All posts by Pam Jahn

An Electronic Murmuration: Brian Eno’s Music for Land of the Minotaur

Land of the Minotaur1
Land of the Minotaur

As the priest and the private detective approach the window, a familiar motif strikes up on the soundtrack. Deep in the bass, a succession of notes alternate by a semi-tone to anxiety-inducing effect. It’s not an entirely original idea: it’s essentially a sped-up and harmonically simplified version of the leitmotif Richard Wagner uses to introduce the dragon, Fafner, in the opera Seigfried. From the 1930s to the 1950s, Wagner’s wurm-motiv became something of a Hollywood staple, used to signify the monstrous and the numinous in films from King Kong (1933) to The Thing from Another World (1951). But at this tempo it can’t help but recall to modern ears one of the most recognisable bits of film music of all time: the shark’s theme from Jaws, made in 1975, the very same year as this low-rent schlock-fest from Greek director, Kostas Karagiannis.

In the context of Land of the Minotaur (aka The Devil’s Men), however, this is by far the most conservative bit of the whole score, notable as one of the very few moments on the soundtrack to employ actual recognisable musical notes. For the most part, the music by Brian Eno avoids the question of tonality altogether in favour of a shimmering cascade of electronic murmuration. As strange things go on in a small Greek town, with cultists sacrificing licentious teens to a fire-breathing minotaur statue, Eno produces an eerie susurrus of humming and heavy breathing, echoplexed into a dense fog of sound.

Produced in the same year that the ex-Roxy Music synth player would record his second collaboration with Robert Fripp and earn a credit for ‘direct injection anti-jazz ray gun’ on Robert Wyatt’s second solo album, Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard, it’s a reasonable assumption that he employed the same system of daisy-chained delay units. It’s a modus operandi Eno would accuse Terry Riley of copying from him – an accusation that would be a lot more plausible if only history travelled backwards – and is an early example of his now all-consuming passion for generative composition, inspired by the cybernetics of Norbert Wiener, the process-based minimalism of Riley and Steve Reich, and the generative grammars of Noam Chomsky. But what sounds contemplative and quietly zen on its near contemporaries is here unearthly, unsettling, goose-pimpling stuff. One of the real highlights of Eno’s soundtrack career – and an unfortunate omission from his two Music for Films compilations.

Robert Barry

Cannes 2013

The Congress
The Congress

Cannes International Film Festival

15 – 26 May 2013

Cannes, France

Cannes Festival website

Just like the weather – after all the most talked about subject in Cannes, besides the films and the red carpet hoopla – the 66th edition of the festival was a patchy affair. There were some true marvels that staggered people’s imaginations, interspersed with a number of average efforts, but thankfully very few real stinkers. If Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’or winner Blue is the Warmest Colour and J. C. Chandor’s All Is Lost (screening out of competiton) represented the most welcome and exciting surprises, then Takashi Miike (Shield of Straw) and François Ozon (Young & Beautiful) delivered merely mediocre, and quite possibly, their least thrilling films to date in the Competition. Likewise, the three major sidebar sections – Un Certain Regard, Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week – proved as strong, unpredictable and adventurous as ever, with even one or two remarkable stand-outs and smaller-scale cinematic pleasures, which could have easily rivalled the big players in the official selection. Below, Pamela Jahn revisits some of the highlights worth looking out for in UK cinemas or at other festivals in the coming months.

The Congress (Ari Folman, 2013)
Opening this year’s Director’s Fortnight, Ari Folman’s follow up to his 2008 Cannes competition entry Waltz with Bashir is an idiosyncratic masterpiece, highly ambitious in its scale and complexity, and fuelled with dazzling animated beauty. In a daringly intimate performance, Robin Wright plays herself, an acclaimed actress just past her prime with a market value diminished to zero, her previous stardom being long buried in Hollywood history. When her agent, Al (Harvey Keitel), tells her she’s being given one last chance by her studio, Miramount, Robin reluctantly agrees to a meeting, unknowing what this final offer entails. The plan is to motion-capture Wright, to copy her body, feelings, memories, and gestures in order to create a digital alter ego that can easily be adjusted to fit into any blockbuster, TV show or commercial as required by the studio. As part of the deal that promises her both a generous pay-off and the guarantee of eternal youth on screen, the real Robin Wright must retire with no claim as to how her virtual self is being used in the future. At first, she refuses, but family constraints force her to reconsider.

So far, The Congress might appear as a vicious, darkly cynical take on the movie industry in the digital age and how Hollywood treats its ageing goddesses. What then happens, however, about 50 minutes into the film, is best seen first-hand. Loosely inspired by Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress, and again combining animation and live action to puzzling effect, Folman jumps forward 20 years to find the real Wright aged and out of business, while her alter ego has become one of the biggest action heroines on screen as ‘Rebel Robot Robin’. Invited to Miramount’s Futurological Congress, the actress must pass into a strange animated zone, which opens an entirely new, imaginary universe of its own, crowded with celebrity doubles who escape their daily misery through drug-induced hallucinations; it’s a place that visually blends the style of 1930s Betty Boop cartoons and the trippy aesthetic of Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World. At the same time, Folman slows down the action to plunge into something darker, deeper, more inventive and more existential than merely teasing the Hollywood system to the core. Soused in gorgeous imagery and surreal, intoxicated melancholy, the second half of The Congress meanders gracefully between philosophical, religious and ideological reflections on the human condition, yet despite minor flaws, never loses sight of its original premise. The film is a fiercely original, bold and riveting meditation on the future of the silver screen and the stars that make it shine.

A Touch of Sin
A Touch of Sin

A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, 2013)
Although director Jia Zhangke officially denied in interviews that his close relationship with Office Kitano was more than simply based on financial support for this production, A Touch of Sin feels like a ferocious piece of work very much in the same vein as the best films by the Japanese director and friend, albeit intensified by the social-political backdrop addressed here. Based on four real-life criminal cases (including a murder, suicide and a couple of killing sprees), Zhangke’s protagonists represent a cross section of contemporary Chinese society, from different areas of the country. Seen from that perspective, the film, which deservedly won Zhangke the award for Best Screenplay, is a sanguinary, tense investigation into the Chinese economic miracle and the brutalising effect it has on the lives of ordinary people at the bottom end of the ladder, who ultimately can’t help but vent their rage, rising up against authority, in a world not theirs. Likewise, on a visual level, A Touch of Sin is a powerful war of the senses, in the way the stylised violence seems gently aligned with the character’s innermost thoughts and emotions, enabling the audience to savour a similar cold adrenaline rush as those wuxia and Lady Vengeance-type characters on screen.

Blue is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)
The winner of the Palme d’Or was the talk of the town from the moment of the first press screening until long after the award ceremony. Although most critics immediately fell in love with this oddly seductive, three-hour lesbian love saga, soon after taking home the main prize, the film was slammed by others for some oddly positioned camera angles focusing on the central character’s arse and the lengthy scenes of real-looking sex between her and her female lover, allegedly all designed for the male gaze. What’s more, Julie Maroh, author of the graphic novel the film was inspired by, has publicly expressed her disappointment about Kechiche’s adaptation, describing the sex scenes as ‘ridiculous’ and comparing them to porn. What’s true is that Kechiche does have a tendency to keep the camera pointed and rolling just a little longer and deeper than most directors would have done when it comes to depicting Adèle’s lust for life, love and home-made spaghetti.

Blue is the Warmest Colour will be released in UK Cinemas by Artificial Eye on 15 November 2013.

On the other hand, the sex aside, there simply aren’t many films that manage to keep you hooked for that sort of running time on not much more than the coming-of-age of a middle-class, high-school girl who instantly and desperately falls for a foxy art student, from the moment she spots her on the street until their painful and moving break-up as young adults. That of course is in no small part thanks to the two leads, Adèle Exarchopoulos (Carré blanc) and Léa Seydoux, who play their parts with utter conviction, guided by a script that allows them to find their own voices.

The Dance of Reality (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 2013)
Jodorowsky’s first film in over 20 years is a strictly personal affair, an attempt to reconstruct his life from childhood to the present. For most of its 130-minute running time, The Dance of Reality (La danza de la realidad) feels like a potpourri of adventures both magical and tragic but, sadly, the film meanders along a bit too nicely and gradually loses momentum in the second half. That is, of course, if you compare it to the vicious energy and boldness that his earlier midnight movie masterpieces (El Topo, Santa Sangre) generated, which clearly does this beautifully constructed and aptly surreal biopic a little injustice. Arguably, the more revealing film about the Chilean director might have been Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune, which premiered in the Director’s Fortnight section alongside Jodorowsky’s feature film, and is an eye-opening, highly entertaining glimpse into the truth behind Jodorowsky’s famously aborted plans to bring Herbert’s epic fantasy novel to the screen.

La grande bellezza1
The Great Beauty

The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
Certain parallels aside (Rome, the passive journalist protagonist, the lavish life-style), The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) is no simple remake of La dolce vita, although it might ask the same big existential question about the meaning of life in a city that, as it appears in Paolo Sorrentino’s film more than 50 years after Fellini’s, is as dazzling and captivating as ever.

The Great Beauty is released in UK Cinemas by Artificial Eye on 6 September 2013.

An ageing art journalist, one-off bestselling author and tireless gigolo, Jep Gambardella (brilliantly played by Sorrentino’s favourite and long-term collaborator Toni Servillo) knows many a secret and the entire high society in Rome, but can’t seem to make sense of his own extravagant life. At his 65th birthday party, his façade of irony and ignorance slowly begins to crumble as he bemoans the lack of ‘true’ beauty in his world of excess, luxury, endless spiel and easy women, and blatantly shares his disgust with his so-called friends and enemies, as much as with himself. The film itself is somewhat exhausting, and might seem to some superfluous from the start and preposterous in the execution, but it’s also a beautiful film about loss, death and sacrifice, and about those special, unforgettable moments you share with others that make life worth living.

Bastards (Claire Denis, 2013)
As soon as this year’s festival programme was announced in April, debates emerged about the lack of women directors in the Competition (there were none last year and only one this year), and in particular, the question over why a director as accomplished and exciting as Claire Denis would be screened in Un Certain Regard instead, which was once thought of as more of a discovery zone for new and emerging directors. And while Denis’s film clearly felt more at home in this section than Sofia Coppola’s Bling Ring, which opened Un Certain Regard, Bastards (Les salauds) could have easily competed at the top level. Denis’s latest, about a man’s doomed shot at payback for crimes committed against his family, is a puzzle-like drama of family struggles and secrets, and lives destroyed by the power of money and a ruthless businessman with a taste for vile sexual entertainment.

Artificial Eye will release Bastards in UK cinemas in Spring 2014.

Delivering a rock-solid performance, Vincent Lindon plays Marco, the lonely cowboy (or in his case, supertanker captain), whose plans for revenge are frustrated by his own emotional desires as he starts an affair with his enemy’s long-term mistress. While Bastards has a dark, gloomy allure throughout, accompanied by an intriguing score by her frequent collaborators Stuart A. Staples and Tindersticks, the fragmented, non-linear structure and opaque character development run fatally dry towards the end. It might not go down as Denis’s best works, but it’s still a film worth watching if you are familiar with, or would like to explore, the director’s contrary, elliptical style, which is full of alluring shady textures and tones.

only lovers left alive
Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013)
After Jarmusch’s last film, The Limits of Control, it seemed that another great director was close to losing his genius, but there is a welcome sense of rebirth about Only Lovers Left Alive from the moment it opens. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston make for a brilliant pair of vampire lovers who have been truly, madly, deeply in love for centuries, yet are now living apart. Swinton’s resilient and enigmatic Eve resides in lush Tangiers while Hiddleston’s disheartened underground musician, Adam, is holed up in the outskirts of derelict Detroit. When their longing for each other becomes unbearable, Eve decides to take on the difficult journey (she can only travel at night) to reunite with Adam, but soon after the couple are back together, their gently hedonistic idyll of non-murderous blood and old vinyl is disrupted by the arrival of Eve’s unnerving, uncontrollable younger sister (Mia Wasikowska).

Only Lovers Left Alive is released in UK Cinemas by Soda Pictures on 21 February 2014.

Nothing much happens in Jarmusch’s sensuous fantasy of night and nostalgia, apart from the fact that the pair are running short of the sort of pure, uncontaminated blood that they now need to keep them going. But watching these two archetypal outcasts, still in full possession of their animal instincts, as they roam around trying to blend in with their surroundings, is an undemanding, irresistible pleasure.

Watch the trailer for Only Lovers Left Alive:

Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)
As expected, the latest offering from the Coens was one of the hottest tickets of the festival. Inside Llewyn Davis tells the heartfelt story of an itinerant, relentlessly failing and unashamedly self-pitying folk singer in 1960s New York, loosely based on the life of Dave Van Ronk, who was at the centre of the Greenwich Village music scene. Adored by many at the time, Van Ronk never had his big breakthrough, just as Davis (Oscar Isaac) struggles to keep his head above water with occasional gigs in a tiny club called Gaslight, and with the help of his peevish ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) who might, or might not be, expecting his child. But that’s only one of the many problems leading to his downfall, which culminates in a trip to Chicago to visit the legendary folk club The Gate of Horn.

Inside Llewyn Davis will be released in UK Cinemas by Studiocanal on 24 January 2014.

To a large extent, the Coens are working in known territory: a bunch of flawed, but strangely intriguing characters, dry-as-dusk dialogue and some wonderful music supervised by T-Bone Burnett, fused together into an impressively subtle, dark but magical character study that says as much about shattered dreams and the trouble with art as it does about the mystery of life and luck. What makes the film uniquely special, however, is Isaac’s riveting performance (both playing the guitar and acting), and who makes his precariously unlikable character unexpectedly compelling, as he wanders through the streets and other people’s lives, and shines whenever he’s on stage.

Watch the trailer for Inside Llewyn Davis :

Festival report by Pamela Jahn

The Sessions: Interview with John Hawkes

The Sessions

Format: DVD

Release date: 20 May 2013

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Director: Ben Lewin

Writer: Ben Lewin

Cast: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy

USA 2012

95 mins

Starring in Ben Lewin’s sex-surrogate dramedy The Sessions as the 36-year-old poet and journalist Mark O’Brien who, paralysed by childhood polio and living in an iron lung, decides he no longer wants to be a virgin, doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for a distinctive actor like John Hawkes. But then, he has always been an elusive, unpretentious performer, ever since he first appeared in Ronald W. Moore’s 1985 sci-fi-horror-comedy Future-Kill. And after his long-standing relationship with television – most famously playing the merchant Sol Star in the HBO series Deadwood – and back-to-back supporting roles in successful American indie dramas such as Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene, it made sense for Hawkes to take up the challenge of carrying a film on his own, portraying a real-life person who can barely move his head, but doesn’t give up.

Pamela Jahn talked to John Hawkes at the 60th San Sebastian International Film Festival in September 2012 about his approach to acting, the trouble with independent cinema, and why music helps to keep you sane in a sometimes insane world.

Pamela Jahn: Your part in The Sessions requires you to act with only your face for about 98&#37 of the time. Was that what drew you into the role, or what fascinated you about this particular character?

John Hawkes: No, actually this was a reason for me to almost chicken out and not do it at all. Every actor says that what interests them is what scares them, and I think there is some truth in that. I knew it would be a challenge, but I was more taken with the story as a whole, with realising that this was an extraordinary life to try to portray on screen. And once I had figured out how to portray him physically, the interesting thing to me was the revelation that he was a human being. So ultimately, on some level, I approached the character like I would have done with any other acting role. What I have learned over the years, in terms of what works best for me to get into character, is to try and figure out what the story is as a whole, and to think about how the character I am playing can most effectively and interestingly and truthfully help to try to tell that story. What does the character want, what are his needs and his goals as a whole, as well as from moment to moment? I would study whatever the character calls for – like, in Mark’s case, it was learning to function with a mouth stick – but only to forget all that when the director calls ‘action’. Then you are just present with the other actor in the scene and whatever happens kind of happens, and Mark was no exception to this. He is ultimately a human being, and the two most important things for me were to avoid the temptation of acting with my face and also to avoid self-pity in Mark, because that’s never interesting to watch. It’s always more interesting to follow someone trying to accomplish their goals, whatever the goal may be.

In contrast to Mark, you played pretty tough, bad guys in Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene.

I never liked to think of Patrick, who is my character in Martha Macy May Marlene, as a really bad guy. He’s misunderstood. (Laughs) No, but seriously, I wouldn’t approach a character in such broad terms. It would make no sense to myself, to my character or to the story to make that kind of judgement. I don’t believe anyone in this world is purely evil, or purely good. I think that we are all variations along the light and dark scale, some trend more towards one side, some more towards the other side. Like in Patrick’s case, on one level I thought it was important for him to believe that what he was doing was best for the people around him.

How did you approach Patrick’s backstory?

I love doing research. It’s just fun for me to overprepare, and if I spend two or three hundred hours in preparation outside the script, and get two seconds on film that are better off because of that time I spent researching, then it was worth it for me. Patrick was a very different case though. I thought of a very broad backstory and then kind of put it out of my mind. Since these people – as Sean Durkin, the director, had explained it in the script – had no calendars and no watches, it was interesting to me to think of Patrick as having fallen out of space and landing in the forest, and not really having a past or a future, but only the moment that he is in. I also didn’t want to get too much into the problems that the film addresses on a subtle level, like cults, the search for identity, etc., because it felt to me that that was already on the page – meaning that what was essential was already in the script. So I worked mainly by negation or subtraction. I wasn’t interested in creating another Charles Manson or Jim Jones type of character, in fact I tried to forget everything I’d ever heard about cults. I thought of them more as a community. And I also felt that in order to serve the story in the best possible way, that if I had been a recognisably evil guy from the moment that Elisabeth Olson’s character Martha meets me – which is obviously part of what the film is about, because it’s Martha’s story – so if, when she meets Patrick, the audience sees this kind of evil-incarnate-the-devil-in-the-flesh-mustache-twiddling-svengali-con-man, I don’t think it would have been credible enough for the audience to stay with her throughout the story. Whereas if they meet Patrick and, as the film goes on, they can at least begin to understand why she might hang out with this guy and have some sympathy for her joining up with this group of people, then they’re going to have a better journey alongside of her. So I was lucky, because I wasn’t interested in such a broad cliché kind of character anyway, and Sean agreed that it was best to make the layers peel off of my character as we went along.

Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene both turned out to be surprisingly successful films, but it is kind of hard to explain why these films in particular received so much more attention than many other great independent movies these days.

Part of the problem is, I think, that we are offered a bewildering amount of choices. Young people growing up have a much more chaotic lifestyle, it’s easier for them to be advertised to in every possible medium that exists, and I think it’s much harder for them to find something to focus on. And I don’t think that the many different devices available now make us any smarter or improve our taste, sadly. There is wonderful art being made because you can do it on your own and more cheaply, and I like the democracy of it, but I also feel that it makes for a lot of bad art and it makes it harder for people to find the good work. Like if everyone has the exact same-size megaphone and is yelling through it, how do you know who to listen to? That’s why it is hard for a small movie to find its audience, because there is just too much of everything. But that said, I also I feel there is kind of a rebirth around the world, as far as I can tell, of independent film and partly that might be because the digital revolution is making it easier for people without quite as much money to make movies. I think it’s a reaction to the American studio system and the studio films that are being made now, which have seemingly laid aside the kind of mid-level budget movie that they used to make in the 1970s for adults. Now it seems to me that it’s all about cartoons for kids and some of those are really wonderfully done. But I think there is still an audience for a more subtle, nuanced sort of story, and the only way to tell that story these days is independently. The studio system seems to guess what the audience might like and independent cinema doesn’t care much what the audience likes but wants to tell the story that they would want to see.

On the other hand, is seems more difficult now to only do independent movies in America, either as a director or as an actor?

Yes, it’s true, and I don’t only do independent movies. At the same time, I don’t fault anyone in this business for their decisions. I only know that I have kept a very low overhead, I don’t need to make a lot of money, I don’t have alimony or child support or a mansion that I have to pay off, I owe nobody nothing, which gives me more freedom to choose, and I’m fortunate enough that I don’t have to take on any roles that I don’t believe in. I’ve been around for 25 years now, and I guess if someone had told me right at the beginning of my career that I could be in a huge studio movie and make a lot of money, I would have probably been very excited about that prospect. Over time though, when you see how things work and if you have been burned a couple of times, like getting involved in productions that weren’t that good, you need to really trust your gut when you read a script, and you need to decide whether you want to be part of it or not. But again, I am not against studio movies at all. It’s just that most of the scripts that appeal to me, and that make me feel alive when I read them, are independent scripts. There are very few directors these days, like the Coen Brothers, who work within the studio system and create really vital, amazing work, and until those guys call me, I will stay in the independent world, simply because the stories are more interesting to me. It’s all about personal taste, I guess. Like, for example, I took on a small part in Soderbergh’s Contagion, which I haven’t seen yet, actually. This wasn’t exactly a studio movie but a quite expensive independent movie, and the reason I did it was because it was a wonderful script and because Soderbergh is a terrific filmmaker. Whereas after the Academy Awards, I got a stack of scripts to read and I chose the two lowest budget ones, not out of any kind of elitist sense, but because they were the two most interesting stories with the two most interesting roles for me.

Who or what made you want to become an actor?

That’s an interesting question. I’ve always been interested in Robert Duvall’s work. But before that, what made me want to be an actor was going on a school trip to the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis when I was about 14. I am from a small town in Minnesota and, at that point, had never really seen a play before. I was amazed by that afternoon in the theatre and I kept wondering whether I could make people feel things like those people made me feel that day. But the first movie that really got under my skin and spun my head around was Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude. Like Ruth Gordon said, ‘Go out and live and give them something to talk about in the locker room.’ That kind of thing. It was a very inspiring movie to me that said in the most broad way, ‘Follow your dreams!’ So that, and reading Jack Kérouac’s On the Road and hearing Tom Waits’s music for the first time… all those things happened when I was 18 and less than a year later I was hitchhiking around.

Talking of Tom Waits, music still seems to play a very important role in your life as well?

Yeah definitely, but I see it more like a hobby, less than a career. I am not really putting stuff out there. But I’ve been playing in bands since the early 1980s. And when you’re doing a film or a play and you’re speaking someone else’s words, it’s kind of a joy to put your own thoughts down and out there. It’s like food for me, and it keeps me sane.

What kind of music do you compose and do you listen to?

Those are two different things to me, so there ought to be different answers to this in a way. The music I compose you’d probably call quite simple music. I am untrained, so I don’t sit down to write a song specifically. It’s more an idea that gets into my head and then I take a shower, and I am driving and walking around, and eventually it comes out when I can no longer stand carrying it around with me. The idea finally beats me into a corner and I get a pen and write it down and sing it. I guess you could call it folk music, I wish there was a better term, but I hope it has guts and humour and something to offer people. The kind of music that I hear, that would be the widest range. The genre doesn’t matter to me – if people are telling the truth, whether it is gangster rap or German polka or opera or straight ahead rock & roll, if it’s the real people making it and I hear it enough, I will understand it. I have always loved music, long before I started playing it. I started playing guitar in sixth grade, but just taught myself. I had no training either as an actor or as musician.

For someone who prefers working in the independent film sector and who likes keeping privacy, living in L.A. almost seems an odd choice.

I live in L.A., but I don’t go to the velvet rope clubs and I don’t know too many movie stars. I know the place has a reputation for being full of shallow people, but I don’t know that scene, because I don’t hang out with those people. My friends are generally unknown filmmakers, musicians, visual artists, mostly really talented and interesting people that I am inspired by, and I hope they feel that they can learn from me as well. There are certainly more people that I am amazed by than I can keep up with after 20 years living in L.A.. And there is also an awesome little music scene that still kind of happens away from the major labels. It’s that kind of thing that I love to be part of. I come from the post-punk scene in Austin, Texas, and there is a sensibility that I have as far as music and storytelling and theatre is concerned, which comes from the same kind of do-it-yourself approach that also tells you not to worry about the result too much, or who is watching. Just do it!

Interview by Pamela Jahn


Best Friends Forever
Best Friends Forever


30 April – 6 May 2013

London, UK

SFL website

Alex Fitch reviews some of the highlights of this year’s Sci-Fi-London Film Festival, which took up residence again at Stratford East Picturehouse and the BFI.

Best Friends Forever (Brea Grant, 2013)
An unlikely mash-up of Thelma and Louise (1991), Clueless (1995) and When the Wind Blows (1986), Best Friends Forever is a terrific, low-budget road movie which sees a pair of friends travel cross country from L. A. to Austin, Texas, oblivious to the apocalypse that is taking place around them. Written, produced by and starring Vera Miao and Brea Grant, the director, the film obviously relies heavily on the chemistry between the two leads. Luckily, they make for an endearing pair of travelling companions, unaware that the usual travails that beset unwary voyagers (being car jacked, breaking down, visiting remote rest stops) are now tinged with additional despair and calamity as news reports bring info about nuclear attacks on the USA.

Gritty cinematography and snatches of doom-laden radio on the soundtrack reflect the legacy of 1970s road movies, but with a refreshingly female-orientated storyline and lightness of touch. The film ends with a comic-book illustrated credit sequence that presages a possible Mad Max-style sequel, and the preceding mixture of slapstick and pathos that accompany Miao and Grant’s adventures make the trip fly by. On the basis of this first sojourn, I for one would be more than happy to spend more time in their company.

Listen to Alex Fitch’s interview with actress Vera Miao.

Watch the trailer for Best Friends Forever:

Birdemic II: The Resurrection (James Nguyen, 2013)
While Sci-Fi-London has screened some tremendous films over the years, including numerous gems that might never have seen the light of day otherwise, the festival also has the dubious honour of having screened two of the worst films I’ve ever seen in my life. Following 2002’s The Fall of the Louse of Usher (sic), a film I would like to see wiped from the face of the earth so director Ken Russell’s reputation can be preserved in his dotage, we now have a film so incompetent in its construction that it beggars belief that anyone wanted to commit it to film, assuming the preceding Birdemic I is even half as bad. Unbelievably, I found myself in the minority at the London premiere, as an audience filled with Birdemic fans whooped and cheered every clunky line of dialogue, woeful ‘special effect’ and inept editing decision. To add insult to injury, a film critic sitting next to me thought it was wonderful, which increasingly made me feel I was in a room full of people who were drunk, insane, members of a cult, or all three.

Certainly Sci-Fi-London has a regular and loyal audience for its MST3K screenings – all night marathons of B-movies which are heckled by onscreen comedians – but this cherishing of terrible films by audiences (pace The Room phenomenon) is inexplicable to me, particularly during a recession, unless somehow the postage-stamp budget is enough to justify the existence of such train wrecks. It would be churlish of me to point out the flaws in the 1980s video-game style CGI, the interminable opening scene or the ham-fisted edits of the cast (seemingly filmed on separate days), so I’ll leave the last word to a member of the audience who innocently asked the following of the director, at the Q & A after the film: ‘In the scene where the girl is attacked by a giant jellyfish, why is she taken away by what looks like a cartoon ambulance?’

Dark by Noon
Dark by Noon

Dark by Noon (Alan Leonard & Michael O’Flaherty, 2012)
Since the start of this decade, Ireland has produced an unexpected number of sci-fi films, following a history of next to none. These have included post-apocalyptic drama One Hundred Mornings (2009), comedy monster movie Grabbers (2012), UFO rom-com Earthbound (2012) and now time-travel thriller Dark by Noon. The latter closed this year’s festival and, as a low-budget local film that punches above its weight in terms of ambition and concept, was a good choice for this slot.

While ostensibly set in a futuristic Dublin, the film has a mid-Atlantic feel, mixing the grit and clenched teeth of Anglo-Irish gangster films and the post-industrial noir look of Blade Runner (1982). The second of this year’s ‘mid-apocalyptic’ films at Sci-Fi-London, following Best Friends Forever, Dark by Noon’s aptly oppressive atmosphere presages a terror attack on the city, which the lead character – a time-travelling eidetic savant played by Patrick Buchanan – tries to prevent from happening.

In the Q&A following the film, the movie’s directors, Alan Leonard and Michael O’Flaherty, talked about how this type of character might be seen as the origin of a new superhero (or villain), as well as how various cuts of the film exist, with the one shown at the festival probably not the one that will gain further release. With the cut shown, the interest in the intriguing plot and excellent production design is offset by a slightly obtuse narrative and somewhat one-note performances by all involved. With a bit more light shone into the darkness (in terms of both tone and plot clarification), sequels and longer cuts would certainly be welcome.

Dead Meat Walking (Omar J. Pineda, 2012)
Over the past 10 years, the phenomenon of zombie walks has become increasingly visible in metropolitan environments across the globe, as members of the public – with varying skills at make-up and choreography – meet up, dress as the living dead and lurch from one place to another in the glare of smartphone cameras and bemused onlookers. Dead Meat Walking tracks this meme from its early days at the turn of the century as an ill-attended gathering of half-a-dozen Canadians in Toronto to the improbable occasions of several thousand people gathering for zombie events in North and Latin American cities.

First-time director Omar J. Pineda frames the proceedings with a confident air and a very slick presentation for most interviews included in the film. Only the brief exchanges with zombie alumni – such as director/make-up expert Tom Savini, Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus and Night of the Living Dead co-author John Russo – seem grabbed in haste at memorabilia conventions, where the sound and picture aren’t quite up to the professional standard of the humble interviewees on the zombie walks themselves. As an introduction to a somewhat bizarre subculture, this is an essential opening salvo, with particularly good interrogations of Reedus and a senior Rabbi who see a parallel between zombie walkers and the disaffected Occupy/99% movements. Elsewhere, while the enthusiasm of everyone involved is endearingly obvious, it would have been great to have a psychologist’s opinion of the phenomenon to counterbalance the occasionally vacuous pronouncements of the walkers themselves, but then I suppose one shouldn’t expect great self-examinations from the shuffling dead, when their presence is more about spectacle than insight.

Watch the trailer for Dead Meat Walking:

Piercing Brightness (Shezad Dawood, 2012)
Armed with the desire to engage with local immigrant culture and people, and curious to explore Lancashire’s reputation for the largest number of UFO sightings in the UK, filmmaker and fine artist Shezad Dawood travelled to Preston to make a film that addressed some of these concerns. Following the artist’s first film, Feature, a beguiling mash-up of cowboys, blue-skinned aliens, musical numbers and funeral arrangements, Dawood tackles a longer length project and provides almost enough visual material and intriguing narrative ellipses to engage the viewer for the 75 minute running time.

Listen to Alex Fitch’s discussion with director Shezad Dawood here. Piercing Brightness is released by Soda Film+Art in cinemas and art spaces across the UK on 7 June.

Piercing Brightness premiered in a shorter cut called Trailer, which was about half the running time of the feature, as part of a retrospective of the artist’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford. Although perhaps better framed in the gallery environment than a traditional cinema, the shorter cut is almost entirely impenetrable, with its disparate and disjointed elements of Close Encounters, mass observation and skateboard culture. Additional dialogue in the longer cut gives us some insight into the lives of the participants, but this is a film primarily about the juxtaposition of images of the ‘kitchen sink’ North with flying saucers. As a provocation to more traditional films set in and around these subjects, the film has enough set pieces to engage viewers used to the alienating (pun intended) extremes of art-house cinema, such as that practised by Lukas Moodysson or Abbas Kiarostami. However, for more casual viewers of traditional sci-fi, to quote a member of the audience at the screening: ‘I had no idea what it was all about…’

Sado Tempest

Sado Tempest (John Williams, 2012)
A dystopian reworking of The Tempest featuring a Japanese alt-rock band isn’t the most obvious adaptation of Shakespeare, but speaking as someone who first enjoyed the Bard on screen via Kurosawa’s samurai interpretations of King Lear (Ran, 1985) and Macbeth (Throne of Blood, 1957), sometimes the most obscure translations are the best. Sado Tempest sees members of the band Jitterbug locked up in an inhospitable island prison for inspiring their audiences to rebel against a future government’s totalitarian regime. There, tortured and browbeaten by inmates and guards alike, the band are forced to record bland new ‘unreleased’ material to fill the pockets of record company execs who want to satiate an eager public who think their heroes are dead. If you’re wondering where the travails of Miranda and Prospero come in, this is all against the backdrop of a wild island inhabited by demons, once scoured by an apocalyptic storm, which threatens to return again…

This is a beautifully shot film with engaging musical numbers and a convincing dystopian environment. But for a sci-fi film, the fantastical elements are strangely subdued and the filmmakers shy away from parallels with the 2011 T&#333hoku tsunami, both being elements that could have improved the saga immeasurably. The prison drama is captivating but the leaden pace undermines the film, which ironically is at its most memorable when a character quotes the original wording of Ariel’s song from The Tempest, rather than any of the new songs or poetry commissioned for this version.

Watch the trailer for Sado Tempest:

The Search for Simon (Martin Gooch, 2013)
A new British film that mixes travelogue and conspiracy theories to make a low budget sci-fi comedy isn’t the most obvious choice for a gala screening at the BFI, but as Sci-Fi-London’s first feature film (produced in association with the festival), it made a lot of sense as a PR opportunity. Filming on the fly necessitated director Martin Gooch be the main actor and he makes for a likeable, affable lead, even though he doesn’t have quite the emotional range to pull off the more dramatic scenes. The cameos by telefantasy actors Simon Jones, Sophie Aldred and Tom Price work well, even when the occasional stunt casting elsewhere – such as a reoccurring role for fantasy games author Ian Livingstone – kills certain scenes stone dead through the gravitational pull of wooden acting by non-professionals.

The plot – about a UFO obsessive looking for proof of alien life and his ‘abducted’ brother – toys with our expectations well, with a daft and incongruous robot in one scene offset by an excellent bit of CGI at the end. Overall, The Search for Simon is a bit of a mixed bag, no doubt due to the haphazard construction of the film, through footage shot before the script was finalised, crowd-funding that necessitated cameos by the public and a strange war-themed (but amusing) opening scene, but the charm of the production as a whole makes up for its handful of flaws.

Stress Position_1
Stress Position

Stress Position (A.J. Bond, 2013)
An accomplished, chilling collision between fact and fiction, this Canadian psycho-drama follows in the footsteps of other mutually assured torture films such as last year’s True Love and The Wave (2008), but with a freshness and relevance to reality television post-Guantanamo Bay, which made it one of the most notable films of this year’s Sci-Fi-London. Ironically, for a film screening in a sci-fi festival, the film isn’t science fiction (only a bit of futuristic set dressing hints in that direction). However, as much of the best speculative fiction provokes debate and works as satire of the present day, the controversial subject matter makes it an apt subject for inclusion at the festival, rather than perhaps a lesbian and gay film festival, where it might have been lost in the mix.

Filmmaker A.J. Bond – recalling a flippant conversation with his friend, actor David Amito – decides to find out how long each of them might last if trapped in a modern torture camp like Guantanamo. The rules are: no actual pain or injury to be inflicted, no bringing of families into the arena, and when the tortured gives up a secret code, the test is to stop. Trapping David in a high tech, white-walled prison, with a sharp edged, metallic, modernist sculpture in the middle, the experiment begins and A.J. starts ignoring the rules, one by one.

Stress Position is an intelligent, thought-provoking film, which can only become increasingly relevant as we cast everyone we know in the filmed dramas of our lives, as captured on smart phones and Google glass, uploaded to the web. Although the plot falters towards the end – after the more realistic battle of wits between the two for most of the running time, A.J. becomes the victim of more overt tortures like waterboarding, which seem contrived – the overall effect is a film you both want to see again because of its numerous admirable qualities, and never want to re-endure because the psychological tortures are so convincing and the verisimilitude too unnerving.

Strange Frame: Love and Sax (GB Hajim, 2012)
A fun sci-fi animated musical drama, Strange Frame wears its garish Metal Hurlant / bande dessinée influences loudly on its sleeve, which is no bad thing. While Luc Besson’s Fifth Element (1998) and Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010) have captured the anarchic spirit of European comics well, other examples such as Enki Bilal’s Immortal Ad Vitam (2004) have relied on an insufficient CGI budget to capture the lurid colour schemes and landscapes typical of the medium. Strange Frame lands halfway between these two directors’ achievements. Visually, the film is stunning, capturing a hallucinogenic Jovian environment replete with all manner of aliens, space craft and futuristic architecture, but the quality of the individual images is let down by the animation involved in making them move.

In terms of dynamism, this isn’t as low down the scale as South Park, but movement is somewhat jerky and unnatural, presumably because of a reliance on a flash animation rendering programme or similar. For fans of machinima or Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s work, this won’t be a problem, but it’s a shame that when nearly every other aspect of the production is terrific, it’s diminished by this element. In terms of the soundtrack: animation voice stalwart Tara Strong stars as the film’s object of desire Naia, surrounded by a host of familiar telefantasy stars such as Ron Glass, Juliet Landau, Claudia Christian, Michael Dorn and George Takei, while an infectious score mixes jazz and 1980s rock. As the demonic head of a record label, Tim Curry is perfectly cast in a role that recalls both Legend (1985) and inevitably The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), as much of the film is aimed at fans of his most famous film.

Overall: well worth a look for anyone interested in animation not produced by the mainstream studios, and one can only hope this film does well enough to warrant a sequel to allow the audience to explore this rich world further, albeit next time with perhaps more experienced puppeteers guiding the animation team.

Watch the trailer for Strange Frame: Love and Sax:

Alex Fitch

Digging Deeper: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Director: John Huston

Writer: John Huston

Based on the novel by: B. Traven

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt

USA 1948

128 mins

It must be the greatest laughing fit in cinematic history: 90 seconds of hysteria that capture man’s experience in all its complex joy and futility. Surrounded by a swirl of Mexican dirt, two weather-worn, work-wearied gold diggers bellow to the wind. After ‘ten months of suffering and labour’, the men, Howard (Walter Huston) and Curtin (Tim Holt), are left with nothing: ‘The gold’s gone back to where we found it’, cries Howard. Their hard-won wealth amounts to little more than handfuls of dust, carried away by the howls of a gale. The laughing duo used to be three: an uneasy allegiance of dirt-poor prospectors on the hunt for gold. They dug together, ate together, slept side by side and carefully divided up the granules of gold each evening. The plan was to ‘make each guy responsible for his own goods’, but it was the loose cannon of the group, Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), who finally squandered the riches. The three men were headed back to Tampico to deposit their gold at a bank when they were stopped by a group of native Indians asking for help. Old-timer Howard answered their pleas and, through rudimentary medicine and luck, saved a child’s life. Eager to show their appreciation, the boy’s family urged Howard to stay on as an honoured guest so that they could re-pay their debt of gratitude. Howard relented, hoping to catch up with the young men in the city, but it was not to be: without Howard’s wise and sobering influence, Dobbs loses his head (both metaphorically and literally). Overcome with greed, he shoots Curtin and leaves him for dead. As a solitary figure with an unruly train of pack mules, Dobbs is unable to defend himself against a trio of bandits, who hack off his head and make off with his bags of gold. They mistake the precious metal for worthless rocks and empty the sacks to the wind. Howard and a wounded Curtin re-unite and hurry to the site where the bandits dumped their loot. And now they sit, among a swirling storm of gold-dust, as broke as when they started out. Their hearty guffaws ring out with gallows humour. On and on and on they go.

On the face of it, John Huston’s masterstroke of powerful, pithy cinema, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), acts as a straightforward fable or morality tale. Three men go in search of gold and lose it all to greed and paranoia. The descent of Dobbs certainly follows the standard tragic trajectory. He displays hubris, ignoring Howard’s warnings. The men meet in a grimy guesthouse, where Howard offers plenty of words of caution: ‘I know what gold does to men’s souls’; ‘I never know a prospector yet that died rich’; ‘When the piles of gold begin to grow, that’s when the trouble starts’. Dobbs believes that he can beat these portentous phrases: ‘It wouldn’t be that way with me, I swear it – I’d take only what I set out to get, even if there was half a million dollars’ worth sitting around waiting to be picked up’. For Dobbs, the effect of gold ‘can be as much a blessing as a curse’: ‘it all depends on whether the man who finds it is the right guy’. Over the course of the film, such hubris gives way to increasing materialism and selfishness, resulting in his final act of callous treachery. In a violent tale of black-and-white morality, it is only fitting that he meets his end at the blade of a machete.

But dig beneath the topsoil of the men’s search for gold and you’ll see more than just one doomed expedition. The film is full of them. Before hunting for gold, Dobbs and Curtin undertake conventional employment as construction workers. In the searing heat, they work to build an oil rig but the contractor disappears without paying them. It is only by chance that the two men stumble upon their former boss and manage to extract their wages by force: a punch-up in a bar, full of ‘rats, scorpions and cockroaches’. Dobbs has no better luck, gambling on the lottery. We first meet the down-and-outer tearing up a ticket, in front of a notice board of winning numbers, and later, when he does win a few hundred pesos, he sinks the money into tools and provisions for the doomed gold-hunting trip. The bandits who ambush Dobbs have even less luck than Howard and Curtin. They throw away their chance at wealth because they assume Dobbs is a fur trader. The bandits believe Dobbs was using the rocks to bulk up animal hides and deceive potential buyers. They dash the bags aside and then, rounded up by the Federales (the Mexican police), they are forced to dig their own graves.

Each attempt to accumulate wealth – honest labour, prospecting, gambling and stealing – reaches a dead-end: ‘I never know a prospector yet that died rich’. No success lasts and no failure deters another attempt at success. The doomed expeditions act as micro analogies for the macro busts and booms of the capitalist system. In the novel on which the film is based, published in 1927, there are even more examples of botched attempts to acquire and retain fortunes. Through B. Traven’s magnificent prose (his description of bandits ambushing a train is heart-quickeningly good), Howard spins fantastical yarns about forgotten mines and Spanish settlers. Every page provides acutely written insights into the bizarre, torturous logic of modern capitalism, secreted within gloriously told stories. And in the film, Huston creates an equally taut narrative, condensing Traven’s perceptive words with visual punches of gun fights and bar brawls. The doomed expeditions of the book and film reveal the fragility and sometimes nonsensical nature of economic systems and how they are created by and impact on human nature. In that sense, it’s a work that is apposite for our times and has traversed decades. Men losing their wealth in a cloud of dirt would have been a familiar vision to audiences on the release of the film in 1948, memories of the Dust Bowl not too distant in their minds, and Traven’s novel itself was published two years before the Wall Street Crash. With the release of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre provides a welcome and very different context to the wealth of the Roaring Twenties, showing the practical reality of wealth accumulation behind the opulent display.

Dobbs’ descent into feverish individualism is beautifully rendered by Huston’s direction and Bogart’s performance. Sitting around the camp fire, the three prospectors discuss what they will do with their money once they get back to Tampico: Howard says he wants to get himself a little grocery or hardware store, providing himself with a stable income and time for ‘readin’ comic strips and adventure stories’; Curtin states that he hopes to buy a peach farm and watch his ‘own trees bare fruit’; but Dobbs’ aims are far less noble:‘Well, first off, I’m goin’ to a Turkish bath and I’m gonna sweat and soak till I get all the grime and dirt out of my system. Then I’m goin’ to a haberdasher and I’m gonna get myself a brand new set of duds…a dozen of everything. Then, I’m goin’ to a swell cafe – order everything on the bill of fare, and if it ain’t just right, or maybe even if it is, I’m gonna bawl the waiter out and make him take the whole thing back’.

He seamlessly takes up the mantle of a societal oppressor, losing empathy for those lower down the pecking order. Later, when a fellow American prospector named Cody (Bruce Bennett) arrives unexpectedly at the men’s camp, Dobbs uses the language of a heartless employer: ‘We got not use for you… No vacancies’. Despite his own experience of jobless desperation, he is all too eager to laud his new-found power and humiliate a man in a weaker position. He starts to see himself in financial terms, arguing that he should receive a larger share of gold as he put up more money for the expedition than Curtin: ‘In any civilised place, the biggest investor gets the biggest return, don’t he?’. He becomes increasingly aware of his own position and status, frequently referring to himself in the third person (‘Fred C. Dobbs don’t say nothin’ he don’t mean’). After he finally shoots Curtin, Bogart’s performance comes into its own as he carries the film with an intense, paranoid monologue.

In his novel, Traven does not present a simple solution to the ills of capitalism, but there are glimpses of alternative realities, which receive slightly more emphasis in Huston’s film. Curtin’s dreams of a peach farm provide a vision of a harmonious society: ‘I figure on buying some land and growing fruit – peaches maybe…One summer when I was a kid, I worked as a picker in a peach harvest in the San Joaquin Valley. Boy, it sure was something. Hundreds of people, old and young, whole families workin’ together. At night, after a day’s work, we used to build big bonfires and sit around and sing to guitar music, till morning sometimes. You’d go to sleep and wake up and sing, and go to sleep again. Everybody had a wonderful time. Ever since then, I’ve had a hankering to be a fruit grower. Must be grand watching your own trees put on leaves, come into blossom and bear…watching the fruit get big and ripe on the boughs, ready for pickin’…’

And in the film, unlike the novel, we see Curtin making concrete plans for such an existence. The movie script kills off the fourth American, Cody (in the book, he is a strange, haunted prospector, who continues to search for gold after the other men return to Tampico) and invents a letter from his widow, which speaks of a life based on harvesting the land rather than chasing riches: ‘The country is especially lovely this year… The upper orchard looks aflame and the lower like after a snowstorm. Everybody looks forward to big crops. I do hope you are back for the harvest. Of course, I’m hoping that you will at last strike it rich. It is high time for luck to start smiling upon you, but just in case she doesn’t, remember we’ve already found life’s real treasure.’

At the end of the film, Curtin decides to sell the last of the animal hides and buy a ticket to Dallas to visit Cody’s widow. There is an emphasis on respecting land and its resources elsewhere in the film too, when Howard urges the younger men to help him clean up the camp before they leave for Tampico: ‘We’ve wounded this mountain. It’s our duty to close her wounds’. And Howard’s life as a medicine man in the Native Indian village also acts as an alternative to chasing gold, providing relief from prospecting adventures (‘I’m all fixed for the rest of my natural life’).

Despite highlighting these alternatives, the movie stops short of becoming a preachy prescriptive take on how life should be. We are not asked to hate Dobbs (‘I reckon we can’t blame him too much’, muses Howard) but rather understand what created his and others’ failure. Like Traven’s novel, the film primarily provides a description of the absurdity of aspects of capitalism. It describes the doomed expeditions that make up the whole. After all, as the wise old-timer explains, ‘Gold itself ain’t good for nothing except making jewellery with and gold teeth.’

Eleanor McKeown

Gold: Interview with Nina Hoss

Gold_ copyright Emily Meyer_

Format: Cinema

Release date: 9 February 2013 (Berlin International Film Festival)

Director: Thomas Arslan

Writer: Thomas Arslan (screenplay)

Cast: Nina Hoss, Marko Mandi&#263, Lars Rudolph, Uwe Bohm, Peter Kurth, Rosa Enskat, Wolfgang Packhä;user

Germany 2013

113 mins

In the summer of 1898, a small group of German immigrants set out on a journey to Dawson City to find their fortune in the Klondike Gold Rush. The mostly inept travellers include a snobbish, mercenary news reporter, Gustav Müller (Uwe Bohm), who intends to report on the trip for a New York-based German paper, an older couple who take care of the catering, and a poor carpenter (Lars Rudolph) looking to make a better life for the large family he left behind in the city. Joining them at the last minute is Emily Meyer (Nina Hoss), a stern, self-reliant and hands-on divorcée, who soon turns out to be the most driven member of the group, willing to push ahead at all costs as they trudge deeper and deeper into a menacing wilderness, forging through dense woods and across raging rivers. Though determined and sensible, Emily’s focus seems to shift slightly as she starts talking to Carl Boehmer (Marko Mandi&#263), the charismatic (and only competent male) packer and horse guard, who eventually confesses to her that he is on the run after killing someone.

The man who claims to be able to lead them along the rough and steep way is shady businessman Wilhelm Laser (Peter Kurth), who holds their money as well as their hope in the form of some gold nuggets he insists were found at their aimed-for destination. But not only is the group badly equipped to handle the gruelling terrain, the tension between them soon gets the upper hand, and the accidents, injuries and mental exertions of their dangerous adventure gradually minimise their number as they move on.

Carefully constructed, weirdly chaste and slow in pace, Thomas Arslan’s Gold is essentially a German-language Western with a fierce sense of authenticity at the expense of action and drama. It’s beautifully shot and benefits in no small part from Arslan’s meticulous eye for characters continuously in motion, here carried by yet another remarkably restrained performance from Nina Hoss in the lead role. As precarious as their trip across uncharted territory may be, Emily’s certain of one thing – there is no going back to her old life, no matter where their journey comes to an end.

Pamela Jahn talked to Nina Hoss at this year’s 63rd edition of the Berlin International Film Festival in February, where Gold premiered in competition.

Pamela Jahn: Although the film is labelled a Western, it feels more like an adventurous road-movie at times. Did you approach it that way?

Nina Hoss: Yes, I think so. It’s much more about the path, the journey, than big shoot-outs, or whatever else you consider to be in a classic Western. Of course revenge is a motive, and there are other elements in the film that you find in a typical Western, but the plot is more like an adventure, or a road-movie with horses, maybe.

Have you ever shot a rifle before? What was it like to brandish one?

I learned how to shoot recently for a vampire movie I did, so it wasn’t all new to me. But it was exciting, because you don’t really get to shoot much in German movies unless you’re playing a detective or a cop. And what helped me with my role here is that Emily comes from the city, and she is going on this trip and experiences something she’s never done before – like she doesn’t know how to handle a gun, she doesn’t even know how to ride a horse. So she is learning all this throughout their journey, and I could learn with her, which took some pressure off me and made me feel more comfortable with the situation.

The film also tells a part of German history that probably no one really knew much about…

That’s right. I think this was actually part of Thomas’s personal approach for telling the story. I mean, we all knew that, at that time, there were lots of Germans emigrating to the United States and Canada, as they did from many other countries. But it’s interesting to see this group of Germans trying to make a new life for themselves, whereas now Germany is considered a place where people go to in the hope of making a better living.

But looking at it from today’s perspective, we all have to go on that path again in a way, because no one knows really how this financial crisis is going to end. So it was interesting for me to tell a story that shows that there is always hope. Even if you forget about why you’re on this path, and you don’t know whether you’ll ever see real gold in your life, the only thing that counts is that you keep on going. And maybe throughout that journey you change, which is what happens to Emily. She becomes more and more free and confident and self-fulfilled, and that is already a success.

What was the most challenging part for you during that journey?

It was a tough project, because it was a low budget movie, so as actors, we really had to deal with the horses all day long in between shooting. We did have two wranglers, but they couldn’t look after ten horses all at the same time. So whenever we took a break from shooting, we had to stand around with the horses. I wasn’t used to taking care of them at all. Horses get very tired after ten hours, just like us, and then it becomes dangerous because they do things you can’t predict – we had several dangerous moments. So for me, working with the wranglers was like a therapy of some sort, because I learned how to always stay calm for the horse. As soon as I got somehow excited or angry or tired, the horse would react immediately. So you always had to be in this ‘om’ zone, which was an amazing experience for me. I never thought I’d say this, but what impressed me most was the work with the animals. I really had to work hard to make it through the shoot. At the end of the day, we weren’t professional riders. I learned to ride a horse especially for this film, I had never done it before. But I wasn’t afraid… just very respectful.

There comes a moment in the film when Emily has to make a decision whether she wants to go on or not. Was there ever a moment in the process of the production where you, or Thomas Arslan, thought, ‘Stop. That’s it. I am not going any further.’

There was one moment when we were really worried that we had to stop. We were shooting in the Fraser River Valley, and there was only one gravel road out of the valley. Otherwise, you had to use a ferry to get on the other side of the river, but this was also miles away from where we were. One day we heard helicopters flying around and we couldn’t shoot because of the noise they made. And then suddenly we heard our producer through the walkie-talkie saying, ‘You have to stop immediately and leave…now!’ And if a producer says that, you know that something really bad is going to happen, because it costs them a fortune to break a shoot. So we tried to stay calm and started packing, and all that with these horses. So we had to guide them up this tortuous road to where the trucks were parked. And as soon as we got to top of the hill we realised what was happening, because we saw smoke, and then the fire. So we had to rush out of this valley through the fire, literally. Like there were trees falling down around us and what not. So we thought: ‘Oh god, will we ever make it out of here!’ But also, the question was really whether we would ever be able to go back to the set. We lost a couple of days because of this fire, but luckily we were able to return and finish the shooting.

Do you actually have a favourite Western movie?

I love the John Ford movies, which I first saw when I was still a kid. But I watched one recently that I hadn’t seen before, which is Monte Hellman’s The Shooting, which is really an incredible Western because it’s so simple in terms of the story and even the way it is shot, but extremely effective – I loved it!

Was it difficult for you to swap directors and work with Thomas Arslan instead of Christian Petzold? Is there an open conversation between those directors, who constitute this particular ‘Berlin School’ of filmmaking?

It was an exciting project for me, but not because I ‘left’ Christian Petzold for this film, as I have worked with other directors before. But what was interesting, first of all, was the fact that Thomas Arslan, as a German filmmaker, takes on Canada to make a Western. As a German actress, I never dreamed that I could ever be part of a Western. So this was very tempting. And of course it was also interesting for me to experience a different kind of working relationship with someone who comes from the same background as Christian. Christian knew before I did that Thomas was going to cast me for this role, because they are friends, so Thomas wanted to make sure that wasn’t a problem – which I think is a bit odd, because of course we can all work together. Christian thought it was great, because he had this idea very early on that there would be a big ensemble around these Berlin School directors, like a pool of people who work and develop things together. But he’d realised that wouldn’t quite work out because all of these directors have big egos. So I was quite excited that it was sort of happening, but I am also already working on my next film with Christian again, which I am looking forward to.

How do you and Christian Petzold work together as a team? What is your working relationship like?

I am always as prepared for my next role as one can possibly be. I already know all about it because I am part of the process, not necessarily of the writing, but of constructing the story. So I get the first 20 pages of the script and then the next 20 pages… I am very much involved and so I can go on that path with him. I can do my research and read the books related to the subject, which means I don’t have to hurry up to prepare right before we start shooting. So I am really in an ideal position with him.

Interview by Pamela Jahn

Watch a clip from Gold:

Istanbul International Film Festival 2013

Thou Gild'st the Even
Thou Gild'st the Even

Istanbul International Film Festival (&#304KSV)

30 March – 14 April 2013

Istanbul, Turkey

&#304KSV website

The jewel in the crown of Istanbul’s buzzing cultural scene, the Istanbul International Film Festival. is a unique event that acts as a crucial bridge between east and west – it’s hard to deny the importance the festival plays in unearthing Asian and Middle Eastern films, screening them alongside their European counterparts.

Although the line-up was as strong as ever, this year’s 32nd edition of the festival was home to much dissent: the closure and subsequent attempts to destroy one of Istanbul’s oldest cinemas, Emek, has been opposed by many local activists, artists, and actors. However, the mantle this year was also taken up by international guests like Costa-Gavras and Patricia Arquette, who not only raised the social media profile around this issue, but also stood in the front ranks of the protest walks. An unnecessary show of power by the local police, though, meant that most of the cinematic luminaries were on the receiving end of pepper spray, as well as being harassed, harangued and generally shoved around. Turkey’s oldest film critic, Atilla Dorsay, was also one of the figures who received such maltreatment, and, as result – and a sign of protest – quit his column at the Sabah newspaper after having written there for more than 20 years. Whether the construction company that plans to erect yet another shopping mall within the Beyo&#287lu area took any notice of the ruckus remains to be seen, but it seems as if Istanbul residents will not let this issue die without a fight.

Going back to the pride of the festival – its strong programming – this year’s slate revealed new trends within contemporary Turkish cinema. Although it’s obvious that the country’s filmmakers still feel the need to follow the example of their most successful luminary, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and create suffocating character pieces, a number of attempts at varying styles stood out.

Among these, perhaps the most ambitious was Onur &#220nlü’s Thou Gild’st the Even. Highly unusual in both content and style, &#220nlü merges the story of the inhabitants of an Aegean town and their small-town problems with that of a superhero movie to prove that, even in a universe where everyone has a superpower, the petty, basic characteristics of humanity still prevail. The film boasts some incredible set pieces (a sprawling, gorgeous scene involving a hail of rocks is particularly impressive) with terrific sound design, showcasing the work of a director who has been steadily carving his own strange path within cinema. Perhaps the criticism to direct at the film is its weak scenario – it’s hard not to feel that had &#220nlü perhaps written one more draft, the entire film might have played much stronger.

On the international front, the festival showcased some of the most anticipated films of the year – titles such as Chan Wook-park’s Stoker and Shane Carruth’sUpstream Color sold out as soon as the tickets went on sale and new screenings had to be added to meet the incredible demand. With inexpensive matinee tickets, the festival organisers ensured that most screenings were as full as possible. (A side note here has to be that the screening for Thou Gild’st the Even was sold out three times over, and there was not a single empty space in the theatre: not the seats nor the stairs nor even the doorways.)

Mikael Marcimain’s Call Girl from Sweden was another title that created much excitement among the crowd. With an aesthetic style reminiscent of both Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) and Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men (1976), and a killer soundtrack, this dramatisation of a true story weaved an intricate, elaborate tale that ensnared the entire audience within the first few minutes, and did not let go until its heartbreaking, brutal end.

As per tradition, the festival ended with the televised and much-loved award ceremony, where Lenny Abrahamson’s brilliant What Richard Did won the International Golden Tulip and Bruno Dumont won the Special Jury Prize with his historical piece Camille Claudel 1915. Thou Gild’st the Even was named best film, winning the National Golden Tulip award, while Asli &#214zge won best director for her brutal examination of the disintegration of a middle-upper class marriage in Lifelong. The Special Jury Award in the national competition was presented to Derviş Zaim, who, with his new film The Cycle, continues to explore forgotten branches of Turkish art and history, reflecting these through modern storytelling. The Seyfi Teoman award for first film went to Deniz Akçay Katiksiz with the promising Nobody’s Home, while the Fipresci jury chose to award Bruno Dumont and Onur &#220nlü. Ziad Doureri’s The Attack was picked as the winner of the Human Rights in Cinema section, bringing the festival to a close.

Representing a terrific opportunity for audience members, professionals, journalists and filmmakers to come together in cinematic joie de vivre, the Istanbul International Film Festival continues to raise its own bar, attracting incredible talent and films each year, while fast becoming one of the unmissable film events of the festival calendar.

Evrim Ersoy

Kate Worsley is Commander Ericson from The Cruel Sea

The Cruel Sea

Kate Worsley was born in Preston, Lancashire but now lives by the sea. Her debut novel, She Rises, is set in 1740s Harwich (memorably described by one character as the ‘arse of Essex’), and is all about press gangs, love, sex and the salty, seductive allure of sea faring. Kate Worsley’s filmic alter ego is Jack Hawkins as Commander Ericson from The Cruel Sea (1953). Eithne Farry

‘The men are the heroes. The heroines are the ships. The only villain is the sea, the cruel sea, that man has made more cruel,’ explains Commander Ericson of convoy-escort HMS Compass Rose in the opening voiceover of the classic second world war film The Cruel Sea. Ericson (Jack Hawkins) is the biggest hero of them all: he’s all corrugated, oiled hair and furrowed brow, noble self-control and tortured conscience, his only recourse a large pink gin.

From its very first gut-churning opening shot of Atlantic swell, this 1953 film (based on the Nicholas Monsarrat novel) conveys the horror and heroism of war at sea like no other. It’s a pathetically brave world of duffel coats and roll-neck jumpers, speaking tubes and cocoa served in enamel mugs. Ericson’s mission, to protect Allied supply convoys in the Atlantic from hordes of German submarines, seems doomed from the start, when he is assigned a bunch of laughably inexperienced officers (a second-hand car salesman, a barrister, and a journo).
After only three weeks, though, he has them in hand and they scan the ocean for years, everywhere from Russia to Gibraltar. In the end, he sinks only two subs. But it’s the kind of man Ericson proves himself to be that earns the enduring loyalty of his men, particularly Second Lieutenant Lockhart (the journo), who turns down his own command to serve with him a second time.

When they make their best contact with a sub it is directly beneath a dozen shipwrecked, bobbing men. Ericson gives the order to plow through them and bomb the sub – the consequences of which we see in a series of appalled reaction shots. He then realises that there was no sub there after all. Three previously rescued sea captains come to his cabin that evening, their consolations stilted but immensely kind: ‘There is no blame. But there may be thoughts. And for thoughts, there is gin.’ Make mine a stiff one.

Kate Worsley

Suspended in Wind and Water: Bruno Dumont’s Hors Satan

hors satan1
Hors Satan

Early on in the latest film by former philosophy teacher Bruno Dumont, Alexandra Lematre’s character (identified only as ‘elle’) takes an in-ear headphone from the pocket of her hoodie and slips it in her ear. We, the audience are never made privy to the music she listens to, but the gesture draws attention to the use of sound in the film. As traditionally defined, there is no music in Hors Satan – no silken Hollywood strings, no pop songs, no diegetic performance, no non-diegetic score. Even the kind of sonic re-structuring usually handled by a sound editor is missing, for Dumont did not hire one.

No music, nor very much dialogue either – and most of what there is, is largely inconsequential. But Hors Satan is not a silent film. Far from it. We hear birds tweeting, cocks crowing, leaves rustling, as well as several more revealing sounds – a camera dolly rolling over its track, the wind blowing against a microphone.

In an interview with Jean-Michel Frodon, the director explains, ‘We recorded only live and “mono” sounds. What you hear in the film are the actual sounds recorded during shooting. I didn’t alter or re-record them. I wish some noises weren’t there, but I kept them anyway, stoically… The sound material is very rich and untamed. Therefore, when there is a moment of silence, you can feel it loud and clear.’

At one moment, after it has been raining, we hear water running over a corrugated iron roof and falling to the ground. The two main characters pause in their journey to watch and listen, and we listen with them. These characters frequently take time out to simply stand still and pay attention to some ambient sound. And even in their absence, the camera will likewise pursue such sounds to their sources, which become, in the process, a character like them. Sound – and a certain quasi-musical attentiveness to sound – thus subjectivizes, and in so doing constructs an audience that will be willing, like the film’s characters, to offer a certain attentiveness toward sounds, to give them time, without preconceptions.

Hors Satan will be released on DVD in the UK by New Wave Films on 13 May 2013.

How can we describe the sense of time experienced in the films of Bruno Dumont? It is certainly very far from the clock-time of Hitchcock, the almost Taylorist efficiency with which narrative details are revealed and slotted into the perpetual motion machine of the diegesis in his North by North West (1959) or The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). We find with Dumont a concern with rhythm and tempo that goes beyond brute functionalism, and there is evidently something musical in this. But neither are we dealing with the languorous time of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, nor the time of Béla Tarr, which would be something like the Erfahrung of Walter Benjamin.

Karlheinz Stockhausen once remarked that ‘Wagner, more than any other Western composer, expanded the timing of Western music: he would have been the best gagaku composer.’ While the first half of this statement is undoubtedly true, I’m not so sure about the second half. Think of the constantly held back, teetering sense of anticipation, of desperate yearning for an impossible fulfilment, found in Tristan und Isolde.

Maybe I am wrong, but I suspect this is something foreign to the Japanese gagaku tradition. Perhaps not so much to the cinema of Bruno Dumont – even if only to an earlier film such as Twentynine Palms (2003), in which the palpable sense of dread, of waiting for some seemingly inevitable horror, hangs suspended in each crawling take, like the infinitely delayed resolution of some grating dissonance in the middle voices.

Hors Satan is different in this respect. The shot lengths are generally shorter than in his earlier films (though still considerably longer than most mainstream films), the forward motion of the narrative less precipitous. Perhaps this film is closer to the sense of time alluded to in Stockhausen’s reference to gagaku.

In his book, Haunted Weather, David Toop, in the midst of a discussion about contemporary Japanese electronica, describes this 7th and 8th century court music, which, he says, survives largely unchanged to this day: ‘So measured in the progress of its percussive markers that it draws the image of a footstep raised to move forward yet caught in a universal power cut, gagaku’s timbral consistency is a gaseous astringency of reeds, flutes and free reeds.’

Hors Satan is a film which repeatedly invites us to listen, even when there is nothing – conventionally speaking – to listen to; it draws attention to its soundtrack, even when there is no soundtrack to speak of. This kind of invitation to pause, to reflect, to make time for the unfolding of an absence, evokes a kind of ritual-making space for the becoming of a miracle, in a manner which would have appealed to John Cage (a composer whose fondness for the gagaku is well known). We hang suspended in an amber of wind and water and other accidental sounds, ‘raised to move forward yet caught in a universal power cut’.

Robert Barry

Flatpack 2013 Round Up

Flatpack 2013
The Echo of Astroboy’s Footsteps

Flatpack Festival

21-31 March 2013

Birmingham, UK

Flatpack website

For 11 days in March and April, Flatpack Festival returned to the former industrial spaces of Birmingham, tucked behind the Bull Ring crowds and the hum of traffic passing the coach station. The Easter weekend was an unseasonably cold one as disparate figures formed an orderly queue for Brummies, Boozers and Bruisers: an event promising ‘kebabs and a scuffle’. The venue was an unlikely place for a fight – a small independent art gallery with mugs laid out for coffee and a guestbook to sign – but nevertheless the brawling was soon underway via a slideshow of photographs and news reports. Visual depictions of underground culture were brought together by Ray O’Donnell, a forceful speaker on the history of gangs around Digbeth, an area of the city that hosts the majority of Flatpack’s events. A gang member in his youth, Ray gave an impassioned insight into the mentality, organisation and social circumstances that lead to the emergence of gangs. After digressive tales of stripping copper wiring from disused buildings and of razor blades hidden in Teddy Boys’ lapels, the presentation broadened out into a discussion about the current situation in Birmingham and parallels with American cities. The talk was typical of what I have come to expect of Flatpack after six years of attending the festival. Its events are lively and thoughtful, and they have an elusive quality of unpredictability. Each year, the programming falls into similar categories – there are weird, rare shorts and animations, music documentaries, children’s screenings, walking tours and academic presentations, various explorations of early cinema techniques – but the choices avoid staleness or familiarity, in part because they are driven by Birmingham itself: the city’s problems and triumphs, and its communities and culture.

Another event built around Digbeth – but a far cry from the topic of gang violence – was a screening of animated shorts by Te Wei at Cherish House, a residential home for elderly members of the local Chinese community. Watching with the home’s residents provided another perspective to these beautiful films, which were striking demonstrations in the charm of hand-drawn animation. The first film, The Conceited General (1956), had a similar aesthetic to Western animations from the same period; in effect, we could have been watching a Disney feature from the 1950s. The corpulent body of the General was wonderfully observed as he tried to emulate the movements of an exotic dancing girl, or failed to lift heavy dumbbells. But it was the two later films – Where is Mama? (1960) and The Cowboy’s Flute (1963) – that really stood out. Influenced by Chinese ink drawings by the artist Qi Baishi, Te Wei’s minimal brushstrokes conveyed complex rhythms and subtle characterisation. In Where is Momma?, a group of tadpoles, drawn as simple silhouettes, search for their mother, mistaking a host of animals for their ‘Mama’. Through the skill of Te Wei’s animation, the basic black shapes assume a range of emotions, from excitement to fear and happiness, their tails wriggling or bodies gliding smoothly. The Cowboy’s Flute displayed finer brushwork, but retained the same attention to detail and movement: the buffalo was half-drawn to express its submergence in water, while abstract green and yellow shapes delicately morphed to suggest leaves and butterflies.

Te Wei’s ability to communicate through minimal brushstrokes was mirrored by the Polish poster artists at the centre of a lecture by Daniel Bird, which took place in another Digbeth venue, the Custard Factory Theatre. The talk explained the historical context that gave rise to Poland’s rich graphic art tradition and presented the audience with some potent examples of posters, which sprang up from a culture that turned a poverty of means into a striking aesthetic. There was a wonderful poster for Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962), with the three protagonists crudely drawn as piranha-like fish. By making it difficult to ascertain which fish represented which character, the artist emphasised the triangular dynamics central to the psychological drama of the film. Daniel Bird explained how a specific style began to develop in Poland, despite the artists working individually. The palette was restricted due to printing costs. Posters were produced by the most basic of means: by painting, cutting or tearing. Bold hues were used to provide flashes of colour on anonymous, grey buildings. The potency of the resulting artwork was visible in the examples illustrating Daniel’s talk, and also in a small exhibition of posters hanging in the festival cafe. Opposite these works by Barbara Baranowska was another small exhibition of posters, flyers and programmes from the archives of the Birmingham Arts Lab, this year’s patron saint of Flatpack. It’s easy to understand why this arts organisation appealed to the festival’s organisers: its community-focused, experimental approach perfectly mirrors what their own programming does so well.

I mostly packed my days at this year’s Flatpack with Birmingham-related activities, but a couple of events that really stuck with me were screenings of two recent documentaries: The Echo of Astroboy’s Footsteps (2011), a portrait of the Japanese sound artist, Matsuo Ohno, and Only the Young (2012), a film that follows three teenage Christian skateboarders, Kevin, Garrison and Skye, growing up in Canyon County, California. The description of the latter doesn’t give much sense of the lyricism achieved by Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet, the two CalArts film students who made Only the Young. There is a soulful beauty to the cinematography, as Kevin and Garrison swerve on their skateboards, juxtaposed with two birds of prey soaring on thermal streams. There are lots of shots of abandoned places – a disused water slide or an empty house – and gorgeous, wide panoramas. There is one particularly uplifting sequence that shows Garrison and Skye messing around with an abandoned shopping trolley, which reminded me of the tracking shots of French New Wave classics, a technique infused with youth and freedom. The trust forged between the directors and their subjects resulted in intensely intimate moments that were funny and poignant; the filmmakers let the teenagers speak for themselves, resulting in a raw mixture of tumultuous emotion and insightful wisdom. Masanori Tominaga’s The Echo of Astroboy’s Footsteps was less focused on beautifully-composed shots, but it had a similarly languid feel as it conjured up a rounded portrait of Matsuo Ohno. The structure of the film highlighted the gulf between the myth and reality of a famously elusive artistic figure, as interviews with former colleagues finally gave way to time with Ohno himself. It was an inspiring and complex portrait that revealed a humble man, devoted to experimenting with sound and spending his time with residents in a home for disabled adults.

Flatpack is full of treasures, whether events that are directly linked to the city in some way, or films, like these documentaries, which come from all corners of the world, but share the same quality of unpredictability. I’m already looking forward to the next festival in 2014.

Eleanor McKeown