Zipangu 2011 preview: Sounds and Music

KanZeOn

Zipangu Fest

18-24 November 2011

ICA + Cafe Oto, London

Zipangu Fest website

The second Zipangu Fest, celebrating the best of cutting-edge and avant-garde Japanese cinema, will be held at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts and Café Oto from November 18 to 24, before moving to venues around the UK. The festival will showcase a selection of Japan’s finest features, documentaries, shorts, animation and experimental films. This year, it includes a strand exploring sound and film, which is previewed below by Eleanor McKeown and Tom Mes.

KanZeOn (2011)

KanZeOn begins on a tranquil note. A young Buddhist priest kneels, softly chanting while the camera produces languid shots of the temple’s interior. The calm is punctured when he leaves the floor, picks up a set of headphones and starts spinning hip hop records on a set of decks. It is one of many magically strange scenes that make up this thought-provoking exploration of links between Japanese Buddhism and sound.

The documentary follows three individuals in Kyushu: Akinobu Tatsumi, the hip hop-loving priest; Eri Fujii, a master of the Sho, an ancient bamboo instrument that mythically mimics the cry of a Chinese phoenix; and Akihiro Iitomi, a jazz-loving performer of Noh theatre. Divided into elliptical segments, the film switches between the three musicians as they perform their art and discuss what sound and music mean to them. The beautifully filmed sequences leave behind strong images, from the shadow of beat-boxing Tatsumi reflected onto perfect turquoise river water to the inspired performance of Fujii, set against a backdrop of crashing waterfalls. The sounds of nature and human endeavour combine to create exquisite duets. The languorous pacing allows the audience to absorb these fascinating combinations and contemplate the part that music and everyday sounds might play in their own lives. Accompanied by a discussion between SOAS lecturer Lucia Dolce and filmmakers Neil Cantwell and Tim Grabham, the Zipangu festival screening should provide a thoughtful insight into the role of sound in Japanese society and religion. EM

Listen to directors Neil Cantwell and Tim Grabham discuss the film + Tatsumi Akinobu give a performance of his Buddhist chanting and beat-boxing skills on the Electric Sheep’s I’m Ready For My Close-Up radio show on Resonance FM 104.4, Friday 18 November, 5-5:30pm.

We Don’t Care about Music Anyway (2009)

Those who care as much about music as about movies will find a rich harvest at Zipangu again this year. Not least in the shape of We Don’t Care about Music Anyway, Cédric Dupire and Gaspard Kuentz’s rather fascinating documentary on some of the leading lights of Japan’s noise scene. Alternating a round-table discussion between the participants with their individual performance pieces, the film is less radical in its form than Kikoe, Iwai Chikara’s documentary tribute to the great Otomo Yoshihide from three years ago – not to mention Ishii Sogo’s pivotal film on German noise pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten, Halber Mensch (1986) – but it is all the more accessible and emphatic as a result. The debate/performance structure conveys the theory and practice that inform the divergent methods of these musicians. The sparse set-up of the round-table talk contrasts greatly and effectively with the more exuberant mise en scéne of the performance pieces, which see the participants at work on scrap heaps, in underground tunnels, in ruined buildings and – in the most eye-catching sequence (which also provides the film’s main promo visual) – on the beach. Those looking for a history lesson or a broad overview of Japan’s noise scene will be left wanting, since the focus of We Don’t Care about Music Anyway is firmly on the small group of featured artists. As a brief immersion, however, it is a genuine delight. TM

Enter the Cosmos: Takashi Makino Special (2004-2011)

As part of its exploration of Japanese sound and film, the Zipangu festival will be screening a showcase of three films by acclaimed experimental filmmaker Takashi Makino. Makino’s films provide bizarre journeys through enigmatic soundscapes, composed of various sonic textures from the dislocated organ of a carousel to discordant piano notes and extreme feedback. The whir, crackle and drone of machines are accompanied by the imperfections of film and pixelated distortions of video. The visual scale is vast and the pacing is slow, like a 45rpm record set to 33rpm.

The first work, Intimate Stars (2004), provides the most recognisable sounds and visuals of all the films with occasional glimpses of vaudeville performers and fairground rides. The film offers representations of both exterior and interior landscapes as shots of branches and rushing skies segue into images so enlarged as to be wrought into completely abstract forms. The later films to be screened show an even greater exploration of abstraction. Elements of Nothing (2007) and In Your Star (2011) take the audience on trips through different emotional states and immersive sensations from the peaceful plucking of strings to uncomfortably intense feedback. Not for the faint-hearted, these bold, challenging, extreme odysseys provide a fascinating introduction to Makino’s work. EM

Coming soon: Comic Strip Review of Abraxas, about a ex-punk musician turned Buddhist monk.

Lipsett Diaries: A Tormented Life Animated

Lipsett Diaries

8th London International Animation Festival

Dates: 26 August – 4 September 2011

Venues: Barbican, Horse Hospital, Rio Cinema (London)

LIAF website

Visiting the Barbican for a special screening of Lipsett Diaries (2010), Theodore Ushev’s much-praised 15-minute film about experimental filmmaker Arthur Lipsett, it was easy to forget the iconic concrete labyrinth was playing host – for the first time – to the London International Animation Festival. The monthly programme had a lonely, rather perfunctory, paragraph of blurb while the majority of the milling crowd seemed to be there for a new production of South Pacific. As I waited patiently outside Screen 1, I saw with some relief that word had clearly spread about LIAF as a large, high-spirited crowd streamed out of the festival’s British Showcase screening. Perhaps the throng was all showcased filmmakers with friends in tow; still, the lively festival-goers created a welcome buzz and, while many did not stick around for Lipsett Diaries, those who did attend (and the number was respectable) were rewarded for their attendance; the event was another example of thoughtful programming from the LIAF organisers.

Lipsett Diaries could easily have slotted into one of the festival’s regular screenings, lost amid the roster of impressive shorts; instead, it was used as a catalyst to introduce Lipsett’s work and as an ending to a comprehensive retrospective of Ushev’s work to date. It is certainly Ushev’s best film, although his animations have displayed technical virtuosity from the beginning. His first work – The Man Who Waited (2006) – re-tells a Kafka short story through a rapid, claustrophobic edit of images, hand-drawn in the style of German expressionist woodcuts. The fast pacing of Ushev’s filmmaking – something shared with Lipsett’s – is a real strength, and the retrospective included several shorts influenced by 20th-century art movements obsessed with mechanism and speed: constructivism, futurism and vorticism. Tower Bawher (2006) followed this pattern and re-trod a path pioneered in Russia at the start of last century. There was nothing new about the montages of newsprint, geometric blocks, architectural towers and saluting hands but the computer-generated speed did add a certain freshness to the images.

That Soviet typography and striking images appeal to Ushev should come as no surprise, given his background as a graphic artist. I saw a continuation of this profession in his filmmaking: not only in his use of striking aesthetics but also in the way he fits images to his films’ subjects, almost as if working to a brief. In the Q&A following the screening, he spoke of serving a concept; the key was making ‘a film, not my film’, he said. While commendable in many ways, this approach creates a certain passivity in his filmmaking; the image is applied to, and therefore at the mercy of, the text or idea. For me, the overly cutesy narration of Tzaritza (2006) made a sweet tale about families separated by emigration more throwaway and saccharine than it needed to be. It seems that Ushev creates his best films when working with rich personalities that provide a strong voice. As a case in point, Yannick Nézet-Séguin: No Intermission took an interview and performance by the eponymous conductor and created beautiful glowing visuals: lively flashes of Nézet-Séguin’s animated face and hands appear from extreme blackness to tame and direct an invisible orchestra.

Lipsett Diaries provided another strong voice and portrait of the creative spirit. The film was born out of discussions with fellow filmmakers, a series of talisman coincidences – including the discovery that Lipsett had previously lived in Ushev’s first apartment block in Montreal – and a script by writer Chris Robinson. Divided into three separate segments, the narrative tells Lipsett’s story, from a difficult childhood to his death. An exceptionally talented filmmaker, Lipsett created several astonishing shorts in the early 60s and committed suicide just before his 50th birthday. Composed of hundreds of acrylic paintings, the film’s animation is intense and extremely delicate, borrowing from the visceral style of Francis Bacon and Goya’s later paintings and occasionally nodding to Pop Art. These images play out as filmmaker Xavier Dolan narrates snatches of text and builds up an insight into Lipsett’s inner turmoil. It is only at the end of the film that the audience is told that Lipsett’s diaries were never found and that the film is a fictionalised account, using narrative texts from Lipsett’s shorts.

The non-linear approach of assembling text and images mirrors Lipsett’s own filmmaking technique, which cut up dialogue – often passages of cultural criticism – and playfully juxtaposed the words with images of everyday life, either shot by himself or his contemporary filmmakers at the National Film Board in Canada. The editing skills displayed in his debut film, Very Nice, Very Nice (1961), brought Lipsett to the attention of the Academy and also that of filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrik (who asked him – unsuccessfully – to work as his editor). Lipsett was a master of editing but, more than that, he offered a delightfully skewed way of looking at the world, which cuts through the noise and commercialisation of our normal existence. His work goes beyond surrealism’s random juxtaposition of images and, while it uses the everyday, it is not quite Pop Art either. Lipsett’s work does not propel commonplace objects to the position of High Art in such a straightforward composition; instead, it uses everyday experience to comment upon cultural criticism, political theory, religious belief and social observation. The strange juxtapositions of images are sometimes used to directly contradict the rhetoric being espoused and, at other times, to point out the futility of trying to contain and define the human experience in words. The grand theories are interrupted by phone calls, cut off in mid-stream and shown disintegrating into unintelligible burbles and nonsensical noises. The films create a collage of competing voices, snippets of text straining to make sense of the world.

There is despair in Lipsett’s shorts but there is also warmth and humour; traits that were slightly lost in the script for Lipsett Diaries, which preferred to emphasise a darker, more straightforward narrative of the artist as tortured soul. Lipsett’s work is full of humanity – laid bare for the audience in his every choice of image – and it was wonderful to sit in the Barbican watching his early shorts unfold on the big screen. For bringing Arthur Lipsett to new audiences, to the organisers of LIAF and the makers of Lipsett Diaries: bravo, very nice, very nice.

Eleanor McKeown

London International Animation Festival 2011: Preview

Phosphena (Maya Erdelyi)

8th London International Animation Festival

Dates: 26 August – 4 September 2011

Venues: Barbican, Horse Hospital, Rio Cinema (London)

LIAF website

The London International Animation Festival (LIAF) may take place in the English capital but its gaze reaches far beyond its home country. Based at the Barbican this year, it includes a special British showcase and a spotlight on films produced by London’s Royal College of Art but, as usual, the focus of its 2011 schedule is its international programme, a series of screenings that present a happily eclectic snapshot of independent animation from around the globe. Brilliantly broad in terms of technique and subject matter, the films jostle for a place in the final day’s ‘best of the fest’ screening and the honour of the festival competition prize. A preview compilation of shorts reveals a promising selection. Sjaak Rood’s Fast Forward Little Riding Hood (2010) is a charming re-telling of the classic fairy tale in a lightning minute-and-a-half of scribbles and doodles. Big Bang, Big Boom (2010) is the latest, very brilliant, offering from Italian street artist Blu. A riot of colourful murals and inanimate rubbish springing to life, the stop-motion film stages the story of the earth’s evolution against the dull grey of city pavements and urban buildings. Finishing with a Darwinian whirligig, man evolves from ape to a machine gun-toting soldier who shoots at his ancestors around the circumference of a gasworks wall.

Blu uses the age-old animation process of stop motion to create a fresh visual style. Another traditional animation method is celebrated in this year’s technique focus screening, which will showcase the use of paper cut-outs on film. A mainstay of animation dating back to early 20th-century cinematic pioneers such as Lotte Reiniger, cut-outs continue to produce visually arresting results as evidenced by Maya Erdelyi’s Phosphena (2010), a kaleidoscope of intricate paper creations and abstract confetti. If Erdelyi’s film is an indicator of the selection, the screening should provide a very stimulating survey of shorts.

At the other end of the spectrum, cutting-edge 3D mastery promises to be strong with a showcase of Siggraph works and animations like David OReilly’s The External World (2010) and Damian Nenow’s Paths of Hate (2010). Mimicking a twisting, throbbing video game, Paths of Hate demonstrates magnificent technical achievements as it follows two warrior pilots fighting to their death, vapour trails of blood exploding across the sky. Nenow’s film not only appears in the international programme but also in the festival’s Focus on Poland strand, which brings together animations from a country with a long history in the medium and a potent narrative tradition. As a supplement to the strand, award-winning Polish filmmaker Wojtek Wawszczyk will be hosting a masterclass and introducing his acclaimed feature George and the Hedgehog (2011).

The organisers of LIAF are adept at drawing engaging talents to the festival and another special guest at this year’s festival will be filmmaker Theodore Ushev. Ushev will be answering questions about his new film, Lipsett Diaries (2010), which explores the life and work of experimental filmmaker Arthur Lipsett, who was plagued with mental illness before committing suicide aged 49. Lipsett Diaries is one of the most applauded shorts of the past 12 months and the event will provide a compelling opportunity to view Lipsett’s and Ushev’s works side by side. LIAF’s programmers have always shown a comprehensive yet inventive approach. They aim to introduce London audiences to extensive views of specific filmmaking cultures (in addition to the Focus on Poland, there’s also a New York Who’s Who, which will showcase indie animation currently being produced in the Big Apple), but they also take pleasure in not being too prescriptive. The Panorama series of screenings and Late Night Bizarre event bring together oddities that are neither included in the competition nor fall into neat categories of filmmaking. With programming dedicated to searching out thought-provoking and technically impressive works, LIAF looks to have some very promising events taking place across London.

Eleanor McKeown

Al Jarnow: Navigations through Time and Light

Architecture (Numero Group)

Flatpack Festival

23-27 March 2010, Birmingham, UK

Flatpack website

American artist Al Jarnow started out as something of an accidental animator. Obsessed with capturing light, Jarnow initially created paintings. Like David Hockney’s photographic collages, Jarnow’s works laid out their subjects through squares of colour. Painted street scenes, architectural structures and landscapes were used to illustrate the motion of time, the changing of light and its transformative powers. Buildings were chosen as vessels; it was light that was the subject. Film, with its flickering frames of light and intrinsically temporal nature, was a natural progression. There was more potential for recording and exploring transience. He was also led towards the medium by his acquaintances and the environment of his city: the artistically free and exciting New York of the 1970s. Film Forum, Anthology and the Collective of Living Cinema provided unique platforms for experimentation. And Jarnow was a natural experimenter.

His first attempt at filmmaking – a psychedelic animation of Edward Lear’s poem ‘The Owl and The Pussycat’ – was for a NYU student film, produced by friend Dan Weiss, with drawings by his wife, Jill Jarnow. By necessity he learnt on the project; and by not knowing the medium, he was able to reinvent, challenge and improvise. Over the course of his career, he has played around with Xerox machines, he has produced stop-motion animations with filing cards and, in recent times, he has ‘fallen head over heels into the computer screen’, investigating the possibility of software-generated sequences without beginnings, middles and ends.

There is an elegant precision to Jarnow’s films. His 70s filing-card films stylishly play with geometric patterns. Piles of paper leap up and down mail-slots or shuffle like packs of cards, all the time revealing rotating architectural hand-drawn cubes. As the numbered sheets of paper flip before your eyes, your mind races to discover how it is done before duly giving in to the hypnotic rhythm, counted out on Mozart-written harpsichord beats. Autosong (1976), inspired by his wife’s blue Volkswagen car, is a labyrinthine journey of bends, bridges and hills knotting into abstract tubes and pipes set to field recordings of revving engines. Jarnow looked to the background scenery of old cartoons, rather than the racing hero.

Indeed, Jarnow presents humans as small specks, insignificant in the lifespan of the earth. In the two-minute short Cosmic Clock (1979), an impassive young male figure watches from a hillside as one billion years flash before his eyes. A strange time-lapse masterpiece unfolds as successive space-age cities rise and fall, water levels surge and plummet and ice ages sweep over the land. Architecture (1980) takes a different approach, using brightly painted toy blocks to create a stop-motion representation of urbanisation. Model animals weave in and out as buildings emerge, disintegrate and rocket up skywards. The elaborate city landscape sees the animals disappear as cars move in.

As well as charting the progression of human beings against the backdrop of the natural world, Jarnow also displays a desire to record time as it relates to an individual’s life. Jesse: The First Year (1979) is a playful sequence of photographs showing Jarnow’s new-born son over the course of 12 months, charting changes and growth during a period when the passage of time is sharply apparent. Similar in its personal approach, Celestial Navigation (1984) is one of Jarnow’s most fulfilled experiments. The 15-minute film records light passing through Jarnow’s Long Island studio from 20 March 1982 until 20 March 1983. As blocks of sunlight fall from the windows against whitewashed walls, Jarnow obsessively traces their movement across mornings, afternoons, days, weeks, months. He creates grids, photographic prints and a model of the studio, surrounded by a shining light bulb. He travels to Stonehenge for the summer equinox and produces a map of the landmark. There is a wonderful zoetrope-like sequence as the camera swirls around the stones, sun shining through and shadows cast. The effect of Celestial Navigation is like a fantastically talented jazz trumpeter stepping up to improvise, surrounded by silence as the rest of the band dies away. It is Jarnow’s personal philosophical riff on time and light.

Given the cerebral aspect of his works, it comes as a surprise that Jarnow also worked on many television commissions, including sequences for the mighty children’s television series Sesame Street. Generations of children remember his film, Yak (1970), an educational short about the letter ‘Y’. This commercial work paid for experimentations in the studio while Jarnow has described his personal work as acting like a laboratory for his commissions. And what a fantastic laboratory his Long Island attic became. Self-effacing in interview, Jarnow depicts his filmmaking as starting off on a very personal basis (‘my wife was an audience, my friends were an audience’). The uniqueness of Jarnow’s work rests heavily on its personal quality. Jarnow is an artist driven by an enviable desire to endlessly chase ideas, taking new perspectives and trying out all approaches.

The Al Jarnow programme ‘Celestial Navigations’ screened on Sunday 27 March at Ikon Eastside, Birmingham, as part of the Flatpack Festival.

Eleanor McKeown

Flatpack 2011: Best of Birmingham

Paper Party by Sculpture

Flatpack Festival

23-27 March 2010, Birmingham, UK

Flatpack website

It’s Saturday morning at Flatpack and burbling chatter and a laden brunch table fill the festival headquarters. Lighting is provided by a cycle of overhead projector slides: a celebration of art projects from a coterie of Birmingham galleries, housed in the architectural remnants of the city’s receding industries. During the three years I’ve been attending Flatpack, the festival has brought a welcome escape from the humdrum: its setting among forgotten warehouses providing a unique backdrop; its nostalgia for early cinema bringing to life bygone times; and the personal touch of its programming creating a cosy, welcoming atmosphere. But while Flatpackers tucked into an early morning feast, back in London, a day of protests against government cuts was beginning. A few days later, the UK Arts Council released depressing details of their funding agenda and axed grants. With one of the gallery venues set to close post-Flatpack, it is to be hoped that the spending cuts do not impinge on such a rare bubble of otherworldly charm.

Still, there was a celebratory atmosphere at Flatpack – not only celebrating the Digbeth galleries that provide a home for the festival but plenty of celebrating in them too. Saturday night was Paper Party night with reams of origami, sticky note messages, paper hats and whatever else could be folded, ripped or crafted from brightly coloured sheets. Friday was a turntable-spinning, multi-screen extravaganza to commemorate the infamous cosmic jazz musician Sun Ra (he of Birmingham, Alabama, not Birmingham, West Midlands, fame).

As usual, music appeared high up on the agenda. Before the paper maché-up, a special screening hailed Birmingham as ‘Home of Metal’ – the metal of the factory line and the metal of the heavy musical variety. The television documentary In Bed with Chris Needham was chosen to celebrate die-hard fans of the genre. The result of a BBC experiment handing out video cameras to members of the public in the early 1990s, this insight into the mind of a Loughborough-living, heavy-metal-loving teenager could not have been better scripted if finely honed by Rob Reiner. Filmed by shaky adolescent hands, the documentary follows puny-limbed, hormone-filled Chris Needham as he tries to pull together his band, Manslaughter (later spelt with an ‘o’ to avoid being read as ‘Man’s Laughter’), in time for their first gig. Excruciatingly familiar, In Bed with Chris Needham is like your own teenage experience turned up to eleven. As writer Taylor Parkes puts it: ‘Unlike you or I, this 17-year-old was not a twat. He was a twat savant.’

Chris Needham’s face-to-camera candour suggests a time when people were not as savvy or self-conscious about exposing their lives to the nation. In turn, the BBC’s affectionate editing suggests a time when reality TV did not aim to exploit the public. In this sense, In Bed with Chris Needham appears to be something of a televisual time warp: evidence of a more innocent time. And then, live on stage after the screening, Flatpackers were greeted with real-life, middle-aged Chris Needham, in all his Metal Head glory. Spitting beer across the stage, declaring his undying passion (‘First track, first album by Black Sabbath – all the rest is just interpretation’), he was in equal parts hilarious and unnerving in his canny resemblance to the teenager on screen. It soon became clear that the age of the film makes no difference; in fact, perhaps age makes very little difference in life, full stop. It is Chris Needham himself – brilliant and slightly bonkers – who makes this video diary such a cringe-ridden joy.

Another television documentary, The Forgotten Irish, provided a further highlight of the weekend’s programming. Gently filmed and intensely sad in parts, the film told the plight of Irish male immigrants currently living in the Birmingham area. Leaving behind poverty and, in some cases, institutional abuse, the men had sought new homes in England during the 1950s and 1960s. Finding it difficult to adjust to a new culture, they were often isolated, remaining unmarried and relying on alcohol for comfort; a situation worsened after the IRA bombing of Birmingham created further social isolation. The documentary showed current efforts by the Digbeth Irish Centre to protect and help the men, moving them into sheltered accommodation and offering financial assistance. The tattered orange, green and white bunting fluttering in nearby pub windows took on a sombre movement after the screening.

Flatpack’s continued focus on its home city was not only apparent in The Forgotten Irish or its ‘Home of Metal’ screening; it was also evident in its choice of patron saint, the Birmingham-born film writer Iris Barry, who provided the inspiration for several events, from a panel discussion on female film critics to a screening of She Done Him Wrong (1933), her controversial choice for MOMA’s sacrosanct film archive. There was a walking tour of old cinema sites and a wonderful archival screening, A Secret History of Birmingham, which presented festival-goers with a fascinating portrait of the city. The screening included two films, fished out of a skip by an ex-projectionist, providing utopian visions from the post-war period. A strange, jauntily shot promotional film for Cadbury’s, A Day and a Half, extolled the virtues of industrial production and the Bournville workers’ community. Whirring machines and shots of twisting hepcats unleashed from factory duties were used to inspire a young farm hand to leave behind his rural life for new employment. Miracles Take a Little Longer charted the progress of the ‘city of a thousand trades’ in the period following the Second World War. Interviews with Birmingham journalists, the city mayor and a local school teacher provide testimonials about the city and attempts to battle poverty (a combination of paternal social welfare and urban redevelopment), set against a backdrop of captivating archival footage.

Flatpack’s awareness of its surroundings is one of the festival’s greatest attributes. It provides more than just a programme of disparate films; it seeks to explore its city history and present it in many different ways. It celebrates Birmingham’s alumni, it rejoices in its culture, it investigates its problems and it finds new ways of seeing the urban landscape through inventive screening settings and site-specific events. When we attend film festivals, cities often merge into one. Films are repeated across countries, across continents, in characterless cinema venues. Here, the city provides a link, throwing up interesting questions and visual results. Flatpack is not a film festival that wants to exist in a bubble, despite its otherworldly atmosphere.

Eleanor McKeown

Deadly Role Reversals: Birds Eye View’s Horror Shorts

Short Lease

Birds Eye View

8-17 March 2011

BEV website

As part of its focus on girls who do gore, the Birds Eye View Film Festival programmed a selection of new horror shorts by female filmmakers. Screening at the ICA in London, the seven films revealed what happens when women take on a historically male-orientated genre. Namely, they take their revenge.

Nowhere was this more keenly felt than in Melanie Light’s Switch. Set against a lovingly shot snow-swamped English landscape, the film opened with a fairly familiar set-up: a lone female jogger running down a deserted country lane; an obvious victim-in-waiting. Spotting the lonely figure, a male driver slows down his car, calls his girlfriend to say he’ll be home late and hangs up (‘Bitch!’ he shouts). Putting on his leather gloves, he heads off to follow the girl but in a skewed reversal of roles, the poor murderer-in-waiting is given no time to enact his crime; the female jogger gets in first, launching a horribly vicious and bloody attack in the pure, white snow. The victim has switched and, in turn, the genre switches towards black comedy. Leaving him for dead, the jogger dusts herself off, unperturbed, to continue her run. The twist is cleverly handled, playing nicely with audience preconceptions of the male attacker and the female victim.

Male victims were common across the board. In Helen Komini Olsen’s Daddy’s Girl, an angelically blonde, ringlet-ed woman serves up her own dead father to a party of dinner guests. In Kate Shenton’s Bon Appetit, a woman sits down to eat a plate of male genitalia, making her partner squirm as he sits opposite her (granted, he is tucking into a Salome-style offering of his girlfriend’s head). In Sun Koh’s Dirty Bitch, a wild, pregnant, pigtailed girl ties up and attacks a male acquaintance after she finds his diary of sexual fantasies. In Laura Whyte’s stop-motion animation, Nursery Crimes, we may not see violence against male characters but we do get a strong female instigator of violence: a kick-ass and utterly satanic Little Bo Peep. These were all women on a mission.

And it is with American director Devi Sniveley’s I Spit on Eli Roth that we learn what might lie behind this female offensive. There’s the misogyny of the slasher genre but there’s also a certain chauvinistic culture in mainstream horror circles. The film follows an angry group of women seeking to protest against Eli Roth’s ‘chick vision’ feature on the DVD release of his film Cabin Fever by finding new and exciting ways to torture Roth. The action comes to a halt when the fairy godmother of horror, The Bride of Frankenstein, appears and makes the women understand that they are acting no better than Roth himself. Seeing the error of their ways (‘We’ve become our own worst nightmare’), the women instead offer an impassioned plea to horror fans: ‘This didn’t have to happen, y’ know – horror can be an intelligent, socially conscious genre. It’s made us laugh. It’s made us scream. It’s even made us piss our pants and vomit. It’s even made us think… Friends, don’t let friends denigrate the horror genre.’ While there’s a throwaway, DIY feel to the film, it’s an astute point about the problems that can plague some, but not all, horror films.

Singaporean filmmaker Sun Koh also uses her film to raise questions about cinema and filmmaking. Commissioned by the Rotterdam International Film Festival, the work was inspired by a heavily censored video copy of Claire Denis’s Nenette and Boni, which Koh rented from a library in Singapore. Feeling appalled that the censors had edited out teenage fantasies about dirty talk, Koh decided to embrace the topic. The result is a bonkers whirlwind of filthy talk set to music, ultra-violence and dancing baby dolls. The film concludes with the female lead meeting with a board of censors. As she sits opposite these imposing figures of authority, she slowly realises that they are no different from herself or anyone else; but by pretending to be above others, they have become hypocrites.

As might be surmised from these descriptions, the films chosen for the programme do not strictly adhere to conventional definitions of horror; in fact, they are quite circumspect in their approach to the genre. Most involved violence of some sort but chose to move away from being a straightforward horror film and, watching the films, it was actually easy to forget that this was a horror screening at all. Some involved a lot of gore without much build-up (the bloody meals of Bon Appetit, the vengeful attacks in Switch and Dirty Bitch); some detached themselves from the material enough to create black comedy (Switch, Daddy’s Girl and Nursery Crimes) and some acted as polemics on filmmaking (I Spit on Eli Roth and Dirty Bitch). Only one of the shorts was a direct horror film in the traditional sense: Prano Bailey-Bond and Jennifer Eiss’s Short Lease. While the other films offered food for thought, Short Lease seemed to be the only one to stick to its brief for its entire duration. Bailey-Bond and Eiss’s film was incredibly effective in creating tension with classic horror tools: a lonely, isolated setting; a big, deserted house; and a supernatural, inexplicable force haunting and tormenting its human victims. Following in the mysterious, gothic style of M.R. James, the film left a lot of questions unanswered and a strange, lingering feeling of discomfort in the viewer. But while the haunted staircases left a chill, it was heartening to see an example of intelligent horror, with a female victim but without the misogyny, directed by women filmmakers.

Listen to the podcast with Jennifer Eiss, Melanie Light and Kate Shenton, read Jennifer Eiss’s article, ‘Do Women Prefer Psychological Horror?’ and Eleanor McKeown’s ‘Warped Women: The Emergence of Female Horror Directors in the UK’.

Eleanor McKeown

Warped Women: The Emergence of Female Horror Directors in the UK

Darklight image

Pretty women meet un-pretty fates. It’s a uniting feature of many horror movies. The ice-cool glamour of Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane meets an ice-cold end on the bathroom floor. Shelley Duval’s Wendy narrowly escapes from Jack Nicholson’s axe and impending ‘REDRUM’. Marilyn Burns’s Sally finds herself on a never-ending flight from a Texan chainsaw. Acts of evil become heightened by an actress’s beauty; the more sublime their looks, the more sadistic the punishment. Whereas a male protagonist provides a glimmer of hope (he might physically overpower the threat or use his intellect to detect or deter the danger), the woman is often left scrambling: running through corridors; trying to slam shut or rattle open doors. She’s a passive victim caught up in the audience’s voyeuristic fantasies. Or, more immediately, those of her director. Take Hitchcock and his ice-cool blonde.

So, is this clichéd view why so few women direct horror films? It is historically a man’s genre when it comes to filmmakers; a fact that Warp Films recognised when they set up their Darklight initiative back in 2006. The leader of this development programme, Caroline Cooper-Charles, saw how women were being ‘excluded as audience members as well as filmmakers’ and came up with a very specific target for the scheme: to get more women making horror films in the UK. Chatting over the phone, Cooper-Charles recalls how picking female filmmakers proved quite a tricky task. The majority of women sending in submissions had never worked in horror; there was nothing on anyone’s showreel to make her jump. Instead, Cooper-Charles focused on reels with atmospheric, creepy shorts; films that made her ‘squirm or feel uncomfortable’. The chosen directors were then assisted in developing their ideas over a course of 12 months. As Cooper-Charles said, ‘there are so few female filmmakers working in the genre that even if two films came out of the scheme, it would have been quite a massive achievement’.

A couple of years on and there are several films in pre- and post-production: a ‘quite bloody’ exploration of motherhood entitled Little Miss Piggy; an ultra-low-budget teen horror, Freefall; and a project still in early development set in the male-dominated world of banking and business. The latter has strong thriller elements, and another director on the scheme decided to move away from horror altogether to make a thriller. Throughout our conversation, Cooper-Charles often mentions the ‘psychological’ aspect of the women’s work; perhaps an explanation as to why many of the projects boiled over into thriller territory. Even the ‘bloody’ Little Miss Piggy is described as ‘sophisticated with a gore element’. Despite the aims of the initiative, there’s a little reluctance to associate women with out-and-out horror.

The Birds Eye View Festival will be showing a programme of horror shorts directed by women filmmakers on Saturday 12 March at the ICA (London) as part of their ‘Bloody Women’ strand. Three of the filmmakers will be discussing their films with Electric Sheep editor Virginie Sélavy on Resonance FM 104.4 on Tuesday 8 March from 5 to 5:30pm.

After our call, Cooper-Charles writes to tell me that she is producing a film written by Lucy Moore, one of the writers who was part of Darklight, and puts me in touch with the film’s director, China Moo-Young. The following week, Moo-Young and I meet up for a coffee to discuss her film, ‘a monster movie set in Bristol’. When I ask her why she thinks there are so few women working in horror, Moo-Young suggests that it is partly a question of role models – ‘you’ve probably got two examples of women genre directors, Catherine Hardwicke and Kathryn Bigelow… you’ve got your Jane Campions but in terms of genre, they’re your big two’ – and partly a matter of timing. Most filmmakers are making their most important films in their thirties and forties, a time when women may be engaged with childrearing and so unable to undertake the heavy commitments needed to make a feature.

But these two points are asides in a conversation that aims to avoid too much talk of gender, no matter how hard I try to steer the discussion: ‘I kind of think it’s a moot point,’ Moo-Young says, ‘ I’d like to get to a point where it isn’t an issue’. She is not interested in taking part in schemes aimed exclusively at women directors and won’t be bestowed or lumbered with the female filmmaker tag: ‘Kathryn Bigelow’s strength is that you don’t know that she’s a woman… I wouldn’t be doing my job if you could tell which gender directed the film.’

Moo-Young also tells me that psychological horror is her favourite variety of the genre. She likes John Carpenter’s work because it is ‘restrained’; his films ‘use music and mood more than out-and-out violence’. Horror films she admires – The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now, Jaws – are full of ‘well-drawn characters that don’t fall apart for the sake of the third act’. Ultimately, she loves horror because ‘it taps into human insecurities and fears; it’s about the strange and forbidden side of life’.

Cooper-Charles and Moo-Young are both extremely keen to emphasise the more thoughtful, intelligent aspects of horror; this careful explanation of their interest in the genre can be seen as a reaction against the sexist tendencies of horror and, in particular, slasher films. Although reluctant to talk about herself in terms of gender, Moo-Young concedes: ‘I wouldn’t ever want to generalise about fellow film directors – male or female – in terms of taste, but if a woman is a filmmaker working in horror, she’s probably not going to be making slasher films because she’ll have a female skew on violence towards women.’

This emphasis on psychological horror could also be a defence against genre snobbery; films that follow certain conventions or codes can easily be dismissed as less intelligent than other, less categorisable films. It is refreshing to talk to Moo-Young, not only because she steadfastly refuses to discuss being a woman in a discussion on gender, but also because she is very passionate about the horror genre and genre films in general. ‘I can’t really talk about it,’ she whispers, ‘but there’s a master document called the “brainstorm of kills”, with lots of different ways people could be killed off’. She talks about ‘mapping fear’ and ‘hitting genre beats’ and, in addition to her horror film, she is developing two thrillers and a romantic comedy. She sees horror as providing an opportunity to subvert the normal rules of life. She talks about the closing of Let the Right One In providing a hugely satisfying ending for the audience but also an uneasy one: on the one hand, we want Eli and Oskar to be together; on the other, we anticipate Oskar’s dark future as he takes the place of her previous protector. In horror, often the good have to commit ordinarily immoral acts in order to survive, which disorientates and challenges the audience’s normal moral framework in interesting ways.

The importance of subversion makes the idea of female directors influencing the horror genre both a natural and exciting progression. Women can question the portrayal of female victims on screen and also, viewing the genre from an outside perspective, they can shake up a rule and convention-led art form. Those genre films that work most successfully and stand the test of time are generally those that offer something different from the tried-and-tested formula. It sounds as if Darklight has tried to champion work that fits this description. We’ll look forward to seeing the results.

Eleanor McKeown

London Short Film Festival 2011: Leftfield and Luscious

Until the River Runs Red

London Short Film Festival 2011

7-16 January 2011, various venues, London

LSFF website

With details of LSFF’s 2011 programme still under wraps, I ventured forth to an icy Soho street, buzzing with the Christmas rush, to collect a bundle of DVDs from festival programmer Philip Ilson. Home-burnt screeners whirring on my precariously balanced laptop may be a far cry from this month’s forthcoming screenings at the ICA but they provided a lovely taster of things to come: a preview of the festival’s most experimental new shorts selection, Leftfield and Luscious. Films are brought together for this programme under a fairly loose premise – namely that they lean towards a more abstract approach – and, as a result, it’s a varied assortment of discs. First to make it into my computer is the strange, poetic Sea Swallow’d, a collaboration between the filmmaker Andrew Kötting and artists Leslie Hill and Helen Paris, working under the name Curious. A work with clear surrealist influences, the film is at times madcap and lively; and at others, ominous and lilting. Divided into sporadic, episodic chapters, the film slowly builds to reveal its themes. The sea appears, disappears and reappears as a mysterious force. Guts figure in several forms: the camera trails the texture of a human stomach; a female voice declares her love in terms of digestive organs (she loves his insides, the darkness of his liver); and a fish is de-boned. Sea and guts represent the powerful, primeval aspects of life, ones which we do not often consider in our day-to-day humdrum. Sea Swallow’d is a beautifully made film and one that gently reveals some poetic lines and interesting questions about how far such primitive forces might influence human behaviour. The other stand-out example of filmmaking from the collection of discs was Paul Wright’s Until the River Runs Red. This film has some extraordinarily sumptuous cinematography – close-up shots of open meadow, wet skin and long tresses of hair, glimpses of sun and road snatched through a car boot. The film follows a girl who was kidnapped from a shopping centre and the couple who abducted her but, unfortunately, it felt as though the content itself had been underdeveloped; the subject matter was treated slightly melodramatically and the dialogue a little unoriginally. But director Paul Wright is clearly a very talented filmmaker; his step into features is an exciting prospect.

Wright’s film is nominated for the festival’s Best British Short Film Award, alongside two other shorts in the Leftfield & Luscious category. One of these, Murmuration, by Sophie Windsor Clive and Liberty Smith, perfectly encapsulates the other side to this programme; a lighter, more playful side, which popped up across the selection. The film tracks a river canoe trip paddling underneath a murmuration of starlings: an acrobatic display put on by thousands of synchronised, flocking birds. With camera work aimed at emphasising their DIY-approach and a soundtrack by Beirut, there is a vivacious, carefree appeal to the film. This lightness and playfulness also struck me in Dominique Bongers’s Gallop, a visual experiment with a nod to Eadweard Muybridge’s flying horse, and Ruth Lingford’s Little Deaths, an animated representation of interviewees discussing their experience of sex. The content and tone of the Luscious and Leftfield films might vary enormously but the films’ abstract leanings mean that there is common ground: a shared love for the visual side of filmmaking. It is encouraging to see such strong work in this category. If this treat of DVDs is a hint of what the festival is offering, it should be another interesting year for LSFF audiences.

Eleanor McKeown

The Spanish Weirdness of Segundo de Chomon

Ki Ri Ki Acrobats

48th New York Festival

24 September-10 October 2010

NYFF website

Segundo de Chomón’s Metempsychosis screens at Tate Modern in London on Friday 3 December as part of the 3rd Fashion in Film Festival

Fashion in Film on Tate Modern website

Segundo de Chomón belonged to a generation of nameless film directors; his films were cast with nameless stars. With film only just stumbling into the 20th century, cinema was still a credit-less art form. No title sequence, just an abrupt ‘Fin’. It was the studios that supplied a name and an identity. The iconic Pathé cockerel repeatedly pops up mid-action while de Chomón’s name is nowhere to be found. Yet de Chomón is not forgotten; by sifting and piecing together film history, his name has become attached to an impressive filmography of tableaux and film fragments, celebrated at this year’s New York Film Festival.

The programme of films – some broken and some complete – was held together by early cinema specialist and playful commentator Tom Gunning. Introducing the films in an entertaining and pleasingly unobtrusive manner, Gunning rejoiced in de Chomón’s ‘Spanish sense of total weirdness’, speculating that perhaps a young Buñuel or Dalí might have settled down to his Andalucian Superstition (1912) years before they started work on their Chien andalou (1929). There are many similarities between the works, although there is a difference in authorial temperament; Gunning painted de Chomón as less of the artistic, controversial auteur and more of a technician. He was working at the very beginning of film when technology was being mastered and explored. The key was not making a statement, but rather entertaining the audience and experimenting with ‘what the camera could do’.

His early films show a fairly straightforward approach. A historical reproduction of Spanish resistance to Napoleon was a static affair with muddled crowd scenes and, as Gunning amusingly pointed out, ‘dead bodies finding comfortable ways to die’. Next came a slapstick chase film, which saw a newly rich man advertising for a wife and then beating a hasty retreat from swarms of pushy females. Again the camera was positioned stock-still while the action rushed in and out of frame but the charming conceit obviously took off and many variations were made, most famously Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925). Gunning was quick to point out that in early cinema ‘ripping each other off was business’. Indeed, I also spotted similarities between de Chomón’s Electric Hotel (1908) and Keaton’s Electric House (1922), which both show electrical gadgets wreaking havoc on unsuspecting residents. Using a beautiful range of effects, de Chomón creates gizmos – from a mechanised letter-writer to an automatic undresser – to rival those of Keaton’s glorious silent comedy.

It was with such later films and in particular, Ah la barbe (1905), that the NYFF screening took a decided turn for the surreal. As Gunning said of the film, ‘there is no plot, just plain weirdness’. Seated in front of a full-length mirror, a man lathers up and begins to shave, but is repeatedly thwarted in his attempts as his reflection morphs into strange, animal-like visages. Increasingly bemused and frustrated, the actor turns to camera to pull puzzled, exasperated faces.

These expressive facial asides highlight the enchanting theatricality running through de Chomón’s work. Vaudeville theatre is key and a major contributor to the bizarreness of his visions. One of his films even takes place inside a miniature children’s theatre with wrestling and fencing puppets playing out the action. Magic tricks are ever-present. A magician oversees the action in Les cents trucs (1906), turning ballerinas into clowns and back again; in The King of the Dollars (1905), a hand deftly plays with gold coins, creating optical illusions before our eyes; and in The Unseizable Pickpocket (1908), a crafty thief turns into a slither of fabric in his attempt to evade the law. De Chomón was himself a magician with his camera work, using editing and stop-motion techniques that we would associate with 21st-century expertise. For his 1907 film, Ki Ri Ki Acrobats, de Chomón shot actors lying in various formations on a black sheet using an overhead camera. Through this trick in perspective, the acrobats appear to be performing gravity-defying gymnastics. The funniest routine involves a tiny acrobat straining and holding up his huge colleagues on a narrow plank of wood. The exotic troupe of ‘Japanese’ performers, the physical comedy and the optical illusions are pure vaudeville.

According to Gunning, in addition to this theatricality, the other key contributor to the weirdness of de Chomón was his Spanishness. The Andalucian Superstition takes its plot from a traditional Spanish folk tale; a woman seethes with jealousy on seeing her lover talking to a Romani woman and dreams that her lover is captured by gypsies. The dream sequence is worthy of Hitchcock’s 1945 Spellbound (giving further weight to the idea that Dalí, who worked on the film, did see de Chomón!), beginning with the camera pulling up to a close-up shot of the jealous woman’s face, all haunted eyes and furrowed brow. The following interlude with its gypsy cave of strange bottled creatures is a strange, fantastical marvel. Again de Chomón seems light years ahead of what one might expect; the use of psychology and odd surreal visions seems like it could belong to a much later period of film history. This enchanting use of folkloric material also shines through in The Red Spectre (1907). A nonsensical work that roughly plots the rivalry between a male and female magician (played by de Chomón’s wife), the repeated images of skeletons and fire seem like symbols from a traditional folk tale. Reading between the lines, the film reveals a pre-occupation with the manipulation of the female image. Tiny women appear trapped in glass bottles and an image of a woman appears on a box composed of moveable segments. They are images that linger in your mind, playing out in strange colourised tones.

Interestingly, de Chomón started out working as a colouriser and would end his career in a similar technical role, working as a cameraman for the Italian director Pastrone, and as one of the many technicians on Napoleon (1927). He may not be remembered like a Keaton, a Dalí or a Hitchcock, or even like his contemporary Méliès, but his work as a director is imaginative and extraordinary and deserves a credit at last.

Segundo de Chomón’s Metempsychosis screens at Tate Modern in London on Friday 3 December as part of the 3rd Fashion in Film Festival.

Eleanor McKeown

onedotzero 2010: Preview

onedotzero

10-14 November 2010, BFI Southbank, London

BFI onedotzero website

‘Utopian visions’ is the central theme for the 14th edition of London’s onedotzero festival, which aims to showcase progressive moving image work and digital art. According to director Shane R.J. Walter, this year’s programme will be ‘imbued with a sense of adventure, hope and creative positivity’, an oddly optimistic and politically phrased choice given Britain is currently steeling itself for an austere economic future. Perhaps the organisers believe the utopian visions will provide some inspiration (or at the least some light relief!).

Indeed, screening as part of the ‘extended play’ programme, artistic collective Knife Party’s animation film, Coalition of the Willing, aims to provide a new political and social ideal. A polemical narration calls for online communities to create a ‘global collaborative culture’, which can tackle climate change via a ‘swarm offensive’. According to Knife Party, it is up to the consumer to make changes. The revolution will be digitised. Possibly not as simple as that but there is a lot of revolutionary digital work at onedotzero. The ‘extended play’ programme champions ‘filmmakers who push boundaries of traditional storytelling with adventurous narrative structures and distinct visual styles’ and Coalition of the Willing uses narrative to push its political point home. The work is the result of 24 filmmakers working on different segments of the script to create a 15-minute film with techniques varying from computer animation to stop-motion models made from sweet potatoes and watermelons. The film was released in instalments on the web, promoting online debate during filmmaking: a perfect echo of the film’s sentiments.

Interactivity and discussion are certainly key components of onedotzero. The Johnny Cash Project, chosen to screen at ‘wavelength’ (a programme of radical attempts at the music video format), is the result of a similar collaborative and web-based approach. Online participants were each invited to draw a frame of the film, resulting in hundreds of stills, which, when strung together, form a hypnotic video for Johnny Cash’s song, ‘Ain’t No Grave’. In addition to finished collaborative works, the festival will provide an opportunity for festival-goers to get involved. There will be a week-long workshop to create multi-disciplinary projects around this year’s theme; participatory installations on-site at BFI Southbank, including one by artists Hellicar & Lewis and Todd Vanderlin, Feedback, which will allow users to project and edit images of their own bodies; and a special forum devoted to ‘data visualisation’, discussing how in our digital world, saturated with data, we can use visuals to explore, present and analyse information.

And in among these 2.0 offerings, there will also be some more straightforward screenings; three feature-length films will run alongside specially curated programmes of shorts, including strands on female animators, city films, moving image made from computer code, films featuring robots, new work from Japan and Britain, and character-led animation, curated by the Berlin-based festival Pictoplasma. It is a nicely diverse selection of topics and interesting fodder for BFI Southbank, a venue that tends to offer a more straightforward viewing experience. The weird and wonderful world of cutting-edge digital arts should make some intriguing and unusual ripples through the British Film Institute.

More information on the BFI onedotzero website.

Eleanor McKeown

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews