There was a jaunty confidence about the 47th edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. If Karlovy Vary is rarely the place to uncover new masterpieces, owing to the festival’s insistence on running a competition of international premieres in between Cannes in the summer and Venice and Toronto in the autumn, it is a place where discovery and surprise are almost guaranteed, and this year was no exception.
Take, for instance, Ektoras Lygizos’s competition entry Boy Eating the Birds Food (To agori troei to fagito tou pouliou), a strangely affecting, intimate portrayal of a destitute young Greek man (Yiannis Papadopoulos) faced with the reality of having to make a living and maintain dignity in a time of economic and personal crisis. Lygizos’s promising debut is most notable for an intriguing insistence on close-ups and an impressive lead performance from Papadopoulos, who has no choice but to act his soul out as Lygizos isolates him from the world that surrounds him, with no social connections and no action to drive the arbitrary events of the sparse narrative. It was a mature and experimental film from a second-time director whose interest in audacious formal invention proved both surprising and rewarding.
Another bold feature debut was Czech director Iveta Grófová’s Made in Ash (Až do mesta Aš), which premiered in the festival’s East of the West competition, a programme dedicated to films from Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The story follows a young Romany woman, Dorotka (Dorotka Billa), who has just graduated from high school in Eastern Slovakia and is now searching for a new and more exciting life in the Czech-German border town of Až, While the film bears some resemblance to the laboratory coldness (but without the cynicism) of Ulrich Seidl’s most uncompromising work, it is distinguished by the strength of its fierce, often intense and compelling, often troubling documentary feel and fierce realism. Authentic and challenging rather than moving, it’s 84 tight minutes of raw cinema, crafted with passion and delivered with conviction.
Outside the two main competition sections, two films stood out for very different reasons. Julian Roman Pölsler’s The Wall (Die Wand) is essentially a one-person drama set in a remote mountain cottage. It revolves around a woman awaking to the fact that she is held captive by an unknown force, surrounded by an invisible wall that completely isolates her and eventually compels her to delve deeply into her own mind in order to survive. In a mesmerising adaptation of Marlen Haushofer’s early 1960s bestseller of the same name, Pölsler teases out the unsettling elements of horror and fear with remarkable aplomb, helped by a magnificent performance by Martina Gedeck in the lead role. The result is an intriguing and demanding film and while it is not for everyone, it stayed with me for long after the screening.
Perhaps the most outrageously funny film of the festival was The Woman in the Septic Tank (Ang babae sa septic tank), by Philippine director Marlon Rivera. This riotous satire follows the cynical attempt of two young directors to make a film that will appeal to the Western predilection for Third-World miserabilist realism. Real-life Philippine star Eugene Domingo gleefully plays the over the top prima donna who, in order to advance her own career, accepts the role of a destitute slum mother of seven forced to sell one of her children. As the filmmakers wonder about how best to present their wildly politically incorrect story, they veer from austere realistic indie drama to corny melodrama and even musical. The cinema was packed to the rafters for this uproarious send-up of ‘poverty porn’ that proved to be an absolute crowd-pleaser.
The standout in the International Documentary section was Ilian Metev’s Sofia’s Last Ambulance (Poslednata lineika na Sofia), about the three-strong medical crew of one of the 13 ambulances that serve the 1.2 million people in the Bulgarian capital each day. Although Metev’s strictly observational approach says as much about the crumbling Bulgarian healthcare system as it does about a troubled society in the process of transition, the film is most gripping in the moments in between the action, offering a glimpse into the vulnerability and physical and psychological exhaustion of the staff and the frustration beneath their cool, professional façade. Sofia’s Last Ambulance was an apt reminder on how little it takes to create a compelling cinematic experience, and the Karlovy Vary festival once more confirmed that there is a wealth of promising talent out there ready to take the conventions of any given genre into different and unusual places.
Memory is a recurrent element in the cinema of Hirokazu Kore-eda. In some of his films, it provides the perspective or structure. In others, it is the central theme, or a supressed undercurrent of anxiety that permeates the surface of a contemporary Japan where people rarely discuss their problems. In his first feature Maborosi (1995), the central character of Yumiko (Makiko Esumi) is haunted by the deaths of her grandmother, for which she still feels responsible, and her husband, who has committed suicide for no apparent reason. Relocating with her daughter from Osaka to a quiet fishing community, she tries not to dwell on the past. Nobody Knows (2004), based on the tragic true story of four young children who were abandoned by their mother in a small Tokyo apartment, presents a recollection of childhood that is steeped in trauma with its focus on confined space, inanimate objects, and psychological signifiers. Still Walking (2008) observes a strained family gathering, as unemployed art restorer Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) spends a few days at his parents’ house, bringing along his new wife and stepson. The events of the film are ultimately framed as memory in a closing scene that has Ryota visiting his parents’ graves and reflecting on the final visit that he made to their home, several years ago. If these protagonists are defined by their memories, the heroine of Air Doll (2009) is characterised by a lack of personal reference. After magically coming to life, sex toy Nozomi (Bae Doona) searches for experience, whether pleasurable or painful, in order to make sense of the world. However, the director’s most direct rumination on the individual significance and selective nature of memory is After Life, a reflective fantasy that filters its premise through the quasi-documentary aesthetic that Kore-eda has practised throughout his fascinating career to date.
After Life imagines a space between Earth and Heaven, where the recently deceased are taken once natural causes or physical misfortune have brought an end to their mortal existence. On arrival, they find themselves in a ramshackle office building where they receive guidance from case workers who are tasked with helping them go to the next stage. Each person must select the happiest memory from their life so that it can be recreated on film. Once the scene is complete, the deceased watch it in a screening room, and vanish, able to relive this moment for eternity. While the film begins with the deceased and their reactions to their respective deaths, the focus gradually shifts to the case workers, who must deal with the variable attitudes of these individuals: some believe that their lives yielded no memories of great significance, others struggle to decide from so many options, and one simply refuses to choose on the grounds that a single recollection cannot completely represent his mortal years.
The first half of After Life involves the detailed interviews that case workers must conduct in order to decide which memories to recreate, suggesting that such recollections constitute a stockpile of personal information that must be systematically sorted and considered in relation to suitability. Many of the memories, although eventually scripted, were actually researched, with 500 people being interviewed. Kore-eda cast the film during this process, balancing non-actors with professionals, and recruiting the documentary cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki to achieve an otherworldly realism. The second half examines the tentative romantic relationship between two case workers, Takashi (Arata) and Shiori (Erika Oda) that cannot develop due to the emotional power of memory: Takashi is unable to reciprocate Shiori’s feelings as he still yearns for the fiancée that he left behind after being killed in World War II.
The process of recreating memory that these case workers facilitate serves to show how such recollections can be erroneous, or subject to embellishment. Indecision or inconsistency on the part of some of the deceased indicates that the memories that are chosen as their passport to eternal happiness are possibly falsely remembered, or partially fictionalised, although Kore-eda does not see this as a problem in the grand scheme of things, providing that sufficient personal resonance is evoked. After Life proposes that memories are ever-shifting, with certain details dependent on the situation in which past circumstances are recalled, or to whom they are being imparted. In the press notes for the film, Kore-eda states: ‘Our memories are not fixed or static. They are dynamic, reflecting selves that are constantly changing. So the act of remembering, of looking back at the past, is by no means redundant or negative. Rather, it challenges us to evolve and mature.’ While most of the deceased ultimately force themselves to examine their personal history, sifting through lives of disappointment and strife to find a positive moment that will take them forward, it transpires that the case workers have been trained for their positions due to being unable to choose a memory. This steadfast refusal, or emotional inability, to explore their past has resulted in a weekly office routine, presented in a pared-down fashion to reflect the salaried existence of many Japanese professionals. However, through assisting the elderly Ichiro (Taketoshi Naito), Takashi discovers that their lives are linked and is finally able to make a choice due to the recollection that is prompted by a realisation of interconnectedness. It is Takashi’s contented expression as his scene plays out that best summarises Kore-eda’s beautiful illustration of the role played by memory in belatedly finding meaning in life’s special, if sometimes fleeting, moments.
Best known internationally for his chilly, haunting melodramas Yella (2007) and Jerichow (2008), Christian Petzold has yet again teamed up with actress Nina Hoss for his latest film Barbara. Hoss gives a mesmerising performance as Barbara Wolff, a doctor who has applied for an exit visa from the GDR only to find herself transferred from Berlin to a provincial hospital in the countryside, spied upon by the Stasi while her lover in the West is secretly preparing to help her escape via the Baltic Sea. Like all Petzold’s films, Barbara is informed by the director’s background in literature and cinema history, and yet it stands in its own right as a subtly balanced, emotionally restrained and elegantly shot drama crafted by a real auteur, with a style, vision and worldview entirely his own.
Pamela Jahn talked to Christian Petzold at this year’s 62nd edition of the Berlin International Film Festival in February where Barbara premiered in Competition and earned him the Silver Bear for Best Director.
Pamela Jahn: Your films are often inspired by literature. In Yella, for example, you are borrowing your genre conventions from James M. Cain’s cult pulp novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Your new film Barbara, however, feels more like a classic novella.
Christian Petzold: There are two books that served as an inspiration for me this time: Hermann Broch’s novella Barbara, which is set in 1928 and tells the story of a female doctor who takes a job in a rural hospital in order to hide her communist activities from the police, and Werner Bräunig’s novel Rummerplatz. In Bräunig’s book a doctor’s son is consumed by physical work for the first time in a uranium mine. He defines himself through this work, which is interesting because work as a theme had almost completely disappeared from the literature and cinema in the West. Another aspect that appealed to me was that the book tells how women replaced the workers who had been wooed by the West, which somewhat gave those women a new purpose and self-understanding, and I wanted to tell a story about this.
Barbara marks your fifth collaboration with actress Nina Hoss. How would you describe your work relationship?
Part of the reason why we work together so well is because we help each other develop and, at the same time, with each film our work relationship grows stronger. For example, when we were shooting Jerichow I felt that I had to do something different in my next film, especially with the ending, because I realised that I kept pushing Nina into tragedy every single time; like a writer, who keeps killing his heroine at some point so he can finish this book and get on to a new story. I got really annoyed with myself for always working within that same pattern. When Nina and I talked about the final scene, I told her that, next time, I would like to make a film with an open ending and we ended up having a very long conversation about what this means for my work, for our work, and for what we’re trying to achieve, which helped me a lot. And that’s the great thing about our collaboration: that we can have those conversations and support and inspire each other. That’s what makes it so exciting for me.
Aside from working with Nina Hoss, you have developed a very special way of casting people.
Yes, when I start casting for a new film, I first listen to the voices of actors. If you ask me, all these talent agencies should send out CDs instead of DVDs; there is much more to get from listening to voices. But if you find an actress like Nina Hoss and you work together for so many years, your attitude towards the character changes in a way. I don’t really describe her anymore in the script, which means she somewhat appears out of a situation; I don’t need to support her literarily because she already exists. But at the same time, I also need to keep a sort of respectful distance from that particular character.
Barbara is set in former communist East Germany in 1980. What fascinated you about this particular era and how did you approach it, since you grew up in West Germany?
My parents fled the GDR when I was still very young, so I grew up in the Western part of Germany. But my parents kept travelling back to the East part quite regularly and they took my brothers and me with them, so East Germany was not so unfamiliar to me. The problem is the kind of stuffiness that exists in Germany, that narrow thinking that only someone who has lived through a story has the right to tell it. But if you look at the great works of world literature, many of these stories are actually told from the perspective of an outsider. Like in The Great Gatsby, for example, the narrator is the only character who is dead. With Barbara, it was very important to me that the actors understand my particular perspective. Before I start shooting, I always watch selected films with my team in order to get everyone in the mood and, this time, one of the films we watched during the rehearsals was The French Connection. There is a scene in the film in which Gene Hackman’s character, [Jimmy] Doyle, wanders back to his apartment after a long shift and suddenly gets attacked by a sniper. What makes this sequence so fascinating and one of the most frenetic moments in the film is the perspective. Normally, any director would cut from Gene Hackman walking down the street to the sniper and then follow him through the reticle just before the gunshot to build up tension and suspense. But the film doesn’t do that: instead the camera keeps at eye level with Hackman during the entire chase. Only after 15 minutes of chasing the sniper through the jammed streets of New York, only in the very moment when Doyle seems to have caught himself in a dead end, when he struggles to stay in control, that’s when the camera changes its perspective and points at him. What I was trying to explain with this sequence was the importance of my viewpoint in Barbara, which is similar in terms of the camera position. I wanted everyone to understand why the camera has to be in a certain spot, why can’t it be anywhere else because that would change my perspective on the story.
It is your first historical film. How difficult was it for you to reconstruct the setting of the GDR in the early 1980s?
What I wanted to achieve with Barbara was to make a historical film but without evoking history merely through the setting where you have the hammer and sickle symbol in every frame. Instead, I tried to create an open space. There is a nice anecdote about François Truffaut and Jean Renoir having a conversation about Renoir’s The Golden Coach . Truffaut was of the opinion that you could only do history in the studio, you couldn’t show any sky, because the sky is always the sky of today. Renoir disagreed. In his view, you had to use both the studio and the sky, as in the historical and the present. If you pretend that the film was only about the past with no relation to our present time, then the film itself would be a lie. And I thought I actually agree with Renoir, which is why in Barbara, you see lots of sky, lots of wind, and lots of colour. But there was another aspect that was important to me in that regard: I watched Chinatown  again because it’s a historical film and I kept wondering why the Los Angeles of the 1930s that is recreated in the film never feels like a German historical film, for example. I realised that it is because of the different aggregate states at play such as heat, drought, and male and female sweat, and I think all this is linked together. Or, take Fassbinder’s The Merchant of Four Seasons , he also managed to create a sense of the historical atmosphere with very little means, but still to great effect. It’s almost like a childhood memory, like with Proust, you smell something and history begins to unfold. The only other option would have been to go with Bresson, cool and distanced. Those were the two options I considered and, ultimately, I decided to go with The Merchant of Four Seasons.
Looking at your previous films, they seem to be strongly informed by the fundamental cracks in German society.
I find it very difficult to think about why this is, but it seems obvious that I am interested in people who don’t feel comfortable in their skin. I believe a lot of it has to do with the fact that my parents fled the GDR and when we first got to West Germany I spent quite some time in transitional housing and never got the feeling that I arrived anywhere properly. I always felt more like an outsider myself, whereas my parents desperately tried to adapt to their new surroundings but, at the same time, it made them become even more estranged. All these are themes that worry me in a way but I think that, one day, I’ll just pay for a psychoanalyst to get to the bottom of it all (laughs). That said, my next film also follows a similar line – I just can’t help it.
Can you tell us a little bit more about your new film?
It’s set in Berlin in 1945, so it’s a historical film again. In short, it’s about a woman who survived Auschwitz and she now wants her life back.
Do you feel you had to go through different steps in your career before you could approach that part of German history?
No, it was not quite like that. The story almost fell in my hands in a way. My long-term co-author Harun Farocki and I read a crime novel from 1946 which had a similar plot line. That was about two or three years ago and for some reason it stuck with me. But it’s true that, back then, it didn’t feel like the right thing to do. A Jewish woman, Berlin, the Holocaust, it felt too charged, too close to me then.
How do you explain your particular interest in female characters?
Good question. To answer that, I probably have to go through at least 10 years of psychotherapy (laughs). No, honestly, I think some filmmakers have a preference for male characters and then there are others, who are more interested in female characters. David Lynch, for example, is a ‘women director’ in that way, and John Ford is a ‘male director’. That doesn’t mean that one is better than the other, it’s just how you project yourself into the world. And the way I look at women in my films is not like a pure Hitchcockian look, where the woman functions as an erotic object for the desiring look of the male. I am not fetishising anything. Especially with Nina, it’s more like there is someone whom I don’t know and who I can’t be, who is something completely strange to me. It’s like these female characters are somehow caught in a different world, like in exile, and they’re trying to get back in touch with the world I live in, the world we all live in. On the other hand, with my camera I am somewhat in exile too, and from there I keep trying to get to the core of the story. This is how it all correlates.
Nina Hoss has said elsewhere that she would love to make a comedy with you one day. Can you imagine yourself doing that too?
Of course Nina said that, because she is great in comedies (laughs). And I would love to make a comedy too. But it’s incredibly difficult to make a really good comedy and so I keep putting it off just as I keep putting off to quit smoking. I guess I am just not ready for it yet.
Will Wiles composed his darkly comic debut novel, The Care of Wooden Floors, on his daily tube commute from London to the suburbs. Heading away from the centre of town he was guaranteed a seat and a peaceful interlude, before heading to his day job as deputy editor on Icon, a monthly architecture and design journal, where he’s written about everything from Pot Noodles to Jumbo Jets. He’s now a full-time writer, and his filmic alter ego is Martin Blank from Grosse Pointe Blank. EITHNE FARRY
‘When you were young and your heart was an open book, you used to say, live and let live, you know you did you know you did you know you did …’
We don’t see what Martin Blank is seeing. He stops his black town car by the kerb and climbs out, mouth open, clearly agitated. After 10 years, this man without a past has returned to the Detroit suburb where he grew up and has decided to revisit his childhood home.
Then we see what he is seeing. His childhood home is gone, replaced by an ULTIMART convenience store. He peels his sunglasses from his face unable to comprehend what has happened. We see again. ULTIMART. Home is gone. Face like thunder, Blank stalks towards the store.
Nostalgia is a form of sickness, a bilious reaction to curdled memories. In Grosse Point Blank (1997), John Cusack’s contract killer has no real desire to attend his 10-year high school reunion, but is bullied into it by his personal assistant. Once he is back on his old turf, he gets nostalgia in a bad way, things ain’t what they used to be. His old house is gone, and his mother cannot remember who he is. Having spent a decade kicking over his own traces, he now finds his prehistory almost completely obliterated – a fact that makes him very angry. And, not being able to talk about his work, he doesn’t have a present to compensate.
It’s a nicely drawn crisis in narcissism. Blank had a completely one-sided deal with the past. He wanted to change completely and reject everything that made him him, but he expected everything in Grosse Point to be just the way he left it. And this deal turns out to be an illusion. He might have killed the president of Paraguay with a fork, but his vulnerability to the mundane facts of his upbringing make Blank an appealing everyman. He can’t go back, none of us can.
Cast: Jason Patric, Isabella Rossellini, Udo Kier, Kevin McDonald
Keyhole is Guy Maddin’s latest and by far most ambitious film to date. Trying, as usual, to make sense of the memories and feelings from the past that haunt him day and night, Maddin this time has crafted a heady amalgam of sinister black and white 40s noir-gangster flick, Homer’s Odyssey (loosely adapted), Hollywood melodrama and haunted ghost story. Like all of Maddin’s work, it’s a perfectly twisted, dark, dreamlike cinematic encounter that stays in the back of your mind long after you have re-entered reality.
Pamela Jahn met with Guy Maddin at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival in February to talk about dreams, light switches and wolf heads, the importance of giving movies a second chance and the horror of watching your own films with an audience.
PJ: Let’s start with the obvious: do you actually believe in ghosts?
GM: It’s funny, I don’t believe in ghosts at all and I am not scared of the dark or things like that until I hold a movie camera in my hand. Then I believe in ghosts. Maybe there is some sort of natural selection at work but it’s just so convenient to believe in ghosts when you are a filmmaker, either as a metaphor or a way to get your sense of a story airborne, or even just to make yourself suspend disbelief. It’s all sorts of things, but the truth is, when movies are working well people start believing in things they wouldn’t normally believe in. So I am quite comfortable with that little camera-generated adhocracy. It’s just like when you’re a little kid and your grandmother is telling you a bedtime story. There are all sorts of things at play, and at least for the time being you believe in what she’s telling you. And it feels pretty good. But on the other hand, I feel very haunted all the time. Maybe I am far more than average a backward peering guy.
What are you haunted by?
Well, we all live in the past and the present simultaneously, but for some reason the past seems to have a stronger demand on my emotions than on most people’s. Sometimes I’m haunted just by the way things once were and by a longing that they could be that way again. But it’s also quite simple in the way that I’m haunted by a love that is gone. Don’t get me wrong, I like these hauntings. I have a dream life that is cramped with sadness for some reason. I don’t get nightmares, instead I get these kind of emotional injections. But I like them in the same way people like, say, listening to Billy Holiday.
What happens in your dreams?
I see people and places. Places are very important to me, especially homes that I once lived in and which really mattered to me. Or people that have already gone reappear with a vibrancy of recollection that I can’t master while I am awake. But I like these experiences. It is my way of keeping these old relationships alive. I even got to know my father better in my dreams. He is a much nicer man now and we agree a lot more on things. I remember I had a girlfriend once who had a very ‘New Agey’ attitude towards it and one day she told me: ‘You really shouldn’t be dwelling on this stuff. Next time someone reappears from the past in one of your dreams, just tell them you love them but that it’s time for them to go. So you can say goodbye to them and then they won’t reappear in your dreams anymore.’ Basically, after that, we just broke up.
What is the strongest memory you have had that found its way into the film?
That’s an interesting question because I haven’t had the courage to assess what insistent memory made it all the way to the final cut… I’m not sure. There are a couple of little mentions of things. For example, when Jason Patric, who plays the father in the film, enters a room – even though he is not sure who he is or whether or not he is alive – it’s just the fact that his hand knows exactly where the light switch is. I had a few very uncanny dreams about that in the past. I normally have no control over my dreams otherwise I would just stay in bed all the time, dreaming. But I had one or two dream experiences in my life where I could literally stay in a dream on purpose. I found myself in my childhood home, which for some reason I miss very badly. About four or five years ago I think, I stopped dreaming less and less about people and more about architecture, precisely, the architecture of an empty home. Sometimes there seem to be people present in the next room or so, but it is mostly architecture.
I had one dream where I was just in my old bedroom and I opened up my drawer, and that’s a scene that made it into the film, where I could actually see everything exactly the way it was in 1968. And it wasn’t me bullshitting myself, it really wasn’t uncanny. I remember looking into the drawer and seeing a razor and a pencil sharpener and a little ink pot that I hadn’t thought of for some 40- odd years. Things that I had forgotten all about were in that drawer. Then I decided to look up from the drawer because I couldn’t exactly remember what was on my shelves. When I looked up, I saw exactly what was there, and I started walking around in the room and I could remember where the light switches were and what the plastic plates around the light switches looked like. I do remember that, as a kid, I knew exactly were all the light switches where. At certain doors there were on your left and at other doors they were on your right when you entered the room. Sometimes you had to switch the switch upwards or you had to remember to switch it downwards. It took me many years to figure that out, lots of trial and error, but in my dream it was all clear. Then it became an issue not worth remembering at all because the house was sold. But in this dream it all came back.
I have heard that you don’t really forget anything and that your brain is full of all the memories you’ve ever had. It’s just a matter of accessing them. I had a similar dream that was not as good but where I could access everything as well and it felt like maybe I was dead. It felt like I was literally haunting. At first I was thinking: ‘Jesus, I’m haunted by this house.’ But then I realised it felt more like I was the one haunting the house, because there was no one in it except for me wandering around, trying light switches and looking in drawers. And while I don’t believe in ghosts it gave me gooseflesh to think that maybe in those moments I am just a ghost myself. Since we all live in the past and the present simultaneously, maybe I was living in the future as well, I don’t know.
Do you wake up and make notes immediately after you’ve had a dream like this?
I do find that if you write a dream down afterwards you will remember it forever, but if you don’t, you sort of forget it. But that one was so vibrant that I couldn’t forget it anyway. It hasn’t all stayed with me though. But then I arranged for a visit inside my old childhood home, and a lot of the light switches were still there. Also, I had my own bathroom as a boy, and there was a little chip in the plaster above the heating that you could only see when sitting on the toilet. You could see this little dent, someone had put some scotch tape over it and then painted it but, to me, it looked like a wolf’s head. That was the first thing I checked when this guy gave me permission to look through the house. I went straight to my old bathroom to see if the wolf’s head was still there, because I also had a couple of dreams about it and I was very worried that someone had chipped it off or fixed it but, luckily, it was still there. After that visit, I often wondered whether the guy who bought the house maybe also sees a wolf’s head in the tape, or if he sees something else because his childhood was so different to mine. He is exactly the same age, a My Lai survivor. So, when I was 12 years old and looking at Playboy magazines in my bathroom, he was in My Lai going through horrible things. Now he sleeps in my bedroom and I often wonder what he’s haunted by. It must be the most unhealthy way of planning one’s future, but if I ever get enough money, I would just buy the house back from him, or live with him. It’s a big house. And I love my childhood, so it would be a way to sort of slide back with perfect symmetry into my second childhood.
Keyhole is more than just a childhood memory though. There are many different elements coming together, and critics have talked about your films before as being impossible to grasp and to classify. Do you like that idea, or do you sometimes feel disappointed that audiences and critics don’t get what you are trying to do or say?
I always thought that it was great when people told me that my films are impossible to put in a drawer. So I’d say: ‘Oh, thank you’, and they’d respond: ‘No, that’s terrible. You would be doing yourself a big favour if you worked in a genre.’ And then they’d tell me I should work in science fiction, a genre I don’t find much of a connection with for some reason, even though it has so much potential. To some extent, science fiction and horror seem so close together as an element of fantasy. But I still like my horror films scary yet slightly allegorical to a degree where I’m not sure whether I can figure out the allegory. If I can’t figure it out, that’s even better. But it has to be rooted in something that we all feel, whether we believe in saucers or vampires or not. We all feel those things but they are dressed up in the horror genre garb. I like that.
Lately I’ve been trying to work in genres a little bit as well. I accidentally worked in genre, or more a hybrid genre, in 2002, when I accepted a commission to make a ballet version of Dracula. I was shocked, because it was originally just made for Canadian television broadcast and then it ended up getting a theatrical release. Then I realised that this genre advice was actually pretty good advice, because I think what enabled people to go and see this movie was the fact that they knew exactly what they would be getting. It’s Dracula and ballet, it’s two genres but at least it’s only two and you could see how they fused together. I think it gave people a point of reference from which to approach it. And it just made it easier on the picture and on myself that the public could figure out what it was.
With Keyhole, I thought again I would make a kind of hybrid genre film where gangsters meet ghosts. A bit like cowboys meet aliens, something you understand right away! But I’m actually not very comfortable with the gangster genre, because gangsters have guns and I didn’t want the script to get bogged down with all the technicalities involved with this, things like who is carrying a gun and who is not, and fill it all up with a lot of gun shots. I just wanted a story about gangsters. the protagonist’s father should be a gangster, some sort of alpha male hero that a boy could admire in the same way that Homer’s Ulysses is a soldier and a hero. I am not even sure why I picked a gangster, I just wanted something that looked right in black and white for my one last fling, or love affair, with black and white before I move on and try to challenge myself to colour.
Given the positive audience reactions it seems to have worked fine. In fact, Keyhole has been described as your most accessible film to date.
I think that when I set out to make Keyhole I wanted it to turn out a little more accessible. I was enjoying the fact that for various reasons my last two pictures have been increasingly accessible. I am used to really low ratio shows, like down to zero. But still, I do want to reach people with my movies, though maybe just more like an author wants to reach an audience rather than a member of the film industry who needs to reach people to be able to make another movie. But I do want to reach them, because I love the feeling of understanding how an audience feels when they are watching a movie. I was forced to watch My Winnipeg and Brand upon the Brain many times because I was narrating the films behind the stage, and I really began to feel more like a showman than a filmmaker, which was nice, so I’ve tried to keep that attitude going while making movies. That said, in a way, I never felt closer to a conventional filmmaker than when I was making Keyhole.
What inspired you to base the film on Homer’s Odyssey?
To be honest, that story was just an excuse for a structure and I am glad I found one that really fit in well with what I was trying to say. I was looking for any sort of narrative, because I’m not quite formal and crazy enough to make a movie about an empty house without any characters in it. So, I knew I wanted it to have a plot and certain characters and things that matter, even though my dreams are mostly about little objects. But those little tokens and objects and wolf’s heads, they all matter because they have soaked up a lot of people before they became precious to me.
At one point, I was tempted to use a plot structure suggested by Heinrich von Kleist’s Penthesilea. It’s also an unrealised film by Leni Riefenstahl: just a couple of gangs holed up in a house fighting and then a gang of Amazonians come in and start hysterically tearing both fighting parties to shreds. But then I realised that what initially seemed a good excuse to explore every piece and corner of the house with all that war and fighting going on would probably just get derailed into gender politics in the end, so themes that I am nowhere near qualified to explore – at least not yet. I think I’ll wait until I’m a veteran of another war before touching on that.
Instead, I tried to concentrate on what really matters to me about the home, and maybe I also tried to sum up what I hope is the first half of my filmmaking career, and I realised that The Odyssey had a lot to do with my dream life. For instance, my very first movie was a short film about my father who had died, but actually in my dreams he hadn’t died. In my dreams, he just went off to live with a better family. He would come home almost every night just to get his razor or pick up some glass eye that he had forgotten, and every time I had about one minute to convince him that our family loved him and really missed him and that he should stay. But he never did stay. Nevertheless, they were still wonderful dreams because I got to hear his voice, a voice I couldn’t remember properly. And those dreams generally left me with a slowly dissipating pleasurable feeling until lunchtime and then a dream might return later that night or in a week or so. The years went by and, one day, I read Homer’s Odyssey and realised that it was just that dead father dream. It’s the ultimate ‘dead-beat-dad’ story, and I came to the conclusion that this is the story I should use for my storyboard structure. I like using a very durable structure and then abusing it as much as possible by overburdening it with my own concerns and seeing how much of it can survive.
Is it easier for you to develop your own story if you base it on a work of literature or a play?
Yes, if I just use it as a framework. For example, Cowards Bend the Knee is very loosely based on Electra, but totally debased from Euripides. I even changed a brother of Electra into a boyfriend. What I mean is that I am willing to change things so that it is all already psychologically a different thing all together but, on the other hand, it’s good to know that it is a pretty sturdy structure of a centuries-old story and still reads like something that has happened to me yesterday. So, yes, I am happy to make adaptations, I just happen to make them of ancient texts and in such a surreal way that no one can complain that I have messed with the original shape of the text.
Do you sometimes feel that, as a filmmaker, you’d have been better off living in the early days of cinema?
Naturally I went through a real biologically driven love affair with the 1920s when I was in my twenties and thirties and felt I needed to sexually possess the decade. But now I just think it looks nice. I have mellowed out about it, and I am happy not to be considered an impersonator, that I am not doing complete adaptations, that my editing style is different and that I am using digital tools. I am happy to eventually having graduated from being a false pioneer to a real pioneer.
What is also very unique about your films is that you seem to use music and film as interrelated languages. Is that something you do deliberately, or is this a natural process for you while making the film?
No, it is actually a goal of mine to shoot a film where I write the script and have the score written at the same time. That would be ideal. I had the chance to do this once on a short film called Glorious that I used as a rough sketch for Keyhole, because it is also a gangster story. The Netherlands-based British composer Richard Ayers and I worked on this by writing the script and writing the music back and forth in a series of emails and that was really amazing. Generally, most composers are given a somewhat flawed movie and then it is up to them to kind of fluff up scenes that are somewhat sagging, or they are supposed to really underscore something that needs building up. Famously, even with Vertigo, although that’s not flawed of course, Hitchcock apparently said to Bernhard Hermann: ‘Reel four especially needs your help’, or something like that.
But actually I think music and imagery are working together in a more occult way. It’s something that mystifies me and no amount of thinking about it can get me closer to an answer. I often have a piece of music in mind for a scene, but almost never does that piece of music fit in the end. I remember when I was making Archangel, I had special music picked out for certain scenes and when I got to edit the film it didn’t work at all. So, I tried switching scenes around, because I had it on magnetic tape and didn’t feel like recording new music altogether. But when I switched the scenes, the music I had picked before worked in exactly the different scenes that I had originally intended it for. I even thought that they worked very nicely, so I kept it like that. That’s when I realised that it really is witchcraft how these things work. But again, it is and it isn’t, because composers know how to create such visual sounds.
Thank you for mentioning music. It had been a long-term goal of mine to get people to trust their feelings about film as much as they do about music. When you listen to music you either like it or you don’t but, mostly, you don’t even know why, you are just letting yourself go. But when people are watching movies they get nervous if they don’t quite understand something. Even if they are enjoying it, they don’t know why, so a lot of them are shutting down saying: ‘I don’t get it, I don’t get it’, because they can’t just let go. But with music it seems so natural and I just wish we could all watch movies the same way we listen to music. So I try to fuse the two together as much as possible in my films, just in a desperate hope that somewhere along the line they take up and weld themselves in some sort of occult union and really work in ways that no one can explain.
It also seems more difficult to give films a second chance in the same way that you would listen to a song again until you get used to it and, eventually, you start liking it.
Yeah, absolutely. I have given some films a second chance. For example, the first time I saw L’Atalante, which is now one of my favourite films, I think I expected it to be a bit more like a Buñuel picture. I wanted it to be more surrealist and so I was disappointed in it the first time round. And then it just stayed with me, submerged in my memory for about five years until I found myself thinking more and more about it. And when I watched it again I fell totally in love with it. I think that’s the way we know it works with music, for example, when your favourite artist puts out a new album and you resist it first, but next thing you know, you realise that you have to put that thing back on and listen to it again. For some reason, it is just easier to do so with music than it is with movies.
Do you go back to your own films a lot?
No, not much, not if I can avoid it. I remember reading in Buñuel’s biography that he only watched his films once and then he knew what they were like and he never watched them again. At first, I didn’t believe him, partly because he was such a fantastic liar, but now I can understand him better, because I really don’t need the agony of watching my films with an audience more than once.
Why is it so horrible?
Because when you watch your films with an audience, you can poke your ear drums out and still sense the audience reaction. It’s just the fact that you know the audience is there and you can no longer kid yourself and tell yourself that it will all be OK. Instead, total objectivity is brought to you by the presence of an audience and, trust me, one experience like that per movie is enough. You give yourself a report card and it’s written in indelible ink, so you don’t have to go back again and again.
Do you dream about your films before, while or after making them?
Sometimes I do. A couple of times I have had dreams while making a movie in that I see myself watching it and it is obviously way better than in reality. But luckily, on some occasions, I had these dreams in time that I have actually been able to add things to the movie and improve it slightly. But that’s happened less than 10 times in my whole life, and if I dream about my movies then it’s almost always that they look better in my dream. So, when I wake up I mostly regret that I didn’t think to make those scenes.
You said elsewhere that you felt Careful was the only film that turned out exactly the way you wanted it to be. Is Keyhole coming close now though?
I think I have also come close with shorter film, for example, my short Heart of the World turned out to be exactly the way I planned. But, of course, with longer films that is less likely to happen. I think with Keyhole I did get the feelings right and also the levels of confusion which I was willing to have anywhere between perfect clarity and complete abstraction. But I also do care about Keyhole a lot for another reason, not even so much because of the dreams but because of the conversations I had with my mother about some of the years I drew my inspiration from for this movie. I have to say, my mother has got a kind of really sweet grade of dementia right now. She has become this lovely, sweet and agreeable old lady but she just told me the most brutally frank anecdotes about my family and my childhood, stories I had never ever heard of before. She has filled me with enough stuff that would have fit into the Keyhole universe to make another movie all together. I won’t do that though, I am leaving that subject behind now. But, God, it’s killing me that I didn’t get my mum to open up just half a year earlier. The movie could have been so much better. I mean, I don’t think anyone else would have noticed it, or people would have liked it more, but it just would have meant more to me. I think I would have managed to get my whole family in one piece in that house.
Do you feel that now that you have made Keyhole and that it turned out the way you wanted it to be you can eventually put your childhood memories to rest and move on?
Oh no! Thank God no! I don’t want my memories to rest, because I like them way too much. I won’t let that happen. Never!
Horror and the Horror Film
By Bruce F. Kawin
Anthem Press 252pp Â£25
Horror Zone: The Cultural Experience of Contemporary Horror Cinema
Edited by Ian Conrich
I.B. Tauris 306pp Â£14.99
Following the annual London horror extravaganza that is FrightFest, it seems appropriate to review a couple of recently published horror tomes. Making an authorial contribution to this already well-mined territory is a brave move for a writer as well a publisher – what can there really be left to say? So with this reservation in mind let’s have a look at them.
A professorial stab at finding new approaches to the horror genre is the concern of Bruce Kawin’s book, Horror and the Horror Film, which describes itself – twice in the preface alone – as a comprehensive account, as well as a ‘complete description of the horror film’. Those are bold claims indeed and sent this reviewer running to the bibliography to check texts consulted. What is there seems solid enough (if American-biased) but, given his themes, what is not there – Grant’s The Dread of Difference, Jancovich’s Horror, The Film Reader, Hawkins’s Cutting Edge: Art Horror and the Horrific Avant-Garde, Thrower’s Nightmare USA, Frayling’s Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: Science and the Cinema and, most alarmingly, Newman’s authoritative Midnight Movies (to name a few) – rather undermine claims to being comprehensive, let alone complete. That said, Kawin does explore over 350 films, first contextualising his methodology in the first part of the book and then, in the second part, examining them through a grid divided into categories of Monsters (constructed, composite, parasitic, amorphous etc.), Supernatural Monsters (demons, doubles, vampires, zombies, etc.) and, finally, Human Monsters (psychics, anomalies, mad killers, torturers etc.), all of which add up to a useful and logical approach to his topic, although he sometimes gets bogged down in classifying and clarifying the various genres, sub-genres and sub-sub-genres that he takes as his subject. Less convincing is the all too brief (an afterthought perhaps?) final section, which takes a very cursory look at the ‘related genres’ of Horror Comedy and Horror Documentary. An interesting read and a well-handled narrative in terms of the thematic approaches invoked to wrestle these hundreds of films into the author’s theoretical categories.
Horror Zone, edited by Ian Conrich, takes a wholly different approach to the genre, looking ‘around’ the subject and introducing fresh research into the cultural/economic/technological and transgressive aspects of recent horror cinema. As the author states, ‘this book seeks to address the cinema of contemporary horror moving beyond the common approach of focusing just on the film text… the articles within… explore the cultural parameters and… the boundaries and borders that these horror productions are pushing’. The various academic essays take a catholic view of horror from theme park rides and other synergies to web-based fandom, set and costume design and relationships of horror cinema with digital viewing. In so doing, Conrich’s book provides a very eclectic and up-to-date set of original approaches to the horror genre and successfully accomplishes the exploration of ‘horror cinemas as opposed to horror film’. A recommended title with plenty of food for thought.
James B. Evans
GONE… BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
In keeping with the horror theme, I want to salute the work of John McCarty, who in 1986 gave us the wonderful book Psychos: Eighty Years of Mad Movies, Maniacs and Murderous Deeds. Typical of its time, it is lurid, generously illustrated (the days of lasseiz faire with regard to image usage) and downright fun both to read and to look at. He starts with the cinematic cultural roots in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Jack the Ripper and takes us on a journey – via early cinema to the (then) contemporary screen – through fictional and factual psychos, slasher psychos, delusional psychos and exploitation psychos. In fact, as the author of the novel Psycho states on the cover of the book by way of endorsement, ‘Here at last is the definitive book about psycho films – including the psychos who write them, the psychos who direct them, and the psycho audiences who love them’. Well put! A great pairing with McCarty’s equally fab tome, Splatter Movies: Breaking the Last Taboo of the Screen (1984). Save these books! JBE
Film4 FrightFest the 13th duly delivered on blood, thrills and controversy with a blast of the best and the worst of current horror film. Evrim Ersoy reports on some of the most talked about films in this year’s programme.
An interesting exercise in combining the portmanteau picture and the found-footage genre, V/H/S is the new offering from some of the hottest indie directors on the block (Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Radio Silence).
Following the usual genre rules, it sets out a wrap-around concerning a bunch of deadbeat guys who are hired to break into a house and find a certain VHS for an undisclosed amount of money. As they are faced with a mountain of tapes, their attempts to find the right one are the pretext for the other stories until the very final tale, which, in an unusual touch, explains the nature of what has gone before.
At two hours, the film outstays its welcome by at least one segment and the wraparound is a muddled affair delivering none of the punch expected from such a tale. However, despite all this V/H/S works very well, with some of the segments genuinely inducing a sense of dread and unease while others create a videotape reality that just delights with its own twisted logic.
The final story also pulls out all the stops making sure the entire anthology ends on a high, sending the audience out into the night feeling as if they’ve been through on a ghost ride.
All in all, definitely worth catching – although not necessarily at the cinema given the lo-fi specs.
Eurocrime! The Italian Cop and Gangster Films That Ruled the 70s
Director/writer Mike Malloy’s love letter to the underrated poliziotteschi genre of the 70s is an impressive magnum opus that not only serves as an introductory lesson to newcomers but also offers in-depth analysis that every lover of the genre will delight in.
Compiling clips and new interviews with cast and crew associated with the films, Mike Malloy divides his epic documentary into chapters explaining various aspects of the genre (beginnings, real-life crime, politics, misogyny, etc) and revealing the history bit by bit. This fragmentary approach works incredibly well: rather than alienate any audience member, Mike Malloy sensibly draws everyone in before weaving a tale of an era so madcap and unusual it’s almost impossible not to be enthralled.
Mike Malloy’s talent is apparent not only in the assured pacing but also in the well-conducted interviews with stars, directors and other crew members of the era: Henry Silva, Franco Nero and Enzo Castellari all make an appearance bringing with them some unusual tales that may never have been heard if not for this film.
An amazing achievement, this 137-minute bonanza is a brilliantly entertaining documentary: full of life and action, it’s a joyful tribute that fits the spirit of the genre it celebrates so well.
A disappointing exercise in survival, James Nunn and Ronnie Thompson’s Tower Block focuses on the residents of the 31st floor of a block of flats who find themselves the target of a sniper. As the incompatible bunch try to work together to survive the day, their numbers continue to dwindle.
Boasting a set-up that’s bound to intrigue, Tower Block unfortunately runs into the first of its many problems before long: the occupants of the tower block of the title all appear to be archetypes. Perhaps it’s writer James Moran’s intention to populate the floor with a microcosm of Britain and try to see how we all can work together, but, on screen, the entire cast appears theatrical and robotic and the relationships and dialogue are distinctly wooden.
However, there is also much to be admired in the film: the set pieces are incredibly tense, and once the action gets going, the stark terror caused by the sniper is shown without any compromise. This is a film that delivers on the visual front with plenty of gusto. Shame, then, that the final result ends up being so uneven: a third act descent into Scooby Doo territory and really does the rest of the film no favours. By the end of the film, we’re left with a sense of disappointment at the hollowness and emptness of the plot.
It’s hard to shake off the feeling that Tower Block might have worked better as a 30-minute short. In its current form it is just another forgettable urban thriller in a long line of low-budget British films.
Tower Block is released in UK cinemas on September 21 by Lionsgate.
It’s hard to tell where Federico Zampaglione’s disappointing attempt to create a neo-giallo film went wrong: Tulpa is such a strange creation full of conflicting moments that it becomes impossible to distinguish the individual good and bad points after a while.
Opening with a beautiful sequence where a bizarre S&M meeting between an unnamed man and a woman goes horrifically wrong, Tulpa centres on Lisa Boeri, a corporate financial analyst in a fast-paced cut-throat company by day, and a member of a mysterious club for spiritual and psychical release of a sexual kind at night. When someone starts to murder Lisa’s sexual partners she realises there’s a psychopath out there who has her in firmly in their sights.
While the murders in Tulpa adhere beautifully to the giallo tropes, the pacing is so uneven that any enjoyment to be gleaned from the film soon turns to boredom. Add to this a second half that grinds to an almost complete halt and it becomes impossible to understand who the film is intended for: giallo enthusiasts will not find enough visual pleasure to enjoy the film while genre newcomers will be bored stiff after a while by the awful script and the rather outrageous dubbing.
A huge mess of a film, Tulpa can only be recommended as a guide to what not to do when trying to make a neo-giallo. Here’s hoping that Mr Zampaglione’s next film fulfils the promise of his first feature Shadow and confirms him as a filmmaker to follow.
Set across a dreamy and melancholic cityscape, Franck Kahlfoun’s take on William Lustig’s notorious 1980 shocker might well be the best genre film to be released this year.
Shot largely in first-person P.O.V., it features an intense performance from Elijah Wood, who manages to portray Frank as a man both frighteningly sadistic and heart-breakingly pitiful. Frank works as a mannequin restorer and seller at a dilapidated shop in LA, which used to belong to his promiscuous mother. He has uncontrollable feeling of abject hatred and fear of women, which explode in acts of unparalleled violence. When Frank meets Ann, who wants to use his mannequins in a photography exhibition she’s preparing, the two connect in an awkward but not implausible way. However, as their relationship develops, it becomes harder and harder for Frank to control his destructive impulses.
Utilising mirrors, windows and other reflective surfaces, Khalfoun creates a glossy but emotive visual language: while the horror of Frank’s barbaric acts is never underplayed, his character comes across as a tragic figure rather than as the one-dimensional psychopath that is the stereotype of the genre. Cleverly using the soundtrack to intensify the city and Frank’s experience, Khalfoun grabs the audience when they least expect it: added into the mix are the rare appearances of Elijah Wood’s face, his eyes exhibiting a dead, hollow quality that makes his acts even more disturbing. His voice-over, delivered in a child-like whisper, speaks volumes about a man whose life has been lost for a long time: reminiscent of the protagonist Paul in Tony Vorno’s forgotten grindhouse gem Victims, Frank is equal parts abhorrent murderer and unexpected victim.
It’s hard to think of another piece of filmmaking that will manage to pack the same visual invention and emotional punch into a measly 89 minutes. Do not miss.
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