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Saturday, 27 September 2014

Interview with Mark Brown : One in Four magazine and beyond...

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

22 September

Mark, starting first with One in Four magazine, of which you were founder and editor, and which folded earlier this year, following a short statement made to subscribers...

Shortly afterwards, you elaborated on that statement in a piece in The Guardian, which was then commented on by Ruth McCambridge in Not For Profit Quarterly.

1. Is there anything more that, at this remove, you wish to say about the reasons why One in Four ceased publication ? (If appropriate, please point to accessible places where you have already said something more than in the sources above.)

After all, the announcement did come soon after the publication, in the editorial of the Summer 2013 issue, of the magazine’s five-year mission. On the other hand, in a statement when an issue had not appeared on time, you told readers that the depressive experience of having a diagnosis of Bipolar II had been responsible : ‘The autumn issue of One in Four eaten by the editor’s depression’. (McCambridge took the opening words of your statement as the title of her piece, So, what kind of a monster eats a mental health magazine ?.)

One of the things about running a magazine is that you always have to talk about it as if it is eternal and will continue forever. Projects like ours live hand to mouth and nothing is ever certain.

In the magazine business, publications begin and end all of the time. It's a ruthless area where the continuation of a magazine depends solely on its profitability.

With One in Four, the revenues available to continue it dropped as the effects of austerity became further and further ingrained. While the individual subscription rates were rising, the bulk subscription rates flatlined.

For the final few years of One in Four, the magazine was overwhelmingly me; and me in a way that wasn't contributing to the bottom line of our company. We cut the costs of the magazine, trimmed all wastage and made it cost neutral - as long as my time wasn't factored into the equation.

Where once I might have been able to continue the magazine, knowing that it was in some way contributing to the continuation of our company and indirectly towards my own wages, we ended up in a situation where One in Four was a great project as long as I and everyone else (apart from writers) gave our time to it for free. This coming at a time where the importance of doing activity that paid was becoming more and more important.

After six or so years, I ran out of energy and steam. When you have limited resources, you fill in for missing resources with your own time and effort. This is always a risky strategy as once you run out of yourself; that's it.

2. Supplementary question :

Whatever one thought of it, it seems hard to believe that we once had a Social Exclusion Unit (which then became, before its abolition in 2010, the Social Exclusion Task Force)… However, that fact makes this aim that you stated in The Guardian having had for One in Four seem even more relevant :

We wanted to alleviate some of the isolation people with mental health difficulties feel.

Politics apart, but just thinking of the increasing pressures on NHS Trusts to reduce budgets, by losing in-patient beds and cutting services, was it a more realistic expectation that a publication that editorially implied a psychosocial (or other non-medical model) of mental health, e.g. by using a term such as 'mental health difficulty', could be of interest to bodies in the third sector, rather than Trusts ? If so, what would that realization have had you do differently at the outset ?

3. As its issues appeared, one thing that one noticed about One in Four is that, compared with the first ones, they no longer exactly fitted this description (taken from the web-site) :

One in Four is a glossy full colour quarterly 32-page quarterly magazine written by people with mental health difficulties who lived through it and found ways around it. It’s the perfect guide to getting stuff in your life sorted.

Therefore, in terms of how One in Four looked, and, in particular, thinking of that word ‘glossy’, how later issues no longer had the same paper or feel. And, without checking, it seems uncertain whether ‘full colour’ continued to be an apt description…

Were these early signs that what the magazine had hoped to be, i.e. sold ‘in bulk to NHS trusts’, had not happened, and thus that there was not the expected funding for it to be as described. And do you think, in turn, that factors to do with appearance and feel could have impacted on the saleability of One in Four, to potential subscribers as well as to contributors (or advertisers, though the impression that was that advertising revenue was not likely to be significant) ?

To be honest, I don't think that anyone who subscribed to the magazine was hugely fussed about the full colour and glossy bit. One of the reasons that we chose the idea of a glossy lifestyle magazine was to set it apart from either bland and ridiculous corporate brochures on one hand and photocopied ‘anything-you-fancy-putting-in-can-go-in’ photocopied newsletters.

We thought that there was a big gap where something well written and well produced could go. Bringing the idea of mental health out into the open; both in terms of making something that anyone could read, but also in terms of wrestling back the media power over mental health representation a bit. We wanted, as much as possible, to place mental health stories in professional standard settings to show that a) it was possible and b) it was better than the more traditional ways of covering mental health such as ‘the tragedy narrative’, ‘the overcomes adversity narrative’, ‘the everything’s going to be terrible forever narrative’ or the ‘jesus christ them mentals are coming’ narrative.

It was, and still is, an approach that should be taken.

Advertising revenue was never really on the table. There isn’t a notion of people with mental health difficulties as a market to be sold to. If you open a disability magazine, you’ll see adverts for a whole range of disability adaptations and services. There isn't the equivalent for mental health. We took on an ad sales executive for a bit, but I don't think we ever got any bite from an advertiser that we didn’t already know and who wasn’t already operating in the mental health field.

As I’ve written about elsewhere, it was always going to be a risk attempting to make One in Four stand on its own feet financially without any outside support. In some respects, our glossy approach was a double-edged sword. For everyone who was glad that there was a new, fresh way of looking at mental health that you could leave on your coffee table with your other organs of note, there was someone else lining up to have a pop at us for being slick profiteers, looking to turn a quick buck from the misery of others. People equated glossy with inauthentic, something that riled me then and riles me now. People always vastly over-estimate how expensive printing is, while vastly under-estimating how expensive actually getting what you’ve printed into people’s hands is. And the thing is, it doesn’t matter whether you run your magazine off on a photocopier or get it printed on glossy paper, it mostly costs the same to send it to people.

By the end of One in Four we had worked out the print costs so that every additional 1,000 copies of the magazine would cost about £160, as long as we were printing over 1,000. If we could have delivered the magazine in consignments of 1,000 to NHS trusts, we could have charged pennies for them. The problem was : without the bulk orders to make things work, posting individual copies to subscribers was, and is, extremely expensive.

In the first couple of years, we had people complaining that we charged £10 for a year-long subscription, claiming that it should be free. By the end of the magazine, we had put up the price of a subscription to a whopping £12. For the people who believed that the magazine should be free for ideological reasons, the fact that we were producing it at all was an affront, and that it was glossy sealed our fate as moustache-twirling top-hatted capitalists.

So, as I say, the glossy bit never proved to be the definitive you'd imagine.

4. I know of one countywide mental-health advocacy service that subscribed to benefit its clients. However, were such organizations doing so, too, not the norm, even in an area that is the territory of voluntary-sector organizations such as Turning Point, local Mind associations, or Speaking Up! ? Outside advocacy, was the purchase of copies by this sort of charity, to give free to those with whom they came in contact, as good, or even better ?

Yes, there were organizations that purchased the publication to give, free, to members or visitors, but there were never enough. The problem that many organizations had was that the magazine was an actual magazine, not a brochure or a bit of location-specific health promotional material. The thing with a magazine is that it's a thing that you read that’s full of lots of different stuff, like a buffet for your mind and eyes. The key is to having a variety of dishes that combine together well, but which can also stand on their own. This is not the model that organizational comms use to think of ‘mental health promotion'. It’s all about message, message, message.

The thing that we didn’t really grasp initially, but really grasped as the project went on, was that One in Four didn't provide any glory for the organization that bought it in. It didn’t come from them, it didn't have anything specific to them, it didn’t promote them. It was great that organizations thought ‘We’ll buy this in, because it’s good and something different to what we would produce’, but there weren’t enough that thought like that.

5. As mentioned, your colleague and you obviously had intentions and expectations for One in Four, and maybe some sense of what unexpected turns of events might be (to help you plan for What if…) : now, do you see it essentially in the unforeseen that the origins of the demise of the magazine lay – and how that then impacted on what you felt personally that you could achieve (or still desired to achieve) ?

And, with the end of One in Four, is there scope to keep any content available to read through what remains of Social Spider (whatever that may be) ?

In the final two years of One in Four, One in Four became less and less of Social Spider’s overall activity. It went from having one full-time member of staff, one part-time staff writer and me spending a lot of time each week on it, plus a designer and an on-commission ad sales manager, to being just me and a voluntary designer. We always paid our writers, though. Maybe not as quickly as we, or they, would have liked. But we always paid.

In an effort to make One in Four sustainable, we essentially diversified our work around mental health and the other kinds of projects that we do. Since we brought One in Four to an end, Social Spider - as a small social enterprise - has never been in ruder health.

6. Turning away from what has happened with the magazine, what, at its best (as we mentioned above a time when depression swallowed an issue), has it meant to you to be its editor – both as a person, and in what it has enabled in your life outside work ? In particular, I gather that you worked from an office, so what did going there to work on One in Four give you ?

Social Spider has always tended towards the lowest possible overheads. It’s been based in other people’s offices, in the basement of the offices of an upmarket sex-shop, and currently lives in a three-desk office above The Mill, a community run space in Walthamstow. For me, I tend to work wherever I am, via the wonders of plugging in laptops and being on a mobile. I actually moved to Social Spider from another social enterprise that Social Spider was getting free office space from originally. At the point I moved to Social Spider in 2006, I had been editing a creative-writing web-site for three years, and doing creative-writing projects.

One in Four was amazing. A pain in the arse. But amazing. It’s given me the perfect excuse to spend my days talking to people with mental health difficulties, exploring what life is like and thinking about how it might be possible to make the way we deal with mental health as a society less shitty.

And, make no mistake, it is shitty. And shitty for lots of reasons we haven’t even begun to address yet.

Outside of work ? There’s an outside of work ?

In some respects, the whole experience of launching a national project that I made up, and then becoming the reluctant front person for it, has been the making of me.

7. Then, as now, you could be seen Tweeting content from conferences in the UK, and perhaps you are still running some of the training courses in topics, such as effective use of social media, that you did before. Are you in a position to say yet what else you may be doing ‘behind the scenes’, or is too early ?

8. Some will know your comments quite well on Twitter, but, for others, can you place what the magazine was about in relation to what often gets abbreviated in Tweets (maybe unhelpfully ?) to #socent – can you say what it is about a magazine as a social enterprises that makes it distinctive, and what are its strengths and advantages, as well as its likely drawbacks ?

When we were doing One in Four, I always tried to stay on the side of impartial journalism over committed journalism. This meant that we got some flak for covering the facts of the introduction of ESA [Employment and Support Allowance], rather than advancing opinion that it was wrong.

Looking back, one of the things that I wish that we could have had with One in Four was more investigative journalism. But that was out of our reach, I think. I still think we need more journos covering mental health, and that more of them should be people with direct experience...

I really do think there's a huge space that a strong press should occupy in mental health, but that's a very different project to One in Four. I don't ultimately think that there's a commercial model that could sustain both news reporting and investigative journalism in mental health in the UK. At the minute, even with the bloom of mental-health-related stories in UK media, we're only getting the surface of stories, not their core :

A lot of the time in this country, we (me included) have thought we've been doing journalism, when we've been doing comment. Good, but the thing is that I don't see anyone anywhere who can put up the cash for the journalism needed to capture, and hold to account, events in mental health.

I wonder whether we'd see more attempted legal take-downs of mental-health bloggers if we could find a bit of money to finance journalism. At the minute, bloggers who do proper journalistic work, digging and covering stories, are vulnerable to the more powerful taking legal action, and there are a lot of mental-health-related stories that need exploring, but very few homes for them ‘to land in’ and that pay for the work.

Journalism is expensive, because it requires people to go to places, talk to people, find things out… It is out of reach for mental health in the UK at present, because we're blighted by a lack of historical context in the way in which we present current events, because, again, we have no press. And, if you're lucky enough to get the email 'Would you like to write about mental-health issue X ?', no one will stump up the cash for research.

Plus, there are very few people in the UK who know the mental-health ‘beat’ as journos to the level needed to link across stories : I mean, when was the last time that you saw a mental-health-related story that came from a top, high-level source, and was built on research ? Although I know a fair bit these days about mental health in this country, because I used our own money to find stuff out when doing One in Four, writing about mental health for public consumption has only ever been a small bit of what I do to pay the rent.

Money = time to get stories right, whereas, a lot of the time during the life of One in Four, our company and I very nearly couldn't pay the rent. I sometimes wonder who has contacts close to where decisions are made in mental health, and what it would take to turn those contacts into stories…

9. At the time of our previous interview (which has had more than 700 page-views), we looked at what you called The New Mental Health, which tied in with a first-ever trip outside the UK to Australia. I think that it was to a destination in the Republic of Ireland that you recently made another return-flight to give a talk.

How can you tie in these book-ends of speaking engagements both to what has been happening to your experience of life, and as you have seen it affecting the lives of those being told, for example, that they are ‘under-occupying’ property, even if ‘the spare bedroom’ is needed, say, to house dialysis equipment ? And how, if at all, have your ideas about The New Mental Health changed in the intervening time ?

10. Thank you for your time, Mark. Is there anything else that you would like to say in conclusion ?

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Monday, 22 September 2014

Accented to good effect

This is a review of Pride (2014)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

21 September (updated 19 October)

This is a review of Pride (2014) (which screened at Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (#CamFF), but was seen later)

At a greater remove (or distance) than when we first saw The Full Monty (1997) or Brassed Off ! (1996) (with, respectively, Tom Wilkinson (steel) and Pete Postlethwaite (coal) – and both films, perhaps, made in anticipation of New Labour coming to power in May 1997 ?), various film-makers have returned to the political struggle that was fought out, on the ground and in people’s lives and homes, between British Coal (in full (according to Wikipedia®) the British Coal Corporation) and the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) :

In addition to Pride (2014), we have had – at Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (@Camfilmfest / #CamFF) – Still the Enemy Within (2014) (write-up to come of a Q&A soon...), about the struggle to save pits / collieries, and references in Tony Benn : Will and Testament (2014), quite apart from the equally political We Are Many (2014) (dealing with the Stop the [Iraq] War campaign).

Yet the major influence on the content, look and characterization of Pride, and which had four screenings at the Festival, is Dancing in Dulais (1986) (NB, possibly through format issues / successive copying, the image-quality is not always good), where, in their own film, we see, for example, now identifiable members of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, we hear how and why Lesbians Against Pit Closures broke away, and we can listen to the real Mark Ashton explain the affinity with and solidarity for the miners’ position that led to LGSM (words / sentiments that are used in the film).

What Pride has done, however, is to seek to be maybe too entertaining / too comedic, whilst at the same time wanting to educate us about what happened (although, of course, that leaves us free to seek out material such as that contained in Dancing in Dulais for ourselves, if we want to look beyond the film) – to be too independent of the facts, when needed to drive the plot, but otherwise being close to them, so that there feels to be a compromise :

* Paddy Considine (Dai) has a free stage, and not so much as a heckle, in which to allow his words to reach out – yet it is supposed to be (so we have just been told) a potentially difficult crowd, but he does nothing special to begin with that would have made them accept him

* A mirrored Tom-Jones-like display of exuberance* has the standoffish miners won over in five minutes – both this one, and that with Dai, seem unnecessarily easy victories, if one really wants to build tension that is later released

* The opposition to LGSM’s involvement (is this just an invention to give the plot a turn ?) being focused on a trio of evil-minded people (members of one family) – as if, at one stage anyway, dazzling dance movements had converted everyone else to miners, lesbians and gays working together (as long as no one knew about it ?)

* Bromley / Joe (George Mackay) and Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer) having a conveniently similar impulse, which gives the latter the occasion to tell the former what he needs to do with his life to make a real difference (on this day, we are made to focus on following a personal story, ignoring the relevance of what is happening to the battle that both men had been helping to fight – please see below)

* When the Gay Pride march in 1985 at the end turns out to have a greater significance, the film again serves its purposes by having us believe in surprise (as against planning and knowledge, which could have explicated the national NUM repercussions of events typified, for us, by our visits to The Dulais Valley)

Of course, we can accept these things for the sake of the fact that this is not a documentary, but is trying (albeit in an often comic way) to show LGSM’s story (and, within it, Joe’s, Mark's and Gethin's steps for maturity and independence), and how the miners and they influenced and affected each other for the better – and because, unlike Tom Hardy’s wandering attempt in Locke (2014), the Welsh accents, and performances, seem pretty good from the likes of Considine, Bill Nighy (Cliff), and Imelda Staunton (Hefina).

Snow, The Severn Bridge from unusual angles, and the local scenery complete the establishment of Wales as one locus, with London as a second, and make for the necessity to demonstrate that physical separation*** has effects – the aspect that is most clearly drawn out in the film. When those from the locii do combine, we see them receiving welcome, hospitality, and invitations to participate in social activity, and so engaging with life in the other locus.

Pride occupies a very different space on the continuum from Made in Dagenham, which, although also a film of positivity, feels closer to what Ken Loach is doing both in The Spirit of ‘45 (2013) and, arguably with even more political effectiveness, in Jimmy’s Hall** (2014). Dagenham also dares conflate several real people in the one figure of Sally Hawkins’ character of Rita O’Grady, whereas Pride, almost with veneration, chooses instead to give us mostly real individuals amongst the miners, their families and the supporters from LGSM :

Pride’s approach roots the story in actuality, so (in Dancing in Dulais) we hear marchers for Lesbians Against Pit Closures singing the chant ‘Every woman is a lesbian at heart’ (which the film locates on a minibus trip), and Dulais shows us the actual vehicle donated to the miners (and the caption / heading ‘Dulais wears our badge on its van’)).

However, it then means that the artificial ploys cited above by which Pride’s script gives rise to dramatic movement rely on non-historic developments : so, although LGSM’s film acknowledges that there was trepidation from the community before the first visit, it then asserts that, as Ashton had hoped, barriers were broken down between people who had both been oppressed by government and the police (probably not because one gay man amazed them with his prowess…)

That is a key message, and the fact that The Labour Party Conference (although it had debated them before) then officially embodied support for gay and lesbian rights shows that the links made between the striking miners and LGSM proved a commonality in their causes.

That said, at maybe too many times, it feels as if the film both has its cake and eats it, for it does not even outline in its written closing statements about Ashton and some of the others what the outcome was, in South Wales and other mining areas, for the NUM and its members – maybe Pride’s makers wrongly assume that everyone knows that part of the story (for it concentrates, in its ending, with the encouraging side, that of miners, gays and lesbians getting to know and value each other beyond The Dulais Valley) ?


* Which one could object to both as an early deus ex machina that invokes Billy Elliot (2000) (another film that combines the miners’ strike and personal development), and as stereotyping the talents and interests of gay men (which ABBA capitalized on in ‘Dancing Queen’ ?).

Yet, according to what we hear in Still the Enemy Within, the apparent delay to LGSM's being welcomed, at the Onllwyn Welfare Hall, was actually only a momentary, hesitant quietening on their arrival - followed by a round of applause...

** Reviewed here.

*** The film cannot even resist having Gethin (Andrew Scott), again prompted to do so as Joe is by Mark, being shown visiting his mother, then rushing us on, only to return to the fruit of that contact at a testing time… That may have happened, but the film generally both wants to give the message that things can change, but rarely to show that happening in a credible way (with Gethin, we are not even shown that).

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Building her up - for her*

This is a follow-up piece to a review of Two Days, One Night (2014)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

19 September

This is a follow-up piece to this blog’s review of Two Days, One Night (Deux Jours, Une Nuit) (2014)

* Contains spoilers – best read if you have watched the film *

To those who think that depression – unlike a broken leg – is invisible, just watch Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night (Deux Jours, Une Nuit) (2014) : the makers of this film have not just ‘observed’ depression well, they have understood it !

As the earlier review said, Sandra (or, as her boss Dumont invariably calls her, Mme Bya) shows low mood in her gait, posture, demeanour, expression. When we first see her, she has escaped into dreams, woken on the second attempt by her mobile, and throughout we see that tendency, characteristic of negative thinking, to retire out of it all to bed (or to sleep). When Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) arrives home, there is an uncertainty with which he calls out Sandra ? that hints that we have been here before**, not just that Juliette, Sandra’s colleague, has called him after speaking to Sandra (because she could not face meeting Dumont).

When Juliette and she do confront Dumont, Sandra experiences panic / a panic-attack, and the sort of freezing within that paralyses – to Juliette’s (Catherine Salée’s) concern, maybe because she does not know this in Sandra. After Sandra’s reluctance at home, the editing likewise surprises us by suddenly having us there, seeing Juliette’s car approach and pull into the car-park at Solwal (where they both work). Perhaps after that, and whilst most members of the family work on finding addresses for her other colleagues, we hear from her that she has declined an offer from Robert, her other supporter, to drive her around when Manu is at work (until noon on Saturday morning).

However, although Sandra clearly wanted to be alone to try to canvass her fellow employees, she is also obviously agoraphobic on the bus, and, as the day progresses (in no sort of descriptive order within the film) we see her confused, drying up / choking, using a stereotyped approach / rehearsed speech to broach the topic of the bonus and her being laid off, and maybe even mildly hyperventilating.

Yet, for those who credit psychiatric diagnosis over ‘the social model’ of mental distress or formulation, what the film really, and subtly, shows is bullying in the workplace, pressures that have weighed on Sandra, who resists when (on the stairs) Manu is urging her not to retire to bed (and encouraging her to stand up for her job), and cites the tensions at work – she had expected to return there, but why, when she now has to face up to every single one of them if she is to overturn the vote of 14 for the bonus, 2 for her return to work, would she not be reminded of what was hard and painful ?

At the end of the film, we appreciate that it must be Dumont’s acquiescence in Jean-Marc’s divisive foremanship that has hurt her (this was felt very strongly on the second time of viewing). Dumont offers her the job back in September, when he will have not renewed the fixed-term contract of one of her colleagues (if he can be trusted that she will not just be laid off*** without any return to work), but, when she challenges him that he is ‘laying off’ others in her place, Dumont hides behind the legality that he would merely not be continuing their posts, which are specified to be time limited, rather than dismissing them (same difference ?).

The film is deliberately vague, but it appears that only on Friday (on the eve of Sandra being due to return to work – on Monday ?) has a vote has been taken (by a show of hands – and sprung on the workforce ?) that sets receiving the bonus against Sandra coming back. Cruel brinkmanship, almost calculated to make Sandra crumble at the fact that (frightened into it) almost everyone has chosen the former over her – which we can easily attribute to Jean-Marc’s chicanery (after all, if he stops her returning to work, he shows everyone his authority and power) and Dumont’s pliability…

In the closing shot, we see Sandra calling Manu and smile, having parted earlier from her former colleagues, cleared her locker and been promised a visit after work by Juliette, not just because (which she says that she will never forget) she has seen those eight people care for and vote for her (but eight still vote for the bonus), but also because she has been able to stand up to Jean-Marc, feeling presumably nothing to lose, and tell him that she knows how he has lied and cheated against her.

Julien :
May I speak to you frankly ? (Sandra agrees.) My wife and I were both [saying]. You can’t ask me.
Sandra (winding up the stressful conversation about the bonus) : We’ll see.

There have been other little hints (which come together well on a second viewing) during the previous part of the film :

* To Juliette, when Sandra and she have spoken to Dumont (but when – because she ‘froze inside’ (not her exact words) – she has failed to say what is on her heart, namely that she is well and able to come back to work), she says It’s the emotion of being back here and seeing Dumont

* Timur, on the edge of the football pitch (a rail significantly between them), reminds himself of Sandra’s kindness to him in taking the blame when he had broken some cells, and Jean-Marc had said that it had not been a very good example for Sandra to set to Timur (probably not believing it, and saving it up for retribution later ?) – Sandra’s smile, walking away, at having his support seems tinged (Timur says I’m really glad that you came), maybe with being reminded of a difficult time for both Timur and her

* To Anne, regarding Nadine, She could have told me herself, where, when earlier Nadine had pretended not to be in, but could be heard on the intercom, Sandra is hurt because of their apparent close relationship (and, by now, she has already heard a little of Jean-Marc’s intimidation of Nadine and the others from Juliette)

* To Manu, she exclaims It can’t start [up] again ! (referring to Jean-Marc’s tactics ?), and, as mentioned above, Sandra has reservations, when she thinks about a return like this, because of the tensions that already existed at work

* The fight that erupts where Yvon is knocked out is an indication of the tensions and pressures that people are under, quite apart from the abuse that Sandra is given (which erupts again on Monday morning)

* To Alphonse, in the launderette, You’re like me, you’re afraid of Jean-Marc

* All these phrases : You preferred to lay off Sandra / We can’t afford both [sc. bonus and keeping Sandra] (Jean-Marc ?) / Does he think it best I am fired ?

Some other little hints and references :

* The track that Manu turns off in the car, and first brings a smile from Sandra (when he puts it back on, and she then turns it right up) is La nuit n’en finit plus, with lyrics at :

* When Sandra is having ice-cream cornets with Manu, she says that she wishes she could be L’oiseau qui chante là – maybe Annie Lennox’s ‘Little Bird’ (from the album Diva (1992)) ?

* Two or three times, we hear the colourful, concise word chômage, so much more onomatopoeic than our ‘[on] the dole’… ?

* Sclessin (whose Rue Côte D’Or is mentioned as a colleague’s address) is a suburb of Liège (Belgium)

* The indications of need (the Eurozone / the recession) in those who are / seem to be ‘working on the black’ (travail sur le noir) :

Willy (met with his wife ) : Salvaging tiles in their back yard, and their daughter needs 500 per month (600 with room) – 1,000 both is and is not a large amount in relation to it ?

Of Juliette : Said that ‘her guy’ is doing up cars ‘on the black’ (which is also what Yvon is doing ?)

Hicham : Working in the shop sur le noir


* Although Sandra doubts, at different times in the film, not that Manu pities her (he says that he does not as such), but whether he loves her, and whether they will stay together (saying that they have not slept together for four months and does that bother him), we see him giving her the encouragement that she needs to do what she does – she ends the film intending to look for another job, and early on had baulked at the task ahead, saying that they can go back into social housing.

Giving another perspective, asking why people have said what they did (i.e. what their motive is, e.g. to put her off so that they can keep their bonus), is a form of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) for Sandra at this taxing time (because she wants to say As if I don’t exist, I’ll look like a beggar, and, after Anne’s husband has shouted at her (and using his words), that she does not want to piss anyone else off) :

Manu does, for Sandra, what the pressure causes her not to be able to do, not to think negatively, and we sense (and then see vividly, in the hospital) that he does love her, and that he is doing it for the good that it will be to her. No doubt she could now do with finding ‘a purpose in a project’, but this one is too personal for her to cope with, when she seems to be doing so well with her children and family.

** Maybe that disquiet is for reasons that connect with her later attempt at suicide… ? Manu tries to tell Sandra that the doctor told to stop taking Xanax, but she replies that she needs them.

*** Not an exact term, because the subtitles use it interchangeably to refer to dismissal, whereas (in England & Wales) a lay-off is temporarily requiring employees to cease work, but without dismissing them (e.g. in a downturn, say, yet in expectation of gaining new orders for products).

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Friday, 19 September 2014

Strangers on a mountain

This is a Festival review of Fiction (Ficcío) (2006)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

18 September (expanded version to come)

This is a Festival review of Fiction (Ficcío) (2006)

This film by Catalan film director Cesc Gay, Fiction (Ficcío) (2006), screened (at 2.30 p.m. on Saturday 6 September) as part of Camera Catalonia at Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (#CamFF), curated by Ramon Lamarca (for the third year running)

When a collection of that urbane Argentinian writer and librarian Jorge Luis Borges’ stories (and pseudo-essays) was made under the title Ficciones*, that word, although so close to Fictions, had a significance that the English substitute lacks, but which is present in : fictive / fictitious / fictional .

As with Russell Hoban, Borges’ writing career seems to have circled around the nature of reality – what is subjective, what is objective – in miniatures such as ‘The Secret Miracle’ (‘El Milagro Secreto’, published by Sur in 1943) to ‘Borges and I’ (‘Borges y Yo’, first seen in the UK (?) when translated in the collection Dreamtigers, originally The Maker (El Hacedor), which was published in 1960. There are similar hints here that Fiction (Ficcío) (2006) is not quite what it seems:

Is, then, that sequence with the cabin a sly reference to the episode on Mt Olympus in John Fowles’ bestseller The Magus** (in its way, a masterclass in the novel as mirage and deception) ? And what does, amongst other things, the perspective of the video footage that we see several times at the start indicate about [the status of] what we are seeing (and yet, despite ourselves, get drawn into) ?

Do we, by our engagement, act out a fantasy of identification with what we know is fiction that is mimetic of the development what we come to see on the screen ? One has to ask, not just because of Gay’s later film V.O.S. (2009) (as screened at Cambridge Film Festival 2012), with its playful insistence not so much on blurring (as maybe here) as rather contraposing a film with its own making, but also simply because one does not draw attention to fictitiousness without a reason :

We have here both being fecund (here, as in the later film, there is a pregnancy shared by friends), making new relationships, and the creativity at the heart of being fictive (it is not for nothing that Àlex (Eduard Fernandez) makes films and has come to Santi’s house to try to work on a screenplay), yet, at the same time, mortality, getting lost (which, with Dante’s example***, bears more than one interpretation at once), and what Hoban (using a Spoonerism in his title for an essay (collected in The Moment under The Moment****) called Blighter’s Rock.

Words like bitter-sweet were coined for films such as this, where its script (co-written by Cesc Gay with Tomàs Aragay) additionally, calculatedly yet not unkindly, plays with our preconceptions (as Gay continues to do in V.O.S.***** (a video-clip can be seen here), such as where Àlex is when he arrives at Santi’s, and who Santi (Javier Cámara) and he are to each other, since they josh as if they are a gay couple – or who Judith (Carme Pla) is in relation to them both.

Earlier, we have seen Àlex arrive, we have seen a neighbouring property for sale and firewood being tipped off the back of a lorry at his direction, and we have (provisionally) tried to make sense of these elements, and of his reactions to the property and its contents (including Santi’s portrait on canvas (with cactii)).

Then, at first sight of Mònica (Montse Germàn), we – and Àlex – seem to say ho-hum at her being a violinist, a fellow creative, both because we are trying to get a toe-hold in this situation (where, all of them together over dinner, Santi feels able to make off-colour sexual remarks out of the blue) – and Àlex seems so wrapped up in his world, where he turns things down almost as a stock reaction (as protection for his time and work, which seem to be – and so he is unproductive ? – preoccupying his mind, as it does (though much more so, and naggingly) in Greenaway’s The Belly of an Architect (1987)).

Yet for all the knowingness (or because of it ? – after all, the film is Ficcío, which is a feminine Catalan noun, capable of meaning invention or fabrication), what unfolds seems on a plane akin to the fantastic in A Canterbury Tale (1944) or Roman Holiday (1953)…

Or it feels more like a David Lean for our times than a Vendredi soir (2002) (or a precursor to Midnight in Paris (2011)).

Were it not, though, for the very end of the film, whose unfolding, for its latency, is almost as much a miracle as that of [Nuovo] Cinema Paradiso (1988) : in the centre of the film, Judith and Santi seemed almost intent on leaving Àlex and Mònica behind (though we later learn that they have other reasons to have done so) – and with but the vaguest of instructions where to meet – and, as Santi (who has fallen asleep) has given access to his video-footage to Sílvia (Àgata Roca***), we wondered what images he may have caught.

Is this fabrication within the terms of the story itself, a product of time, place and behaviour, or is it simultaneously that the film itself, an invention just as much as the words and music of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds that we hear, effortlessly leaves us with the notion that we have maybe co-created the film with Gay, by our attention and participation ?


* First published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 1962. Then issued by Calder in its Jupiter series in 1965 (and later reprinted by Calder & Boyars).

The first part of Fictions is already a volume, under the title The Garden of Forking Paths; the second is headed ‘Artifices’, another resonant word.

** Resented because he did not think it the best of his work, but writers from Hoban (the success of whose Riddley Walker (from 1980) in no way seemed to promote the rest of his novels – not evenFremder (from 1996) ?) to A. A. Milne or Tove Jansson have found (or would have found) that what they thought best is not always what they are (or will be) known / remembered for…

*** Inferno, Canto I, lines 2 to 3 :
[M]i ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

**** Jonathan Cape, London, 1992.

***** Where Àgata Roca, who appears later on, is part of the two interrelated couples, along with Vicenta Ndongo (who played Mar Vidal in Tasting Menu (Menú degustació) (2013), also screened in this year’s Camera Catalonia strand).

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Thomas with a twist – too much of a twist ?

This is a Festival review of Under Milk Wood (1971) plus director Q&A

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

16 September

This is a Festival review of Under Milk Wood (1971) plus director Q&A

Under Milk Wood (1971*) twice screened as part of Cambridge Film Festival’s / #CamFF 2014’s Dylan Thomas 100 strand : this is an account of the screening in Screen 1 at 6.30 p.m. on Monday 1 September 2014, followed by a Q&A with its director and screenwriter, Andrew Sinclair

Wikipedia® reports that the famous Richard Burton radio production, broadcast on The Third Programme on the BBC on 25 January 1954, was incomplete, because ‘two sections’ (unspecified) had been omitted – Douglas Cleverdon, its producer, revisited the play in 1963, and it was broadcast in its entirety on 11 October.

Apparently, Andrew Sinclair’s film (his screenplay and direction) came nearly twenty years after both an incidentally recorded reading – the only one with Dylan Thomas (as First Voice (and Eli Jenkins)) – on 14 May 1953, and Thomas’ death (on 9 November 1953) :

The strangeness is partly there from Richard Burton and Ryan Davies (as, respectively, First and Second Man), not least what they get up to in a shed that they go into : one does not doubt that Jack Toye (@jackabuss) is right that Thomas lost his virginity thus – but these are men not normally of an age to be having their first sexual experience ? (Unless, of course, we look beyond their age, and imagine their occasional high jinks to be re-living their youth ?)

In any case, even though it happened – with Thomas ‘sharing his partner’ (as one might have called it in the 1950s) with the other man – of what great relevance was this element of biography to the text of Under Milk Wood ? Except, of course, that Thomas gives us his fictional Llareggub awash with sex, sexual fantasy and desire (no doubt why there were two cuts in 1954 ?)…

Yet somehow, that seems an insufficient reason to introduce this particular ‘stage-business’ for First and Second Man (though, clearly, they have to be doing something**) – quite apart from what it suggests about whoever the woman is (not easily identifiable from IMDb’s cast-credits), and the role and self-determination of women, that Burton and Davies can just oblige her to divert her from her path, and down to the cliffs, in the first place. For there seems to be enough actual or latent passion as it is, without interpolating more, because, needless maybe to say, sometimes more is less.

Somehow, also, one is thrown back to infidelity and attraction in The Edge of Love (2008), which – whatever its merits or rootedness in fact – shows an ease of relations, and what, at worst, they can give rise to : jealousy, anger, and violence. Yet we also have what is in the centre here, that ‘ease’ repeatedly giving way to multiple relationships, whether the ‘marriage beyond death’ of Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard (Siân Phillips) or the various desires, lusts and even adultery of the others.

In Thomas’ text, we have the extremes of this film that featured him (please see above), with Vivien Merchant (Mrs Pugh) humiliating / emasculating her husband (Talfryn Thomas), but risking his revenge, and the disgust and disdain with and in which Polly Garter (Ann Beach) is held for her promiscuity (and, just as relevantly, her fecundity) : with Polly, one feels that Thomas’ heart lies, as it seems to do (in other ways and amongst others), and with the youthful attractiveness of Gossamer Beynon** (Angharad Rees) – see the comment on The Wicker Man (1973), below.

Likewise, the seemingly well-suited couple (amongst so many mismatches) of Cherry Owen (Glynn Edwards) and Mrs Cherry Owen (Bridget Turner), and even Captain Cat’s (Peter O’Toole’s) solitary, but content, world amongst the sounds from which he conjures up pictures of life – as Thomas, his creator, himself does, whether boomingly delivering ‘Fern Hill’, or here, in this play.

However, the question is – as famously with the play within Willy Russell’s original play of Educating Rita (1983) – simply put : Since this is a Play for Voices, why do we need what Sinclair has done with it, converting it into a film ? And, moreover, do we need him effectively undermining his own screening by being too candid about (not to list everything) :

* Telling us at which times of day – on account of sobriety – he could rely on Richard Burton to do various things on the shoot :

We also heard some of this from Roland Klick at the Festival in 2013, regarding Dennis Hopper, cocaine, and the making of White Star (1983), but Klick seemed to inform Hopper’s performance by what he told us, because how he told it was more germane…)

* Likewise with Elizabeth Taylor (and Sinclair’s having to have her as part – as it were – of the package, so letting her be as Rosie Probert), but bitching about her Cleopatra make-up, her behaviour on set, etc.

* Cast who came to Sinclair as part of the funding deal, when maybe it gives a better impression of artistic unity and purpose at least to be silent about such matters (unless asked), rather than glaringly seeking to be truthful that it had to be accepted, whatever the drawbacks

* Even, perhaps, drawing attention to the fact that Burton does not speak a word on screen (and it was recorded separately) – what maintains the magic of cinema better… ?

Yet, on some sort of fantasy level, Sinclair talks up Thomas’ work – which, as a champion of it when he was a fellow in Cambridge, he necessarily would – and also how easily the text (which has been analysed here by another) fitted with the talented actors (i.e. those who were not just, not in his words, ‘along for the ride’) : afterwards, Sinclair told The Agent (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) that the tempo to which, in the extended passages, the actors naturally inclined had never been at variance with his own vision for the delivery.

Maybe so, but we wonder how easily Sinclair persuaded women to wear costumes so diaphanous as to be transparent, or Rees to recede with a naked back – in a sequence that took us out of the already concentratedly odd (as if the Welshness that Thomas wants to share with the world is distilled eccentricity ?) into unreality : and maybe Sinclair’s film was influential on the significantly more interesting vision of Anthony Shaffer in his screenplay for The Wicker Man (1973), with Gossamer a precursor to the likes of Britt Ekland (as Willow) on a less furtive coastline ? Also a film where director Robert Hardy gives much more sense of being on a coast and of the sea (even if Under Milk Wood was filmed in and around Fishguard, Pembrokeshire) ?

Sinclair’s film starts and finishes with the sky at night-time, seen through branches as the camera moves onwards. Later, whether through the lack of budgetary or other resources, the night that Burton and Davies describe does not always resemble that pitch quality (again, Sinclair was not asked why it looks less like coal black than dawn – or brighter – before we even get to dawn).

Further on, it does not seem to be the real O’Toole looking out to the waves (if Captain Cat could see) from his vessel atop a building, but rather resembles a mannequin, and the film (even if it appears to match the length of the play) feels substantially over its length for its content – however much Sinclair has invented for his cast to do...

Which is maybe the problem, namely that this depiction is overly visual, often literal (despite the moments of unreality), an approach that draws attention to the fact that what one most wants to take from Under Milk Wood is Thomas’ words.

So what was the point of that Drama on 3 ? To get Dylan Thomas' screenplay made, @BBCRadio3blog - or to make it seem unnecessary ?

Yet it is, after all, quite nice to learn this (also from Wikipedia®) :

In December 2012 the director of the film, Andrew Sinclair, gave its rights to the people of Wales.

If so, maybe the nicest thought about the film was not mentioned in the Q&A…


* Yet IMDb says 1972 (and, crucially, it says 87 mins, #CamFF 88 mins) – and never to be confused with Under Milk Wood (2014)…

** If, that is, they need to be embodied at all, and not just voiced over – a topic that did not appear to be canvassed in the initial part of the Q&A.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Monday, 15 September 2014

Camera Catalonia at Cambridge Film Festival 2014 Part I : Q&A with Mar Coll, director and co-writer of We All Want What's Best For Her (2013)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

15 September

Summary account of a Q&A at Cambridge Film Festival 2014 with Mar Coll, director and co-writer of We All Want What’s Best For Her (Tots volem il millor per a ella) (2013)

* Contains spoilers *

As detail fades already, this is necessarily an impressionistic account of a Q&A that followed the second screening, at Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (#CamFF), of We All Want What’s Best For Her (Tots volem il millor per a ella) (2013) with director and co-writer Mar Coll, and hosted by the curator of Camera Catalonia (for the third year running), Ramon Lamarca, at 1.00 p.m. on Friday 5 September

Next on the blog (the 1,000th posting), a write-up of Q&A2 from @camfilmfest with Mar Coll, director of We All Want What's Best For Her...

The first screening of We All Want What’s Best For Her at Cambridge Film Festival, at 6.15 p.m. on Thursday 4 September, had been a UK premiere and so was also followed by a Q&A*.

Ramon Lamarca and Mar Coll at Festival Central - image courtesy of Tom Catchesides

To judge only by the end of that previous Q&A, this second one maybe gave a little too much weight to the question of Geni’s character (played beautifully by Nora Navas**) being a woman. That said, Ramon has since indicated that, because Birds Eye View is interested in and for exploring issues of gender and society (in relation to film-making), they had been very present in the discussion on Thursday evening – some might therefore be coincidentally interested in the following Tweet :

The reason for asking about Geni’s gender is that the main friend, on whom the film’s handling of the topic of recovery Mar Coll and her co-writer had based the premise, was a man called Eugènio (hence Eugènia, shortened to Geni) – maybe one of those slightly irritating facts that everyone wrongly thinks that they are alone in having heard and then so many people ask about it…

In fact, Mar did not think that it would have made much / any difference for Geni’s character to have stayed as a man (and, unfortunately, the reason that she gave for making the change has not registered mentally). [However, one is – only slightly – reminded of Cambridge Film Festival 2011, and confronting British actor and first-time director Paddy Considine with the possibility of such a reversal in his Tyrannosaur (2011), i.e. the idea of Peter Mullan’s character Joseph switching, say by becoming Josephine, with that of the now-everywhere Olivia Colman, so that we have a battered man (they exist), rather than a battered woman…]

For those who had seen Mar’s film before, this repeat screening was an opportunity to notice that, however ambiguously (and, of course, fully deliberately so) the question of paying the taxi-driver may have been left, we do not see Geni’s wedding ring after when she decided (after a hesitation) to leave it with him as a ransom,: the driver has been mean to her, and could she – on some level – have been acknowledging her husband Dani’s own meanness and have been making a symbolic sacrifice ? (For example, we soon see Dani (Pau Durà) criticizing Geni for stumbling in her speech, not talking in full sentences because she is upset, and how he patronizingly cajoles her, whilst all the time calling her ‘babe’.)

Mar acknowledged the possibility (which another audience member thought might even have been at the subconscious level of a Freudian slip) that parting with the ring is symbolic : as expected in the best of film-making, Mar wants the viewer to conclude what he or she thinks happened before / is happening on screen. (So when, after the Q&A, it was briefly mentioned that maybe Geni senses that Dani is attracted to Geni’s sister Raquel (Àgata Roca***), and perhaps has even been having an affair with her, Mar just agreed about the attraction, and left the rest as a possibility**** (although it is consistent with Dani’s lack of arousal when Geni, feeling close to him, tries to initiate sex on her return home, if he had been with Raquel earlier.))

Portrait of Mar Coll by, and image courtesy of, Tom Catchesides (@TomCatchesides)

As to future projects, Mar tempted us with mention of an exploration that she is doing with a group of film students, working on an adaptation of a Pinter play, and which your correspondent established to be Betrayal. When Mar asked, many of us knew the play, even the Jeremy Irons / Ben Kingsley / Patricia Hodge film (which Mar indicated that she was less keen on), so that sounds something to look forward to…

To come (when time / energies permit) : transcript / write-up of a interview that Mar Coll kindly gave about the film and its main character…

In the meantime, this is a link to a pre-Festival review (written with the kind assistance of Ramon, the producers of the film, and the Festival), which this account of the Q&A, and, in due course, the interview are intended to amplify (as the review had consciously been of a non-spoilery nature)


* At which Tom Catchesides’ (@TomCatchesides’) striking double portrait of Mar and Ramon was taken, when Ramon interviewed Mar (together with Birds Eye View) :

** Whom we had seen before, in the Catalan strand at the Festival in 2012, as the mother in Black Bread (Pa negre) (2010).

*** Whom we also saw during the Catalan strand two years ago, in V.O.S. (2009), and also this year in Camera Catalonia, in the same director’s (Cesc Gay’s) earlier Fiction (Ficció) (2006), which screened at 2.30 p.m. on Saturday 6 September – review to come...

**** At Enric’s – Geni and Raquel’s father’s – lunch-table, we seem to gather that Dani and Raquel knew / shared with each other at university, which strengthens the parallel drawn in the review with that wonderful predecessor Hannah and Her Sisters (1986).

Mar was pleased with that link, and also with having spotted the design influence of Allen’s earlier, neglected drama Interiors (1978) (for making which he had to endure such criticism, even abuse, because it was a drama, not comedy :

A style of film to which, after Match Point (2005) and Cassandra’s Dream (2007) (a review that, implausibly, has more than 10,000 page-views on the blog…), he has only fully returned to great acclaim, in Blue Jasmine (2013).)

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)