Venice International Film Festival 2013

The Wind Rises
The Wind Rises

Venice International Film Festival

28 Aug – 7 Sept 2013

Venice, Italy

Biennale di Venezia website

With the looming infringements of this year’s Toronto ahead and the snapping of the glitzy behemoth that is Cannes behind, the Venice International Festival of Cinematographic Art – the oldest international film festival in the world – is beginning to feels its age. Despite the roundness of the figure 70, the line up that was announced in August in Rome included few big names and no giants, and the sense at the festival was that the programme had been front loaded so that big-name journalists could leave halfway through and not miss much. That said, with the absence of big hitters, the field felt open and there was a general high level, including some surprises.

The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, 2013)
Festival favourite Hayao Miyazaki returned to the Lido with what is promised to be his last film, The Wind Rises, an epic biopic of the aeronautical designer Jiro Horikoshi (Hideaki Anno), who dreams of great things and goes on to design the Mitsibushi Zero fighter. In Japan the film is being viewed as a timely intervention in the debate regarding the rewriting of the post-war pacifist constitution; but film’s pacifist stance and adoration of the dream-like qualities of airplanes clang at times with the real rise of fascism and the bellicose uses that Jiro’s dreams are put to. The film follows the myopic hero’s own vision in failing to see or ignore the obvious historical context of his work, the invasion of Manchuria and the disastrous course of the war. In fact, the soft development of a love affair between Jiro and Naoko (Miori Takimoto) increasingly becomes the dramatic focus and emotional core of the film. This is such a sui generis movie for Miyazaki that many fans of the Japanese animator will be confused, but deep down the themes are the same: the dangers and delights of a beguiling imagination.

Watch the trailer for The Wind Rises:

Child of God (James Franco, 2013)
James Franco has alienated many with his interview techniques, the temerity of his ambition and his pretty-boy good luck, but his latest literary adaptation, from the 1973 Cormac McCarthy novel Child of God, is as much a snarling, feral beast as its protagonist Lester Ballard, played here with ferocious abandon by Scott Haze. Ballard is a disenfranchised woodsman who lurks in the mountains, gripping a rifle that seems a part of himself, while gripped by his own mental demons and a hidden yearning for company. Franco’s dedication to the original text can occasionally dip into Sixth Form literalism – to represent the different perspectives of the Faulkner novel As I Lay Dying, his version employs split screen throughout – and here lumps of text are quoted on screen; the plot of the book is followed closely, but the core of McCarthy’s concerns, the violence of male loneliness and madness of the heart and the head, are clearly depicted.

Watch the trailer for Child of God:

Sacro GRA (Gianfranco Rosi, 2013)
Picking up the Golden Lion, Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary Sacro GRA takes the Roman ring road – the GRA, the Grande Raccordo Anulare – as a fairly arbitrary rope with which to lasso a hodgepodge of eccentrics and colourful characters into an at-times funny and occasionally moving, but oddly unrevealing picture of a series of places. Rosi has gathered an eel fisherman, an ambulance worker, a monkish tree surgeon, a seedy nobleman, a father and daughter chatting in their emergency housing, and bar-top dancers preparing in the dingy back room of a grubby bar. The road passes close by them, but serves little purpose except a tenuous connection and perhaps a structuring absence. The road is the audience that passes by these lives but doesn’t stop to listen, perhaps. As with previous work – El Sicario, Room 164 and the American based Below Sea Level – Rosi maintains a neutral space of bland observation, but sometimes the neutrality feels like a pose. As with Le Quattro Volte, which feels like a rural companion piece to Rosi’s documentary, there is an awkward feel of an essayist presenting his supporting evidence too neatly on the page. The hair-in-the-gate spontaneity is missing and some of the effects realised are done so neatly that there is a suspicion Rosi is filming his characters with specific traits in mind: the laughable photo-novel and the horny-handed hero of toil.

Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang, 2013)
Having won the 1994 Golden Lion with Vive L’Amour, Tsai Ming-liang returned to the Lido with Stray Dogs, a ‘motion’ picture of glacial slowness, a portrait of life clawed by the sharp end of the Taiwanese free-market economy. Lee Kang-sheng is a human billboard, standing at a busy intersection to make some cash, battered by the wind and rain and the incessant thunder of the traffic. When not blowing his money on booze and cigarettes, he supports his son and daughter (played by the director’s nephew and niece), who have to fend for themselves during the day, eating free samples at supermarkets and killing time until they can retreat to the container squat where they sleep amid the flotsam. A kindly/disturbed supermarket worker (played by three actresses: Yang Kuei-mei, Chen Shiang-chyi and Lu Yi-ching) visits a ruined tower block to feed the ‘stray dogs’. She befriends the little girl and, when the drunken father tries to take the children away on his boat one stormy night, she rescues them.

The experience of watching the film is mixed. Initial curiosity and admiration for Ming-liang’s obvious skill at shot composition gives way to an awareness of boredom and discomfort as single shots of not-very-much-happening begin to push the ten-minute mark. The initial realism gives way to an absurdist, archly black humour. When we watch Kang-sheng holding up his sign for several minutes we can get an inkling of the boredom and unpleasantness of the job. Life is literally passing him by; he’s forced into paralysis by the harshness of an economic system which has no room for him. But later, as he stands staring at a wall with the woman who has taken in his family, I began to suspect Ming-liang was forcing his character into stasis as a way of preserving the austere beauty of his composition, and the wall staring was a meta-joke on us.

Watch the trailer for Stray Dogs:

Tom at the Farm (Xavier Dolan, 2013)
With four feature films to his credit and at the fresh age of 24, Xavier Dolan might be someone any budding young director would gladly see roughed up, and in Tom at the Farm Dolan gives us that opportunity. Based on the play by Michel Marc Bouchard, the young director casts himself as Tom, a dishwater-blonde city boy in an oversized leather jacket who drives into the rainy countryside to attend his lover’s funeral. However, once at the farm, Tom finds it difficult to escape the cloying needs of his lover’s mother Agathe (Lise Roy), who knows nothing of her son’s homosexuality, as well as the violent intimidation inflicted on Tom by elder son and psychopath, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal). With a streak of self-loathing-fuelled sado-masochism, Tom’s burgeoning relationship with Francis goes from being enemies to something resembling a weird love affair. There is a Lynchian apprehension of the weirdness of normality, with the rural rain-drenched setting, the endless fields, the barns and creaking rooms of the farm, and the neon-lit bars adding a sense of Alfred Hitchcock menace. Gabriel Yared’s richly orchestral score swoops and soars with the delirious decadence of a Bernard Herrmann composition circa the 1950s.

From his casting to the score to the occasional change in film ratio, Dolan’s film is a firm-handed piece of filmmaking. The comedy is unnervingly funny and the performances are all top class. Towards the last third the restrictions of the origin material begin to impinge, but on the whole the film will continue to elevate the status of a precocious and fascinating talent.

Watch a clip from Tom at the Farm:

Miss Violence (Alexandros Avranas, 2013)
Greece continues to challenge Austria as the world leader in miserablist exploitation with Alexandros Avranas’ Miss Violence, an icily efficient and technically accomplished portrait of a dysfunctional family, which ultimately has nothing new to say. Themis Panou – who picked up the Best Actor award – plays the quietly spoken head of a family that comes under official scrutiny when Angeliki (Chloe Bolota) leaps from the balcony to her death halfway through her 11th birthday party. Her mother and grandfather insist it was an accident, and the family try to resume their normal life, but just what that normality consists of is slowly revealed to be horrific abuse and exploitation. Treading closely in the footprints of Giorgos Lanthimos’ 2009 Cannes success Dogtooth, Avranas manipulates his audience with his slow reveals and black absurdist humour. The banality of evil has sadly become something of a cliché and Miss Violence, from its baffling title to its glib provocation and tonal incongruities, revelled too much in what it ostensibly sought to deplore.

Watch the trailer for Miss Violence:

Via Castellana Bandiera (Emma Dante, 2013)
Writer, director and actress Emma Dante based her feature-film debut, the Sicilian-based drama A Street in Palermo on her own partly autobiographical novel, and took one of the lead roles. Rosa (Dante) has returned to Palermo for a wedding with her lover Clara (Alba Rohrwacher). Driving on a narrow street they come face to face with Samira (Elena Cotta, who picked up the Best Actress award at the festival) and her family. Samira has a life touched by tragedy and has regressed into an almost catatonic state. Egged on by her ne’er-do-well son-in-law Saro (Renato Malfatti) she refuses to budge and the two women are locked into a battle of wills. The neighbourhood watch on with interest as bets are placed and plots are formed around the nucleus of epic female intransigence.

The strength of Dante’s film is its slippery evasion of the clichés that abound in Italian cinema and which the opening of the film seems ready to reinforce. However, there is an abiding sense of mischief here, as the women enjoy their battle – indulging in a literal pissing match at one point with Leone-esque close-ups of the twitching eyes – to the numb incomprehension of those around them. The abiding irony is that the women have much more in common with each other than they do with those who are supposed to be close to them. Dante’s background in the theatre can be seen in the in the ensemble acting and the occasional Brechtian flourishes, such as a chorus of women who briefly invade Rosa’s car to proffer advice.

Locke
Locke

Locke (Steven Knight, 2013)
Steven Knight’s second film in one year – the first was the Jason Statham thriller Hummingbird – is a brilliant minimalist piece of cinéma de chambre, in this case the chamber being the titular protagonist’s car. Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is driving alone from Birmingham to Croydon, away from his his wife and two teenage sons, from his work as a senior site supervisor on a huge building project, and from his life as he knows it so far. Armed only with the car phone and some tissues and cough medicine for his head cold, Locke attempts to repair the damage even as he is doing it. Boasting a wonderful performance of unshowy maturity by Hardy and driven by a superbly detailed script by Knight, Locke is a film that is never hampered by its own rigorously applied confines.

The emotional moments are hard won and brilliantly delivered. Although credit should also be given to the vocal presence of Ruth Wilson, Olivia Colman and Andrew Scott, Hardy carries the weight of the film with aplomb. To add to the difficulties of holding the screen on his own for the duration of the film, he also adopts a Welsh accent, which is entirely in keeping with the character, who makes poetry out of hard work and who desperately struggles to maintain his values and integrity even when they will effectively destroy him.

The Police Officer’s Wife (Philip Gröning, 2013)
Told in a series of 59 short chapters, Philip Gröning’s domestic-abuse jigsaw puzzle The Police Officer’s Wife is a gruelling, but disconcertingly and powerfully intimate close-up portrait of a nuclear family gone Chernobyl. Uwe (David Zimmerschied) is the police officer and Christine (Alexandra Finder), the eponymous wife, who live in a redbrick terrace house with their young daughter Clara. Their lives seem to be cut off from the outside world, but the elliptical style of storytelling means that very little is certain and nothing is explicitly laid out. Indeed, the narrative gaps that fall between the title cards ‘end of chapter x’ and ‘beginning of chapter x’ could represent the unknowability of interiority, and the motivations that lead to not only violent abuse, but the decision to submit to it. Gröning’s reputation was built on his documentary work, in particular 2005’s Into the Silence, and he is very good at achieving a neutral non-style for his camera and rendering the textures of confined domestic space. However, not giving the audience information is just as manipulative as spoonfeeding them. The inclusion of 118 chapter cards is an unnecessarily arch gesture at high-mindedness and feels, along with the accumulative power of the violence, to be punitive. The manner of the documenting of the violence drains its victim of any agency, in the same way Uwe does, and even makes her culpable in her own oppression. It is a film that will linger and irk and worry long after you’ve watched it, though the watching it is in itself a trial.

Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
Jonathan Glazer’s return to feature films after an almost decade-long absence, Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as a predatory alien who prowls Glaswegian streets in a white transit van, searching for young men who will not be missed. Mixing arthouse visuals of mesmerizing abstraction with naturalistic (and occasionally incomprehensible) street scenes and occasional lurches into Lynchian horror, the film escapes the gravitational pull of its genre and the dubious slightness – and potential misogyny – of its storyline. As with Johansson’s victims, we are beguiled by the look of the film, its self-confessedly empty eroticism and its otherworldly perspective on mundane British life. Whereas the criminally underrated Birth riffed on Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Under the Skin ditches the lightweight satire of the Michael Faber source novel to absorb the influence of Nic Roeg – The Woman Who Fell to Earth if you will – and create a disturbing trip into the other.

Watch the trailer for Under the Skin:

John Bleasdale

London Film Festival 2013 Preview – Part 2

only lovers left alive
Only Lovers Left Alive

BFI London Film Festival

9 – 20 October 2013

London, UK

LFF website

In the second part of our BFI London Film Festival previews, Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford and John Bleasdale pick out more highlights from this year’s festival line-up.

Check out Part 1 of our LFF previews here and look out for more coverage throughout the festival.

All Cheerleaders Die (Lucky McKee, Chris Sivertson, 2013)
Anyone who’s suffered through the likes of Head Cheerleader Dead Cheerleader, and Delta Delta Die! will know that the cheerleader-based horror film is a dubious prospect at best, but All Cheerleaders Die is spiky, nasty and massively enjoyable. The first third of Lucky McGee and Chris Sivertson’s film is a tense and unnerving affair, as, after a shattering opening sequence, we follow high-school-outsider Maddy while she infiltrates the cheerleading squad at Blackfoot High with some kind of dark agenda, sowing distrust and disharmony in an already spiteful, brittle environment of ‘bitches’ and ‘dogs’. The paranoia builds, and there are no especially sympathetic characters, only a sense that something dreadful is going to happen, which it duly does, as tempers flare during a party scene. After this the film changes, via some witchy business, into an arguably less interesting, but undeniably more fun, out-and-out black comedy horror ride. It’s as if Afterschool morphed into Jennifer’s Body, but a lot more entertaining than that sounds. It’s sharp stuff, with quotable dialogue and a game cast giving it their all. The sexual politics may be debatable, and assassinating airheads may be like shooting fish in a barrel, but sod it. This is great. MS

All Cheerleaders Die
All Cheerleaders Die

Blue Is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)
The winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival was the talk of the town from the moment of the first press screening until long after the award ceremony. Although most critics immediately fell in love with this oddly seductive, three-hour lesbian love saga, soon after taking home the main prize, the film was slammed by others for some oddly positioned camera angles focusing on the central character’s arse and the lengthy scenes of real-looking sex between her and her female lover, allegedly all designed for the male gaze. What’s more, Julie Maroh, author of the graphic novel the film was inspired by, has publicly expressed her disappointment about Kechiche’s adaptation, describing the sex scenes as ‘ridiculous’ and comparing them to porn. What’s true is that Kechiche has a tendency to keep the camera pointed and rolling just a little longer and deeper than most directors would have done when it comes to depicting Adèle’s lust for life, love and home-made spaghetti.

Blue Is the Warmest Colour will be released in UK Cinemas by Artificial Eye on 15 November 2013.

On the other hand, the sex aside, there simply aren’t many films that manage to keep you hooked for that sort of running time on not much more than the coming-of-age of a middle-class, high-school girl who instantly and desperately falls for a foxy art student, from the moment she spots her on the street until their painful and moving break-up as young adults. That of course is in no small part thanks to the two leads, Adèle Exarchopoulos (Carré blanc) and Léa Seydoux, who play their parts with utter conviction, guided by a script that allows them to find their own voices. PJ

Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)
The latest offering from Joel and Ethan Coen was one of the hottest tickets in Cannes this year, and deservedly so. Inside Llewyn Davis tells the heartfelt story of an itinerant, relentlessly failing and unashamedly self-pitying folk singer in 1960s New York, loosely based on the life of Dave Van Ronk, who was at the centre of the Greenwich Village music scene. Adored by many at the time, Van Ronk never had his big breakthrough, just as Davis (Oscar Isaac) struggles to keep his head above water with occasional gigs in a tiny club called Gaslight, and with the help of his peevish ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) who might, or might not be, expecting his child. But that’s only one of the many problems leading to his downfall, which culminates in a trip to Chicago to visit the legendary folk club The Gate of Horn.

Inside Llewyn Davis will be released in UK Cinemas by Studiocanal on 24 January 2014.

To a large extent, the Coens are working in known territory: a bunch of flawed, but strangely intriguing characters, dry-as-dusk dialogue and some wonderful music supervised by T-Bone Burnett, fused together into an impressively subtle, dark but magical character study that says as much about shattered dreams and the trouble with art as it does about the mystery of life and luck. What makes the film uniquely special, however, is Isaac’s riveting performance (both playing the guitar and acting), and who makes his precariously unlikable character unexpectedly compelling, as he wanders through the streets and other people’s lives, and shines whenever he’s on stage. PJ

Watch the trailer for Inside Llewyn Davis:

Locke (Steven Knight, 2013)
Steven Knight’s second film in one year – the first was the Jason Statham thriller Hummingbird – is a brilliant minimalist piece of cinéma de chambre, in this case the chamber being the titular protagonist’s car. Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is driving alone from Birmingham to Croydon, away from his his wife and two teenage sons, from his work as a senior site supervisor on a huge building project, and from his life as he knows it so far. Armed only with the car phone and some tissues and cough medicine for his head cold, Locke attempts to repair the damage even as he is doing it. Boasting a wonderful performance of unshowy maturity by Hardy and driven by a superbly detailed script by Knight, Locke is a film that is never hampered by its own rigorously applied confines.

The emotional moments are hard won and brilliantly delivered. Although credit should also be given to the vocal presence of Ruth Wilson, Olivia Colman and Andrew Scott, Hardy carries the weight of the film with aplomb. To add to the difficulties of holding the screen on his own for the duration of the film, he also adopts a Welsh accent, which is entirely in keeping with the character, who makes poetry out of hard work and who desperately struggles to maintain his values and integrity even when they will effectively destroy him. JB

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013)
After Jarmusch’s last film, The Limits of Control, it seemed that another great director was close to losing his genius, but there is a welcome sense of rebirth about Only Lovers Left Alive from the moment it opens. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston make for a brilliant pair of vampire lovers who have been truly, madly, deeply in love for centuries, yet are now living apart. Swinton’s resilient and enigmatic Eve resides in lush Tangiers while Hiddleston’s disheartened underground musician, Adam, is holed up in the outskirts of derelict Detroit. When their longing for each other becomes unbearable, Eve decides to take on the difficult journey (she can only travel at night) to reunite with Adam, but soon after the couple are back together, their gently hedonistic idyll of non-murderous blood and old vinyl is disrupted by the arrival of Eve’s unnerving, uncontrollable younger sister (Mia Wasikowska).

Only Lovers Left Alive is released in UK Cinemas by Soda Pictures on 21 February 2014.

Nothing much happens in Jarmusch’s sensuous fantasy of night and nostalgia, apart from the fact that the pair are running short of the sort of pure, uncontaminated blood that they now need to keep them going. But watching these two archetypal outcasts, still in full possession of their animal instincts, as they roam around trying to blend in with their surroundings, is an undemanding, irresistible pleasure. PJ

Watch the trailer for Only Lovers Left Alive:

Sacro GRA (Gianfranco Rosi, 2013)
Picking up the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival a few weeks ago, Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary Sacro GRA takes the Roman ring road – the GRA, the Grande Raccordo Anulare – as a fairly arbitrary rope with which to lasso a hodgepodge of eccentrics and colourful characters into an at-times funny and occasionally moving, but oddly unrevealing picture of a series of places. Rosi has gathered an eel fisherman, an ambulance worker, a monkish tree surgeon, a seedy nobleman, a father and daughter chatting in their emergency housing, and bar-top dancers preparing in the dingy back room of a grubby bar. The road passes close by them, but serves little purpose except a tenuous connection and perhaps a structuring absence. The road is the audience that passes by these lives but doesn’t stop to listen, perhaps. As with previous work – El Sicario, Room 164 and the American based Below Sea Level – Rosi maintains a neutral space of bland observation, but sometimes the neutrality feels like a pose. As with Le Quattro Volte, which feels like a rural companion piece to Rosi’s documentary, there is an awkward feel of an essayist presenting his supporting evidence too neatly on the page. The hair-in-the-gate spontaneity is missing and some of the effects realised are done so neatly that there is a suspicion Rosi is filming his characters with specific traits in mind: the laughable photo-novel and the horny-handed hero of toil. JB

Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford, John Bleasdale

Apocalypse Then

Apocalypse Now4
Apocalypse Now

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 9 January 2012

Distributor: Optimum Home Entertainment

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Writers: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Herr (narration)

Based on the novel Heart of Darkness by: Joseph Conrad

Cast: Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Laurence Fishburne, Sam Bottoms, Frederick Forrest, Albert Hall

USA 1979

153 mins

Apocalypse Now is a modernist novel made film in more ways than one. The opening montage is a palimpsest of a Dante-esque, napalm fuelled hell, with Martin Sheen’s blank Hindu stare inverted and staring back; all to the sound of The Doors basically announcing ‘in the end is my beginning’ to quote T. S. Eliot’s ‘East Coker’. It won’t be the last quotation.

From the mission-inciting Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) quoting Lincoln to Dennis Hopper’s veritable golden treasury of verse (Kipling and Eliot again), Francis Ford Coppola litters his film with literary associations like an anxious host leaving books scattered artfully around an apartment before a dinner party. In fact, the camera drifts over Kurtz’s bedside reading – From Ritual to Romance by Jessie Weston and The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer. Both books were vital to the writing of ‘The Wasteland’, almost as if Kurtz is Eliot and ‘The Wasteland’ the poem he is writing around himself, shoring up his fragments. He reads a stanza of Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’, tactfully neglecting the Conrad quotation at the front of the poem which reads ‘Mistuh Kurtz, he dead’. In searching him out, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) will basically read himself up the river, as he pours over the files and narrates with the jaded literary tone of Michael Herr’s tersely perfect Marlovian (though Chandler, more than Conrad) wit.

The film is based on the key modernist text of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Coppola reiterates in every audio commentary and documentary (see Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, 1991) that he took the book to the shoot instead of the script; that he read Brando the book from cover to cover as a way of getting him into the role; that he increasingly saw the book as his inspiration rather than the more straightforward war movie screenwriter John Milius had envisioned. (Ironically, Conrad also began writing basic adventure yarns, before making a move for something altogether more ambitious with this enigmatic novella.) Coppola was also aligning himself with Orson Welles, who had famously failed to adapt Conrad’s book for his debut film, the first of what was to become a string of tantalisingly failed projects. What’s more, his self-aggrandising myth valorises the confusion and chaos of the production as part of his process: every film Coppola makes somehow takes on the modus operandi of its subject and so Apocalypse Now becomes Heart of Darkness, becomes Vietnam.

Putting the rumbling of the gigantic production to one side, the film is actually a remarkably tight and accomplished piece of work – especially when compared to the flabby, dissipated and unnecessary Redux released in 2001. After the hallucinatory, drunken visions of the opening, the film takes a brisk cold shower, lays on some riveting exposition and gets on the boat – and of course the boat, called the Erebus (not Marlow’s more prosaic Nelly), like the Orca in Jaws and the Pequod in Moby Dick is a symbol/cross-section of male America. On board, we have the relaxed, spaced out and utterly untrustworthy Lance (Sam Bottoms), the jumpy New Orlean Chef (Frederick Forrest), the black youngster Clean (Laurence Fishburne) and Chief Philips (Albert Hall), the father figure and conscience. Sheen’s Willard, on the other hand, is basically ‘American involvement in Vietnam’ embodied. He’s the reason they’re all where they are: he’s the one who refuses to turn back and he remains ambivalent to the purpose of his mission, unsure of whether he will fulfil it or not but morbidly, cynically fascinated by the journey. In this, he resembles Kinski’s Aguirre on Xanax, viciously unconcerned about the damage he is causing, casually murdering a wounded unarmed woman merely to speed up his mission. His wistful unperturbed gaze at the horrors and the self-satisfied rightness of his narration – ‘charging someone with murder here is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500’ – makes him the cool appraising judgement that Brando’s Kurtz is so neurotically afraid of. Willard has found the total freedom that comes with obeying orders (especially orders that don’t officially exist) and he has come to murder the more agonised freedom of Kurtz’s, making it up as he goes along. ‘You disapprove of my methods?’ Kurtz asks when they meet. ‘I don’t see any method at all,’ Willard waspishly responds.

Despite ‘the horror, the horror’ of Kurtz’s mad excess, Apocalypse Now is an unrelentingly beautiful film. Following David Lean’s lead in the famous poppy field scene in Doctor Zhivago, Coppola realises that war can be both brutal and gorgeous. The Ride of the Valkyries is justifiably regarded as one of the best sequences American cinema has produced, but Chef’s search for mangos and Lance’s LSD inspired wandering with Willard in search of a commanding officer are just as dazzlingly filmed. When Lance disposes of the chief’s body, the corpse almost dissolves in the molten and golden light of the river. The darkness is aesthetically luxuriated in as Brando’s wonderful pate dips in and out of it like warm water. And Kurtz himself is a knowingly theatrical presence, whose set decoration is too avant-garde for the authorities, but who at least has the opportunity to script and direct his own leaving of the scene.

John Bleasdale

A Short Note on Vomit

Monty Python's The Meaning of Life

In Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), Donald Sutherland’s grieving architect John Baxter mutters ‘I haven’t thrown up for 20 years’. His being sick is not only a marker of his increasing lack of control – he has a drinking session waiting for his wife to emerge from a pair of clairvoyant sisters – it is also of a piece with the general queasiness of the film. The world is a dirty place, full of spilled food and rubbish. Everything tilts in Venice, a disorientating confusion of memory and vision, with the past, present and future bleeding into each other.

Vomit comes up every now and again. Usually it arrives in expected contexts: a shocking murder scene will see a weak-livered deputy losing his lunch while the hardened investigator pries with a pen. But of late regurgitation rates have gone up. In Saving Private Ryan (1998), the sight of soldiers vomiting from a combination of seasickness and fear over the sides of the landing boats was as shocking as the violence and gore to come. It made the war dirtier than we are used to it. The same year, The Thin Red Line similarly has a soldier dribbling bile and complaining to being ‘sick in his stomach’.

Vomit as a physiological reaction to fear, pregnancy or horrific disgust is one thing. In The Exorcist and The Fly vomit becomes a weapon; in the former as a sign of repellent disrespect and in the latter an acidic leg-melting mess. Peter Jackson – in his earlier incarnation as a master of cheap sicko horror movies – rivalled John Waters in his strategic use of puke. See the appropriately titled Bad Taste (1989), or Meet the Feebles (1989). However, nowadays vomit has become so profligately used that it almost feels like a box to be ticked. The very fact that ‘gross out’ has become a comedy subgenre in some ways has robbed vomit of its shocking, subversive effect. Paul Rudd can blow chunks in I Love You Man (2009) without any fear of alienating the audience. Hot Tub Time Machine (2011), Date Night (2010) and Bridesmaids (2011) all have comedy vomit scenes and the Jackass series features several sequences where vomit is induced and delivered. The reminder that we are bodies, and the humiliation and social embarrassment that can sometimes cause, comes as a cathartic release: if we all admit to it then there is less shame, less embarrassment. Whereas John Baxter is slightly wondering at his loss of control, vomiting for Steve Carell is something that he can literally take in his stride. Team America: World Police makes the point with brilliant aplomb. When having drowned his sorrows in a bar and reached his clichéd low point, the puppet hero vomits prodigiously in the street, he does so to rousing music. Hitting the lowest point is indicative of overcoming it, so following the reductio ad absurdum, the lower the depth, the more heroic the inevitable recovery.

The over-the-top grossness of the comedy risks becoming humdrum via repetition and lacks the savagery of what must be the vomit scene to beat all vomit scenes: Mr Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983). It’s not only the shock of the vomit, the meaning of projectile, or the explosive ending, it’s the context: the restaurant of refined diners, Eric Idle’s Noel Coward impresario and John Cleese’s officious maître d’, and most of all food. Creosote introduces the ‘Autumn Years’ section of the film and behind the hilarity and Gargantuan humour, there is also something genuinely and savagely disturbing. The film recognises this threat, with Creosote introduced to something like the Jaws theme. He is greed personified, an accelerated cycle of self-destructive overconsumption and waste disposal. His spewing is the death wish, hilarious and fucking disgusting.

John Bleasdale

Alps: Interview with Yorgos Lanthimos


Alps

Format: Cinema

Release date: 9 November 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Writers: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou

Original title: Alpis

Cast: Stavros Psyllakis, Aris Servetalis, Johnny Vekris

Greece 2011

93 mins

Yorgos Lanthimos first came to international attention with Dogtooth (Kynodontas), a comedy of obsidian darkness portraying the Chernobyl of nuclear families. Reality is twisted by the parents into a series of bizarre rituals and lurking menaces to keep the children – now adults – under their control. Reality is likewise pliable in his new film Alps (Alpis), co-written by his collaborator, Efthymis Filippou: a small group of misfits – the Alps of the title – offer their services to bereaved families. For a fee, they will replace the deceased and act out scenes with them as a way of alleviating their grief. As ever there is a sense of play but the stakes are perhaps even higher than they were in his previous film as the bending of reality leaks out of the tight claustrophobic family compound and into wider society.

John Bleasdale met Yorgos Lanthimos at the Venice Film Festival in August 2011 to talk about Alps and the elusiveness of reality, dysfunctional families and the Greek crisis.

John Bleasdale: In both Dogtooth and Alps reality is up for grabs, manipulated by your characters.

Yorgos Lanthimos: I don’t think there is reality anywhere. Films are fiction and I’d even consider documentary fiction. When you start filming something it becomes something different.

How did the project start?

We had the idea of people writing letters as if they were dead people writing to people they have left behind to keep contact. I liked the idea but it didn’t seem very cinematic so we came up with the story of someone offering the service of pretending to be someone else. This nurse (Aggeliki Papoulia, who also played the eldest daughter in Dogtooth) works in the hospital so it’s easy for her to find people who have just lost someone. We started writing scenes and dialogue. We also rehearse and improvise on set. When we’ve finished the scenes for the day, we shoot another scene that just comes to mind on the spot or we write something very fast and shoot it, and if it works, it might end up in the film. Also we might cut out some scenes that we’ve written and shot in the editing so it’s always evolving in rehearsals and in shooting.

The Alps take their name from the idea that the mountains are irreplaceable, so they are replacing the irreplaceable. Did you consider using the Himalayas as a title?

(Laughs) ‘Well, the whole thing isn’t very plausible, is it? The name makes sense but you can see holes in it. Just in the same way you can see the holes in what they are trying to achieve and so it was funny and made enough sense, but you ask one question and it’ll fall apart. You asked about improvisation. The scene of the naming of the group we shot for hours with the group asking the leader questions about why and how, and you could see that this could not hold for a long time and it was funny.

You began your career as a theatre director before making your first film. What did you gain from theatre?

What I gained from theatre is how to work with actors. I don’t have the same philosophy for making a film and working in the theatre. They’re two very different things, but theatre gave me time to work with actors.

Your camera is often claustrophobically close to the main character.

It’s really important to be focused on the most important thing in a scene. When you give time to the viewer and you stay with and follow one person it is more profound than when you show whatever is going on around them. It works for me. So, for instance, in this film I felt the need to tell the story through the nurse. So that’s why most of the time we focus on her and we see everyone else around her. If I focused on the other people, then it would become that story and we would have to deal with all of them equally, and it wouldn’t feel right.

How difficult was it to make the movie with the crisis in Greece?

It was extremely difficult even before the crisis. I’ve made all my films with an extremely low budget. My first film didn’t have any support. There is no private funding because there is a huge problem with the laws and there are no incentives for private investment. Films in Greece are funded by the Greek Film Centre, which is government money, and for many years it was extremely corrupt. Very specific directors got the money, no younger filmmakers. That means you do it on your own: you gather money from friends, you put in your own money, have lots of people working for free, ask for favours – that’s how it was for younger filmmakers and that’s how it still is. The crisis hasn’t changed much. I managed to make my second film, Kinetta (2005) with the support of the Greek Film Centre but that’s 250,000 euros, and you have to do it the same way and hope you can pay them back two years later. And then, because of the crisis things became even worse. So there weren’t even the contributions from the Greek Film Centre for Alps. We had to do it on our own with friends and many co-producers who put in 10,000-20,000 euros. People worked for free, we found what we could for free. Now, the Greek Film Centre is supporting the film, but after it is made and without the risk. It was already in Venice and Toronto.

You have symbols of authority and rebellion in both Dogtooth and Alps.

I try to do what is right by the specific story and hope people can link the things that they are watching with their own experiences and make their own conclusions. But I believe that if I tried to do that before putting the story together and thought this should be about this person’s rebellion as it connects to the sociological situation right now, the film would be a mess. It allows people to think this but not by imposing it as an allegory or something.

Your central characters tend to be women and the dominating characters tend to be men.

I do like women characters. I think they’re more complex and intelligent in general. I think there is a clichéd behaviour which tends to be male. I find it more natural to have a woman as a heroine against the stupidity of males, but next time I might do something different. I’m not obsessed.

Do you plan to make movies outside of Greece?

I have the possibility to go somewhere else and I’ll do that. It’s something I’d like to do anyway, not just because of the situation in Greece, but because I like different cultures, and places around the world have a lot to add to the films. I could make the films I make in different countries. It would change the films but that is not a bad thing. I try to incorporate into the film the whole of the energy, the feel of the place where it is happening. I try to accept it. I don’t try and make it more beautiful or shy away from it. I decided not to go against the difficulties we had. We couldn’t choose locations for houses and so we filmed in locations that a friend could give us for free. So whatever it is, I’m going to make it work and make it part of the film. With that in mind, I think it is very interesting to make films with different landscapes and languages. And, of course, with the situation in Greece and since I’ve already made three films in the hardest way possible I’d like to do something with a bit more support.

What about family situations? Families are destroyed in both Dogtooth and Alps.

But these people are very different. If you’re asking why they are troubled in this way, then the greater percentage of families are dysfunctional. It doesn’t have to be so extreme. We put them under these extreme conditions to test them. There would be no point for me to show a happy family being happy. I didn’t want to make an entertaining film – not just an entertaining film. I think the film is quite entertaining, but it’s not just that. And that’s why I choose to look at troubled families and troubled people. Not just families, but every aspect of the film is troubled: that’s what I’m interested in exploring.

Can I ask about the tone? Sometimes it seemed like you were testing how black the comedy could get before the comedy collapsed.

It’s natural for us to do it this way. Both I and my writing partner (Efthymis Filippou) have this sense of humour. And I don’t think we could ever approach it in just a dramatic and tragic way. You experience both feelings deeper if you have the contradiction in the film. Just being tragic is fake, and just being funny is entertaining but it doesn’t go anywhere. So if you succeed in making people laugh but feel awkward that’s deep. They laugh but when they revisit the film they might feel bad about themselves. People feel more engaged when there’s this more complex tone and way of watching the film. That’s also why the film is made this way: it demands that you are more engaged and you make up for what you don’t see.

Interview by John Bleasdale

The Master: Paul Thomas Anderson and Freedom

The Master

Format: Cinema

Release date: 2 November 2012

Venues: Odeon West End

Release date 16 November 2012

Venues: Nationwide

Distributor: Entertainment Film

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams

USA 2012

137 mins

There is a scene in The Master when Lancaster Dodd and Freddy Quell, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix respectively, go into the desert. Actually there are two scenes. In one scene they go into the desert alone. The desert is Lancaster’s setting, a nice counterpoint to the life aquatic of his introduction, and a further stage on which he can play the magus, the leader, the prophet. But he’s a prophet who doesn’t seek solitude, rather he brings his portable audience in Freddy. Instructing his disciple to dig, they unearth – buried like treasure – his new book. The bonkers make-believe bullshit that would make a grown man go off into the desert and bury a book so that he could later impress someone with the weirdness of digging it up is perfectly of a piece with his character and is almost endearing in its madness. But this is no hysterical, bug-eyed Elmer Gantry. Rather Dodd is a poised poseur, a showman who’s writing his own script as he goes along and who hasn’t quite got to the blissful comfort of being [convinced by his own flannel] is this right?. It has brought him prosperity and adulation, but not comfort. Lancaster is liable to lose his patience and delights in the possibilities of more violent and direct forms of crushing opposition. His occasional bursts of temper reveal the silly animal he claims Freddie to be; reveals something pent up that longs for a freedom beyond his success.

Lancaster’s link to Freddie is not altogether obvious and mystifies him as much as it does his entourage, who see Freddie as the loose cannon he so obviously is (quite literally given his past life as a sailor). In fact, Freddie is the lost cause that proves the antithesis of Dodd’s nascent cult, The Cause: an itinerant wanderer who longs to be elsewhere wherever he is. On their second trip to the desert, they are accompanied by Lancaster’s daughter and his son-in-law and they have a motorcycle. Lancaster directs the action: they are to pick a spot on the horizon and go as fast as they can towards it. Is this a game, or a lesson, or a healing therapeutic becoming? Lancaster goes first and then it’s Freddie’s turn. And he just takes off. He just rides and rides and leaves Lancaster shouting hopelessly after him.

Freedom for Lancaster is something to strive to touch, to visit, but his success and his followers, and his wife (quite literally) tug him back. Freddie is gifted with that freedom, and cursed by it. When he physically attacks one of his customers in the department store where he works (briefly) as a photographer, his motivation isn’t envy or pique. He does it simply because he wants to. Likewise, he follows Lancaster when he wants to, and takes off when he feels like it. Running through a field of lettuce in Salinas, he runs with a panting desperation of pure escape – there’s no strategy, no evasive manoeuvres. He runs as fast as he can.

Freedom and the lack of it are a recurrent theme throughout Paul Thomas Anderson’s work. Magnolia tells the stories of a bunch of Los Angelinos who are trapped by the various vagaries of a fate hell-bent on turning lives into sick barroom and/or mortuary jokes. In the prologue, a wheezy narrator (magician and Anderson stalwart Ricky Jay) recounts a series of stories, the overwhelming thesis of which seems to be that we live in a universe in which fate has a sick sense of humour. The suicide who is shot as he passes the window of his fighting parents by a gun held by his mother, which he loaded himself, is only an extreme example of what the whole film seems set on doing. Even jumping off a building won’t guarantee you the ending you had in mind. The suicide is caught in a net that would have saved him ‘had it not been for the hole in his stomach’.

Narrative isn’t what these people do, it is what is done to these people.

A dying film producer, Earl Partridge, played by Jason Robards, is painfully aware that even at this, what should be the most authentic moment of his life, he is becoming a cliché from one of his own productions. His nurse Phil (again Philip Seymour Hoffman) will argue with someone on a phone and finally convince them that the father-son sickbed reunion can take place by telling them ‘this is that scene in the movie’. But against the stifling traps of parental negligence, disappointed love, loneliness, childhood trauma, terminal illness and seen-it-all-before melodramatic cliché can be played the dynamism of the film itself with its musical interludes, fast editing, swift camerawork and exuberance. This is perhaps the most exhilarating film about alienation and lack of freedom ever made. When the amphibian storm arrives and frogs rain from the sky, the sense of wonder and comic awe feels like a reset button, allowing audiences and characters to achieve a resolution that otherwise would feel forced. With so many unlikely things happening, a happy ending for any these terrible situations doesn’t seem like such a reach. Improbability is a necessary condition for happiness.

The film that immediately preceded The Master and which elevated Anderson’s reputation beyond the initial Tarantinoesque wunderkind with an Altman fixation was itself an essay on a perverse striving for freedom. In There Will Be Blood, Daniel Plainview’s idea of freedom has within it the readily discernible image of his failure. His American individualism, his boldly stated misanthropy and his wish to get away from other people are contradicted by moments of tenderness with his adopted son, camaraderie with his colleagues and bouts of otherwise inexplicable anger. Plainview, like Lancaster Dodd, can’t quite fully buy into his own worldview. He wants to cast himself as God’s lonely man, but his vicious disappointment at not having a brother and not having a son belie this self-portrayal. His self-realisation can only come around through murderous self-destruction. ‘I’m done,’ he states at the conclusion of the film.

There Will Be Blood is a title that drives the film with the same obstinate inevitability as the main character digs at the earth for his fortune. Post 9/11, there was a canny little phrase heard a lot around town: ‘Freedom is not free’. It is a paradox the characters of Anderson’s films would savour.

John Bleasdale

Venice International Film Festival 2012

The Fifth Season

Venice International Film Festival

29 August – 8 September 2012

Venice, Italy

Biennale di Venezia website

The 69th Venice Film Festival opened with a slightly beleaguered air. The encroachments of international – Toronto overlaps with Venice – and domestic rivals seem to have taken their toll. The veteran organiser Marco Mueller had left with his address book and took over Rome, which is rumoured to be lining up an impressive roster of films for November. Meanwhile, the programme of 18 films in competition and a bunch in sidebars looked like a chance to see some festival regulars (Ulrich Seidl, Kim Ki-duk, Takeshi Kitano, Brillante Mendoza) and a couple of big Hollywood films (most notably The Master) only days before they were screening at Toronto. As a knock-on effect, there were practically no Northern American journalists on the Lido this year. And yet the festival turned out to have more than one surprise.

In an early scene from Terrence ‘The Machine’ Malick’s new offering To the Wonder, two lovers, Neil (Ben Afleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), on a visit to Mont Saint Michel almost get caught with the tide coming in. Light will be captured through the spray of a garden hose, there will be mist, and rain, snow and puddles, but it is this moment of time passing, an unstoppable and dangerous flux, which the film returns to again and again. And again. And Neil and Marina’s French passion fizzles in the suburban spaces and wide skies of Oklahoma. With a firmly established aesthetic – ‘magic hour’ photography, copious voice-over, elliptical narrative – last year’s Tree of Life divided audiences along the fully clothed and the obviously nude emperor line: one thing not in doubt was that even if you hated the film, there was ambition and great technical skill. When we hear the first word of the voice-over in To the Wonder– ‘newborn’ – the heart sinks. Here we go again. The voice-over tells us why Neil and Marina are in love and what happens in their relationship while we watch them acting out the narration. There’s no reason they’re in love or out of love except what we are told. A guess might be that Neil gets bored of Marina’s interminable dancing, her embracing of the sunlight, her dashing off through fields and not only her tree-hugging but at one point twig-licking. And the film dances along with her. The Steadicam swoops and the sequences are all cut like some intellectual Michael Bay, never allowing us to settle and actually engage in character, or watch the drama unfold. This is essentially a melodrama directed by someone who doesn’t understand melodrama: there’s nothing to latch onto. No characters, no conflict. And no blocking. Afleck and Kurylenko look lost. Javier Bardem turns up as a Catholic priest and gives us some tedious preaching about love and Jesus. His social conscience is signalled by the fact that he wanders around (also looking lost) in a poor neighbourhood. The moment is insultingly flippant. What made Malick’s previous films was the way they portrayed characters in the midst of an environment that had a vital relationship to them. Here however the GPS signal is weak.

Whereas Tree of Life was determined to involve all elements, To the Wonder is a watercolour, the only Malick film I’ve seen not to have some fire at its heart, both literal and metaphorical.

Also set on a precarious waterline is Brillante Mendoza’s Thy Womb (Sinapupunan, 2012). Set in the out-to-sea Philippine stilted villages of Tawi-Tawi, Mendoza’s film tells the story of an infertile midwife, Shaleha (Nora Aunor), and her husband Bangas An (Bembol Rocco). Following an almost fatal shooting incident, Shaleha decides to find her husband a second wife who will be able to bear him a child. Mendoza and his actors create real people with a subtle awareness of gesture and asensitivity to the complex emotions the two characters are living through. There could not be a starker contrast with Malick’s unconvincing meandering.

Also in competition, but sadly neglected when it came to awards, was Jessica Woodworth and Petter Brosens’s The Fifth Season. Closing a trilogy of films that included Khadak (2006) and Altiplano (2009), the latest work from Belgian husband and wife team is a piece of magical realism. Seen from within the limits of a small Belgian village, a calamity strikes nature, putting the seasons out of joint. Winter refuses to budge and the crops fail, soon starvation beckons. The slow disintegration of social ties and the descent towards irrationality and cruelty is seen through the wide staring eyes of Alice (Aurélia Poirier) and Thomas (Django Schrevens), two youngsters, whose love also suffers. The Fifth Season is a deliberate and moving piece of work, which is informed also by an absurdist sense of humour that bursts from outsider and beekeeper Pol (Sam Louwyck). Here there was danger and love and an environment broken. There was also humour and wit amid the horror that made this one of the most effective films of recent years to talk to our changing relationship to the environment.

John Bleasdale

Christopher Nolan is a Big Fat Liar

Memento

There are SPOILERS for all of Christopher Nolan’s films in this article.

If there is one theme that runs through the filmography of Christopher Nolan, it is the rogue trading in the economies of truth. Although his films inhabit different genres—neo-noir, detective films, Victorian melodrama and of course superhero blockbusters—there is a thematic consistency that mirrors in its narrowness the obsessional personalities of his protagonists. The protagonists are probably a good place to start. All of Nolan’s films feature isolated, lonely, often besieged, unstable and/or crisis-ridden male heroes, who usually are guilty of, or will be guilty of, the death of their wife/lover/object of desire. Lying for these men is sometimes a job, sometimes a strategy, but something that they do, that they all do. In Memento (2000), Guy Pearce plays Leonard Shelby, a man whose relationship to objective reality is compromised by his inability to retain his memory for more than 20 minutes. The audience is placed in a similar position via the contortions of the narrative, which proceeds backwards, forever wrong-footed and confused. The film consists of a chain of revelations; it is a kind of über-detective story in which almost everything is a discovery of a momentous nature. Of course, the biggest trick of the film is to reveal that Leonard’s condition might in fact be a lie, his whole past a fabrication to justify what would otherwise be an insupportably meaningless existence. He is making it up as he goes along. In effect (and this won’t be the last time in Nolan’s career that we will be able to say this), the film is about films: as the repeated image of a photograph developing and un-developing suggests, a film can be run backwards, even as a life can’t. Like a character from a Pirandello play, Leonard is partly creating his own narrative, has cast himself in a role, written his lines on his body and walks through the universe as if it was a film set, casting the people he meets in the roles that suit his myth. His ultimate decision to betray and kill a man is not because of the man’s sleazy shiftiness but rather because he is threatening to reveal the truth.

The lie begins as a coping mechanism but ends up being the character’s raison d’&#234tre. Narrative is a parcel of lies and as an audience we are implicated. Past story, motivation, these are all things we need as an audience, as much as Leonard needs them as a hero. Even though in Carrie-Ann Moss’s Natalie we have the not-to-be-trusted femme fatale, there is also the weird detail that if Sammy Jankis/Leonard really did kill his wife accidentally then the cover story of murder is not only an egregious lie, but also an unnecessarily embroidered one. Why does his wife have to be raped, and then killed? Why not just murdered? It’s almost as if Leonard has his whole psyche as a kind of MacGuffin. Memento is an empty-box film. Its central conceit, as with Inception (2010), is an empty box. It is an elaborate and beautiful box that we value for its contents, but which, like the Ark of the Covenant, is full of little more than dust and the possibility of destruction.

Whereas Memento reveals the intricate self-deception of narrative to be morally corrupt, Nolan’s next film Insomnia (2002) seeks to find a moral apologia for the Big Lie. Al Pacino’s ageing detective, Will Dormer, ties himself in knots trying to solve a murder while at the same time worrying himself sick over an IA investigation that is prying into an old case and looks set to unravel his reputation and career. When Dormer accidentally kills his partner and the man whose testimony could have brought him down, Dormer is wracked by guilt and self-doubt. Like Leonard, Dormer is in a state of mental crisis, but here due to his insomnia, exacerbated by the Alaskan summer. However, Insomnia is far more conventional as a film and gives a familiar moral argument for lying. We never believe for a second that Dormer intentionally killed his partner, so his self-doubt is evidence of his integrity. His confession that he planted evidence to ensure the conviction of a child killer who was otherwise going to be released is so skewed in his favour as to make him appear more heroic for having been dishonest. Dormer is a man who sacrifices his own personal morality for the larger good. This puts him in line with all those other guardians of justice, from Dirty Harry to Batman, who overstep the line and court infamy in order to protect society.

Batman Begins (2005) worries a little bit about lying, but not much. Its power fantasies are pitched against a conspiracy theory universe in which everything that happens in the world, from the Black Death to economic crises, is caused by the secret agency of the League of Shadows. Despite the concrete tactile realism of the film’s style, the film revels in its own adolescent myth-making. The Dark Knight (2008), however, sees Bruce Wayne hoping that his place can be taken by the new DA, Harvey Dent. Everyone in The Dark Knight lies. Copycat Batmans lie, pretending to be Batman; Bruce Wayne lies about not being Batman; the Joker lies about his scars and the location of Rachel; Rachel lies about loving Harvey; Alfred lies to Bruce about the letter; Gordon lies about being dead (to his own family) and finally Batman and Gordon conspire to lie about how Harvey Dent died and to nobly place the guilt on Batman’s shoulder. As James Zborowski (http://www.alternatetakes.co.uk/?2012,7,417) has recently noted in an article for Alternate Takes, the noble lie mirrors that ofThe Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), but whereas Ford’s film sees the lie as breaking the cycle of violence and founding a society, lies are so prevalent in The Dark Knight as to almost represent a pathological need. The explanation for the lie is given to a rousing musical crescendo and topped by the appearance of the title on the screen. Lying for Batman is not about protecting society, it is an act of becoming.

(By the way, the Joker does not represent a more honest anarchic spirit. He dishes out porkies left, right and centre. His self-representation as an anarchic free spirit is contradicted by his intricately plotted and sub-plotted schemes. If anything, the Joker is an intact Leonard Shelby, who no longer gives a damn.)

The two films that are most openly about deception are The Prestige (2006) and Inception. The titles of the films refer to the practices that make their protagonists a living through lying: the magicians of the former have the Prestige as the ultimate revelation and an inception is the dream lie Cobb and his team insert in their victims. The cost the two magicians are willing to pay in order to outdo each other gradually escalates as a form of Russian roulette that takes aim at loved ones as well as one’s self. In both films, the protagonists increasingly become lost in their own narratives until by the end of each, it is unclear to the audience exactly what it is they have witnessed. We are in the empty box, the centre-less maze Nolan uses as the logo for his production company Syncopy. With The Prestige, we do finally see inside the empty box to understand how the trick is done, but in so doing the emptiness of the protagonists themselves is horrifically revealed.

Inception is all about the construction of a series of Chinese box-dream states for the sole purpose of implanting a lie. The lie has to be emotionally positive, we are told in the meeting of the dream engineers who brainstorm like studio executives ruminating over a tired superhero franchise. Nolan has the last laugh on us, because by the time we witness Cillian Murphy’s resolution with his father we might well have forgotten that the whole thing is a lie and the man is being brutally manipulated in order to benefit a business rival. Of course, the dreams are not dreams—they look even less like dreams than Salvador Dalí’s dreams—they are movies. Like Leonard, Batman, and the magicians of The Prestige, Cobb and his team make lies that they then get lost in – happily lost in. The fake ending is an interesting point, not because of its ambiguity but precisely because of its absolute lack of ambiguity. The spinning of the top is a sleight of hand (the totem is revealed in the movie to be useless in its carefully explained function as a totem as it is touched by various characters and anyway isn’t Cobb’s). We know Cobb can’t get back to his flashback children, unless we accept his fictional status. He certainly won’t get back to his real children. We know the top won’t stop spinning because there is no time outside the running time. There is no truth outside of the fiction.

John Bleasdale

Tetsuo: Metal Machine Music

Tetsuo: Iron Man

Title: Tetsuo: Iron Man

Format: Cinema

Screening date: 4 July 2012

Venue: Hackney Picture House, London

Director: Shin’ya Tsukamoto

Writer: Shin’ya Tsukamoto

Cast: Tomorowo Taguchi, Kei Fujiwara, Shin’ya Tsukamoto

Japan 1989

67 mins

Title: Tetsuo II: Body Hammer

Format: Cinema

Screening date: 4 July 2012

Venue: Hackney Picture House, London

Director: Shin’ya Tsukamoto

Writer: Shin’ya Tsukamoto

Cast: Tomorowo Taguchi, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Nobu Kanaoka

Japan 1992

83 mins

A man in a scrap yard cuts a gash in his leg and then shoves in a metal rod. Later he finds maggots in the wound, runs down the street screaming and is hit by a car. And we’re off.

Released in 1989, actor/director Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo is an utterly inspired and darkly hilarious black and white romp. According to Wikipedia, there is a story but it is only sketchily revealed as the film progresses, and even if you’re glad of a synopsis, you’ll be perhaps healthily distrustful. Stuff happens certainly, but the whys and the wherefores are almost beside the point. The point is the energy with which the film is shot through and the inventiveness and downright oddness of Tsukamoto’s vision.

The man with the rod in his leg (played by Tsukamoto himself) pursues the couple who were driving the car and exacts revenge upon them by turning the bespectacled man (Tomorowo Taguchi) gradually into metal. It starts with his electric razor hitting something in his cheek which tings, then there’s a demure-looking woman at the railway station who turns into a metal-infected demon. From the very beginning, we are in a universe of extreme physical craziness. Parts of the film feel like elaborate dance numbers, a danse macabre of metal, flesh, wires, sexual organs, memories, television screens, guilt, rust and blood that sprays as black as oil. The acting is exuberantly physical and pitched operatically high, wavering between terror, agony, wheezing anxiety and all-out panic. The dialogue all the while blankly denies this. As Taguchi undergoes a metallic rupturing in the next room, he reassures his wife: ‘Nothing’s the matter.’ There is a dream sequence in which the bespectacled Taguchi is anally raped by his wife with a snake like probe. But to say ‘there is a dream sequence’ is to misleadingly suggest that there can be such a distinction between dream and reality. In Tetsuo, reality is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake.

Often compared to David Lynch’s Eraserhead and the early work of David Cronenberg, Tetsuo is actually in a league of its own. In comparison, Lynch’s film is a stately, brooding work of quiet desperation, and Cronenberg, although thematically radical, is stylistically conservative, often filming with TV movie reserve. Tsukamoto directs like one of his possessed characters. Everything is thrown at the screen from stop-motion animation to camera trickery: the camera races down streets and through alleys and the percussive soundtrack hammers along with growing intensity. Although the comment that a film resembles a music video is often meant dismissively, here the comparison is perfectly apt.

The pace of the film ends up having a logic of its own as it rushes headlong towards a collision between the now almost totally transformed victim and the demonic joyous fetishist. This is what the narrative really is: a process of initially vicious but energetic mutation. There is sex and there is the idea that we are perhaps just machines anyway. The drill penis seems like a literal realisation of our own violent idiom, talk of screwing, nailing, banging, etc., which reduces (or promotes) sex to a kind of carpentry. We are machines that use machines. From the car to the electric razor, we are already intimate with machinery and metal. The naked lunch of forks scraping against teeth reveals our daily internalising of metal. When the main character is remembering something (usually having sex with his wife), we see it through the stroboscopic screen of a portable television set.

And yet, the horror is, in this metaphoric resemblance, becoming identical to a machine. While we see ourselves becoming increasingly reliant on technology and ever more intimate with it (a blue tooth you stick in your ear, a touch pad), Tsukamoto’s maniacal insistence takes the relationship between man and machine to a literal, if bonkers, conclusion. The Godzilla-like monster that threatens to destroy Tokyo and the world at the end is merrily apocalyptic. The film ends with the cheeky letters stamping out ‘GAME OVER’.

A far more conventional film than its predecessor, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer was made in 1992 with a significantly bigger budget and yet is still mad enough for many. This time round, Tomorowo Taguchi plays Taniguchi Tomoo, a sort of Japanese Mr Bean, similar to the role he played in the first film, but now with a wife, Minori (Keinosuke Tomioka) and child. Shin’ya Tsukamoto once more plays the catalyst for the story, Yatsu, the leader of a violent skinhead cyborg army who kidnap Tomoo’s child and by enraging him cause him to start changing into a terrifying metal weapon. Whereas Tsukamoto’s first film was a low-budget anarchic helter-skelter of accelerated mutation, Testuo II is sporadically and superficially punk. The Iron Man disdained to have a story, but Body Hammer has a familiar-to-the-point-of-bog-standard thriller plot of the weak-willed family man being pushed to the edge by ruthless violence. If they do an English language remake, Liam Neeson can play Tomoo.

Of course, this being Tsukamoto, the plot pushes itself over into parodic lunacy. Tomoo has a Rocky-like training montage in which his feeble attempts become metallically assisted. There are stock figures: a mad scientist who wears a white coat and talks about his brilliant brains, just before said brains get visibly blown out, and villains who grin, jibber and sneer. There is a car chase, during which Tomoo pursues the villains on a push bike, mutating as he goes until he is able to ram the car with his bike. It is witty and absurd, but the wit and the absurdity seem to be at the service of a plot rather than being the point itself. The villains dress like punks – one of them obviously gave Laurence Fishburne costume tips for the Matrix sequels – but the film’s radical vision seems to have become watered down, or exhausted itself.

Perhaps this was inevitable. Iron Man was really like watching a ménage á trois between metal, rust and sex. This wasn’t a story about mutation but mutation as story. World destruction arrived at the end, almost as an afterthought, something glibly funny to do with all this power. The cause of the mutation wasn’t explicitly given – the man didn’t get bitten by a radioactive spider or anything like that – and as brilliant as Wikipedia is, the plot is a reading into the film rather than a description of what we actually see. The first film has no characters as such. There is Man and Woman and Metal Fetishist. The limit of all this was that the film didn’t have much to say. It was a disturbing nightmare that left you confused – was supposed to leave you confused.

In Body Hammer, the family has arrived, and with the family comes narrative proper. The beginning, middle and end of narrative are the child, the parents and the holy ghost. A poisonous family romance (we will eventually learn) is behind the whole fracas, a wicked father, fraternal estrangement and oedipal passions. It is Tomoo’s old family that has effectively destroyed his new one. Body Hammer has explanations, exposition for crying out loud, and as such feels like the smaller film, despite having a more ambitious agenda. The concluding apocalyptic fusion is effectively a repetition of the ending of the first film and feels like an admission that it has nowhere to go.

The East End Film Festival opens on 3 July and runs until 8 July 2012. The Tetsuo double bill screens on 4 July at Hackney Picturehouse. For more information please visit the East End Film Festival website.

John Bleasdale

Watch the trailer:

Tetsuo: The Iron Man from East End Film Festival on Vimeo.

Cannes 2012 – Part 1: Italian realities, American dreams

Cosmopolis

65th Cannes Film Festival

16-27 May 2011, Cannes, France

Cannes Festival website

Welcome to a strange society: a world rigidly segregated where the population identifies themselves via a visible colour code: yellow, blue, white and red. Some have whispered that it is possible after the correct genuflections to the appropriate authorities to move from yellow to blue but the whispers are met with frank disbelief and no one would ever claim to move from yellow to red, and certainly not white. At the top of the hierarchy, the elite require no such colour coding; they are kept apart, protected, ushered from one place to the next, gawped at, worshipped, glimpsed, but occasionally exposed to the foulest abuse.

Welcome to Cannes: a miniature ten-day world, with its own police force, rules, protocol and gods. It is an alternate reality and through its various portals, the theatres Lumière and Debussy, Buñuel and Bazin, as well as the zombie, kung fu and soft porn infested market underworld, we go to our other realities.

Matteo Garrone’s Reality is an apt starting point. Badly misrepresented as a comedy, or worst still a satire, Garrone’s film is actually a Neapolitan slice-of-life drama, a mash of Visconti’s neo-realistic social concern wedded to a Fellini-esque portrait of an Italy of cheerful artifice and familiar and familial performance. Luciano (Aniello Arena) is a man on the make, who between illegal scams and his fishmonger’s stall has provided his family with some measure of security. However, when he reluctantly agrees to audition for Big Brother the lure of easy celebrity proves gradually corrosive, not only to everything he holds dear but his own sanity. The tackiness of reality television is only passingly attacked, taken as a given as in the vacuity of Enzo, a former house mate and local celebrity, with his luridly insincere English catchphrases. Garrone’s project is actually more subtle and ambitious than that. His target is a society that has been prepared by centuries of sanctified credulousness and the hypocrisy of the ‘bella figura’ (the cool Italian version of ‘keeping up appearances’), and consequently made ripe for amoral exploitation by Endemol and its ilk.

If Garrone’s film is ultimately a pessimistic portrayal of how an individual can be crushed by an oppressively realised alternate reality, Behn Zeitlin’s ecstatic debut Beasts of the Southern Wild is a paean to irresponsible freedom and youth; a childhood of slinging fireworks about and setting things on fire; an adventure that should end in tears, except for a brisk optimism and a tough-minded resolution not to shed a single one, goddammit. Hushpuppy lives with her daddy, in the Bathtub – a cross between skid row and a hippy commune located below the flood line in Louisiana. Physically, socially and geographically marginalised, the inhabitants of the Bathtub are heroic in their insistence on their freedom and way of life. This is the authentic Huckleberry Finn version of American freedom that would see the wheezy, flatulent Tea Party poseurs run a mile if they ever caught sight of it. The world is falling to pieces though, and ancient beasts are awakening. A storm is coming and, with her daddy ailing, Hushpuppy must prove herself.

Another version of American freedom came with the big Hollywood entries into the Official Competition. On the Road was a worthy, well-made, beautifully crafted, handsome yawn. It takes Jack Kerouac’s source novel unjustifiably seriously, its whole point being the writing of On the Road, which gives the whole project an overbearing air of self-congratulation while neglecting the question: if that was the point of the film, what was the point of the book? Was it so Walter Salles could make this film? Everyone is too handsome or pretty; the intellectuals wear glasses, funerals are held in the rain, books are placed with their covers in view as if the film is trying to impress us on a first date with the fact it reads Proust. Ultimately, Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) just becomes John Boy Walton, intoning chunks of his own novel as an older and wiser man over a lovingly produced Merchant Ivory reconstruction of an imaginary era.

The anti-road movie was given by David Cronenberg’s gridlocked Cosmopolis. Robert Pattinson plays Eric Packer, a billionaire financial trader who sets out on a journey by limousine across New York’s traffic-strangled streets in order to get himself a haircut. Of course, this is not a journey so much as an odyssey into the dark heart of the American dream. Taken from possibly Don DeLillo’s worst novel, the politics seem outdated rather than topical. The protest movement comes from central casting; the gobs of social commentary is smugly convoluted and blankly intoned and the secret admiration for Packer, who resembles nothing more than Patrick Bateman’s weedier brother, feels (like much of the film) to have more to do with the 80s than the present crisis.

Cosmopolis is released in UK cinemas on 15 June 2012 by Entertainment One

A much tighter criticism of the USA as a capitalist sink hole came with Andrew Dominik’s self-consciously un-epic genre piece Killing Them Softly. The crime drama tells a well-rehearsed tale of the knocking over of a mob-run card game and the consequences that follow. The story is familiar. In fact, Cogan (Brad Pitt), the enforcer called in by the mob, is so familiar with it that he gives us a pretty accurate précis of what’s going to happen before it even gets going. The interest is in the brilliantly played ensemble who create an underworld reality of criminals and their own rules. There might be changes, crises, murder even, but in opposition to Cronenberg’s infantile lusting for the apocalypse, Dominik is as clear-eyed as Cogan in seeing all this as no more than business as usual.

Other self-sustaining realities came in the shape of the Romanian religious community that featured in Christian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills and the dilemmas of Byelorussian partisans in the fascinating In the Fog, directed by Sergei Loznitsa. Both films indulge in long takes, a creeping pace and an acting style that could be kindly described as naturalistic or could perhaps more accurately be called monotonous, but whereas Loznitsa’s film gains a hypnotic power from these choices, Mungiu’s manages only to replicate the stultifying oppressiveness of the community he portrays.

Stylistically similar, but to far stronger effect, was the winner of Un Certain Regard, After Lucia, directed by Michel Franco. Set in Mexico, the film tells the story of Alejandra (Tessa la Gonzales), a 15- year-old girl who has moved to a new town with her father following the death of her mother in a car accident. At first things go well: she is welcomed to the school and makes friends with a bunch of rich kids, but following a drunken tryst she finds herself the target of her class for all sorts of abuse. The film is an unrelenting and often harrowing depiction of the psychopathology of bullying. The cruelty of adolescents has rarely been so effectively captured. The reality of the school and her peers is entirely separate from the glibly indifferent school authorities and her affectionate father, who is overwhelmed by his grief. Alejandra’s isolation is complete and as her ordeal worsens, the film becomes necessarily difficult to watch, but there is nothing here that we won’t recognise as a more extreme version of something we ourselves experienced or committed not that long ago.

The worst film of the festival was the arrogantly stupid Confessions of a Child of the Century. Directed by the previously talented Sylvie Verheyde, this period drama with no feel for its period is destroyed from within by a central performance by Peter Doherty as Octave, the libertine who falls in love and then becomes obsessively jealous and so on. Doherty is so bad you’d feel sorry for him if he wasn’t Peter Doherty: not only can’t he deliver the lines with any sense of conviction, he can’t even wear a hat convincingly. The routinely awful Charlotte Gainsbourg as Brigitte, the object of his affections, actually seems quite good by comparison. And what is it about period films that they are now so fascinated with the weather?
Incidentally, the weather at Cannes this year was the worst in 15 years.

John Bleasdale

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews