Follow by e-mail

Monday, 24 December 2012

Watching Union City (1980)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

Christmas Day

* Contains spoilers *

When you are watching Union City (1979) because it is an earlier occasion of Deborah Harry acting than you know, and the DVD sleeve credits some unheard-of organ with calling it 'an unqualifed masterpiece', one's expectations may not be great. (One mistake was to think that there was a clear connection with Blondie's 'Union City Blue'*.)

Undeservedly so, because, with its modest resources (sufficient, though, to the task), this is a very strong film about what makes someone snap, fear and try to flee, and about the relationships that tie. The mood of the film is created by the work of two men in particular, the intensity of Dennis Lipscomb as Harlan, and by Harry's husband Chris Stein's atmospheric score, which has one's nerve-endings a-tingle, especially in the long sequence at the centre of what happens.

The film credits the estate of Cornell Woolrich, a writer of stories, but it surely transcends the original material, with the variety, yet claustrophobia, of the decor, the touches, not just in the nightmarish moments, of the bizarre, and of the dreamy insubstantiality of the world, which does not so much run away from Harlan as slip through his fingers, often with caricatures of bystanders or watchers : they feel as if they are infused by German expressionism, and, even if they may be types, they are all individual.

Ultimately, having scraped around trying not to acknowledge it, we are brought up against the sordidness of everything, and Lillian (Harry) has to admit, with a crash, that her dreams of another world with Larry, the amorous caretaker played by Everett McGill, are no more than that in the face of it.
To summarize this, the synopsis that IMDb has used seems highly inept, and is best ignored by those easily put off something worthwhile by a fatuous description : A man is so obsessed with finding the person responsible for stealing his milk bottles** that he ignores his beautiful young wife, who has other ideas on her mind.

The feature runs to 82 minutes, but the tragedy is not only that it was cut down to gain [the equivalent of***] a PG certificate, but that that material has been lost forever. What remains are Harry's screen-tests (where she is far more she than in the film, where her general quietness makes the times when she erupts or is defiant far more intense, although, absolutely, nothing reaches the heights of Harlan and his fantasy), and some mute takes, whereas what has gone was necessarily of a more forceful nature.

The ambiguity of Harlan and Lillian's 'marriage', which is suggested to be one of convenience, and the playful way in which Larry, her regular film partner, has coffee with her all work very well, and a strict Freudian could probably quite happily point to Harlan as neurotic and emasculated, even if the film works on many other levels, and deserves attention for its power, despite the lost possibility of restoring the original edit.

End notes

* There is a connection, in that (as writer / director Marcus Reichert's sleeve-notes make me aware) Blondie's 'Heart of Glass' went to number one halfway through shooting, and Harry wrote the other song as an account of performing the role of Lillian Harman : Reichert says that she was forbidden by contract from singing on the soundtrack, but that the song was a superb gift to the film.

** No one is stealing the bottles - it is the contents !

*** I forget how long they've been around.

Dalí's soft watches, slipping through your CPU

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

Christmas Eve

Software is instructions for computers, tells us sagely so that we can safely rip up that dictionary thing

There would never have been computer hardware without software, but it's nice to imagine that there was a time when the machinery was jokingly first called 'hard', as if straight from the toolshop, and someone parried by calling the programs that were being run 'soft'.

I like to think that that is what happened, but I know that finding out The Truth, at this remove, is impossible anyway, so who are you to doubt me on the basis of some Internet version of it ? (Unless Richard P. Feynman, or Enrico Fermi, wrote about it in his diary.)

And where those famous watches came into it, I do not know, although one can more easily track when they first made an appearance, slung over a branch...

Friday, 21 December 2012

Not Haneke's way

This is a reaction to seeing Michael Haneke's Amour (2012)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

21 December

This is a reaction to seeing Michael Haneke's Amour (2012)

* Contains spoilers *

Michael Haneke shows something, but leaves it to us what it means, what happened, and he has not deviated from it with Amour (2012). This is something that I value and regard as honesty, that he wants us to be co-creators of the film, and, in interviews that are the ‘extras’ on DVD releases, he has talked clearly about this aspect of film-making, e.g. with Hidden (Caché) (2005) and its ending.

That said, a friend of a friend thought the film was depressing and that it was obvious - not open to question - what had happened and why that was, so one can’t please everyone : on that view, the path had been shown, and was an inevitable and downwards one, and the response was to feel that the film itself was gloomy.

I disagreed, not because, for its own sake, I embrace the depiction of someone deteriorating (although, obviously, people do deteriorate, and that is not unrelated to death and mortality, but Amour is not a documentary), but since deterioration was not, as I saw it, the point of the film, but, rather, that it said something about Anne and Georges, about their relationship : this, too, was an account of the film to which this other viewer could not relate.

If one doubted that there are ambiguities, here are some examples :

* Anne does not tell us why she asks Georges to turn off the new CD of her former pupil Alexandre Tharaud (as himself) playing Schubert – she does not explain the request, so we could infer one of several things, such as that she does not wish to be reminded of Tharaud’s recent visit (for any number of reasons), or of her own inability to play

* When Georges is playing the piano, why he stops, and does not continue or explain, when Anne asks him why he has stopped

* Why Georges dismisses the second nurse whom he engaged – is it really because he is disgusted with her care of Anne, or because he does not want her around and invents a pretext to pay her off ?

* What becomes of Georges and why he chose to do as he did (then and now)

I do not think that I need go on. The point is that Haneke and his film are silent on these things – he is not telling us the answers, and we have to decide for ourselves the rationale in these two people’s minds and hearts. He may have a choice in mind that they made, but he has left it to us to make inferences and not pointed to it. So the viewer who finds the film depressing may be projecting a trajectory onto it, but I say that it is not the only one, and that maybe it was hoped that we would feel more torn, not just about the judgements that we may find ourselves making here, but more generally in life.

Not, though, a didacticism in film-making, I would say, but merely mirroring the complexity of our being, that I may guess at what you mean or your actions, but can I be sure? And was Emmanuelle Riva as Anne ever really helpless ? She was defiant, in pain, stubborn, she was a person, and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), her husband (and another person), was caring, bewildered, resigned, and even frustratedly angry with her.

The film, on my view, was about them and only about what happened to Anne in how it affected them : at the outset, when Georges has been trying to determine what has happened to Georges, she says that he is a monster, but that he is also (I forget the exact word) kind (or caring), and that description rang with me, in a quiet way, as I saw him during the film, and saw her for seeing him that way.

Both actors were in these roles fully, Trintignant, for example, with his trainers about the flat and his varying facial expression, and the reality that Anne and he brought to the everyday made the moments of imagination, memory, dream and even terror that came more powerful – a seeming naturalism against which their unusualness could come to the fore.

As I have suggested, we felt that we were on the inside of Anne’s experience, not that something was happening to her and she was a victim : when she desires her death, there is even a recollection of the grim humour of Samuel Beckettt’s novel Malone Dies, where he writes (Malone is the writer / narrator) that, if he had the strength, he would throw himself out of the window.

Their daughter Eva, played by Isabelle Huppert, seemed on the outside of it all, not just because she was kept out, but because her belief in medical science meant that she was to slow to acknowledge what had happened and was happening (and that led to her being kept out). Tharaud, too, concentrating too much on what had happened to Anne and not on being with her, almost seemed to doubt that Anne, whom one felt he viewed as her wheelchair, could benefit from hearing him play for them.

This film contains beautiful French, beautifully spoken, and with subtitles that intelligently interpret the dialogue. As to why it is called Amour, not L’Amour, I have puzzled over that one. Thanks to, I know, though, that a film of the same name in 1971 also dropped the article (although the title of the novel by Marguerite Duras did not):

I still busy myself with whether, as I suspect, the meaning ‘love’ is changed by the omission to be of less general application, as in amour fou, where one knows that Love is not embodied, but a type (or example) of love.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Psychopaths - or just killers ?

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

21 December

* Contains spoilers *

It might be a cover-all - or a cop-out - to have psychopaths who are just crooks or who have some need to kill, or to have them interchangeably mixed up with 'the mental and deranged', yoking in anyone, indeed, who might have been in hospital, but I think that, as a product, Seven Psychopaths (2012), had no starting point for knowing what one is.

The States muddles up anyway the notion of psychosis and psychopathy, but there was nothing to suggest that this confusion was really responsible. Not that the film fared any better, in its own terms, as my various Tweets have suggested...

And now, at the risk of repeating the above, the review of Seven Sycophants :

There are many films, few as famous as (or even La Dolce Vita), where the film is about making a film (or the like), from Shakespeare-dervied and Cole-Porter-instilled Kiss Me, Kate (1958) to On the Road (2012) or recent Catalan film VOS (2009).

The makers of Seven Psychopaths must have believed – or wanted us to believe – that they were doing something new with the notion of a film that is either within, or which is, the film, but VOS is much more engaging and inventive, and Hit and Run (2012), for all its unevenness, had more laughs - or, rather, had laughs, rather than spaces for them, since I snorted just a dozen times through the course of the film, and six of them were purely in disbelief at the writers’ apparent estimation of my credulity.

The States has its own definition of what the word ‘psychotic’ means, denoting psychopathology (hence Hitchcock’s Psycho, whose Norman Bates kills woman for little reason other than that he can, and had a bad time with his mother), but this film used a very generalized notion of the latter concept, little more than the violent (and / or crazy) bloke in the local who famously ‘is a real psychopath’.

Perhaps for this reason of being confused (which can also be excused on the basis that it is a comedy), the poster had the tag-line ‘They give demented psychotics a bad name’, insulting though that would be to anyone in the UK with an experience of psychosis, and even though this film is funded by Film Four. Now I’m not saying that organized crime might not give opportunities for those who like killing or hurting people, or that it is really of any importance whether Marty (Colin Farrell) or Billy Bickle* (Sam Rockwell, who keeps trying to muscle in on the screenplay), understand what either a screenplay** or a psychopath is, because the clever conceit is meant to be that the film is writing itself or they are writing it as it goes, and so that doesn’t matter.

It then becomes conveniently irrelevant whether what Marty waves around in the desert is a draft of a script, whereas he was previously working on – and not getting very far on – an outline (and, in the only moment where he gives any evidence of writing or being a writer, had not got beyond writing ‘Ext.’ and another couple of defining characteristics of the opening of the scene).

Before that, a message being left for him asks for where what he is working on (as if he had never been required to pitch more of a concept than a numerical group of crazies to interest this unknown caller). Again as if, in a world where a writer writes his friends and himself in a film and they have no independent existence, anything can happen, not the realities of how, in the prominently displayed letters of ‘H O L L Y W O O D’ at the start, its studios work.

This might be for the rationale behind how, in successive shots, it is night and the Buick has just exploded, and then it is abruptly day and it is still on fire, i.e. that in some sort of meta-fictional world anything can happen, but that theme is played far more effectively in VOS, and without the sentimentality allowed here, but with distance : when Hans is with Myra, his dead wife, we have sad music and even a clarinet in its chalumeau register, and, later, plangent solo piano when we are asked to feel something for a dead or injured person.

Farrell’s part is to look shocked and, often enough, to drink to induce reactive amnesia, Rockwell’s to have a suppressed smile always playing rather irritatingly on his face (and be a very unlikely choice of friend), whereas Christopher Walken (as Hans***) is – almost literally – a wraith with a husky voice, with a twisted sort of humanity to match Marty’s.

Against all three, Woody Harrelson as Charlie Brooker is a scarcely mould-breaking combination of the seemingly ruthless and abusive leader, who, although his mouth is the vehicle for much maligning of races and creeds, is soppy about a dog. This is where the comparison with Hit and Run comes in, because Bradley Cooper’s Alex is a far more sinister gang-leader than Charlie, because, even if Charlie shoots Hans’ wife, he is allowed to drop his front far too soon, as if the writing is playing it for (non-existent) humour.

Irrespective of how many psychopaths the film does actually deliver, Billy appears to invoke and encourage danger and killing just for its own sake, or, supposedly, to help the plot along for his friend Marty. Claiming, as Marty does twice, that he is just Billy’s friend may seem an implausible passport to safety, but Farrell’s character has very little to offer, except non-violence and to be an anchor, except in the shade of Billy and to be known as his friend, who is the real originator and creative force, his passing marked by plangent piano…


* Yes, you read that surname aright !

** That said, they are meant to be in film, that alleged industry, so they should, of course, know.

*** To me, not a very Polish name, even if meant to naturalize ‘Jan’.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Apocalypse No !

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

16 December

No, I didn't fail to depress the 'w' key (or manage to press the backspace by mistake), because I am the author of this heresy* (to be found at New Empress Magazine) :

The Agent Apsley December 14, 2012 at 15:51

I wonder if there is scope for a view that says one can read Heart of Darkness and find it as unremarkable as The Secret Agent, because, for all that Conrad performed the feat of writing flawless English, his English and his subject maybe aren’t that interesting after all.

Or even for the view that says that translating the former into Apocalypse Now (1979) really leaves one none the wiser, but that maybe no one dare say so with a film of such towering repute…


* On the strength of it, I considered myself a likely founding-member of Cinematics Anonymous** (or, perhaps, Cinematica Anathema).

** At our meetings, we would introduce ourselves in this way I am The Agent Apsley, and I'm an ex-cinema-goer who couldn't see the point of Being There (1979).

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Are headlines always written by idiots ?

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

15 December

Take this utterance from Parent Dish* (AOL® Lifestyle) :

Dramatic increase in rickets in children. Lack of Vitamin D blamed.

Does the person who typed this have any notion that :

1. Unless conventional wisdom is off beam, not having enough vitamin D** is the cause, not merely something 'to blame'

2. Following on from that, because insufficient - or insufficient take-up of - vitamin D means that the strength and integrity of developing bones are at risk, the resultant condition of rickets is necessarily one that occurs in children

So, to anyone who learnt these facts as a child, the writer appears to even less informed, and yet to be telling us what's what - I despair !


* Whatever that means as a name !

** Some months back, I heard the daughter of the chap who coined the term 'vitamin', who was (amongst other things) berating the ignorance that has changed the pronunciation from vight-amin to vitt-amin...

Friday, 14 December 2012

Better as it was…

This is a review of Quartet (2012)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

14 December (Tweet added, 3 December 2014)

This is a review of Quartet (2012)

* Contains spoilers *

Ronald Harwood, in the Q&A that followed the gala screening of Quartet (2012) to support the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund, did not really explain why he had written a film-script based on his stage-play (though I imagine that he had preferred to do so himself) - and, because it was by live relay from Leicester Square or the like, I did not have the means to ask.

Tweeted, the cover of the programme from Cambridge's Arts Theatre (@camartstheatre)...
I need to check, but I believe that Sir Ronald confirmed what I recollected, that the play just has the four characters, two men, two women, who constitute the quartet [now checked - correct (please see image above)]. By contrast, the film is busy with people, the residents and staff of a fictional (so we were told) Beecham House, which was located in a property near Taplow*, Hedsor House.

For me, that (unavoidable**) creation of an atmosphere in which the foursome of Jean (Maggie Smith), Cissy (Pauline Collins), Wilf (Billy Connolly) and Reg(gie) (Tom Courtenay) can play out their drama did not enhance, but diluted the play’s strength: not quite in the way that some people find their favourite novel pictured awry on the screen, because I had no real notion of what the four were or – should be – like, but simply in terms of how the staging (in the production that I had seen) deliberately minimized the extraneous. With this film, it was as if Harwood were reinventing the depiction of a musicians’ retirement home, which he had hinted at and so, I believe, portrayed more effectively by its absence on stage***.

One of the biggest inventions, the larger-than-life impresario Cedric (played by Michael Gambon in finest Poliakoff-style excess), on his own swallows up the intimate nature of Harwood’s theatre, let alone the whole machinery of employees and their head, the – for me – implausible Dr Cogan, because, whatever she is a doctor of, Sheridan Smith did not seem to be it, evincing just a sweet feeling of being nice as the one in charge of the home, not of being capable of managing, whether domestic or medical.

For every minute that Cedric was bawling at people and posturing, though we were being given a classic Gambonesque treatment, we were not advancing the scenario of the original, but, perhaps unnecessarily, having demonstrated how a cock will rule the roost, and, therefore, steal the show from almost everyone except Dame Maggie. The quartet itself was, in consequence, diminished, rather than built up as the plausible class act that would close the proceedings.

In fact, director Dustin Hoffman's team filmed and recorded our quartet of British stars for two days, and then decided that we would not see that footage, but rather just their rapturous reception to the stage. In the Q&A, we were reminded that the play had the quartet miming to a recording, but that had been decided against, as was - in the event - the quartet’s bid to sing, in favour of a cut-away reverse-out of the lit-up Beecham House with a slow fade and a celebrated recording.

Would I have felt differently about this film, if Connolly had been nearly as funny as Wilf as he was in the Q&A ? Maybe, but he still would never have made me believe that he’d been in a legendary production of Rigoletto, any more than Courtenay or Collins did. Put against a real opera singer, Dame Gwyneth Jones as everyone’s pet-hate (especially Jean’s), Anne Langley, no one came close to resembling any opera-singer I’ve ever heard speak except Smith herself.

(Even looked at on the publicity flyer****, only Courtenay's anguished look and muffler come anywhere near to creating a feel of a tenor, supposing that Connolly is meant to be the bass - which is, though, unlikely to be the case, as Connolly's voice tends to the shrill, and the tenor is, of course, always the clown.)

The quartet number had to end the film, had to be the star turn in which I didn’t believe (or in the paucity of instrumentalists to provide the accompaniment, quite apart from whether accommodating an audience barely more than a handful could make any financial difference to the continued running of the place). And so the film felt as though it failed in its own terms - even though it sought to have the four's performance come out of the muddle and mess of life in the home as some sort of pleasing crowning glory : I can remember, with the version on stage, that one was almost willing them on to their triumph, which I truly lacked feeling here.

It could not have been different, however Harwood had cut the cake, and in writing an unexceptional film he has ruined any posterity for a perfectly good play : probably he put it on the screen because its life has run, but I do wish that he had just turned his energies to something, like The Dresser (1983), that transferred to film with less loss of concentration. If, though, I am wrong, and what I have already suggested was his motivation, to work over a piece with which he could no longer rest content, then I feel little different, that, in trying to breathe life into it, he has effectively buried it.


* There is now no such retirement home for musicians, though there may have been, but there is one for actors, to which this fictional one owes some detail, we were told. (Rather irrelevantly, perhaps, Taplow is the name of the schoolboy in The Browning Version (Rattigan).)

** Cinema that just reproduces a play is, for me, a waste of the medium – the film had to give the backdrop in a way that the literal backdrop of a stage does not require.

*** That said, maybe Harwood was writing for cinema out of a dissatisfaction, at some point, with his stage work : if it was out of that impulse, to give the richness here that a realization on stage could not do (except with some elaborate cast and machinery more redolent of the big musical, when the play is a chamber work), I sense it as a clash with, not as a complement to, the quartet and that the pared-down was more eloquent.

**** Even assuming that he may not have approved it, how can Harwood not squirm at the tag-line ? : Four friends looking for a little harmony.

A long overdue review

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

14 December

The review was started at the time of the Festival, and not finished (and approved by the film's director) that long afterwards, but I have kept failing to put it on here :

In Emily Kuhnke’s short film Der Aufzug (2012), the lift to which the title refers is not so much everything’s setting as an ever-present character, eavesdropping – even when the lift-boy feigns not to – on what people’s words and actions portend. It is the eccentric sort of lift that would have delighted Franz Kafka – who gave us other lifts at the Hotel Occidental in his novel Der Verschollene – and which he might have imagined.

Unlike, though, Kafka’s Karl Rossmann, our lift-boy is not slow to take everything in or to pretend to be part of the furniture, and he does not always need to be told where to take his passengers (we might infer that they are not all strangers, even if they may believe in their anonymity).

The script, by Billy MacKinnon (whom I know from Hideous Kinky (1998), but also Brilliantlove (2010) (on which he was script editor, and which came to Cambridge Film Festival)) is a fairly sparse one, but it covers a lot of ground, and the way that it has been realized, sparing us a lift-door, allows us to concentrate on the lift, who is in it, and occasionally the whirring and clicking mechanism – a contrast with the simplicity of the fore-and-back lever that is used to engage it.

We are no more meant to wonder at how it works or why it is as it is than we are at the era, which could be the 1930s or 70s, because the characters are dressed, and almost behave in, a style reminiscent of painters such as Otto Dix or, probably more likely, Max Beckmann, and their stylization hints at a signification beyond their own individual character.

Nothing is wasted in the direction, and there are no unnecessary pauses, so twelve minutes seem quite intense, and, although the lift-boy seems unconcerned about being relieved, there is the pent-up sense of a trap (He claims to have inferred the external world correlating with what has appeared in his conveyance (but he might just be showing off to the other boy – or he may have read too much Hume).)

Kuhnke makes us glad to see outside, but whether it is Fasching, Wahnsinn or alien invasion is open to interpretation...

Sunday, 9 December 2012

My stonking film scenario !

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

9 December

Isn't Tweeting wonderfully liberating and creative... ?

© Copyright Belston Night Works 2012

Saturday, 8 December 2012

What the dickens !

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

8 December

* Contains spoilers *

This remains my view of Great Expectations (2012), and I thought that Jason Flemyng was equally strong as Joe Gargery, but without the effect of stealing the scene. As for Robbie Coltrane as Jaggers, I was more impressed by him than I would have expected, whereas I had heard criticism that Helena Bonham Carter was too young as Miss Havisham, which - without having consulted the text - I am inclined to think right.

With the exception of little moments such as Pip’s sister, which Sally Hawkins was required to play as a grotesque, as a caricature amongst others at her Christmas meal (principally, Mr Pumblechook (David Walliams)), much was really rather naturalistic (though that is more true of this novel than others), which then set off well touches such as Wemmick and his castle, the Finch dining-club (foppish to the extent of resembling an amalgam of Mods and Teddy Boys), and Fiennes’ explosion onto the screen at the outset, with his Hannibal Lecterish tale.

As for the overall impact of the film, I Tweeted this

The book remains the book, and this is an approach at telling its story, where what has been changed is essentially in the realm of detail and emphasis : it gives me the feeling that I should like to make room to reacquaint myself with what Dickens wrote, partly because much of the dialogue had been invented, but not in a way that an Andrew Davies does it with his adaptations.

However Dickens did describe the marshes, the combination of wide horizons and skilled cinematography gave a beautiful sense of space and of tranquility, only interrupted by the man-hunt (and by Joe’s wife calling out two miles away !). That said, the contrast with London, which seemed unnecessarily full of mud and offal (as if better arrangements would not – they may not have been in the book – have been made for Pip’s reception and conveyance to his lodgings), seemed a little contrived, as if the local market town would have been any different, except in scale. (We only see the inside of Pumblechook’s premises, not how Pip got there, nor, for that matter, have we much notion of where Miss H. and Estella are, in relation to anywhere else, at Satis House.)

As to the ending, well, it is suitably uncertain to pass, but that, and Estella’s story, is what I could most easily check. Whatever feels changed does not leave me unhappy, but there is that feeling, with ‘a classic’, that some of what one could happily have imagined were better not presented for examination and consideration, and that the more quiet ebb and flow of the story became more tidal. That said, it would still be with the invention of dialogue that I felt most out of sorts.

Collette revisited (thanks to @dannytheleigh)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

8 December

* Contains spoilers *

I have been encouraged, by a Twitter-chat with @dannytheleigh, to think again of Shadow Dancer (2012), and what I thought and wrote about it a while back (Who's dancing with whom ?) : I had happened, probably because someone had Retweeted it, to see him saying

That hadn’t been my impression, so I Tweeted Danny Leigh, commenting that My impression is that it received more praise than justified by how it didn't really hold together...

From our dialogue, I can distil these further thoughts :

1. Maybe Collette is a deliberately poor choice of informant – if so, it’s just convenient that she exists as a means of making a sacrifice, by being implicated, to protect Shadow Dancer as an asset

2. That knowledge about the poor choice could not have been shared with Mac, the agent tasked with recruiting her, because he is clearly the sort of person who would have baulked at the task, and we have to imagine that he cannot see for himself why she won’t be convincing

3. Some nascent romantic angle might just about gloss over why he is blind to her deficiencies (though he must have adored her from afar), but what if he had not been blind (as later he is not) and had rumbled the true motivation for engaging Collette ? What, then, for the plan ?

4. Yet all of this begs the question why, in the first place, Mac is on the outside of all this intended machinery, because having it so seems to serve no purpose other than the plot, not of his fellow agents, but of the film: no secret arrangement, nothing to discover, no development, no dénouement

5. There could have been such a motivation in the original book, but, if so, here – to my mind – it is so far submerged that it just gives the appearance of leaving Mac out in the cold for the sheer hell of it, and, oh damn, he’s found us out, and the wrong person’s dead

But I live in hope that I may be mistaken, so, if I am, Tweet me !

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Are Virginia and Sergei an unusual couple - kept apart from birth ?

This is a review, after a special screening, of What is This Film Called Love ? (2012)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

5 December

This is a review, after a special screening, of What is This Film Called Love ? (2012)

* Contains spoilers *

Even the presentation of the title What is This Film Called Love ? (2012) in the opening credits, contains a suitable ambiguity, because the last word (maybe even without a question-mark – I am unsure now) appears on a separate slide.

What I think that that subtlety does for me - of implying that there could be a comma before the word ‘love’- is to remind me to watch this as a film, not as an artifact. Its director, Mark Cousins, had just been telling the audience in Screen 2 at Festival Central on Sunday afternoon how he came to be in Mexico City with three days on his hands before a flight* : a situation to which he responded by deciding to film the basis of the film, and with the only outlay being laminating a photograph of Sergei Eisenstein (which made Eisenstein resemble, a little, both Harpo Marx and Dylan Thomas).

As a film, it is almost pointless (whatever the title may suggest**) to consider the precise genre, because, although we might later know that Cousins, filming both himself and the city, kept a notebook of his thoughts (as he told us), I think that he was asserting neither that the dreams represented were ones that he recalled having then (or ever), nor that this was a documentary in fictionalized form, and the film – as it should – speaks for itself.

Yes, we see clips from other journeys, travels, that Cousins had made, but there is using footage – itself almost necessarily what one selects to record (or have another record) – and there is editing it together with other material in a dream-sequence. When Cousins talked about Virginia Woolf in the Q&A, it was clear that he had been spending time with her writings, in particular her diaries***. Good lad! (My impression is that pitifully few people give Woolf any time, attention which did not seem to materialize with Cunningham’s The Hours and the 2002 film (or even with Orlando (1992), taken from a wonderfully anarchic novel), but might now that some pointless anniversary is slapping us in the face and telling us that she exists, a lively, passionate woman who wrote amazingly and was not just - as I have heard her dismissed - a depressive).

I had been wondering about the female narrator****, and now I realize that, modernity apart, it has a Woolfian quality to it, if not necessarily of Orlando itself, then of other significant works. And there were, with it, other qualities (even a probably quite deliberate echo of the sing-song woman vocalist / male narrator in that once deeply popular song ‘Tubthumping’ by Chumbawamba), amounting to a sense of familiarity with the delivery, the type of content, the message behind the voice being there.

The apparent purpose of the film is to show how the days available were spent (although the introduction gave the impression that, say, they fell between arrival on Wednesday and departing on Sunday, whereas the narration suggested a different placement within the week, which could just be because, off the cuff, Cousins forgot how the days fell). However, a degree of licence is implied, because there is a coherence to the narrative and its direction that might have been purely fortuitous if one had had, with no starting-point, to root around for what to do with a camera for 72 hours.

In the case of Belgian-born artist Francis Alÿs, of whom I was reminded early on by being shown a block of ice (against which Eisenstein’s laminated image was duly rested) and who, unknown to Cousins, works in the city, the starting-point for one happening-like work is such a block : I am not sure whether Alÿs has done so more than once, but there is footage of him pushing and pulling it around all day until there is nothing of it left, which was sub-titled Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing. My point being that it is a rare thing, on demand, to be able to hit upon where to start - which is what Cousins chose to do - and not to make a false start.

As it unfolds, the film is not primarily about what Eisenstein did or saw when he was in the city, but partly, in conversation with him, it suggests insights to him into what he would not have known or witnessed then (though he may have had other ideas), all of which is in an endeavour to come closer to what he documented as having thought and felt. That Cousins, in trying to relate to Eisenstein’s word ‘ecstasy’, only came to a thought on his film’s day two that was with me on day one (from knowing the literal meaning), is neither here nor there, but it did give that element of dramatic irony, of seeing, as the viewer, a course of action not known to the protagonist (why ever we used that word deserves a blog posting in its own right, some day...).

What we were being shown did not feel self-revelatory, although it may well have been highly so (and I do not just mean the Billy-Connolly-style desert streak), because it had the forward momentum that I have mentioned above (which was only slightly lost in one dream, and in one long musing in bed before getting up, where it did feel that it could have been a fraction tighter). Cousins himself would have known precisely what each thing presented signified, whereas we could only guess at it through the narrative voices: as an outsider, I had been quite content that, rather than telling his own story of those days, he could have been acting in what he had fabricated. For, to me, it made no difference, although it is clear enough, at the same time, that he positioned the camera to do some press-ups, and must equally have feigned views of falling asleep or waking up.

As I say, none of this really matters, because it was, complete with the Woolfian twists right at the end (courtesy of, again, Orlando, and also of her short book Flush), not even where we ended up with the city and with leaving it, but of the triangular relationship over time between Eisenstein, Cousins and the camera, as commented on - as if from above - by the female voice.

To this already complex mix, P. J. Harvey (or Polly, as she is known to Cousins) brought two songs (I think that it was just two) that I found the most significant part of the audio, and I brought my own little feeling that I was part of it, having Tweeted Cousins when he was in Moscow that maybe he would find cherry-blossom at Eisenstein’s place of rest, since he had left a stone from a cherry there on a previous visit…


* Probably fortunately, no one asked, and Cousins did not say, either how this had arisen, or why he did not strive to change the flight to an earlier one.

** And hearing a recording of Ella Fitzgerald sing the Cole Porter number from her version of The Cole Porter Songbook made me value her all over again.

*** Widower Leonard Woolf edited them to one length for A Writer’s Diary, as a full set, and as an intermediate length.

**** (Cousins is also a narrator, but a more interior one, of what he said and thought, although my impression, in recollection, is that one could not make an exact separation – it may be that he strays into ‘her’ territory, and vice versa.) A question was asked about why a woman narrating, with a suggestion as to why (other than something that is narrated near the end), but, sadly, I cannot recollect the idea clearly enough to document it.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

The Step-Ladder Model of Mental Ill-Health

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

4 December

No, this is nothing – much – to do with the type of joke (many of them unfunny) How many [type of persons to stereotype*] does it take to change a light-bulb ? ...

But it could be related to answers to the question How many light-bulbs can someone with bi-polar disorder change in an afternoon ? : 0 or 24.

If I am on a step-ladder** (in no particular order) :

* It could feel pretty insecure on the ladder, and my anxiety about feeling unsteady could worsen my balance, thereby heightening my anxiety – How do I even stay here, let alone get down ?

* Even though being on the top step, with maybe only three of the feet in contact with the uneven ground, does not feel safe, as such (because I know what they say about using ladders), it’s perfectly manageable - If I stand on tiptoe and just reach out at full stretch, perhaps putting a foot against the wall…

* I look OK, but motionless, on a step two up from the bottom - I just about register that I’m down at the bottom of the ladder, but don’t ask me whether I’ve stopped on the way up or down, it’s too much to think about, and I’d like to get off and go somewhere else, but figuring out what to do just isn’t coming to me.

* I’m hurrying up the ladder, and then I stop, think, go down a step and stop again, think again, then slowly up two steps, then another pause and a thought, and hesitatingly reaching down for the step below with my foot - Damn, I’m sure that I didn’t post that letter – it’s in my pocket – I’ll go and get… – no, better to finish this first, and remember to look in my jacket – ah, but when did I last have anything to eat…?

If I am not on the ladder :

* I know where the ladder needs to be, where the light-bulbs are, and can check the wattage of the old bulb when it is down - There is so much in front of the ladder that I’ll have to move out of the way, then clear the stairs enough to get it through, manoeuvre it in and upstairs without scraping the walls or knocking anything valuable over, then lean it up again whilst I clear a space to stand it, get on it, climb up, reach – oh, God, can’t I just put batteries in the torch instead, if I need to see where I’m going there ?’


* Not that it is a word that I like to use, but now, having written it, I’m not going to rest until I discover how something that sounds like a hi-fi component means that (and has had such influence).

** The step-ladder does not stand for one, immutable thing, but a set of feelings, mood, etc., and it may signify differently from moment to moment.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Short films at Festival Central (6) - Friend Request Pending (2011)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

3 December

* Contains spoilers *

Director : Chris Foggin ; Writer / Producer : Chris Croucher

Friend Request Pending (2011) – the clue is in the title – brought together two of my least favourite things about life, Judi Dench’s acting and Arsebook, the former through too much exposure to dire situation comedies (which, for me, have also wasted the talents of Zoë Wanamaker, Geoffrey Palmer and Robert Lindsay), the latter on account of the tales of bad experiences from those known to me, which make sound anything that happens on Pratter / Splatter benign.

(I know that one should divorce oneself from such influences, but I didn’t, although I have somehow managed to shut off the Dench detectors for the latest Bond films.)

The premise, then, was not one that appealed: that I was to witness Dame Judi (ably assisted by Penny Rider*) employing her rudimentary keyboard skills in seeking to be a friend on Arsebook with a man whom she had just met, and Penny’s and her ideas of dating and of chatting him up on instant messaging (that all sounded a bit drunkenly implausible – not that they should have been drunk, but gravitating to a cocktail bar, where, one must infer, they must have managed to swap quite a means or two of contact** for her to be doing this messaging).

I grant you, translate the things of youth to someone of Victor Meldrew’s age, and the hilarity and japes in him getting it all wrong are an endless mirth factory. We are not in dissimilar territory here, for me, and it was where two noisy older women in the audience became raucuous, as if given permission, when Tim Healy (as the sergeant in Man in Fear (2011) had not.

What can I say, save that the ending had a J. R. Hartley quality to it, or of one of those good old British Telecom adverts (before they became BT, and more hard nosed), of warm, homely good-feeling? No, it couldn’t have preceded anything else in the bill of fare, and, yes, I did phase out a little, though all credit to Chris Croucher, who reported how he had pounced on Chris Foggin when the latter had let slip that Dame Judi had said that she wanted to be in a short, if he made one, and who showed how he had earned wings in the usual job of Assistant Director.

Back to the Joy of Six menu from here


* Chris Croucher told us afterwards that Penny is a long-time mate of hers, who goes through lines for her and stands in when they are getting the shot and the lights right on set.

** Why do we talk about contact details ? The details are not of the contact that we have had, or will have, but the wherewithal to make it.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Short films at Festival Central (5) - The Ellington Kid (2012)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

2 December

Director / Writer : Dan Sully

This short was almost the envy of Chris Croucher, writer / producer of Friend Request Pending (2011), in its brevity: Dan Sully and he were in agreement that some shorts are, as this one is, in the nature of – this wasn’t the language in which they discussed it – dealing with just conceit with a punch or knock-out line.

What it exemplifies is how easily, when a character is talking (in this case, Nathan (Charlie G. Hawkins) speaking to Beefy (Hammed Animashaun)), we can slip into adopting the images that accompany his or her words, as if the images – which is what cinema does – acquire a status of credibility, authenticity, by being shown. Yet we do not do that (at least, I hope not) when it is the same old VW ‘see film differently’ clips that purport to tell us how an aspect of Jaws (1975), Taxi Driver (1976) or The Silence of the Lambs (1991) came into being : they are being knowing in a different way, sharing the joke with us as it goes along that we might credit what is presented.

As writer / director in a shoot of, as I recollect, two days, Sully achieves a tight narrative in which we are totally sucked into what Nathan says, only to feel as foolish as Beefy when the ground is pulled from underneath him. (Or is it? There is a nice little hint at the end that there might have been some murderous truth in what he has been told.) As to the specific assertion that Nathan makes, I had anticipated it, then thrown it away – so much the better !

Back to the Joy of Six menu from here

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Short films at Festival Central (4) - Man in Fear (2011)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

2 December

* Contains spoilers *

Director / writer : Will Jewell

This film gives a delightful interchange between a constable manning a desk in the station (Tim Healy, credited by IMDb as Sargent (sic) Brown, though he does not, as I recollect, have a Sergeant’s stripes) and the film’s protagonist Anthony Fox (Luke Treadaway), which, whilst not literally at the centre of Man in Fear, at least gives us an insight into what Fox fears.

Not in a derivative way, I was reminded of a scene in Luc Besson’s Angel-A (2005), where a similar desperation leads André Moussah (Jamel Debbouze) to seek arrest in the cells as sanctuary (equally, there’s Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life), but Healy’s PC was delightfully erudite, delightfully abrupt, and simply, in a superbly bluff British way, not willing to entertain what he was being told or what was done. (Not until afterwards, anyway.)

Beforehand, Treadaway brought us all the early fluster from North by Northwest (1959) of trying to prove the reality of what is happening to him, only to find that no one wants to listen, of being confronted by this PC who throws Damien Hirst and his suspended sharks in his face. In between, is the audience, to whom Fox's paranoia is palpable, and in whose hands - almost - his character’s fate seems to lie.

Much more so than Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), evading the fate of being Kaplan, Fox has a sense of vulnerability, of being – unsympathetically - thought to be in psychosis, when maybe his big overspilling bundle shows what he says…

A palpable playing with the borderline between being ‘in fear’ and what others will make of one’s fear, this film is a gem, given 9.0 on IMDb.

Back to the Joy of Six menu from here

Putting on a premiere of a play versus making a film

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

1 December

NB What follows is written from – and for – the perspective of the layperson

I want to suggest that the former may be less wasteful, when we are talking about the millions of dollars, pounds or other currency spent on making a film that may not get any (or enough) distribution for it to be made back, let alone make a profit. At its own higher end, a play can still be tested elsewhere before being taken to a theatre in the West End, where the overheads and risks of even a short unsuccessful run might be prohibitive.

Trying out (trialling, some would have it) a work of cinema may be possible as it’s put together, but there is nothing to compare with having the finished film before the critics, whose praise one hopes to be able to print on the posters, and to be read or heard by those influenced in other ways. Likewise with the critics’ words of acclaim outside London theatres, and all that makes for a production being a hot ticket, just as certain films become a must see.

Is there even a parallel between a play written by, say, David Hare and a screenplay ? Take Hare’s play Skylight, which first appeared at The National in 1995, and was published by Faber & Faber in May of that year, though I have been unable to establish when, in relation to the production and going on to ??, that was. Now, it is quite possible that the text of the play was moulded by its director, ??, and by the cast prior to publication, as there was likely to have been a tie-in between the published and performed versions, and even that Hare sat in on rehearsals.

That level of intervention in what is still essentially one person’s dramatic effort is still relatively small, compared with, in the case of some films, the number of people who might have been batting around ideas at different levels of nearness to a shootable script for a fairly long time: the person whose name appears credited as writer may often be a matter of politics, rather than a true ascription in the way that Hare’s name on the front of a copy of Skylight would be.

So why are so many films made that never – or scarcely – get seen on our cinema screens, which, at one point (around nine years ago), was said to be 19 out of 20 ? How, we wonder, did films such as Gambit (2012) attract actors such as Firth, Rickman and Diaz, and how well would the films that they supplanted have fared, if they had been distributed instead ?

In terms just of authors, even if they write for radio to begin with, does a writer have a better chance not script-writing for cinema, but writing a play, and what lures them to a world where they may have to relinquish all control over what they have worked on for months ? The same attraction that takes us to watch films – of seeing it on the big screen, performances caught to supposed best advantage of crew, cast and credited screenwriter.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Short films at Festival Central (3) - Scrubber (2012)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

29 November

* Contains spoilers *

Director : Romola Garria (although IMDb rightly credits her as Romola Garai)

Scrubber (2012) is, as the title is (and as A Gun for George (2011) is), an ambiguous piece of narration. In its literal sense, we see Jenny (Amanda Hale) scrubbing at the floor at one point; at another, when she is saying to a neighbour with whom she is leaving her daughter (Honor Kneafsey), she glosses over what she does by saying that she did work, and citing the house.

In what is the most lengthy of the shorts, though only a few minutes longer than George, there is playfulness shown between mother and daughter, for example with the shampoo beard, and, when we think that Jenny is alone, she has her next to her. Nonetheless, she is in the way, and Jenny leaves her with a relative stranger, rather than change her plans.

Particularly with the scrubbing, but also with reactions to situations where there is messiness, there are hints at a psychological dimension to Jenny’s actions. Yet, for all that she courts sexual encounter, we do not feel part of her motivations in the way that we are with Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), and we are quite precisely kept on the outside, although we might hypothesize that Jenny hates herself for indulging what she craves.

Whether we think that such is a cinematic portrayal of such a disorder, not bearing a proper connection with the experience of those who have one, must depend on our knowledge and understanding: it is nevertheless one that would bear being seen again.

Back to the Joy of Six menu from here

Short films at Festival Central (2) - A Gun for George (2011)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

29 November

* Contains spoilers *

Director / Lead : Matthew Holness

For all that it, intentionally, raised laughs with The Reprisalizer and the gun-fixated nature of his activity (and where some shots had been directed), the film was skilfully playing with the audience’s sympathies for, and expectations of, Terry Finch - down to who George was, and what the balance of power was with others whom he, often confrontationally, encountered.

Finch is not exactly a Walter-Mitty-type character, but there are nods in the direction of sources such as t.v. private detective Jim Rockford (The Rockford Files) and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). That said, Matthew Holness in writing and playing the part, creates - in scarcely more than fifteen minutes - an identifiable breed of (would-be?) revenge-taker, and his own brand of hero. Finch selects himself for attention or ridicule by his style of dress and of appearance, but it is what he is happy with, because he has not moved with times that have deserted him and his sort of writing.

When we see that it has led to attacks on his property, we find out what matters to him, although, contrasted with the ludicrousness of his notions of heroism and reprisal, there is a clearly felt sense of bathos. In the last wish of a friend, both themes come together, with shots up to and down from a room several stories up suggesting a threshold, on which we leave Finch.

The whole film is pervaded by ambiguity, and keeps one working to piece together fact from fantasy in a way that mirrors the pressured nature of Finch's self-expression and behaviour. Well worth another viewing to see how the kaleidoscope changes !

Back to the Joy of Six menu from here