Gilbey on Film: non-human stars

The talking animals in cinema worth hearing.

Dr Dolittle could talk to the animals. This much we know. But what about those beasts in cinema who want to express complex thoughts and emotions, or converse with someone higher up the actors' food-chain than Rex Harrison (or, heaven forbid, Eddie Murphy)?

One such example can be found in Beginners, which I will be reviewing in this Thursday's issue of the NS. In this movie by Mike Mills, a Jack Russell terrier communicates telepathically with its owner (Ewan McGregor), and the non-human side of the exchange is made accessible to the audience via subtitles. It's worth noting that Mills is the partner of the artist and filmmaker Miranda July, whose own latest movie, The Future (which opens in the UK in November) is narrated by a cat called Paw Paw. Mills admitted to me recently that he likes animals more than humans, but perhaps that's simply what happens when you've been in the film industry too long.

You can hear Mills and his cast discussing the honour of working with Cosmo the dog here. And here is a brief run-down of other notable talking animals in cinema. Animation and children's films are excluded -- well, almost.

1.The rancid fox in Lars von Trier's Antichrist proves with its menacing delivery of just two words ("Chaos reigns!") that there are no small parts, only small actors.
2.Harvey the hell-hound in Spike Lee's Summer of Sam commands the "Son of Sam" serial killer to continue his bloodthirsty spree. The voice is provided by Lee regular John Turturro.
3. The pig-man hybrid in Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man! ranks among the most disturbing sights in all cinema (watch the whole clip, with the creature unveiled around 2:21). Trivia nerds will already know that he is played by Jeremy Bulloch, who later donned the costume of intergalactic bounty hunter Boba Fett in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
4.A small variety of non-human speaking parts in Garth Jennings's film of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but my pick would be the stoical whale played by Bill Bailey.
5.Like Cosmo in Beginners, the cat in Doug Liman's underrated portmanteau comedy Go converses telepathically with its human co-star -- in this case, a young supermarket clerk who has just taken Ecstasy.
6.Okay, so I said no children's films. But this list would look plain odd without Snowbell, the withering cat squeezed out of his family's affections in Stuart Little. Listen to the incomparable Nathan Lane stealing the show as Snowbell in the 2002 sequel.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State