Page One: a Year Inside the New York Times (15)

This documentary is a hymn to newsprint, writes Ryan Gilbey.

Page One rehearses familiar arguments about the death of newsprint and the advent of new media. You have to marvel at the director Andrew Rossi's fortuitous timing in stalking the offices of the New York Times just as economic crisis strikes, advertising plummets, Twitter rises and WikiLeaks comes calling. If only phone-hacking had made an appearance, the film could have boasted a full house for 21st-century upheavals in media.

Certainly the film does not want for incident. Balance is another matter. From the reverential opening shots of whirring printing presses, there's about as much impartiality here as there are exposés about celebrity cellulite in the New York Times. Most of us are willing to overlook any bias that coincides with our own, so as someone convinced intellectually and emotionally of the enduring necessity of newspapers, I'm brooking no argument with the picture on that score. Rossi can throw in the all shots he wants of Times delivery vans lurching onto the blue dawn streets. He can scurry along behind reporters like a pooch hoping for choc drops, or insert close-ups of editors knitting their brows under the bright wash of unflattering office lighting. I won't complain.

But the movie's fluent organisation of intersecting stories should connect even with viewers unsentimental about inky fingers. As print journalism comes under attack from its digital equivalent, Rossi shows the wagons circling. Steve Jobs unveils the iPad to Rupert Murdoch's delight. Venerable newspapers start folding, and the Atlantic predicts bankruptcy for the New York Times. The Times faces the dilemma of how lean an organisation can become before it qualifies as enfeebled and requires the artificial bulking-up of paywalls. Heavyweight panels convene to debate the industry's woes. The Times's prickly-faced media columnist David Carr vows to "vapourise" the arguments of any would-be pallbearers. His visual riposte to the rise of news aggregator sites is definitive and too choice to spoil here.

Carr is the closest thing the film has to a narrator. Rossi was interviewing him about a separate project when it struck him that Carr would make a scintillating subject in his own right. His instincts were correct. The reporter sounds like he's been gargling iron shavings; he's been around the block, sometimes on his knees or in handcuffs (his former drug addiction is covered in his memoir, The Night of the Gun). He's a skinny man who comports himself rather grandly: he seems to be reclining, gazing at the world over invisible half-moon spectacles, patting a belly that he doesn't actually have.

The film puts its strongest defence of print journalism in the scenes of Carr preparing a piece on the demise of the Tribune Company. He walks into his editor's office and delivers a line that will resemble sacred poetry to creatures of print, and gobbledegook to most people who were born blogging: "I'm doing two more weeks of reporting on this, then it might take a week to write it and show it to you."

Not that the division between different species of media is absolute, as the film demonstrates by exploring the paper's recruitment of the blogger Brian Stelter ("I still can't get over the feeling that Brian was a robot assembled in the basement of the New York Times to come and destroy me," chuckles Carr), or its fluid relationship with WikiLeaks. For all this, it is the tactile, quietly bustling thrill of the newsroom that gives Page One its particular charge.

I was struck by the elegant design of the Times offices, where each room has a different image from the paper's archive framed outside, and staff members have their names embellished on grey panels next to their work stations. Then again, I'm easily impressed. When I first worked at a national newspaper, it was an occasion for rejoicing whenever you found a computer terminal with its keyboard still attached.
Another quirk of design provides a symbol of resilience in Page One for those who want one. That striking red staircase, rising from the middle of the office floor and bridging its two levels, looks in long shot unmistakably like the jagged line on a graph indicating steeply escalating fortunes.

“Page One" is released on 23 September

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.

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis