All that jazz: the photographs of Herman Leonard.

Herman Leonard’s photos are unmistakable. Jazz enthusiasts everywhere with large record collections will be familiar with his work, which has adorned the covers of jazz albums by legends such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon.

Odd angles, often shot from below the subject; stark contrasts between black and white tones; smoke circling lazily in the air; the images capture the dim and sometimes dingy culture of jazz in the 50s and 60s, as this gallery collection shows. A young Miles Davis with an ankle crossed over one knee casually plays; Dizzy Gillespie amidst phantom-like swirls of smoke above his head; drummer Art Blakey is pictured truly caught up in the music; the great bandleader Duke Ellington appears all alone at the piano on a concert-hall stage; Frank Sinatra gestures with his cigarette from behind a radio microphone. These images capture the transient nature of jazz: improvised, spontaneous music that sings one moment and is gone the next, never to be repeated live.

Dexter Gordon photograph by Herman Leonard
Dexter Gordon: photographed by Herman Leonard

Perhaps the most memorable for me is the portrait of Dexter Gordon: smoke curls and twists around him like one of Gordon’s own melodic improvisations. There’s a casual feel to the image, a languor imparted by the tilt of Gordon’s head, the hat-brim turned up from the forehead, the cigarette between the fingers. Taken when he was twenty-five years old, he looks lost in contemplation, at ease with himself. There are other musicians around him: the bell of a trumpet protrudes from the left-hand side, and a drummer grins in the dimness behind him, sharing a joke with another player outside the picture on the right. But it’s Gordon’s moment, lit from above-left in an almost celestial fashion.

Once seen, never forgotten: Herman Leonard’s jazz photographs are the quintessence of jazz music made visual.

Betrayal is a strong word.

I would argue that Alien Resurrection is a mutation rather than a betrayal. That although Alien Resurrection doesn’t follow the same linear, canonical, path of the previous three, it is only guilty of going off at a tangent – and that only by of virtue of necessity.

This film is a mutation about mutation – and I wonder whether it isn’t in its narrative about mutation that the feelings of betrayal may emanate. The theme of mutation is born out of necessity: the death of Ripley on Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161. She is cloned from remains, but this has resulted in the contamination of Ripley’s DNA with the alien, she has become a hybrid. And it is this cross-cloning which certainly begins our unease, we have lost our human touchstone. The hero is no longer dependable – could this be what provokes the notions of betrayal? Unlike the saintly Ellen Ripley created through the previous trinity (an incarnation of human purity, even when defiled by the alien, in Alien3, she sacrifices herself) this incarnation is unrecognisable, we can no longer trust her, her motives are selfish, she is only part human, and is most definitely part alien.

But Ripley has only been mutated, surely that can’t equal a betrayal. Alien Resurrection is only guilty of changing the hero we had grown accustomed to, by the end of the film Ripley exepmlifies human characteristics; the compassion for the even more mutated previous clones, the maternal bond with Call (recurring theme from Aliens). And far from being a betrayal I think it is a worthy mutation – one which Magneto would argue, by virtue of being a mutant it is the next level of the evolution of the Alien canon.

Alien Resurrection: a betrayal of the canon ?

The image of Lieutenant Ripley disappearing into the flames, clutching her dreadful offspring to her as she plummets, at the end of Alien 3 was pretty decisive. ”No sequel!” the film seemed to be declaring: ”no more!”

Ripley
Lieutenant Ripley in 'Alien 3'

Yet, five years later in 1997, a new breed of alien emerged in Alien Resurrection, from the director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and the team behind Delicatessen and City of Lost Children. This seemed promising, for those of us who like Jeneut’s films, as well as for fans of the first three films who possibly saw Ripley’s fiery demise for the signal that it was: no more films to follow.

I loved Delicatessen: the wonderfully craggy features of Dominique Pinon and their expressive repertoire are a joy to watch, as they are in Amelie, another of Jenuet’s films from 2001. And, in parts, I like Alien Resurrection; it has the sepia-look and the feel of Jenuet’s other work. But does his style work when translated into the hallowed tradition of the Alien franchise ? The premise that the incarnation of Ripley in Resurrection is the result of an extensive breeding programme, whose ultimate aim is the re-creation of the monster from Ripley’s DNA, feels slightly stretched to begin with as a means of moving from the previous film into the latter.

Sigourney Weaver is, as always, highly watchable: Winona Ryder is perhaps not so compelling; and the notorious scenes of the hybrid alien swimming in the flooded depths of the ship as it chases the crew, where it’s very obvious that it’s an actor in a rubber suit, only let the side down further still.

What do you think: should Ripley have been resurrected at all, or left to lie in peace ?

Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent.  Click here to view his Music Matters blog.

Film music: an excuse for laziness.

Film soundtracks are fantastic. The music is all about an instant emotional picture: no need for the architectural unfoldings of classical music with its exposition, development and recapitulation sections. Film music is designed to enhance the nature of a particular scene immediately, without recourse to large-scale structural devices. Think of the strident dissonances in Herrmann’s music for Psycho, or the looming menace of the semi-tone in Jaws.

The trouble is that most Hollywood Blockbusters lay the music on with a trowel. Big blasting brass sections, sweeping string gestures and pounding timpani often assault the ears in these epic films. This means that viewers don’t have to think or work out the emotional temperature of a scene for themselves – the accompanying soundtrack paints it for them with a thick brush.

There’s a marvellous French film, Un Coeur en Hiver, from 1992, about a love-triangle between a woman and two brothers: played by Emmanuelle Béart, Camille is a violinist who is recording chamber music by Maurice Ravel; her partner Maxime is producing the recordings, and his brother Stéphane, a violin-maker and repairer, begins an affair with her. The subtle nuances of the dynamics between the three characters are reflected in the soundtrack, which comprises entirely the music that Camille is recording in the studio or performing live. Ravel’s music is therefore not written for the film at all, but it is used sparingly and diagetically: the music plays when the musicians themselves are performing it.

Here, Camille is recording Ravel’s Violin Sonata while Stéphane, unbeknownst to her, watches from the engineering room: The taut emotion Stéphane feels is mirrored in the brusque pizzicato of the violin, and the harmonic roller-coaster of the chords in the piano.

Or this section here, where her attempts to perform the Sonata for Violin and Cello are thwarted by her emotional state: Stephane is sitting watching, which is distracting her. She falters and has to begin several times, until Stephane quietly leaves: at which point, she is able to play the piece perfectly. The melodic lines of the two string instrument twist and turn around each other in a way that reflects the desires of the two protagonists.

The film is a welcome relief from all those major films that paint their aural backcloth in livid colour, drowning the discerning viewer in an excess of orchestral zeal. It’s a shame; it’s more interesting (and more rewarding) to be allowed to work out the emotional conditions of a film for yourself unhindered by excessive bludgeoning from the soundtrack.

Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent.  Click here to view his Music Matters blog.