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Fringe Report is now closed. Fringe Report closed on its 10th anniversary, Thursday 12 July 2012. It remains online as a record of 10 exciting years in the arts. Till July 2013, previously unwritten content is being added to the site from the past 10 years, but we are no longer reviewing new material. You can still write to us on the existing email addresses. Good luck with your shows.
The Nine Muses (2010)
Verdict: Great photography; ponderous, pretentious film
It compares this to the mythical voyage of Ancient Greek hero Odysseus after the Trojan War (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odysseus). The film is divided into nine sections, each making reference to the Nine Muses who, the film explains, were the mythical daughters of Ancient Greek god Zeus (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muse). Each Muse is associated with an art: Clio (History), Calliope (Epic poetry), Polyhymnia (Choral poetry), Melpomene (Tragedy), Euterpe (Music), Urania (Astronomy), Thalia (Comedy), Erato (Lyric poetry), Terpsichore (Dance). They get around 10 minutes each.
The film flicks between past and present. The past is represented by documentary footage and voice-overs evoking aspects of the possible experiences of peoples including Black, Irish, Welsh, Sikh, Indian, Pakistani. Some arrive in ships and planes; work in grim factories; dance; sit in disintegrating slum terrace houses; are abused, ignored, tolerated and in some cases smiled at by white people. Voices over recite poetry and prose. There are songs on film; cuts to black screens with quotations and significant words. The present features many views of a cold place which looks like Alaska USA, with mountains covered in ice, mainly seen from a large ship. In the modern views there is an observer, wearing a yellow, black or blue anorak. The observer - sometimes two are in shot - look away from the camera, or towards it with face masked by hood and goggles.
Trains tear across bleak landscapes burping smoke. People slave in factories melting and working metal. In the present a man in glasses looks depressed in several locations; sitting at the corner of a brick building; looking at a marina; sometimes with a wind generator slowly rotating to indicate that it's not the past. A lot of the time it is snowing, and the Alaska shots look cold. This is perhaps to signify that post-War immigrants received a cold reception, and that this continues. A Black woman is seen on film singing Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child (traditional, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sometimes_I_Feel_Like_a_Motherless_Child). There's a ship with many Black immigrants aboard - perhaps The Windrush. Another c 1950s ship with passengers, the Sir John Hawkins, ironically refers to Admiral Sir John Hawkins (1532-1595, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Hawkins), a slave trader.
And once in the UK, there's not much to look forward to. A cat scurries across a dirty back yard; an outside lavatory bears the sign 'Have you pulled the chain'; two white girls bounce a ball with a sinister sound effect. Floods evoke the great floods in the UK in 1947, shortly before the voyage (1948) of The Windrush, bearing the first substantial arrival of immigrants from the West Indies to the UK (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MV_Empire_Windrush). They're greeted by boarded-up ruined houses and air-raid sirens (last heard 3 years previously with the end of World War II), and the song Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (1933, Otto Harbach / Jerome Kern). Cue dense London smog and smoking factory-chimneys.
A Black man remarks to an interviewer (about becoming integrated into Britain) 'You get settled, then you become part of the strangeness.' White and Black people play bingo, Sikhs wrap turbans, Indians dance to a band, a man with a guitar sings Kisses Sweeter Than Wine (1950, Paul Campbell / Huddie Ledbetter, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kisses_Sweeter_than_Wine_%28song%29). Men in their different-coloured anoraks in the present stare at blizzards and roads.
A voice quotes 'This other Eden, demi-paradise. This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England' (Richard II, William Shakespeare, 1564-1616, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Shakespeare). Another: 'I stood at the very bank of the valley of pain; that overflows with tears.' Another: 'I can see nothing before me, I wonder wherever was my path'. A fairground in rain, with drenched donkeys; a woman in a factory dreams of herself on a beach, kissing the sand. Another: 'To be or not to be, that is the question' (Hamlet, William Shakespeare).
Enoch Powell (1912-1998, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enoch_Powell) speaks. Black singer Paul Robeson (1898-1976, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Robeson) sings Go Down Moses / Let My People Go (traditional, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Go_Down_Moses). A wall bears the slogan 'Keep Britain White'. People pray in a mosque, and in church. Zelda Fitzgerald (1900-1948, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zelda_Fitzgerald) is quoted: 'Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold.' So is William Shakespeare: 'If music be the food of love, play on, give me excess of it' (Twelfth Night). 'Every day is a journey and the journey itself is home' (Matsuo Bashō, 1644-1694, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matsuo_Bash%C5%8D).
Voiceovers are by fine actors: John Barrymore (1882-1942, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Barrymore), Richard Burton (1925-1984, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Burton), Michael Sheen (b 1969, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Sheen). Quotes include classic sources: The Divine Comedy (Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divine_Comedy); Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Friedrich Nietzsche, 1844-1900, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thus_Spoke_Zarathustra); Song of Solomon (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Song_of_Songs); Under Milk Wood (Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Under_Milk_Wood); Samuel Beckett (1906-1989, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Beckett); Sophocles (497-406 BC, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophocles); James Joyce (1882-1941) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_joyce - including Finnegan's Wake, and Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man).
John Akomfrah directs his own script. The Nine Muses is produced by Lina Gopaul and David Lawson at Smoking Dog Films.
Separating the technical excellence of the film from the film itself: Trevor Mathison creates remarkable, superb and original music. Dewald Aukema's cinematography is a visual delight. Miikka Leskinen's film editing is an outstanding achievement in the assembly and timing of an immensely complicated visual narrative. There are lots of great photographs, snippets of film, sequences, flashes of incidents from the archives. There's smart date-coding in the film clips: as well as their main subjects there's Commer lorries, Beford vans, Ford Populars, clever details of dress, record players, interiors. Visual atmosphere is built carefully - rotting lino prised in layers from a floor, crumbling wet walls inside houses. There's a fabulous, sinister soundscape throughout.
As a film: This is not a subtle film, but it is ponderous and pretentious. It waddles along in a meandering way feeling directionless, but obliged to quote as many famous lines as possible. After a while, there's an overwhelming numbness. Its 90 minutes feel a lifetime. There's a simple message: being Black and of other heritages than white in Britain is not great and it's a shame. Other filmmakers have handled this and similar themes in brilliant shorts, with every second counting and sublime art. Unfortunately in The Nine Muses, the point is thudded home for an hour-and-a-half, with lots of meaningful poetry, very long-lasting, repetitive shots of Alaska. The references to the nine Muses feel not readily intelligible, and they become a distracting timer. As each is flagged by name on the blank screens which divide up the film, there's a mental calculation: 4 down, 5 to go - how much longer can it possibly last?
And it does feel patronising. It's sixty-two years after The Windrush's arrival. Since then, huge and continual efforts have been and are daily made by Black people, white people, people whose families came once from India, Pakistan, Somalia, Turkey and all the 100-odd heritages making up contemporary Britain to work together, to change, to live together and accept each other with friendship and love. There have been and are daily failures to achieve any of these things. There are plenty of successes too - and many people once from different backgrounds may not feel so pessimistic as the mood of this film. At least the photography and music are great. There's also excellent acting by modern actors blended into simulated old footage. If only all were in a film which felt as if it was going somewhere. Or in which something - anything - happened. Or which contained an original thought.
Cast Credits: IMDB: www.imdb.com/title/tt1706701/
Company Credits: IMDB: www.imdb.com/title/tt1706701/
reviewed Friday 8 October 2010 / Press screening / NFT2, National Film Theatre, London UK
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