Sightseers, Ben Wheatley’s highly anticipated follow-up to Kill List, is a comedic character study starring Steve Oram and Alice Lowe as a freshly in love couple who are setting out on a road trip across the north of England, which turns into something unexpectedly darker and fatally dangerous for anyone who dares to spoil their twisted idyll.
Pamela Jahn met up with the director at the 65th Cannes Film Festival in May to talk about exploring the British countryside, romance and how women are sometimes the better killers.
Pamela Jahn: Sightseers is very extreme, like Down Terrace and Kill List, but feels more open and lighter.
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, one of the major attractions to the story for me was to get out and explore some of the broader space of England, but also in terms of cinematic space… Sightseers is much more about figures and landscapes rather than just faces in frames.
And there is more humour.
Basically, I wanted to make a comedy after Kill List, because on the one hand, if I had made another horror film, everyone would have said I am a horror filmmaker forever and that would have been bad. The door would have just been shut and locked. We also felt depressed after Kill List, because it was just so horrible and it was such a hard film to make and to edit and to be involved in. And then you get this thing when you watch a film back, and you think, oh, well, I could have made anything, and I made this. Why did I do this? [laughs] So we thought, let’s just make something that feels lighter and happier, and more fun. And the other reason why we wanted to make this film is because we wanted to do something that is much more playful and loose. We knew that the movies coming up after this are going to be much more technical and difficult, so we wanted to be able to play a little more here.
The violence is still pretty shocking in places.
Yeah, but it’s not that shocking. Like Kill List wasn’t that violent, I mean not really. It’s just that you feel it because of the emotional kick, but physically and in terms of body count, it’s not that bad.
The script was co-written by the stars of the film, Steve Oram and Alice Lowe. Does it still feel very close to you though?
Amy Jump, who is credited with additional material, is my wife, and she co-wrote Kill List and edited on Sightseers as well. We restructured it a bit from their script and took things on board that we had learned from doing the two previous movies. So this way, we brought it into the family of the previous films. We also did the editing, and there is so much improvisation in it. There is actually a level of authorship that goes on top of the script, which comes purely from us.
There’s a line that seems to run through your films, that somehow refers to the extreme, or the animalistic in human nature. What is it that fascinates you so much about that?
Talking about England – but it’s the same in all of Europe, actually – it feels to me that there’ve always been layers of reality. Beneath the pavement is the earth, and there have been all sorts of things happening here for over thousands and thousands of years, and it’s all in us. And this is what we’re trying to show in these movies, that it is only a step to the left or the right and you find this stuff… Things aren’t as modern as we think.
What is it that attracted you in particular to this couple and their story?
When I first read the script and got to know the characters, what struck me was that they’re crossing over the boundaries of society, they’re not held back by modern manners. In a way, I could have been in the film, except I wouldn’t murder anyone, but I’d probably go back to the caravan, crunching my teeth, thinking ‘gggrrrrr’. And I think there is something about watching people who actually go through to the very end and break social rules and do it.
But it’s also that kind of strange story about a couple who are throwing at each other what they like and what they don’t like. First, he shows her his darkest side, and then she can do it much better than he can, and that’s really depressing for him. So he’s crushed. I like that… For me that’s quite romantic.
Are women the better killers?
In this one, yeah, absolutely! But I don’t think she speaks for all women [laughs].
You don’t seem to be worried that people might take your films the wrong way and actually be inspired by them.
It doesn’t end well for them, so I don’t know… And I made Kill List. Jesus, if I was worried about that, I would have stopped there.
Did the success of Kill List come as a big surprise to you?
Yes, it did. But I don’t know how you’re supposed to react when that happens. You can’t really think about it, because it just chains you from doing anything else. And you can’t take any of it seriously, because if you did, you’d take yourself too seriously and that’s a disaster – it totally inhibits how you work. So I just say ‘thank you very much’ and move on. And although you can pretend that you’ve got a plan, you just end up making the films you make. This is the only way I know how to do things. In retrospect, you could look at the movies and probably slot them in and go, ‘oh it’s a bit like this and a bit like that’. But they’re never conceived like that.
Do you feel there is something particularly British about your characters or your films?
In Britain, it’s like everywhere, there are people who are very meek and there are people who are just really, really violent. You wouldn’t want to stagger around drunk on a Saturday night in a seaside town in Britain without your wits about you. And I guess there are still people shooting pheasants with shotguns somewhere, things like that.
What’s your favourite killing scene in Sightseers?
I really like Ian’s death, mainly because I like the parallel editing, you see lots of things happening at the same time, and cut to the music – I really enjoy those sequences. And we’re trying to make each of them different, but then use certain elements again for her murders and his murders.
Is there something you think you consciously have to do, or not do, if you want to be a good director?
I don’t know…But when I became an editor that ruined everything. So once you know how to edit, you’re fucked.
Have you ever been on a caravan trip yourself?
I have been camping a lot, but not in a caravan, no. And I don’t know if I will now, after sitting with a camera in the toilet of that caravan with a monitor on my lap. The caravan thing might be over for me.
Films about disastrous science experiments follow a familiar format: well-meaning scientists searching for immortality or age-defying cosmetics, for instance, step a little too far into the unknown. The result is a contortion of human life that is uncontainable unless, usually, it is killed. An initial moral dilemma about manipulating ‘nature’ is followed by extreme guilt and a perverse fluctuation between the pleasure of controlling new discoveries and the knowledge that what might surface from the void might escape your control. An interesting sub-genre features monstrous women at the centre of these crises. They include Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) directed by Nathan Juran, The Wasp Woman (1959), directed by Roger Corman, and Firestarter (1984), directed by Mark L. Lester and written by Stephen King. So what happens when the female of the species enters the equation? Girl sci-fi creatures in cinema are very enigmatic, and, to me, there is nothing more reassuring than a celluloid lady running riot.
In the language of conservative, mainstream film women are already unknowable, ineffable, irrational so they perfectly fit with stories about scientific experiments that venture into unknown territory. Often, the female characters are already presented as monsters in some way from the beginning. ‘Just who do they think they are?’ the filmmakers seem to ask. In two of the films mentioned, the narrative world of the film centres around women who are economically powerful. Janice Starlin in The Wasp Woman owns and directs a successful cosmetics company, Nancy Fowler Archer in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman supports her husband with her personal riches. Their ambition is presented as ruthless, they are outlawed for denying a ‘maternal instinct’. They are obsessive, jealous, neurotic and can’t be contained.
Then the mutations begin: traditionally, women are abducted by aliens or they get involved with hybrid experiments involving the ingestion of insect extracts, their DNA is spliced with an animal’s, or parts of their brain become overactive, and so on. The narratives of this sub-genre seem to suggest that this is the women’s comeuppance for their failings. Male scientists, doctors and those acting for the moral good see the monsters as a threat to national security. But this is intricately tied up with a general anxiety about the female body and the way it changes and develops. It is the non-human that impacts on these women’s already ‘unknowable’ and shifting bodies. In Firestarter, Charlie McGee is the lovechild of a couple involved in a drug test. The test left them with psychic abilities and Charlie’s quirk is pyrokinesis – she can think people and things on fire. The original doctor who held the test is convinced that her powers are caused by her overactive pituitary gland. They are due to get stronger with the onset of puberty. This ‘sleeping gland’ is about to wake up and she could be used to create explosions that may reach nuclear strength. Indeed, Charlie does erupt and avenges her parents’ death. Cue big fires, horses being released, fathers dying and other Freudian symbology.
Interestingly, the initial drug that Charlie’s parents were injected with was a synthetic copy of pituitary extract, something that re-appears in the other films. In Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Nancy Fowler Archer has an extraterrestrial encounter that involves being exposed to radiation. She later grows to 50 feet tall. Although it is muttered in the film, the doctor who treats Nancy says that while her condition is undiagnosed it can be related to an ‘overactive forward lobe of the pituitary process’ or something similar. Not quite so specifically, in The Wasp Woman, Janice Starlin enjoys a miracle preparation derived from wasp enzymes. This affords her temporary regeneration and seeming youth. She ODs, becomes psychotic and grows a hairy wasp head. But essentially she messes around with the natural ageing process.
So here’s the science: the pituitary gland is involved in homeostasis, the regulation of processes such as growth and sexual development. This gland is the epicentre for a scientific understanding of all the flux that women’s bodies present. The references are made in the films, I think, to indicate efforts to control and understand female bodies and the ultimate fear of a loss of that control. So in these films, women, monstrous by nature, are attacked by monsters that turn them into even scarier monsters: there does seem to be a glaring anxiety about women’s power here. The film’s narratives would have it that these aberrant women are out of control, but it’s also possible to read their extreme gestures as acting out a process of ‘taking control’. It’s this that might particularly appeal to a female audience.
The scenes where women are seen to do this are the most spectacular and entertaining in the films. Charlie McGee, in a trance with her hair flying around, appears to be in control of unearthly forces. She causes phenomenal explosions, cars burst into flame, three-pronged fireballs take out secret agents, brick walls are reduced to dust. She is allowed a certain amount of screen cool that is usually reserved for boys. The scenes are transporting and magical, and all the more because a nine-year-old girl, who would usually be largely invisible or performing a cutesy role, is the puppet master. When Nancy Fowler Archer decides to use her size to show her cheating husband just what she thinks of him she never looked so glamorous. She is suddenly blond, presumably from the radiation, and her clothes have been torn off her back to create a burlesque corset and mini skirt. She strides across the desert, glowing, to gloriously pull the roof of a hotel. Finally, perhaps when watching The Wasp Woman we can ask, ‘Who wouldn’t want to stay looking young, when this is viewed as one of the measure of success and power?’ Male CEOs can grow old gracefully but women in charge and in the public eye have a very different treatment. Although I personally think her killer queen look is fantastic, it’s ultimately a true manifestation of the monster within.
House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films
By Kier-La Janisse
FAB Press 357pp £19.99
Never speak – or write – too soon. In the last Cine Lit column two new books on horror were reviewed and the speculation posited, ‘What more could possibly be said about the genre with such a tsunami of texts already out there?’ Well, I hadn’t counted on Kier-La Janisse’s House of Psychotic Women dropping through my letterbox. The subtitle alone invites one to wonder what hybrid narrative lies within and the author states very clearly – and contentiously – within what terms this cultural confessional will unfold. It is worth quoting at some length as it gives a precise indication as to the tone and uniquely subjective nature of the book:
When I first started edging into film writing in the mid-’90s, I was all about girl power; how horror films (even slasher films) were empowering to women, how most horror films were about men’s anxieties concerning the nature of femininity and female sexuality, gender relations, castration anxiety – all this great meaty stuff… For a female horror fan/exploitation fan, that’s a great place to start; certainly much more productive than denouncing the whole genre all together as some counter-revolutionary, misogynist exercise… I wanted to explore neurotic characterization as comprehensively as I could, but I didn’t want to write a dense book on horror theory… if I started leaning too much on Freud and Lacan I’d be out of my depth. I needed to focus on what I know: namely, that the films I watch align with my personal experience that every woman I have ever met in my entire life is completely crazy, in one way or another. [A good thing a man did not write this!]
She goes on:
I myself have been the subject of a film Celluloid Horror, 2003… the film delved into some uncomfortable subject matter: my adolescent propensity for physical violence, my history in group homes, foster homes and detention centres, and the years of involuntary therapy…Most painful of all, it captured the disintegration of my brief marriage. My constructive participation in genre film exhibition and promotion has curbed my (often misdirected) aggression to a great degree. As my own neurosis became more subdued I found myself unconsciously drawn to female characters who exhibited signs of behaviour I had recognized in myself: repression, delusion, paranoia, hysteria…my life is enveloped by chaos…Unresolved issues weigh heavily on me: feelings of failure, sabotaged relationships, blinding anger…
As she points out, the book ‘follows her personal trajectory’ as she examines cinematic patterns and weaves in and out of film synopses and critiques as they relate to her, and she is clear on this point: it is primarily a book about her life. Of course, the problem with such a unique autobiographical approach to film writing is whether the reader really cares about the author and his/her life and hard times, and with regard to that I remain ambivalent.
It is a problematic tightrope to walk between film analysis taken as a personal critical odyssey on the one hand, and film analysis as an excuse for self-indulgent therapy on the other. And here Janisse falters, sometimes delivering a fine balancing act, sometimes falling off the wire. For her breadth of knowledge of the genre and her erudite and insightful critiques of individual films there is much to admire in, and learn from, the book, but whether writing it from such a psycho-therapeutic point of view adds to the reader’s appreciation or knowledge of the genre is in question – as is my (male) awareness of the gender politics that bear on it. There was a curious sense of guilt, atonement and apology arising between the lines, which was distracting, and the book – absorbing and even brave as it is – comes off as an articulate and intelligent volume of confessions that frame the films, rather than the other way around. A one-of-a-kind experience to be sure.
Now in its 45th year, Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalonia once again turned a small corner of Spain’s Costa Brava into a mecca for genre fans. Creating perhaps what is the most comprehensive and detailed snapshot of horror, fantasy and science fiction in 2012, the festival featured over 200 movies as well as retrospective screenings, star introductions, masterclasses and much, much more.
Blessed with balmy October weather, this quaint little town in Spain played host to some of this year’s most anticipated titles from directors such as Dario Argento, Rob Zombie and Joko Anwar. Below are some of the high and low points of the festival.
Sightseers (Ben Wheatley, 2012)
Ben Wheatley continues his ascent with this fantastic comedic character study starring the fantastic Steve Oram and Alice Lowe. Beginning with two slightly awkward new lovers embarking on a road trip and warping into something unexpectedly darker, Sightseers is continuing proof that Ben Wheatley is one of the finest directors working in the British industry right now. Special mention must go to the script, written by the leads, which is so astutely observed and full of brilliant character moments that it is destined to join the ranks of British classics of the decade. Add a killer soundtrack and you have one of the definitive films of 2012. A must-see.
Sightseers is released in the UK by StudioCanal on 30 November 2012.
Robot & Frank (Jake Schreier, 2012)
A quiet, reflective comedy drama, Robot & Frank features a terrific central performance from Frank Langella as well as able support from reliable performers such as Susan Sarandon, Jeremy Sisto, Liv Tyler and James Marsden. Set in the near future, where robots have become everyday tools, Robot & Frank focuses on Frank, a retired cat burglar who is slowly succumbing to dementia. When his son brings a medical robot to take care of him, Frank is resistant at first. However, slowly but surely a bond begins to emerge, culminating in in Frank’s desire to do one last job. Lightly wearing its science-fiction elements, Robot & Frank is a low-key marvel of emotion; human, gentle and humorous, this is a film that rewards investment in its characters and creates a believable, well-crafted world.
The Impossible (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2012)
Juan Antonio Bayona, the talented director of The Orphanage (2007), returns with The Impossible, a well-made but somewhat overwrought drama focusing on a family trying to survive the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Thailand. Eyes firmly on an Oscar nomination, Naomi Watts gives her all as the matriarch of the family, who is determined to survive until she is sure her son will not be left alone, while Ewan McGregor portrays the sturdy father of the family with just the right amount of pathos. However, the real bulk of the acting plaudits must fall on the three children ably portrayed by Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast. With meticulous performances, the three kids manage to strike almost no false notes. As impressive and emotionally engaging as The Impossible is, high-strung Hollywood melodrama derails the film more than once. The most poignant points in the film are the low-key moments but a desire to constantly hammer home the tragedy means most of the mood is generated by effusive violins and sentimental string-pulling.
Modus Anomali (Joko Anwar, 2012)
Joko Anwar is one of the most talented genre directors right now. The fact that he is working in Indonesia – a country where horror cinema is generally not very innovative – makes this achievement doubly impressive. Although never blessed with the high budgets that most US productions get, Anwar’s films regularly display inventiveness and intellect, which is sorely lacking in the rest of the genre. With Modus Anomali, Anwar worked with an even smaller budget, turning out a truly indie feature, and the result is all the more remarkable. Focusing on John Evans, an amnesiac who wakes up buried alive, Modus Anomali tells the story of his attempts to find and rescue his family from the hands of an unidentified maniac. Largely shot on shaky cameras, but always allowing the audience to see what is happening, the film is a clever puzzle that will divide audiences. Suffice it to say that those who get on board will find themselves amply rewarded as Modus Anomali has been thoroughly thought-out and will stand up to repeated viewing. All in all, a remarkable achievement and further proof that Joko Anwar is headed for great things.
Miss Lovely (Ashim Ahluwalia, 2012)
One of the most upsetting and uncompromising films ever to come out of India, Miss Lovely tells the story of two brothers working in the seedy underbelly of Indian exploitation cinema in the 1980s. Blessed with stellar performances from all involved, the film depicts the inhabitants of the world the brothers live in: financiers, gangsters, club owners and, of course, the performers. The roster of characters seems to come from a human cesspit. With all morality corrupted and all human goodness sapped, these are brilliantly engaging monsters, all consuming each other in a desire to get to the top. It is a sad, melancholic and destructive portrait of a scene unfamiliar to most Western audiences. Never once compromising its raw emotional brutality during its running time of less than two hours, Miss Lovely builds to a climax that grabs you by the throat and does not let go until you are completely choking. Guaranteed to remain with you for months after the film ends, Miss Lovely represents a new step for Indian independent cinema that is to be encouraged, applauded and, most importantly, shown to audiences.
The Lords of Salem (Rob Zombie, 2012)
Rob Zombie creates what might be the worst and yet most entertaining film of the century. For the most part, The Lords of Salem plays like some misguided homage to John Carpenter, recreating some of unforgettable shots from The Fog (1980), until the final third becomes an LSD trip of exaggerated proportions with some of the craziest imagery known to mankind since Alejandro Jodorowsky made El Topo (1970). It is a ham-fisted attempt by Zombie to create something cerebral, which, instead, is more like an expensive Christmas panto for which there is no justification. Grand in its mediocrity, The Lords Of Salem is a recommended to anyone who wants to discover the madness of the witches of Salem. By the time the final quarter rolls, you will be aghast at the madness of the imagery with which Mr Zombie decides to bombard the audience.
Come out and Play (Makinov, 2012)
A retelling of the 70s classic Who Can Kill A Child?, Come out and Play is a lacklustre, almost shot-for-shot remake that goes nowhere. Lacking in atmosphere and suffering from a hysterical performance from one of its leads, this handsomely shot film will only impress those who have never seen the brutal, sun-soaked images of the original. Perhaps the best part of this disappointing exercise is the lovely credits and the fact that the film gets dedicated to the martyrs of Stalingrad at the very end.
Yellow (Ryan Haysom, 2012)
A special mention must go to Yellow, a neo-giallo short that has been doing the festival rounds for a while. An astute tribute as well as a clever updating, Yellow is a promising start for a clearly talented team, including director Ryan Haysom, cinematographer Jon Britt, composer Anton Maiof and production manager Catherine Morawitz. Perhaps the only problem with Yellow is a desire to over-explain the narrative; the film works incredibly well as a mood piece and an unnecessary plot development late in the film somewhat undermines its impact. However, this is a minor complaint in a piece that is clearly head-and-shoulders above most of the shorts produced today.
Compared to Haneke’s earlier works, Amour stands out for its astounding sensitivity and subtle tenderness, but ultimately, the story, which centres around 80-year-old retired music teachers George (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), is no less hard-hitting. As the couple are faced with Anne’s physical and mental deterioration after two successive strokes, the film scrutinises, in a profoundly intelligent and unsettling way, the consequences of life and death, and the role that long-standing love plays when one half of an ageing couple is facing the end. As one would expect from a filmmaker as precise and skilful as Haneke, Amour is finely scripted, superbly composed, and often hauntingly beautiful and desperately sad. The quiet grandeur of the film, however, would be lost without its two main actors, whose astonishing, disarmingly honest performances breathe life into Haneke’s formal perfection in capturing the realities of terminal illness in meticulous detail. Crafted with passionate conviction and a mastery of film language, Amour is that rare work of genius: an acute philosophical inquiry that’s highly emotionally charged, but also dramatically gripping, incredibly discreet and utterly credible in its depiction of human behaviour.
Pamela Jahn talked to Michael Haneke after the premiere of Amour at the 65th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in May to find out more about one of the most exciting films this year, and what makes a great director.
Pamela Jahn: Amour is essentially a chamber play, and the apartment where the film is set feels very much like its own character. What role did the premises play for you in the story?
Michael Haneke: The apartment in the film is based on my parents’ apartment in Vienna, which I had rebuilt in a French studio. We gave it a French atmosphere but the layout is the same. When you’re writing a film it’s easier to use a geography that you know so intimately.
The film describes in a very sensible but precise way how an elderly couple deals with the ravages of old age and looming death. What made you explore that subject matter?
Like I think all of us do, at some point in our lives, I knew someone in my family who I felt very close to and who I loved very deeply. But this person had to suffer for a long time and went through a lot of pain while I had to look on helplessly. This was a very difficult and disturbing experience for me and so it motivated me to write the script. But please don’t think that because it is the apartment of my parents this is also the story of my parents. It’s not.
Was it difficult to get Jean-Louis Trintignant involved in the project? Amour is the first film he has made in years.
Yes, that’s true, but it was not difficult to get him involved. I wrote the part for him, in fact, I wrote the script for him. And he had seen my previous film, The White Ribbon, which he liked, so it was actually quite easy for me to get him for this film.
It seems like you wanted to work with him for a long time?
Yes, I always admired his work. But the problem is always in finding the right part for an actor. I know many actors I’d like to work with, but I haven’t had the occasion to offer them what I think is the right part for them. In Jean-Louis’s case, because of the theme and the fact that you are dealing with elderly characters, he was the only person I wanted to work with in this film. In fact, if he hadn’t been available, I wouldn’t have made it. Hidden, for example, was a very similar situation for me. I wrote the film for Daniel Auteuil because I wanted to work with him.
Why did you choose to make George and Anne music teachers, who have a very particular place in society?
I wanted to avoid the danger of the film coming across as a social drama. I wanted to set aside any financial constraints, because if the film had been set in the working-class environment, people would probably have thought: oh, if they only had enough money, things wouldn’t be all that bad. But that’s not true, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, the situation, the tragedy is the same. Another reason why I wrote the film for a musical couple is because my stepfather was a conductor and composer, so again, it’s a milieu that I am familiar with and it is easier for me to describe the setting with the most precision and detail.
You are widely recognised as a master of film language and the different aspects of filmmaking. What do you find most difficult as a director?
Good question… The hardest part is probably not to feel nervous in the morning when you wake up.
What do you do to avoid that?
Nothing, unfortunately. The difficult thing is getting ready before the shoot. It’s similar to being an actor just before a theatre performance. Usually, the actor is terribly nervous while waiting in the wings but, as soon as the curtain goes up, he’s totally concentrated. It’s that constant stress that you feel on a daily basis and the fear that you are not going to be able to succeed and achieve what you are looking for. But unlike in theatre, where, if you’re rehearsing and something doesn’t work out one day, you can come back to it the next day and try again, you don’t have that luxury in film. You just shoot a scene on one day and if it doesn’t turn out the way you wanted it, then it’s lost, because you have to move on to the next scene. That’s one of the disadvantages of making films compared to theatre and opera.
There is also this great story about Ingmar Bergman, that whenever he was shooting a film there had to be a bathroom nearby because he was so nervous that he needed to go to the bathroom frequently. I don’t know whether the story is really true or not but I can certainly empathise with this.
You said elsewhere that you work better with your ears than with your eyes. How do you explain this?
It’s because your ears are more sensitive than your eyes, or at least that’s the case for me. Sometimes when I look at a scene, I get too easily distracted by thousands of details. But when I don’t look, I hear immediately if there is something wrong with the sound or if somebody said something that is not quite right. There is also a simple example: if you need to loop a scene, which means if you are asking an actor to come back to the sound studio and re=record a sentence, that for some reason didn’t work out the first time around, people always think that synchronising the lip movement is the hardest part. But actually that’s the easiest part, because, as long as the lip movements match, it is credible for the audience. It’s the scenes that are off-camera, like voice-overs, that are the tricky ones because you immediately hear if the tone is wrong. In the many years I have been directing for theatre, I have often gazed to the ground while my actors were rehearsing on stage, not for the entire time of the rehearsal, but for parts of it, because I thought I could better comment on their performances that way.
You mentioned Bergman before. How much of an influence was he on you, in particular in this film?
I am influenced by Bergman in the same way that I am influenced by a number of different directors. In fact, I think it’s very important for a filmmaker to try not to be influenced by other people and rather find your own language. As an artist, your artistic equation is ultimately the result of all the other films you have seen, all the books that you have read, all the personal experiences in your life, everything really. And you should just try and do what you feel you have to do instead of asking yourself all the time what Mr X or Mrs Y would have done in that situation. But nonetheless, I think it is true that what my films have in common with Bergman’s is that they all focus on the actors, because that’s what interests me most.
When was the moment you decided to become a director?
Well, let’s say when I was 15 I was hoping to become an actor like my mother, when I was 14 I wanted to be a pianist and when I was 13 I wanted to be a priest. But as an actor, I wasn’t accepted at the academy, so I studied philosophy instead and did a lot of writing, short stories and a bit of film criticism. I was a terrible student though because I was in the cinema three times a day. Then, I went to television and became a story editor. I also worked in theatre for 20-odd years and at the same time directed films for television. And then, at the age of 46, I decided to make my first feature film. With hindsight, I think it is almost always very easy to draw some sort of red line through your biography, but I believe that in your life most things are determined by luck and coincidence, and the goals you set for yourself develop, just as you do along the way.
Why do you refuse so vehemently to offer an interpretation to your films?
If I were to explain things myself and offer an interpretation then this would automatically reduce the spectator’s ability to find their own answers. My films are offerings, I invite the audience to deal with them, think about them and reflect upon them and, ultimately, to find their own answers. I also think that an author doesn’t always necessarily know what he intends and what the meaning is behind his work. For example, I am always amazed by the many theses and books I read about myself, all of which reveal what I supposedly wanted to express in my films or was supposed to have dealt with. I strongly believe it would be very counterproductive for the audience if I were to answer the questions I am raising in my films, because then no one would have to think about them.
Have you ever been disappointed by the reception of a film you made?
Would you generally consider yourself a pessimist or an optimist?
I don’t think I am a pessimist or that I have ever been a pessimistic person. If this was the case, I would only make entertainment films because I wouldn’t think that people actually care, and are intelligent enough, to want to deal with the questions I raise in my films. In that sense, I believe every so-called artist can only be an optimist, because otherwise they wouldn’t be motivated to try and ask questions and to communicate with their audience. A pessimist would simply say: it’s pointless, so I am not doing anything.
Has your motivation to make films changed over the years?
No, but that may be because I can’t really say why I am making films in the first place. Probably it’s because that’s all I know how to do.
Born in Texas, author Sam Hawken now resides in Washington D.C. He was a historian before becoming a novelist who favours gritty realism with a cinematic slant. His debut, The Dead Woman of Juárez, was inspired by the alarming number of female homicides on the Mexican border. His second book, Tequilla Sunset (Serpents Tail) heads into gangland territory, with murderous consequences. Below, Sam Hawken explains why his filmic creature alter ego is Selene from Underworld. Eithne Farry
When I first got the request to pick a ‘creature’ alter ego, my initial reaction was, ‘Huh? What?’ but then I got to thinking about it one particular creature came to mind. Not only that, but it was a creature that would seem not to fit me at all. The creature is a vampire. And a woman. Her name is Selene.
You probably know this already, but Selene was the heroine in three of the four Underworld movies. She was quick and strong and determined and more than a little of a romantic. She also had very little in common with the traditional view of vampires. This was no Eastern European noble seducing women in the night and turning them into sex slaves, but a bona fide ass-kicking machine with no equal in the toughness department. And it didn’t hurt that she was extremely easy on the eyes.
After The Dead Woman of Juárez, my first book, came out, I was asked a lot of questions about ‘manly man’ topics like boxing and, on more than one occasion, I was taken to task for not including enough women in the story. What would those people say if I told them that Selene was my alter ego? That I was feminism in a catsuit, handy with guns and blades and absolutely ruthless? You gotta wonder.
I don’t harbour any secret ambitions to swap genders or species in real life, but if left to my own imaginary devices I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to step into Selene’s butt-stomping combat boots. I’d hunt werewolves with a fiery passion and I’d hone myself into a living weapon. Nobody would want to get on my bad side, because I would put them away in a heartbeat. I’d look darned good doing it, too. Watch out, (under)world.
Cast: Stavros Psyllakis, Aris Servetalis, Johnny Vekris
Yorgos Lanthimos first came to international attention with Dogtooth (Kynodontas), a comedy of obsidian darkness portraying the Chernobyl of nuclear families. Reality is twisted by the parents into a series of bizarre rituals and lurking menaces to keep the children – now adults – under their control. Reality is likewise pliable in his new film Alps (Alpis), co-written by his collaborator, Efthymis Filippou: a small group of misfits – the Alps of the title – offer their services to bereaved families. For a fee, they will replace the deceased and act out scenes with them as a way of alleviating their grief. As ever there is a sense of play but the stakes are perhaps even higher than they were in his previous film as the bending of reality leaks out of the tight claustrophobic family compound and into wider society.
John Bleasdale met Yorgos Lanthimos at the Venice Film Festival in August 2011 to talk about Alps and the elusiveness of reality, dysfunctional families and the Greek crisis.
John Bleasdale: In both Dogtooth and Alps reality is up for grabs, manipulated by your characters.
Yorgos Lanthimos: I don’t think there is reality anywhere. Films are fiction and I’d even consider documentary fiction. When you start filming something it becomes something different.
How did the project start?
We had the idea of people writing letters as if they were dead people writing to people they have left behind to keep contact. I liked the idea but it didn’t seem very cinematic so we came up with the story of someone offering the service of pretending to be someone else. This nurse (Aggeliki Papoulia, who also played the eldest daughter in Dogtooth) works in the hospital so it’s easy for her to find people who have just lost someone. We started writing scenes and dialogue. We also rehearse and improvise on set. When we’ve finished the scenes for the day, we shoot another scene that just comes to mind on the spot or we write something very fast and shoot it, and if it works, it might end up in the film. Also we might cut out some scenes that we’ve written and shot in the editing so it’s always evolving in rehearsals and in shooting.
The Alps take their name from the idea that the mountains are irreplaceable, so they are replacing the irreplaceable. Did you consider using the Himalayas as a title?
(Laughs) ‘Well, the whole thing isn’t very plausible, is it? The name makes sense but you can see holes in it. Just in the same way you can see the holes in what they are trying to achieve and so it was funny and made enough sense, but you ask one question and it’ll fall apart. You asked about improvisation. The scene of the naming of the group we shot for hours with the group asking the leader questions about why and how, and you could see that this could not hold for a long time and it was funny.
You began your career as a theatre director before making your first film. What did you gain from theatre?
What I gained from theatre is how to work with actors. I don’t have the same philosophy for making a film and working in the theatre. They’re two very different things, but theatre gave me time to work with actors.
Your camera is often claustrophobically close to the main character.
It’s really important to be focused on the most important thing in a scene. When you give time to the viewer and you stay with and follow one person it is more profound than when you show whatever is going on around them. It works for me. So, for instance, in this film I felt the need to tell the story through the nurse. So that’s why most of the time we focus on her and we see everyone else around her. If I focused on the other people, then it would become that story and we would have to deal with all of them equally, and it wouldn’t feel right.
How difficult was it to make the movie with the crisis in Greece?
It was extremely difficult even before the crisis. I’ve made all my films with an extremely low budget. My first film didn’t have any support. There is no private funding because there is a huge problem with the laws and there are no incentives for private investment. Films in Greece are funded by the Greek Film Centre, which is government money, and for many years it was extremely corrupt. Very specific directors got the money, no younger filmmakers. That means you do it on your own: you gather money from friends, you put in your own money, have lots of people working for free, ask for favours – that’s how it was for younger filmmakers and that’s how it still is. The crisis hasn’t changed much. I managed to make my second film, Kinetta (2005) with the support of the Greek Film Centre but that’s 250,000 euros, and you have to do it the same way and hope you can pay them back two years later. And then, because of the crisis things became even worse. So there weren’t even the contributions from the Greek Film Centre for Alps. We had to do it on our own with friends and many co-producers who put in 10,000-20,000 euros. People worked for free, we found what we could for free. Now, the Greek Film Centre is supporting the film, but after it is made and without the risk. It was already in Venice and Toronto.
You have symbols of authority and rebellion in both Dogtooth and Alps.
I try to do what is right by the specific story and hope people can link the things that they are watching with their own experiences and make their own conclusions. But I believe that if I tried to do that before putting the story together and thought this should be about this person’s rebellion as it connects to the sociological situation right now, the film would be a mess. It allows people to think this but not by imposing it as an allegory or something.
Your central characters tend to be women and the dominating characters tend to be men.
I do like women characters. I think they’re more complex and intelligent in general. I think there is a clichéd behaviour which tends to be male. I find it more natural to have a woman as a heroine against the stupidity of males, but next time I might do something different. I’m not obsessed.
Do you plan to make movies outside of Greece?
I have the possibility to go somewhere else and I’ll do that. It’s something I’d like to do anyway, not just because of the situation in Greece, but because I like different cultures, and places around the world have a lot to add to the films. I could make the films I make in different countries. It would change the films but that is not a bad thing. I try to incorporate into the film the whole of the energy, the feel of the place where it is happening. I try to accept it. I don’t try and make it more beautiful or shy away from it. I decided not to go against the difficulties we had. We couldn’t choose locations for houses and so we filmed in locations that a friend could give us for free. So whatever it is, I’m going to make it work and make it part of the film. With that in mind, I think it is very interesting to make films with different landscapes and languages. And, of course, with the situation in Greece and since I’ve already made three films in the hardest way possible I’d like to do something with a bit more support.
What about family situations? Families are destroyed in both Dogtooth and Alps.
But these people are very different. If you’re asking why they are troubled in this way, then the greater percentage of families are dysfunctional. It doesn’t have to be so extreme. We put them under these extreme conditions to test them. There would be no point for me to show a happy family being happy. I didn’t want to make an entertaining film – not just an entertaining film. I think the film is quite entertaining, but it’s not just that. And that’s why I choose to look at troubled families and troubled people. Not just families, but every aspect of the film is troubled: that’s what I’m interested in exploring.
Can I ask about the tone? Sometimes it seemed like you were testing how black the comedy could get before the comedy collapsed.
It’s natural for us to do it this way. Both I and my writing partner (Efthymis Filippou) have this sense of humour. And I don’t think we could ever approach it in just a dramatic and tragic way. You experience both feelings deeper if you have the contradiction in the film. Just being tragic is fake, and just being funny is entertaining but it doesn’t go anywhere. So if you succeed in making people laugh but feel awkward that’s deep. They laugh but when they revisit the film they might feel bad about themselves. People feel more engaged when there’s this more complex tone and way of watching the film. That’s also why the film is made this way: it demands that you are more engaged and you make up for what you don’t see.
Nicolas Guichard reports back on some of the highlights of the brilliant Parisian feast of oddness L’Etrange Festival.
The 18th edition of the Etrange Festival in Paris once more demonstrated the capacity of the event to showcase the joyous diversity of cinema current and past, from the fun atmosphere of the Zombie Night to the premiere of Juan Carlos Medina’s Painless, or the more serious atmosphere at Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (screened in religious silence). We are already looking forward to next year’s programme.
Knightriders (George A. Romero, 1981)
Presented as part of the Motorpsycho strand, Knightriders was Romero’s attempt to escape from zombie films. This bizarre work is notable mostly for its central premise (bikers who want to live like the Knights of the Round Table) and for the director’s insistence in injecting a political message into his films (here, a sort of anarchist utopianism). Despite the surrealism of some scenes, the political parable is weakened by longueurs in the script and a borderline kitsch aesthetic (in particular, the silly helmets and suits of armour).
Kustom Kar Kommandos (Kenneth Anger, 1965) + Motor Psycho (Russ Meyer, 1965)
Also part of the Motorpsycho strand, this was an appropriate double bill of two 1965 films that together offered a condensed image of pop culture and a chance to feel the excitement one always feels when noting the connections between experimental and exploitation films. In one corner, Kenneth Anger’s unfinished project Kustom Kar Kommandos, of which only the first part remains, is a sort of three-minute erotic pop allegory in which a young man polishes his car to the tune of the Paris Sisters’ ‘Dream Lover’. In the other, Russ Meyer’s Motor Psycho is like a masculine version of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! , a garage film soundtracked by Bert Shefter and Paul Sawtell’s nervy track ‘The Three Weirdos’, in which three hoodlums on bikes terrorize an isolated Californian town.
11.25. The Day He Chose His Own Fate (Kôji Wakamatsu, 2012)
I was really looking forward to this film: Mishima’s futile and tragic end, filmed by the late delirious Japanese director Kôji Wakamatsu. But during the screening, I started wondering whether there was another director by the same name. No trace of his customary hallucinatory style, only a linear film during which you can’t wait for Mishima to just end it. Wakamatsu’s usual political sharpness is present in the evocation of a country under American tutelage, and his analysis of the competitiveness between lefty activists and right-wing paramilitaries. But that wasn’t enough to rescue the film and, ultimately, I couldn’t help wondering if the filmmaker’s goal may have been to ridicule Mishima’s absurd gesture. If that’s the case, he succeeded.
The Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
Screened as part of Jan Kounen’s Carte Blanche, this was the chance to see The Man with a Movie Camera on 35mm, projected on a big screen in the original conditions (no soundtrack). With its constructivist aesthetics, Vertov’s film is a pure visual pleasure, due to both its coherence and its freedom: the vertiginous thrills it offers come from the creation of a total filmic language that uses images of daily life while eschewing conventional realism.
Painless (Juan Carlos Medina, 2012)
One of the highlights of the festival was the premiere of Spanish director Juan Carlos Medina’s first feature film. With the exception of the odd mannerism, it undeniably is a superb aesthetic achievement. Just like the best Spanish or South Korean films of the past decade, it succeeds in combining elements of genre with poetic and dreamlike filmmaking. In this historical and psychological puzzle, Medina develops an allegorical thriller in which several strands (the fate of children insensitive to pain, the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the personal story of a neurosurgeon) join up to form a pattern that is both terrifying and harmonious: a sublime film in the philosophical sense of the term.
Beyond the Forest (King Vidor, 1949)
Adapted from Stuart Engstrand’s novel, this somewhat clumsy film noir nevertheless offers an interesting take on the femme fatale, with the character of Rosa Moline, a frustrated woman, half-Lady Macbeth, half-Madame Bovary, played by Bette Davis. Her Bovarian ambition to escape from the mediocrity of her provincial life is counterbalanced by her emotional dependence on her lover. Rosa is thus the femme fatale who falls victim to her own fatality: the impotence of her desire.
The Driver (Walter Hill, 1978) The Driver belongs to a category of film in which the main character is reduced to a function and becomes a perfect bachelor–machine: there is even a femme fatale played by Isabelle Adjani (perfect when she stays silent) to complete the system. Much indebted to Jean-Pierre Melville’s The Samurai, The Driver re-appropriates the lessons Melville learnt from Hollywood, and inscribes his solitary character (in the most existential sense) within the codes of the most emblematic genre of American cinema: the Western. The bird’s chirping of Melville’s film is replaced in The Driver by a country song that serves both as a gimmick and a psychological signifier. The archetypal psychology of Western and crime film thus seems to match the samurai’s ethic: achieving virtuosity means renouncing life.
The international science-fiction festival Les Utopiales takes place from 7 to 12 November 2012 in Nantes, France, with a film programme curated by Etrange Festival programmer Frédéric Temps. This year’s theme is ‘Origins’ and the event is presided by astrophysician Roland Lehoucq with Neil Gaiman as its guest of honour. For more information, please visit the Utopiales website.
Mark Stafford reviews some of the highlights of the London Film Festival, including Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt and David Ayer’s End of Watch, out on UK screens this month.
John Dies at the End
Your new favourite film. A flip, funny thrill ride full of trippy headfuckery, rubber monsters, snappy dialogue and wild ideas, adapted from David Wong’s cult novel by Don (Phantasm/Bubba Ho-Tep) Coscarelli. Trying to explain the film’s singular tone is difficult: it’s like a punky horror/SF adventure infused with the snarky, iconoclastic sensibility of Fight Club.
Any attempt at a plot summary would be pretty much doomed; suffice to say that it concerns the effects of an intravenous drug called ‘soy sauce’, which has the effect of not so much opening the doors of perception as blowing them off their hinges. Users are apt to receive phone calls from the future and see physical manifestations of beings from other planes of existence, as a prelude to entering a multiverse of trouble and what looks like an inevitable spectacularly messy demise. David Wong (Chase Williamson) is trying to explain his recent life history on the sauce to a journalist (Paul Giamatti), the tale of how he and college buddy John (Andy Meyers) came by the stuff and started a chain of events that leads to them attempting to save the world from creepy inter-dimensional interlopers. Nothing is straightforward in this fast-paced genre mash-up: time and space are distorted, people aren’t what they seem, and metaphysical conundrums pop up with alarming regularity. I’m not sure if it’s about anything, exactly. There is a suspicion that it’s more smart-arsed than smart in places, and the random nature of the story means that it loses a little momentum before the home stretch, but I’m quibbling. It’s a blast, a wonderfully weird, eminently quotable midnight movie. Just don’t ask what happens to John, I wouldn’t want to ruin it for you.
A Liar’s Autobiography
Fourteen different animation studios pitch in to realise the late lamented Python Graham Chapman’s memoir, A Liar’s Autobiography, using recordings that Chapman made himself, assisted vocally by John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Carol Cleveland, among others (Cameron Diaz voices Sigmund Freud). The result is a somewhat disjointed, inconsistent, hugely affectionate film that leaps from point to point through a charmed and blighted life. It’s a woozy, drifting thing, where memory often gives way to fantasy, and you’d be hard pressed to decipher from it the actual biographical detail, the who, what, where and when, of Chapman’s life. But that’s hardly the point. He emerges as a kind of anti-Kenneth Williams, utterly un-tortured by his sexuality and status, but a bugger for the bottle, as a Python song would put it, seriously destroying his health, but never apparently committing the sin of being bad company.
The animation varies from stiff and flat to gorgeous and accomplished – I loved the nightmarish delirium tremens sequence, and the Scarborough holiday moments. A bit of a mixed bag, but on the whole it’s all rather lovely.
Thomas Vinterberg’s outstanding film features Mads Mikkelsen as a kindergarten teacher, a likeable man in a small Danish town of other likeable types, starting to pull his life together after a messy divorce, until one day he is accused by an angelic child, daughter of his best friend, and one of his charges, of inappropriate sexual behaviour. What follows is a tense, occasionally agonising drama as a good man’s life is systematically destroyed by reasonable people reduced to violence and hatred by an unfounded suspicion. It’s all well thought through, and nightmarishly plausible. Mikkelsen puts in fine work, but then none of the performers strikes a false note. The child especially comes across as a real living, breathing girl, whose actions make sense in a little girl way, worlds away from any number of Hollywood moppets. Photography is crisp and unfussy and the whole thing is full of well observed domestic detail that add weight to the horror and heartbreak. Not an easy watch, but worth it.
The Hunt is released in the UK on 30 November 2012 by Arrow Films.
In which Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein), a slight, vulnerable-looking boy, spends his days nicking the expensive gear of holidaying skiers at a Swiss resort, so that he can sell it on to the kids at the bottom of the mountain and support his feckless older sister as she quits job after job and fools around with a succession of jerks. He’s a ballsy, resourceful kid, but it’s clear that the precarious existence he’s created cannot last forever, and something is clearly wrong with the family situation. Ursula Meier’s film is perfectly fine, in a low-key sub- Dardennes kind of way. Gillian Anderson cameos as a guest at the resort, representing a way of life lost to the little thief; the location gives the film an aesthetic buzz; and John Parish’s throbbing score is sparingly used but damn fine. It’s clearly a heartfelt piece by a smart director – wish I could say I liked it more.
End of Watch
David Ayer’s cop drama feels at times like a recruitment ad for the LAPD gone seriously askew. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña playing the kind of unambiguous hero cops who’ll leap into burning buildings to rescue children – true blue, courageous, good husband and boyfriend material – which the film pits against the population of South Central Los Angeles, who, on this evidence, are all irrational, cruel and clueless, when not being actively malignant. Every house our partners enter contains another horror story, every car they stop contains a maniac with an AK 47, and as time passes their actions interfere more and more with the activities of a seriously nasty Mexican cartel, who have no qualms about putting out a hit on a couple of heroes.
The essential problem with End of Watch is that the vérité dynamics of the performances and camerawork are totally at odds with the heart-on-sleeve good versus evil schematics. The visuals are saying ‘this is real’, with all the action supposedly captured on surveillance and personal cameras, while galloping clichés and unlikely incidents are saying ‘this is horseshit’. The film starts with the legend ‘Once upon a time in South Central’ and names its main bad guy ‘Big Evil’, then knocks itself out straining for grimy authenticity.
You find yourself waiting in vain for some ambiguity to creep in, some acknowledgement of Rampart or Rodney King. Likewise, you keep expecting the ‘digital witness’ styling, which is consistently foregrounded, to actually have some significance to the story. But it doesn’t, and the horrible suspicion grows that this is just a pro-cop flag-waver with a simplistic Michael Winner agenda.
For all that, it’s actually pretty damn entertaining, largely because Gyllenhaall and Peña have a definite chemistry and are fun to watch, as are the outrageously horrible gang they’re up against, who provide some diverting, sleazy thrills. It’s funny and tense when it needs to be, has moments of oddball, Joseph Wambaugh-esque detail and it moves at an agreeable clip. But at the end of the day it’s not much cop.
End of Watch is released in the UK on 23 November 2012 by Studiocanal.
My Amityville Horror
This fine, puzzling documentary by Eric Walter consists largely of interviews with Daniel Lutz, who is, nowadays, a worker for the UPS, but who was, back in the 70s, the oldest son of the Lutz family, who were at the heart of the ‘Amityville Horror’ paranormal case study/ media franchise. Walter gets to film Daniel playing guitar, riding around in hot rods, visiting a therapist and meeting up with various people who had a connection to the original case in some kind of quest to attain closure and peace.
The film lets everybody speak for themselves, with no editorial voice-over or evident bias, which is fair enough, though it does kind of assume that you’re familiar with the AH phenomenon, in which the Lutzes were supposed to have endured 28 days of supernatural assault after moving into a house that they picked up as a bargain after it had been the scene of a nasty mass murder (Daniel was 10 at the time). I, for one, could have done with a few more subtitles spelling out the facts where the facts are known. But this is a case where hard facts are hard to find. AH is a battleground between those who believe that it was all a hoax and those who believe the Lutzes’ account, with the waters further muddied by Jay Anson’s decidedly dodgy bestseller and the 1974 film, with its various sequels and remakes.
There are some great characters and strange ideas revealed along the way, and a visit to a psychic’s house (dozens of occult carvings, twin roosters crowing in cages, a piece of the ‘true cross’ revealed) that is weird comedy gold. But the main reason to watch is Daniel, clearly scarred by the dysfunctional home life that erupted into a media sensation. He fled home at 14 and is now estranged from his family, paranoid, intense and angry, and prone to making forceful statements that beg more questions than they answer. A brittle man in a macho shell, he recalls the subject of Errol Morris’s 2011 doc Tabloid, another film where the very idea of ‘truth’ becomes slippery and elusive. Did this stuff happen? Does Daniel need to believe it did? A film to argue over.
Julia’s Eyes writer Oriol Paulo turns co-writer and director for this wonderful piece of creepy hokum, an implausible cocktail of Hitchcock, Agatha Christie and Les Diaboliques, which, for the most part, features a man surrounded by suspicious cops being elaborately framed, apparently by a dead woman, for a murder he has committed. In a morgue. During a thunderstorm. Can we call a film delicious? I think we can.
An effective, nasty little film from Craig Zobel. Something fishy is up at the Chick-wich fast food outlet, it’s a busy day and they’re low on bacon, when police officer Daniels phones to accuse one of their members of staff, Becky (Dreama Walker), of theft. Stressed manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) goes along with his requests, searching Becky’s things, and then, at his repeated insistence, strip-searches Becky herself. So far, so creepy, but as the day wears on and the promised cops fail to show up, the demands of Officer Daniels become more and more extreme…
Zobel clearly wants to make you feel uncomfortable and does a great job of it, stretching out the moments of stilted conversation, dawning realisation and disbelief. His film walks a fine tightrope, how far can he push this? You find yourself in a state of growing anger, hoping that someone on screen will have the balls to question the caller, or refuse his demands. Which I guess is the point. I doubt I was the only one to recall Stanley Milgram’s psychological experiments of the 60s. How far do you obey authority’s demands? What are you willing to do if given permission? Big questions for what some would dismiss as a horrible piece of exploitation. But then Zobel has the ultimate get-out clause in that Compliance is based on true events, that happened over and over again.
Although the film isn’t particularly explicit, it clearly crossed a line for many in the packed audience I was in. The sound of seats flipping up started at about the half-hour mark, and built to a crescendo, with one man yelling, ‘come on every body, time to leave!’ as Becky’s humiliation continued. The majority of us stayed though, squirming in the dark. I guess we were compliant.
West of Memphis
A long haul, two-and-a-half-hour documentary that absolutely needs that length. Amy Berg’s film details the ‘West Memphis Three’ case from 1994, when three eight-year-old boys were found dead in Arkansas, in what was suspected by the police to be a case of satanic ritual abuse. Three likely teenage suspects were rounded up and tried. The film then follows events through the 18 years they spent in a supermax prison as clamour slowly grew to overturn a miscarriage of justice and set them free. The clamour first took the shape of the documentary Paradise Lost, which galvanised the likes of Henry Rollins and Eddie Vedder into campaigning and fund-raising for the long battle, and, more pertinently, gained the attention of producer Fran Walsh and director Peter Jackson, who got on board to bankroll investigations to produce new evidence, and demolish the prosecution’s case. This is a Wingnut film, produced by Walsh, Jackson, and Damien Echols, one of the WM3.
Considering that, West of Memphis is fairly even-handed, giving voice to a fair few interviewees who still believe, or profess to believe, that the three teens committed the crime, but it’s clear where the film is coming from, and it’s difficult to argue with that perspective. The flimsiness of the original prosecution beggars belief: an alarmist conflation of dodgy ‘witnesses’, spurious medical evidence and the heavily coerced testimony of a borderline retarded teenager, it’s simultaneously blackly amusing and enraging to see it all torn apart. More enraging still is the state of Arkansas justice, where opportunities for retrial after retrial are denied for clearly political ends despite DNA evidence and new witnesses. One of the odder moments sees the campaigners praying for Judge Burnett’s bid to run for senator to succeed, purely so that he’ll no longer be in a position to stonewall.
It’s a fascinating story, full of twists and turns, dark ironies and striking characters, and Berg’s film largely shapes it as a long march to justice. Ambiguities remain, however. The outcome of the campaign is highly unsatisfactory, a baffling piece of legal chicanery that means that the likeliest suspect (Terry Hobbs, stepfather to one of the boys) is never going to see a courtroom. There is a glossed-over element of the tale, when the makers of Paradise Lost 2 seem to have tried to finger the wrong man for the crimes, based partly on the same logic of the WM3 conviction (i.e., that he was kinda funny lookin’, being a mulleted redneck, rather than a goth). And we’ll probably never know what actually happened to those boys in 1994. It’s an indication of how weird and twisted the whole thing gets that the only time Terry Hobbs is placed on a witness stand to answer questions about the murders is as a result of his attempt to sue one of the Dixie Chicks.
All of the key players are interviewed, and the unobtrusive soundtrack is by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. I wish I could say it makes the locale look starkly beautiful, but it really doesn’t, a polyester-clad trailer park hellhole of foetid water and barren scrub. But you only have to spend a hundred and fifty minutes there. I was never bored, it’s very much recommended, but viewers should be warned that it contains a lot of distressing forensic footage. And a scene where a snapping turtle attacks a dead pig’s testicles. I’m not going to forget that in a hurry.
West of Membphis is released in the UK on 21 December 2012 by Sony Pictures.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews