The Great Flood: Interview with Bill Morrison

The Great Flood
The Great Flood

Format: Cinema

Screening date: 8 May 2014

Venue: ICA, London

Director: Bill Morrison

USA 2013

78 mins

Bill Morrison creates stunning works of cinema from forgotten fragments of footage. His debut feature, Decasia (2002), a beautiful composition of decaying nitrate celluloid, was the first film of the 21st century to be selected for preservation by the National Film Registry, although UK audiences might know him best for The Miners’ Hymns (2010), his majestic, poetic rendering of lost coal mining communities in North East England.

Eleanor McKeown spoke to the American filmmaker ahead of the UK premiere of his latest masterwork, The Great Flood, at Birmingham’s Flatpack Film Festival in March 2014.

Bill Morrison: Selected Films 1996-2014 is released in the UK on 4 May 2015 by the BFI. The 3-disc Blu-ray box set includes The Great Flood, Decasia, Beyond Zero: 1914-1918 and many more.

Eleanor McKeown: How did you find the material for The Great Flood and how did the project come about?

Bill Morrison: I had been looking for a longer project to work on with Bill Frisell. We’d done a couple of shorts before – The Film of Her and The Mesmerist – where I used pre-recorded tracks of his. We were looking for a project where we would start from the ground up; he would write new music and I would find new footage to make a new film. I had been working on looser, more metaphorical treatment of flood footage and was looking for any old footage of flood-inundated houses for a project called Shelter (this was back in 2005), and I kept coming across footage from 1926 and 1927. It wasn’t until some time later that I was at a dinner party where they were discussing a book by John M. Barry called Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed American Culture, as it related to Katrina and the problems with that storm and the flood in New Orleans. I read that book. Knowing that there was a lot of footage out there from that era and that Bill wanted to work on a project with me, and that there were musical ramifications from people moving out of the area into the newer cities like Chicago, Cleveland and New York, it all kind of conspired and I realised that this could be a long-form project.

Once we had decided that we wanted to go forward with this project, Bill approached his management team – that’s Phyllis Oyama and Lee Townsend at Songtone – and they were able to assemble a list of performing venues that would co-commission the project. It was not the regular route most filmmakers take to finance a film, but it really came about as part of the multimedia side of the live performance. There were a number of venues that contributed more or less money to the thing, and quite a few would premiere the piece in that region.

Was there a difference between how The Great Flood was originally performed live and how it currently appears in its finished version? With The Miners’ Hymns, your last UK film release, I understand that the film was shown on a double screen when it premiered, with live music, at Durham Cathedral.

Both films were much looser when they were originally performed live, before we had a definitive master recording, which we re-cut to. With The Great Flood, it was a very unique set of circumstances, where I was on tour with Bill in the Mississippi River Delta in the spring of 2011. We had booked a tour just to give Bill and his bandmates a chance to familiarise themselves with the material and to work on it together through rehearsals and performances, on sort of a mobile artist’s residency, if you will. We had absolutely no indication, of course, that the tour would be during another major flood of the Mississippi River. Indeed, the flood levels that spring were as high as they had been since 1927, so it became a very real sort of history lesson on what it feels like to be in a community not knowing whether the levees are going to hold or not.

It was through recording all those soundchecks, and rehearsals and performances that I was able to structure a sort of narrative and emotional arc of how I thought the film would sound. That tour became a tool, both for me to start forming a rough cut of the film, and for Bill to write more music or re-write music that was recorded. It was also just a chance to talk to him about things that I was really enamoured with on his previous records, and how I saw the opportunity for some of those same dynamics to work: the idea of taking a theme and expanding on it. He was really receptive to that collaboration, really more so than any other composer-collaborator I’ve worked with.

How was it different to working with other composers in the past? Was there more improvisation?

I work a lot with classical composers and, once they’ve written the score, it’s really in the hands of the conductor and orchestra to perform it the way the composer wrote it. We arrive at a master recording that way. With Bill, it’s almost exactly the opposite. He doesn’t want to repeat himself two performances in a row. In fact, if it’s something’s good, he tries to avoid it the second time, and if it’s bad, of course, he’s going to avoid it the second time! It’s really a completely different way of approaching performance. The music grew from the spring tour but, after it premiered that fall, we used a recording from the premiere to re-edit the film. Then a few months later, we had a better recording that we made at Duke and that became the basis for the film, and the edit that was used during much of the film’s performance life in 2012. It wasn’t until about a year ago, in March of 2013, that the band did a performance in Seattle that we felt very strongly could be the definitive soundtrack of the film. The film, as released in 2014, was entirely re-cut to this soundtrack to support every note and every chord change. It is cut to the beat in a way that would be impossible to do in a live situation, and that was the same with The Miners’ Hymns too. We started out with a very loose edit and then, when we had a final recording, we re-cut to it, sometimes as many as three or four different times.

Thinking about the narrative arc of the film, The Great Flood is divided into chapters. How did you make decisions about these and, in particular, the segment that uses a montage of the 1927 Sears Roebuck Catalogue and the change of pace in this sequence?

Bill was really adamant that we include these up-tempo musical numbers: music that I associate with Thelonious Monk or a bebop tempo. I’m really enamoured with his dirges and ballads, but he was adamant that those don’t work unless you have something that also cuts them and changes the pace and the mood. He’s a real master at constructing a set – and this was after all a set – so including that type of mood was really Bill’s influence. It was something that initially I was resistant to, but I came to see how he was right.

The Sears Roebuck catalogue was my idea. As you can see from the start of that chapter, it’s listed with a circulation of 75 million, so you can imagine how prevalent this book was in just about every house. It would be like the internet is for us today. It was sort of the portal to all the stuff that’s out there. I’ve been told that some houses had only two books: The Bible and the Sears Roebuck Catalogue. There’re also stories about children making up fantasy stories based on the characters in that book. It was a source of amusement but also a source of dreaming. This is all the stuff you could own, if you had a better life. Then, in the context of the film, it’s also all the stuff that’s getting destroyed by the flood and getting thrown away –what you grab onto. I was able to find a reprint of the 1927 catalogue, which is really upheld as an emblem of the Roaring Twenties. It was financially a very fat time in this country, before The Great Depression, and so this book is an artefact of everything we had and everything we could own. Because the layout page-to-page is very similar, it lent itself to this fast de facto animation. I simply scanned every page and then played with it in edit until it kind of moved. It was also a different way of treating up-tempo material rather than relying on fast action or fast editing.

This up-tempo music reoccurs at other points in the film, such as the segment showing footage of politicians visiting the flood sites.

Yes, also in the dynamiting Poydras chapter. It’s an ironic use of the music, because of course the chapter is showing large class discrepancies, treated as business as usual, and I think that the music communicates that.

Out of all the footage you were working with, you chose a woman dancing to live music in Chicago as the last shot of the film. How did you decide on this final image?

That had always been the premise of the film. The water came down the river and the people moved up it – to the north – and, in so doing, brought music and a way of life and a culture to northern American cities that then went global and really affected popular music and popular culture in the latter half of the century. That shot said so much. It’s obviously an old shot, it’s over 50, almost 60, years old. You can see a woman in the back carrying a large poster of John Kennedy, so one can assume that it’s either an election party or an inauguration party. It’s something that would place it in November 1960 or January 1961. My guess is November 1960. It comes from a film that was released in 1964 by Mike Shea, called And This Is Free, which is a beautiful depiction of Maxwell Street in Chicago, a flourishing musical area and commercial area, which no longer exists in the way it did back then, of course. For me, coming from the South Side of Chicago, I always thought of this film as ending there. It’s as much about me trying to understand where I’m from, as how my neighbourhood became that way and the significance of Chicago as a conduit to the rest of the world. We came across that shot and it encompassed so much. It was at once modern, as well as being ancient. It was very beautiful. It showed passion and great intimacy. There was something very real about it; something where the people were oblivious of the use of the camera, or seemingly so.

And after all the work and really demeaning and unpleasant situations that you’ve seen people in throughout the film – and really you haven’t seen that many women, it’s mostly been a lot of men – to see this woman dancing was so emblematic of survival and of strength. That story goes on. This is not just an ending but the river continues.

Her expression is an interesting one, which provokes a lot of different ideas. She seems to convey so much in that expression.

Yes, there’s a lot of resolve to her. She’s very serious about her dance and she’s extraordinarily beautiful. That’s what I wanted the film to be.

It certainly was. What are your plans for The Great Flood and what projects are you currently working on?

The Great Flood is being distributed in North America by Icarus Films and they’re doing a phenomenal job with it. They oversaw a successful opening here in New York and also in Los Angeles, and they are now taking it to independent theatres throughout the United States and Canada. There’s also going to be a DVD release in May, again through Icarus Films. We don’t have an international distributor yet, and I am interested in finding a UK distributor.

The Great Flood is released in the US on DVD (R1) and VOD on 20 May 2014.

In terms of my upcoming projects, I’m working on a new long-form doc about an archive that was found in Dawson City in the Yukon territory in the late 1970s, after having been buried in a swimming pool for 50 years. And I just finished a film on World War One with a score by a Serbian composer, Aleksandra Vrebalov, which will be performed by The Kronos Quartet. That will premiere in Berkeley, California, and make its international premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival in August. With this film, I worked with the Library of Congress to find footage that other people aren’t able to access on the war. Through soaking and restoration, we were unspooling rolls of film that hadn’t been seen in decades. We’re very much looking forward to the reaction to this film.

Read about Bill Morrison’s Decasia in The End: An Electric Sheep Anthology.

Interview by Eleanor McKeown

Flatpack 2014: Old Celluloid, New Perspectives

The Great Flood 1
The Great Flood

Flatpack Festival

20-30 March 2014, Birmingham, UK

Flatpack website

In her introduction to a compilation of shorts from the BFI collection, silent film curator Bryony Dixon explained how she has long admired the Flatpack Film Festival for its strong programming of archival footage. Over its eight-year-festival history, Flatpack has revealed an unusual appreciation of rediscovered lost films and celluloid fragments, creating events around amateur cine-clubs, cans fished out of skips by ex-projectionists and highlights from local archives. Dixon added to this year’s line-up with a thoughtful selection of films focused around the theme of water. Regen, Joris Ivens’s wonderful 1929 study of a city rainstorm, and Peter Greenaway’s Water Wrackets (1975) rounded off a compilation of early 20th-century travelogues and examples from a turn-of-the-century popular genre, the wave film. Watching the simple crash of salt water against an English stone pier, caught by a static camera in Rough Sea at Dover (1896), created a primeval rush, transporting us back to the powerful ‘train effect’ days of early cinema.

Bill Morrison‘s archival footage masterwork, The Great Flood (2013), which screened as part of a mini-retrospective, was a relatively late addition to this year’s programme, but in many ways it acted as the centrepiece of the festival, bringing together various programme themes, including the festival’s preoccupation with depictions of water on film. Morrison crafts a narrative of the 1927 flooding of the Mississippi River using a poetic swell of historical footage, gleaned from the archive of the University of South Carolina. The Great Flood begins with a bird’s eye sweep of the flood plain; a printed map merges into a vast, featureless landscape of water. We see the corner of an aeroplane wing – caught in shot by the news reporter’s camera – and indistinguishable rows of triangles. Social, human history gradually comes into focus over the course of eleven segments, grouped by theme: shots of sharecroppers; fragments of politicians visiting flood sites; refugees living in makeshift tents (those triangles we viewed impassively from the air). The footage is slowed down to a meditative pace and synched to Bill Frisell’s shimmering guitar, allowing Morrison’s history to unfold gradually with a reflective beauty. Punctuation comes in the form of a type of commercial break – a flipbook-style rendering of the 1927 Sears catalogue – playing out to the tsk-tsk of cymbals and bebop-infused rhythms. Clothing, pianos, pens, clocks, books, rugs, cameras, ovens, ploughs – all the material necessities and non-necessities of life – race past until the sequence ends abruptly on a page full of headstones, prices artfully arranged. This up-tempo jazz re-surfaces at various points in the film – when politicians pose for photos, or engineers use dynamite to unsuccessfully divert the course of the flood, sacrificing Poydras, Louisiana, in a bungled effort to save New Orleans – to underline the farcical aspects of political self-interest, all the more tragicomic when set against the almighty, unstoppable force of the flood.

The last segments of the film use footage showing the migration of displaced African-American communities to the north of the US and the development of the blues in places like Chicago (the Great Mississippi Flood caused a spike in an on-going exodus and, at the post-screening Q&A, Morrison was quick to emphasise the problematic oversimplification of the idea that conditions were uniformly better in the northern cities than in the south). The film’s final shot lingers over a woman dancing and twisting with urgent, vital intensity. The bewitching, soaring energy of this sequence echoes the close of Morrison’s last UK film release, The Miners’ Hymns (2010): when the miners’ march, the fluttering banners, the children skipping hand-in-hand combine in an expansive surge of visual majesty and melancholy.

Transience is an inherent quality of the type of footage preserved in archives such as the BFI and creatively used by Morrison. The everyday and forgotten emphasise the passage of history in a way that a narrative film from the early days of cinema does not. Morrison explores this quality in The Great Flood and The Miners’ Hymns, but it is most explicitly on display in his debut film, Decasia (2002), which screened on the final day of the festival. Taking nitrate celluloid that is partially eroded, Morrison celebrates the odd distortions, explosions and ripples that physically mark the march of time on film. A tangled selection of newsreels and works of cinema intertwine to create unified loops and circular patterns – a whirling dervish, a fairground carousel, a group of faded figures turning their heads to the camera, recurring visions of suns – in a progression of time that is not a linear line towards destruction, but instead hints at rebirth or unstoppable mutations that lead to new beginnings. Human figures try to escape the inevitability of decay or mortality – most directly demonstrated by the boxer who hits straight into a vertical column of celluloid distortion – and while they might fail individually, the footage continues to roll on. All the while, a strange, unnerving crescendo is created by Michael Gordon’s soundtrack, which sounds like a stretched-out, looping echo of the orchestral melange in The Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life’, never reaching its end.

Read about Bill Morrison’s Decasia in The End: An Electric Sheep Anthology.

Henry Hills, another guest filmmaker celebrated over Flatpack’s closing weekend, also takes assemblage of footage as a starting point for exploring ideas of structure and narrative. A programme of shorts brought together Hills’s films from the early 1980s with a more recent work, Arcana (2011). The latter was born when Henry Hills received an invitation from American composer John Zorn: an assortment of filing cards, each with a different image to be included in a short film. The resulting montage of strange juxtapositions – videos of domestic scenes, archival footage of a zeppelin crash, pictures of code, shots from cinematic works – creates mini-sequences of suspense and menace, cut to The Bribe, John Zorn’s tribute to the American crime fiction writer Mickey Spillane. Hills’s earlier works are dense and tightly packed. Hills talked about how he obsessively listened to 45s when young and how he wanted to make films that he could re-watch over and over in the same way. He started out making silent works in San Francisco, keen to make films that could be readily viewed by anyone across the globe, regardless of language barriers, but was influenced by a move to New York and its noisy energy. The 1980s shorts are staccato edits of film and sound, where narrative becomes fragmented in a cacophony of noise: half-finished sentences and monosyllables, spoken by Hills’s poet and musician friends; truncated experimental dance sequences; and cut-up assortments of music and radio interference. In his shorts Radio Adios (1982) and Money (1985), odd phrases ring out – ‘this generation has gone mad’, ‘a certain kind of capitalism’, ‘the man lives across the street and you can’t mess with the man’ – but they are endlessly intercepted and interrupted to create a free-jazz improvisation of language. The splicing of footage starts to point towards the difficulty of imposing meaning or reaching consensus, mirroring our often fragmented experiences in life.

Flatpack has never taken a conventional approach to the screening of film or the medium itself. By exploring the very nature of footage in inventive ways, the festival and its guests open up new perspectives in how we might view film; we can see it not just as an immersive way to tell narratives, but as a poetic form that can sometimes, at its best, throw new light on how we exist in the world.

Eleanor McKeown

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

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



Format: DVD

Director: Tony Collingwood

Writer: Tony Collingwood

UK 1988

23 mins

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!

Eleanor McKeown

Edmond: A repulsive film


Director: Stuart Gordon

Writer: David Mamet

Cast: William H. Macy, Julia Stiles, Joe Mantegna

USA 2005

82 mins

This article contains spoilers.

I first saw Edmond in 2005, the year of its release, and the effect it had on me is difficult to rationalise and describe. I watched the film at a festival of American cinema in Deauville, a small coastal town in northern France, the kind with expensive boutiques, valet-driven sports cars, wide Edwardian promenades and raked sand. Blinking myself back into this surreal world and bright sunshine, I felt panicked, overcome with skin-crawling claustrophobia. I was repulsed. It wasn’t the kind of repulsion I had felt at other times in the cinema. Those instances had always been short and physical, like wincing through the torture scene in Oldboy (2003), but this was something very different, despite the presence of vivid violence (also, oddly enough, teeth-related in one scene). This repulsion lingered and didn’t entirely make sense, like the lasting discomfort after a nightmare where nothing happens. It’s hard to judge Edmond as a good or bad film, but it is certainly one of the most intellectually and morally repulsive films I have had the displeasure of viewing.

The plot of the film, adapted from a play by David Mamet and directed by Stuart Gordon, is fairly simple and conventional in its trajectory. Edmond Burke, played by a soul-sucked, monotone William H. Macy, is an everyman city suit, disaffected and disappointed. He leaves his New York office building and, in turn, his immaculately groomed wife before embarking on a seedy urban odyssey of epic yet well-trodden proportions. The camera follows him past neon-lit dollar stores, down dark side streets, on a graffiti-scrawled subway carriage. It’s a journey that starts in a bar, takes in a clichéd list of lowdown dives (strip joint, brothel, pawn shop), escalates to murderous rage and ends in a prison cell; all the while framed and propelled by a tarot reading, in which the fortune teller warns Edmond, ‘You are not where you belong’. Peace and belonging, it appears, can only be obtained behind bars. Freedom is achieved by escaping the seemingly free outside world. The script brings up a number of existentialist questions that echo the storyline of Albert Camus’s L’Etranger.

David Mamet’s script is brutal in its language. The terms of abuse are misogynistic, homophobic and, perhaps most vehemently, racist. Central to the film is the idea of an emasculated white man, fearful and yet jealous of the black men he meets on the mean city streets, which amount to a skewed landscape of hustlers, pimps and thieves. Edmond believes that he has been conditioned by society to pity and fear black men (‘47 years says he’s underpaid, he can’t get a job, he’s bigger than me’) and has been caught up ‘in a mess of intellectuality’. He has been ‘taught to hate’ by society but also forced to hide this loathing. His journey allows him to throw off these shackles and embrace his true feelings: an aggressive combination of hatred and bigotry. He cries with the zeal of a new convert: ‘If it makes you feel whole, say it. Always say it. There is no history, no laws’. After killing a black pimp in an alleyway, Edmond recalls how he saw the man as a human being for the first time during the attack.

When shaking off his former self in this way, Edmond can be seen as a riposte to societal pressure and political correctness, suggesting that we are compelled to suppress our true, less complicated instincts and selves under enforced social veneers. But while striving for authenticity might be admirable in many ways, the film presents a loathsome view of what lies beneath: a survival-of-the-fittest competition filled with racial, national and gender stereotypes. It’s an ugly and – to my mind – repellent Catch 22 and the classic manipulator’s trick: an argument founded on shaky premises but one that does not allow for any counterpoints, because it’s already shut out and sewn up the alternatives in a horrible, confusing mess of faulty logic. And that is what I find skin-crawling and claustrophobic about this script. We are confronted with one man’s incoherent, hate-filled ramblings, which spew forth from a mind obsessed with notions of control and power, and expected to find some profound or revealing universal truths. When incarcerated, Edmond muses on whether the only person who can truly understand life is ‘some fuck locked up who has lots of time for reflection’. Are we meant to see Edmond as a prophet? The script, acting and direction never make it clear whether we are supposed to have any sympathy for this character. There are no moral shifts or shades of grey, as in Taxi Driver (to which the DVD’s blurb makes a comparison). It’s all just one colourless, incessant, relentless monologue. It is suffocating. The script gives the audience no air to breathe, no room to think beyond or challenge its view of humanity. And perhaps that’s the point – that Edmond’s narrow view is terrifying and repulsive up close – but it’s a point that’s also never made clearly. The film is a dialogue-heavy 88 minutes of macho polemic that chases itself round in circles. The talk is about big themes – sex, power, religion, money and race – but the exchanges are unsatisfactory. Characters re-phrase each other’s sentences or talk at each other in an endless stream of questions. These are clever tricks but they leave the audience a bit cheated: ideas and concepts come and go as quickly as the next phrase arrives.

Towards the end of the film, it appears that redemption may be on its way when Edmond is forced to share a cell with a black prisoner and confront his newly vocalised racism. Standing face to face with his cellmate, he acknowledges that perhaps his beliefs mask another truth: ‘Every fear hides a wish’. His fellow prisoner forces Edmond to perform oral sex, towering over his cowering body, trapped in a corner of the cell. Edmond seems horrified at first about his homosexual experiences – we see him complaining to the prison priest – but the two eventually unite and end the film curled around each other in bed. While this neat, final twist might imply that Edmond has undergone a transformation, acknowledging and following a latent desire, one gets the sense that this development could be as quickly overturned as all his other so-called insights (his view of sex as salvation, his initial racism, his brief interest in a church meeting, his remorse at killing a waitress after a one-night stand). Despite a goodnight kiss, there is no connection, understanding or meaningful interaction between Edmond and his fellow prisoner. Edmond continues his questioning of life – now confined by prison bars rather than outside societal expectations – while his cellmate answers indifferently. He reaches no conclusion and neither do we. Edmond is searching for meaning and understanding in his life but cannot find it and, while he searches, he feels the need to involve everyone around him: the waitress is killed because she fails to agree with Edmond’s assertion that she is simply a waitress rather than an actress (which she aspires to be); the pimp is killed at whim because he does not give Edmond what he wants; and his cellmate is forced into listening to his endless philosophical quandaries. There is a pitiful bullying quality to the character of Edmond and the dialogue of the film itself, as they force secondary characters and the audience into following Edmond’s existentialist journey rather than forging their own.

The character of Edmond embarks on a path of personal enlightenment that challenges societal preconceptions, but what results is an individualistic, ugly, aggressive worldview based on a macho, racially discriminatory premise. And because of the bombarding style of dialogue, it’s a view that does not allow for any dissenters despite its striving for individual authenticity. It’s one I find thoroughly ugly to witness. It is not easy to analyse and unpack all the reasons why I felt such violent, bone-seeping disgust at Edmond. I can list the aspects I disliked about the film but, in many ways, repulsion is deeply personal. It feels like one of the most primeval, instinctive emotions a human being can experience: it’s a flight-or-fight instant reaction. To be made to feel that way for an hour and a half is quite a feat.

Eleanor McKeown

London International Animation Festival 2012


London International Animation Festival

25 October – 4 November 2012

LIAF website

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.

Eleanor McKeown

Flatpack 2012: Magic Lanterns, Icebooks and Slow Boats

The Icebook

Flatpack Festival

14-18 March 2012, Birmingham, UK

Flatpack website

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.

Eleanor McKeown

London Short Film Festival 2012: Preview

The Last Walk (Jordan Baseman)

London Short Film Festival 2011

6-15 January 2012, various venues, London

LSFF website

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.

Eleanor McKeown

London Korean Film Festival Shorts

Night Fishing

London Korean Film Festival 2011

3-17 November 2011, London

LKFF website

Short films were represented by two screenings at the London Korean Film Festival. Each showcased different works selected from Korea’s Mise en Scène festival, which celebrated its tenth edition this year and was originally set up by the filmmaking powerhouses Park Chan-wook (Old Boy) and Bong Joon-hoo (Mother) as a platform for the country’s shorts.

Both screenings opened with their star attraction, Night Fishing (2011), a collaboration between Park Chan-wook and his brother Park Chan-kyong. Steeped in Korean folklore and traditional religion, the film passes through three distinct atmospheres. It begins with a stylish musical prologue with a jerking, twisting front man and his band performing amid colourless reed beds. The camera soars away to a lone man sitting on a riverbank, his fishing rod primed and tinny radio playing, and the film takes on the air of an ominous horror film. Then, in a gloriously unexpected twist, the film makes a high-energy ascent into a colourful cacophony of mournful wailing and religious chanting. It is a strange journey and one made more so by the way in which the film was made: every single shot was filmed on an i-Phone 4. It would have been a bizarre, beautiful film regardless, but the technology creates further interesting effects as the camera flips 360 degrees or shoots the fishing scenes in grainy night vision.

It was an impossibly strong start and at the second screening, which I attended, the following shorts never quite matched its quality. That said, the standard was high and I especially enjoyed Kim Bo-ra’s The Recorder Exam and Lee Chang-hee’s Broken Night (both 2011), two wildly different films. The Recorder Exam is a beautifully small-scale, poignant film that follows a young girl’s preparation for a school music test. The film makes snatched references to the 1988 Seoul Olympics but the narrative focuses on the domestic story of an unhappy home life, a million miles away from grand, international ceremonies. In contrast to the slow and still approach of The Recorder Exam, Broken Night is a fast-paced nightmare of high-speed road accidents and shifting moral perspectives.

The sinister atmosphere was echoed in Yi Jeong-jin’s Ghost (2011), which followed a man hiding out in a derelict housing block following the murder and assault of a young girl. The film never made its message or the subject of its empathy clear so, while its creepiness was well executed, the story seemed to peter out, feeling like the start of a longer film rather than a completed short. I felt that the weakest of the selection was Kim Han-kyul’s Chatter (2011), a comedy focusing on a meal out between friends that quickly descends into a battle of gossip and ill-feeling as secrets and insults are exchanged. I found the humour to be a bit laboured (an effect further hampered by poorly translated subtitles) but I think this was a matter of personal taste; the ICA cinema was soon filled with laughter. Indeed, the audience seemed to be engaged throughout the screening and there were very positive murmurings as the selection came to an end. The chosen films provided an interesting chance to see material beyond Korea’s internationally screened feature films and it appeared that everyone at the ICA was very appreciative of that.

Eleanor McKeown