Thursday, 22 November 2012

All The Way Through Evening - Film Review

Set for release in the US, as well as Oz, to commemorate World AIDS day on December 1, this documentary by Australian film-maker Rohan Spong is an account of an annual concert organised by Mimi Stern-Wolfe that features the work of composers who have contracted the disease.

Mimi Stern-Wolfe All The Way Through Evening

Spong has described his experience directing the film as follows: "It was like looking through a keyhole to another time and another place, I could tell there were some really important memories there - this film has an unusual angle because I'm definitely a young outside looking in." What's perhaps most striking about the film is how it also indicates a certain perspective on AIDS has been lost by the present generation. Many of the interview subjects relate their experience watching friends die during the 80s - one poignantly describes how he began crossing out names in his address book until there were almost none left - as well as the bigotry directed at victims of the disease and the gay community. While today to some degree it could be argued attitudes have become less ignorant, by the same token there is a lack of concern in relation to the disease itself.

All The Way Through Evening is in that sense not only an expression of a community's artistic response to this epidemic, it is also a musical memento mori to a disengaged contemporary youth culture.

Spong films Mimi's preparations for her 2010 concert, showing her affectionate relationships with musicians and collaborators scheduled to perform at the event, before introducing interviews with the friends and loved ones of the composers due to feature on the programme. In this structured fashion we come to know Kevin Oldham who was inspired to compose music based on the work of Emile Zola and the sinking of the Titanic; Robert Chesley who appears in a segment of recorded footage, casually wearing a t-shirt that reveals his lesions - in his life and work as a playwright he sought to reveal the true nature of the disease in order to inform the public; and Chris DeBlasio who composed the piece from which this film takes its name, as well as the astonishing song 'Walt Whitman in 1989' which imagines the iconic poet bearing witness to the ravages of AIDS.

DeBlasio's song contrasts Whitman's visiting of AIDS patients with the poet's own experience of seeing young soldiers mutilated in war. It is a comparison not lost on some of the interviewees, who explicitly compare the devastation of the disease to a form of warfare. Chesley also described, in some of the footage included with this documentary, how he would see yard sales with a name and a date of passing, and know with certainty that this person had also died of AIDS. These were the shibboleths of a community under siege and once again, the film makes it clear how it was left to this community to carry the burden of these deaths alone - to be diagnosed HIV positive was something that had to be kept hidden for reasons of personal safety, not to mention further estrangement. It is interesting that Spong's previous film, The Songs They Sang, dealt with the use of music in the Vilna Ghetto to also provide hope in the face of such horror. 

Another point made by Perry Brass during the documentary is how before AIDS the New York gay scene allowed participants to move easily between underground sex and high art. In Nick Kent's biography Apathy for the Devil he notes how his own introduction to music, which post-adolescence led to the debauchery of the 70's rock scene as part of his career as a NME journalist, was hearing Debussy for the first time. Classical music is not so removed from visceral feeling, as long as it contains passion. Brass' anecdote serves as a reminder of how vibrant the culture of this community was before it became overshadowed - and how the work of Mimi is quite defiant, an attempt to preserve an aspect of that spirit through music. When she is shown a video of a performance given by Chris DeBlasio with vocalist Michael Dash, she wryly makes the comment that film-makers tend to ignore the pianist in favour of the singer. To his credit, Spong avoids the cliche and captures several intimate live performances given by Mimi and her collaborators in the film, showing her eyes darting along the sheet music as she plays, shooting the singers from below as their throats swell to hit that next note.

This film is both timely in its evocation of a time, as well as powerfully moving in its commemoration of the lives of these talented souls lost so tragically. A wonderful film.

All The Way Through Evening Rohan Spong Mimi Sterne Wolfe


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