “Of course our hearts lose their wings.”

Citizen Kane

dir. Orson Welles
with Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane et al

citizen kaneWhat’s so good about Citizen Kane?

You’re always wary of saying anything about a film like Citizen Kane. Are you just following the herd – “Best film ever made!” Are you being all rebellious and iconoclastic – “It ain’t all that!” Are you just regurgitating old opinions and rehashing old observations – “The angles! The cinematography!” What’s new to say about Citizen Kane?

The first time I saw Citizen Kane was at 4am during a bout of insomnia, which I followed up with the other Best Movie Of All Time, Vertigo, at 6am, also for the first time, before heading out to a day’s teaching. I watched both of them because I had to. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy them – in fact, the opposite. It can be a magical thing, insomnia, when you find the right thing to do with it. Curled up close and blinking on the sofa watching these fabulous movies was a truly special experience. My memories of both films are bound up with that moment forever.

I was a media and communications lecturer at a college in town where a colleague had recently asked me to cover her film appreciation evening class at The University. So, I dug out my old copy of How to Read a Film and How to read a filmduly reminded myself about metonymy and synechdoche, about signs and syntax, about diegetic and non-diegetic sound, about mise-en-scène, about montage and mixage. I put a lesson plan together for the ten weeks of the course based on seriously scant notes I’d been passed by my colleague – which consisted mostly of pats on the shoulder and “you can do it in your sleep” kind of non-advice.

Lacking resources, I patrolled the many cheap DVD boutiques of the city centre and spent half my fee arming myself with piles of classic films with which to illustrate the many brilliant teaching points I was sure to make. I scouted the room in advance, sourced a projector and some woofy speakers that didn’t look much but when the lights went out sounded amazing. So with my laptop loaded and my stack of DVDs primed, I had a proper mini-cinema set up in a cosy wee room on the 9th floor ready to give my first lesson. And, after that first lesson, I went into a tailspin of panic and paranoia for each of the remaining nine weeks of the course. Hence the insomnia.

It was hellish. Teaching – sorry, “teaching” – that course was one of the hardest teaching gigs I have ever done. Everybody in that room knew more about film than I did. I mean, I know a wee bit about film. I can do textual analysis on a film as convincingly as the next media studies graduate. I know how to talk about film beyond “I liked that bit where he goes…” I know the critical vocabulary, I know about Cahiers du Cinema, about auteur theory, about the studio system, about the star system. I know the complete works of Krzysztof Kieślowski, for god’s sake.

But I ain’t no buff. This was a room rammed with buffs.

My course outline looked something like this:

Week 1:           Introduction: Ways of describing film, vocabulary of film criticism
Week 2:           Special effects: A history of film from Metropolis to The Matrix
Week 3:           Types of Stories in Film: Film Noir, Western, Science Fiction & Genre mixing
Week 4:           Music and Sound in film: from pre-talkies to sound design
Week 5:           Influences: films that quote other films & texts
Week 6:           The Director: authorship in film & the auteur theory
Week 7:           The Editor: What is editing? What do editors do?
Week 8:           The Writer: The job of the writer & re-evaluation of auteur theory
Week 9:           What’s So Good About Citizen Kane? Special case study
Week 10:         It’s a Wrap: Course overview

Each week had scenes from half a dozen exemplar movies, with time and chapter references from the DVDs noted in my lesson plan (this is before portable electronics were actually properly portable, before 3G & wifi, before Youtube had even been thought of). I thought it looked pretty robust.

Until I started talking. About what, I don’t know. Anything. Genre. Framing. Juxtaposition. David Lynch. Alfred Hitchcock. But I swear everyone in that room was doing that Kevin Bridges thing behind my back as I was cueing up the next clip. It was hateful. I was so nervous. I felt I had to teach them stuff, but teach them what? I felt like a total fraud.

But they were probably just as nervous as I was, sitting there in the dark with a bunch of strangers, all of them wondering why my head was ballooning up in front of them like a massive hot red fuzzy sun. Silently wondering when the fuck I was going to stop talking about stuff they either already knew or didn’t give a fuck about and put the next clip on. Which was the thing. They never spoke. Even in the rare moments when I wasn’t gibbering and a movie wasn’t playing, no-one said anything.

The film appreciation class was on a Thursday. I had a full teaching schedule in my day job, but I’d spend most of the week preparing for this one class, watching these movies, selecting clips, in-points, out-points, finding other clips to pair and contrast them with, finding a through line, a teaching point, trying to come up with something original to say, trying to end with a flourish and a connection to the following week’s theme. And every Wednesday night I wouldn’t sleep for mentally playing out meticulously in- and out-pointed scenes of personal humiliation. On repeat. By the time I got to the class I was a wreck.

MatrixI used The Matrix a lot. I had missed it when it was on general release, but had been recommended it by a friend. It blew my mind on first and second viewings. By the third, I was convinced it was a modern miracle of blatant cinematic thievery – which the Wachowski Brothers got away with, even more than Tarantino, somehow, because it was sci-fi. They had created a movie with such gloss and shine and verve that it all felt too groovy and futuristic and zeitgeisty and full of new groundbreaking tech to even be thinking about nicking from old films. But sure enough, there’s the opening to Vertigo in the opening rooftop chase. There’s Godard’s jump cuts. And there’s every deep focus shot from Citizen Kane.

Which has the weird kind of reverse effect of making Citizen Kane feel ultra-modern. Sure, it’s black and white. Sure, the costumes are old fashioned. Sure it’s stagey and roomy and big. Sure the “News on the March” segment could be trimmed. But the way each scene is composed and sutured together feels fresh and fast, and it just oozes panache.

I still find it dazzling. I still am massively entertained by the way Orson Welles plays with time like a concertina, squeezing decades together in a single line of dialogue, or the way he zips through the trajectory of a doomed marriage in less than 120 seconds of banal chat, or the way he frames the entire history of a relationship in fewer than half a dozen words. But he also plays with time in a much bigger way: the chronological structure of the film is baroque in its complexity. There are rooms within rooms.

Entire books have been written on Welles’s use of projection, of back-lighting, of chiaroscuro, of severe angles, of various bits of mechanical jiggery-pokery to achieve the many tricks of the eye that contribute to the film’s striking aesthetic, so I won’t even try to do justice to that here, merely remark on the sheer joy of being guided from one frame to the next by a master of light and shade and scale. For all that it is a monochrome film, the nuance of tone and colour achieved in each scene is completely remarkable and a treat for the eye.

What’s new for me this time is that I realise that watching this film is the closest I’ve come to watching a piece of theatre in two dimensions. It’s perhaps understandable, given Welles’s background with his own Mercury Theatre, that he should create a theatrical masterpiece as much as a cinematic one, but it’s not expected – not every master of the stage necessarily becomes a master of the cinema. But those sets, that camera work, those scene transitions, even the shot transitions, are the work of someone who has taken on the defining quirks of a new medium with fresh eyes and a fresh intellect. Kane feels like it takes cinematic story-telling to rarely accessed artistic heights. The question of why nothing has really been seen like it since, leaving aside theories of Welles’s own brilliance/ intransigence, is one for the academics.

Which gets us back to the question of talking about Citizen Kane. It seems to require an academic’s erudition and specialist knowledge of cinema history. It seems to call for absolutes – the best, the most influential, etc. I think I thought I was saying something new when I paired it with The Matrix for my film students, but perhaps not. It’s a film, seemingly, that you can’t talk about without talking about it as a “film”, about its construction, about Orson Welles as co-writer-director-producer-star-auteur, about other films.

Personally, I found watching it again to be a delight. It’s a joyful film, clever, dazzling, beautiful, funny. I love the exuberant energy in scenes like Good Old Charlie Kane. I love Bernard Herrmann’s nuanced score. I love the performances of Mr Bernstein, Jed Leland, young Charlie’s mother, Mr Thatcher – as an ensemble they can be pretty uneven, a few clowns and pantomime turns at the edges, which only adds to the boisterous theatricality of it. And I love that bit where he goes to Leland, “Sure we’re talking: You’re fired!”

I’m not sure how well I answered my own question in my film class. I’m not sure how well I answered it here. But who cares because just like my film studies class, no-one is really listening, just waiting for me to finish.