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Piazzolla, Before & After

Astor Piazzolla

Astor Piazzolla

In Argentine tango, there is “Before Piazzolla” and “After Piazzolla.”

Astor Piazzolla (a master of the bandoneón, the concertina-like instrument that many consider the soul of tango) revolutionized tango in ways that either electrified his numberless fans (most of them outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina, which is the home of tango) or infuriated his many detractors (most of them inside Buenos Aires). He once remarked how dismaying it was to him to be able to fill every seat at the huge Olympia Theater in Paris, while barely thirty people — and many of them loudly hostile — would come to see him in a club in Buenos Aires.

Astor brought into tango many elements of sophisticated classical music that it had never heard before. Fugue, counterpoint, extraordinary poly-rhythms and dissonances that few of the usual tango musicians in Buenos Aires — as fine as surely they were — could even comprehend. Indeed Astor spoke of his own compositions as “music based on tango”, rather than as tango itself, and this is a fair judgment.

But woe betide the tango fan who does not understand the importance of traditional tango to Astor’s work. Astor was, after all, the principal arranger for several years for the renowned Buenos Aires orchestra of Anibal Troilo, himself a truly innovative composer.

The noted tango composer and pianist Osvaldo Pugliese was a great fan of Astor, and vice versa, although their styles of tango were markedly dissimilar. In his book Astor Piazzolla: A Memoir (compiled from interviews by Natalio Gorin), Astor writes “I wrote a special arrangement of my ‘Adiós Nonino,’ and Osvaldo looked clueless — he couldn’t play a note. Later I tried to play [Osvaldo’s] ‘La Yumba’ his way and I couldn’t. I felt bad, as if I’d dirtied his music…”

Carlos Gardel

Carlos Gardel


There was a further quite special moment earlier in Astor’s life, when he met another tango revolutionary, Carlos Gardel. Generally regarded as the greatest singer of tango ever, “Charley”, as Astor called him, was an international recording and film star when he met the thirteen year-old Astor Piazzolla in New York City, where Astor and his parents Vicente and Asunta were living. Vicente had taken his family from Argentina to New York in 1924 (when Astor was three) in order to find work, and they lived on the Lower East Side (ironically, near Astor Place) for many years.

Astor was a scruffy kid with a limp caused by an accident of birth in one foot, which required surgeries throughout his childhood. He walked funny, he was little, and he talked funny with an Argentine accent. He got into a lot of fights.

Astor began playing the bandoneón in New York at his father Vicente’s insistence, and as a thirteen year-old in 1934, ever alert to job possibilities, he got work as an errand boy on the set of El día que me quieras. This was one of Carlos Gardel’s several musical comedies that were filmed at Paramount’s Astoria, New York studios. Within a few days, Astor and the great Charley became pals.

Astor told Charley that he played bandoneón. As a result, the singer and his musicians tutored Astor on his instrument, and indeed Astor accompanied Charley on a couple of occasions at the Campoamor Theater on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Charley thought so well of Astor that he gave the boy a bit part in El día que me quieras. Gratefully, Vicente Piazzolla, an amateur wood carver, made a small carving of an Argentine gaucho with a guitar, which Astor delivered to Charley.

Charley was killed in a fiery airplane accident in Colombia on June 24, 1935. Many years later, Astor received a message from his very first bandoneón teacher, Andrés D’Aquila, who still lived in New York. Andrés had been passing by a pawnshop in Manhattan and had spotted a small wood carving of a gaucho with a guitar in the window. Curious, he looked at it more carefully and saw the name “Vicente Piazzolla” carved into its base. The carving itself was charred in many places, the evidence that it had been in a fire. Next to the figure was a hand-lettered sign that read “This belonged to an Argentine tango singer.”

Andrés went into the shop, to buy the gaucho for Astor. But the price was $20.00, money that Andrés did not have on him that day. The shop owner agreed to hold the carving overnight. But when Andrés came back the next day, the gaucho was gone, sold.

In his memoir, Astor writes, “I never lost hope that I would find [the carving] and that whoever has it some day would call me.” That never happened, and among the gifts offered by a fan to a performer, that gaucho carving, wherever it is, surely conveys a far more personal artistic affection — equally to the young prodigy who delivered it and his mentor the immortal star who died with it — than almost any such gift ever could provide.

Terence Clarke’s recently completed screenplay Astor & Charley is based on these events. This piece appeared originally in Huffington Post.

A Year in Champagne

Champagne is magically joyful. Yet few understand the struggle involved in creating it.

Documentary filmmaker David Kennard is making a trilogy of films about three distinctive wines (burgundy, champagne and port), and Samuel Goldwyn Films recently bought the North American rights to the second of these, A Year in Champagne. It is scheduled for a spring 2015 release.

Like his earlier and much noted A Year in Burgundy, the champagne film is a vibrant, openhearted look at some of the people who make this very special wine. It takes us on a tour of the Champagne landscape and introduces us to the extremely complex undertaking of producing the most famous libation ever.

Used courtesy of InCA Productions

Used courtesy of InCA Productions


Champagne is north and east of Paris, the most northerly wine-growing region in France. Unlike in Burgundy, where the weather in wine season is generally sunny and warm, in Champagne it is almost always more inclement than not, year round. So a good portion of this film seems to have been made under an umbrella. It features a lot of mud, cold and foul-weather gear. That the wine so noted for sprightly bubbles and light-hearted festivity comes from this often difficult setting is the first of many surprises in the film.

Used courtesy of InCA Productions

Used courtesy of InCA Productions


Champagne, of course, is also the site of some of the most terrifying events in the history of war. There were two battles fought along the Marne River during World War I. The first, in September 1914, resulted in half a million casualties. The second, four years later, resulted in 300,000 more. It was butchery on an astounding scale. But such war has been fought in this part of France for millennia, between Gauls, Ostrogoths, Romans and many others. As one of the champenois interviewed for this film says, “History haunts the champagne region.”

In an interview, Kennard himself recounted how he has often heard such utterances as “We are a people scarred by war” and “We have been involved time and time again.”

Given these two deleterious elements, it is almost an astonishment that the wine called champagne exists at all. But when they talk about the wine they make, the vintners in the film constantly use language filled with expressions of joy. One advises us, “The important thing is to make sure that your glass is never empty.” Another suggests, “Drinking champagne is all about pleasure.” A third even offers the thought that “Champagne makes women more lovely and men more witty.”

Used courtesy of InCA Productions

Used courtesy of InCA Productions


A Year in Champagne gives the viewer an inside look at how this place besieged by conflict and cold rain produces the wine that is synonymous with celebration. From the buds on the vines in spring, through the summer growing season and the harvest itself, we learn from the vintners about the almost numbing complexity of the process. In a long and quite amusing sequence, the film spells out the forest of rules that each champagne vintner must follow every year in the preparation of the fields and vines. There seem to be hundreds of specific ways in which the vines must be secured, treated and harvested, and in which the wine — to be called champagne — must be made.

Despite all this — or perhaps because of it — the final product is the most famous wine in the world. One of the great virtues of this film is that it shows in detail the wine-making process, rules and all, and gives the answer to the question that everyone who enjoys champagne has: how do they make the bubbles? It is a much more difficult undertaking than you might have imagined.

The film explains a few other phenomena of which the viewer may not have been aware. At first champagne was an exclusively sweet wine. The English (most particularly the English royal family) wanted a drier version of it. Of course, when someone like Edward VII asks a vendor to do something, that vendor springs to action. Also, the bubbles in part require fermentation of the wine in the bottle rather than in the barrel and, early on, English glass was always the one most able to withstand the pressure that the bubbles produced. So England had a lot to do with making champagne as we know it now.

Early in the 19th century, champagne was a village industry, its product enjoyed by just a few connoisseurs. But with the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and 1871, Germans too learned about champagne. Over time, large German corporations stepped in and began buying up small vineyards, and it was the Germans who first industrialized the champagne-making process. Thus was champagne made available to the world. A look at some of the big names in champagne — Bollinger, Krug, Roederer and so on — reflects the German influence.

To be successful, a growing industry requires good marketing, and champagne was one of the first wine products to take advantage of the new branding ideas of the early 20th century. Several of the vintners in A Year in Champagne tell that, while other French wines emphasize the importance of terroir (the very makeup of the soil in which certain grapes are grown), the excellence of a champagne brand rests upon the abilities of the maker. So the marketing of those makers’ names is central to the product’s fame.

Used courtesy of InCA Productions

Used courtesy of InCA Productions


Champagne lifts the soul in a glorious way that one would not expect from the location, weather and history of the place where it is made. But as one of the vintners in this lovely film declares, “Once you open the bottle, the magic is there.”

This piece first appeared in Huffington Post. Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro will be published this year.

Pépé Le Moko and The Battle of Algiers

battle_of_algiersThe two best films ever made about The Casbah also happen to be two of the best films ever made.

Pépé Le Moko and The Battle of Algiers make such similar use of the fabled old Algiers neighborhood that there are a few exterior rooftop shots in both films that seemed to me to have been taken from almost the same place. Each of the films has a gritty black and white graininess that somehow emphasizes the otherworldly danger that exists for the protagonists. But while Pépé Le Moko is a romantic gangster pic featuring Jean Gabin as perhaps the most appealing jewel thief in the history of cinema, The Battle of Algiers is a political film that, justifiably famous in its own time, is now remarkably of our time as well.

The first time we see Pépé Le Moko, we see only his hands. But it’s clear as the camera pans upward that this fellow is one of the best-dressed men anywhere, much less The Casbah. When it finally arrives at a full shot of Jean Gabin’s face, we also learn that Pépé Le Moko is a man of rugged but beautiful looks and a rogue of very significant interest. Gabin was a major star of French cinema in the thirties and afterwards, unusually so given his very large and bulbous nose. But, as with Clarke Gable and his enormous ears, you don’t notice Gabin’s imperfection because of the intense sensual authority he brings with him even when he’s not doing much of anything on-screen.

Gabin simply fills the role of Pépé Le Moko, an intrepid thief who has had to leave his beloved Paris under trying circumstances, and is now hiding from the French police in the complicated, turbulent warren of The Casbah in Algiers. He is the personification of Ernest Hemingway’s famous definition of courage, that it is “grace under pressure”. He also has a very humorous glint in his eye, especially when he’s engaged in slang badinage with his pals or with the police inspector Slimane who, although Pépé’s pursuer, also thinks of him as a friend, a man to be respected. Pépé is as well a great lover. One of the Arab men in the quarter says of him that the day Pépé Le Moko dies, there will be five thousand widows in The Casbah.

Pepe+le+Moko+3One of these widows will be Tania, an Arab girl of questionable morals who is in love with Pépé. Played by the French singer Fréhel, Tania is a woman of mercurial emotions who will do anything to save her relationship with the thief. She’s a wonderful character, so remarkably beautiful and intense in her feelings that one can both understand Pépé’s attraction to her and his need to maintain a distance. Given the right circumstances, this woman could destroy a man like Pépé. He doesn’t realize it, but she is his match.

12_mireille_balin-theredlistAnother woman does show up, the be-jeweled French aristocrat Gaby who, slumming one night with friends in The Casbah, meets and immediately falls in love with Pépé, Played by Mireille Balin, she is icily reserved and very upper-crust. But you can see just in the way she looks at Pépé that he fascinates her. Gaby’s eyes glisten with pleasure with every glance she takes at him. It’s Pépé’s pursuit of her that brings about his undoing and eventual capture, with the help of Tania, by the police.

The film was directed by Jules Duvivier with a script notable for its very hard-boiled and sarcastic wit. Duvivier also wanted a gritty look to his setting, and the interior shots all have a very authentic feel for anyone who has ever walked in an old Arab “suk” neighborhood of winding passageways, stairways leading who knows where, doors shut to anyone outside and the feeling of dangerous intrigue just beyond the next turn in the alley. Duvuvier’s Casbah is actually a set constructed for the film, but its authenticity makes you forget that. Light and dark clash in this Casbah, literally, the lighting a precursor to the later grimy underworld of film noir.

Pépé owns this neighborhood, and when he steps out of it in search of Gaby, he is immediately vulnerable. The Casbah is romantic and threatening, the best place for the protection of this classy criminal’s flaunting of the law. The bright light of day outside The Casbah—and his desire for Gaby—bring about his destruction.

Saadi Yacef as El-hadi Jafar (Second from left) and Brahim Hagiag as A li le Pointe (Right)

Saadi Yacef as El-hadi Jafar (Second from left) and Brahim Hagiag as A li le Pointe (Right)

The Battle of Algiers is another matter, although it was indeed shot in its entirety in Algiers and The Casbah. There are thieves in this movie, too. Indeed one of them is the leading man, Ali la Pointe, a rugged-looking youth played by an amateur Algerian actor named Brahim Hagiag. But Ali is no picturesque rogue. He’s a two-bit criminal, not worth much, who ends up in jail for a botched crime. While serving his sentence, he begins to learn about the terrorist insurgency (an actual event that lasted from 1954 to 1962) against the French colonialists in Algiers, and the police force that protects them. The National Liberation Front, or FLN, is run by a commander named El-hadi Jafar, who is also played by an amateur actor. But this actor is special, because his actual name is Saadi Yacef, who was himself one of the leaders of the real insurgency that eventually succeeded in ridding Algeria of the French.

In prison, Ali becomes a confirmed FLN man, and once out, one of the first things he does is to kill an Algerian pimp for whom he used to work. The FLN views the criminal underworld as a kind of enforcer for the French against the Algerian poor, so they must be gotten rid of. Ali also becomes involved in the assassination of French policemen and in arbitrary bombings in the French quarter. As superbly played by Hagiag, Ali la Pointe is a young, foolish man, almost a simpleton, who becomes a hardened soldier in so relentless a way that he ultimately terrifies you.

battle-of-algiersThere is only one professional actor in this film, a Frenchman named Jean Martin, who plays Colonel Mathieu, in charge of the 10th Para-Division, French army paratroopers who are brought to defeat the insurgency. Martin’s portrayal is memorable because the colonel is ultimately a technocrat, although a murderous one. He analyzes the situation clearly and coldly, and moves his men about the city with intent precision and murderous force. He wears fatigues throughout and a pair of air force–style sunglasses that make it difficult to see his eyes. But the sunglasses are perfect because you can see the colonel’s eyes and, despite the emotional distancing that the glasses symbolize, his eyes are sinister beyond belief.

This is a very dangerous man. Colonel Mathieu speaks in a monotone. He is always in control of himself. He never falters. At one point (speaking quite softly, actually) he says “The problem, as usual, is first the enemy.” He pauses a moment, then continues. “Second, how to destroy him.” You had better listen, because Colonel Mathieu will succeed.

Here too, the film is shot in grainy black and white in so physical a way that it almost appears as a genuine documentary of actual events. The director, Gillo Pontecorvo, has such a clear understanding of street battles that the American edition of this film contained a disclaimer that “not one foot” of newsreel film was used in the production. The portrayal of the terrorists and their tactics, especially effective in this urban situation, made the film into something of a bête noire in France, where it was considered to have molly-coddled the Algerian enemy. (It was released just five years after the expulsion of the French from Algiers.)

What’s interesting here is that the French and Colonel Mathieu actually win the battle of Algiers. They hunt down Ali la Pointe and his commander El-hadi Jafar who, with a few others, are hiding in a space between the walls of a Casbah apartment. The terrorists refuse to come out, and are killed by a detonation planted in the apartment by Colonel Mathieu’s men. They don’t stand a chance.

But the Algerians did get rid of the French eventually. This film was based on an account of the insurgency that was written by Saadi Yacef, the actor who plays the doomed El-hadi Jafar, while a prisoner in a French jail. After the French defeat, Yacef, now an Algerian government minister, approached Pontecorvo and, with government assistance, suggested he make the film. It won the Venice Film Festival Grand Prize and was nominated for three Academy Awards.

One ironic occurrence in the film’s influential history is that in 2003, it was given a special screening by the U.S. Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict at The Pentagon. It was thought to be a corrective to those who might think that the then-current situation in Iraq had no precedent. One wonders if the people in The Pentagon who saw this very fine film ever heeded its ultimate warning of what can happen to implacable colonialist forces who do not understand the people they are colonizing.