The relationship between film and video games is a tricky one; while their quality is often questionable, the amount of games that have been transposed into a movie and, on the flipside, the number of games that have been based on film franchises indicates that there undoubtedly a strong bond between the two. With the February release of Sony and Quantic Dreams’ Heavy Rain, exclusively on the PlayStation 3, the cross-pollination of the two formats has moved ever closer.
When Heavy Rain was unveiled at the Leipzig Games Convention in 2008 (yep, it’s taken longer than a film to be realised) it was pitched as a game that was taking brave new steps in the industry, both in content – by offering an adult thriller with a complex plot – and in gameplay – the player shapes the story by making the kind of choices that decide how it will unfold. While cinematic in nature, on a basic level it’s more akin to those ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books that were so popular in the 1980s-90s.
The game wears its film pretensions on its sleeve. It is a modern noir thriller that takes its inspiration from the likes of The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Se7en (1995), Zodiac (2007) and the original Saw (2004). You play four characters who are all trying to decipher the identity of a serial child killer called the Origami Killer, so named because they leave an origami animal at the scene of the crime: there’s Ethan Mars, whose child has been kidnapped by the Origami Killer and so must go through a series of violent trials in order to find out where his son is being held; there’s Madison Paige, a journalist on the hunt for a good story, who befriends Ethan; Norman Jayden is a drug-addled FBI agent on the killer’s trail; and finally there’s Scott Shelby, a private eye who has his own reasons for retracing the killer’s steps. So far, so clichéd…
OK, so the characters are archetypes, but they grow on you as the game’s compelling narrative and unique story structure develops. The player takes control of each character in a series of vignettes that range from the mundane – taking a shower – to the more violent – cutting off a finger. The player is presented with various options, both in how to act and in what to say, and these trigger how the story develops – make a wrong decision and this can lead to the death of a character, who then will play no part in the rest of the story. Although the identity of the killer always remains the same, there are multiple story threads and finales that can ensue.
To coincide with the launch of Heavy Rain, Neil LaBute made a short documentary, How Far Would You Go?, in which he asked the likes of Nic Roeg, Hanif Kureishi, Samuel L Jackson and Stephen Frears, ‘How far would you go to save someone you love?’ The documentary can be dowloaded for free on the Heavy Rain website.
Heavy Rain is far from a traditional game, but to call it an ‘interactive movie’ is not quite accurate either. It’s certainly immersive, like many other games, but where it is at its best is in affecting the player on an emotional level and to a degree that has not really been done before. In that sense, it is closer to a movie than a game.
The best films engage, challenge, provoke, entertain and often move the viewer, rewarding them for investing in both the story and/or the characters. Games can do this too, with the added appeal of being interactive – although admittedly games predominantly focus on the challenge and entertainment elements above the emotive or provocative. Few games manage to match the capacity of film to deliver on the above attributes: The Godfather or Scarface games, for instance, are evocative of their source material but fail to deliver the emotional gravitas of the films, providing a visceral and action-orientated experience instead.
On this level, Heavy Rain works very well, with the gameplay, narrative and evocative music making it akin to taking part in a dark thriller film; the major difference being that here the viewer is also the narrative’s main protagonists, developing the story as they go. Playing the game, you do feel connected to the characters and having invested in their emotional development you then care what happens to them (often fearing for their safety).
The game is far from perfect, and actually works better as a viewing experience than a playing one (perhaps unsurprisingly it has already been optioned for a film), but as a template for how an interactive format can work beyond the often formulaic structure of video games, Heavy Rain is ground-breaking. As the game’s creator, David Cage, told the Guardian website on release: ‘I strongly believe that interactivity has the potential to become an art, it is just a matter of time.’ If Heavy Rain is an example of things to come, then gamers could be in for a thrilling ride.
A few months ago, a little picture caught my eye. Framed on the white wall of a London Georgian restaurant, it was a small black and white photograph: an old, bearded man leapt through the air, his jacket gathered around his arms like a pair of wings. A couple of women stood behind him, hands raised, their stance somewhere between amusement and bemusement. There was something mysteriously arresting about that picture and I couldn’t help but feel intrigued. A couple of months on and a major BFI Southbank retrospective later, I now recognise the soaring figure as Sergei Paradjanov (1924-1990) – a singularly spectacular creator of images. In this case, it was his own vivacious portrait; within his films, an infinite series of majestically beautiful tableaux. The rich red of a pomegranate seeping into white linen; an ornate royal hunting party seated on bold black horses, raising their pistols to the sky; a handsomely beautiful woman, bedecked in a wreath like Caravaggio’s Bacchus, her shoulder covered by a plump white cockerel.
Despite citing Tarkovsky, Pasolini and Fellini as influences, Paradjanov’s aesthetic is not quite like anything else in cinema. Screening before several features at the BFI retrospective, Kiev Frescoes (1965) perfectly demonstrated the potency of his mysterious visions. This film collage is a 13-minute compilation of rushes and tests from a feature, banned in pre-production by the Soviet authorities. Incomplete and fragmented, these scenes might have left the viewer confused and searching for meaning. But despite a lack of context or narrative, the viewer could not help but yield to the image of three immaculately attired military men perched on stools, sceptres in hands, or the sound of luscious water sweeping over floorboards. It was an exceedingly powerful initiation into Paradjanov’s oeuvre: works that delight and indulge in the aural and visual possibilities of film.
Paradjanov studied film at the Moscow Film School, VGIK, but his concept of the filmmaker was founded much more on his own romantic sensibility than on a formal education: ‘You torment others with your artistic delight,’ he said in the documentary Paradjanov: A Requiem (1994). ‘You can’t learn [filmmaking]. You have to possess it in your mother’s womb.’ After making several features and documentaries in the 1950s, Paradjanov took a new direction after seeing Andrei Tarkovsky’s debut feature, Ivan’s Childhood (1962). Taking Tarkovsky to be his ‘mentor’, he rejected Soviet social realism as ‘submissive works by court artists’ and embarked on Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (1964), a Ukrainian folkloric tale filmed in the Gutsul dialect. His break from social realism and championing of the Ukraine region (he categorically refused to dub the film into Russian) prompted much hostility from the Soviet government. He was blacklisted and imprisoned three times on various trumped-up charges. Although Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors resulted in personal suffering, it was a revelatory moment for Paradjanov, both in terms of style and content, as he explained in Paradjanov: A Requiem: ‘That’s when I found my theme – the struggles of a people. I focused on ethnography, on God, love and tragedy. That’s what film and literature are to me’.
These were themes that Paradjanov would pursue in what many consider to be his ultimate masterpiece, The Colour of Pomegranates (1967). Screening after the short Kiev Frescoes, it was this film that was chosen as the main feature to launch the retrospective. It may have made more sense to open with Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors, since it was this project that marked Paradjanov’s adventurous new approach to filmmaking and, of the two, The Colour of Pomegranates is the more accomplished, complete film. Shadows of our Forgotten Ancestors is a truly extraordinary film in itself but it loses a little pacing in the final scenes and cannot quite compete with the tender beauty of The Colour of Pomegranates. From a chronological perspective, it would have been beneficial for BFI audiences to see such career progression through the programming. It seems likely that the decision was based on the fact that The Colours of Pomegranates is Paradjanov’s best known film. Sadly, Paradjanov does not enjoy the reputation he deserves – I’m sure many people have sat in the same Georgian restaurant and not known the identity of the man in the photograph. The BFI season was the first-ever opportunity to see his shorts, features, documentaries and unfinished projects all gathered together and it was encouraging to see screenings sold out to engrossed audiences. From the career-spanning material presented at BFI Southbank, it is clear that he is a director who must be considered one of the masters of cinema.
Although the positioning of The Colour of Pomegranates was questionable in terms of chronology, it proved an ideal choice in terms of impact. It is as revelatory a film as Ivan’s Childhood. Inspired by Armenian miniatures and icons, its tableaux slowly evoke – rather than tell – the life of the 18th-century poet and troubadour Sayat Nova. Because of its impressionistic, allegorical approach, many have described the film as non-narrative, but it is, in fact, fairly linear in its storytelling. We see the young poet growing up in a simple, wool-farming community; his time as bard at the court of King Erekle II; his desire for the king’s sister; the loss of this love; his retreat to monastic life; his grief over the death of his mentor, Father Lazarus; and in turn, his own old age and death.
As the troubadour moves towards death, his former muse and childhood self appear among the compositions as he looks back on his life – ‘In the Sun Valley of the distant years, live my longings, my loves and my childhood’ – but the film tends to move forward with few flashbacks. It is more that the linearity becomes lost among the rich symbolism and surrealist touches. As Sayat Nova falls in love with his muse, the beautiful princess at court, Paradjanov introduces interludes of masque and mime artistry as a couple perform a dancing courtship, disappearing and reappearing among hanging woven rugs. The poet’s death is portrayed through a long sequence of allegories: chained workers scything hay; a blindfolded man stumbling through a bleak landscape populated by dancing angels; a swinging pendulum that knocks his childhood self to the ground; the poet laid with arms outstretched among glowing candles as white chickens fall around him. The unique poetry and symbolism of these images can leave the viewer a little disorientated at times – especially those unfamiliar with the traditional culture of the Caucasus – but the opacity somehow adds to the mystery and majesty; and on repeated viewings, the recurring motifs reveal the inner logic of the film and the way that early experiences influenced the elder poet. The colourful woollen yarn, the chaotic farm animals, the literature and the music of his youth informed his artistic conception of the world (‘From the colours and aromas of this world, my childhood made a poet’s lyre and offered it to me’). Sayat Nova’s death scene among the chickens perfectly recalls an exquisitely beautiful scene from earlier in the film, when the child poet lies down on a monastery roof, surrounded by books, pages rustling in the wind, his arms outstretched and staring up at the sky.
Laden with the poet’s suffering and biblical and folkloric symbolism, there is an epic, earnest solemnity to The Colour of Pomegranates; and while such gravity and careful construction could lead to austerity and artificiality, there is also a consuming warmth and sensuality. His effervescent and corporeal sensibility mirrors Pasolini and Fellini more closely than his other mentor, Tarkovsky. The extraordinarily striking actress Sofiko Chiaureli plays the part of both poet and muse, exploring male and female sexuality (Paradjanov was himself bisexual and first imprisoned for a homosexual act with a KGB officer) and the film is joyously abundant with melodic folk music and heightened sounds: the crinkling of books’ pages; the squelch of pomegranate seeds; the dripping of wool dye onto metallic plates; the urgent chirping of bird song. There is almost no dialogue in the film; instead these sounds, intertitles displaying lines from Sayat Nova’s poems and the occasional voice-over convey the message.
The Colour of Pomegranates is an emotionally affecting film and is especially poignant given Paradjanov’s own suffering in prison and the loss of his first wife, who was murdered by her own family after converting from Islam to Christianity. Lost loves and issues of ethnicity, subjects raw to his heart, are treated with immense compassion. And yet, The Colour of Pomegranates is also a film that joyously arouses all the senses: a truly sensory experience without precedent or successor. Paradjanov once said, ‘whoever tries to imitate me is lost’. Given the unique, mystifying, enigmatic visions he sets before the viewer, imitation would be frankly impossible.
A social satirist who returned to filmmaking with a vengeance following the studio interference that undermined his first feature, Fear, Anxiety and Depression (1989), Todd Solondz has since experienced both ends of the industrial spectrum, flirting with mainstream acceptance when Happiness was funded by a studio sub-division in 1998 and paying for Palindromes out of his own pocket in 2000. While his audience has always been relatively marginal, fledgling filmmakers have certainly been taking notes; it could be argued that the scathing high school humour of Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) paved the way for the more widely accepted Napoleon Dynamite (2004) and Juno (2007), while Happiness is an early example of the ‘network narrative’ film that has become the format of choice for independent filmmakers seeking to comment on the social-political fabric of their nation.
Yet, while other films that have favoured the multi-stranded structure have contented themselves with the cleverness of their interlocking story-strands and superstar casting coups, Happiness was an unapologetically raw dissection of the underbelly of suburban society, which asked its audience to empathise with such characters as a paedophile and a verbally abusive phone pest. The frankness with which Solondz discussed such sexual themes led Happiness to be slapped with the restrictive NC-17 rating by the American ratings board, but more than 10 years later the director has returned to the scene of the crime with Life during Wartime, a quasi-sequel that integrates the post-09/11 climate into an already volatile mix, with uncomfortably amusing yet unexpectedly melancholy results.
John Berra spoke with Solondz about the reception of his work to date, the realities of ‘independent’ filmmaking, and his subversive approach to the ‘sequel’.
John Berra: Life during Wartime has a melancholy quality that I did not necessarily expect from a follow-up to Happiness. I read that the film was originally titled Forgiveness and I wondered if the title change indicated an intention to engage more directly with the social fabric of the United States and make a more political film.
Todd Solondz: It is certainly a more overtly political film than Happiness and, at the same time, it’s also very oblique in the way that it is political. The original title actually was Life during Wartime, the other title came about when I thought the movie would never be finished and I didn’t want anyone to know what the real title would be.
None of the actors from Happiness return for Life during Wartime. At first, I thought this might have been a way to communicate how these characters have changed and evolved through their experiences, but some of them do not seem to have changed at all.
When you cast the same actors 10 years later, it becomes all about mortality as people get older, and that of course is a very compelling interest, but that wasn’t what I wanted the movie to subliminally communicate. I was more interested in approaching these characters from a different angle and portraying them in a fresh light, and I wouldn’t have been able to do this if I had cast the same people. That’s what made it much more interesting for me. It’s somewhat misleading to call it a ‘sequel’, because it makes people think that the movie is going to have the same kind of character as the earlier film when, as you pointed out, it’s more melancholy. It’s more of a jumping off point than a direct sequel, and more of a quasi-sequel than an actual sequel.
Sequels are usually made by Hollywood studios to follow films that have made obscene amounts of money, but you have made a follow-up to a film that had a comparatively marginal audience.
It’s very un-Hollywood to make a sequel to a movie that makes no money. It goes against the grain. But Life during Wartime is more a variation on the original. I never had the intention of making a sequel, but when you start writing, things come at you unexpectedly and you never end up writing what you plan to write.
Happiness was released at a time when American independent films were receiving a lot of media attention. Based on the controversy that surrounded the film, I was surprised to find that it only grossed $2.7 million in the United States. Was there really an ‘indie’ boom in the late 90s, or do you think it was more of a media myth?
This is a bit of a conversation; how one defines what is ‘independent’ is also something to be questioned. When the movie happened, it was financed by October Films, which was owned by Universal so, in that sense it’s hard to call Happiness an ‘independent film’. I was pleased that it made as much as $2.7 million. The distribution company that had been set up to release it had run out of money, so the movie was playing without any advertising in motion. But say we had a stronger distributor, how much more money could it have made? 10% or 20%? You’re still talking about a movie that’s only making $3.5 million. It’s always instructive when you get very excited about a movie, and all your friends are seeing it; you go and look at the numbers that Variety or the industry sources publish to tell you how much a movie made, and it’s something of an eye-opener. You will see what actually makes a dent at the box office and what does not, and the consequence at this point is that I have a new script but I don’t know if it will get made. It’s not so complicated and it’s not so expensive, but unlike the days of Happiness, the internet and television cover so many channels that it’s much less typical for this audience to go out and pay $12.50 at the box office, or whatever it is in England. That makes things a lot more difficult. You can count on your fingers how many American filmmakers are able to continue operating as ‘independent filmmakers’, making films that are not dependent on big studio corporations. You can make one film, maybe two, but not many can continue. It’s not a system that is able to support the marginal filmmaker. In France, there is a system set up to subsidise and support the national cinema and independent filmmakers, and that applies to other European countries, but there is absolutely nothing similar in America.
In 2007, Premiere listed Happiness among their ‘top 25 most dangerous movies’. It came in at number 19 in-between Gimme Shelter (1970) and Bad Lieutenant (1992). As your work strives for some understanding of individuals that would otherwise be demonised as ‘socially deviant’, do you feel that labels like ‘dangerous’ undermine what you are trying to do?
I didn’t see that article, but if that’s how people remember the film, I just have to take it as a compliment and leave it at that. People will respond to the film no matter what other people say; at the end of the day, if you are sitting alone watching the movie, you will have a unique connection to it. I’m happy if the movie has a life and I can’t control the way people will respond to the film and what they will say about it, but there are certainly a lot worse things to be called than ‘dangerous’.
Cast: Christos Stergioglou, Michelle Valley, Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, Hristos Passalis, Anna Kalaitzidou
Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth is an inventive and riveting film that blurs the line between the real and the utterly grotesque. The story (the less you know, the better) takes place almost entirely within the confines of a spacious family house, inhabited by a married couple and their three grown-up children, who have never left the house and are confined to the bizarre world created by their parents’ cruel games and peculiar educational methods. Opting for fixed, meticulously framed shots and a dazzling, yet unhurried visual style, Lanthimos gradually reveals the details of this twisted, self-enclosed world while crafting an increasingly unsettling atmosphere. Full of weird surprises, wonderful dark humour and irreverent spirit, Dogtooth is a bold and brilliantly perverse gem. Pamela Jahn talks to Yorgos Lanthimos about parenting, Greek views on sexuality and the necessity of a good sense of humour.
Pamela Jahn: In Dogtooth you’re telling a story about a dysfunctional family that abandons the norms, rules and logic that have been taken for granted in society. What attracted you to this kind of subject matter?
Yorgos Lanthimos: It didn’t really start as a story about family dysfunction as such. In the beginning, I was wondering about family life and parenting in general and if the way we think about it would ever really change. But I had a conversation with some friends one day, and I was making fun about the fact that two of them were getting married and having children, because today many people get divorced and kids are being raised by single parents, so I said there was no point in getting married. But although I was obviously just joking, all of a sudden they got extremely defensive about what I had said. This made me realise how someone I knew and who I would never have expected to react that way freaks out when you mess about with his family. And that’s how I got the initial idea about this man who would go to extremes to protect his family, and who would try to keep his family together forever by keeping his children away from any influence from the outside world, being firmly convinced that this is the best way to raise them.
But it’s obviously a bit more than just keeping them away from the outside world, because the parents also play pretty cruel games with their children and teach them nonsense.
The thing is that because the father really does have the best intentions for his children, or at least that is what he believes, he tries to provide them with the best environment to grow up in, like this big house with a big garden and a swimming pool and all that. But at the same time, he has to create all these myths and fears so that the children don’t dare going out of the house. But since he has been able to do that from the moment they were born it also shows just how much you can influence people’s minds and create a view of the world for them that is exactly the way you want it.
It’s also interesting that you decided not to give any background information about why the parents decided to raise their children this way in the first place.
Yes, that was very important to me from the beginning, because I think it would have been a completely different film otherwise – you would be too engaged in judging if it was right for them to behave that way depending on the reasons they had for doing so. What interested me most was the result of their actions and to see how far you can go when messing with people’s minds and making them believe the things that you want them to believe. It’s a very dangerous thing to do and I hope my film provokes reactions from people because in the film it is obviously too late. Sooner or later this had to explode.
It all seems to work out until Christina comes into play, a woman who is brought into the house by the father on occasion to have sex with his son. She is basically the trigger that starts the fatal chain of increasingly violent events.
That’s right, she is the trigger. But what fascinates me most about her character is that she enters this obscure world and for her there is a temptation to take advantage of the situation and of the children. For example, she demands things from the older sister so they start dealing in this way, ‘I give you that, so why don’t you give me this’. You can feel the power Christina has, which she plays out on the children. It’s the temptation to take advantage of the weaker ones, and that’s what I like about her character. I think I would be tempted to act in the same way if I came into contact with someone so naÃ¯ve, and to fool them and get whatever I want from them. Why not do it?
Although the son is daddy’s darling and gets special treatment, the two girls seem much more mature and stronger. How did you develop the different characters of the siblings?
I do believe that girls or women in general are stronger characters than boys. They are the smartest ones (laughs). So it was just natural for me that the older boy would be the father’s favourite, but at the same time he tries the hardest and seems somewhat more immature. But it also has to do with the fact that boys are seen as much more deserving of having sex and entitled to more things than the girls. When it comes to the girls, the parents never think that they need to be educated about sex and they deal with them in a much more conservative way. So it creates this bizarre situation, where they just discard any kind of thought about this with regard to the girls. For the boy, however, they are very proud of him having sex. At least this is the mentality we have in Greece. I have to admit, it’s quite dated, but I guess it still exists in other countries too.
How much research did you do before or while writing the script?
We didn’t do any research at all, because I thought it was such a surreal story we were working on. It was only afterwards, when we were already rehearsing, that this Austrian story came out about the father who kept his daughter in the basement, where she grew up like an animal, and he had children with her. But still, this felt very different from what we were trying to do since it had a very different tone to it, way too dark and dreadful.
Your film has a ferocious wit and a great sense of humour, which at times makes it feel more like an inverted comedy, in which absurdity gets out of control when some sort of normality finds its way in. Why was humour so important to you in this story?
That’s true (laughs)… It’s interesting what you’re saying. I actually never thought about it in this way, but it was the only way for me to approach the subject, because to really go deep into things the film had to be violent and, at the same time, have a great sense of humour, with the contradiction of being in an open space with light and beautiful garden and beautiful children. I think it brings out the most intense and powerful emotions when you experience contradictions like this. By employing a certain sense of humour you essentially get more serious about things and show conflict more effectively than if you were overly dramatic or only violent because that’s a one-way approach that just forces audiences to watch something appalling. With humour you can really make people think in many different directions, and it feels like a more existential experience to me. I always try to infuse humour into my work. I also work in theatre a lot, and you often end up working on a play without much humour. But it is very important for me to always find a way to introduce the ridiculous side of things into whatever I do, no matter how dramatic or tragic the given situation is.
It seems quite clear that you are not advocating violence because we see that the kids’ actions lead to some very nasty events. On the other hand, violence and dancing seem to be the only ways for the siblings to express their frustration at their lack of freedom.
I am very close to physicality in general, and I think I can only really work things out that way. I only work physically with the actors when rehearsing. I don’t sit down with them to analyse their parts in terms of what they should be thinking of and how they should approach their character. I just don’t like analysing things too much and I guess that’s why I deal with things physically. It just feels more real to me, and especially in film, where you have actors pretending to be a character in a situation. I don’t like setting up a frame of mind in their head. I just like them to act, literally speaking.
Did you have a clear idea from the beginning of how you were going to approach the visual style of the film?
I never try to visualise a film while writing the script or when I am casting. This happens only when I start rehearsing, I start getting an idea of what the film could look like. And in this particular film I thought it should be shot in a way that was quite realistic on the one hand – for example, there is not much lighting and the location is real – but with really strict framing and a cool, surreal look to go with the narrative. I guess that this is also related to my general philosophy about filmmaking. To me, it looks fake if you try to be too involved in the way you film things and if you ask your actors to get really emotionally involved. As much as I don’t like forcing feelings onto my actors, I also don’t like forcing them onto the audience. I prefer to keep the film open to allow people to get engaged in their own way. So I try to not guide people to conclusions too much, but rather expose things and have the audience react to what is happening on screen. For me, it is also a way of avoiding being too didactic in my films.
Dogtooth feels like a slap in the face of suburban life. In that sense, is it a personal story too?
No, it’s exactly the opposite. I grew up with only my mother, she got divorced when I was very young, and she died when I was 17 years old. From then on, I was by myself, so I had to go out into the world quite early and earn a living and study and do all these things. So, in a way I am observing the characters and the story in the film from a very different point of view. But even so, I really don’t know what I would do if I was a parent. If you asked me today how I would raise my children I would say that I’d try to have them experience freedom and be much more in contact with the world, and I think I would live somewhere in the centre of the city where they can come into contact with as many different elements of life as possible. But I am saying this now and in a year or so we might be speaking again and I might live in a nice suburban house with a garden and a swimming pool… who knows? I really don’t know what life has in store for me, but it’s amazing how your mind can fool you sometimes. (laughs)
Elfriede Jelinek’s bilious novel, on which fellow Austrian Michael Haneke’s eponymous film is based, dissects the twisted relationship between a rigid piano teacher in her mid-30s, Erika, and her overbearing, controlling mother. Having been shaped, moulded and deformed to fit with her mother’s wishes and expectations since her birth, Erika is like a pressure cooker of repressed emotions and has developed an entirely perverted conception of human bonds. Where another writer might have seen Erika as a victim, Jelinek’s uncompromising vision presents both mother and daughter as the symptoms of a rotten society – one that harbours dark secrets under a carefully constructed mask of cultural gentility. Relationships are dehumanised and the spectacularly bitter characters of the novel – Erika and her mother, but also Erika’s younger lover – see others as objects to be used to satiate their own needs.
Although no one could describe Haneke as a soft-hearted director, there is more human warmth, or at least a poignant sense of human suffering, in his version of the story than in the original novel. Even though it is desperately wrong and utterly dysfunctional, there is an undeniable form of love between Erika and her mother, and between Erika and her lover. The focus of the film is more intimate, and Haneke seems at least as interested in probing the unfathomable pain and cruelty of misdirected, mishandled, misshaped love as he is in connecting it to a morally bankrupt society.
Below we present an edited extract from Catherine Wheatley’s Michael Haneke’s Cinema, in which she explores the melodramatic and reflexive elements of The Piano Teacher. Michael Haneke’s Cinema has been shortlisted for the 2010 And/or Book Awards, the UK’s leading prizes for books published in the fields of photography and the moving image. A winner from each category will share a prize fund of Â£10,000. They will be announced during an awards ceremony at the BFI Southbank, London, on Thursday 29 April. FOr more information, go to the And/or Book Awards website. Virginie Sélavy
Michael Haneke’s Cinema: The Piano Teacher
The Piano Teacher tells the story of Professor Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), a Schubert scholar at the Vienna Conservatory. She is cold, brilliant, demanding, and, we learn in the film’s opening scene, she lives at home with her elderly mother (Annie Girardot). When Erika embarks on a relationship with a young student, Walter Klemmer (BenoÃ®t Magimel), it transpires that her glacial persona masks a tormented sado-masochist, who agrees to an affair with Walter on the condition that the only ‘sex’ they ever have consists of a series of macabre rituals prescripted by Erika.
The film’s plot bears little obvious resemblance to the classic Hollywood melodramatic narratives. But it would be perfectly possible, if a little misleading, to describe the film as ‘the story of a repressed woman in her 30s who meets a handsome stranger and embarks upon an affair which will change her world’ – a description that could just as easily be applied to All that Heaven Allows (Sirk, 1955) or Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max OphÃ¼ls, 1948).
The Piano Teacher draws on what we might call a ‘traditional’ conceit of the woman’s film – the inevitability of the heroine’s desires as disappointed – in order to align our emotional responses with Erika’s. Although Haneke’s style is very remote – eschewing point of view shots altogether – we witness only events at which Erika is present; we see Walter, her mother, her pupils, only when she is with them. In what is almost a reiteration of suspense convention, the audience is moreover aware of the nature of Erika’s sexual desires long before Walter is, and so awaits her discovery of his reaction, rather than his discovery of her secret. In this way, the spectator is encouraged to become emotionally involved with the narrative, as the scopophilic drive is prompted by the film’s generic qualities, and the spectator waits to find out what will happen to the character around whom the film’s paradigm scenario revolves.
Haneke moreover draws upon and updates classic melodramatic iconography: Erika’s emotions are represented by her surrounding environment, giving rise to a highly stylised mise en scÃ¨ne. But whereas in the films of Douglas Sirk, colour and camerawork were intended, as he claimed, to reflect the emotional turmoil of his characters, Haneke on the other hand uses lack of colour to point towards the disaffection that he sees as characterising modern bourgeois society and to portray the dynamics of modern alienation. While Sirk uses deep-focus lenses to lend a deliberate harshness to objects, Haneke switches between long shots and close-ups to depict a dialectic between alienation and claustrophobia. Similarly, Haneke’s lighting, rather than bathing the heroine in a soft-focus halo and casting the antagonist in shadows, is stark: natural lighting lending the bleak colours of his sets and characters a cold air. The stillness of his film, almost stagnant in its lack of movement, is the exact opposite of the Sirkian technique of only cutting away to movement, to indicate the whirligig of emotion his characters are on. Haneke’s is an aesthetic of clinical precision. Shots are filmed, for the main part, from a fixed point of view, the camera’s only movement a restricted and restrictive pan. For the majority of the film, Erika is inside: the flat she shares with her mother, the conservatory, the homes of her fellow musicians. When she does venture outside this constrictive world (and even when outside, she is still always inside: a shopping centre, an ice rink, a cinema), she ventures into another world, where her sexual self can be unleashed. The focus on interiors reflects Erika’s feeling of claustrophobia, and represents the emotional walls she has built around herself.
Melodrama is thus reduced to a formal and narrative schema, which notionally draws us into the narrative, but which does not develop in the same way as classical genre film does. As played by Isabelle Huppert, Erika becomes the focal point of the spectator’s emotional involvement with the film. This involvement is not straightforward cinematic identification: the film’s modernist aesthetic keeps spectators at a critical distance from the narrative events. The characterisation of Erika is extremely alienating to an audience, which might find it hard to see itself reflected in the cold, closed, sado-masochistic and even repellent figure of a woman who mutilates herself and others, visits peep shows and spies on copulating couples.
What’s more, psychological explanation is either refused, or made so explicit as to merit little comment. The director’s incorporation of scenes such as Erika’s attempt to engage in sexual relations with her mother is so heavily laden with psychoanalytical overtones that no reading is necessary: such that an article such as John Champagne’s ‘Undoing Oedipus: Feminism and Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher‘ (Bright Lights Film Journal), becomes an exercise in cataloguing, rather than decoding, the film’s Freudian elements. In this way the film becomes resistant to academic readings which seek a ‘deeper’, metaphorical meaning, rather than focusing on the individual’s response to what is represented on screen.
But we are also distanced from the narrative by Haneke’s deployment of reflexive devices which function as an explicit critique of cine-televisual perception. Throughout the film the cinematic medium – and the process of watching – is foregrounded. The opening scene is bathed in the light of the flickering television and set to the soundtrack of its constant drone: in fact, when Erika and her mother are in their flat, the television is almost constantly on, its invasion into their homes total and unwavering. A later scene sees Erika spy on a copulating couple at a drive-in movie. This scene, originally set in Vienna’s Prater Park in Jelinek’s novel, constitutes the sole change in setting that Haneke makes to the original novel, and it is crucial to turning the audience’s gaze back on itself.
More remarkable still is a scene towards the beginning of the film in which Erika visits a pornographic film viewing booth. Early in the film, we see Erika aggressively enter the space of a porn arcade. She goes into a video booth, whereupon there follows a seven-second shot of a split-screen monitor showing four separate image tracks: each a clip from a generic hardcore porn film. The film cuts back to Erika as she selects an image, then back to the selected porn film on the monitor. The pornographic image track recurs on the cinematic screen twice more, as the film continues to intercut between the diegetic screen and Erika watching it. The camera then lingers on Erika as she reaches into a waste-paper basket and pulls from it the tissues used by a previous occupant to wipe up his ejaculate. She inhales the tissue deeply while watching the film, her face impassive, her very reaction an inversion of the excesses of masturbation.
The use of films-within-films is a recurring device within Haneke’s work. Here, it serves a number of purposes in addition to foregrounding Erika’s pursuit of passive pleasure. First and foremost, the scene creates a mise en abyme of the spectator’s situation, directly foregrounding the scopophilic urge.
For Haneke’s film has not only been compared to the melodramatic genre, but it can also be seen as drawing on some generic conventions, if not of pornography then certainly of the contemporary genre of ‘post-porn’ – films that ‘take pornography out of its traditional context and rework its stock images and scenarios’ (Barbara Creed, Media Matrix: Sexing the New Reality, 2003). Yet while the film’s sexual themes ostensibly align it with the sexually explicit art film, visually The Piano Teacher relentlessly confines the sexual act to the off-screen space. The intra-diegetic images show pornography in its most raw and basic form: both pornography as a ‘norm’, and pornography separated from any artistic pretension. Its inclusion thus serves to underline the deviations that Haneke makes from these norms. In the course of the film, the spectator witnesses three narrative instances of intercourse, but in each case the sexual act either occurs in the off-screen space or is obscured within the frame. The pornography booth scene thus also serves to remind us what is implicit in Haneke’s film. These images act almost as visual aids, to be recalled whenever the spectator is prompted to imagine what it is that lies outside the cinematic frame – to consider not with what we have watched, but with what we might have expected, or even wanted, to watch.
Cast: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Margaret Wycherly
Date: 29 June 2009
Director: Roger Corman
Writers: Don Peters, Robert Thorn
Cast: Shelley Winters, Don Stroud, Robert De Niro, Bruce Dern
Got an itchy Oedipal rash? Whatever you do – don’t scratch it! It can only lead to murder and mayhem, crime and punishment. And that way, as we know, lies madness. At least, this is the fabula as it unfolds in several cinematic accounts. The volatile chemistry of excessive, unresolved mother love and poor (single mother/absent father) parenting skills can be explosive, and in the case of poor little Jarrett Cody in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949), literally explosive: he ends his days at the centre of a massive explosion. ‘Made it Ma. Top of the world!’ he shouts as the giant gas tank where he makes his last stand ignites and blows him to Kingdom Come – where he will no doubt be able to enjoy sitting on Mama’s knee again.
Two differently nuanced – but none too subtle – accounts of mama love and its inevitable and inexorable pathway to criminality can be experienced in White Heat and Roger Corman’s 1970 Oedipal opus, Bloody Mama. Both stories place the source of the criminal sons’ behaviour clearly at the feet of the dominating mater.
This accounting of the environmental causes of crime – being ‘made bad’ – is one of several psychodynamic themes that dominate the criminal film genre. The criminologist Nicole Rafter has suggested in her book Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society that movies on the causes of crime fall into three categories: the just mentioned ‘made bad’ environmental category, the ‘born bad’ biological category and the ‘twisted psyche’ abnormal psychology category, which although it is a stand-alone classification can overlap with either of the other two, as seen in both of the films under discussion.
Another common point between them is the source material on which they are loosely based: the criminal life of Ma Barker and her boys. Several film storylines emanate from real-life gangster stories, and the headlines made by the Barker gang caught the public imagination with its violence and hints of unhealthy family relations. Ma Barker was active in the gang with her son, Arthur ‘Doc’ Barker, his brother Fred and their friend Alvin Karpis. Ma and Fred Barker died together resisting arrest in January 1935, gunned down by the FBI. Arthur was shot dead a few years later trying to escape from Alcatraz. Famously, his last words are supposed to have been, ‘I’m shot to hell’, which echoes Cody’s last exit words. In his autobiography, James Cagney, who played Cody, comments: ‘The original script of White Heat was very formula… For some kind of variant, I said to the writers, â€œLet’s fashion this after Ma Barker and her boys, and make Cody a psychotic to account for his actions.â€’ In the film, Cody is an epileptic, mother-obsessed criminal who, while married to a gorgeous moll, only has eyes (and ears) for ‘Ma’. He confides in her, plots with her, and always takes her advice over anyone else’s. She showers affection and approval upon him as he does upon her. There is no room in this relationship for any third parties and when his wife runs off with his first lieutenant Cody shrugs it off – he still has his mother.
His undoing, however, is brought about by finding a mother replacement – he loses Ma while serving his prison stretch – in the figure of Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) who is an undercover cop assigned the task of buddying up to Cody and getting him to talk and incriminate himself. They share a cell, and while initially suspicious of Fallon, Cody comes to trust and then rely on him. Fallon saves him from another inmate’s murderous attack, then soothes and rubs his neck when he has an epileptic fit – having faked headaches as a child to gain the attention of his mother he eventually developed the condition. Later, Fallon helps him following his berserk dining hall fit triggered off when he hears of his mother’s death – his wife shot her in the back. When Jarrett makes his escape from prison he insists on taking Fallon along with him. Back in the gang he favours his now best and most trusted intimate, Fallon, with the exact same cut of the criminal takings as he used to give his beloved Ma. The proxy mother scenario is complete. It can be left to the present generation of Queer theorists to do with that text as they like.
The film adheres to the pre-war characterisation of a criminal’s over-indulgent mother (and lack of male authority figure: we are told that Jarrett’s father was put into an insane asylum) as Ma Jarrett pampers, indulges, nurses and soothes wild Cody. What is unusual in this account is the degree to which she encourages and aids her son in his criminal doings, in addition to counselling him in how to deal with ambitious and unruly underlings. This is no good boy gone bad who breaks a mother’s heart, this is a match made in Oedipal hell. Finally, bereft of Ma and betrayed by Fallon, the lone, crazed Cody is trapped in a chemical plant during his final heist. He ascends to the top of a gas tank, is shot by Fallon and finally pumps lead into the gas tank, which ignites it. He dies in a spectacular fireworks of an explosion that causes a massive mushroom cloud to appear, which, as many commentators have noted, looks like the aftermath of a nuclear bomb – a concern very much on American minds during the post-war years. With an emphasis on explicit and cold-blooded violence, extreme emotional displays, suggestive sexual scenes and Oedipal complexes played out, this is certainly a movie that shows how the Production Code of censorship was breaking down in the more world-weary post-war years.
By the time Roger Corman came to make his ‘Bonnie and Clyde meets the Manson family’ drive-in classic, Bloody Mama, in 1970, there was – in terms of freedom of expression – everything to play for. The strict Production Code of 1934 had been abandoned for a regulatory classification system in 1966 and movies – which had been denied ‘Freedom of Speech’ protection in a 1915 decision – were, in 1952, included under that constitutional safeguard. This paved the way for far more adult themes, topics, sexualities and addictions to be explored on the cinema screen. Corman took full advantage to probe the Oedipal psyche as could only be hinted at in the dark dreams of Jarrett Cody.
Corman took the story of Ma Barker and her sons and fashioned a twisted tale of familial relationships, desires and dysfunctions. Ma Barker and her boys inhabit a backwoods world of incest, homosexuality, drugs and murder – a pretty perfect drive-in movie concoction. Played with wild sensual abandon by the always reliably on-the-edge actress Shelley Winters, Kate ‘Ma’ Barker is a depraved, transgressive, neurotic and alluring harridan of near-grotesque proportions. The film opens with a barely pubescent Barker being raped by her father while her brothers hold her down. ‘Don’t know why you ain’t hospitable, Kate,’ the old man declares, ‘blood’s thicker than water’. We hear the ravished girl then vowing that one day she would have sons of her own to love and protect her. Flash forward to the present day – far-fetched and far from historical accuracy – and we see her giving baths to her grown-up sons, sharing beds with them, seducing her other son’s bi-sexual lover, making sensual overtures to another son’s girlfriend and finally trying to seduce a kidnap victim – an older, strong male type who threatens to challenge her matriarchal dominance over the boys. What a steamy Oedipal stew is on the boil here.
Naturally, all the misfits come to very bloody dead ends and what is so noticeably different from the conventions of pre-war gangster films is the emphatic shift away from ‘my mother never loved me’ as an explanation for the sons’ criminal behaviour to ‘my mother loved me too much’, which came to dominate contemporary discussions about juvenile delinquents and other moral trespassers. In both these films, these momma’s boys are either indulged, spoiled, molly-coddled (even aided and abetted in their crimes) and given too much infantile attention or, as in Bloody Mama, all of the above with sexual favours thrown in. As in many criminal films that attempt to ‘explain’ this aberrant behaviour, the subtleties of psychotherapeutic theory are abandoned wholesale and reduced to the one-size-fits-all primal scream, ‘Blame the Mother!’
Apparently, all that Jarrett Cody and the Barker boys needed was a good old-fashioned fatherly thrashing to sort that itchy rash out.
Blessed with a family-friendly PG-13 rating, Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell premiered at Cannes in 2009, was released to huge critical acclaim, and quickly became a box office hit, making $80 million worldwide against a $30 million budget. ‘It’s unlikely that most horror buffs will feel cheated,’ wrote Brent Simon in Screen Daily of Raimi’s choice to make a film with a PG-13 rating. ‘The director gleefully dispenses with the usual sacred cows (neither children nor kittens are safe), and also leans on wild gross-out moments to goose his audience.’ ‘The man is still able to tap into the creepy, the nasty, the violent, and the unpleasant … while always maintaining a wonderfully welcome tongue-in-cheek attitude,’ noted horror aficionado Scott Weinberg on the website Fearnet. Raimi drew special praise for his decision not to include the kind of graphic bodily violence typical of the Saw and Hostel films. Still, as Rex Reed pointed out in The New York Observer, the heroine still manages to find herself up to her ears in ‘corpse vomit, animal sacrifice, violent séances and open graves’. Reed’s was one of the film’s very few negative reviews. Most critics loved it, finding it to be innovative, fresh and original. But a closer look at Drag Me to Hell suggests Raimi’s crowd-pleaser might not be quite as innovative as it first appears.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, Drag Me to Hell is the story of young loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), who, in line for a promotion at her bank, tries to impress her boss by refusing to extend a loan to an ailing, snaggle-toothed gypsy named Mrs Ganush (Lorna Raver). In retaliation, as angry gypsies tend to do, Ganush places a curse on Christine, which promises that, after three days of ever escalating torment, she will be plunged into the depths of hell to burn for all eternity.
According to critics and fans, one of the most successful elements of Raimi’s film was its nostalgic style, from the deliberately retro Universal logo and stylised title font to the way it eschews computer-generated graphic effects in favour of creepy shadows and gloomy atmospherics. But while there is no blood in Drag Me to Hell apart from an improbably explosive nosebleed, the film surely reminds us that our bodies contain a lot of ghastly stuff as well as blood and guts, some of which is even more repellent. The film is soaked in sprays of slimy spittle, gobs of phlegm and pools of embalming fluid, not to mention an extruded eyeball, some rancid gums, and a flood of worm-encrusted corpse puke. This kind of detritus might seem disgusting to us now, but in a way, this, too, is a hearkening back to the past, when viscous ickiness was what horror movies were all about. In this sense, Drag Me to Hell reminds us of the moldy growths and clammy creatures of films like The Blob (Irvin S Yeaworth Jr, 1958), Frogs (George McCowan,1972), Shivers (David Cronenberg, 1975), Squirm (Jeff Lieberman, 1976), and The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968).
It is especially interesting that there has been no serious writing on Drag Me to Hell. On the contrary, virtually all those reviewing the film have emphasised that it is a deliberate exercise in jolts and thrills, a shock-filled roller-coaster ride with no subtext or deeper level. Roger Ebert, in the Chicago Sun Times, described the film as ‘a sometimes funny and often startling horror movie’, adding ‘[t]hat is what it wants to be, and that is what it is’. Variety‘s Peter Debruge found the film to be ‘scant of plot and barren of subtext’ and ‘single-mindedly devoted to pushing the audience’s buttons’.
Taking the film a little more seriously, however, we might approach it as an uncanny fantasy whose plot involves a certain amount of magical thinking – in psychoanalytic terms, the unconsciously held belief that our own thoughts can influence external events, emerging from a misperception of self-boundaries.
As Freud points out in his famous essay on the subject (1919), the Uncanny is that which reminds us of something from our childhood, long repressed, which now returns in an unfamiliar form. Drag Me to Hell is full of uncanny images and motifs, including simple, everyday objects that suddenly become unfamiliar. Corpses that return to life, insects that invade the body and animals that can talk all evoke the Uncanny. When faced with such things, we instinctively begin to wonder whether they are alive; if not, we wonder whether they once were alive, and, if so, whether they might be able to return to life at any moment. The Uncanny can be traced back to those infantile beliefs and desires that have since been surmounted â€” beliefs in such things as the omnipotence of thoughts, or the coming to life of inanimate objects. It is these kinds of beliefs that give expression to the animistic conception of the universe prevalent in infancy. Part of the process of growing up, Freud explains, involves giving them up, and yet most of us fail to do so, to a greater or lesser degree â€” partly because we don’t really want to. This kind of magical thinking allows us to believe in the enchantment of the world, even if this enchantment is evoked, as here, in the form of horror.
Part of the uncanny power of Drag Me to Hell lies in Raimi’s use of symbols and motifs from well-known legends and folktales, including such ghost story staples as a gypsy curse, a horned demon, a graveyard scene, a séance, and a spitting black cat. Most significantly, the half-blind Mrs Ganush is a jettatura, endowed with the ability to cast the Evil Eye, a curse that can be placed by fixing the gaze on a coveted object, person, or animal. In folklore as well as horror movies, the Evil Eye is one of the oldest jinxes of all time. Those believed to have the ability to cast this hex are those with unusual eyes, and – more particularly – those with one blue eye and one dark eye, like Mrs Ganush.
To rid herself of the hex, Christine visits a local psychic, Rham Jas (Dileep Rao). The first thing we see in Jas’s store is a Nazar amulet hanging on the wall â€” the blue stone commonly worn in the Middle East to ward off the Evil Eye. But it is too late. ‘Someone has cursed you,’ Rham Jas tells Christine.
The best-known and most respected scholarly work on the Evil Eye is an essay by the folklorist Alan Dundes entitled ‘Wet and Dry, The Evil Eye’. In this essay, Dundes explains that the origins of the Evil Eye are not envy, but our underlying beliefs about water equating to life and dryness equating to death. He posits that the true ‘evil’ done by the Evil Eye is that it causes living beings to ‘dry up’ â€” notably babies, milking animals, young fruit trees, and nursing mothers. The harm caused by the Evil Eye consists of sudden vomiting or diarrhoea in children, the drying up of milk in nursing mothers or livestock, the withering of fruit on orchard trees, and the loss of potency in men. In short, the envious eye ‘dries up liquids’, according to Dundes â€” a fact that he contends demonstrates its Middle Eastern desert origins. So in Italy, for example, men cover their testicles when passing someone they suspect might have the Evil Eye, or spit to prove that they are still capable of producing liquid. Women have similar concerns, in this case not being able to produce milk.
Intuitively, it appears, this notion is also key to Drag Me to Hell, which is, as many critics have noted, one of the wettest and messiest of movies. While Christine is young and juicy, Mrs Ganush is a shriveled, dried-up old crone, and whatever liquid remains in her body quickly comes out. In the bank, she coughs up a wad of yellow phlegm into her handkerchief, and then takes out her dentures, displaying a sticky stream of saliva. When Christine attends the gypsy wake, she trips and falls on to Mrs Ganush’s corpse, which vomits embalming fluid all over her face. Even after the gypsy is dead, she returns to Christine in nightmares, puking maggots into her pretty face. Meanwhile, the curse is working; Christine loses her promotion at the bank, alienates her boyfriend’s parents, and commits a desperate act in a fruitless attempt to lift the gypsy’s hex.
According to Rham Jas, the particular curse placed on Christine depends on ‘something taken from the victim, cursed, and given back’, and Christine recalls that, during the fight in the parking lot, Mrs Ganush tore a button from her coat, pronounced a spell over it, then returned it to her. Stolen objects like this button are often used in magic rituals, including voodoo, to bring bad luck or injury to their owners (Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough describes this kind of ritual as ‘contagious magic’). The idea of the object that dooms its owner to hell and must be passed on to some other poor victim is also a trope of folklore â€” in literature, it also appears in Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale ‘The Bottle Imp’, in which a similar curse is cast: if the owner of the bottle dies without having sold it in the prescribed manner, that person’s soul will burn for eternity in hell.
Interestingly, the same curse turns up in a much-anthologised 1911 ghost story by MR James entitled ‘Casting the Runes’, the inspiration for Jacques Tourneur’s 1957 film Night of the Demon, which itself, quite clearly, provided Raimi with much of the source material for Drag Me to Hell. Night of the Demon is the creepy tale of occultist Julian Karswell, (allegedly based on Aleister Crowley), who wreaks revenge on those who have slighted him with a fearsome curse. Karswell’s victims are tormented by a shadowy demon just like the one haunting Christine Brown in Drag Me to Hell, which we see only in silhouette, and in the form of mysterious hoof-and-horn shadows glimpsed under a door, and behind wind-blown curtains. In Night of the Demon a cursed parchment, surreptitiously passed to an unknowing victim, conjures up a goatish devil for two straight weeks of torment before accompanying him to hell.
Christine tries to subvert the curse by digging up the body of Mrs Ganush and placing what she believes to be the cursed button in her toothless mouth (it actually turns out to be a harmless coin). As everyone knows, in folklore and ghost stories, those who dig up corpses for nefarious purposes always suffer terrible punishment. In Mr Sardonicus (William Castle, 1961), based on a story by Ray Russell, a man who robs his father’s grave to retrieve a winning lottery ticket ends up with his face frozen into a terrifying rictus.
The climax of Night of the Demon sees the curse rebounding on Karswell, who is pushed under a train by his own, self-summoned devil. The conclusion of Drag Me to Hell echoes the earlier film and it comes as the last in a series of slick surprises â€” though if we’d paid close attention to the imperative of the film’s title, its ending would have been less of a jolt. The truth is, Christine was asking for it all along.
For its fifth edition, the Flatpack Festival conjured up another brilliantly inventive programme that made great use of the art spaces around Digbeth, Birmingham’s former industrial area. The selection included previews of Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Mamoru Oshii’s latest animéThe Sky Crawlers and the provocative Greek psychosexual drama Dogtooth. Live events encompassed everything from magic lantern shows to a plasticine party, which involved adults drunkenly attempting to mould rude/cute/disturbing shapes as the demented strains and visuals of punk combo Jackdaw with Crowbar mounted a double assault against the audience. The Belbury Youth Club, an event curated by the Ghost Box record label, featured rare 70s TV treats, including an MR James story and the exquisitely sinister Penda’s Fen. Music films covered everything from Mogwai in Burning to the Iranian underground scene in No One Knows about Persian Cats. There were also experimental movies by Paul Sharits and Takashi Ito, children’s films, talks, documentaries and archive footage, and an Odeon bus tour through Birmingham.
As Flatpack is organised by 7Inch founders Ian Francis and Pip McKnight, it was no surprise to find a treasure trove of short films at the festival. The programmes were curated by Flatpack as well as Glasgow’s The Magic Lantern and the Dublin-based collective Synth Eastwood. The Magic Lantern’s programme was entitled ‘Pandemic’ and, although the films covered a variety of topics, the two best shorts in the selection were the ones that actually dealt with apocalyptic scenarios. Javier Chillon’s Die Schneider Krankheit presented itself as a newsreel recounting the rapid spread of a deadly virus after a spaceship containing a chimpanzee crashes in West Germany. The 50s newsreel style was perfectly reproduced, while the reasonable tone of the reporter was brilliantly contrasted with the outlandish events depicted, including the creation of a tortoise/leech hybrid to cure patients. The zombie movie was given a comic and very British twist in Louis Paxton’s Choreomania, in which a man on his way to work tries to escape the dancing plague that has turned everyone in town into twitchy ravers.
Synth Eastwood brought ‘Darklight’, a selection of animation shorts that opened with Aaron Hughes’s Backwards, which told a failed love story from the tragic end to the unexpected beginning, with several comic twists along the way. Mike Weiss’s Debt was an excellent puppet animation in which a little boy becomes obsessed with collecting pennies, but soon finds out that the luck they are meant to bring is not without consequences. It had a whiff of Eastern European strangeness; the boy was both cute and creepy with his big button eyes and bowl haircut, and the story was original and well-paced. Croatian filmmaker Veljko Popovic created a striking dystopian world in the enigmatically titled She Who Measures. A column of identical big-headed men and women pushing trolleys are led across a barren moonscape by a clown, brainwashed by smiley screens attached directly to their faces. They march to the sound of a supermarket radio, putting any rubbish they encounter in the trolleys. A man who is not wearing a mask tries to encourage them to get rid of the screens but fails to stop the column of slave shoppers. The atmosphere was very dark, the vision pessimistic, the ending mysterious and the animation bleak and powerful.
Among the shorts selected by Flatpack, Andersen M Studio’s Going West was a great short film that made the story of a book come alive as it was narrated, animating its very pages to create all sorts of shapes, including houses and tunnels. The selection also included two interesting animated documentaries. David Quinn’s Twas a Terrible Hard Work used black and white animation to illustrate the experiences of a group of miners. The combination of factual realism and imaginary reconstruction was a great way to deal with the subject matter and the film was a very poignant evocation of life in the mines. Samantha Moore’s An Eyeful of Sound was less successful. The idea of conjuring up the perceptions of three women who experience synaesthesia through colours and shapes was excellent, but the realisation was not entirely satisfying: the animation was not very inventive and the narration provided by the women was edited in an unnecessarily repetitive way.
The final short treat of the festival was screened before Tomm Moore’s animated Irish children’s story The Secret of Kells on the last day of Flatpack. The Brothers McLeod were there to present their latest film, The Moonbird, which marks a departure from their previous work. A dark animated fairy tale in black and white, it told the story of a little girl who is kidnapped by a witch who wants her tears for a magic potion. The animation looks like chalk on a blackboard, the atmosphere is perfectly sinister, the story involves death, dismemberment and various transformations that culminate in a fight between two quasi-mythical birds, one white, the other black. Watching it felt like doors were being opened into strange and wonderful worlds, something that can be said of the Flatpack Festival itself.
South By Southwest (or the super-American SXSW to most people now) has risen to prominence through the 21st century, arguably eclipsing Sundance as the ritual gathering place of English-speaking indie film.
Where Sundance might still define indie as the studio subdivision releases of a Soderbergh, Linklater or even a Tarantino, SXSW is where the DIY tools come out. A supportive home of bedroom filmmakers and independently produced and released small movies, it’s built its stock in the last half decade on the ‘mumblecore’ spirit of honest poetic tales from the hipster streets.
But 2010 was a little different. It was the first year at which registrants for new media strand Interactive outnumbered those for the music strand of the festival, and the forward-moving digital thinkers bled into all film events. That the Film and Interactive conferences take place at the same time is of massive benefit to the former, challenging it to look for a viable creative and financial future for filmmaking and viewing. What’s more, the films presented were less of the hipster navel-gaze variety and substantially more of the socially aware type.
At SXSW, the film panels are not the usual trudge through self-promotion but offer something more practical as well as genuine debate. The most impressive was The Main Event, which explored how to turn your one-off screening into an amazing event. Going beyond the ‘cinema vs online’ debate, it celebrated the virtues of a real-world screening, but advocated doing it yourself rather than using third parties like distributors or online aggregators. Challenging the obsession with a standard art-house cinema release, it suggested ways of building your own audience through perfectly organised multi-platform events: every screening should be your own little festival, and you should make use of the growing number of alternative non-theatrical or semi-theatrical exhibition venues.
Many of the films screen at the Alamo cinemas, which are probably the best in the world. You can get food during the movie served to you by waiters! They show strange 60s freak-out videos before the main film and the occasional bootleg McDonalds advert! Amazing.
The deserved doc prize-winner was the lovely Marwencol, the story of a man who built a miniature World War II town in his garden after he was beaten nearly to death by a gang. It’s a mind-blowing show of beauty. Mark, the man in question, takes us into his world, which isn’t mere quirky fantasy, but something more profound and very real. Mark is an outsider artist, but he’s also a man dealing with trauma and for that is instantly sympathetic. He makes great pictures, tells great stories and pulls at your heart.
I also fell in love with A Different Path, Monteith McCollum’s visual essay on car hate, which depicted the actions of bike activists and elderly protestors, combined with stop-motion animation and jazz. A wandering and circular film, it condemns the road-building culture of the US by giving voice to those smaller people who are left out, and whose lifestyles are too idiosyncratic to fit into the bureaucratic boxes of urban American culture.
Life 2.0 was an unsettling documentary on the dangers of Second Life. There’s been a glut of over-optimistic Second Life docs in the last two years but thankfully this one was a warning shot, not a celebration. Telling the stories of three people with Second Life avatars that all end badly (sorry for the spoiler), the film makes the perils of fantasy life very clear. Relationships wither, and the loneliness of days spent alone in front of a screen is sympathetically described. For anyone tempted to paint themselves blue and retreat to a forest, this film is a tap on the shoulder and a sighed bit of advice about running away from real life.
SXSW especially loves its music films. There was Ride Rise Roar, an account of David Byrne’s recent stage show and its experimental dance scenes, in which Byrne is the usual charismatic enigma. And it was especially lovely to see Strange Powers, about the majestic Magnetic Fields. Shot over 10 years, the film shows singer Stephen Merritt as a control freak, an outsider, who spends his days writing epic indie pop love songs in gay bars across New York and latterly LA. Merritt remains unfathomable to the end, but even this tiny insight is greater than anyone has ever been able to get on screen before. An independently produced labour of love about the need to create, it’s so very SXSW.
Hitchcock once said that when the images of a film and its soundtrack are doing the same thing, one of them must be redundant. In the famous shower scene in Psycho, it is perhaps truer than ever. The superficial impression that image and music are simply ‘mickey mousing’ is a tribute to the effectiveness of the music. For all we see is a raised knife, a woman’s screaming face, blood around the plughole. The knife scarcely moves, and certainly never meets the flesh of Janet Leigh. It is Bernard Herrmann’s music that pierces the skin, plunges the blade and carries out the murder.
From 1-30 April the BFI will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho (1960) with an extended run of a new digital print and a season putting it in context – from cult classics Peeping Tom and Repulsion to traditional horror with screenings of Halloween and Deranged. More info on the BFI website.
By 1960 Herrmann was already an old hand, having started his own chamber orchestra at 20, before working for many years at the Mercury Theatre with Orson Welles. The Psycho score was unusual for a horror film at that time in being only for strings, but this approach (with the addition of a little percussion) would provide the blueprint for many of James Bernard’s classic scores for Hammer Horror.
Heard in isolation from the picture, the prelude resembles at times the stringent sonorities of early Schoenberg only with added soaring, plaintive melody and machinic rhythms more akin to the work of Schoenberg’s student, Hans Eisler. Elsewhere, themes recall the sombre menace of Mahler’s Third Symphony. Snooping in Norman Bates’s bedroom, Lila Crane (Vera Miles) spies a copy of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony on the record player, and Herrmann sneaks in a pastiche of the funeral march from the second movement.
Then there is the shower scene. Initially, Hitchcock wanted the scene to play just with sound effects and no music but Herrmann talked him round, creating in the process one of the most famous pieces of film music of all time. Working as a kind of expressionist intensification of Janet Leigh’s scream, it is the aural equivalent of Edvard Munch’s famous painting, and is culturally just as central. The reference to Eroica is apposite; just like Beethoven’s symphony, Herrmann’s score meant that things would never be the same again without sounding thoroughly old-fashioned.
Watch the trailer:
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews