London Film Festival 2011: part 3

Rebellion

55th BFI London Film Festival

12-27 October 2011, various venues, London

LFF website

Last part of our coverage of the 2011 London Film Festival by Mark Stafford, Sarah Cronin, Lisa Williams, Frances Morgan and Virginie Sélavy.

Rebellion

On April 22, 1988, three gendarmes were killed and 30 others taken hostage in a botched operation by independence fighters on the French colony of New Caledonia. In this fictionalised account, Mathieu Kassovitz plays Captain Philippe Legorjus, the leader of a special operations unit who is sent to the island to negotiate a peaceful settlement, only to find himself outmanoeuvred and sidelined by his own colleagues. The latest from the actor-director mixes docu-drama and action thriller elements to create a wrenching, powerful and intelligent film that exposes the arrogance and brutality of the French elite during the 10-day hostage crisis. Kassovitz opens the film with a tableau depicting the final moments of the stand-off, before piecing together a day-by-day reconstruction of how events went tragically wrong; tension builds quickly, immediately immersing the audience in the politically charged story. It’s impossible not to sympathise with the islanders’ struggle to take back their country from the French; the scenes of the Kanak people performing their endangered rituals are extremely moving, while the unfolding actions of the French army are increasingly sickening (the film ends on a particularly grim note). The hostage crisis took place against the backdrop of the closely fought presidential election between Mitterrand and Chirac, with political allegiances and ambition outweighing any real desire for a negotiated end to the conflict. The politicians back in Paris wanted it over before the elections, and the French army, invading a colony for the first time since Algeria, had enough incentives to ensure the rebels – horribly dehumanised in the French media – were violently suppressed. In Rebellion, Kassovitz has created an impressive and gripping piece of genre filmmaking that is also an indictment of France’s colonial legacy. SC

Dreams of a Life

Joyce Carol Vincent’s body was discovered in her Wood Green flat three years after she had died. Documentary maker Carol Morley has attempted to piece the life of this mystery woman together and has built a portrait, not of the ageing shut-in that most people might have imagined from the tabloid reports, but a pretty would-be singer and bubbly social girl who seemed to hang around in other people’s lives and never quite become herself. Fascinating stuff, with brilliantly assembled material that makes you ponder what effect you have on those around you and what impression you will leave behind. It’s a pity that the long, stagey reconstructions just don’t work and seem to strain for an effect that they don’t achieve, because the talking heads quietly reduced me to tears. MS

Dreams of a Life is released in the UK on 16 December 2011 by Dogwoof.

We Need To Talk about Kevin

We Need To Talk about Kevin is a chillingly apt title as Lynne Ramsay’s latest film contains precious little dialogue. Quite a feat given that it is based on the much-lauded novel by Lionel Shriver in which Eva, the narrator, describes the events leading up to her son committing a dreadful crime and reflects upon its consequences. This format would easily lend itself to a verbatim expositional voice-over in a film adaptation but, as was obvious from her 2002 film Morvern Callar, Ramsay knows the power of silence.

That’s not to say the film is noiseless. In fact, it is charged with sounds which, to Eva, evoke that fateful night when she discovered the full extent of Kevin’s crimes. But, rather than rely on dialogue to tell the story, Ramsay brings out Tilda Swinton’s extraordinary abilities as an actress to communicate Eva’s living hell. We see her close her eyes in almost orgasmic relief when a roadside drill drowns the wails of her crying baby, for example, and – when a doctor tells her that toddler Kevin’s reluctance to talk is not down to autism – what you see register on Eva’s face looks suspiciously like a faint flicker of disappointment.

Combined with arresting cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, and disturbing performances from the three actors who play Kevin from infant to teenager, Ramsay’s restraint elevates into poetry what could have, in the wrong hands, been turned into a gruesome misery memoir. LW

We Need To Talk about Kevin was released in UK cinemas on 21 October 2011 by Artificial Eye.

The Kid with a Bike

Another fine film from the Dardenne brothers, who seem to have a way of making low-budget films about people from the wrong side of the tracks that just don’t run along the same rails as others. Nothing here harangues us about ‘issues’ in society. It’s just the story of Cyril, the hell-on-wheels 11-year-old of the title. Living in a children’s home, but escaping to pursue the dad who put him there at every given opportunity, Cyril’s single-minded, resourceful zeal blinds him to the fact, evident to all others, that his father is a bit of a shitbag. Still, somebody up there must like him, because one of his misadventures throws him into the arms of Samantha (Cécile de France), who agrees to take on the little terror on weekends. Is it possible that she can help Cyril to save himself from the world of pain he’s so energetically chasing? There are no ostentatious camera set-ups or performances here, just lean, intelligent filmmaking that finds the best way to get to the heart of scene after scene. For my money, it’s not up there with L’enfant (which just seemed to have more going on), and I kind of wonder how long the Dardennes can repeat a winning formula. But hell, this is great stuff. MS

The Monk

The Monk

Matthew Lewis’s sulphurous Gothic novel adapted by Dominik Moll, director of the wickedly brilliant Harry, He’s Here to Help, with Vincent Cassel in the role of evil monk Ambrosio: it sounded terrific on paper, but the film did not quite live up to expectations. To be fair to Moll, it is a very difficult novel to adapt: narratively labyrinthine, it relies on the intricate echoes and contrasts between its different strands to create depth and resonance; forced to concentrate on one story, the film feels strangely bare. In keeping with the nightmarish quality of Gothic novels, Moll has gone for a dreamlike, artificial world, which sometimes works (the addition of the mask for the character of Valerio is eerie and chilling; Ambrosio’s recurring dream, which is not in the novel but perfectly fits with its spirit, is strikingly evocative), but too often descends into cartoony Gothic clichés (night outings to the cemetery, gargoyles, thunderstorms, etc.). Vincent Cassel is great as the conflicted monk battling repressed desires, and both he and Moll clearly give their all, but the result of their efforts is oddly paced, narratively meagre and stylistically overwrought. VS

Natural Selection

Amiably filthy road trip, as a childless Christian wife (Rachael Harris) tracks down the junkie fugitive fruit (Matt O’Leary) of her husband’s sperm bank habit, after hubby has a stroke while, well, having a stroke. It’s pretty familiar American indie comedy stuff as the odd couple learn from each other, and you can kinda predict where it’s going most of the time, but the central performances are fine, it makes you care, and the dialogue is foul-mouthed and funny. (‘Maybe we can go see a unicorn take a shit made of lullabies.’) I liked it a lot. MS

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Last year, Takashi Miike remade a little-seen 1963 samurai film by Eiichi Kudo, 13 Assassins, which was undeniably a lot of fun, but uncharacteristically conventional for the director, both in its filmmaking style and its attitude to the traditional values of the samurai. Puzzlingly, this year Miike has directed a 3D version of Masaki Kobayashi’s acclaimed 1962 Harakiri (Seppuku), a virulent, powerful indictment of the hypocrisy of Japan’s feudal system and the samurai’s code of honour. Miike is clearly going through a chanbara phase, although he seems a bit unsure of where he stands in relation to the samurai tradition. This may explain why Kobayashi’s searing condemnation of the samurai’s rules of conduct as empty, rigid and inhuman is blunted in the dialogue and weakened by lethargic direction and melodramatic excesses in Miike’s version.

When Miike doesn’t water down the original film, he simply reiterates it. The story of a poor ronin, whose request to commit ritual suicide in the courtyard of a prestigious family’s house conceals a desperate act of revenge, is told through exactly the same series of flashbacks as in Kobayashi’s film. The striking image of the ronin kneeling down in the courtyard surrounded by the almost geometrically positioned samurai simply repeats the exquisite compositions of the earlier film.

Visually, Miike adds 3D, which has the effect of making the colours dull and dark while being completely superfluous, given that there is little action. The most striking 3D scenes are those that show beautiful autumn leaves in the foreground against stony walls in the background, snow falling in the feudal house’s courtyard, and the credits rolling in front of the house’s symbolic samurai statue. Nice, but hardly indispensable. Which is a fairly accurate description of this pointless remake. VS

Shock Head Soul

It’s beautifully shot, and I love the typewriter jellyfish manifestations, but Shock Head Soul renders what seems to be a fascinating psychological case study into an achingly serious, ponderous trudge. It offers no compelling characters or observations of note and I found myself, after half an hour, wanting the whole thing to just shut up, which is possibly not the compassionate reaction to mental illness that the filmmakers were aiming for. Maybe I’m too stupid, too stupid to understand. MS

Mosori Monika

Intimate Visions: Films by Chick Strand

While the LFF closing gala screenings took place on the other side of the river, there was a tiny audience for the NFT’s programme of six films made between the 1960s and 1980s by Chick Strand, the Californian experimental and ethnographic filmmaker who died in 2009. It was a rare chance to see Strand’s work, and we got to sample a few different facets of it, from found-footage pieces that make use of archival material to her poetic, intimate approach to ethnographic filmmaking. The witty and, in the case of Loose Ends(1979), sometimes disturbing montages of old film and audio – in which sound and vision are juxtaposed in a way that recalls the darkly funny audio-visual collages of People Like Us – have dated less well than Mosori Monika (1970), a dreamlike, compelling portrait of a missionary settlement in Venezuela with conflicting voice-overs from a Catholic nun and an indigenous woman. Meanwhile, Artificial Paradise (1986), shot in Mexico, is both a gorgeously tactile, hypnotic piece about human and animal bodies in motion and in close-up – dancing, running, riding – and a comment on the exoticisation of those bodies: an example of having one’s cake and eating it, perhaps, but it’s spellbinding stuff. Strand’s feel for physicality and use of found footage are combined in Angel Blue Sweet Wings (1966), in which a male dancer whirls in the sunshine to the sound of Aretha Franklin’s ‘Doctor Feelgood’, while lights and sequins pulse in joyful sympathy, articulating a feminist vision that’s as sensual and playful as it is critical. FM

360

It’s always nice when the bad guys in an ensemble film neatly take themselves out of the picture, isn’t it? Saves you having to, ooh, I don’t know, write something that might actually happen in the real world. Fernando Meirelles’s latest features a host of fine acting talent (Hopkins! Weisz! Debbouze! That bloke out of The Baader-Meinhof Complex! ummm… Jude Law!) and puts them to work in a series of interlocking scenarios based around travellers from Vienna, London, Paris, Denver and Phoenix. I’d be lying if I said it had nothing going on, with this many characters and stories something was bound to click, and the dissolves and transitions are inventive, but really, this is tossycock of the first order. Tossycock, I tell you! MS

Target

Mentions of the Strugatsky brothers and Tarkovsky in the LFF write-up on this futuristic Russian tale were enticing, but Target turned out to be a pompous sci-fi soufflé, philosophically fluffy, insipid and indigestible. The story follows members of the Russian media and political elite as they seek to obtain eternal youth by travelling to a remote, abandoned astrophysics base and exposing themselves to the cosmic rays channelled into its central well. But the experience is so intense that its consequences are extreme, in a manner both positive and destructive. Unlike its illustrious predecessors, the self-important and portentous Target offers strictly no insights into the human condition, and no ideas of any interest about the future or the universe over its sprawling two-and-a-half-hour running time. The wide screen attempts to convey an epic feel, the sun’s rays over the ‘target’ in the barren landscape are meant to be humbling, the urban settings are as slick and modern as in Hollywood science fiction, and the whole is entirely empty and soulless. And then there’s the sex. Laughably bad sex, made worse by startling outbursts of bombastic music, in case the audience did not quite get how passionate it all is. And in a couple of instances, even dodgy sex, in which the women are barely consenting. This is one Target that is way off the mark. VS

Asshole

With its punkety rockety /sex ‘n’ drugs/ monochrome on the scuzzy streets milieu, Gandu/Asshole kind of put me in mind of the Cinema of Transgression flicks of the 80s and 90s. Most of those films, however, ran for 20 minutes tops. Gandu runs for 89, which is a long time to spend in the company of an unbearable, un-pretty solipsistic douchebag, who smokes smack, nicks money from his hooker mom’s clients, and bemoans his fate as a would-be hip hop star in an Indian backwater that has no need of one. It all looks like photo spreads from Vice magazine, or Dazed and Confused, there’s some of yer actual unsimulated sex, and a datura trip and all kinds of Daily Mail baiting whatnot, but it was only while reading the notes in the programme that I realised that the mother character was supposed to be his mother, which pretty much sums it up. Has its moments, visually and musically, and it has energy to burn, but at the end of the day, it’s bollocks. MS

Darkness Audible: Sub-bass, tape decay and Lynchian noise

Illustration by Lisa Claire Magee

To mark the release of David Lynch’s first full-length solo album, Crazy Clown Time, we are making available as a PDF an article on David Lynch’s soundtracks published in The End: An Electric Sheep Anthology (Strange Attractor Press).

Read ‘Darkness Audible: Sub-bass, tape decay and Lynchian noise’ by Frances Morgan with illustrations by Lisa Claire Magee.

From the gutter to the avant-garde, The End: An Electric Sheep Anthology brings together a mind-bendingly eclectic programme of films, authors, artists and directors, including Bill Morrison’s chemical ghosts, the bad girls of 50s exploitation films, apocalyptic evangelical cinema, the human centipede, Spanish zombies, Japanese nihilists, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s lost masterpiece Inferno and Ingmar Bergman’s visions of the end. A must-read for all film lovers and those who like to wander off the beaten cultural track!

To buy the book, go to the Strange Attractor website.

Yasunao Tone and Galaxy

Galaxy

Close-Up’s recent Theatre Scorpio season, running before the BFI’s Shinjuku Diaries series on the Art Theatre Guild of Japan, focused on Japanese cinema’s 1960s underground – literally, as the Scorpio was situated beneath the Art Theatre Guild’s venue. The Tokyo basement venue also played host to performance, dance and music; and while most of the Scorpio’s live musical happenings are no doubt lost to history, Masao Adachi’s Galaxy (1967) is a fascinating addition to what we know of the work of experimental composer Yasunao Tone.

Galaxy is a sort of psychedelic existential quest film in which a young man, laden with the ‘straight world’ trappings of work, tradition and respectability, undergoes a possibly psychotic meltdown, in a series of increasingly surreal, hallucinatory tableaux interspersed with slow pans across gory, cartoon-like drawings. The ‘rejection of society’ shtick is common to the time, but Adachi’s brilliant visualisation of the film’s city setting as a paranoid dream/nightmare space and Tone’s uncompromisingly dissonant, often disquietingly harsh score resonate together with a surprisingly fresh urgency.

Yasunao Tone’s work for film is rarely mentioned now, most likely because it is only to be heard at these very rare screenings. It’s also just one part of Tone’s long and impressively varied career, which started with improvising ensemble Group Ongaku in the late 1950s. Prefiguring European groups like AMM by quite a few years, Ongaku channelled influences like musique concrète and the aleatory techniques of John Cage into spontaneous, visceral sounds far edgier than those of their more academic contemporaries. Tone soon became heavily involved with the Hi-Red Centre, a politicised, Fluxus-inspired performance art squad given to disruptive ‘happenings’ (Julian Cope’s Japrocksampler mentions one piece that celebrated ‘non-victory’ by staging a banquet in honour of Japan’s defeat in World War Two). His interest in emerging technologies saw him curating a computer art festival in the early 1970s; he also wrote extensively about Japanese experimental music, and subsequently left the country for New York, where he has lived and worked ever since, with video, dance and countless other media. Now in his 70s, his most recent release was a 2004 collaboration with extreme Austrian electronic artist Florian Hecker. His documenters, then, can be forgiven for seeing Galaxy as something of a footnote.

Additionally, I’m not sure if Tone composed music specifically for Galaxy, or if the director edited pre-existing recordings to the film – if so, it is extremely well put together, choreographed precisely with the characters’ movements. But in places, its heavy use of tape effects, frantic sax and jarring bursts of noise also sound a lot like the Group Ongaku recording ‘Automatism’, a live piece from 1960 compiled in 2000 on Music of Group Ongaku, and I wondered if it might be an edit from an Ongaku or other group recording of the early 1960s. Whatever its genesis, though, its use as a film score changes its meaning.

Galaxy‘s first half plays out amid the roads, roofs, stairs and car parks of the city, and the music reflects the density of this environment. The claustrophobia of the new concrete city is sounded out by a signal jam of collaged noise, radio fragments and repetitive, harsh percussion; the tiled, cold spaces of an office corridor and toilet echo with sharp sax blasts. Tone’s sense of the inherent music of the city is a natural fit with Adachi’s ‘landscape theory’, in which place becomes or replaces character.

As the film progresses to a long, surreal sequence where the protagonist battles with a violent Buddhist monk on a giant outdoor staircase, the music’s focus tightens, becoming less of a soundscape and more of a kind of abstract dance score, with a percussive, tense, stop-start motion similar to Adachi’s jump cuts and the characters’ stylised gestures. The sounds of Buddhist ritual – prayer rattles, gongs – are employed, perhaps as a none-too-subtle comment on religion. More ‘real’ instruments can be heard, but heavily processed. Tone’s fascination with manipulating recording/playback devices would continue: in 1997 he released Music for Wounded CD, the title of which is pretty self-explanatory. Here, the tape effects are another indicator of unreliability, things not being real: even if they’re recorded, Adachi and Tone suggest, they’re certainly not ‘true’. This offsets the visual uncertainty too, as we follow the ever more unreliable narrator through increasingly trippy scenarios.

Finally, the protagonist is spat back out into everyday life – or perhaps not, says the sound. As Galaxy ends somewhat ambiguously, the music states its claim more aggressively, hitting a peak of distorted noise that is a small precursor, perhaps, not just of Yasunao Tone’s own music, but of the Japanese extreme noise scene that would emerge in the 1980s and 1990s.

Frances Morgan

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2011: A Work in Progress

American Torso

Edinburgh International Film Festival

15-26 June 2011

EIFF website

The 65th edition was a year of transition for the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Under a new directorial team, the festival had teething problems, including a dearth of international guests, an unambitious film selection, technical issues (wrong projection format, out-of-synch subtitles) and venues impractically spread out across the city. On the positive side, however, there was a dynamic attempt to open up and diversify the festival experience, and interesting efforts to look at film in relation to other areas, including music and science.

Among those initiatives, Project: New Cinephilia was a multi-platform venture aimed at stimulating debate around film criticism, curated by Kate Taylor and Damon Smith. It culminated on June 16 in day-long talks between critics, writers, bloggers and filmmakers. Electric Sheep took part in the panel discussion on new tools for film criticism, which involved comics, blogs and video essays. Thought-provoking talks and interaction with the audience made it a very energising and inspiring event. As part of the project, Mubi published a series of essays, including the video essay created especially for the event by Eric Hynes, Jeff Reichert, and Michael Koresky from Reverse Shot, on a special section of their website – a visit is highly recommended.

Improvising Live Music for Film was part of the Reel Science initiative. Norman McLaren’s hypnotic animations from the 1940s, 50s and 60s were given new soundtracks by members of the Glasgow Improvisers’ Orchestra, who responded to abstract ‘dot’ and ‘line’ films as well as the anti-war parable Love Thy Neighbor and dance film Pas de Deux. Featuring impressive guitar from George Burt, the mini-orchestra’s improvisations were warm and accessible, with nods to the jazz styles of McLaren’s era. The promised discussion on film music’s neurological impact, while introduced well by Edinburgh University Reid Professor Nigel Osborne, didn’t have time to fully materialise – a shame, given the fascinating subject matter.

One of the unquestionable highlights of the festival was the presence of Hungarian master Béla Tarr, who was there to introduce his latest film, Turin Horse. An austere film, and a hard watch in some respects – it is very long, slow and deliberately repetitive – it is also extremely rewarding. The film is an oblique take on an anecdote about Nietzsche, which recounts how the philosopher protested at a man who was beating his horse in Turin. The story has inspired many interpretations; Tarr chooses to focus on the horse, the man who owns it and his daughter. Set in a bleak, constantly wind-swept landscape, it is a soberly apocalyptic tale, a sort of creation story in reverse, as the characters’ world is gradually diminished and restricted over the course of six days until total darkness engulfs them. Tarr has said that it was his last film, and the disappearance of light at the end makes it a particularly poignant farewell to cinema.

Béla Tarr was also one of the guest curators (together with Jim Jarmusch and Gus Van Sant) asked by the festival to choose a small selection of films. He picked three black and white Hungarian films with an interest in film language, which had clear connections with his own work. The best known was Miklós Jancsó’s 1966 The Round-Up, about the detention of political dissidents in Austria under an authoritarian regime. Gábor Bódy’s American Torso (1975) was a wonderful film, centring on a Hungarian map-maker fighting in the American Civil War. Full of references to literature and history, playful and poetic at the same time, it is a spellbinding meandering that loosely connects war and revolution, the development of map-making, Hungarian exiles and a mysterious, death-defying devil of a man at its heart. György Feher’s Passion (1998) is a take on James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, made to look like a 1930s film. Feher’s approach is both elliptical and drawn out, as if he had only kept the essential moments of the story, and extended and deepened them. It is a very evocative film, in which the contrast between darkness and light and the positioning of the characters in the frame are more important in conveying emotion and mood than dialogue or narrative.

Convento

This year, the festival had also decided to celebrate its historic interest in documentary. One highlight was Jarred Alterman’s Convento, a lyrical, beautifully shot film that shines an intimate light on an artistic family living in a restored convent and nature reserve in Portugal. It’s a gorgeous place, tenderly cared for by its inhabitants: Geraldine Zwanniken, a former dancer, now artist, and her two sons, the nature lover Louis, and Christiaan, who creates kinetic sculptures using found materials, often the bones of dead animals, reanimated in a sometimes eerie, sometimes humorous way. Alterman’s almost poetic visual style allows us a fleeting chance to share in the family’s extraordinary lives.

Stylistically, James Marsh’s new film, Project Nim, is a more classic documentary. Using interviews and archival footage, Marsh pieces together the remarkable and disturbing story behind Project Nim, the misguided experiment to teach sign language to the eponymous chimpanzee, raised from infancy by a human family in New York. It’s a heart-breaking story; Nim was a victim of unbelievable hubris, and while loved by the people who cared for him, he was also abandoned when he became less like a human child and more like a wild animal. It’s an intriguing film, but the people interviewed (Nim’s original family, the scientist who devised the experiment, other researchers), with one or two exceptions, are just so unlikeable, and some of their actions so unconscionable, that it’s impossible to identify with them.

The same can’t be said of the subject of Calvet, Dominic Allan’s engrossing documentary. While describing someone as larger than life may sound like a cliché, the phrase surely applies to Jean-Marc Calvet – runaway, legionnaire, vice cop, bodyguard, alcoholic, drug addict, and now painter. Allan lets Calvet do all the talking, the camera following him as he revisits locations from his tortuous past; the artist is a fascinating, charismatic character, given a near-miraculous opportunity for redemption when he decides, with Allan discreetly following, to find the son he abandoned years ago. It’s a remarkable film about a remarkable man, who, in his words, has been to hell and back.

One of the most enjoyable documentaries was Liz Garbus’s Bobby Fisher against the World, about the rise and fall of the American chess master who became caught up in Cold War politics when he was asked to compete against the Russian Boris Spassky in the 1972 World Championship match in Reykjavik. The film is worth watching for the meticulously detailed footage from the incredibly tense, nerve-wracking games leading up to Fisher’s victory, which ended 24 years of Soviet domination of world chess. It also provides an interesting insight into Fisher’s upbringing and troubled state of mind, exploring the fatal relationship between genius and insanity and asking whether the former can ever exist without the latter.

Life in Movement offered another well-crafted glimpse at what it takes to be a talented, ambitious and passionate individual. Its subject is Australian choreographer Tanya Liedke, who died in a car accident in 2007 at the age of 29, the night before taking up the position of Artistic Director of the Sydney Dance Theatre. Like Bobby Fisher, this simple yet moving portrait by producer-director duo Bryan Mason and Sophie Hyde would have benefited from slightly tighter scripting, but both documentaries managed to capture the charisma and unique personality of their central character, and remained compelling and informative throughout.

Screened on the last weekend of the festival, Hell and Back Again, by first-time director Danfung Dennis, will probably be discussed mostly for the impressive daring and visual beauty of its ’embedded journalism’ and its filming of troops in action in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. But in fact, the film follows the slow recovery of a seriously wounded sergeant, with the combat footage relegated to flashbacks. Mainly free of political commentary, the film only lapses into sentiment and borderline propaganda with an ill-judged Willie Nelson song over the end credits.

Phase 7

It says a lot about this year’s edition of the EIFF that one of the most high-profile screenings was David MacKenzie’s Perfect Sense, starring Ewan McGregor and Eva Green as a mismatched couple who, much to their own surprise, fall for each other as the world falls apart during an epidemic. The mysterious disease causes people to lose their senses, one at a time, which is followed by temporary and uncontrollable outbursts of sorrow, anger or hunger. Other than taking a more personal approach to the apocalyptic genre, the film does not have much to offer, and although it is largely sustained by the lead actors, the flaws in the script ultimately make it a tiresome watch.

An unnamed epidemic also hits in Nicolás Goldbart’s Phase 7: residents of one quarantined Buenos Aires apartment block are up against not only a killer virus, but also their neighbours in this witty, low-budget horror. Coco, a peaceable young dude trying to keep his pregnant wife safe and well-fed, forms an unlikely alliance with Horacio, the maté-drinking, gun-toting conspiracy theorist next door, when the intentions of the other residents – humorously drawn as both impeccably bourgeois and utterly ruthless – become clear. Phase 7 offsets the gore and tension with a sharp script and a cool John Carpenter-esque soundtrack by Guillermo Guareschi.

Latin America offered another futuristic tale with Alejandro Molina’s By Day and by Night, from Mexico. Tackling the timely theme of over-population, the film is set in a world where people have to live under a dome that protects them from the ‘exterior’; due to the limited space, half of the population has to live during the day, while the other half lives at night. The film follows a mother’s search for her daughter after the child’s ‘shift’ is inexplicably modified. Visually, it’s a cross between Star Trek and Solaris, and Molina’s nostalgic, minimalistic, slow-paced approach and sparse use of dialogue are a welcome change from recent slick, pompous 3D sci-fi blockbusters; but the result is mostly a joyless, soporific and sentimental cinematic experience that is not as deep as it pretends to be.

There was more dystopian science fiction on offer with Xavier Gens’s apocalyptic action thriller The Divide, which had generated some hype after screening at the Cannes film market earlier this year. After New York is destroyed by unidentified causes, a mismatched group of eight adults and a young girl are trapped inside a basement. As they try to survive not only the outside menace, but also one another, the film’s annoyingly stereotyped cast and unconvincing plot twists fail to maintain interest, despite fairly energetic directing from Gens.

A sprinkling of horror films included Troll Hunter, directed by André Øvredall, which follows in the mockumentary footsteps of The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity. Øvredall’s scenario isn’t exactly bursting with ideas, but it does play imaginatively with its single premise. The trolls themselves are rather splendid, and the film is very handsomely photographed amid spectacular Norwegian scenery, all looming mountains and misty meres. To its credit, the film never gets caught up in trying to make its absurd conceit plausible, and derives a lot of enjoyment from the bare-faced silliness of it all.

By contrast, The Caller was just a pile of derivative trash. After separating from a violent ex, Mary moves into a new apartment. But soon, she starts getting strange calls from a woman named Rose, and events from the past appear to influence the present. The premise seemed interesting; sadly, the realisation is entirely incoherent from a narrative and thematic point of view and chock-full of clichés.

Although not a straightforward horror film, Alex de la Iglesia’s The Last Circus had elements of the genre. The Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship are treated with de la Iglesia’s customary outrageousness, the film starting with an army of clowns in full make-up roped in to fight against the General’s forces. One of them has a son, Javier, who decides to follow the family tradition after his father is caught by the Franquists. Silliness and quixotic heroism, outlandish humour and hideousness mix in this exuberant response to a dark period of Spanish history. But despite inspired moments (a particular highlight is Javier, treated like a dog by an officer during a hunting party, biting the hand of an ageing Franco), the film prefers to focus on an uninteresting, hackneyed romance between the sad clown and the beautiful trapeze artist, rather than really sinking its teeth into its historical context.

Our Day Will Come

Among other films worthy of note, Pablo Lorrain’s Post Mortem particularly stood out. Mario (Alfredo Castro) is an emotionally stilted functionary at the city morgue, who becomes an inadvertent member of the military regime as the body count rises dramatically in the days surrounding the death of Salvador Allende. While the film starts slowly, tension builds as Mario falls pathetically in love with the troubled Nancy, a cabaret dancer who disappears when her father is arrested – although Lorrain refrains from showing much action. Instead, the sounds of a violent struggle are heard off-screen as Mario showers in his house across the street, oblivious to the brutal crackdown that is taking place around him. When he leaves for work, the streets are empty of people, cars bulldozed by the tanks that have swept through, crushing everything in their path. The film’s very deliberate, subtle pacing leads to a troubling climax, and while the surprising final scene is easily read as a metaphor for the oppressive, dehumanising regime imposed by Pinochet, it’s no less tragic.

Anyone who has seen the video for MIA’s ‘Born Free’ will be familiar with the basic set-up in Romain Gavras’s original debut feature, Our Day Will Come: red heads are second-class citizens, tormented and persecuted for their looks. In the bleak Nord-Pas de Calais region, Rémy (Olivier Barthelemy) is treated like a joke, ostracised by his family and football team, while his only ‘real’ relationship is conducted online in a gaming forum with someone he’s never met. But then, like a warped knight coming to his rescue, Patrick (a terrific Vincent Cassel), a psychologist and greying red head, decides to take Rémy under his wing and teach him a few life lessons. Over the next 48 hours, they buy a Porsche, get hammered in a supermarket after hours, check into a luxury hotel – where Gavras amusingly subverts the usual male-fantasy group-sex scene – and Rémy discovers that Ireland is the red heads’ spiritual homeland. The slightly absurd subject matter makes the film a bit of an oddity, but it’s confidently directed, entertaining and humorous, and laced with sinister undercurrents.

In Ryan Redford’s Oliver Sherman, a veteran (Garrett Dillahunt) from an unnamed war shows up unannounced at the remote home of the man who saved his life during a firefight (Franklin, played by Donal Logue). One man has a medal for bravery, the other a gaping scar across the back of his skull. The injury has left Sherman a bit slower, a bit dimmer, and certainly unable to cope with the social niceties demanded of him by Franklin’s wife. Redford, with the help of a chilling performance from the eerie Dillahunt, creates a palpable air of tension in the remote household, keeping the audience guessing what direction the volatile reunion between the two men, with their completely different lives, is going to take. It’s a bleak, disturbing and ultimately engrossing picture.

Yoon Sung-hyun’s debut feature Bleak Night was the only Korean entry in this year’s selection. It follows a grieving father as he investigates his son’s closest friends to piece together the events that led to the tragic accident in which the teenage boy has died. Although Yoon Sung-hyun’s assured directing style and the convincing performances from his young cast create a disquieting tension in the first half of the film, the atmosphere and mystery that initially sustain it dissipate gradually, and what remains feels like a plodding analysis of teenage discontent.

Overall, although there were a number of interesting films in the programme, they were too often films already scheduled to have a UK release in the near future. The desire of the directorial team to revitalise the Edinburgh festival is entirely laudable, and it is to be hoped that they will be able to propose a more original and daring film selection next year.

Festival report by Sarah Cronin, Pamela Jahn, Virginie Sélavy, Frances Morgan and David Cairns

The Red Shoes: No Art without Sacrifice

The Red Shoes

Format: Cinema

Date: 11-30 December 2010

Venue: BFI Southbank

Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Writers: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Based on the fairy tale by: Hans Christian Andersen

Cast: Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Robert Helpmann, Léonide Massine, Ludmilla Tchérina

UK 1948

135 mins

In 1948 when The Red Shoes, Powell and Pressburger’s lush, hallucinatory Technicolor fable of dance’s inexorable power over the dancer, was released, ballet was still on the lower rung of high culture in the UK, its practitioners badly paid, its status as art still questioned by many, and it was lagging behind its European counterparts in resources and respect, if not in talent and drive. The hugely successful film, along with the emergence of stars such as Margot Fonteyn, would help put British ballet on the cultural map; years later, it is still The Red Shoes that seems to communicate the inherently magical, fantastical and otherworldly qualities of ballet to film fans who would otherwise not be interested in tutus, pointe-work and dying swans.

But while The Red Shoes, with its fantasy sequences and Andersen fairy-tale inspiration, is cited as illustrative of the darker powers of dance – of its capacity to beguile and obsess and break the hardiest spirit – much of the film also focuses on the sheer hard work and make-do camaraderie of daily life in a mid-20th century touring ballet company, the nuts and bolts of preparing a work for the stage and the personal dynamics that go with it. This magical multiplicity will always be for me the film’s greatest achievement. The Red Shoes is a film about making ballet that not only contains an entire ballet, but that has about it the very quality of ballet itself – its romantic absolutes, its melodrama, its broad strokes. It is a dreamlike and stylised fable about ambition and sacrifice that simultaneously contains some deeply felt moments of empathy and understanding of injustice, selfishness, disappointment, and dishonesty. It is a strange Chinese Box of a film that required real dancers Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Ludmilla Tcherina and Leonide Massine to play out the story of their art form’s impermanence and cruelty, their questionable acting layered with the gorgeous veracity of their dancing.

Watching the new, restored version is a sumptuous and intoxicating experience, the film’s hues almost dangerously high-contrast, and the cinematography’s exaggerated qualities highlighted more than before. While it was hard to remember to switch from fan to critic in the warm darkness of the BFI cinema (and I am a Red Shoes fan, a proper, tearful, spellbound type of fan), my recollection of this viewing is that the heightened detail brought about by the new print had an interestingly alienating effect, bringing to the fore perhaps a warning about trusting too much to formal beauty, forgetting, as in Joanna Newsom’s song ‘En Gallop’, ‘truth that lacks lyricism’. Or, more bluntly: this is theatre, believe in it too hard and there will be nothing but emptiness left when the curtain lowers, especially for a woman, whose abandonment of the home is bound to bring hardship (‘Life passes by… love passes by,’ as Anton Walbrook’s Lermontov says when describing the ballet’s synopsis to composer Julian (Marius Goring).

I have never really liked the interpretation of The Red Shoes as merely cautionary tale, though, for not only does it downplay the film’s non-naturalistic, allegorical style, it also propagates the binary and simplistic myth of the creative life as one of domestic or emotional sacrifice, when the truth is more complex and personal than that interpretation – which has acted as a get-out clause for many a relationship as well as stymied careers through guilt and blame – allows. At the same time, this message runs through The Red Shoes and cannot be ignored, whatever we think of it, and the themes of sacrifice and fulfilment, while universal, are perhaps heightened by the physical and mental intensity of a practice such as dance. If there is a darker side to ballet as portrayed in The Red Shoes, it might well be in its more ‘real’ elements, rather than in any supernatural or magical force: in the tension and constant competition between artists, in the physical extremes of a dancer’s life and in the actual stories, often of young, vulnerable, talented people, from which Powell and Pressburger might have drawn their source material.

It was not necessarily easy to come by such source material, however, for if ballet was a questionable art form, film was decidedly seen as low-brow. As The Red Shoes has passed into cinema legend, feted by Scorcese (who helped raise the funds for the film’s restoration), De Palma and many others, and film as a medium has attained an artistic status possibly unimaginable to critics of the 1940s, it’s amusing to read about Moira Shearer’s initial reluctance to take part in the project at all. According to her account in Meredith Daneman’s biography of fellow ballerina Margot Fonteyn, Shearer, then a very promising 21-year-old dancer, felt that a film role was nothing short of artistic compromise – and possible career suicide. ‘Wretched man – he was always hanging around the theatre,’ she said of Michael Powell. ‘I didn’t really want to do it.’ Shearer was eventually persuaded into the role by Royal Ballet founder and British ballet visionary Dame Ninette de Valois, who, while reportedly hating the film, recognised its potential in bringing her young artists (Helpmann was also in the company) and ballet in general to a wider audience, in particular an American one. It is perhaps noteworthy that, while The Red Shoes is often read from a gender studies perspective as the story of a woman, Shearer’s character Vicky, symbolically torn between the wills of two men, in reality it is a woman, de Valois, who seems to have dictated to and manipulated dancers such as Shearer and Fonteyn with the ruthlessness characterised by the impresario Lermontov in the film. With the exception of Marie Rambert appearing very briefly in the Mercury Theatre scene, the presence of powerful women in British ballet of the period is rather lacking in The Red Shoes, and Shearer’s resourcefulness and resilience as an artist and personality are of less dramatic interest to Powell than the tragic heroine that Vicky becomes.

But for every Shearer – who, incidentally, did seem to ‘have it all’, with a flawless dancing career followed by happy domesticity – there would have been many others whose lives as dancers took darker, unhappier turns, with careers brought to an abrupt end by injury or poverty, and the spectre of age and obsolescence always waiting, with creaking joints, in the wings. And the compulsion to dance at the cost of all else, forever, mythologised in the Ballet of the Red Shoes, brings to mind Margot Fonteyn, whose adulation and success masked a troubled, anguished personal life, and whose joy in dancing seemed often to be tinged with rivalries, anxiety, loneliness and, as she carried on dancing into late middle age, physical pain and weakness. Daneman makes the comparison between the two, often competing, dancers in a perhaps simplistic way, but in doing so makes quite a case for the Red Shoes myth – even if, as a dancer and dance critic rather than a film one, she’s compelled to describe the film’s story as ‘corny’.

The Red Shoes was presented in a new digital print at the BFI Southbank, London, on 11-30 December 2009.

From a dance practitioner’s view, of course, the narrative of The Red Shoes is overplayed, histrionic, unrealistic; even for admirers of Powell and Pressburger’s aesthetic it can seem quaint, a stylistic exercise lacking in emotional resonance. But to isolate any one element of The Red Shoes is to miss its unique ability to convey a kind of total effect similar to that brought about by dream, or music, or memory. The power of dance lies in its capacity to create this effect, through the evocative movement of a human frame, bones and muscles in tune with melody and harmony, discipline honed to invisibility so all that we see and hear is a porcelain-skinned young woman opening the door onto a painted street scene and – at one with the tentative oboe line of Brian Easdale’s score – fluidly gliding into being. It is a fleeting effect, and one we chase after, in dreams, in love, as spectators of art, and (for some of us) as artists; The Red Shoes, in a way, lyrically documents this pursuit, celebrates the poignant, youthful fervour of those who pursue. Is it dark, though, or dangerous? Despite the outcome of The Red Shoes, I like to think that Powell and Pressburger do not ever really make that judgement for us.

Frances Morgan

ABANDON NORMAL DEVICES

Phantoms of Nabua

Still from Phantoms of Nabua by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Abandon Normal Devices

23-27 September 2009

Various venues, Liverpool

AND website

In Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Phantoms of Nabua, streetlamps flicker and lightning flashes in the soft dark of a playground at night. As boys kick around a burning football, the lightning is revealed to be a film itself, projected onto a screen that is set alight at the culmination of the game. Commissioned by Animate Projects, Phantoms is part of Primitive, a haunting, multilayered series of films that sees the Thai director exploring Nabua, in North-Eastern Thailand. The history of a brutal military occupation in the area sparked Weerasethakul’s imagination, leading him to cast Nabua as a place in which to examine the shifting nature of memory, illustrated via the overall theme of light and its properties. In the Primitive installation, which is the director’s first in the UK, ghosts and spaceships appear alongside footage of Nabua’s teens, as day turns to night on two parallel screens, encouraging the viewer to adopt a constantly shifting perspective.

This invitation to reconsider our viewpoints, and our ideas of what constitutes normality or truth, resurfaces throughout Abandon Normal Devices, a new festival of film and digital culture taking place in North-West England this September. While subsequent festivals will happen in Manchester, Lancaster and Cumbria, 2009’s is centred around Liverpool, a city that festival director Kate Taylor feels has a ‘strong collaborative network and spirit’. AND has, she explains, engaged with the city in a number of ways, supporting emerging filmmakers and artists, and making use of the city’s iconic Waterfront area, where DJ Spooky’s Rebirth of a Nation, a ‘remix’ of DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, will take place. Meanwhile, Centre of Attention’s Action Diana, which recreates cult 1960s film Darling shot by shot, using non-professional actors, is the culmination of a process of improvisatory filmmaking that began when Pierre Coinde and Gary O’Dwyer were artists in residence at Liverpool John Moores university earlier this year. ‘Half of Liverpool got filmed reading the dialogue from idiot boards, with that beautiful slight unease of being new to camera’, says Taylor. ‘Hopefully the premiere at the festival will be buzzing with everyone coming to see themselves.’

The festival’s hybrid nature – combining film, media art and ‘salon’ discussions involving people from science and sport as well as the arts – reflects the work of FACT, Cornerhouse and folly, the three main organisations that have come together to programme it. Screenings ranging from new Canadian horror film Pontypool to Lynn Helton’s comedy Humpday take place alongside exhibitions and installations, including the work of pioneering feminist filmmaker and performance artist Carolee Schneemann, who will give a performance lecture. While much of the programme displays strong social and political engagement, Taylor stresses that this is not her first priority when responding to film, and points out the variety of ways in which the artists demonstrate this engagement, from Krzysztof Wodiczko’s War Veteran Vehicle, in which he collaborated with local ex-servicemen and women to develop large-scale projections, to The Yes Men’s humorous critiques of capitalism, here the subject of their first UK solo exhibition. ‘Ultimately, they are all about people, but they communicate in indirect ways rather than laying out polemic.’

Two iconic figures of UK cinema – Nic Roeg and Ken Russell – will take part in Q&A sessions, and, most excitingly, reveal new work. As Taylor points out, Russell has ‘a unique insight into digital culture as someone who has taken to using a digital camera to make personal, un-funded films’. Developments in technology and the role of both film and art in the digital age crop up throughout AND, not only in conferences and workshops, but also in Dark Fibre, a part-fictional thriller, part-documentary film about a young technician working on Bangalore’s unregulated cable networks. In a logical progression from his 2006 work Steal This Film, director and producer Jamie King is to release the film both online and via India’s cable channels and pirate DVD industry. ‘We could either ignore this, condemn it, or choose to engage with the conversation’, says Taylor of these seismic shifts, and it’s clear that AND has chosen the latter option. ‘The models for filmmakers to make money and sustain themselves using these new distribution tools are still at early stages. The exciting thing is that filmmakers are engaging more directly with audiences, and the people who are coming up with cool new strategies are the filmmakers themselves.’

Frances Morgan

Read our article on Jamie King and Peter Mann’s Dark Fibre in the autumn 09 issue of Electric Sheep. The focus is on religious extremes on film from Christic masochism to satanic cruelty with articles on biblical hillbilly nightmare White Lightnin’, Jesus Christ Saviour, a documentary on Klaus Kinski’s disastrous New Testament stage play, and divine subversives Alejandro Jodorowsky and Kenneth Anger. Plus: Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, political animation, Raindance 09 and louche mariachi rockabilly Dan Sartain picks his top films!

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews