Shuji Terayama: Who can say that we should not live like dogs?

Emperor Tomato Ketchup (Courtesy of Kujô Kyôko and Terayama World)

Format: Cinema

Dates: 16-25 March 2012

Venue: Tate Modern, London

Tate Modern website

‘I sometimes wish words could be my friends… you can’t shake hands with words, but they possess a feeling of nostalgic intimacy that even words themselves cannot describe.’ Shûji Terayama

Despite expressing such affection for words, Terayama, avant-garde poet, essayist, screenwriter, director and critic, called out for his readers to discard them in his 1967 collection of essays, Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Go into the Streets. In Terayama’s universe, words escaped from the pages and found themselves elsewhere – and one place they found a home was on the screen. Perhaps more famous in Japan for his poetry and abroad for his theatre, Terayama first ventured into cinema as a scriptwriter for Japanese New Wave directors, before directing experimental films. Some readers may have heard his words spoken by the character of Nanami in The Inferno of First Love (Susumu Hani, 1968), screened in last summer’s BFI season devoted to the Art Theatre Guild. Yet, despite his legendary cult status in Japan, Western audiences have had limited exposure to Terayama’s cinematic adventures, a deficiency the Tate Modern will remedy for Londoners in March with their film and performance retrospective, Shûji Terayama: Who can say that we should not live like dogs?’

The moving image was never a mistress for Terayama and nor was poetry ever his devoted wife. Bed-hopping between images and words, Terayama was also attracted to the spontaneity and liveliness of performance-art theatre, the capacity for sonic exploration in radio, and the bodily exertion in boxing and horseracing, for which he provided insightful public commentaries. He never kept these relationships a secret; in fact, what he preferred were chaotic cross-pollinations and rampant art form orgies, with him as the voyeur. The words in Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Go Into the Streets were hurled onto the stage in his stage vérité theatre production, and tossed onto the streets, only to get lobbed back onto the cinema screen for his first feature-length film of the same title (1971).

There will be a day-long symposium entitled ‘I Am a Terayama Shûji’ at tate Modern on March 23. This symposium will bring together experts and collaborators, including Julian Ross, Nobuko Anan, Shigeru Matsui, Henriku Morisaki, Steven C. Ridgely, Hiroyuki Sasame and Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei, to reflect on the diverse media blend created by the Japanese poet, photographer and film-maker, whose stated profession was always ‘Terayama Shûji’.

Terayama not only spoke, but also graffitied his poems onto the walls of Shinjuku and, most memorably, chalked them onto a football pitch, only for the letters to disappear into dust when trampled on by teens. In A Tale of Smallpox (1975) and Les Chants de Maldoror (1977), words are written onto the -image to obstruct our view. If words were indeed his best friends, Terayama certainly found a way to mess around with them, with his art as his playground.

Just as he forced his words to escape from the pages, Terayama saw the confines of the proscenium arch and the cinematic screen as limitations to overcome. In Pastoral: Hide and Seek (1974) and his play Inugami (1969), the walls of the sets collapsed to reveal their artificiality, as if he wanted the cinema, as well as the theatre, to burst out of their illusionary space and invade the streets. For the TV film American, Who Are You? (1967), made for TBS, and screened outside of Japan for the first time as part of the Tate’s programme, unsuspecting passers-by were suddenly confronted with a list of questions, thereby mutating a film shoot into a performance-art ‘happening’, then in counter-cultural vogue. In projections of Laura (1974), performer Morisaki Henriku literally jumped into the screen and appeared as an image. In screenings of The Trial (1975), performers and audiences hammered nails into the screen, most infamously at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1984. Terayama’s cinema refused to stay static, and was never at home when simply projected. It’ll be exciting to see whether his screen experiments, always interrupted by words or actors, still hold any relevance for us today.

Close-Up members get concession discount at the Terayama season. More details on the Close-Up website.

Julian Ross

Shinjuku in London

The Desert Archipelago (Katsu Kanai)

Theatre Scorpio: Japanese Independent and Experimental Cinema of the 1960s

12-31 July 2011

Close-Up Film Club

Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, London

Close-Up website

Shinjuku Diaries: Films from the Art Theatre Guild of Japan

1-31 August 2011

BFI Southbank, London

BFI website

The Art Theatre Guild of Japan: Spaces for Intercultural and Intermedial Cinema

Two-day symposium

30-31 August 2011

Birkbeck College, London

The 40th anniversary of the events of 1968 was marked in 2008 by a resurgence of interest in the phenomenon and, ever since, there has been a wave of activities across the world that have celebrated the peaks of creativity and political activism that flourished in the surrounding years. 1968 was not just an event situated in the West, but parallel equivalents emerged simultaneously in many corners of the globe, Japan being no exception. What differentiated Japan’s 1968 was that it was situated in the wake of a failed revolution against ‘Anpo’, the renewal in 1960 of the US-Japan security treaty, which was vehemently opposed by the Japanese populace. For the Japanese, the 1960s were a decade that was defined by disenchantment and by a reinvigorated and necessary urge to focus on the issue in preparation for the treaty’s next renewal in 1970. The artists of this generation, many of whom grew up in a Japan devastated by the war, acted on their impulse to use artistic expression to contribute to the climate of social protest and avant-garde activity.

The screenings organised in London in the coming months, namely Close-Up Film Centre’s July season, Theatre Scorpio: Japanese Independent and Experimental Cinema of the 1960s, and the BFI Southbank’s August season, Shinjuku Diaries: Films from the Art Theatre Guild of Japan, demonstrate the best of Japanese independent cinema in the age of cultural and political revolution.

The programmes have been put together to counter the traditional auteur-driven notion of cultural productivity. Instead, they focus on the era’s creative spirit, which permeated the arts community. Close-Up’s Studies in Movement: Experiments by Three Filmmakers programme will screen Hausu director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s early shorts and New Wave titan Nagisa Ôshima’s photo-collage film Yunbogi’s Diary alongside collaborative experiments by a student collective, the young filmmakers of Nihon University Film Studies Club. The programmes intend to dismantle the boundaries that have been set up between experimental cinema and narrative features to prove the two modes of expression and their practitioners continuously infiltrated one another. Katsu Kanai, who will be visiting the UK for the first time to introduce his Smiling Milky Way Trilogy, was one of the key filmmakers of the period. He was able to merge fiction and reality, narrative and visual poetry, in a way that revelled in a joyous desire for experimentation. A nun with a machine gun and a man giving birth to his doppelgä;nger from his wounded back are just two out of many images that you will never forget.

Masao Adachi’s Galaxy, screening with English subtitles for the first time, is a masterpiece of surrealist filmmaking, where a sense of narrative melts into the protagonist’s subconscious. The inaugural film at the Theatre Scorpio, an underground art space where dance, theatre and screenings took place, Galaxy was instrumental in launching Adachi’s career as a scriptwriter and pink director. This is where he met his long-term collaborator, KÔji Wakamatsu, who walked past the venue in awe at the queues around the corner, and immediately got in touch with Adachi. The venue quickly became a focal point for all corners of the art scene and a space where artists shared ideas and established collaborations. Close-Up’s film programme is in celebration of this influential theatre, its name given by Yukio Mishima in tribute to Kenneth Anger‘s Scorpio Rising.

Located above Theatre Scorpio was the Art Theatre Shinjuku Bunka, the centrepiece cinema for the Art Theatre Guild, where a range of foreign art-house films, by directors from Glauber Rocha to Satyajit Ray, and from the Polish New Wave to world cinema classics, were screened to large crowds. One of ten ATG cinemas that were established across the country in 1962, the venue screened films ATG distributed and, from 1967, local independent films that the organisation helped to finance as co-producers. The space was also used for jazz concerts, rakugo comedy and late-night angura theatre. The BFI season in August showcases the early period of ATG productions with their 13-film programme, which includes films by luminaries of the Japanese New Wave, Nagisa Ôshima, Shûji Terayama (whose films will be screened at Tate Modern in March 2012), Toshio Matsumoto and Masahiro Shinoda, alongside prominent titles by lesser-known directors such as Kazuo Kuroki, Akio Jissôji and Susumu Hani. ATG continued to support productions until the late 1980s, a later period that is currently placed under the spotlight in a full-scale retrospective at the Maison de la culture du Japon in Paris.

Perhaps due to the interactive nature of the art spaces, where films were placed alongside other arts, the featured titles in the programme have become invaluable records of theatrical happenings and the visual arts scene, as well as testaments to the existence of a participatory environment that unabatedly crossed disciplines. The ATG encouraged prominent playwrights, graphic designers and composers to take part in the production of film: famed graphic designer Kiyoshi Awazu took charge of the art design of Double Suicide; Terayama scripted Inferno of First Love; theatre directors Kunio Shimizu and Jûrô Kara took on film directing; and Tôru Takemitsu, Yasunao Tone, Toshi Ichiyanagi and Takehisa Kosugi (whose work is exhibited at Spitalfield’s Raven Row Gallery until July 17) all provided radically innovative soundtracks for films of the period. The importance of the art spaces will be the focus of a free two-day symposium at Birkbeck College (July 30-31), an event that will include a talk by Katsu Kanai and keynote speeches by curators Go Hirasawa and Roland Domenig, as well as three UK premieres of rare films from the period.

Performance art and live art were documented on film, yet in characteristic approaches that emphasised the director’s personal vision rather than clarity in documentation. The infamous ‘rituals’ performed by Zero Jigen feature in Funeral Parade of Roses and The Deserted Archipelago, and Terayama’s theatre troupe Tenjô Sajiki appear in his feature-length ATG films and Double Suicide. Motoharu Jonouchi, an experimental filmmaker whose work is the subject of an entire programme in the Close-Up season, participated in live art events as a collaborator-filmmaker. His film Hi-Red Centre Shelter Plan, to be screened at Peckham’s Flat Time House as part of South London Art Map’s Last Friday events (July 29th), records the notorious live art event at the Imperial Hotel in which Tokyo avant-garde figures such as Yoko Ono, Tadanori Yokoo, Nam June Paik and a naked Masao Adachi participated. Jonouchi’s butoh dance film, Tatsumi Hijikata, which captures the co-founder of butoh dance’s contorted choreographies frame by frame, will also feature in Close-Up’s programme. Kazuo Ohno is the other leader of butoh and his flamboyant costumes will be displayed in an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum this autumn. Both feature in Takahiko Iimura’s Cine-Dance films, screened as part of the BFI’s Essential Experiments strand, together with Yayoi Kusama’s body paintings, which feature in her film Flowers; her work will be the subject of a major exhibition at Tate Modern in January 2012.

These seasons, brought together especially for UK audiences, testify to and take part in a renewed interest around the world in Japan’s counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s. The screenings and events are an exceptional opportunity to encounter these rare works of art, as many of these films are unavailable on home-viewing formats even in Japan. All screenings are accompanied by an introduction by the curators, filmmakers and experts in the field, who will provide a platform for discussion. If you thought 1960s Japan was only about Ôshima, think again; Japan’s avant-garde had many faces, and the screenings will provide vital occasions for an introduction to the exhilarating explosion of creativity that was the post-war Japanese art scene.

Julian Ross

Sydney Film Festival 2011

Boxing Gym

Sydney Film Festival

8-19 June 2011, Sydney, Australia

SFF Festival website

Like many major city film festivals, Sydney’s objective is to collect what is deemed the year’s best films from around the globe and offer them to the locals, resulting in an eclectic line-up of films, but with a certain absence of a unifying identity. Just like at the London Film Festival, the venues are spread apart in a way that disperses the core of the festival, yet its spirit persists as each venue attracts an eager horde of the city’s film-going public, who queue for their next cinephilic hit. Rather than the premieres and international guests, it seems it is the keen public and their enthusiasm that keep the festival running, and my conversations waiting in line made it more than worthwhile attending, albeit regretfully only for the latter half of its schedule.

Béla Tarr’s newest, and allegedly his last, The Turin Horse (2011), retains the director’s singular style, albeit filtered into further minimalism and pathos. The story of Nietzsche’s last conscious act is its springboard: his defence of a beaten carriage horse before withdrawing into madness is adapted (or continued) into a tale of a horse, its owner and his daughter, who reside in a windswept wasteland where the harsh conditions render them immobile. The savage weather and setting are strongly reminiscent of The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1928), but the film’s closest neighbour is Kaneto Shindo’s Naked Island (1960). The gruelling monotony of daily routine is captured with deliberate pace and patience in both films, where the necessary cycle of everyday survival becomes transcendent, hinting at realms beyond the human condition. In both films, small events jaunt the rotational flow, and the haunting soundtrack becomes a motif that breaks the spell of endurance for a breath of relief. Yet in The Turin Horse, the soundtrack we’ll remember is the despondent gale that traps and silences its victims under its omnipresence.

Repetition is also explored in documentary Boxing Gym (2010), where Frederick Wiseman observes the training processes of boxers of all ages, races, sizes and gender at a Texas warehouse. The aural pulses of the space, with the boxers’ concentrated breaths, floorboard squeaks and punched vibrations, provide the soundtrack for the film and resonate with the visual rhythms of the boxers’ measured movements in a constant loop. Wiseman captures the boxers’ individual exercises with his characteristically observant and distant camera, which simultaneously intimates a fully involved gaze.

Terrence Malick‘s long-awaited Tree of Life (2011) is similarly made of visual pulsations, relying on intuitions for sensorial transition between the shots rather than any sense of an anchored narrative. The Palme d’Or winner at Cannes earlier this year, the film is epic in scope but finds it difficult to balance the microscopic tale of adolescence in suburban pre-Vietnam US with the colossal enormity of the birth of the universe. The juxtaposition jars; Malick’s trademark sense of touch and his ability to evoke emotion, imbedded here in the depiction of the family, have always been meaningful and tangible, but they lose their grip when Tree of Life enters the cosmos.

Family also takes centre stage and is placed under strain in the excellent A Separation (2011), winner of the Official Jury Competition at the festival. This Iranian drama depicts the moral and legal battle between and within two families when a chain of events leads to a maid’s miscarriage and her employer is blamed. The title of the film not only refers to the divorce application that opens the film, but also to the partitioning of social classes, generations and gender, a rift caused by the central accident. Intensity reaches boiling point and our sympathies swerve between the characters as the spiral narrative unveils the malleability of truth with each new revelation.

A Separation was released on July 1 and is currently showing in UK cinemas.

The festival joined many other international contemporaries in celebrating the work of Iranian filmmakers, specifically Jafar Panahi and Mohammed Rausolof, a necessary and timely focus in light of their imprisonment and ban from exercising their professions. Heavily allegorical and resolutely political, The White Meadow (2009), directed by Rausolof and edited by Panahi, demonstrates their skills as storytellers in an environment where voices struggle to be heard. A travelling tear-collector visits different communities, who are all involved in ritual ceremonies that attempt to relieve the environmental hardships afflicting their members; for example, the most beautiful woman of one village is served as a martyr to mate with the sea in order to combat drought. The film becomes a road movie as the protagonist gathers the disowned outcasts and they journey on forward, Rausolof’s camera sinking its lens into the foggy air to capture the beauty of the landscapes.

Gesher (2010), produced by Rausolof and directed by Vahid Vakilifar, observes three workers who labour in a factory at a period of rapid industrialisation. The characters are silenced by the mechanical noises and are dwarfed by the enormity of the machinery, and such scenery is captured in long shots and long takes. Powerless individuals in overpowering situations were also found in Wang Bing’s first fiction-feature The Ditch (2010), a docu-drama about the camps where those who voiced their criticisms against Mao in the Hundred Flowers Campaign were sent. In the midst of a three-year famine, the detainees undergo an intense struggle for survival as one by one they reach exhaustion and starvation. The harrowing depiction of camp life never shies away from the gruesome details, and Wang’s camera perseveres in its realist mode of expression even when the depravity sinks beyond the imaginable.

Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s Post Mortem (2010) is a story of a lonely man who records causes of death and whose workload reaches previously unimagined heights on the day of the military coup against President Allende in 1973. Hints of civil distress suggested off-screen are forced into the on-screen narrative that meanders in the pivotal historical moment and our protagonist Mario seems silently confused at his newfound situation. Pablo Larrain’s contemplative pace never rushes the story forward despite the catastrophes that surround it and main actor Alfredo Castro, who plays the John Travolta obsessive in the director’s previous Tony Manero (2008), delivers volumes through an absence of expression.

Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010) portrays another historical period, but this time, anchored in the distant West where three families journey on the Oregon trail, only to stray in the wilderness without their bearings. The camera positions itself with the women, who pace behind the male leaders to lead the group into the depths of nowhere, a unique point of view for the Western that questions masculine sovereignty. Despondence brews in the air and intensity levels rise, but such feelings are only revealed through momentary slips in the cycle of hopeless repetition and the sinking expressions that expose a gradual realisation that the odds may be against them. The epic landscape of the Western genre, which is often used to signal hope, is denied by the framing that squeezes its vastness into a 4×3 screen ratio.

A total loss of control reaches its absolute zenith in debut filmmaker Jo Sung-Hee’s imagined apocalypse End of Animal (2010), a low-budget Korean disaster film that taps into universal fears of global collapse. Although its menace deflates when it punctures its mysteries in semi-explanatory flashbacks at the end of the film, the film largely relies on a sense of disarray experienced by both audience and characters in their newfound situation of impending enigmatic doom. Jo’s storytelling is cold, introducing pregnant protagonist Soon-Yung to possible notes of redemption, only to throw her back into misanthropic despair as the camera follows her hopelessly wandering in circles as exhaustion looms.

Julian Ross

Nippon Connection 2011


Heaven's Story

Nippon Connection

Frankfurt, Germany

April 24 – May 1, 2011

Nippon Connection website

With last year’s Icelandic volcano and this year’s colossal earthquake in Japan, it seems Frankfurt’s annual Nippon Connection is perennially haunted by natural disasters. It was even announced that the festival team had toyed with the idea of cancelling the event in response to the recent tragedy, yet the woe at the opening remarks was soon dissipated thanks to the festival staff’s infectious enthusiasm and glowing spirit. With an assorted programme ranging between commercial blockbusters, such as the sci-fi manga adaptation Gantz (Sato Shinsuke, 2011), congenial comedies of the likes of Permanent Nobara (Yoshida Daihachi, 2010) and voices of the independent art scene represented in the appropriately renamed section Nippon Visions, which this report will focus on, Nippon Connection had at least one film to fit our every mood.

Heaven’s Story (Takahisa Zeze, 2010)
The best feature from Japan in recent years, and the FIPRESCI award-winner at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, Zeze’s latest offering from his post-pink period clocks out at an epic four and a half hours. An intricately woven tale of revenge and redemption, trauma and forgiveness, crime and punishment, Heaven’s Story threads multiple characters into its embellished spiralling narrative. The metaphor involving monsters announced in the opening underpins the film’s meditation on the ethics of human encounters, a contemplation that is bookmarked by haunting performance-art footage of puppetry troupe Yumehine and dancer Hyakkidondoro. With stunning photography, the controlled balance of urgency and patience propels Zeze’s characters down their destined paths, which seem designed to cross, each encounter instigating new sparks.

Arrietty (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2010)
Although on a much quieter scale, Studio Ghibli’s latest release, Arrietty, also dwells on the ethics of self-and-other relationships in its adaptation of Mary Norton’s tales, The Borrowers. The predictable winner of the festival’s Audience Award, the story paints the chance meeting of sickly youth Sho and tiny Arrietty, also a teenager, but from a different race of little people who reside underneath rural households. A child of an endangered species, Arrietty is initially wary of her neighbour’s presence, yet soon warms to his tender care and yearning for amity. Though entirely forgettable compared to Ghibli’s previous output, from which it ‘borrows’ quite heavily, Arrietty may be remembered for its serene animation that sees the directing debut of young animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi. But let us all forget the theme song.

Midori-ko (Keita Kurosaka, 2010) / Still in Cosmos (Makino Takashi, 2009)
A double bill that would be hard to come by at any other festival, Midori-ko and Still in Cosmos may at first seem an odd couple, but screened together represented the cutting edge of non-commercial filmmaking in Japan.

Midori-ko is Kurosaka’s lovechild and took 10 years to nurture, a hand-drawn parable that borrows its pale aesthetics from Yuriy Norshteyn. Midori is a young, impoverished scientist who discovers a strange vegetable that has landed in her room as if it were a fallen star. Though rather simplistic and oddly paced, the skewered fairy tale is at times thought-provoking, and the subtle shades and tonal moderations of the drawings are captivating.

One of experimental filmmaker Makino’s latest collaborations with Jim O’Rourke, which fuse sound and moving image, Still in Cosmos shatters the screen surface in a composed piece of sustained tension and controlled ambience. Words prove inefficient to describe the experience of Makino’s experiments, where he transfers film into crepitant digital layers that vibrate into each other in pulsed drones.

The Duckling (Sayaka Ono, 2005-10)
It is no surprise that Kazuo Hara, a pioneering voice of personal documentaries in Japan, is said to have overseen the production of The Duckling, for Ono’s debut feature is steeped in his style of storytelling. Ono’s autobiographical documentary feels like a therapy session as she visits each member of her family to unravel the childhood traumas that have led her to the brink of suicide. Though the film succeeds in exuding a dense intensity that pushes the boundaries of its genre, it feels too much like an uncomfortable continuation of her self-harm. One question remains – at such a young age, what will Ono do now that she has exhausted her entire life within one project?

Teto (Hiroshi Gokan, 2010)
Part of the Tokyo University of Arts special programme, Teto is a feature-length graduation piece by Hiroshi Gokan and was the surprise triumph of the festival. Utterly unique, the film weaves together different generic codes from espionage thrillers and post-apocalypse dread to period set-pieces, performed by the characters, who run a theatre troupe of orphans. Teto sustains its despondent aura and a foreboding gloom with committed control, never caving in to spell out its own mysteries. The ability to conjure intensity from its spectral narrative evokes another recent East Asian debut, End of Animal (2010), yet Teto‘s chaos is more simmering and muted.

Julian Ross

Berberian Sound Studio: The Sound of Horror

Berberian Sound Studio

Format: Cinema

Release date: 31 August 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Peter Strickland

Writer: Peter Strickland

Cast: Toby Jones, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Cosimo Fusco

UK 2012

95 mins

The follow-up to the acclaimed, Berlin prize-winning rape-revenge drama Katalin Varga, Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio is a remarkable achievement. The accomplishment is amplified considering that it is a second feature. Among the most audacious European works in recent memory, Strickland’s film draws on his love of experimental film scores, sound effects and analogue recording equipment to create an elliptical, nightmarish tale that pays tribute to the Italian giallo genre and the Gothic horror of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and Dario Argento‘s Suspiria. Juraj Herz’s The Cremator and Peter Tscherkassky are also acknowledged influences.

Set in a beautifully replicated 1976, the film hones in on Berberian Sound Studio, the cheapest, sleaziest post-production studios in Italy. Only the most sordid horror films have their sound processed and sharpened there. Gilderoy (Toby Jones, incredibly game in a discomfiting role), a naïve and introverted sound engineer from England, is hired to orchestrate the sound mix for the latest film by horror maestro Santini (Antonio Mancino). Thrown from the innocent world of local documentaries into a foreign environment fuelled by exploitation, Gilderoy soon finds himself caught up in a forbidding world of bitter actresses, capricious technicians and confounding bureaucracy. Obliged to work with the hot-headed producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), whose tempestuous relationships with certain members of his female cast threaten to boil over at any time, Gilderoy begins to record the sound for ‘The Equestrian Vortex’, a hammy tale of witchcraft and unholy murder.

Only when he’s testing microphones or poring over tape spooling around his machines does this timid man from Surrey seem at ease. Surrounded by Mediterranean machismo and, for the first time in his life, beautiful women, Gilderoy, very much an Englishman abroad, devotes all his attention to his work. But the longer Gilderoy spends mixing screams and the bloodcurdling sounds of hacked vegetables, the more homesick he becomes for his garden shed studio in his hometown of Dorking. His mother’s letters alternate between banal gossip and an ominous hysteria, which gradually mirrors the black magic of Santini’s Vortex.

The violence on the screen Gilderoy is exposed to, day in, day out, in which he himself is implicated, has a disturbing effect on his psyche. He finds himself corrupted; yet he’s the one carrying out the violence. As both time and realities shift, Gilderoy finds himself lost in an otherworldly spiral of sonic and personal mayhem, and has to confront his own demons in order to stay afloat in an environment ruled by exploitation both on and off screen.

Named after the yellow (giallo) covers of the trashy crime novels used for storylines, this period of cinema in 1960s and 70s Italy produced numerous thrillers and horror flicks that privileged style over script. As Berberian Sound Studio makes clear, key ingredients of a typical giallo tended to include girls, daggers, blood, witchcraft and chilling screams. At the time, directors such as Dario Argento (Profondo Rosso) and Lucio Fulci (The Black Cat, Zombie Flesh Eaters) commissioned composers including Ennio Morricone and prog outfit Goblin to score their slasher films. The title of Strickland’s fictional studio, Berberian, refers to Cathy Berberian, the versatile American soprano who was married to the Italian electronics pioneer Lucio Berio, a giant of 20th-century composition. Peter Strickland himself has dabbled in sound art and electronic production as part of the trio The Sonic Catering Band.

Sound, and Gilderoy’s umbilical connection to it, is the heart of the film. To that extent the creation of the sound studio was pivotal and the film was always likely to stand or fall on the authenticity of the hermetically sealed bunker and the equipment on which Gilderoy toils. Production designer Jennifer Kernke (who worked with Berberian producer Keith Griffiths on Institute Benjamenta) has worked wonders, constructing a sound studio as it might have appeared in 70s Italy by scouring the UK for original vintage analogue sound equipment. For Strickland, an aficionado of vintage sound recording apparatus, amassing all this out-of-date gear felt wonderfully anachronistic. ‘I had to question myself. I thought, are we riffing off what these films did back in the 70s or are we taking cues from the spirit of those films? It seemed rather perverse to celebrate analogue within the digital medium.’ But it is precisely the fetishistic nature of Gilderoy’s relationship with his beloved machines – perhaps the only objects he truly understands – that Strickland is celebrating. ‘I like the idea of filling the whole frame with these strange machines as we celebrate this period when these things looked so futuristic and alien,’ the director comments.

The film’s general arcane sensibility is also enforced by the tape boxes and papers the film lingers lovingly over, all of which are designed by Julian House. A record designer whose work recently graced CAN’s The Lost Tapes box-set, House also envisioned the fake title sequence, one of the most arresting and genuinely thrilling moments in the film.

Giallo movies frequently had exceptionally advanced accompanying soundtracks that meshed free jazz with the avant-garde and high art with sleazy exploitation. The score for Berberian is courtesy of James Cargill of Broadcast (whose sleeves House has also designed), who conjures an ethereal soundscape in which sound and music cut back and forth from the reality of the studio into the giallo Gilderoy works.

Santini’s ‘The Equestrian Vortex’ may be a schlocky giallo slasher, a classic horror, but Berberian Sound Studio has a more absorbing, hauntological bent. ‘Horror was the starting point but I would never call it a horror,’ says Strickland. ‘I guess the rule was to bounce off that genre – to immediately say, no blood, no murder – but still make it scary. What was exciting about that genre was it has its own history, rules and regulations that you can manipulate and mess around with. There’s something very gratifying in taking a template and turning it into something very personal.’ While avoiding didacticism, Berberian Sound Studio also explores the fascination with violence and the potentially corrupting nature of graphic imagery. Gilderoy’s exposure to the sequences he is forced to endure slowly erodes his levels of tolerance. In the end he is quite literally ingested by the images and psychologically broken.

Despite its willingness to engage with complex and prescient issues, there is also a deep vein of black humour, most clearly during the foley sequences in the auditorium when sound artists hack watermelons and stab cabbages to imitate the sound of heads being split or witches being bludgeoned in Santini’s movie (images that are seen to be projected but which the viewer, crucially, never sees). The disconnection between the effects Santini is trying to generate and what’s causing it is often knowingly comical. As the film is so much about sound and the creation of it, Strickland was careful to bring in characters involved with exhibitions of sound and figures involved with making music. Experimental artists Pal Toth, Josef Czeres and singer Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg all appear, another example of reality imaginatively blurring with fiction.

Film4 FrightFest presented a preview screening of Berberian Sound Studio on August 26.

Jason Wood

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

The Big Chill

Affliction

The winter season provides American independent cinema with the ideal backdrop for explorations of characters that catch a chill no matter how many layers they wear to wrap up warm. As the languid summers of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999), David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000) and Jonathon Levine’s The Wackness (2008) are replaced by the biting winters of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (1997), Adam Rapp’s Winter Passing (2005) and Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River (2008), the underlying tone of American independent cinema conforms to the chilly climate suggested by the consistently snow-covered aesthetic; whether these films concern the fractured families of Bart Freundlich’s The Myth of Fingerprints (1997) and Green’s Snow Angels (2007) or the self-destructive police officer of Paul Schrader’s Affliction (1998), they all feature characters who are, to some extent, frozen in terms of their emotional stance towards the people and the world around them. When the seasonal shift is filtered through the lens of American independent cinema, affluent suburbs, small towns and trailer parks prove to be icy environments inhabited by individuals who are prone to a severe case of the winter blues for a variety of reasons; however, all attempts at hibernation prove futile, especially when confronted with familial dysfunction, personal obsession or economic desperation.

American families have frequently found themselves in the cinematic deep freeze. The Ice Storm takes place in an upper-middle-class suburban sanctuary circa 1973; two neighbouring families – the Carvers and the Hoods – struggle to reconcile the tumultuous social-political climate of the period with their comparatively comfortable existence. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) has embarked on an affair with Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), while their children are engaging in alcohol-fuelled sexual experimentation. Ben’s daughter Wendy is less interested in improving her relationship with her father than she is in sowing the seeds of punk, ‘thanking’ the Lord for ‘letting us white people kill all the Indians and steal their tribal lands and stuff ourselves like pigs, even though children in Asia are being napalmed’ when saying grace at Thanksgiving dinner. While the Hoods and the Carvers seem to be heading for a nuclear meltdown, their fundamental failings are instead crystalised by the titular ice storm that assists with their suburb’s natural progression from emotional stagnation to still life. After encountering tragedy, Ben weeps uncontrollably, but the Hood family has grown apart to such an extent that this outpouring is clearly just the beginning of a long thaw.

The holiday season also serves to emphasise the deeply rooted differences of the dysfunctional family of The Myth of Fingerprints; Hal and Lena (Roy Scheider and Blythe Danner) live in an old house in New England; their four children visit for the obligatory Thanksgiving celebrations, but bring a lot of emotional baggage. Mia (Julianne Moore) is a gallery receptionist with artistic ambitions who is prone to making cynical statements due to professional frustration and sibling rivalry with her tomboyish sister Leigh (Laurel Holloman), while Warren (Noah Wyle) is brooding over a lost love and Jake (Michael Vartan) arrives with his overly passionate girlfriend Margaret (Hope Davis). Although a family secret is revealed and a few long-standing resentments are discussed over the dinner table, relationships within the household remain as frosty as the surface of the nearby lake.

If the detached manner of Ben Hood or Hal makes them less than ideal father figures, the tough-love attitude of Glen Whitehouse (James Coburn) in Affliction is as harsh as the New Hampshire winter during which the film takes place. Affliction focuses on Glen’s son Wade (Nick Nolte), a policeman whose increasingly obsessive investigation of an apparent hunting accident is influenced by his relationship with his violent, alcoholic father, his difficult dealings with his ex-wife (Mary Beth Hurt) and daughter, and the recent death of his mother from hypothermia. While the stonily silent Hal is defined by his relative absence, Glen is notable for his sheer presence, which reaches its peak in volcanic fits of anger. Recognising his own potential for such rage, Wade keeps his true feelings towards his father, ex-wife and fellow police officers on ice, until the combination of the professional fallout from his botched murder investigation and a particularly nasty case of toothache provoke his inner demons.

The father-daughter dynamic of Winter Passing is equally chilly, if ultimately less combustible; Reese Holdin (Zooey Deschanel), a depressed actress living in New York City, is approached by a publishing agent who offers her $100,000 if she can provide a series of letters written by her father and late mother, both famous writers. Returning home as the autumn leaves are falling, Reese discovers that her father Don (Ed Harris) has taken in two houseguests – Christian musician Corbit (Will Ferrell) and literature student Shelly (Amelia Warner) – and moved into the garage. Don, Corbit and Shelly have formed a makeshift family unit as a means of collectively dealing with individual pain, but Reese initially refuses to respect their fragile yet functional arrangement; she behaves coolly towards Shelly and responds to Corbit’s rejection of her sexual advances in a condescending manner, although she warms up a little after reading the letters exchanged between her mother and father. Winter Passing frames grief as a season that will eventually change, with the characters seeking solace in artistic pursuits, heavy sweaters and warm food.

While the families of The Ice Storm, The Myth of Fingerprints and Winter Passing are able to deal with their differences amid environments of material comfort, the protagonists of Snow Angels and Frozen River exist at the other end of the social-economic spectrum. Indeed, the cold, grey skies of both films feel perpetual rather than seasonal as the wintery landscapes lend a fatalistic pall to their respective proceedings. The nondescript small town community depicted in Snow Angels is as close-knit as it is uncommunicative, with events revolving around the estranged couple of Annie (Kate Beckinsale) and Glenn (Sam Rockwell); Annie works as waitress and is having an affair with the husband of one of her co-workers, while Glenn is an alcoholic who is aiming to stay on the wagon with the assistance of religion. Glenn is trying to prove to Annie that he has achieved sufficient balance in order to see more of their daughter Tara, but an accident that echoes the tragedy in The Ice Storm sends him on a misguided path for ‘redemption’.

Frozen River is more thriller than drama but, as with Affliction, it deals with someone who keeps emotion in check as a means of getting through the day; Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is struggling to raise two sons when she discovers that her compulsive gambler husband has disappeared with the funds she had saved to purchase a mobile home. To make the payment, Ray begins trafficking illegal immigrants from Canada to the United States with the assistance of Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a Mohawk bingo-parlour employee. Ray’s crossing of the frozen St Lawrence River serves as both a suspenseful narrative device and a metaphor for the impenetrable exterior she develops to deal with her financial difficulties, but she is unable to maintain the façade of a tough trafficker; after smuggling across a Pakistani couple, Ray and Lila backtrack to rescue a discarded duffle-bag when they realise that it contains a baby rather than bombs, and Ray ultimately surrenders to the police to prevent Lila from being excommunicated by the Indian community.

Of course, the frozen emotions of American independent cinema are not exclusive to films that take place at the time of year when the days are short and the nights are long; Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008) all deal with characters who struggle to relate to one another and bypass emotional engagement in favour of passive-aggressive exchanges or intellectual reference points, displaying a calculated coldness regardless of whether the temperature has them wandering around in a T-shirt or an overcoat. However, the aesthetic potential of the winter season has enabled certain filmmakers to fully embrace the poetic potential of their material by placing protagonists in physical landscapes that are every bit as glacial as their personalities; the climax of The Ice Storm shows a Connecticut suburban that is completely frozen over due to a sudden burst of bad weather, a truly cinematic sequence that speaks volumes about the vacuum that its characters are inhabiting without resorting to vehement verbal sparring. The best examples of this sporadic sub-genre – The Ice Storm, Affliction and Snow Angels – are as visually beautiful as they are thematically bleak, painterly portraits of people whose emotional moods are so in synch with the season that they may actually resent the arrival spring.

John Berra

London Film Festival Reviews 4

End of Animal

54th BFI London Film Festival

13-28 October 2010, various venues, London

LFF website

Final round-up of London Film Festival reviews from Mark Stafford, Pamela Jahn, Sarah Cronin and Virginie Sélavy.

End of Animal (Jimseung ui kkut)

2010 wasn’t a particularly strong year for Korean Cinema, at least on the basis of the selection of films in European festivals (although the London Korean Film Festival somewhat changed that perception), but End of Animal surely stands out as one of the most stupefying and uniquely different Asian titles this year. This debut feature by Jo Sung-Hee has a gripping and suspenseful story line that follows a pregnant woman as she wanders through a desolate countryside after a strangely uneventful apocalypse caused by no major (visible) incidents brought all electricity and phone networks down and left no cars on the road and almost no soul in sight. Despite being guided over a radio by a mysterious character who pretends he wants to help her, the few survivors crossing Soon-Young’s way are mostly mean, selfish and greedy characters, so that a new horror starts for the fragile woman at every new encounter.

A well-acted, intensely shot film, End of Animal is structured into more or less discrete episodes, but it adds up to much more than the sum of its parts. Jo Sung-Hee builds a humane but critical picture of lives with no trust and no prospect in sight. Although arguably not ‘one of the most striking debuts in Korean film history’ as claimed in the festival brochure, it’s an impressive piece of work that raises hopes for more great films to come from young Korean directors in the near future. PJ

Never Let Me Go

Alex Garland writes a screenplay based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Mark Romanek directs. A slow-burning nightmare, as a strange boarding school in a timeless limbo England raises children for a sinister purpose. It’s a film about the evils that can be concealed behind politeness and bureaucracy, and the horrors society is prepared to tolerate if it suits our purposes.

If I was the ridiculous smart arse that I clearly am I’d try to draw parallels between the film’s theme, where official euphemisms (‘donors’, ‘completion’ etc) are used to make all manner of nastiness acceptable, and the film itself, where a quality cast, a string quartet soundtrack and a little cinematic restraint can be seen to be covering up the fact that this is essentially The Clonus Horror/The Island with a university degree.

But I won’t, because it’s actually pretty bloody good, the tastefulness and restraint making the nasty stuff all the more horrible and moving. Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley and Charlotte Rampling all do good work, Carey Mulligan is great. I think the film loses something and becomes more clearly an adaptation of a novel after it leaves the weird bubble of Hailsham House. But it still weaves a disconcerting spell. MS

Attenberg

Two women stand against a white wall, their tongues intertwined, but their bodies are stiff as they stand as far apart from each other as possible. It’s perhaps one of the least erotic kisses seen on screen. Twenty-three-year-old Marina (Arian Labed) has never kissed a man before; she lives in a modernist, failed workers’ utopia that still houses a factory but few inhabitants. Living alone with her father, a disillusioned architect who is terminally ill, she sees life through the prism of Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries, the human species as animal; her relationship with her only friend, the much more experienced Bella, is primitive, physical.

Athina Rachel Tsangari’s film is a beautifully observed, often playful, study of one woman’s alienation; Marina, awkward, naïve, contemptuous, slowly learns that she needs more than just her father and Bella. It’s a refreshing, unsentimental film about sex, relationships and death. Aesthetically, the film mixes elements of the nouvelle vague with touches of performance art, plus a terrific soundtrack (Suicide is Marina’s favourite band); there’s also a brilliant scene sung to Françoise Hardy’s ‘Tous les garçons et les filles de mon âge’. There’s real beauty in the shots of the empty town and factory, and the clean, crisp modernist spaces inhabited by the actors.

Tsangari also produced last year’s Dogtooth, (director Yorgos Lanthimos appears in the film as The Engineer), and while Attenberg is a very different film, it’s exciting to see such original filmmaking emerge from their collaborations. SC

Essential Killing

The legendary Czech director Jerzy Skolimowski gave us one of the best films of this year’s festival with Essential Killing. Starring Vincent Gallo as an unnamed Afghan (or maybe Iraqi) fighter, the film opens as he is captured by American soldiers among barren mountains. After a brief, politically charged depiction of an American-run prison, Gallo’s character is flown to an unknown northern location. He manages to escape, but barefoot and dressed only in his flimsy orange suit, running in an unfamiliar snow-covered forest in the dark, he seems to have little chance of remaining free. Sparse and economical, Essential Killing is a stripped-down, existential tale of pure survival in which Gallo, finding himself in an alien country, confronted with well-equipped pursuers and a spectacular, but hostile nature, becomes increasingly animal-like. Virtually dialogue-free and stunningly expressive visually, this universal tale is an exceptionally rich and powerful cinematographic experience. VS

Mammuth

Last year Delepine and Kervern’s Louise-Michel was a taboo-buggering, capitalist-killing delight, and now with Mammuth I think they’ve become my favourite French filmmakers. Coming across like Aki Kaurismäki without the instruction manual, Delepine and Kervern’s films are unabashed hymns to the losers and freaks, the detritus washed high and dry by politics, economics and society, the unpretty and unskinny hordes who wouldn’t fit in an Eric fucking Rohmer film. Bless them.

A vanity-free Gérard Depardieu gets in touch with his inner lunk as Serge, a lardy, hairy retiring abattoir worker who finds he has to track down affidavits from his former employers to qualify for a pension, and sets about doing so on the motorbike he rode in his youth. Shot in glorious high-contrast colour, Mammuth is full of sick humour, outrageous sight gags and impeccably timed bits of silent comedy. And amid all this oddball pull-back-and-reveal business it finds time to get a bit soulful and contemplative with Isabelle Adjani as a ghost from Serge’s past. I loved it. MS

Womb

It might be clichéd to say that the landscape is the star of the film, but it is undeniably true of Womb, an ambitious, genre-blending drama set in one of the bleakest, windiest and most harrowingly beautiful parts of Germany – the North Sea coast. Amid the impressive scenery, Hungarian director Benedek Fliegauf imagines the love story between Rebecca (Eva Green) and Thomas (Matt Smith), who secretly loved and sadly lost each other when they were kids, only to meet again as adults and live happily ever after. But soon destiny takes another cruel turn, and loss and grief lead Rebecca to give birth to a cloned copy of her dead lover. Aesthetically and conceptually Fliegauf aims high, but while he impresses on the former level, he is not quite as successful on the latter. Edited with tranquil precision, the film takes its time exploring the parameters of the new family life and falters only when Thomas (who turns out to be the spitting image of his predecessor not only in looks, but, rather annoyingly, also in habits and behaviour) falls for a girl who joins and ultimately destroys the intimate togetherness of mother and son. Superbly photographed as it is, Womb, like Fliegauf’s previous films, is a piece of dark cinematic poetry that requires a certain amount of patience from the viewer, although this time, his grasp of emotional dynamics seems much more skilful, making for a strangely moving film. PJ

NEDS

There are dozens of rites of passage films about good teenage boys going off the rails and joining gangs, but none that I can bring to mind go quite as far or get as intense as Peter Mullan’s tale of ‘Non Educated Delinquents’. Normally the youths at the centre of such things only take part in enough anti-social activity for them to learn a ‘valuable life lesson’ and walk away. Here John McGill turns into a seriously nasty bastard, a proper head case, and his story doesn’t follow any conventional arc.

Mullan as writer/director does impressive work here, creating a convincing 70s Glasgow world of ineffectual teachers, aggressive police and the thousand tiny tests of machismo, loyalty and class by which McGill is judged. Mullan has time for everybody, the leads are well observed, and even minor characters are vividly realised, in the Loach/Clark tradition, but he also has an eye for the grotesque and absurd, and NEDS is full of arresting images and moments of startlingly odd behaviour. Great stuff. MS

Cold Fish (Tsumetai nettaigyo)

Sion Sono’s follow-up to the extraordinary Love Exposure is another long and convoluted tale, but without the scope and exuberance of the preceding film; rather, it seems to be a return to the pessimistic spirit of Suicide Club, with its provocative, inventive gore and an enigmatic, oblique approach to meaning. Cold Fish charts the descent of the meek Shamoto, owner of a small exotic fish shop, into violence and madness after an unfortunate encounter with the brash and ruthless Murata, owner of a much bigger rival fish shop. The mechanics of Murata’s manipulation and Shamoto’s gradual breakdown are brilliantly observed, the direction is controlled and well-paced, and there are great touches of macabre and strangeness. With not one sympathetic character, the film offers a downbeat view of mankind, with no chance of the redemption glimpsed in Love Exposure, but it is not devoid of black humour. Just as Suicide Club, Cold Fish initially may leave audiences befuddled, but this a sign of its complexity and reluctance to propose obvious meanings, and on reflection it has become one of the highlights of the festival for me. VS

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within

Documentary attempting to get under the Poe of Dope’s skin, as various talking heads pontificate away about the man under various animated chapter headings (sex, junk, guns, and so on). It positions Burroughs very well as a punk/countercultural totem, but seems less interested in his status as a literary figure. All perfectly fine, mainly notable for the insane quality roll call of the heads (John Giorno, John Waters, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Genesis P. Orridge, Jello Biafra, etc etc etc. ) and some great stories, and great footage… Music by Sonic Youth, of course. MS

Strange Powers

As someone who’s listened to the band for years, it’s a little hard to be objective about Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields. For anyone who became a fan after the band’s 1999 album 69 Love Songs (and that’s probably most people), the film is a much-needed and affectionate introduction to their earlier years, from their first shows in Boston to their eventual move to New York; more importantly, it’s a revealing look at the creative and personal relationship between Merritt and Claudia Gonson – chanteuse, piano-player, manager and mother figure. Mixing live footage, old photographs and interviews with band members Sam Davol and John Woo, and contributors like accordion-player Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket), the directors Gail O’Hara and Kerthy Fix have given the audience a terrific sense of Merritt’s almost perversely charismatic personality and his enormous talent as a singer-songwriter. Perhaps the film’s biggest flaw is that at 82 minutes it feels somehow incomplete, as if a film devoted solely to their live performances should be just around the corner. SC

Film Socialisme

There’s a cruise ship. There’s a garage. There’s a llama. There’s some people. Everybody speaks. In ‘Navajo’ English. A bit like this. Oh look. There goes Patti Smith. Something about Africa. Something about elections. That llama again. We go to. The new Godard. To say that that we’ve seen. The new Godard. How long. Does this one last? Oh, it’s over. Can someone tell JLG that if he doesn’t want to make films anymore, he doesn’t have to? MS

Ruhr

You’ve got to be prepared: there are only seven shots in 121 minutes in James Benning’s haunting homage to the German Ruhr area which, even though it was selected to be European Capital of Culture in 2010, retains the heavily industrial feel and look of the past, flecked with coal mines, factories and steel works with noisy, steaming furnaces and smoke-pouring chimneys. But of course there is more to explore in each of the fixed-frame takes Jennings has chosen for his first foray into high-definition video. The focus of interest shifts from a car tunnel with almost no cars driving through, but sporting an eye-catching zigzag lighting tube on the ceiling to a self-regulated production line in a steel-rolling plant and the constant praying in a mosque filmed from an awkward perspective that is alternately blacked out by the backs of the worshippers. Some of the images and the soundtrack have been digitally manipulated to increase the fascination and bizarre attraction of the images – and it works. By the time Ruhr enters into the final view, a tower belching out an impressive cloud of steam every 10 minutes for the remaining hour of the film, you are so taken by the power of the plain imagery and soundscape Jennings creates that you leave the cinema feeling slightly dizzy, yet again marvelling at the way things slowly reveal their own beauty and meaning if only you take the time to look at them for long enough. PJ

Le quattro volte

Le Quattro Volte

Life. What’s it all about? Um… charcoal, apparently. Michaelangelo Frammartino’s mesmerising, dialogue-free film follows the rhythms and patterns of life lived in a small Italian village, witnessing the life and death of an ageing shepherd, a new-born kid in his herd (a reincarnation?) and the fate of a tree in a series of long takes. While this sounds like it could be arse-numbing torture, Frammartino has come to the praiseworthy realisation that if you’re going to have long long takes, then it’s best to have something of interest happen in them. Thus we have human actors who look like live-action Chomet animations, unfamiliar rural rituals to puzzle over, and a feast of different textures and sights and sounds. Best of all we have goats, a whole herd of boisterous and amusing and inscrutable goats, in the best goat performances I’ve ever seen. Love them goats. That dog deserves an Oscar, too. MS

13 Assassins

Solid genre entertainment, but a curiously straightforward offering for Takashi Miike. After his wacky homage to the Italian Western in Sukiyaki Western Django, Miike gives us a classic samurai tale heavily influenced by Kurosawa. A remake of an obscure 1963 film, 13 Assassins follows the efforts of retired samurai Shinzaemon as he assembles a team of assassins to kill the cruel and degenerate Lord Naritsugu, half-brother of the Shogun, before he rises to power. It is epic in scope and lavishly produced, with impressive large-scale battle scenes, beautiful candle-lit interiors and atmospheric landscapes shrouded in mist. But given Miike’s anarchic and iconoclastic tendencies, it is rather surprising to see him go for the traditional end-of-an-era nostalgia and to see him unquestioningly let the characters accept the samurai’s rigid code of honour. A few grotesque touches remind us of the director’s presence, mostly in the opening scenes depicting Lord Naritsugu’s evil deeds – in particular the piteous display of one of his victims, the horrifically mutilated daughter of a rebellious peasant. But all in all, the violence is fairly restrained and conventional for Miike and it is further blunted by a strong impression of déjà vu. Fun, but not exactly memorable. VS

Southern District

Drifting and dreamlike, Juan Carlos Valdivia’s film consists of a series of lazy, tightly choreographed 360-degree pans and dollies circling Ms Carola and her family and servants in a gorgeous house and garden located in the moneyed area of La Paz, Bolivia, of the title. At first, as they dine, shag and shop, Carola’s spoilt clan seem to be as appalling and eminently mockable as the family of Altman’s A Wedding, or Buñuel’s bourgeoisie, but soon enough the cracks begin to show in the carefully maintained façade and they increasingly come to resemble inmates in an asylum, a bubble sealed off from the brutal world outside. Sun-bleached, funny and visually enchanting, it’s a strange and wondrous thing. MS

Self Made

Together with Clio Barnard’s The Abor, Self Made, by Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing, sounded like one of the most interesting films in this year’s British Cinema strand, but it turned out to be a less cathartic cinematic experience than expected. The documentary records a theatre project that Wearing initiated together with a Method acting teacher, Sam Rumbelow. After placing an ad in the newspaper that simply said, ‘Would you like to be in a film? You can play yourself or a fictional character’, the duo selected seven non-actors to become participants in a 10-day Method workshop. On an empty warehouse set, Rumbelow pushes the group to explore their inner selves and to act out their suppressed feelings and experiences largely through psychological performance exercises that are, at times, as disturbing to watch they must have been to enact. The film sometimes diverts from the austere, straightforward recording style Wearing has adopted. Interwoven with the acting masterclass set-pieces are five short films, each developed and performed by one of the participants as they learn to let go. Some of these mini-episodes are better than others with regards to performance, set-up and narrative, but compared to the intense emotions played out in the skeletal workshop theatre scenes, they seem rather like a waste of energy. Ultimately, this mismatch makes Self Made feel like a work-in-progress itself, yet with the potential to grow towards the art of unobtrusive, fine-tuned characterisation. PJ

The Parking Lot Movie

What happens when you give an undemanding service sector job working in the booth of a pay parking lot in Charlottesville, Virginia, to a group of overeducated, underfunded philosophers, anthropologists and theologians? You get a lot of bitter, acerbic commentary on class, capitalism, human nature, America, and the behaviour of rich drunken douchebags. Apart from an ill-advised hip hop interlude, Meghan Eckman’s documentary is a very watchable piece of kit, full of interesting characters and smart observations. Ex-booth attendees include members of Happy Flowers and Yo La Tengo, and the Parking Lot Movie could make slacker heroes of the rest. MS

The Temptation of St Tony (Püha T&#245nu kiusamine)

Veiko &#213unpuu’s The Temptation of St Tony had been brought to our attention last year and it was great to see it selected for LFF. The film is worth watching for its opening scene alone: a funeral procession moving towards the sea, filmed in a beautifully austere black and white that makes it seem more like a mental landscape or dream than reality. This unreal-ness infuses the grim, grey Estonian setting as the main character Tony journeys through a series of puzzling events that follow his father’s funeral. Although the latter part of the film, set in a decadent, hellish nightclub called ‘The Golden Age’, feels too contrived and self-conscious, the sense of the absurd that imbues the film feels entirely genuine. St Tony may be flawed but it has a strong visual identity and atmospheric quality, convincing menace and paranoia, and a warped sense of humour. It conjures up a striking image of Estonia as a hopeless wasteland where promises of a better life haven’t been fulfilled. VS

Miral

For those who have been hoping that celebrity-hugging dollar-magnet artist Julian Schnabel would come a cropper with his film career (and had to admit through gritted teeth that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was a damn fine piece of work), Miral will come as blessed relief. It’s an ill-disciplined, uninvolving trudge of a film, filled with dull exposition, humourless on-the-nose dialogue and baffling creative decisions. In Diving Bell, the various camera techniques were brilliantly used to represent the effects of a specific medical condition. Here the patented Squiffy-Camé seems to be wheeled out at random, and any time is right for a hand-held freakout. What’s Willem Defoe doing here? Why that Tom Waits song there? Why don’t I care?

Based on Rula Jebreal’s autobiographical account, the film traces the lineage of Palestinian girl Miral, and the story of the orphanage where she was raised. We skip from 1991 to 1947 to 1973 in a fragmentary mosaic of lives lived under Israeli rule. There’s abuse and war and radicalism and police oppression and terrorism in there, as encountered or committed by various women, and it should be a welcome change to hear from this unfamiliar viewpoint, but Miral doesn’t really have much to say that I couldn’t have guessed. It has its moments, and isn’t truly awful, it’s just a bit of a dud. MS

Read more LFF reviews: LFF reviews 2 and LFF reviews 3.

The New Uncanny: Drag Me to Hell

Drag Me to Hell

Format: DVD +Blu-ray

Release date: 26 October 2009

Distributor: Lionsgate

Director: Sam Raimi

Writers: Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi

Cast: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Dileep Rao

USA 2009

99 mins

Blessed with a family-friendly PG-13 rating, Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell premiered at Cannes in 2009, was released to huge critical acclaim, and quickly became a box office hit, making $80 million worldwide against a $30 million budget. ‘It’s unlikely that most horror buffs will feel cheated,’ wrote Brent Simon in Screen Daily of Raimi’s choice to make a film with a PG-13 rating. ‘The director gleefully dispenses with the usual sacred cows (neither children nor kittens are safe), and also leans on wild gross-out moments to goose his audience.’ ‘The man is still able to tap into the creepy, the nasty, the violent, and the unpleasant … while always maintaining a wonderfully welcome tongue-in-cheek attitude,’ noted horror aficionado Scott Weinberg on the website Fearnet. Raimi drew special praise for his decision not to include the kind of graphic bodily violence typical of the Saw and Hostel films. Still, as Rex Reed pointed out in The New York Observer, the heroine still manages to find herself up to her ears in ‘corpse vomit, animal sacrifice, violent séances and open graves’. Reed’s was one of the film’s very few negative reviews. Most critics loved it, finding it to be innovative, fresh and original. But a closer look at Drag Me to Hell suggests Raimi’s crowd-pleaser might not be quite as innovative as it first appears.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, Drag Me to Hell is the story of young loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), who, in line for a promotion at her bank, tries to impress her boss by refusing to extend a loan to an ailing, snaggle-toothed gypsy named Mrs Ganush (Lorna Raver). In retaliation, as angry gypsies tend to do, Ganush places a curse on Christine, which promises that, after three days of ever escalating torment, she will be plunged into the depths of hell to burn for all eternity.

According to critics and fans, one of the most successful elements of Raimi’s film was its nostalgic style, from the deliberately retro Universal logo and stylised title font to the way it eschews computer-generated graphic effects in favour of creepy shadows and gloomy atmospherics. But while there is no blood in Drag Me to Hell apart from an improbably explosive nosebleed, the film surely reminds us that our bodies contain a lot of ghastly stuff as well as blood and guts, some of which is even more repellent. The film is soaked in sprays of slimy spittle, gobs of phlegm and pools of embalming fluid, not to mention an extruded eyeball, some rancid gums, and a flood of worm-encrusted corpse puke. This kind of detritus might seem disgusting to us now, but in a way, this, too, is a hearkening back to the past, when viscous ickiness was what horror movies were all about. In this sense, Drag Me to Hell reminds us of the moldy growths and clammy creatures of films like The Blob (Irvin S Yeaworth Jr, 1958), Frogs (George McCowan,1972), Shivers (David Cronenberg, 1975), Squirm (Jeff Lieberman, 1976), and The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968).

It is especially interesting that there has been no serious writing on Drag Me to Hell. On the contrary, virtually all those reviewing the film have emphasised that it is a deliberate exercise in jolts and thrills, a shock-filled roller-coaster ride with no subtext or deeper level. Roger Ebert, in the Chicago Sun Times, described the film as ‘a sometimes funny and often startling horror movie’, adding ‘[t]hat is what it wants to be, and that is what it is’. Variety‘s Peter Debruge found the film to be ‘scant of plot and barren of subtext’ and ‘single-mindedly devoted to pushing the audience’s buttons’.

Taking the film a little more seriously, however, we might approach it as an uncanny fantasy whose plot involves a certain amount of magical thinking – in psychoanalytic terms, the unconsciously held belief that our own thoughts can influence external events, emerging from a misperception of self-boundaries.

As Freud points out in his famous essay on the subject (1919), the Uncanny is that which reminds us of something from our childhood, long repressed, which now returns in an unfamiliar form. Drag Me to Hell is full of uncanny images and motifs, including simple, everyday objects that suddenly become unfamiliar. Corpses that return to life, insects that invade the body and animals that can talk all evoke the Uncanny. When faced with such things, we instinctively begin to wonder whether they are alive; if not, we wonder whether they once were alive, and, if so, whether they might be able to return to life at any moment. The Uncanny can be traced back to those infantile beliefs and desires that have since been surmounted — beliefs in such things as the omnipotence of thoughts, or the coming to life of inanimate objects. It is these kinds of beliefs that give expression to the animistic conception of the universe prevalent in infancy. Part of the process of growing up, Freud explains, involves giving them up, and yet most of us fail to do so, to a greater or lesser degree — partly because we don’t really want to. This kind of magical thinking allows us to believe in the enchantment of the world, even if this enchantment is evoked, as here, in the form of horror.

Part of the uncanny power of Drag Me to Hell lies in Raimi’s use of symbols and motifs from well-known legends and folktales, including such ghost story staples as a gypsy curse, a horned demon, a graveyard scene, a séance, and a spitting black cat. Most significantly, the half-blind Mrs Ganush is a jettatura, endowed with the ability to cast the Evil Eye, a curse that can be placed by fixing the gaze on a coveted object, person, or animal. In folklore as well as horror movies, the Evil Eye is one of the oldest jinxes of all time. Those believed to have the ability to cast this hex are those with unusual eyes, and – more particularly – those with one blue eye and one dark eye, like Mrs Ganush.

To rid herself of the hex, Christine visits a local psychic, Rham Jas (Dileep Rao). The first thing we see in Jas’s store is a Nazar amulet hanging on the wall — the blue stone commonly worn in the Middle East to ward off the Evil Eye. But it is too late. ‘Someone has cursed you,’ Rham Jas tells Christine.

The best-known and most respected scholarly work on the Evil Eye is an essay by the folklorist Alan Dundes entitled ‘Wet and Dry, The Evil Eye’. In this essay, Dundes explains that the origins of the Evil Eye are not envy, but our underlying beliefs about water equating to life and dryness equating to death. He posits that the true ‘evil’ done by the Evil Eye is that it causes living beings to ‘dry up’ — notably babies, milking animals, young fruit trees, and nursing mothers. The harm caused by the Evil Eye consists of sudden vomiting or diarrhoea in children, the drying up of milk in nursing mothers or livestock, the withering of fruit on orchard trees, and the loss of potency in men. In short, the envious eye ‘dries up liquids’, according to Dundes — a fact that he contends demonstrates its Middle Eastern desert origins. So in Italy, for example, men cover their testicles when passing someone they suspect might have the Evil Eye, or spit to prove that they are still capable of producing liquid. Women have similar concerns, in this case not being able to produce milk.

Intuitively, it appears, this notion is also key to Drag Me to Hell, which is, as many critics have noted, one of the wettest and messiest of movies. While Christine is young and juicy, Mrs Ganush is a shriveled, dried-up old crone, and whatever liquid remains in her body quickly comes out. In the bank, she coughs up a wad of yellow phlegm into her handkerchief, and then takes out her dentures, displaying a sticky stream of saliva. When Christine attends the gypsy wake, she trips and falls on to Mrs Ganush’s corpse, which vomits embalming fluid all over her face. Even after the gypsy is dead, she returns to Christine in nightmares, puking maggots into her pretty face. Meanwhile, the curse is working; Christine loses her promotion at the bank, alienates her boyfriend’s parents, and commits a desperate act in a fruitless attempt to lift the gypsy’s hex.

According to Rham Jas, the particular curse placed on Christine depends on ‘something taken from the victim, cursed, and given back’, and Christine recalls that, during the fight in the parking lot, Mrs Ganush tore a button from her coat, pronounced a spell over it, then returned it to her. Stolen objects like this button are often used in magic rituals, including voodoo, to bring bad luck or injury to their owners (Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough describes this kind of ritual as ‘contagious magic’). The idea of the object that dooms its owner to hell and must be passed on to some other poor victim is also a trope of folklore — in literature, it also appears in Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale ‘The Bottle Imp’, in which a similar curse is cast: if the owner of the bottle dies without having sold it in the prescribed manner, that person’s soul will burn for eternity in hell.

Interestingly, the same curse turns up in a much-anthologised 1911 ghost story by MR James entitled ‘Casting the Runes’, the inspiration for Jacques Tourneur’s 1957 film Night of the Demon, which itself, quite clearly, provided Raimi with much of the source material for Drag Me to Hell. Night of the Demon is the creepy tale of occultist Julian Karswell, (allegedly based on Aleister Crowley), who wreaks revenge on those who have slighted him with a fearsome curse. Karswell’s victims are tormented by a shadowy demon just like the one haunting Christine Brown in Drag Me to Hell, which we see only in silhouette, and in the form of mysterious hoof-and-horn shadows glimpsed under a door, and behind wind-blown curtains. In Night of the Demon a cursed parchment, surreptitiously passed to an unknowing victim, conjures up a goatish devil for two straight weeks of torment before accompanying him to hell.

Christine tries to subvert the curse by digging up the body of Mrs Ganush and placing what she believes to be the cursed button in her toothless mouth (it actually turns out to be a harmless coin). As everyone knows, in folklore and ghost stories, those who dig up corpses for nefarious purposes always suffer terrible punishment. In Mr Sardonicus (William Castle, 1961), based on a story by Ray Russell, a man who robs his father’s grave to retrieve a winning lottery ticket ends up with his face frozen into a terrifying rictus.

The climax of Night of the Demon sees the curse rebounding on Karswell, who is pushed under a train by his own, self-summoned devil. The conclusion of Drag Me to Hell echoes the earlier film and it comes as the last in a series of slick surprises — though if we’d paid close attention to the imperative of the film’s title, its ending would have been less of a jolt. The truth is, Christine was asking for it all along.

Mikita Brottman

Buy Drag Me to Hell [DVD] [2009] from Amazon

Buy Drag Me to Hell [Blu-ray] [2009] from Amazon

REVIEW OF THE YEAR 2008

My Winnipeg

The Electric Sheep team look back at the heroes and villains of 2008.

THE GOOD

Waltz With Bashir/Persepolis
It seems somehow unfair to try and choose between Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir in deciding the best film of the year. Both superbly animated, autobiographical features, they are totally unique, powerful and refreshing in their own ways. Persepolis uses stunning black and white animation to tell Satrapi’s often humorous story about growing up a rebel after the 1979 revolution in Iran, while Waltz with Bashir is a very personal and brave attempt by Folman to come to terms with his role in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre. Both are emotionally gripping, riveting films that are also terrifically stylish, making them an absolute pleasure to watch. SARAH CRONIN

My Winnipeg
Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg is among his finest work to date, combining documentary footage, theories on psycho-geography and the director’s typical left-field sexual anecdotes to lurid and devastating effect. Maddin has conjured a Canadian Brigadoon that is both lost to the developer’s wreaking ball and to reminiscences of itinerant residents who have long since moved on. My Winnipeg is a beguiling and loving homage to both the news footage and the director’s own home movies of the town itself and an unmissable, metatextual fever dream about places we’ve all loved and lost. ALEX FITCH

Savage Grace
Fifteen years after his critically acclaimed debut feature Swoon, Tom Kalin’s follow-up is another stunning, audacious and dazzlingly well realised exploration of the relation between sex and power, based on a disturbing real-life crime. Shot in deep, lush colours, and with a wonderfully versatile Julianne Moore in the central role, Savage Grace recounts the glittering rise and tragic fall of the aspiring American socialite Barbara Daly. Kalin brings a coolly compassionate spirit to this haunting tale of love and madness while excellent performances throughout lend the film an extra edge of enigmatic power and unsettling perversity. Undeniably graceful, gorgeously photographed but also brutally sharp. PAMELA JAHN

The Orphanage
Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage marks a powerful escape from the clutches of the ‘torture-porn’ franchises devouring the horror genre in recent years. The simplicity of a look, of the sound of footsteps, a long hallway disappearing into darkness, the sound of children whispering… suddenly the subconscious mind is given some credibility again. The Orphanage is almost entirely preoccupied with the topography of the mind and is extremely successful at evoking the (often frightening) symbolism of the past, of childhood, of memories best left undisturbed. There may have been better films in 2008, but The Orphanage got to me deepest. SIOUXZI MERNAGH

Man on Wire
James Marsh’s Man on Wire shocked and amazed me above anything else I’ve seen in years. It tells the story of French tightrope walker Philippe Petit, who with the help of a small and fearless team, broke into the World Trade Centre in 1974. Taking with him an arsenal of equipment, he staged a feat of iconic proportions by walking between the two towers. If the heist-like nature of the narrative isn’t compelling enough, the emotional bond between the key players seen through modern-day talking heads and archived footage secures the film’s place as one of the most engaging documentaries of recent years. JAMES MERCHANT

Lust, Caution
Ang Lee’s haunting Lust, Caution examines the explicit affair between naí¯ve spy Tang Wei and government official Tony Leung against the backdrop of wartime China. Leung’s performance is a master-class in self-loathing, revealing a supposed embodiment of evil to be a world-weary company man who is aware of the shortcomings of the political power to which he has sold his soul. Lee presents a multi-layered recreation of 1940s Shanghai wherein even a mah-jong game is an exercise in alliance and betrayal. Skilfully adapted from an Eileen Chang short story, Lust, Caution is as suspenseful as it is emotionally complex. JOHN BERRA

Far North
With Michelle Yeoh magnificent in the central role, Asif Kapadia’s follow-up to his acclaimed debut feature The Warrior is another stunning epic folk tale, set amid the savage beauty of the Arctic Circle, in an environment where life is a constant, violent fight for survival. VIRGINIE Sí‰LAVY

THE BAD

Captain Eager and the Mark of Voth
When making a nostalgic film about lost possibilities and childhood heroes on a limited budget, you sometimes end up with a work of genius like My Winnipeg and sometimes you get ill-conceived and tedious claptrap like Captain Eager. Inspired by the classic British comic book character Dan Dare and 1930s adventure serials such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, this is a film that tries to be an innovative, funny and affectionate homage to the past but fails on almost every level, while criminally wasting two of this country’s finest comic talents – Mark Heap and Tasmin Grieg. ALEX FITCH

Awake
Awake is a ridiculous thriller that strives for novelty by exaggerating, or exploiting, a medical statistic concerning the number of people who wake up during open heart surgery. When a bland junior business tycoon, portrayed by jobbing Jedi Hayden Christiansen, becomes conscious during a life or death operation, he discovers that he is the victim of a conspiracy masterminded by his new wife and his surgeon. However, his physical paralysis means that Christiansen spends much of the film relaxing on his back while his voice-over attempts to take care of the acting. Not to be viewed without anaesthetic. JOHN BERRA

Angel
Franí§ois Ozon’s first English-language feature, a foolish adaptation of Elizabeth Taylor’s unduly neglected novel Angel (1957), may be his most love-it-or-hate-it film to date. It is a strained, disastrous mixture of camp spoof and lurid melodrama, a would-be satire of Hollywood dramas of the Douglas Sirk variety that completely misses the mark. PAMELA JAHN

My Blueberry Nights
While not necessarily the absolute worst film to come out this year, Wong Kar Wai’s My Blueberry Nights was certainly the most disappointing. The director’s first foray into Hollywood resulted in a film inferior in every way to his Hong Kong-based work, while the most egregious offence was the misguided casting that saw the inexperienced singer Norah Jones and the mediocre Jude Law take on the two leads. The story itself is a mere confection, with Jones waitressing her way across America after she’s jilted by her boyfriend. Thankfully, Wong Kar Wai quickly restored his reputation by re-realising his 1994 film Ashes of Time, a beautiful, elegiac picture that helped dull the painful memory of My Blueberry Nights. SARAH CRONIN

THE UGLY

RocknRolla
Arch-chav Guy Ritchie’s pathetic films are littered with embarrassing caricatures: mockney wide boys, smart-arse gangsters, Fagin-esque thieves and air-head tarts. This ridiculously contrived, self-consciously ‘cool’ macho wankathon was utterly boring, adolescent and stupid. But what’s most reprehensible about it is its glamorisation of the most disgusting elements of male, thuggish society: greed, misogyny, egotism, immorality, narcissism and random violence. JAMES DC

27 Dresses

This film is a triumph of formula, a mastery of the Machine:

1. Distill the identity of the ‘modern woman’ into one crisp, shiny, easily opened package.

2. Extract money from the ‘modern woman’ by marketing a tried and tested ‘always a bridesmaid, never a bride (unless you’re younger and blonder)’ movie to her.

3. Stew the ‘modern woman’ in saccharine juices until her brain is pink and pliable.

4. Await congratulations from film investors.

Unfortunately, 27 Dresses grossed $160 million worldwide, with around 75% of the audience being female (boxofficeguru.com). And this from a female director… SIOUXZI MERNAGH

PHILIP WINTER’S VERY OWN ROUND-UP OF 2008

Unlike most of the other pundits writing this end of year review, I haven’t been to the cinema. 2008 was a grand year for cinema-phobia as far as I’m concerned. Despite my love of the art form I have never been a regular cinema-goer. My preferred time to go to a screening is mid-week, mid-afternoon, with no companions apart from my fellow strangers. Sadly, work and life have thwarted my indulgence in that proclivity, as has the fact that there has been very little fodder on offer that I have wanted to squander my cash on. I haven’t even attended press screenings. Indeed, most of my cinematic consumption has come via conduits such as DVDs and the Web. However, (here’s the me, me, me bit) I have been proactive in producing cinematic events. All of them low-key, thoroughly amateur and jolly good fun in a kind of botched together from Sellotape and twigs way. In the summer, I started an occasional evening entitled Philip Winter’s Lucky Dip (this title permitted me to decide what I wanted to screen the night before). At these events, I screened an eclectic range of films – local history documentaries, British transport films, instructional videos, Super 8 non-sequitur, YouTube chaff. Experimentalists like William English, Oliver Mezger, Fari Bradley, David Leister and Toby Clarkson presented 16mm and video works live, and as master of ceremonies I talked nonsense in between. The screenings took place in a room above a pub adjacent to the pub’s Thai kitchen, which provided a constant background din. Audiences weren’t huge but we all had fun, albeit of the shoddy variety, and best of all, it was free. I am glad I haven’t visited a cinema in 12 months.

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews