Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams
There is a scene in The Master when Lancaster Dodd and Freddy Quell, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix respectively, go into the desert. Actually there are two scenes. In one scene they go into the desert alone. The desert is Lancaster’s setting, a nice counterpoint to the life aquatic of his introduction, and a further stage on which he can play the magus, the leader, the prophet. But he’s a prophet who doesn’t seek solitude, rather he brings his portable audience in Freddy. Instructing his disciple to dig, they unearth – buried like treasure – his new book. The bonkers make-believe bullshit that would make a grown man go off into the desert and bury a book so that he could later impress someone with the weirdness of digging it up is perfectly of a piece with his character and is almost endearing in its madness. But this is no hysterical, bug-eyed Elmer Gantry. Rather Dodd is a poised poseur, a showman who’s writing his own script as he goes along and who hasn’t quite got to the blissful comfort of being [convinced by his own flannel] is this right?. It has brought him prosperity and adulation, but not comfort. Lancaster is liable to lose his patience and delights in the possibilities of more violent and direct forms of crushing opposition. His occasional bursts of temper reveal the silly animal he claims Freddie to be; reveals something pent up that longs for a freedom beyond his success.
Lancaster’s link to Freddie is not altogether obvious and mystifies him as much as it does his entourage, who see Freddie as the loose cannon he so obviously is (quite literally given his past life as a sailor). In fact, Freddie is the lost cause that proves the antithesis of Dodd’s nascent cult, The Cause: an itinerant wanderer who longs to be elsewhere wherever he is. On their second trip to the desert, they are accompanied by Lancaster’s daughter and his son-in-law and they have a motorcycle. Lancaster directs the action: they are to pick a spot on the horizon and go as fast as they can towards it. Is this a game, or a lesson, or a healing therapeutic becoming? Lancaster goes first and then it’s Freddie’s turn. And he just takes off. He just rides and rides and leaves Lancaster shouting hopelessly after him.
Freedom for Lancaster is something to strive to touch, to visit, but his success and his followers, and his wife (quite literally) tug him back. Freddie is gifted with that freedom, and cursed by it. When he physically attacks one of his customers in the department store where he works (briefly) as a photographer, his motivation isn’t envy or pique. He does it simply because he wants to. Likewise, he follows Lancaster when he wants to, and takes off when he feels like it. Running through a field of lettuce in Salinas, he runs with a panting desperation of pure escape – there’s no strategy, no evasive manoeuvres. He runs as fast as he can.
Freedom and the lack of it are a recurrent theme throughout Paul Thomas Anderson’s work. Magnolia tells the stories of a bunch of Los Angelinos who are trapped by the various vagaries of a fate hell-bent on turning lives into sick barroom and/or mortuary jokes. In the prologue, a wheezy narrator (magician and Anderson stalwart Ricky Jay) recounts a series of stories, the overwhelming thesis of which seems to be that we live in a universe in which fate has a sick sense of humour. The suicide who is shot as he passes the window of his fighting parents by a gun held by his mother, which he loaded himself, is only an extreme example of what the whole film seems set on doing. Even jumping off a building won’t guarantee you the ending you had in mind. The suicide is caught in a net that would have saved him ‘had it not been for the hole in his stomach’.
Narrative isn’t what these people do, it is what is done to these people.
A dying film producer, Earl Partridge, played by Jason Robards, is painfully aware that even at this, what should be the most authentic moment of his life, he is becoming a cliché from one of his own productions. His nurse Phil (again Philip Seymour Hoffman) will argue with someone on a phone and finally convince them that the father-son sickbed reunion can take place by telling them ‘this is that scene in the movie’. But against the stifling traps of parental negligence, disappointed love, loneliness, childhood trauma, terminal illness and seen-it-all-before melodramatic cliché can be played the dynamism of the film itself with its musical interludes, fast editing, swift camerawork and exuberance. This is perhaps the most exhilarating film about alienation and lack of freedom ever made. When the amphibian storm arrives and frogs rain from the sky, the sense of wonder and comic awe feels like a reset button, allowing audiences and characters to achieve a resolution that otherwise would feel forced. With so many unlikely things happening, a happy ending for any these terrible situations doesn’t seem like such a reach. Improbability is a necessary condition for happiness.
The film that immediately preceded The Master and which elevated Anderson’s reputation beyond the initial Tarantinoesque wunderkind with an Altman fixation was itself an essay on a perverse striving for freedom. In There Will Be Blood, Daniel Plainview’s idea of freedom has within it the readily discernible image of his failure. His American individualism, his boldly stated misanthropy and his wish to get away from other people are contradicted by moments of tenderness with his adopted son, camaraderie with his colleagues and bouts of otherwise inexplicable anger. Plainview, like Lancaster Dodd, can’t quite fully buy into his own worldview. He wants to cast himself as God’s lonely man, but his vicious disappointment at not having a brother and not having a son belie this self-portrayal. His self-realisation can only come around through murderous self-destruction. ‘I’m done,’ he states at the conclusion of the film.
There Will Be Blood is a title that drives the film with the same obstinate inevitability as the main character digs at the earth for his fortune. Post 9/11, there was a canny little phrase heard a lot around town: ‘Freedom is not free’. It is a paradox the characters of Anderson’s films would savour.
The London International Animation Festival (LIAF) returns next week with its ninth edition of eclectic programming, spanning 30 countries and three London venues. This year sees a special focus on Japanese animation with a retrospective of filmmaker Koji Yamamura and special screening of Keita Kurosaka’s Tokyo-set feature, Midori-Ko, which presents an apocalyptic, dystopian city ravaged by food shortages. There will also be a series of shorts programmes that aim to showcase the diversity of recent works produced in the country. Several of the selected works provide poignant reflections on the effects of the 2011 tsunami: Florian Piento’s The People Who Never Stop shows human resilience through the persistent flow of pedestrians, who remain unfazed by earthquake tremors or engulfing sea water but finally stop in contemplation, looking skywards as cherry blossom petals fall; while Isamu Hirabayashi’s award-winning 663114 reveals the endurance of life through the tale of a 66-year-old cicada.
As usual, specific filmmaking techniques are also celebrated at LIAF with a flipbook challenge workshop and a special programme of live action/animation hybrid films. The use of live action also crops up in several films screening in this year’s international competition screenings. In Joseph Pierce’s The Pub , hand-drawn faces replace actors’ features to create a drinking cast of grotesque animals down a North London boozer: the local ex-gangster morphs into a chest-thumping gorilla and a raucous hen party become a group of clucking chickens. In Anja Struck’s How to Raise the Moon, actress Tora Balslev acts the part of a sleeping pianist enveloped in a surreal dream world of time-lapse camerawork and stop-motion puppets. Struck’s unique, otherworldly animation will be playing as part of a special strand – Into the Dark – devoted to the creepiest, darkest shorts submitted to the festival; a screening that promises to provide a nice complement to the festival’s much-loved Late Night Bizarre.
As well as welcoming back other popular annual fixtures such as the British Showcase, LIAF will be screening some new works from previous festival attendees. Theodore Ushev, who was the focus of a special event last year, returns with a beautiful, impressionistic short, Nightingales in December. Building on techniques displayed in Lipsett Diaries (2010), Ushev has created a stunning work of claustrophobic, pulsating paintings – with hints of Francis Bacon and World War I landscape painters – that fade into pixels with the crack and fizzle of an old television set straining to keep signal. Excitingly, there will also be an opportunity to see It’s Such a Beautiful Day, the final part of a much anticipated trilogy by Don Hertzfeldt, whom LIAF brought to London in 2009, and Max Hattler’s Spin, which was produced by Parisian animation studio Autour de minuit, who received a special LIAF retrospective in 2010. Spin begins as a simple kaleidoscope of toy soldiers spiralling through vaudeville zoetropes and Busby Berkeley formations into increasingly intricate and farcical set routines that powerfully and inventively portray the de-humanisation and mass murder involved in modern conflict.
These shorts – wide-ranging in their subject matters and techniques – are just some of the treats in store at LIAF. Other highlights will include a screening of unseen pilots by Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo (who created the first three series of The Simpsons) and the opening night screening of For No Good Reason , a feature film that explores the work of British artist Ralph Steadman through vibrant animated sequences. The organisers of LIAF always provide one of the most energetic and imaginative programmes in the capital and this year promises to be no exception.
Mark Stafford, Sarah Cronin and Virginie Sélavy review the most notable Japanese and Korean films that screened at this year’s London Film Festival.
Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time
Opening in Busan in 1982, Yoon Jong-bin’s Nameless Gangster is a vastly enjoyable sprawling mob saga that clearly references Coppola and Scorsese in its story of the rise and fall of a would-be godfather, but adds a caustic sense of humour and ironic distance. Introducing the story with the definition of ‘daebu’, it plays on the various meanings of the term, including ‘elder relative’ and ‘crime boss’. Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) gives another fantastic performance as corrupt customs official Choi Ik-hyun, who comes into contact with local gangster Choi Hyung-bae when he is sacked from his job. Hyung-bae turns out to be related to him and Ik-hyun takes advantage of his status as his elder relative to get involved at the top of his gang.
Ik-hyun is a fascinating multi-faceted character: a comical figure who is often ridiculed, a ‘half-gangster’ – as he is called by the brilliantly ruthless prosecutor Jo – who can never really cut it as a crime boss, he is also impressively cunning and resourceful, and despite his shameless lack of scruples and despicable conduct, he has a sympathetic and very human side in his love for his family. One of the big joys of the film is his relationship to the younger, more attractive, scarier, real gangster Hyung-bae (played by rising star Ha Jung-woo), who exudes the sort of power and authority that will always elude Ik-hyun. And yet, despite his menacing aura, Hyung-bae is a man of principle who, unlike Ik-hyun, abides by gangster codes and even traditional social rules (in his respect for Ik-hyun as his elder relative for instance), which puts him at a disadvantage when dealing with his less honourable enemies. This reversal of the usual dynamic between young and old is another of the pleasures of this exhilarating, humorous, smart gangster saga. VS
The second outstanding Korean offering of this year’s festival was adapted from a novel by Miyabe Miyuki and directed by female filmmaker Byun Young-joo. Helpless is a captivating, intelligent thriller on the nature of love and identity that takes a hard look at what happens when a victimised character is forced to devise extreme strategies to survive. It starts like The Vanishing: young veterinarian Mun-ho is taking his bride-to-be Seon-yeong to meet his parents when she disappears at a service station. When he finds her apartment has been emptied in a hurry and the police are useless, he asks a relative who is a disgraced former cop to help him find her. As they investigate, her identity becomes more and more mysterious, and they must make sense of her possible connections to large debts, loan sharks and even suspected murder. The many revelations thrown up by their investigation repeatedly throw into question our assumptions about Seon-yeong and build a finely nuanced and affecting portrait of a complex woman. A convincing, tense, insightful thriller in which there is more than one victim, with a deep sympathy and understanding for the kind of dynamic that leads seemingly helpless characters to commit terrible acts in order to defend themselves when no one else will. VS
An apocalyptic triptych from Korea, written and directed by Kim Jee-woon and Yim Pil-Sung, the creators of The Good, the Bad and the Weird, and Hansel and Gretel. Part one is an eco-horror of waste and consumption where dodgy food production causes a kind of zombie outbreak. Part three is the tale of a family attempting to survive an impending meteor strike. Both share a wild, freewheeling sense of humour and are dizzy, bizarre satirical fun, especially the pot shots aimed at idiotic TV news coverage.
The side is let down a little by the middle section, where problems arise for a corporation when one of their robots assigned to a Buddhist temple achieves enlightenment. The tale is over-familiar from decades of SF, the robot is a poor cousin to Chris Cunningham’s Björk-bot in the ‘All Is Full Of Love’ promo and a ponderous tone takes over. It’s not bad, just a bit dull, and overall, considering the talents involved, Doomsday Book comes as a bit of a disappointment. Definitely has its moments though. MS
For Love’s Sake
Takashi Miike returns with the adaptation of a manga by Ikki Kajiwara and Takumi Nagayasu – filmed many times before – about a rich young girl’s impossible love for a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. The original title Ai to makoto means ‘Love and Sincerity’, which is also the name of the two main characters. Ai is a sweet young girl from a well-to-do family, who was rescued by Makoto while skiing as a child. When Makoto returns to Tokyo for revenge and immediately gets into a fight, Ai does all she can to save him from his delinquent life. An insanely colourful, at times kitsch teen melodrama, it mixes the badass attitude and energy of Crows Zero with the demented chirpiness of The Happiness of the Katakuris. It may not be Miike at his most ground-breaking or daring, but it is wildly entertaining. The director once more demonstrates his boundless inventiveness and impressive visual sense with a variety of animated sequences and (cheesy) musical numbers, as well as great decors, gorgeous colours and brilliantly choreographed fights, all pulsating with his customary high-voltage energy. VS
I was a big fan of Mika Ninagawa’s 2008 Sakuran, a fun, gorgeous-looking film with a fantastic female lead. Unfortunately, her second film, Helter Skelter, is a major disappointment. Ninigawa began her career as a fashion photographer, and returns to that world with a story, based on Kyoko Okazaki’s manga, about the unravelling of a top model’s career. While there are some likeable elements in this satire of the fashion industry, the film is let down by its total lack of narrative structure and an irritating subplot, while the riot of colour that made Sakuran so refreshing seems like nothing more than eye candy in Helter Skelter, helping to gloss over the film’s weaknesses.
Erika Sawajiri stars as Lilico, Japan’s hottest model and teen idol. She’s bitchy, tyrannical and stunning – but also a fake. Her looks have been created at an expensive clinic, paid for by her agent, who is still extracting a heavy price for turning her into a commodity. When Lilico is pushed aside by a younger model, her anger and frustrations are taken out on her unfortunate assistant, who’s forced to endure endless humiliations. In the meantime, a team of police, led by an obnoxious, irritating character who spouts trite philosophical soundbites, is investigating the clinic for illegally using human tissue in its patients (a sorely underdeveloped idea – although strange bruises do begin to appear underneath Lilico’s skin.) But rather than use this investigation to add an element of noir to the film, the scenes with the police are mostly shot in a very bland office, with them doing very little. They add nothing to the already fractured narrative, while the dialogue is simply excruciating.
Despite some good moments – Ninigawa does an excellent job capturing the absurdity of the industry, and the public’s obsession with beauty at all costs – the director’s inimitable style can’t make up for the unlikeable characters, needlessly frenetic pacing, and worst of all, the weak script. SC
The Samurai That Night
Adapted by Masaaki Akahori from his own play, The Samurai That Night is the story of a meek factory owner, Nakamura, who is still grieving after the death of his wife and is looking for revenge against the thug who killed her in a road accident five years earlier. The title ironically refers to Nakamura’s vengeance fantasy, which is comically and pitifully deflated in the realistically depicted modern world of the film. The film is indeed anything but an action film: it takes the classical opposition between the wronged good man looking for payback and the unredeemable evil brute but films it as a slow-paced, introspective character study. When – in another nod to the samurai film – the final big showdown in the rain comes, there is no resolution, or even progression, and both characters remain the same.
This could have been interesting, were it not for the excessively simplistic characterisation, the unbearably ponderous tone and the affected, sometimes sentimental quirkiness (the main character obsessively eats custard desserts; while on a date he takes his late wife’s bra out of the pocket of his trousers; when he plays ball with his overly sweet date, just as he used to with his wife, she delivers an exasperating ode to simple things – I could go on). This is a film that is not as deep as it thinks it is and its self-important slowness just makes it tiresomely dull. VS
Based on the novel Jakob von Gunten by:Robert Walser
Cast: Mark Rylance, Alice Krige, Gottfried John
Colonial Report on Cinema from the Dominion of Canada
Zeitgeist Films Brings Robert Walser via the Brothers Quay to North America
Greg Klymkiw Chats with the Twins
There was a time in the Dominion of Canada, on the hallowed shores of Lake Winnipeg, when a group of virile young men, the Drones, assembled at Loni Beach in the village of Gimli to pay homage to the Holy Fjallkona of Islendingadagurrin. After many days of serving the needs of their respective mothers, they looked longingly at the ‘Woman of the Mountains’, who for one of their kind, the mightily domed Magma Head, represented the dream of Icelandic nationhood. For the others, being Mieuxberry, The Love Doctor, The Claw, Squid and Little Julie, the Fjallkona was the Mother of All.
She stood high atop the Fjallkonan Float as it cascaded down the streets – past the Viking Motor Hotel, Red’s Billiards and Tergesen’s General Store. She stood proudly and waved. The Drones were, however, conflicted twixt deep respect for that which was pure and a foul stirring of the loins as they gazed lovingly upon the decades of hardship etched upon her visage, her upper torso hunched over in servitude to the menfolk of her nation and her digits wracked and twisted with arthritic glories that could only represent her ultimate service to man and country.
At day’s end, their bellies filled with Hardfiskur, Skyr and Vinatarta, the Drones retired deep into the bowels of Loni Beach Forest and entered Mieuxberry’s palatial Canadian Pacific Railway boxcar. Mieuxberry took his rightful place in a top bunk with Squid for ’twas only Squid who was amenable to the late night involuntary eruptions of dearest Mieuxberry’s Hagfish – followed often by nocturnal meanderings whilst deep in the Land of Nod.
Though The Love Doctor preferred snuggling against the shapely baby-fat buttocks of Squid, he made do with Little Julie’s belly, which was soft as a down-filled pillow that might indeed have been stuffed by the Fjallkona herself.
The Claw required a place to rest his head that was unfettered by the immediate presence of any others of the manly persuasion. The Claw was, in the words of He who specialised in especially odious diseases of the mind, ‘in denial’. (In fairness to The Claw, however, none of the Drones were likely to admit to the afflictions of urnigism as defined by Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing in his great work Psychopathia Sexualis.) [Editor’s Note: Greg, are you sure ‘urnigism’ is the right term? I can’t find it anywhere. Greg’s Response to Editor: HAHAHAHAHAHAHA – It is indeed the proper term and is buried deep in Krafft-Ebing and appears in an Archangel voice-over – a joke which is meant to make about 10 people in the world laugh: ‘Head size – normal. No evidence of urnigism in family.’]
Magma Head entered the boxcar and as he did every evening, proceeded to silently and gently tuck all the Drones in. He then took his place upon the tree stump in the centre of the boxcar, moved the oil lamp closer to his proximity and removed a slender volume from his pocket. The twinkle in his eye and an ever so slight pursing of the lips was enough to instil curiosity amongst the Drones as to what manner of tale would be read aloud to complete a most perfect day.
‘Will it be the Huysmans?’ The Love Doctor ejaculated.
‘Bruno Schulz would do me very nicely,’ cooed Little Julie.
‘You know what I want,’ growled The Claw, ‘And I know you will not bestow it upon me, so I shall not profane Him by even uttering His name.’
‘Oh thtuff it, Claw!’ Mieuxberry volleyed with the pronounced lisp that consumed his palate whenever Claw haughtily implied that he’d never hear Ruskin’s Ethics of the Dust, his bedtime words of choice. ‘We’ve had to hear that damned Ruthkin tho’ many timeth becauthe of you, I fear we might all become little crythtalths, for Chrith’th thake!’
‘I’m good with whatever,’ Squid opined cheerfully.
‘Will it be the Huysmans?’ The Love Doctor ejaculated once again.
‘Thtuff it, L.D. You’re getting to be ath bad ath Claw. We had the bloody Huythmanth all fucking week becauthe of you.’
‘I’d settle for some Bataille,’ The Love Doctor offered meekly.
Magma Head chuckled and shook his elephantine skull to and fro.
‘Tonight,’ he said, ‘I have something very new, very special and very appropriate for you lads – especially in light of the magnificence of this year’s Fjallkona. So rest thine weary heads fellows, put aside thine petty squabbles and allow me to purvey the greatest words I have yet to lay my eyes upon.’
‘Greater than Hamsun?’ Little Julie queried.
‘Greater than all,’ beamed Magma Head and in dulcet tones, he did read:
‘One learns very little here, there is a shortage of teachers, and none of us boys of the Benjamenta Institute will come to anything, that is to say, we shall all be something very small and subordinate later in life . . .’
The Drones’ rapt attention clearly suggested that Magma Head’s reading that evening would be no mere precursor to slumber. The eyes, the hearts, the minds of all the young men were fixated upon the tale of Jakob von Gunten and the profound recognition they all did feel in the prose of Robert Walser. They would be wide-eyed and silent until the dawn would break over the hallowed waters of Lake Winnipeg and spill into the boxcar, whereupon Magma Head would gently turn the oil lamp down and continue to read as the golden tresses of God’s warm light of morning caressed the remaining pages.
And their lives, such as they were, would be changed forever.
In 1995, the Quay Brothers unleashed their stunning feature-length adaptation of Robert Walser’s novel Jakob von Gunten and I experienced an identical sense of eye-opening to my first helping of their film as I did when I first heard, or rather, read the novel for the first time. Granted, the book and the film are two works that exist separately from each other in completely different mediums and as such, are of lasting value insofar as I believe it is possible for anybody to experience one without the other.
Ah, but what joy to know Walser when diving headlong into the Quays’ magnificent motion picture. Then again, what joy it is to know the Quays’ movie, then dive with the same headlong abandon into Walser.
The tale, in both book and film, is much the same. One Jakob von Gunten (Mark Rylance) enters into the study of servitude at the Benjamenta Institute, a school devoted to turning out the very best butlers and servants to ply their trade throughout Europe.
Alas, the Institute has seen better days – at least it surely must have – for when Jakob flings himself into its womb of servile academe, he is perplexed by its dank decrepitude, slightly surprised over the money-grubbiness of its principal (Gottfried John) and completely, utterly and wholeheartedly enamoured with the chief lecturer Lisa Benjamenta (Alice Krige).
Endless days and weeks are spent in rigorous exercises devoted to subservience. Jakob occasionally attempts to subvert this, just to mix things up a bit, but as he is drawn deeper into the spell of Lisa, her brother, the Principal, draws himself ever closer to Jakob.
Death, it seems, is just around the corner, for the Institute and its spirit – personified in one who clings to rendering all to a supine position of grovelling. Life in the Institute, such as it is, is not unlike a dream.
Like all dreams, however, it must fade.
Some will fade with it.
Others will move on.
I first saw Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life at the Locarno Film Festival in the summer of 1995. The experience was one I shall never forget. So emotional was my response to the film that I finally gave way to a physical need to respond to the beauty and brilliance of what the Twins had wrought from Walser. At a certain point, my elation caused me to emit tears of joy over their supreme artistry, which astonishingly converged with tears wrought from the profoundly moving sequence towards the film’s end when the character of Lisa Benjamenta, surrounded by the mournful humming of her pupils, fights to stave off the inevitable whilst betraying the deep knowledge that resistance is indeed futile.
This is something that has seldom happened to me while watching a movie – an almost spiritual experience of being deeply moved by the filmmaking and its sheer genius just at that salient point when the film’s narrative and themes are equally moving. It was at that point I was quite convinced I was watching a film destined for masterpiece status.
Add to this the fact that visually, Institute Benjamenta is a feast of epic proportions, with both production design and cinematography that have seldom been rivalled (in the years following its release) in terms of originality and dazzlingly sumptuous beauty. Add yet another element of perfection: a screenplay that captures the spirit and key building stones of Walser’s book with grace, humour and emotion. Add to this a perfect cast, a spirit of cinematic invention and last, but not least, a musical score of such power that it haunts the world of the film as equally as it haunts the viewer.
It has been 17 years since I first saw the film. In that time, I have seen it more times than I have counted. My most recent helping was a new re-mastering of the film by the British Film Institute and imported into an exquisite new DVD from the now-legendary Zeitgeist Films of New York for consumption here in the colonies.
The film is just as great and gets richer with every viewing. If that’s not a masterpiece, I don’t know what it.
I had not laid eyes upon the Twins since 1995. My last memory of them was sitting in some reception hall within the British Film Institute during the London International Film Festival and trying to determine on a map where my Ukrainian ancestry originated to see where it lay in relation to that of Bruno Schulz. At the time, my knowledge of my roots was murkier than it is now and I’m pleased to say that Schulz did indeed come from an Oblast next to mine and that he did indeed reside in the same Oblast for a good portion of his life and career.
Seventeen years, however, is a long time to not converse with artists whose work has infused me with such joy, so in honour of the North American release of Institute Benjamenta via the Zeitgeist Films label as well as two major programmes at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) – one being a film retrospective entitled Lip-Reading Puppets: The Curators’ Prescription for Deciphering the Quay Brothers and the other being a historic exhibit entitled Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets – please find below my conversation with the Quay Brothers on Institute Benjamenta.
Greg Klymkiw: I’m thrilled Institute Benjamenta is now available for home consumption via Zeitgeist Films in North America. I trust you were involved intimately in the process?
Brothers Quay: It was made from a 35mm fine grain and a low-contrast 35mm print both held by Channel Four and cinematographer Nic Knowland, and the two of us supervised the transfer.
I usually avoid watching such extra home entertainment items as ‘On the Set’ segments, as I find they can have the potential to remove any future magic I will derive from the film itself. That said, I trust you both approved its inclusion.
To be honest, the ‘On the Set’ segment is very small, is actually quite all right, and will help considerably in its own modest and informative way as to the location we found and how we worked with it.
Upon watching the segment, I found it moving to witness such commitment, joy and good humour from all the participants in your production, which is so important when one is creating magic. Though this phrase has sadly become a clichéd line from too many who create anything but magic, I still steadfastly hold to the belief that movies ARE magic. I think, though, for that magic to live and breathe on screen it must work its way through every crevice of the picture’s soul, ever forging new waterways and swirling kaleidoscopic tributaries. This is what I see on your set. On a strictly personal level, the ‘On the Set’ segment brought me back so vividly to the production of Archangel where my dearest Mr Maddin and I never once felt the set was anything BUT a secret playground. Am I wrong in assuming you, like Disney’s dwarves, are ‘whistling while you work?’ Is it important to have fun? Are there aspects of moviemaking that bring you back to the joys of childhood? The make-believe? The play? Even to the extent that ‘work’ IS play?
I think we were much too nervous to whistle – literally – but we did have the confidence and the utter loyalty of our hand-picked team. We finished on schedule and under budget and I think we surprisingly proved that our strain of American Protestantism was augmented by Shakerism and Amishism. In the end, yes, everyone was at full ‘play’.
Prior to writing Jakob von Gunten, Walser studied to be a servant and did indeed briefly hold such a position. When not writing, he held several jobs that one might consider to be representative of complete and total servitude. In your film, one of the most indelible sequences for me is when Jakob begs/demands for a decent place to ‘rest his head’. At least initially, this is something that clearly sets him apart from his fellow students in the servant academy (as I suspect Walser himself must have felt like when he himself toiled in similar inconsequential positions of employ).
No one wrote more beautifully about the notion of ‘freedom’, and the un-freedoms within freedom, than Walser. In real life he was a great interloper, a loner, extremely restless, a permanent wanderer and he knew hard and difficult penury but these odd jobs that he so frequently took up were there to protect and keep his writing independent. In Jakob von Gunten, he is both proud and a little defiant, but in order to explore those ‘grey nether regions’ of zero-dom he simply needed a decent place to rest his head and no doubt a table to write on. There was also an enormous element of play-acting, mischievousness, in his role as the servant, but there were lessons he learned and admired and submitted to at the Institute Benjamenta: the renunciations, the strictures.
YES!!! I do so love that notion of ‘play-acting’ in both life and movies. At times, the actors playing the Benjamenta students are infused with a quality of gentle pantomime, certainly not unlike the magical qualities of silent cinema, where performance was rendered stylistically and with a theatrical sense of projection. Granted, so much in those early days of movies came from such theatrical sources as vaudeville, melodrama, and yes, traditional British pantomime. It brought an added magical quality to the medium that, to a certain extent, is lacking in the post-silent era. (There was and is magic, of course, just rendered differently.) However, I am very interested in how so much of Benjamenta is relayed visually – I can even imagine a movie that includes music and soundscape, but where the ‘text’ is conveyed via intertitles. I find your film is so delicately, exquisitely balanced in this regard that while every element of the storytelling is infused with ‘style’ it does not draw attention to itself – you set the ‘parameters’ of Walser’s world in cinematic terms and we go with the flow. To what extent are you consciously invoking elements of ‘archaic’ storytelling and making it your own in order to serve Walser’s vision?
We promised ourselves that everything that we learned in animation wouldn’t be jettisoned just because we moved into our first live-action feature and that the dialogues were NOT going to over-dominate; that Walser’s voice would be heard but only when necessary; and that like in our animation films image/music/sound would dominate first and foremost.
The very exigencies of your production ‘parameters’ (as witnessed in the ‘On the Set’ featurette) seem to allow an even greater penetration into the realm of magic (as cinema and vice-versa). Did making the film in this fashion provide greater freedoms?
No, our first intuitions were correct when we wrote the script. We always told Alain, our co-scriptwriter, that we first had to imagine the setting first, the décor, the light, the music and sound, and only then could we safely permit one single line of dialogue to transpire. AND a lot of them were voice-overs, which allowed even more independence for the image. As you know perfectly well, to do animation is long and patient work, so you think twice and ten times when you have to do a retake. It was so joyous to ask an actor to redo a take and to see how much you could reshape a performance or have them propose something more daring. In that sense we might provoke something and then be there to ‘capture’ that moment. So we were very happy ‘trappers’. We always said that we treated our actors with as much respect as our puppets – which is clearly NOT the same thing as treating your actors as if they were only puppets.
In terms of the flow of both the film and its narrative, there is a clear emphasis on this sequence. To what extent was it of import to establish Jakob’s ‘difference’ at this juncture in the proceedings?
Yes, it was very important that early on there be this sudden unexpected moment of Jakob’s revolt. It’s the moment where he’s trying to swallow the gruel for dinner that he begins to gag and violently shoves the plate away, and then there’s a hard cut to him falling onto the floor and grabbing Lisa’s ankles and begging her desperately for his own room. But after that it all takes care of itself and we don’t make a feast of it.
In terms of crafting a final shooting script, did the process of creating this sequence affect the content that precedes and follows this sequence?
No, it was always there in the script, as it was in the novella, but it allowed for his singular subjective voice-overs to really begin to flow and to comment on the hermetic cosmos of the moribund Institute Benjamenta, the mysterious brother and sister, his fellow students, particularly Kraus, who was all important for Jakob – and for us – in terms of creating the ‘Benjamentian’ perfect zero.
Do you recall the nature of your conversations with Mark Rylance, Alice Krige and Gottfried John regarding this sequence?
No, we don’t, but for sure Lisa has already divined in Jakob the ‘Prince-ling’ who will hopefully come to awaken her from her deep human sleep with a kiss, so she’s already highly pre-disposed towards him as this mysterious interloper who’s just arrived at the Institute. It’s as though at the beginning of the film when she’s bathed in sweat and dream, she’s invoked his arrival. And of course she’s Sleeping Beauty. So there was the whole fairy tale element, which was so important in Walser’s writing, which we overlaid in the film: that Gottfried was the Ogre, the students were the seven dwarfs, etc etc. To this we added the entire fairy tale animal kingdom of deer, and that it was all set in a former perfume factory – musk coming from the deer – that the Institute Benjamenta had moved into and that it had inherited the defunct Deer Museum on the top floor.
As human beings, as artists, was there (or were there) a moment (or moments) when you found yourselves demanding or requesting or proclaiming that you needed something that would allow you to serve either your muse, the art of cinema, or for that matter, anything/anyone else?
No, not in Walser’s demonstrative fashion. But we’re all prepared to!
The Institute’s motto declares: ‘Rules have already thought of everything.’ To what extent, either historically or in contemporary terms, is there truth to this in how the world of man conducts itself?
It’s one of many placards seen on the walls of the Institute but this one so powerfully evokes an implacable dead-end-ness and that it is useless to revolt. So submit!
While I’m sure there are virtues to be found in dominance, it rather seems like an awful lot of work. Submission involves pure innocence (some might say ‘ignorance’) and the exertions of following, of OBEYING, allowing one to drain the exertions of thought and to concentrate on the matter at hand. In this sense, perhaps there’s more potential for a few ‘followers’ (like Jakob) to reverse the power positions as reaction to orders can hypnotize, but just as easily open one’s mind, or at least, open the powers of instinct.
Submission for us – and for a Jakob especially – would not be tolerable if there wasn’t space to breathe with a sense of subversion even if it tests one’s limits, and then the exertion might be so demanding as to make one break down from the negation.
What are the dangers or virtues in this as you see it?
But of course the Institute Benjamenta could easily serve as a wider metaphor, not ONLY as an anti-authoritarian tract but also as a kind of potential spiritual terrain that shapes Jakob’s interior life, and that in all the Institute’s strictures and submissions an immense inner freedom could be located.
Are Jakob’s submissive qualities those that allow him to move more gracefully from reactive to active?
Walser and Jakob pre-exist in that open state already. They merely have to test the boundaries.
German sociologist Max Weber describes a bureaucrat as someone who faithfully, almost blindly, exercises delegated duties in strict accordance with rules that are completely impersonal. This, of course, seems to describe the servants-to-be in the Institute and their ultimate ‘fate’ upon graduation. So, that said, I feel that the universality of Walser’s work and your film is a key element in their place in the world as art – as a reflection and perhaps even a commentary upon mankind.
Only indirectly in so much as we were fascinated, as was Walser, by how one might navigate such a closed and seemingly hopeless and negated realm; that the suppression of freedom makes it possible to experience freedom. We felt we knew and understood that realm quite intuitively.
Beyond Walser’s indelible style, are the aforementioned thematic elements things that have drawn you to him? Were they key elements that infused you with desire to make the film? And if so, to what extent did they drive the film’s story and style?
We chose this novella by Walser because it was like an intimate chamber work and as it was our very first venture into feature films and working with live actors, we wanted to be cautious and not take on something too grand and beyond our scope. We read our first article on Walser written by his translator Christopher Middleton and it was called ’The Picture of Nobody’. Naturally, that appealed instantly to us and we slowly started to devour all his writings – what was available at the time. But whilst first reading Jakob von Gunten we realised at once at just how cinematic it could be. And we also felt very close to the ‘diary’ form so we embarked on writing the script without really knowing if it would ever get financed. We wrote the script with Alain Passes, a writer friend, but we also wrote it visually with great detail, always including the quality of light and the décor.
When writing with such attention to visual detail, to what extent do you think you consciously (or even unconsciously) tie these details into the ‘actions’ of the characters?
We must have had some intuitions how an actor might handle that scene but that was for us the only ‘unknown’ quantum in the equation we were trying to create, but whatever the actor created, it was all bonus because everything else we could pretty much control.
The use of black and white, aside from its inherent aesthetic beauty, seems to enhance a sense of a world where blind servitude is the most logical pre-requisite to unquestioningly follow impersonal rules. At the same time, the medium itself (as I believe, life itself) is replete with ‘colour’ in so far as there are literal shades of white, black AND grey. Why did you see the movie in black and white? Did any of the above have an influence and/or were there other reasons? (Perhaps even practical ones?)
From the very beginning we intuitively knew that the film had to be in black and white, that all the inner rhymes would be found in the classroom blackboard and chalk, in the ethereal dimension that only black and white can give and we asked our cinematographer, Nic Knowland, to exploit the full range of the most intense whites, to the richest of blacks and the most beautiful and mysterious of greys, to shoot with wide open f-stops, and that light was one of the main protagonists and that Lisa knew precisely the hours where and when the sun would journey through the Institute and her rooms.
The idea of light as a protagonist is such an inspiring one. Would you say that the importance of light to the medium of all visual arts – particularly cinema, where the images, the story, the world of the film must be conveyed THROUGH light (whether it be a movie projector or HD monitor) – is something you as filmmakers are keenly, if not always, aware of? It’s been said great filmmakers (and specifically cinematographers) often paint WITH light. How in this context does it inform your work, and specifically, the world of Institute Benjamenta?
Well, since with animation you have to learn ALL the metiers: to build the décors, the puppets, to give them their ‘climates’ and ‘stimmung’ through light, to know the camera and what lenses could give you, to animate the puppets, to learn how to edit, how to do sound – and we’ve always ALWAYS had music first before the film even began. So when we asked Nic Knowland to come on board to be our cinematographer we had a lot of experience about how to light – although very amateurish by comparison. And the element of ‘choreography’ in its widest sense appealed to us not only in terms of literal movement, but because the ballet doesn’t use dialogue but for the most part music only and it tells its stories via gesture and music and décor.
I cannot imagine anyone other than Alice Krige as Lisa Benjamenta. What was the process behind casting her?
Initially we had Charlotte Rampling on board – she was a name and we thought it was a coup to have gotten her for the production. But at the last minute Channel Four refused to insure her because she’d walked off a previous film set. Our lovely casting agent had been pushing Alice all along and suddenly we had to pitch the project to her and she wasn’t initially terribly convinced by the script, saying she didn’t know what she could bring to it. So in a panic, we sent her a snowdrift of faxes explaining what we were after and she said yes and jumped on a plane and arrived on the weekend. The filming started on a Monday for six weeks in an old country house near Hampton Ct on the edge of Richmond Park where deer grazed next to the house.
I am in serious love with her performance. It’s impossible to take one’s eyes off her. In that sense, was this notion of her magnetic qualities ever a consideration in shots that involved her? Did her natural qualities ever force you to block and/or shoot anything to maintain the perspective(s) necessary to the individual dramatic/thematic/artistic beats of the work?
It was the great unknown blessing to have gotten Alice to play Lisa and she was a dream to work and collaborate with, as were of course Mark and the wonderful Gottfried John. She would keep asking for further takes and you could see she was searching and taking her character deeper and deeper. She kept a flow chart in her hotel room and as we shot the film out of sequence she would always consult us to where emotionally she had to be on such and such a scene.
What was Ms Krige’s understanding and appreciation of Walser, the work itself and her character?
It wasn’t necessary for her to have read beyond the script as we talked to her about Walser and Lisa, his real sister, and all that might help her but she also really responded to the décors and the space we created for her, the climates, the quality of light. And she loved working in black and white. Even after the official shooting ended she came freely to our studio to shoot some extra close-ups that we had devised.
In recent days, I’ve imagined some Ruskin-like Ethics of the Dust transcript involving Ms Krige presiding over a ‘tutorial’ involving yourselves and the other cast members.
No, alas nothing like this.
Well, one can only dream, then.
Of course, Alice was never more beautiful than when she was dead.
From the first time I saw Institute Benjamenta and through almost every time I have seen it, I’m reminded of how beautiful death can be on film. The actor, of course, is infused with the quality of life and no matter how great they can be as actors, this natural quality is especially useful in making characters in death look ‘never more beautiful’. The shots of Ms Krige in death are right up there in my personal pantheon of gorgeous screen corpses, ESPECIALLY in Carl Dreyer’s Ordet. In fact, Dreyer is an artist whom I’m pleasantly reminded of when I see Institute Benjamenta. (In fact, I sometimes imagine a Dreyer adaptation of Benjamenta appearing in his canon – probably between Gertrud and his never-made Jesus.) Is he someone you yourselves admire? Might there even be a conscious or unconscious Dreyer influence on your work?
When we were in Copenhagen to do work on the décors for a ballet with Kim Brandstrup, our choreographer on Benjamenta, we visited Carl Dreyer’s grave. He has been one of the most important influences on our work and we have watched and re-watched his films.
One thing I suspect I will never forget, and indeed, think of often, is the young saplings sequence where the men rock back and forth humming, almost chanting, and you favour Lisa in those exquisite shots where Ms Krige evokes both desperation and heartache.
Before the scene was filmed she told us she’d wing it, that she wasn’t sure what would happen but to stay with her. But it was this slow swaying of the students, their backs to her, along with their mounting humming, that of course started to slowly and implacably swamp her appeals, but it is all so dreamlike and strange and troubling, with Jakob helplessly standing off to the side holding pinecones, watching Lisa become undone. But it’s true that by the end of the scene, when Lisa sees Kraus writing the giant zero, you can see that her gaze has seen beyond this life into another one.
From the first time I saw your film in that huge indoor sporting complex (or whatever the hell it was) in Locarno so many years ago, and upon each subsequent viewing, this sequence has moved me to a combination of tears, trembling and physical sensations of tingling and gooseflesh.
Yes, initially this scene was placed much earlier in the script but because of its emotional strength we moved it further back in the film.
The young saplings sequence inspires me with many levels of meaning and emotion, but I will keep them to myself and ask what this sequence means to you, what you wished to achieve with it and how you prepared for it, shot it and rendered it in final form?
The sequence was a premonition of Lisa’s emotionally becoming undone, that she could no longer reach her students, not even her preferred one, Inigo, and that a darker and more disturbing and bleaker finality loomed before her.
Ever the optimist, I suspect we all have a ‘darker and more disturbing and bleaker finality’ looming before us. And speaking of finality, I have one final question for you. Are there things in Benjamenta you’re not completely sold on these many years later or, if given a chance, things you’d do differently (and if so, what they might be)?
No, you couldn’t have really thrown any more money at the production and we didn’t need famous actors. A six-week shoot seemed perfect although how could we have known. We had a very experienced first assistant, Mary Soan. We stayed small and it was beautifully in control and it was a unique and moving experience for us. We actually lived in the top floor of this old abandoned country house during the entire shoot. But there was one scene where I wished we’d been a lot braver, and we’ve talked about it much later with Alice, and that was the scene where she goes upside down and guides Jakob to her. She should have been boldly naked beneath her gown and as Jakob was blindfolded he would have been so disoriented by this unknown region of flesh and pudenda, but we as an audience would have gasped at her erotic boldness.
From the northern most point of the Bruce Peninsula in the Dominion of Canada, I bid you: Bon Cinema!
A one-day general strike and the ongoing economic turmoil in Spain set a tone of urgency and resistance at this year’s San Sebastian International Film Festival. Despite the public spending cuts and the crisis however, the 60th edition offered an impressive selection of excellent films from both home-based and international filmmakers. Pamela Jahn reports on some of the festival highlights, which also screen at this year’s London Film Festival between 10-21 October.
Shot in beautiful, sharp black and white without any dialogue, Pablo Berger’s witty, imaginative Blancanieves aptly pays tribute to 1920s European silent film and its connections with theatrical, musical and comical forms. Set in Andalusia during the golden age of bullfighting, Berger’s Snow White extravaganza centres around the adorable young daughter of a famous matador who, after a long and painful childhood under the eye of her evil stepmother, escapes from home and finds company in a troupe of wandering, bullfighting dwarfs. Having lost her memory in an accident, she doesn’t realise where her talent comes from as she follows in the footsteps of her father to become a matador, but it’s not long before her past catches up with her. In addition to the excellent performances, what makes this wonderfully grotesque adaptation of one of the Grimms’ most popular fairy tales particularly exciting is the score by Alfonso de Vilallonga, which, if slightly excessive in places, perfectly complements the creepy and dangerous atmosphere of the story. Out of the many recent Snow White reworkings, Blancanieves may well be the only one that brings something truly new to the story.
Blancanieves screens on Thursday 18 October at the ICA, London, as part of the London Film Festival.
In the House
With In the House (Dans la maison), Francois Ozon presents an entertaining portrayal of what might happen if a civilised but frustrated middle-class teacher gets too strongly attached to the literary talent of one of his pupils. Taking its inspiration from Spanish writer Juan Mayorga’s play The Boy in the Last Row, the story is carefully plotted and twisted, offering a joyously entertaining blend of genres that combines drama, thriller and comedy with some, at times eye-opening, lessons on art and the damage it can cause. The performances are exaggerated by Ozon’s playful direction and In the House works precisely because of its dramatic excesses, especially as it brilliantly blurs the line between reality and fiction. Typically for an Ozon film, some of the plotting hardly holds up to close scrutiny, but that’s part of the fun and contributes to making the film a compelling watch. Often hilarious, occasionally camp and but always incredibly smart, it’s a cut above the usual peeping tom creeper.
In the House screens on Sunday 21 October at Cine-Lumiere, London, as part of the London Film Festival.
The Delay (La demora), the third feature from the Uruguayan Rodrigo Plá, the director of La Zona and The Desert Within (Desierto adentro), is painful to watch but for all the right reasons. The film follows a single mother to three kids who finds it hard to make a living and must also take care of her senile father. Too poor to put the old man in a home, too wealthy to qualify for benefits, she abandons him one day, struck by the idea that if she informs social care about a lost man sitting on a bench in the park, someone will eventually collect him and take care of him. Nothing much happens, but the ostensibly schematic story feels remarkably authentic: far from the suspenseful and stomach-churning thrill of La Zona, Plá does an impressive job of conveying the feel of the old stubborn man’s lonely wait, and slowly carves real and involving characters out of the pale figures in this rundown urban landscape. If only he had added a bit of a twist in the end to guide us towards a more ambivalent, and more satisfactory, conclusion.
The Delay screens on Wednesday 17 October at the Ritzy, London, as part of the London Film Festival.
The Dead Man and Being Happy
Another bold, darkly comic effort from Spanish director Javier Rebollo (Woman without Piano), The Dead Man and Being Happy ( El muerto y ser feliz) follows a dying deadpan hitman on his last road trip to nowhere. Perfectly echoing the man’s increasingly poor state of heath, the film starts off with a vengeance and slightly loses momentum towards the end, but Rebollo cares too much about his charming anti-hero to let him down. He teams him up with another lost soul, an equally secretive and oddball woman who suddenly turns up in his car at a petrol station and eventually, as they are cruising through the dreary Argentine landscape, becomes his patron saint. As road movies go, The Dead Man and Being Happy may not be the greatest ride you’ll ever take, but it’s a deftly scripted, gratifyingly awkward, quirky drama that quietly hits the target and offers some wonderfully tender insights beneath its gritty surface.
The Dead Man and Being Happy screens on Friday 19 and Sunday 21 October as part of the London Film Festival.
Surprisingly gripping and entertaining in equal measures, Argo is based on a true story about a fake Hollywood movie production that was used as a cover to help six Americans escape during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. It’s best not to know too much about the plot before watching the film, but it’s fair to say that, despite the typically cushioned ending, Affleck deftly acts and directs himself as the CIA agent Tony Mendez, who came up with the spine-crawling, daring ‘exfiltration’ plan. Affleck manages to keep it all convincingly coherent as the narrative shifts between savvy espionage thriller, self-mocking Hollywood flick and straightforward compelling hostage drama. A survival story full of real-life drama and filmic tension, Argo feels considerably more relevant than any of the contemporary economic thrillers.
Argo screens on Wednesday 17, Thursday 18 and Friday 19 October as part of the London Film Festival.
In Halloween II, the first of the series on which they collaborated, John Carpenter and Alan Howarth built up a tight skein of tension woven from music that often sounded like atonal, percussive noises, and incidental noises – alarms, buzzers, etc. – which interacted in various ways with the music. The sound was cold, relentless and utterly inhuman – the perfect counterpart to a masked killer in the process of being transformed from psycho on the loose to embodiment of all evil.
Its follow-up, Halloween III, is a different kettle of fish altogether. Based on an original script by Nigel Kneale (Quatermass, The Stone Tape, The Year of the Sex Olympics), who later asked to have his name removed from the credits, Season of the Witch often feels like a very classy movie that has had a series of decidedly unclassy moments rudely inserted into it by a grubby-fingered juvenile – it just so happened that the grubby-fingered juvenile’s name was Dino De Laurentiis, one of the most powerful producers then in Hollywood. Fortunately, the score that Carpenter and Howarth produced is definitely on the classy side.
The Halloween III soundtrack comes on a limited orange and black vinyl with cover art by Jay Shaw and sleeve notes by Alan Howarth and Jay Shaw. Spin the Film Roulette for your chance to win a copy.
Although it was the first score realised using the method Carpenter would refer to as his ‘musical electronic colouring book’ – i.e. improvising and recording live to tape while watching the film on a TV monitor – the pair began with much the same set of instruments they had used on its predecessor: Linn drum machine, Arp sequencer, and a pair of Prophet synths. But the sounds wrought from them could scarcely have been more different. Where Halloween II was all sharp attacks and high mids its successor is built of slowly evolving wave shapes, warm lower mids and deep, deep bass thuds.
As if in self-parody at their new lush sounds, Carpenter and Howarth even named one track ‘Chariots of Pumpkins’ – a nod perhaps to the previous year’s chart-topping Chariots of Fire score by Vangelis. But ‘Pumpkins’ is no tub-thumping anthem, rather a highly atmospheric blend of insistent pulses, four-to-the-floor Linn kick drums, and sweep-filtered arpeggiating Prophet synths: the soundtrack not to a race for Olympic glory, but to a man running desperately for his life from a factory full of murderous autons.
Fans of the series were put off by the absence of regular baddie Michael Myers, but the film boasts some equally disturbing adversaries – and plenty of gruesome murders. Nonetheless, it works best in moments when almost nothing is happening. Such as the scene taking place outside, on the first night the protagonists spend in Santa Mira, when the swollen flanks of deep, salebrous sawtooth waves become the motif of a machine vision that hovers over the town like a murder of clockwork crows, beating time with the convulsive impatience of a Hoffmannian automaton. Waiting.
The soundtrack to Halloween II is also released in a limited edition by Death Waltz on 18 October 2012 with new artwork from Brandon Schaefer.
The 69th Venice Film Festival opened with a slightly beleaguered air. The encroachments of international – Toronto overlaps with Venice – and domestic rivals seem to have taken their toll. The veteran organiser Marco Mueller had left with his address book and took over Rome, which is rumoured to be lining up an impressive roster of films for November. Meanwhile, the programme of 18 films in competition and a bunch in sidebars looked like a chance to see some festival regulars (Ulrich Seidl, Kim Ki-duk, Takeshi Kitano, Brillante Mendoza) and a couple of big Hollywood films (most notably The Master) only days before they were screening at Toronto. As a knock-on effect, there were practically no Northern American journalists on the Lido this year. And yet the festival turned out to have more than one surprise.
In an early scene from Terrence ‘The Machine’ Malick’s new offering To the Wonder, two lovers, Neil (Ben Afleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), on a visit to Mont Saint Michel almost get caught with the tide coming in. Light will be captured through the spray of a garden hose, there will be mist, and rain, snow and puddles, but it is this moment of time passing, an unstoppable and dangerous flux, which the film returns to again and again. And again. And Neil and Marina’s French passion fizzles in the suburban spaces and wide skies of Oklahoma. With a firmly established aesthetic – ‘magic hour’ photography, copious voice-over, elliptical narrative – last year’s Tree of Life divided audiences along the fully clothed and the obviously nude emperor line: one thing not in doubt was that even if you hated the film, there was ambition and great technical skill. When we hear the first word of the voice-over in To the Wonder– ‘newborn’ – the heart sinks. Here we go again. The voice-over tells us why Neil and Marina are in love and what happens in their relationship while we watch them acting out the narration. There’s no reason they’re in love or out of love except what we are told. A guess might be that Neil gets bored of Marina’s interminable dancing, her embracing of the sunlight, her dashing off through fields and not only her tree-hugging but at one point twig-licking. And the film dances along with her. The Steadicam swoops and the sequences are all cut like some intellectual Michael Bay, never allowing us to settle and actually engage in character, or watch the drama unfold. This is essentially a melodrama directed by someone who doesn’t understand melodrama: there’s nothing to latch onto. No characters, no conflict. And no blocking. Afleck and Kurylenko look lost. Javier Bardem turns up as a Catholic priest and gives us some tedious preaching about love and Jesus. His social conscience is signalled by the fact that he wanders around (also looking lost) in a poor neighbourhood. The moment is insultingly flippant. What made Malick’s previous films was the way they portrayed characters in the midst of an environment that had a vital relationship to them. Here however the GPS signal is weak.
Whereas Tree of Life was determined to involve all elements, To the Wonder is a watercolour, the only Malick film I’ve seen not to have some fire at its heart, both literal and metaphorical.
Also set on a precarious waterline is Brillante Mendoza’s Thy Womb (Sinapupunan, 2012). Set in the out-to-sea Philippine stilted villages of Tawi-Tawi, Mendoza’s film tells the story of an infertile midwife, Shaleha (Nora Aunor), and her husband Bangas An (Bembol Rocco). Following an almost fatal shooting incident, Shaleha decides to find her husband a second wife who will be able to bear him a child. Mendoza and his actors create real people with a subtle awareness of gesture and asensitivity to the complex emotions the two characters are living through. There could not be a starker contrast with Malick’s unconvincing meandering.
Also in competition, but sadly neglected when it came to awards, was Jessica Woodworth and Petter Brosens’s The Fifth Season. Closing a trilogy of films that included Khadak (2006) and Altiplano (2009), the latest work from Belgian husband and wife team is a piece of magical realism. Seen from within the limits of a small Belgian village, a calamity strikes nature, putting the seasons out of joint. Winter refuses to budge and the crops fail, soon starvation beckons. The slow disintegration of social ties and the descent towards irrationality and cruelty is seen through the wide staring eyes of Alice (Aurélia Poirier) and Thomas (Django Schrevens), two youngsters, whose love also suffers. The Fifth Season is a deliberate and moving piece of work, which is informed also by an absurdist sense of humour that bursts from outsider and beekeeper Pol (Sam Louwyck). Here there was danger and love and an environment broken. There was also humour and wit amid the horror that made this one of the most effective films of recent years to talk to our changing relationship to the environment.
Trent Harris, who was the subject of a retrospective at the 20th Raindance Film Festival, is not the sort of filmmaker you expect people to know: operating on the margins on of US indie cinema since the early 90s, he’s the kind of figure whose work can justify the use of terms like ‘cult’ and ‘underground’. And although his films might not be easily available to the casual viewer, unlike other ‘underground cult’ works , they all easily engage the audience: humanistic portraits of unusual individuals marginalised by society ; unusual characters whose stories might have never been heard had it not been for the astute ear of this director.
In Rubin & Ed, Trent Harris focuses on two characters who personify everything that he’s interested in: mystical and the esoteric clashes set in what Marlon Brando called ‘Palookaville’ as the titular duo go on an unexpected journey into the desert to bury a frozen cat. The story is not the thing here – it’s slight, whimsical and frankly feels not-all-that-important. It’s the characters. Rubin and Ed might be kooky and weird but they’re also very real: the way they interact with each other , the way they talk all adds up to something mainstream films lack: a soul.
In his next film, Plan 10 from Outer Space Trent Harris attempts something on a much larger scale: a conspiracy theory comedy steeped in the Mormon history and Masonic lore, it’s a funny, fast-moving film that takes no prisoners. The warped logic of Trent Harris’s world is not one that alienates: the audience never feels as if they’re listening to a private joke that does not make sense. Focusing on Lucinda (played perfectly by Stefen Russell), who, through the Plaque of Kolob, discovers an alien plot to dominate the world, the film takes satiric pot-shots at any subject it can think of – add in a few musical numbers, a brilliant dance sequence and some B-movie special effects and you get a thrill ride that is hard to refuse.
The next film Trent Harris made might be his best known work – strangely enough it’s also his earliest. Shot in 1984 and 1985, The Beaver Kid Trilogy is made up of three short films: a documentary and two fictional recreations of the same story. It’s the film with which Trent Harris made a splash at Sundance and yet today, it’s as obscure a title as one can hope to find perhaps due to its unavailability on any home video format.
The original Beaver Kid was Groovin’ Gary –a young man from Beaver, Utah, whom Trent Harris runs into in the parking lot of Salt Lake City News. Gary is a vivacious and lively character: seeing Harris’s camera he immediately launches into a series of impersonations: John Wayne, and Sylvester Stallone as Rocky. He has the sort of manic energy that could power entire continents and he comes across as an intriguing, if slightly odd individual.
After their initial encounter Gary writes a letter to Harris inviting him to a local talent show he’s putting on in Beaver. What happens after this is too good to ruin: suffice it to say that Harris’s ability to identify and understand marginalised individuals clearly shows here.
The next two shorts that make up the rest of The Beaver Kid Trilogy are Harris’s attempts at recreating that important encounter with famous actors – the first one has Sean Penn taking the role of Gary, while in the second it’s Crispin Glover. It’s a fascinating experiment and one that works: Harris uses each segment to build on what really occurred: making a narrative change here, adding a slight variation there. It’s like a composer trying out different approaches to the same tune and it’s an incredible experience to watch. It’s not hard to see why the film was such a success at Sundance.
The Cement Ball of Heaven, Hell and Earth continues Harris’s fascination with the individual: this time it’s Aki Ra, a former child soldier Khmer Rouge who now spends his time defusing mines in his free time to redeem himself for his previous acts. It’s a fascinating story and Harris tells it well: within the 54-minutes running time he manages to combine a mystical view of Cambodia’s violent history with the very personal story of Aki Ra and not lose his way.
Perhaps this is why his newest film, Luna Mesa, does not work: Harris tries to turn the camera on himself and explore mystical and philosophical ideas head-on through a fictional narrative. The result is an unmitigated mess. The film comes across as pretentious and dull, and in contrast to his previous work it’s hard to see what he’s aiming for other than a sounding profound. The story of Luna never appears to be more than the aimless wandering of a spoilt woman, and the connection with the divine, which occupies the last quarter of the film, feels less like universal insight than boring twaddle.
However, Luna Mesa cannot undermine the body of work of a man who over the past 27 years has challenged the norms of what is accepted as independent cinema: by focusing on the marginal, Harris, like others before him, has captured people invisible to the rest of society. His ability to create without judgement and with a terrific sense of humour (as well as an inexplicable obsession with hubcaps!) is a sign of a master craftsman at work: a first-class filmmaker.
Long may he continue to make films!
For more information on Trent Harris, please visit his website.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews