Film reviews

‘Living with Imperfection – Ran Blake’

Living with Imperfection – Ran Blake

(Documentary film by Antoine Polin, 2021, 67mins. Review by Jon Turney)

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The critic Eric Thacker once suggested Ran Blake’s music, especially music evoked by movies, was a good fit for Wordsworth’s notion of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. It’s still fair comment, and something of the same air attaches to this lovingly compiled, gently paced documentary.

That’s true from the first moments, where the now 86 year-old pianist and composer is seen, sitting cross-legged on the bed in his basement apartment in Boston, eyes hooded, speaking to the camera. He runs down his influences, from Schoenberg to Monk, then comments, almost frame-by-frame, on a film playing in black and white on a screen in a high corner of the room.

It is Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase from 1946, though we aren’t told that directly. That’s in keeping with the director’s lack of concession to the uninformed. Who is the man talking? Why is his obsession with old movies interesting? The reasons emerge gradually, if the viewer is patient, beginning when Blake sits at his piano, improvising while commenting on the film scenes in his mind’s eye.

Then we move to the (un-named) New England Conservatory, where the pianist evidently still teaches, greeted merrily by a succession of people half his age or less. The pace, literal and metaphorical, remains slow. A 40 second shot simply following Blake’s slow progress down a corridor to a teaching room is representative (he’s not very mobile these days, except in the fingers). There is a little teaching talk and a small taste of playing with a student ensemble. Then back to the apartment, to work with various assistants.

Some might have edited the whole thing down to half an hour. But the film is slow because life at 86 is slow. Blake talks, sleeps, muses on living alone, rehearses long-cherished memories. He talks about influences and collaborators, most affectingly about his celebrated partnership with the peerless vocalist Jeanne Lee. (The live set with her in Belgium in 1966 that was finally released two years ago is one of the most striking archive finds of recent years, incidentally). But this is not a biography.

There isn’t much in the way of a narrative either, though we do move at the end to New York and a solo recital, which yields a tantalising glimpse of Blake on stage. The whole thing is presented as an exploration of one set of links between two great art forms that originated in the twentieth century, jazz and cinema, which have interacted less than one might think. But it’s also a portrait of ageing – enviably successful ageing in this case. The title has something to tell us about how to make music, but also about life in general. You’ll need to go elsewhere for the run down on Blake’s long and consistently creative life in jazz and contemporary music, but this artfully reticent piece of fly-on-the-wall film-making should send plenty looking for the details.

Living with Imperfection is screening on demand from 7-21 November as part of the Doc’n Roll festival.

LINK: Living with Imperfection at Doc’n Roll Festival

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