Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

Ibrahim Maalouf: Writing the Lebanese Rhapsody in Blue

Cover design from website Press Kit. Click for ibrahimmaalouf.com

Everything depends on the transformational artist. The one who can not only dig deeply into his medium and his traditional style to find the beauty and truth, but can also pull all kinds of other media and styles into that profundity with him. I think of George Gershwin, who took his love of popular music and his passion for classical traditions and brought them forward in ways that dragged all of American music with them. Ibrahim Maalouf is just such a transformative musician in a different time and place, but with a similar energy and a similar opportunity to effect a great leap forward for his chosen genres.

His latest album, entitled Diagnostic, is the work of an accomplished, mature musician who is at home with a variety of instruments and idioms. There are Arabic melodies played on unusual instruments, notably piano and trumpet, harmonic progressions where these would be unfamiliar in Middle Eastern music, there is Janissary drumming and the trumpeting of Turkish sünnet street bands. And just as prominently, there is a large amount of Western melody as well, and Western styles. The sounds are interwoven with the complexity of the East but the elements of the West, just as George Gershwin was able to do in his Broadway music and especially in a piece like Rhapsody in Blue, mixing the jazz of his age with the structures of classical music in an energized celebration of both. That same kind of energy is apparent here, with the result something totally new and innovative. Ultimately, the style that comes to mind throughout is neither Arabic nor European, but a fusion of the two. This is beautifully realized in “Maeva in Wonderland,” a piece dedicated to his sister. Here, riffs on Arabic themes mingle with Salsa, Spanish flamenco and heavy metal rock in the most natural way, stirring each other up into a frenzy.

Ibrahim’s father, Nassim Maalouf, was a classically trained trumpet player who felt frustrated by the traditional three valve instrument, which could only play notes in half steps. He invented a four valve trumpet in order to produce the quarter tone notes needed to play Arabic music properly. Nassim Maalouf is well known for his years as a trumpet soloist in Paris, and during that time, he made sure his son learned the four valve trumpet and got solid classical training in the Western tradition. Curiously, he did not encourage his son to study Arabic styles, either classical or popular, and it was without his father’s approval that Ibrahim moved in this direction. In a February, 2012 interview on BBC World Service, Ibrahim Maalouf explains this with a certain sadness. In any case, traditions and family are important to the younger Maalouf, it seems, as the whole album is dedicated to various members of his family. The tracks dedicated to his father are “Your soul” and “Everything or nothing.”

The album concludes with a piece entitled “Beirut.” In the jacket notes, he explains that he composed the melody on his first trip to Beirut in 1993, when he walked through the streets of the wartorn, broken city with Led Zepplin playing in his earphones. It is a strictly focused piece, with Ibrahim’s trumpet always at the fore, playing an emotional monologue that seems to express his reactions to the experience. In his BBC interview, he says that the trumpet is the instrument closest to the human voice, and you can hear that in this piece. It begins with a plaintive opening sequence, that sounds like a meditation on the city’s name. “Beirut…..” eventually, this melancholy section gives way to a melodious middle section that somehow perceives the beauty rising up from the ruins. Then in Maalouf’s style, the piece builds to a great climax, a tortured primal shout of protest expressed in wailing electric guitar. It is a dramatic and fitting way to finish the album.

But it is not the end of Ibrahim Maalouf. Is he writing the Lebanese Rhapsody in Blue? Only time will tell. But undoubtedly, he has opened up a vast new genre to explore for a long time to come. Go to amazon.fr or fnac.fr to see other discs which are available in France and check out some tunes to found on itunes and youtube.

On Monday, March 19, 2012 BBC World Service will dedicate a part of Harriet Gilbert’s daily feature to Ibrahim Maalouf. It airs at 04:05 GMT.

March 17, 2012 Posted by | music | , , , , | 1 Comment

The Tagline – It intrigues them! It hooks them! It draws them in!

Marketing of a film is an important aspect of the film industry. One foolish mistake in the pitch to the public can mean millions of dollars in lost revenue. For this reason, certain marketing strategies which were once casually thrown together are now executed with military precision. Such is the case of the creation of a film’s taglines or catchphrases. These are sentences which are used in publicity to entice the passerby to come into the theater. Traditionally they were seen on diagonal bands pasted across a film’s poster, in plastic letters on the theater’s marquee or spoken (always by a male voice) in voiceover during a theater preview or trailer. They are snappy one liners that tease the public rather than inform. Perhaps the most famous one is “Be afraid. Be very afraid,” from the 1986 film, The Fly . They are not loglines – those are one or two sentence descriptions of the story that succinctly give the essence of the plot, setting or conflict. Loglines are important during the pitch of a script or during the sale of a film to distributors, whereas the tagline comes to the fore during the actual theater run.

Writers and producers fret over loglines because they are so important in getting the support they need to make their films successful. Taglines, on the other hand, are the concern of the advertising and marketing staff. But both loglines and taglines have gone through a gradual transformation during the history of cinema, as writers have become more adept at finding the formulas that work. The New York Public Library currently has an exhibit at the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center called the Birth of Promotion, Inventing Film Publicity in the Silent Film Era. There are displays of movie posters, newspaper articles, lobby cards and publicity tie-ins of various types, with taglines in prominent display. In a handout made to look like an industry broadsheet there are some examples of taglines from the days of the silents. Looking at them you can get an idea of how much the craft has changed since those hit-or-miss early days of publicity. Some examples:

He suffered the tortures of love, and in his anguish he tortured love itself.

Rioting Color, Fiery Romance, Swift-moving Plot of Primitive Love and Hate.

A love tornado with a flaming sweep to thrill the most blasé.

Spicy and speedy comedy, with a dash of paprika.

Fire in his heart, Love in his eyes, Magnetism on his lips.

Entertainment as refreshing as an oasis in the Sahara.

Why is he loved? THE GIRLS KNOW. THE MEN KNOW.

What struck me about these taglines is how unfocused and overwrought many of them are. Speaking of love and hate, or entertainment and the Sahara in the same sentences, describing magnetism on a man’s lips or his anguished torturing of love seem designed to confuse the public more than anything else. In their zealous attempt to encompass the whole film, these catchphrases end up being a jumble of adjectives and images at cross-purposes. Compare these with some taglines from more recent films:

“Every journey begins with a single move.” Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)

“Lie. Cheat. Steal. All In A Day’s Work.” Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

“More sex! More screams! Less taste!” Scary Movie 2 (2001)

“Good cops. Bad hair.” Starsky & Hutch (2004) 

“On this highway, the roadkill is human.” Monster Man (2003

“The longer you wait, the harder it gets.” The 40 Year-Old Virgin (2005)  
The modern taglines are terse, usually focusing on one precise image. They often use puns and juxtaposed two images to get an effect, rather the hodgepodges of the twenties. I found these modern catchphrases (taglines) on filmsite.org, go there to find listings of taglines from each decade of film production. Loglines, on the other hand, can be found on the imdb site, on the webpage for each individual film, just under the title of the film and before the name of the director, writers and stars.

March 16, 2012 Posted by | cinema | , | Leave a comment

The Last Jew from Drohobytsch, a film by Paul Rosdy, opens in Vienna

Click on the image for the website link.

A fascinating new film by director Paul Rosdy opened Friday, March 9 in Vienna. Der Letzte Jude von Drohobytsch (The Last Jew from Drohobytsch) is the true story of  Alfred Schreyer, a man who has lived through an entire century of often cataclysmic changes in this small Ukrainian city. Before the arrival of the Nazi troops he had been the student of the Polish painter and writer Bruno Schulz, but then when war and occupation came to this land he was sent to a concentration camp. After the war he returned to his hometown and for sixteen years he was a singer and violinist in an orchestra that played in a cinema lobby.  Alfred Schreyer still lives in Drohobytsch and in this film he leads the filmmaker on a tour of his city and his life.

click here for the film’s photo gallery on flickr.

Paul Rosdy is an Austrian documentary filmmaker who is interested in the little known stories of MittelEuropean culture. In the cauldron of political turmoil that has characterized Central European societies during the past century, there are many stories which sometimes seem on the verge of disappearing into oblivion either through callous ignorance or willful malice. In Central Europe, whoever controls memory controls history; Paul Rosdy would like to be one of the filmmakers who can keep the memory alive for the most vulnerable, and bring their stories to life.  His first success was with the 1998 documentary, The Port of Last Resort, which he co-authored. It presents the story of 20,000 European Jews who fled to Shanghai during World War II.  Then in 2005 he wrote and directed New World, which is a journey through the old Austro-Hungarian lands of Serbia, Romania and Hungary. That film used a collage format that weaved century old photography and footage with present day scenes of these traditional lands and people.

The film Der Letzte Jude von Drohobytsch was part of the Viennale, 2011. It now begins its theater run in Austria. Hopefully it will also be seen in New York soon, too.

Click for Rosdy Film website. 

March 11, 2012 Posted by | cinema | , , , , | Leave a comment