Alongside other notorious enfants terribles such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Russ Meyer and John Waters, Walerian Borowczyk became an iconoclastic mainstain of the legendary Scala repertory cinema club, most notably with the infamous The Beast (La bête, 1975) and the twisted The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981), which screened in a pleasing uncut print to salivating artsploitation freaks munching on hash cakes and muffins. In his heyday, The Establishment very much saw Borowczyk as a censor-baiting braggart. However, time has brought respect, and looking back at his oeuvre, one can detect a sense of playfulness in his self-centred obsession. Borowczyk merely presented his fantasies as personal cinematic gestures – can he be to blame for the media frenzy and the shock tactics of his distributors?
Before elevating himself to spunking monsters and GLC certificates, Borowczyk paved a delicate, refined path in sideways installations, which the newly restored shorts from Arrow represent, for those wishing to look back at this quirky auteur’s roots. Borowczyk’s background in painting comes to the fore in these esoteric chocolate box confections: Rosalie (1966) features snappily shot agit-edits alongside Švankmajer-esque stop motion while in the eye-popping Gavotte (1967), fighting dwarves wrestle for their ceremonial seat (showcasing the director’s bizarre sense of mischief, which would come to typify his later works).
Darker expressions emanate from the dadaist Les jeux des anges (Angels’s Games, 1964): Borowczyk incorporates potent Dalí-esque visualisations into a 12-minute pre-psychedelic mindfuck (it would make for amazing wallpaper), while a dingy, low, humming musique concrète aria permeates on the OST (riffing on the music heard in Polish concentration camps). Théâtre de Monsieur & Madame Kabal (The Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal, 1962) connects grotesque Ubu-esque stick pencil scrawls with sepia-toned live action. At a feature-length running time of 72 minutes, this satirical beast is best experienced on a BIG monitor in the company of cracked stimulants and a 7.1 system. The bizarre Renaissance (1963) throws a wink to Man Ray with its creepy dolls and grapes that appear to the growling, popping sounds of a clanging typewriter (it genuinely put me off my cereal).
A respectful tip to Arrow for their care and attention in restoring these left-of-centre shorts, an eclectic selection from an experimenting genius whose reputation has been overshadowed by controversy for far too long. Now where’s that Emmanuelle 5 tape…
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.
Tony Collingwood’s 23-minute animation Rarg (1988) is a charming ode to sleep, dreaming and the subconscious mind. Through Collingwood’s enchantingly detailed drawings and Philip Appleby’s mesmerising soundtrack, the film creates an absorbing idyll of ‘peace and tranquillity; a world so perfect that the sun never rose until it was absolutely sure that everybody was awake’. Rarg is a place where everybody is happy, from its leader, the Rargian senator, to the nesting birds singing outside his window. The key to this happiness lies in the vast library of Rarg: endless shelves stacked with books detailing the revelations of generations. In Rarg, thought and intellectual discovery are highly prized; ‘they discovered simply for the sake of discovery’. The sonorous voice of narrator, Nigel Hawthorne, introduces us to towers filled with professors working away on ‘discoveries’, from tiny revelations to the biggest question of all: ‘where exactly are we anyway?’
To our amusement and surprise, this latter enquiry is answered by an enormous sneeze. One of the professors has installed ‘information-sucking electrodes’ throughout Rarg to determine the meaning of existence. As the professor flicks the switch to turn on these electrodes, an image of a sleeping man named Edwin Barnes appears on his computer screen. When Edwin produces an almighty ‘Achooo!’ the ground shakes in its wake. After six minutes acclimatising to this strangely harmonious world, we realise that Rarg is a construct: the inner mind of a snoring man.
And so the film becomes an allegorical exploration of what happens when we sleep. The industrious professors are the workings of our subconscious minds, building on buried archives of knowledge (the library of Rarg) to reveal truths which remain hidden during our waking lives. And the senator of Rarg, with his delight in creativity and ‘discovery’, shows how our imaginations take flights of fancy when they do not have to deal with the practicalities and complications of our daytime existences. The peaceful harmony of Rarg is – put simply – an illusion and a very fragile construction. This utopia hangs in the balance as Edwin’s alarm clock ticks down to 8 AM. With five minutes left, the inhabitants have two weeks in Rargian time to hatch a plan. The Rargian senate calls a meeting for the first time in 8000 years. Time in Rarg is as fluid as it appears when we dream.
At the prospect of waking up, the mind stages a revolt and the Rargian inhabitants take action to rescue (or rather kidnap) Edwin from ‘reality’ and bring him to Rarg. As the hushed mission gets underway, Collingwood creates some lovely silent comedy set pieces. Like miniature Oliver Hardys, four rotund figures are sent forth with pillowcases on their feet to carry Edwin’s bed. The nuances of their movements are beautifully rendered to produce a delightfully silly heist scene. And, as these figures make their way through Rarg’s streets, a baby bird falls dangerously close to Edwin’s sleeping body, creating another wonderfully tense sequence of physical comedy. These scenes perfectly mimic the lightest stage of sleep in which we might wake from our slumber, every tiny external sound threatening our peace. Edwin survives these perilous moments and the subsequent result is an ending so unexpected and surreal, it is bound to make you smile from ear to ear. As a meditation on the beauty of sleep, Rarg makes you want to turn your alarm clock off, roll over and take another 40 winks!
The London International Animation Festival (LIAF) returns next week with its ninth edition of eclectic programming, spanning 30 countries and three London venues. This year sees a special focus on Japanese animation with a retrospective of filmmaker Koji Yamamura and special screening of Keita Kurosaka’s Tokyo-set feature, Midori-Ko, which presents an apocalyptic, dystopian city ravaged by food shortages. There will also be a series of shorts programmes that aim to showcase the diversity of recent works produced in the country. Several of the selected works provide poignant reflections on the effects of the 2011 tsunami: Florian Piento’s The People Who Never Stop shows human resilience through the persistent flow of pedestrians, who remain unfazed by earthquake tremors or engulfing sea water but finally stop in contemplation, looking skywards as cherry blossom petals fall; while Isamu Hirabayashi’s award-winning 663114 reveals the endurance of life through the tale of a 66-year-old cicada.
As usual, specific filmmaking techniques are also celebrated at LIAF with a flipbook challenge workshop and a special programme of live action/animation hybrid films. The use of live action also crops up in several films screening in this year’s international competition screenings. In Joseph Pierce’s The Pub , hand-drawn faces replace actors’ features to create a drinking cast of grotesque animals down a North London boozer: the local ex-gangster morphs into a chest-thumping gorilla and a raucous hen party become a group of clucking chickens. In Anja Struck’s How to Raise the Moon, actress Tora Balslev acts the part of a sleeping pianist enveloped in a surreal dream world of time-lapse camerawork and stop-motion puppets. Struck’s unique, otherworldly animation will be playing as part of a special strand – Into the Dark – devoted to the creepiest, darkest shorts submitted to the festival; a screening that promises to provide a nice complement to the festival’s much-loved Late Night Bizarre.
As well as welcoming back other popular annual fixtures such as the British Showcase, LIAF will be screening some new works from previous festival attendees. Theodore Ushev, who was the focus of a special event last year, returns with a beautiful, impressionistic short, Nightingales in December. Building on techniques displayed in Lipsett Diaries (2010), Ushev has created a stunning work of claustrophobic, pulsating paintings – with hints of Francis Bacon and World War I landscape painters – that fade into pixels with the crack and fizzle of an old television set straining to keep signal. Excitingly, there will also be an opportunity to see It’s Such a Beautiful Day, the final part of a much anticipated trilogy by Don Hertzfeldt, whom LIAF brought to London in 2009, and Max Hattler’s Spin, which was produced by Parisian animation studio Autour de minuit, who received a special LIAF retrospective in 2010. Spin begins as a simple kaleidoscope of toy soldiers spiralling through vaudeville zoetropes and Busby Berkeley formations into increasingly intricate and farcical set routines that powerfully and inventively portray the de-humanisation and mass murder involved in modern conflict.
These shorts – wide-ranging in their subject matters and techniques – are just some of the treats in store at LIAF. Other highlights will include a screening of unseen pilots by Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo (who created the first three series of The Simpsons) and the opening night screening of For No Good Reason , a feature film that explores the work of British artist Ralph Steadman through vibrant animated sequences. The organisers of LIAF always provide one of the most energetic and imaginative programmes in the capital and this year promises to be no exception.
For the past three years, Flatpack Festival has acted as my annual spring clean; a blast of inspiration that blows mental cobwebs away. It’s an idiosyncratic festival – part straightforward cinema, part walking tour, part historical society, part workshop, part performance art, part club night, part young, part old, part serious, part play. And, despite my worries about how government cuts might affect the festival, my Saturday spent pounding the streets of Birmingham revealed one of the liveliest editions of the festival yet.
I decided to forgo features and dedicate my day to special one-off events, an area in which Flatpack excels. I started out at the city’s iconic Custard Factory, in the industrial setting of Digbeth, for a special magic lantern show hosted by Mike and Therese Simkin. I’d seen Mike and Therese back in 2010 and was pleased to see their show return to the festival. The slides provided a different perspective on early cinema, tracing the influence of vaudeville, magic and Japanese shadow plays, as well as a snapshot of social history in the form of painted advertisements shown before features at Birmingham’s early picture houses. A demonstration of different types of slide culminated in an ascent of Mont Blanc through the panoramic images of Victorian journalist and unlikely explorer Albert Smith. The slides were acquired after two months of cajoling an antiques dealer in Liverpool, and they were worth the effort. Therese pulled the long, intricately painted panes of glass through the lantern, emulating impossibly long panning shots of glowing snowy landscapes punctuated by a caravan of plucky climbers. The story of Smith, a bon viveur who took no less than 90 bottles of wine on the expedition, was humorously brought to life by Mike’s commentary, as he emulated the showmanship of a 19th-century lanternist.
The link between stage and screen was an important element of the next event on my list, located a hop, skip and jump away from Digbeth at a late Victorian pub, The Bartons Arms. A trip up the wide, ornate staircase took me to an original ‘Palace of Varieties’ (these days slightly more ‘function room’ than ‘palace’), where the assembled guests awaited a talk and screening celebrating Laurel and Hardy in Birmingham. The comic duo visited the city on a number of occasions to perform at the Hippodrome (they even stayed at The Bartons Arms itself) and the third wheel in their cinematic double act – Charlie Hall – was a local boy and Flatpack patron saint. Each year, the festival chooses an unsung, Birmingham-born hero and Hall was 2012’s choice. A rather reluctant son of Brum, he was desperate to leave the Midlands (especially during an enforced return after suspension from the Hal Roach studios in the 1930s) for the glamour of Hollywood. The audience learnt the ups and downs of his career from Charlie Hall expert John Ullah, an informative and lively host. It’s always refreshing when festivals reach beyond the usual filmmaker Q&As and industry panels to find an enthusiast whose depth of knowledge has been acquired through years of passionate obsession. I was reminded of a similar event organised by the London International Animation Festival in 2010 where Felix the Cat fanatic Colin Cowes brought together reels of rare and lost films. The films chosen by Ullah nicely demonstrated the physical theatricality of early cinema from a humongous, unruly custard pie fight to a farcical feud as the beleaguered pair tried to sell a Christmas tree to an extremely resistant potential customer.
My return to the Custard Factory took me to The Icebook, perhaps the most magical events I’ve ever seen at Flatpack. A group of 10 was ushered into a small, blacked-out room, on to chairs and stools huddled around a large handmade book, placed on top of a table. Behind the table, a long box led towards the back wall of the space. The event began as a lone performer slowly opened the book, fixing its open page in position. Projected light from inside the box transformed the page into a screen and revealed an intricate pop-up structure representing a miniature house. The page-turner, seated to our right, flipped switches to illuminate each of the house’s windows as a film played showing a Borrowers-sized figure wandering from room to room, snow swirling outside the building. It was mesmerizing. The next 30 minutes of page-turning revealed more finely crafted screens and clever tricks of lighting, magnets and green screens. The narrative built slowly, images lingering like a half-remembered dream. Influenced by Russian fairy tales, the story traced the hero’s journey to find an Ice Maiden, with the ethereal aesthetics of Hans Christian Anderson’s Snow Queen and an ending reminiscent of childhood tearjerker The Snowman. As well as an enchanting fairy tale, The Icebook provided an interesting exploration of contrasts between the immediacy of cinema versus the more contemplative practice of reading; and the inclusive atmosphere of live performance versus the removed distance of pre-recorded film.
Floating out of The Icebook, I made my way to my final event of the day: a screening of recent animation shorts presenting alternate ‘Through the Looking Glass’ worlds. It was the most straightforward event in my chosen line-up but it still managed to represent the weird and wonderful wonderfully well. There were some very nice choices – like Juan Pablo Zaramella’s Luminaris, Julia Pott’s Belly and Masaki Okuda’s Uncapturable Ideas – and, although I had seen several of the shorts at other festivals, it was an enjoyable few hours. The cinema was lively, jolly and fit to burst. En route to the screening, I realised I had a little time to kill and, taking the long walk into town, found myself alongside the murky waters of Birmingham canal. I decided to join an ensemble of festival-goers crowded around a brightly coloured narrow boat, and after stepping aboard we took our seats on chairs lined up on each side of the boat, with a trio of musicians – E. L. Heath and friends – taking up their positions behind us. As the lilting of guitars and voices began, a series of archival films started to play on the screen ahead, each chosen and edited by members of the Ikon Gallery’s Youth Programme. They were wonderful evocations of time and place – personal, everyday moments captured in the collective history of the canal – from a bride arriving at her wedding by barge to little girls making their way along the towpath with hair ribbons bobbing on long plaits. The industry of the area was captured with historical footage of workers loading and transporting goods along the water. A particularly striking moment showed men’s feet on a tunnel roof as they lay on their backs, pushing the boat along with the force of their soles.
The Slow Boat screening was a lovely example of the inventive, thoughtful events put on by Flatpack. Each year when I write about the festival, I talk in terms of the personal, perhaps because it’s a festival that focuses so much on place and viewer. There is a great deal of interactivity and, while it’s possible to attend conventional screenings of features and documentaries, the settings themselves feel infused with history, providing a more individual experience. As my train meandered home, my mind was full of strange and magical images and felt beautifully refreshed.
Unless you count teenage sleepovers, or people sitting on opposite sides of an otherwise empty red-light cinema, watching porn isn’t normally a communal activity. So why, when Club Des Femmes screened Dirty Diaries (2009) – a collection of porn shorts – during the London Short Film Festival, were people queuing round the block of the Horse Hospital to get in on returns? All kinds of people too: men in trendy specs with their heads held high, bequiffed women holding hands, a Horse Hospital regular on his first date with a new girlfriend – and not one filthy mac in sight.
It could be down to the fact that Times columnist and neo-feminist Caitlin Moran had tweeted about it to her 185,000-odd followers on Twitter. She’s broached the topic of feminist-friendly porn in her best-selling book How to Be a Woman, in which she calls on feminists to make their own porn rather than attempt to ban it. ‘Something that shows sex as something that two people do together,’ suggests Moran, ‘rather than a thing that just happens to a woman when she has to make rent. Something in which – to put it simply – everyone comes.’
Dirty Diaries is inspired by the same school of thought. In fact, the short film that initiated the collection is called Come Together, and is made up of director Mia Emberg and several other women individually filming themselves as they masturbate. It was first shown during the Stockholm International Film Festival and, as Club Des Femmes co-founder Selina Robertson explained before the screening, it shocked certain – primarily male – viewers, who complained about the women not being attractive enough.
This gave Emberg an idea: why not allow more women to redefine porn? With funding from the Swedish Film Institute, she asked other filmmakers to write, star in and direct their own porn films. The best of these form Dirty Diaries, a thrilling bag of sexual diversity that tells us almost as much about the difference between mainstream and feminist views on sex as it does about the difference between government film funding in the UK and that in Sweden.
Opening short Skin is a poetic depiction of two bodies clad in skin-coloured bodysuits making love, filmed in close-up by an observer and set – as are many of the others – to the music of Fever Ray. As the petting gets heavier, scissors are taken to the clothes on the nearly neutered figures to reveal body parts bit by bit. The sex between the man and the woman is tender, reciprocal and, when the mouths are eventually revealed, they are smiling.
More smiles in Night Vision, in which a woman takes matters into her own hand by reaching her climax with a vibrator, while being watched by her male lover. The film ends just as she breaks out into a wide post-coital grin. It’s a cheeky in-your-face to standard porn, where the ‘money shot’ is the man’s domain.
Body Contact subverts even more fixtures of mainstream porn. A woman and a co-conspirator behind the camera seek a man on an internet hook-up site and, after sizing up his genitals on the webcam, invite him over for sex. When he arrives, he’s dismayed to find another woman there to film the encounter and nervously admires the view out of the window before being coaxed into submission. The sex is comical, as the man works himself into an over-enthusiastic frenzy while the woman looks bored and smiles conspiratorially at the camera. It’s feigned, of course, but it feels unnecessarily mean: do two wrongs make a right?
More imaginative is Flasher Girl on Tour, in which a cropped-haired girl treats the audience to an excerpt of her ‘travel diary’ as she visits Paris, indulging in her fetish of exposing herself in public. Bashing down what she declares to be ‘the exclusive right for men to be disgusting in public’, she masturbates in a taxi, flashes out of her hotel room window, and straddles the gushing waters of a public fountain. It’s not sexy. It’s hilarious.
But it seemed that not many people turned up at the screening to be titillated. ‘I’m not here to be aroused,’ says Lucy, an academic. ‘It’s more about being part of a community. I like being in a room with lots of lesbians, bi-women and queer women, and having a good time. In fact, I know lesbian and dyke women who watch male heterosexual porn because they prefer it to lesbian porn.’
‘The films were all really refreshing,’ added Caroline, who specialises in sexuality, spirituality and sex activism. ‘A lot of porn seems contrived. People are really aware they’re being porn stars. This is really fresh.’
So what can mainstream porn learn from the collection Emberg has put together? Robertson puts it well: ‘That diversity, humour and horny real women are as sexy as hell.’
On January 6, short films become the capital’s main attraction as the London Short Film Festival returns to the city’s cinemas and some more inventive settings like the University Tent at the Occupy London Stock Exchange Camp. Now in its ninth edition, LSFF continues to offer an ambitious and winningly broad programme with DIY work by emerging talents providing the perfect counterpoint to its industry events and comprehensive retrospectives of more acclaimed and established filmmakers.
The ICA’s Lo-Budget Mayhem screening promises to be an anarchic assortment with an eccentric hand-drawn animation of Hulk Hogan (Peter Millard’s Hogan), an excruciatingly awkward tale of public transport (Naren Wilks’s Journey on a Bus) and a very strange story of motherhood (Matilda Myszka’s Baby Meat). LSFF’s delight in such offbeat offerings will also be in evidence at the Midnight Movies Nightcap event and Salon des Refusés, a specially curated selection of films that did not make it into this year’s LSFF programme. It’s a fun and original idea that should raise interesting questions about what makes a ‘successful’ festival film.
As with previous editions of LSFF, this year’s programme emphasises the sensory experience of watching films. There are several events dedicated to the interaction between music and cinema and various festival strands that present films selected solely on the strength of their cinematography. Leftfield and Luscious, in particular, promises strong work, such as Jordan Baseman’s The Last Walk, which sets a compelling spoken narrative to meditative abstract visuals. The medium of analogue film is also to be celebrated with showcases of work on 16mm and 35mm film. At the Hackney Picturehouse Attic, Suitcase Cinema will present a selection of Cold War archive footage and Screen Bandita will gather together junkshop and attic finds of discarded, forgotten reels.
London itself is another focus of the 2012 festival with two screenings organised in association with the Museum of London in the Docklands: My Community will present a selection of shorts by young urban filmmakers; and London Lives will explore life in the capital through a varied programme of new works. In the documentary strand, another view of urban life is expressed through Hackney Lullabies, an award-winning short by Japanese filmmaker Kyoko Miyake. The film explores the shared experience of immigrant mothers living in Hackney and keeping their original cultures alive by singing lullabies to their young children. The diversity of voices presented in this warm and thoughtful film is mirrored in the programming of the festival itself. Looking through this year’s calendar of events, it is clear that LSFF aims to present a broad social spectrum as well as a wide aesthetic range. The Amnesty Human Rights Action Centre has organised an event to discuss disability in film while the Not the Skin I Live In strand celebrates Black and Asian stories on film. Female filmmakers are honoured with a dedicated festival strand (which includes an excellent, serious, yet witty call to arms about Nigerian women, Radio Amina) and the special event Dirty Diaries, a showcase of feminist porn films from Swedish filmmakers. This attempt to explore and represent all sorts of subjects and filmmakers makes for a lively and exciting programme of events. LSFF looks set to continue the success of previous years, keeping London audiences engaged and entertained.
Visiting the Barbican for a special screening of Lipsett Diaries (2010), Theodore Ushev’s much-praised 15-minute film about experimental filmmaker Arthur Lipsett, it was easy to forget the iconic concrete labyrinth was playing host – for the first time – to the London International Animation Festival. The monthly programme had a lonely, rather perfunctory, paragraph of blurb while the majority of the milling crowd seemed to be there for a new production of South Pacific. As I waited patiently outside Screen 1, I saw with some relief that word had clearly spread about LIAF as a large, high-spirited crowd streamed out of the festival’s British Showcase screening. Perhaps the throng was all showcased filmmakers with friends in tow; still, the lively festival-goers created a welcome buzz and, while many did not stick around for Lipsett Diaries, those who did attend (and the number was respectable) were rewarded for their attendance; the event was another example of thoughtful programming from the LIAF organisers.
Lipsett Diaries could easily have slotted into one of the festival’s regular screenings, lost amid the roster of impressive shorts; instead, it was used as a catalyst to introduce Lipsett’s work and as an ending to a comprehensive retrospective of Ushev’s work to date. It is certainly Ushev’s best film, although his animations have displayed technical virtuosity from the beginning. His first work – The Man Who Waited (2006) – re-tells a Kafka short story through a rapid, claustrophobic edit of images, hand-drawn in the style of German expressionist woodcuts. The fast pacing of Ushev’s filmmaking – something shared with Lipsett’s – is a real strength, and the retrospective included several shorts influenced by 20th-century art movements obsessed with mechanism and speed: constructivism, futurism and vorticism. Tower Bawher (2006) followed this pattern and re-trod a path pioneered in Russia at the start of last century. There was nothing new about the montages of newsprint, geometric blocks, architectural towers and saluting hands but the computer-generated speed did add a certain freshness to the images.
That Soviet typography and striking images appeal to Ushev should come as no surprise, given his background as a graphic artist. I saw a continuation of this profession in his filmmaking: not only in his use of striking aesthetics but also in the way he fits images to his films’ subjects, almost as if working to a brief. In the Q&A following the screening, he spoke of serving a concept; the key was making ‘a film, not my film’, he said. While commendable in many ways, this approach creates a certain passivity in his filmmaking; the image is applied to, and therefore at the mercy of, the text or idea. For me, the overly cutesy narration of Tzaritza (2006) made a sweet tale about families separated by emigration more throwaway and saccharine than it needed to be. It seems that Ushev creates his best films when working with rich personalities that provide a strong voice. As a case in point, Yannick Nézet-Séguin: No Intermission took an interview and performance by the eponymous conductor and created beautiful glowing visuals: lively flashes of Nézet-Séguin’s animated face and hands appear from extreme blackness to tame and direct an invisible orchestra.
Lipsett Diaries provided another strong voice and portrait of the creative spirit. The film was born out of discussions with fellow filmmakers, a series of talisman coincidences – including the discovery that Lipsett had previously lived in Ushev’s first apartment block in Montreal – and a script by writer Chris Robinson. Divided into three separate segments, the narrative tells Lipsett’s story, from a difficult childhood to his death. An exceptionally talented filmmaker, Lipsett created several astonishing shorts in the early 60s and committed suicide just before his 50th birthday. Composed of hundreds of acrylic paintings, the film’s animation is intense and extremely delicate, borrowing from the visceral style of Francis Bacon and Goya’s later paintings and occasionally nodding to Pop Art. These images play out as filmmaker Xavier Dolan narrates snatches of text and builds up an insight into Lipsett’s inner turmoil. It is only at the end of the film that the audience is told that Lipsett’s diaries were never found and that the film is a fictionalised account, using narrative texts from Lipsett’s shorts.
The non-linear approach of assembling text and images mirrors Lipsett’s own filmmaking technique, which cut up dialogue – often passages of cultural criticism – and playfully juxtaposed the words with images of everyday life, either shot by himself or his contemporary filmmakers at the National Film Board in Canada. The editing skills displayed in his debut film, Very Nice, Very Nice (1961), brought Lipsett to the attention of the Academy and also that of filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrik (who asked him – unsuccessfully – to work as his editor). Lipsett was a master of editing but, more than that, he offered a delightfully skewed way of looking at the world, which cuts through the noise and commercialisation of our normal existence. His work goes beyond surrealism’s random juxtaposition of images and, while it uses the everyday, it is not quite Pop Art either. Lipsett’s work does not propel commonplace objects to the position of High Art in such a straightforward composition; instead, it uses everyday experience to comment upon cultural criticism, political theory, religious belief and social observation. The strange juxtapositions of images are sometimes used to directly contradict the rhetoric being espoused and, at other times, to point out the futility of trying to contain and define the human experience in words. The grand theories are interrupted by phone calls, cut off in mid-stream and shown disintegrating into unintelligible burbles and nonsensical noises. The films create a collage of competing voices, snippets of text straining to make sense of the world.
There is despair in Lipsett’s shorts but there is also warmth and humour; traits that were slightly lost in the script for Lipsett Diaries, which preferred to emphasise a darker, more straightforward narrative of the artist as tortured soul. Lipsett’s work is full of humanity – laid bare for the audience in his every choice of image – and it was wonderful to sit in the Barbican watching his early shorts unfold on the big screen. For bringing Arthur Lipsett to new audiences, to the organisers of LIAF and the makers of Lipsett Diaries: bravo, very nice, very nice.
American artist Al Jarnow started out as something of an accidental animator. Obsessed with capturing light, Jarnow initially created paintings. Like David Hockney’s photographic collages, Jarnow’s works laid out their subjects through squares of colour. Painted street scenes, architectural structures and landscapes were used to illustrate the motion of time, the changing of light and its transformative powers. Buildings were chosen as vessels; it was light that was the subject. Film, with its flickering frames of light and intrinsically temporal nature, was a natural progression. There was more potential for recording and exploring transience. He was also led towards the medium by his acquaintances and the environment of his city: the artistically free and exciting New York of the 1970s. Film Forum, Anthology and the Collective of Living Cinema provided unique platforms for experimentation. And Jarnow was a natural experimenter.
His first attempt at filmmaking – a psychedelic animation of Edward Lear’s poem ‘The Owl and The Pussycat’ – was for a NYU student film, produced by friend Dan Weiss, with drawings by his wife, Jill Jarnow. By necessity he learnt on the project; and by not knowing the medium, he was able to reinvent, challenge and improvise. Over the course of his career, he has played around with Xerox machines, he has produced stop-motion animations with filing cards and, in recent times, he has ‘fallen head over heels into the computer screen’, investigating the possibility of software-generated sequences without beginnings, middles and ends.
There is an elegant precision to Jarnow’s films. His 70s filing-card films stylishly play with geometric patterns. Piles of paper leap up and down mail-slots or shuffle like packs of cards, all the time revealing rotating architectural hand-drawn cubes. As the numbered sheets of paper flip before your eyes, your mind races to discover how it is done before duly giving in to the hypnotic rhythm, counted out on Mozart-written harpsichord beats. Autosong (1976), inspired by his wife’s blue Volkswagen car, is a labyrinthine journey of bends, bridges and hills knotting into abstract tubes and pipes set to field recordings of revving engines. Jarnow looked to the background scenery of old cartoons, rather than the racing hero.
Indeed, Jarnow presents humans as small specks, insignificant in the lifespan of the earth. In the two-minute short Cosmic Clock (1979), an impassive young male figure watches from a hillside as one billion years flash before his eyes. A strange time-lapse masterpiece unfolds as successive space-age cities rise and fall, water levels surge and plummet and ice ages sweep over the land. Architecture (1980) takes a different approach, using brightly painted toy blocks to create a stop-motion representation of urbanisation. Model animals weave in and out as buildings emerge, disintegrate and rocket up skywards. The elaborate city landscape sees the animals disappear as cars move in.
As well as charting the progression of human beings against the backdrop of the natural world, Jarnow also displays a desire to record time as it relates to an individual’s life. Jesse: The First Year (1979) is a playful sequence of photographs showing Jarnow’s new-born son over the course of 12 months, charting changes and growth during a period when the passage of time is sharply apparent. Similar in its personal approach, Celestial Navigation (1984) is one of Jarnow’s most fulfilled experiments. The 15-minute film records light passing through Jarnow’s Long Island studio from 20 March 1982 until 20 March 1983. As blocks of sunlight fall from the windows against whitewashed walls, Jarnow obsessively traces their movement across mornings, afternoons, days, weeks, months. He creates grids, photographic prints and a model of the studio, surrounded by a shining light bulb. He travels to Stonehenge for the summer equinox and produces a map of the landmark. There is a wonderful zoetrope-like sequence as the camera swirls around the stones, sun shining through and shadows cast. The effect of Celestial Navigation is like a fantastically talented jazz trumpeter stepping up to improvise, surrounded by silence as the rest of the band dies away. It is Jarnow’s personal philosophical riff on time and light.
Given the cerebral aspect of his works, it comes as a surprise that Jarnow also worked on many television commissions, including sequences for the mighty children’s television series Sesame Street. Generations of children remember his film, Yak (1970), an educational short about the letter ‘Y’. This commercial work paid for experimentations in the studio while Jarnow has described his personal work as acting like a laboratory for his commissions. And what a fantastic laboratory his Long Island attic became. Self-effacing in interview, Jarnow depicts his filmmaking as starting off on a very personal basis (‘my wife was an audience, my friends were an audience’). The uniqueness of Jarnow’s work rests heavily on its personal quality. Jarnow is an artist driven by an enviable desire to endlessly chase ideas, taking new perspectives and trying out all approaches.
The Al Jarnow programme ‘Celestial Navigations’ screened on Sunday 27 March at Ikon Eastside, Birmingham, as part of the Flatpack Festival.
As part of its focus on girls who do gore, the Birds Eye View Film Festival programmed a selection of new horror shorts by female filmmakers. Screening at the ICA in London, the seven films revealed what happens when women take on a historically male-orientated genre. Namely, they take their revenge.
Nowhere was this more keenly felt than in Melanie Light’s Switch. Set against a lovingly shot snow-swamped English landscape, the film opened with a fairly familiar set-up: a lone female jogger running down a deserted country lane; an obvious victim-in-waiting. Spotting the lonely figure, a male driver slows down his car, calls his girlfriend to say he’ll be home late and hangs up (‘Bitch!’ he shouts). Putting on his leather gloves, he heads off to follow the girl but in a skewed reversal of roles, the poor murderer-in-waiting is given no time to enact his crime; the female jogger gets in first, launching a horribly vicious and bloody attack in the pure, white snow. The victim has switched and, in turn, the genre switches towards black comedy. Leaving him for dead, the jogger dusts herself off, unperturbed, to continue her run. The twist is cleverly handled, playing nicely with audience preconceptions of the male attacker and the female victim.
Male victims were common across the board. In Helen Komini Olsen’s Daddy’s Girl, an angelically blonde, ringlet-ed woman serves up her own dead father to a party of dinner guests. In Kate Shenton’s Bon Appetit, a woman sits down to eat a plate of male genitalia, making her partner squirm as he sits opposite her (granted, he is tucking into a Salome-style offering of his girlfriend’s head). In Sun Koh’s Dirty Bitch, a wild, pregnant, pigtailed girl ties up and attacks a male acquaintance after she finds his diary of sexual fantasies. In Laura Whyte’s stop-motion animation, Nursery Crimes, we may not see violence against male characters but we do get a strong female instigator of violence: a kick-ass and utterly satanic Little Bo Peep. These were all women on a mission.
And it is with American director Devi Sniveley’s I Spit on Eli Roth that we learn what might lie behind this female offensive. There’s the misogyny of the slasher genre but there’s also a certain chauvinistic culture in mainstream horror circles. The film follows an angry group of women seeking to protest against Eli Roth’s ‘chick vision’ feature on the DVD release of his film Cabin Fever by finding new and exciting ways to torture Roth. The action comes to a halt when the fairy godmother of horror, The Bride of Frankenstein, appears and makes the women understand that they are acting no better than Roth himself. Seeing the error of their ways (‘We’ve become our own worst nightmare’), the women instead offer an impassioned plea to horror fans: ‘This didn’t have to happen, y’ know – horror can be an intelligent, socially conscious genre. It’s made us laugh. It’s made us scream. It’s even made us piss our pants and vomit. It’s even made us think… Friends, don’t let friends denigrate the horror genre.’ While there’s a throwaway, DIY feel to the film, it’s an astute point about the problems that can plague some, but not all, horror films.
Singaporean filmmaker Sun Koh also uses her film to raise questions about cinema and filmmaking. Commissioned by the Rotterdam International Film Festival, the work was inspired by a heavily censored video copy of Claire Denis’s Nenette and Boni, which Koh rented from a library in Singapore. Feeling appalled that the censors had edited out teenage fantasies about dirty talk, Koh decided to embrace the topic. The result is a bonkers whirlwind of filthy talk set to music, ultra-violence and dancing baby dolls. The film concludes with the female lead meeting with a board of censors. As she sits opposite these imposing figures of authority, she slowly realises that they are no different from herself or anyone else; but by pretending to be above others, they have become hypocrites.
As might be surmised from these descriptions, the films chosen for the programme do not strictly adhere to conventional definitions of horror; in fact, they are quite circumspect in their approach to the genre. Most involved violence of some sort but chose to move away from being a straightforward horror film and, watching the films, it was actually easy to forget that this was a horror screening at all. Some involved a lot of gore without much build-up (the bloody meals of Bon Appetit, the vengeful attacks in Switch and Dirty Bitch); some detached themselves from the material enough to create black comedy (Switch, Daddy’s Girl and Nursery Crimes) and some acted as polemics on filmmaking (I Spit on Eli Roth and Dirty Bitch). Only one of the shorts was a direct horror film in the traditional sense: Prano Bailey-Bond and Jennifer Eiss’s Short Lease. While the other films offered food for thought, Short Lease seemed to be the only one to stick to its brief for its entire duration. Bailey-Bond and Eiss’s film was incredibly effective in creating tension with classic horror tools: a lonely, isolated setting; a big, deserted house; and a supernatural, inexplicable force haunting and tormenting its human victims. Following in the mysterious, gothic style of M.R. James, the film left a lot of questions unanswered and a strange, lingering feeling of discomfort in the viewer. But while the haunted staircases left a chill, it was heartening to see an example of intelligent horror, with a female victim but without the misogyny, directed by women filmmakers.