Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first film in 23 years is a strictly personal affair, an attempt to reconstruct his life from childhood to the present. For most of its 130 minutes, The Dance of Reality (La danza de la realidad) feels like a potpourri of adventures both magical and tragic. There is no point in trying to compare it to the vicious energy and boldness that his earlier midnight movie masterpieces (El Topo, Santa Sangre) generated, as clearly it would do this beautifully constructed and aptly surreal biopic injustice. Besides, the more revealing film about the Chilean director might be Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune, an entertaining glimpse into the truth behind Jodorowsky’s famously aborted plans to bring Herbert’s epic fantasy novel to the screen. But where Pavich’s documentary is eye-popping and hilarious, Jodorowsky’s own account of his past quests and journeys is poetic, haunting and mystical, flashing with insight and lingering in the mind long after the tale is told.
Pamela Jahn met with Alejandro Jodorowsky at the Cannes film festival in May 2013 and told her about the healing power of filmmaking, the joy of creating and the magic of reality.
Pamela Jahn: It’s wonderful to see a new film by you after so many years. Why did it take you so long to make another film?
Alejandro Jodorowsky: In the beginning cinema was an art, a really great art, but then the stars came, and with it the money. When the stars came, that was the illness of the industry. And today, cinema is in the hands of producers, it’s all about money. I wanted to make art and every time I tried to do something, people said no, because there was no money in it for them. So I waited and thought, ‘One day I will do it’. And it’s not that I didn’t get asked to make films. People suggested I should make a political film about South America or an erotic film, but I said, ‘No, I want to do what I want to do’. So I waited – 23 years. And I suffered. Because making films is the most beautiful art in the world. I have hundreds of films in my library and every night I would wake up around 3am and watch a film. Every single day I was suffering, but I kept saying to myself, ‘One day I will do it again’.
Why did you decide to make this film at this particular moment in your life?
I am an artist. I don’t know why I do these things, because they come to me. I needed to do that film, because I wanted to heal myself, my soul, my family. And I wanted to show the audience a way to heal their memories, their past, because I feel it is necessary to do that.
Do you see cinema in general as a healing art?
Yes, I don’t believe too much in commercial cinema. These films are not really useful for the human being, because they are only entertainment. You go to the cinema, you see the film but then you instantly forget what you have seen. For me, making a film is like changing a part of my life, like having children, and to do something that opens up the perspectives of life. That’s what I am trying to do. But the problem is that for the industry, making film only means making money. So first of all, I make films that are not expensive, because if the film is too expensive I am forced to become a prisoner of the industry. Instead, I make a film with less money, but more creative intention. For this particular film though, I really needed producers who didn’t want to make money. There is a saying that if God gives you sugar, open your mouth. So if the film makes money, that’s fantastic, and I’d be very happy. But if it doesn’t, I am happy too, because I want to do whatever I want. And what I wanted to do here is to go to my little town, where I was born, and where the other children used to laugh at me, and kick me, and hate me, because I was different. I was white with this big nose, the son of Russian-Jewish parents, and nobody wanted to play with me because of that. And that made me very sad, because I loved this town. Then, 70 years later, when I came back to this place, it hadn’t changed at all. It’s like a dead town. Apart from maybe one new building nothing had changed. When I was a child, I used to have my hair cut by a Japanese guy, and when I came back, I went to get my hair cut, which turned into quite a dramatic experience for me. Because it was still the same place and the guy who cut my hair now was the son of the man who used to cut my hair when I was little – that’s in my film. In fact, I changed my town, I cleaned things up, I got the houses painted and I made the people appear in my film. I changed it, like a hero who brings the elixir to the sick, I sort of healed my place, and I needed to do that.
Watch the trailer for The Dance of Reality:
Your last film before The Dance of Reality was Rainbow Thief with Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif. Was the experience of making that film part of the reason why you didn’t want to compromise again?
Oh, I hated Peter O’Toole. And I still do today. I hate him, I hate him, I hate him.
What was so bad about him?
He was terrible to work with. He wanted to do what he wanted. At one point I asked everyone to leave the set and I took a stick, because he’s like a dog, you need to hit him in order to get him to do what you want.
Do you think your life and work as a filmmaker could have turned out quite differently if Fando y Lis hadn’t caused such a stir when it was first shown?
I made Fando y Lis in 1968. Today, even young people understand that film, but when I first made it, it was a scandal in Mexico. They wanted to lynch me, I had to hide because [Emilio] ‘El Indio’ Fernández said, ‘I will kill that guy’. And I knew he wasn’t joking because he had killed someone before. It was a terrible time. And then we managed to sell the film to the United States. At that point, I idealised America and I thought of it as some sort of triumph at last. But then the distributor who bought the film cut out everything that was somehow surrealist and creative, and they tried to make a romantic film out of it. It was shit. I wanted to explain to them that this was not my film anymore, but no one would listen. No journalist wanted to do an interview so that I could explain it to the American audience. And so of course the film was a failure. After that, I decided to make a cowboy film. But I didn’t want to make a ‘Western’, so I made an ‘Eastern’. I made El Topo, and people came to see it.
Why do you think El Topo became such a cult film?
I don’t know, really, because the whole of Mexico was laughing at me when I made it. People said I was crazy. Even the actors sometimes didn’t believe in it when we were making the film, which is also partly why I acted myself, because no one wanted to play that role. And all of a sudden I receive an invitation to the Concert for Bangladesh in New York. I was very poor at that time and the ticket was first class and all paid for, so I thought, why not, and I went there. At the airport, they picked me up in a limousine to bring me first to the hotel and then to a big concert with thousands of people. But I didn’t know why I was there until my producer Allen Klein said, ‘Don’t you know you are a star? The Beatles want to meet you, everyone wants to meet you’. And when we went to the concert, they were all there, Ringo Starr, John Lennon. The next day, they showed my film at midnight. It was my first time in America and when I came to the theatre, there was a cloud of marijuana smoke, it was unbelievable. I went on stage to introduce my picture to the public and all of a sudden I was the star of the underground. In a way, it was the birth of what they now call ‘midnight movies’.
How did you come to make Santa Sangre with Claudio Argento as producer?
After The Holy Mountain, nobody wanted to make a film with me. Allen Klein, the producer, didn’t like the film at all and so he wanted me to make an erotic film next. And then I escaped, because I didn’t want to do that. One day, I got contacted by Claudio Argento, the brother of Dario Argento, who said, ‘I am the executive producer for my brother but now I want to make a different experience, I want to change, and I want to produce a picture for you. I want you to make me a film about a serial killer woman’. I said, ‘Well, ok, I will do it’. Then I gave the script to Argento and because it was in Spanish of course, he gave it to an Italian guy to translate it. And that was my luck. Because that guy didn’t really know Spanish either, and the translated script he came up with wasn’t my picture anymore. He’d invented something completely new, a completely idiotic film. So I went to Mexico and I did Santa Sangre, which sort of was about a serial killer, but my version of a serial killer. Until today, I have not made a cent from this film, but I am happy that I made it. In fact, Santa Sangre is the film I like most of all my films. I am glad I did it.
Watch the trailer for Santa Sangre:
Do you enjoy writing comics as much as making films?
Yes, but you can’t really compare the two, it’s not the same. I don’t get the same immense pleasure from writing comics as from making a film. Because with comics, I write them in one or two months, but to make a film, it takes one and a half years.
How did you convince Michel Seydoux to give you money again, after he lost quite a lot on Dune.
I know, he did lose a lot of money and for about 20 years I didn’t dare talking to him, because I thought he’d hate me. But then there was this young American filmmaker, Frank Pavish, who wanted to make a film about Dune. My first reaction was, ‘No, I don’t want to talk about a failure’. But eventually I agreed. Then Pavish came to me and said, ‘I want to set up a conversation with you and Michel Seydoux for my film’. I thought Seydoux would never agree to this, but he did. So we met again after all these years and realised that we didn’t hate each other. After the interview, we talked and he asked me, ‘Do you want to work with me again?’ I said, ‘Yes, sure, but you need to give me two million dollars without knowing what I will do with your money’. So within five minutes, I had the money to make this film. It was so fantastic. Incredible.
The Dance of Reality is a film about your life. Do you ever worry about getting old?
No, getting older is fantastic. Age only exists in what you see, but inside me I have no age. And I have no nationality, no sex either, really. I am not a man, only when I am with my wife. But when I wake up in the morning, I am a human being – I don’t define myself by my sexuality, or my age. And I don’t have a big ego, I am not proud, because I am mortal. I know that I could die tomorrow. But on the other hand, I am only 84 years old now, so I can still
What keeps you young at heart?
Art! Art is my life. I love to create things. Miracles are everywhere but you need to learn how to see them, that’s the ‘dance of reality’. The reality you see really is a magical thing, but people don’t realise it. You need to open your mind to be able to see the miracles.
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Toronto International Film Festival 2013: Documentaries
Canada is home to Hot Docs, one of the biggest and best international documentary film festivals in the world, and almost nothing worth seeing in factual cinema skips their notice.
That said, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is one of the biggest and best international film festivals in the world – period. The breadth of programming includes, of course, documentary cinema, and while the number of titles is clearly lower since Hot Docs more than admirably picks up that slack every spring, in the fall, TIFF screens its fair share of high profile docs. Most are world premieres with a few designated as North American premieres.
This section of my annual TIFF report focuses on five feature docs that screened during the 2013 festival, with subjects as diverse as a movie about a movie, a movie about a very famous beekeeper, a movie about Sir Edmund Hilary, a movie about international adoption and a movie about Jews presumably not being as funny as they used to be. You’ll find everything from the great to the good to the not-so-good and, yes, the ugly. So saddle up and join me on a cinematic horsy ride through the colonies, your ever-so-loyal Dominion of Canada, with my report on a mere smattering of documentary product that was on display at the majestic madness that is the Toronto International Film Festival 2013.
When Jews Were Funny (Alan Zweig, 2013) *****
Alan Zweig made two feature films this year. The first was unveiled in the spring of 2013 at Toronto’s Hot Docs. Entitled 15 Reasons to Live, it was inspired by his friend Ray Robertson’s book of the same name.
Zweig kept the book’s 15-chapter headings to structure his film – Love, Solitude, Critical Mind, Art, Individuality, Home, Work, Humour, Friendship, Intoxication, Praise, Meaning, Body, Duty and Death – and then searched out 15 stories that best exemplified each reason to live. He shot and cut each story separately and laid them out in the aforementioned order. Each tale was honed to perfection in the cutting room first and then the transitions from tale to tale were finessed. At times these transitions were subtle and gentle, while others delivered my favourite kind of cut – the cut that takes your breath away. Literally. These cuts, when they work, are not jarring either – they kind of slide in and sidle up to you and before you know it, you’ve been winded.
This structural approach works just perfectly. The film shares an architecture similar to that of Dubliners by James Joyce and Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. It’s a literary structure that Zweig renders, quite astonishingly, into pure cinema. Each book has several great short stories that work fine on their own as such, but when taken all together, they generate an effect not unlike some dazzling combination of a full novel meshed with a mesmerizing tone poem. This cinematic application of Anderson and Joyce’s literary approaches are precisely the thing that, with this film, launched Zweig as a filmmaker into some kind of stratosphere.
Stylistic and structural leaps and bounds are one thing, but Zweig used them to make a film that brought together everything that makes his work so goddamn special; all the compassion and humanity your heart could possibly desire in a perfectly cohesive package celebrating life itself.
Zweig’s first feature-length documentary Vinyl (full disclosure: I was a producer of this film)
was not about the music, but rather, the obsessive collecting of the arcane platform the music was laid down to, the vinyl, the thing itself. As for the accumulation of vinyl, the film never resorts to the obvious – it’s not a film about what’s so quaintly eccentric about collecting, but what, in fact, is missing from the lives of those who do – Zweig’s included.
Then came I, Curmudgeon – the title should speak for itself. Of the numerous ’negative’ personalities (again including Zweig) who are examined, one of them (sort of) jokes that he genuinely fears that the first words his child will learn are ‘Mama’, ’Papa’ and ’Asshole’.
I especially remember that my own response to this moment was to chuckle with considerable health – a bit of the ol’ humour o’ recognition. While watching the scene, I remembered how cute I thought it was when my daughter at age two would, from her booster seat in the car, yell out as we drove – just like her road-rage-afflicted Daddy – ’MORON!’
Some time later I realised she was not referring to the idiot Toronto drivers as ‘moron’, but, in fact, innocently thought the word for ’car’ was not ’car’, but…’moron’. (Zweig once told me I was the most negative person he knew. I balked. Mostly because I thought Zweig was the most negative person I knew. He tempered his charge, though, and said, ‘No really, you are, but you’re in denial.’)
Zweig’s third feature doc was Lovable. Somewhat less infused with self-loathing, he decided to train his camera upon women who chose to remain single. Of course, at the time, Zweig was single and had been for some time – not by choice – and he was curious as to what would drive those from the opposite sex to choose that lifestyle. (Of course, making so much out of being single he couldn’t help but allow a few threads of delectable self-loathing to creep in.)
These first three feature docs comprise a sort of semi-intentional ‘mirror trilogy’, so named as Zweig, between his penetrating, incisive and often very funny interviews, appears on camera, but only reflected in a mirror. His reason for this – initially – was that it ’looked cool’, but he later revealed it was because he could manipulate the way he appeared on camera and even to himself as he confessed to hating his appearance.
Zweig’s fourth feature documentary was A Hard Name. He is heard off camera conversing with his subjects, but no more mirror. This had nothing to do with him – well, not completely, anyway. This turned out to be a film that never fails to devastate those who watch it. Zweig talks to a group of hardened criminals, ex-cons who never, ever want to go to prison again. These were men who’d spent most of their lives institutionalised in one way or another, but now do whatever they need to do to make sure they never put themselves in a position where they’d have to do time.
There have, of course, been many documentaries about ex-cons, but none like this. It is, first and foremost, a film about forgiveness – societal forgiveness of these men, to be sure – but mostly the courage it took for these ex-cons to forgive themselves and, in some cases, the individuals and institutions responsible for abusing them in their early lives. For his efforts, Zweig won a Genie, the Canadian equivalent to the BAFTA or Oscar. For once, it could not have gone any other way, and it didn’t. The picture that should have won Best Feature Documentary – won!
Then came the aforementioned fifth feature doc, 15 Reasons to Live and now, in the very same year, he premiered his sixth feature-length documentary film at the Toronto International Film Festival. But before I discuss When Jews Were Funny, you’ll note I’ve referred to all the aforementioned as Zweig’s ‘feature documentaries’, but if truth be told, his latest feature doc is actually his seventh feature film.
In 1994, Zweig directed his first feature. The Darling Family is a tremendously moving and superbly directed film adaptation of the play by Linda Griffiths, and is an ambitious, powerful and sadly neglected dramatic motion picture that should have been seen and celebrated well beyond the brief shelf life it occupied. Its pedigree alone demanded far more attention than it received even in Canada.
Griffiths is one of the leading lights and true pioneers of Canadian theatre. She wrote and starred in Maggie and Pierre, the hit show about Maggie Sinclair and her relationship and influence upon her very famous husband, the late, great Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. The show played consistently to sold-out houses across the country. The Darling Family enjoyed a healthy, though milder box-office success than the incisive and bitterly funny satirical work about Canada’s First Lady. In many ways, though, The Darling Family might well be the play that Griffiths is best remembered for – no small thanks to a film that’s as fine an interpretation as any playwright could hope for.
Not only did Zweig brilliantly adapt this bleak kitchen sink two-hander – a sort of Canadian amalgam of gritty 1970s cinema and the ‘Angry Young Man’ genre from the UK’s 1960s New Wave – it starred its original theatrical cast, with Griffiths herself opposite the great Alan Williams as her co-star.
Williams, of course, was the legendary playwright and actor from the UK who was referred to England’s Hull Truck Theatre by none other than Mike Leigh, where he mounted his astounding one-man show The Cockroach That Ate Cincinnati, a huge hit in Britain. When he brought the show to Canada after an extensive European tour, it grabbed the Land of Maple Syrup by the short hairs and played coast-to-coast to sold-out houses. Williams emigrated to Canada not long after, and became one of the Dominion’s most prolific and successful playwrights. Now considered one of its most stalwart character actors in film and television, he also had a stint on the faculty of the famed University of Winnipeg theatre program, wherein he nurtured a huge whack of Canada’s best theatre artists.
So here’s a film from a hit play with two of Canada’s best and most beloved actor/playwrights (not to mention a haunting score by eventual Life of Pi Oscar winner Michael Danna) and it came and went without a trace. It did, however, receive a to-die-for review by Canada’s leading film critic, Geoff Pevere, in the country’s ‘newspaper of record’, The Globe and Mail. Pevere delightfully suggested that The Darling Family was perhaps the ’most perverse date movie’ audiences would ever encounter, but in his estimation, an ideal date movie.
I can’t argue with his assessment. The Darling Family is an utterly harrowing 90 minutes that wallows in the roiling emotional torment experienced (in one mega kitchen sink) by a middle-aged couple verbally jousting on opposite ends of a decision to abort a child. As date movies go, it certainly beats Sandra Bullock clomping about with Ryan Reynolds.
Alan Zweig has always been about humanity, and all his work has been infused with compassion. The subject matter (save, perhaps, for 15 Reasons to Live) might – to some – suggest otherwise, but it’s the surface darkness, the often mordant wit, the unflagging care he takes with his subjects, his refusal to let any of them off easy, and his determination to dig deep into the marrow of humanity that places him at the forefront of the world’s master filmmakers.
He’s a great interviewer – probing, insightful, funny, thoughtful and entertainingly conversational – and this, if anything, characterises a good chunk of his style. This wends its way through all his documentaries and it’s one of many reasons why it’s impossible not to be riveted by them.
He’s got an original voice as a filmmaker, in more ways than one. Firstly, there’s his voice – you know, the one lodged quite literally within his vocal chords. Nobody, but nobody can sound like Alan Zweig: a perverse blend of Eeyore in the Disney Winnie the Pooh cartoons and a craggy been-there-done-that cigar-smoke-throat-coated Borscht-Belt stand-up comic. And secondly, ABSOLUTELY nobody can make movies the way he does.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of Zweig’s original approach is that he is, first and foremost, an avid collector. His films are populated with large casts of subjects and these individuals are inextricably linked to the themes of the films, but as such, he pulls from them the things that make each one of them unique.
What he does with his filmmaking is to collect his subjects. Yes, he collects people; he steals and hoards their images (Stealing Images is the title of his classic short drama that won the very first TIFF Best Short Film prize in 1989) with the same passion he collects vinyl or books or movies or tchochkes. BUT unlike the inanimate objects he normally collects, he can’t purge himself of his collection of subjects by dropping them off at the Goodwill Store. They belong to him. Through his films, Zweig gets to keep them forever, not just for himself but also for the world.
If there’s any difference between his 2013 films and his previous work, it’s that he forced himself into maintaining a strict number of subjects to add to his collection. In 15 Reasons to Live, there is one key departure: he tells each person’s story separately without the documentarian’s crutch of weaving in and out of his subjects’ lives, stories and perspectives.
When Jews Were Funny might well be the picture to finally put Zweig over the top, and if there’s any filmmaker who deserves this more, I can’t even begin to imagine who they might be. His entire output is ripe for discovery beyond North America, and frankly, even within his own country.
A common question from some of the more befuddled subjects in the new doc goes something like: ’Is this about being Jewish or comedy?’ A fair question, but frankly, in the sense that Jews and comedy seem to be inextricably linked within the very ethos of North America, it’s probably safe to say it’s about both. In fact, it sometimes seems like the entire Ashkenazi diaspora was solely concentrated in Canada and the USA, where the seeds of stand-up comedy as we know it today were sown during the early part of the 20th century.
The sufferings that led European Jews to the ’New Land’ are incalculable. Yet, Zweig’s film proves (or at least confirms to the converted) that North American humour would not exist without Jews and, in fact, would not be as brilliantly funny and distinctive as it is without the influence of non-Jewish European prejudices, ethnocentrism and hatred foisted in their direction.
Through the subjects Zweig interviews, When Jews Were Funny furthermore presents the perversely provocative and vaguely horrific notion that without purges, pogroms and the Holocaust, the world might well have been bereft of the stand-up style and genius of Henny Youngman, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Rodney Dangerfield, Don Rickles, and the list goes on, for a light-year or two at the very least.
As a film, I can’t say I’ve ever quite seen its like before. I could, of course, probably say this about all of Zweig’s films. The fact of the matter is that they are endowed with the surface tropes of the documentary genre, but he continually subverts all expectations and plunges you into the least expected territory and in a style uniquely personal and finally very much his own – so much so I predict that we’ll eventually see new generations of filmmakers drawing from his approach and using it as a springboard for their own work. This, of course, is what all great art inspires, and Zweig is poised perfectly to do this.
On its surface, When Jews Were Funny features an off-camera Zweig interviewing a wide variety of stand-up comedians who share one thing beyond their profession – they’re all Jewish. He begins his journey with some of the greatest surviving legends of comedy: Shelley Berman, Jack Carter, Shecky Greene and Norm Crosby. It’s this old guard who reject Zweig’s theories about Jews and humour almost outright, though all of them, via his interview style, come round to acknowledging the Jewish influence upon humour, save perhaps for Jack Carter who seems fairly steadfast about refusing to concede.
Watch a clip (Shelley Berman) from When Jews Were Funny:
While the sweet Shelley Berman never comes out and agrees, his separation of humour and Jewishness starts to move closer in proximity, especially during a joyously heart-rending moment when he delivers the very thing Zweig is really searching for, and why Zweig equates Jewish culture with comedy in the first place. It’s one of those extraordinary moments we can thank cinema for – and when it comes, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
The middle-aged and younger comedians are occasionally confused by what exactly Zweig is looking for (though a number of them ‘get it’ immediately and expound upon it brilliantly). The extraordinary thing, though, is that the journey Zweig takes us on, and that we take with him, happens during his conversations. If he has an agenda, he never shows it, and in fact, it’s as if the process of making the film – the journey itself – is what allows Zweig (and the audience) to discover the wisps of those things that haunt all of us.
When you grow up, you equate popular culture of that specific time with your own ethnicity, your own religion, your family, your community, your values – all those things that shape and mould you – with what comes at you from a television, radio, movie screen, record player, magazine or newspaper, and all those you hold dear – mothers, fathers, siblings, extended family, neighbours, friends – are, yet again, inextricably linked.
Most of Zweig’s subjects confirm this. A few of them are absolutely captivating when they do so.
David Steinberg full-on addresses the very nature of suffering experienced by the Jewish people and its relationship to humour when he declares: ‘The thing that helps humour is oppression, the thing that kills humour is assimilation. If you’ve had a great childhood, a good marriage and a little bit of money, you’d make a lousy stand-up comedian.’ He also makes the point of how funny his own family was – his dad and aunt, for example, would switch to Yiddish and shoo the kids out of the room for fear they’d hear the filthy jokes emanating from their mouths.
David Brenner echoes this. He describes his dad as someone who was funnier than the entire range of great comedians put together, and tells a great story about how he’s been taught that humour exists in everything. The fatherly advice here is that to do this, one must make use of a ’third eye’, or as his dad termed it, ’the Funny Eye’ – that thing you use when looking at anything. Needless to say, the example Brenner provides is hilarious.
In fact, there isn’t a single subject who isn’t funny in the film. Almost all of them tell one or two specific jokes, but most importantly, when they’re addressing the topic at hand, they’re equally hilarious. Howie Mandel slays us with his description of how Jews can never betray themselves by feeling good; how they need to shovel every morsel of suffering into their soul when they try to say something positive, so that their faces contort into hideous grimaces, not unlike someone with the worst case of constipation imaginable as they attempt to squeeze a rock-hard turd out of their tuchus.
Bob Einstein (AKA ‘Super’ Dave Osborne) might be the only comedian interviewed who seems utterly humourless, especially since he accuses Zweig on camera of not knowing what he’s talking about, not knowing what he wants and, at one point, not even listening to him. That said, the very conflict – the meeting of two great curmudgeons, if you will – is supremely enjoyable and yes, it’s funny.
Watch a clip (Norm Crosby) from When Jews Were Funny:
‘Jews own humour and I’m proud to say that that’s true,’ says Steinberg, but it’s Gilbert Gottfried who astutely points out that Jewishness is so often muted. He states that all of the characters on Seinfeld are clearly and obviously Jewish, but that the show (and so many others like it) goes out of its way to pretend that the characters are not Jewish. Gottfried’s incredulity on this point is knee-slappingly mordant. He points out that even if a Jew converts and changes his name, he’ll still be herded into ‘whatever mode of transportation is available to be taken to whatever mode of extermination exists.’
This is a great film – brave, brilliant and personal – but (and that’s a big ’but’) its power is ultimately in its universality. Ultimately, I think there are three core audiences for this film, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily exist in separate vacuums. They might be different, but they’re all going to be infused with the same spirit.
The most obvious target would be almost anyone of Jewish heritage. I do, however, say ‘almost’ because there appears to exist a minority of this ethnic group (or, if we must, religion) that might not appreciate Zweig’s picture. Though, frankly, it’s probably a minority of one.
Allow me to explain.
I had a shocking, though telling and funny experience during the 2013 TIFF. I was scanning the humungous schedule boards displayed in the TIFF Bell Lightbox to see if I could squeeze a seventh film into what was supposed to only be a six-film day. A lady stood beside me, also scouring the board. Noticing my media badge she said, ‘I’m looking for something I can take my 80-year-old mother to tonight, but I don’t know what to choose.’ I immediately recognised the distinctive North Toronto (a huge Jewish enclave of the city) timbre in her voice.
‘Have I got a picture for you!’ I beamed ever so Eureka-like. ‘When Jews Were Funny!’
I could almost taste the bile spewing from her as she spat out, ‘Alan Zweig?’
‘Yeah, Alan Zweig. It’s his new picture. You’re not a fan?’
‘A fan? You ask if I’m a fan? I hate Alan Zweig!’
‘What’s to hate?’
‘What’s to hate? His kind of Jewishness and how he represents the Jewish people is offensive.’
She admitted she had yet to see the film, but based upon previous work – none of which has any ‘Jewishness’ save for Zweig, a Jew who happens to be the filmmaker of said ‘offensive’ films – she explained that he was among many Jewish people in the entertainment business who didn’t offer what her idea was of what it really meant to be Jewish.
‘Well, what is that?’
‘What does it really mean to be Jewish?’
‘You have to ask?’
I didn’t answer. Instead, I bravely suggested Zweig’s film might surprise her.
‘No!’ she said, as if banging the final nail herself into Christ’s flesh. ‘It’s not for me.’
Like I said, a minority of one, no doubt. It did, however, warmly remind me of the scene in Zweig’s movie when Howie Mandel does a hilarious riff on how all Jews answer questions with questions.
So, aside from Jews, the second big audience will probably be anyone – goyim, that is – and especially, I think, those of some manner of Eastern European persuasion who belong to the generation that grew up with the stand-up comedians popular during the 1950s and 70s. As a number of subjects point out, much of the humour is dependent upon the distinctively Yiddish cadence in the delivery, one so familiar to Eastern Europeans that it creeps not so subtly into their own ‘delivery’.
Finally, the third audience will be anyone who loves great movies brimming with insight, humour and the eternal quest for those defining elements of one’s past that now seem gone forever, save for one’s memory of them.
And it’s this journey that is the most profoundly moving element of the film, one that pretty much anyone, no matter what their ethnicity, race or religion will respond to. We are all haunted by those things that shaped us in our youth and the reality of how everything changes – fleeting, flickering ghosts that wither away and dissipate before us. When Jews Were Funny is a film that makes us long for those things that were once tangible, but now reside only in our spirit. If anything, we’re all His children and I can think of no better way to share in this collective desire to clutch at our past with dear life through the very special eyes of His chosen people.
Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich, 2013) ***
If we imagine a world without Star Wars, we can imagine a world where cinema was not dying as it is now. If we imagine a world where Alejandro (El Topo) Jodorowsky beat Star Wars to the punch with his planned film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune, we can imagine him laying the groundwork for a new and different kind of film spectacle, rather than the empty state-of-the-art 80s blockbusters that spawned endless rollercoaster rides masquerading as movies.
Frank Pavich’s feature documentary is as close as we’re ever going to get to seeing what might have been one of the great movies of the late 20th century. A mere five-million-dollars short of becoming a reality, the film was to star Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles. Seeing this doc is to indulge in the creative excitement that went into every second of preparing this epic motion picture. We experience Jodorowsky’s pride (albeit with a tinge of melancholy) at planting seeds for the future greatness of others from a movie that was never made. The films exists only in a massive frame-by-frame storyboard book with the screenplay and Jodorowsky’s notes – a document used to raise additional financing in Hollywood, but which was instead passed around to one filmmaker after another. Hollywood accepted the genius, but rejected the artist and, sadly, his film.
Watch the trailer for Jodorowsky’s Dune:
Burt’s Buzz (Jody Shapiro, 2013) ***
Jody Shapiro is a genuine creative producer and ‘Odd’ might well be his middle name. Working with Guy Maddin in the latter stages of the great surrealist’s career, Shapiro also became Isabella Rossellini’s chief collaborator on her Green Porno series.
Shapiro is clearly a natural to lovingly document the life of Burt Shavitz, the bearded hippie whose face adorns ‘Burt’s Bees’ health-store products. The film is mostly all-Burt-all-the-time. The camera loves him, and his low-key irascibility allows Shavitz to engagingly spin his own story – the city boy who moved to the backwoods to become an avid beekeeper. With assistance from the woman he loved, the company grew to gargantuan proportions and the shy country gentleman became a brand.
There’s melancholy to the tale since Burt was not happy with corporate life, and his love life dissipated. He sold his shares in the company and his ‘brand’ for peanuts. He continues, however, to make a decent living doing personal appearances.
Shapiro wisely bounces between the solace of Burt on his farm and the genuine adulation he receives during live appearances. This simple, but effective, juxtaposition presents the contrast, conflict and two sides of the coin that is Burt Shavitz. It’s essentially a sweet, funny and loving portrait of a man, his dog and his bee farm. He occasionally trots out to do a horse and pony act at trade shows and malls, but he enjoys the adulation afforded him by the fans and, most of all, his fees allow him the privilege of living most of his life the way he likes it best – in solitude among hills, trees, birds and, of course, the bees.
Watch the trailer for Burt’s Buzz:
Beyond the Edge (Leanne Pooley, 2013) **
Sir Edmund Hillary’s climb to the top of Mt. Everest in 1953 is the thrilling subject of Beyond the Edge. Alas, the picture falls short of its potential, in spite of considerable technical wizardry and clearly exhaustive research. Unrestricted access to archival material (including gorgeous 16mm colour footage, Alf Gregory’s legendary 35mm stills and what seems like every audio interview with the participants that’s ever been laid to tape) makes the film’s failure all the more frustrating.
Three key elements extract their toll: the filling in of blanks with newly shot dramatic recreations (ugh!), the abominable 3D, and the over-zealous attempts to match colour for the myriad of audio-visual materials. That said, the 3D is especially problematic. It’s maddening how the moronically polarised 3D glasses darken everything to distraction. Where this hurts the most is in the historical motion picture footage and stills, the colours of which are so vibrant that in 3D they pale in comparison. Just try popping the glasses off periodically (during any picture in 3D, frankly) and you’ll see how egregious the process is.
For the overall colour grading, an extreme post-modernist approach would have been far preferable to matching and muting the colours. State of the art, however, seems to have been the ruinous goal. A film that pushed aesthetic boundaries rather than technical ones might have been far more vital. I’m sure a boundary-pusher like Sir Eddie might have even agreed.
Watch the trailer for Beyond the Edge :
The Dark Matter of Love (Sarah McCarthy, 2012) *
I wanted, but ultimately could not, respond to this tale of love and bonding between three Russian orphans (among the last to be allowed adoptive parents from outside Russia since Vladimir ‘Just Call Me Uncle Joe’ Putin outlawed international adoption) and their new Apple Pie American family.
Seeing these Russian kids flung into an America that spun the world into a major financial crisis and various wars, an America that seemingly learned nothing from the chaos created by its political and corporate leaders and, worst of all, that sense of gaudy consumerism coming to life on-screen before my very eyes, all conspired to make me wonder what that movie would have been like to see instead of this one – which, sadly, is not very good. The Dark Matter of Love is supposed to be a story about kids who need love, want love, but have never experienced love. How do you give love to a child that doesn’t know what love is? Well, it’s not rocket science – with great difficulty and patience.
The American family in question are clearly fine and generous people with plenty of love to give. We see their frustration at not getting love back, the jealousy experienced by their biological daughter and the overall turmoil that building a new family unit results in.This is all undermined by the regrettable accent placed upon the ludicrous application of certain psychological principles rooted in the film’s title – that love is a matter of science, and that in extreme situations such as this, one must turn to medical professionals. From a strictly moral standpoint, I had problems swallowing this. For my liking it’s all too typically Dr. Phil (the famous reality TV talk-show shrink who presents a hugely rated barrage of suffering Americans and offers all manner of platitudinous pop-psychology to ease the pain).
Worse yet, the film emphasises the gobbledygook of a duo of scientists and trains its camera on them as they watch footage of the family trying to cope – spewing their babble as if they were bloody sports commentators – treating the emotional gymnastics of the family as if they were engaged in a particularly strenuous football match.
The film never really allows us an opportunity to experience what could have been a very moving documentary involving a genuine dilemma faced by thousands, if not millions of families. There is, or was, a great movie in here. In fact, it could have been one of several movies far more engaging and vital than this one proved to be.
The Unknown Known (Errol Morris, 2013) ****
Ace documentary filmmaker Errol Morris is back in familiar territory with this one-on-one exploration of the life and times of George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, the clearly gifted master of political doubletalk, misinformation, disinformation and perhaps one of the most dangerous, despicable and evil Americans of the past decade. Much like The Fog of War, Morris’s exploration of Robert McNamara, Defense Secretary during the Vietnam War, the veteran filmmaker hits his new subject with tough questions, attempting to paint as honest a portrait as possible of a political mastermind of legal mass murder, or, if you will, the war against terror. McNamara was a different beast, though. He at least seemed to be telling the truth. None of that – truth, that is – appears to be on display here.
With a malevolent grin, Rumsfeld makes you think he’s letting the cat in the bag slip out, but in the same breath, he’s letting you know the cat’s still in the bag, and that his final word on the matter will always ensure that the bag’s indeed in the river. In fact, we never get a clear picture of anything from Rumsfeld. It always seems clear, but never feels truthful. In several contexts, Rumsfeld is caught completely contradicting himself and hilariously ignoring and/or talking his way out of his obvious falsehoods and/or discrepancies. We’re witness to one magnificent turn of phrase after another. The man is a master spin-doctor and, even more astoundingly, he might actually be the best generator of juicy sound bites in the world – ever. Here’s a tiny, but choice grocery list of a few of them:
‘All generalisations are false, including this one,’ he proclaims.
‘The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,’ he opines on weapons of mass destruction, or lack thereof, in Iraq.
Watch a clip from The Unknown Known:
Rumsfeld treats us to one of his astounding humdingers (which Morris uses for the film’s title): ‘There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we don’t know we don’t know. The unknown known, however, is a thing that we know, but are unaware of knowing.’
The whole movie is a hoot from beginning to end, but what we’re ultimately presented and left with is 96 minutes of lies – or, at the very least, what Rumsfeld wants us to hear, even if he knows we don’t believe a word.
The man has no shame. None. He could have been a president.
As this year’s London Film Festival draws to a close, we review more films from the 57th edition. Some better, some worse.
Check out Part 1, 2 and 3 of our 2013 LFF coverage.
The Witches (Cyril Frankel, 1966)
’Nothing can eat your soul,’ states the voice of reason, Miss Mayfield (Joan Fontaine), just before the mission school she has been running in Africa is attacked by freaky mask-wearing witch doctors and she dissolves into a blubbering mess. Months later she is back in England, supposedly recovered from her ordeal, but still clearly brittle. She is delighted to be offered the post of headmistress in the archetypal English village of Heddaby. Everything seems delightful at first, with colourful characters and rolling fields, but slowly bits of weirdness creep in, and all the locals seem overly concerned that schoolgirl Linda (Ingrid Brett, frankly, hot) should be separated from her would-be boyfriend as soon as possible. When the boy falls suddenly ill, and a headless plastic doll with pins in its chest is found, it becomes clear to Miss Mayfield that something is up, but as she begins to pry, her fragile state comes under strain, and under scrutiny.
The Witches is largely a woman’s picture, with Miss Mayfield (and her oddly Thatcherite hair) at the centre, and Linda and her mum, newspaper columnist/community leader Stephanie Bax (Kay Walsh), pushed to the fore, with the men supporting, at best. Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) is especially useless: ‘I wanted to enter the church but I failed,’ he says, and seems to spend much of the film going silent and sloping off whenever the conversation takes an awkward turn. It’s an atypical Hammer from 1966, adapted from a Peter Curtis novel by the great Nigel Kneale. I’m not sure how much is Kneale and how much Curtis, but the confluence of’ ‘old ways’ hoodoo with modern science is a Kneale trope, and certain lines have that spark of offbeat realism (‘I’ve got veins!’). The way that the full import of the words ’give me a skin for dancing in’ are left to dangle in the viewer’s mind is sublimely horrible. But time and again the full impact of the script is let down by pedestrian staging, and meat–and-potatoes cinematography. There are some nice shots and the occasional visual coup (a writhing, jerking cloth doll on a pentacled floor is authentically nightmarish). But a film in which the lead character may be losing her marbles should look a lot more deranged than this, and the climactic witches’ sabbath looks, unfortunately, like the rehearsals of an off-Broadway musical. All things aside, though, it’s a bit of a forgotten gem, looking ahead to elements of The Wicker Man and Rosemary’s Baby. Occult madness in sleepy England is always a winner, and Leonard Rossiter pops up as a doctor. Well worth checking out. MS
The Zero Theorem (Terry Gilliam, 2013)
Christolph Waltz plays Qohen Leth, a black-clad man in a day-glo world – a loud, irritating future of intrusive technology and automated intimacy. Not that he wants intimacy. He just wants to be left alone at the fire-damaged church he calls home, where he is hoping to receive a phone call that will explain his existence. After a strange encounter with the mysterious Management (Matt Damon) at a party held by his boss (David Thewlis), he is granted his wish to work from home, as long as he works on a hush-hush project, an attempt to assemble a computer model of an insanely complex equation. He makes better progress than most in a task that has driven others to despair, but still begins to lose his mind under the pressure. A therapy programme (Tilda Swinton) proves unhelpful, so sexy Melanie Thierry, as a kind of virtual call girl, and a teenage wizkid (Lucas Hedges), are brought in to keep him working, turning his ordered and isolated life upside down in the process.
Terry Gilliam’s latest is restless in its own skin, feeling like a hugely absurdist science-fiction satire trying to fight its way out of a five-hander play, or an intimate study of modern madness lost in an overactive hyperkinetic playground. Zero Theorem takes you to the edge of a black hole, and the beach of a tropical island at permanent sunset, but still feels claustrophobic. Where the likes of Minority Report are thematically dystopian, but fetishise the gleaming technology, Gilliam has a cartoonist’s eye for bullshit: the street advertisements in his lousy future address passers-by as the wrong sex, the pizzas sing annoying ditties, and digital communications are a great new way to not listen to each other. As you would expect from this director, the environmental detailing, the sheer visual exuberance, is something to behold. I heard ripples of delight spread around me at the screening from some shots, but this is, essentially, a beautiful boat without a goddamn motor. The earlier, kandy-koloured-Kafka scenes evoke a sense of stress and alienation many people in 2013 will be familiar with, but for the most part Leth’s problems, his goals and desires, are just too abstract and peculiar for easy identification (especially when he’s determinedly throwing off the advances of Thierry). Elements of the OTT visual dynamic obscure the storytelling. Forward momentum drops away, and the suspicion begins to grow that nobody knows where this is going or how to satisfactorily end it. It’s a film with many incidental pleasures, but little purpose. A downbeat, pretty, befuddled mess. MS
Watch the trailer for The Zero Theorem:
How We Used to Live (Paul Kelly, 2013)
Filmmaker Paul Kelly has built up a fine body of work over the last decade devoted to chronicling London’s hidden corners and gems, through films such as Finisterre and This is Tomorrow. His latest is a lyrical love letter to London’s post-war past, beautifully composed of footage housed in the BFI National Archives. With just the right amount of narration delivered by a throaty Ian McShane (and written by Bob Stanley and Travis Elborough), the film almost wordlessly lets the audience glide through the transformation of London into a modern city.
A blonde woman in a long white coat wanders lost among the bombed-out ruins of her neighbourhood; wrecking balls smash through the remaining walls of destroyed terrace homes; London Bridge is dismantled before its move to the US. The men in bowler hats commuting to work in the City are replaced by boys with long hair and leggy girls in mini-skirts. In one of the most engaging sequences, a skateboarder threads his way through the crowds crossing a bridge over the Thames to the sounds of Saint Etienne. The excellent soundtrack, composed by the band’s Pete Wiggs, terrifically sets the mood, from some jazzier numbers to more sombre notes, and in many ways it serves as the fabric that binds the interwoven images together. It’s easy to immerse yourself in the hypnotic visuals, and find delight in the little details that fill the frame with every shot. But what is most strikingly revealed in How We Used to Live is how much of the old London remains – shop fronts may have changed, cafés and clubs are gone, but the heart of the city, the people, are still there. SC
Watch the trailer for How We Used to Live:
Sx_ Tape (Bernard Rose, 2013)
Jill is a would-be artist being filmed going about her business by Adam, one of those boyfriends incapable of putting the camera down in films like this. She paints a little, they have sex, shop, eat, annoy each other. Try to have sex again, before being rudely interrupted. He wants to show her something: a huge abandoned hospital where ‘naughty women’ used to be sent to have abortions. The perfect venue for an art show. She breaks in, he, reluctantly, follows and then bad things happen to Adam and Jill and later arrivals Ellie and Bobby, the film’s regulation aggravating, macho arsehole.
It seems a little mystifying as to why Bernard Rose chose this script to mark his return to the horror genre; it’s a late jumper onto the ‘found footage’ bandwagon, passably executed and pretty unpleasant. There’s a theme, of sorts, about the abuse and exploitation of women, but it gets lost among the shock tactics. Too often the illogicalities felt preposterous rather than nightmarish, and the series of endings on offer at the climax of the film (none of which resolve the film’s police station-set opening sequence) seem to confirm that nobody really had a handle on this mother. I’d be lying if I said I was bored. Or that there was nothing here of interest, but films like this need to develop some solid, creepy ideas to really pay off, and this just ain’t working. MS
Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich, 2013)
If we imagine a world without Star Wars, we can imagine a world where cinema was not dying as it is now. If we imagine a world where Alejandro (El Topo) Jodorowsky beat Star Wars to the punch with his planned film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune, we can imagine him laying the groundwork for a new and different kind of film spectacle, rather than the empty state-of-the-art 80s blockbusters that spawned endless rollercoaster rides masquerading as movies.
Frank Pavich’s feature documentary is as close as we’re ever going to get to seeing what might have been one of the great movies of the late 20th century. A mere five-million-dollars short of becoming a reality, the film was to star Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles. Seeing this doc is to indulge in the creative excitement that went into every second of preparing this epic motion picture. We experience Jodorowsky’s pride (albeit with a tinge of melancholy) at planting seeds for the future greatness of others from a movie that was never made. The films exists only in a massive frame-by-frame storyboard book with the screenplay and Jodorowsky’s notes – a document used to raise additional financing in Hollywood, but which was instead passed around to one filmmaker after another. Hollywood accepted the genius, but rejected the artist and, sadly, his film. GK
Watch the trailer for Jodorowsky’s Dune:
Pioneer (Erik Skjoldbjaerg, 2013)
A pleasingly paranoid Norwegian thriller from Insomnia creator Erik Skjoldbjaerg. It’s the early 1980s and American and Norwegian diving teams are collaborating on a project which will exploit the oil and gas deposits to be found under the ocean floor in the Norwegian Sea. This is deeper than any diver has been before, and to this end the American team have developed a special breathing mix which should enable the teams to operate below 500m. But things go horribly wrong during the first test dive at sea, and Petter (Aksel Hennie, great), a dedicated diver with little outside life, becomes obsessed with finding out why, bringing him into conflict with political and commercial forces who want the tests over, and the money to start rolling.
As with Insomnia, a standard thriller set up is made much more interesting by a derangement of the senses. Petter is experiencing little blackouts, lacunae in his ability to function, and we are left unsure as to exactly how compos mentis he is – we have already seen him hallucinate a seabird into existence in the dry-run test of the opening sequence – so when he starts throwing accusations around, and breaking into offices to steal medical files, a suspicion remains that this might be all in his head. Decompression chambers here are used as instruments of torture, and places to isolate the inconvenient. Everything is murky, motives are obscure and, as in The Conversation, the evidence is open to interpretation. Pioneer plays games with focus, becoming increasingly woozy and warped as it goes on, and in the closing sections of the film Petter and the viewer have a case of the bends, which is not the best state to be in when unravelling a conspiracy or fending off shadowy killers. Good stuff, with an occasionally wonderful soundtrack by Air.
Potential viewers should be warned that this film contains Norwegian hair. MS
Watch the trailer for Pioneer :
We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, 2013)
For all you punkety rockety girls out there, and those who love them: this is your new favourite film, you just don’t know it yet. With We Are the Best! (which is based on his wife Coco’s graphic novel), Lukas Moodysson returns to the inclusive humanism of his earlier work (Show Me Love, Together), rather than his pass-the-razor-blades phase (Lilya 4-Ever, A Hole in My Heart) or his what-the-bloody-hell-is-this phase (Container). It’s a simple tale: two 13-year-old girls, Bobo and Klara, are outcasts at school, mainly because it’s a bad place and time to be ferociously dedicated to punk rock: Stockholm in the early 1980s. Partly out of spite, they get the metal band Iron Fist thrown out of the practice room at their local youth centre on the pretext that they have a band, and having booked the room, they decide that they might as well start a band for real. Undaunted by their lack of talent, but aware that they ought to have somebody on side who knows what they’re doing, they recruit Hedwig, a Christian and another outcast, on guitar, and the film follows their trials and tribulations as they attempt to get it together for their first gig.
There is very little conflict here (an unfortunate haircut incident, a falling out over a punk boy), just a lot of brilliantly observed business about families and schools and pop culture and all that other stuff you have to negotiate when you’re 13. The girls are adorable, fearless and bulletproof, wide eyed and vulnerable, with their own cool punk chic (it involves a lot of scarves) and Moodysson perfectly captures that age when you can be obsessing over nuclear annihilation one minute and having a food fight the next. There is a great sense of time and place, and fun to be had about the difficulties of being a rebel when everybody’s so tolerant and accommodating (Swedish punk songs of the period seem pushed to find stuff to complain about). We Are the Best! finds time for everybody – youth club workers, parents, and hell, even Iron Fist are people rather than characters. There may not be a great deal to the film other than a little slice of time, but it’s bloody delightful – a warm, spiky hug. MS
Grand Piano (Eugenio Mira, 2013)
The experience of watching Grand Piano is something like wandering around a Victorian folly – a cunningly constructed, visually appealing exterior that knowingly obscures a lack of substance. Directed by Eugenio Mira, this giallo-influenced film stars Elijah Wood as Tom Selznick, a classical pianist who is about to perform in front of an audience for the first time in five years after a disastrous concert led to his retirement. The occasion: a tribute to his mentor a year after his death, and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to play his priceless grand piano before it’s shipped to Switzerland.
Wood effortlessly conveys all the stress and stage-fright that threaten his come-back performance, and his anxiety is only magnified when he discovers that there’s a sniper in the theatre threatening to assassinate his glamorous, movie-star wife if he plays a wrong note during his grand finale. There is a point to the slightly absurd plot, which is finally revealed towards the end of the increasingly bloody stand-off (although Mira does well with delivering an ambiguous ending). But it’s not the film’s premise that makes the movie appealing – it’s simply great fun to watch, an entertaining 90-minute visual treat. The art design is excellent, while the blood red tones that infuse the cinematography lend a terrific atmosphere to the thriller. There’s some clunky writing and ham-fisted acting by the more disposable characters at play, but in the end it all seems like part of the game. SC
The Sacrament (Ti West, 2013)
After his slow-burn Satanic chiller The House of the Devil and offbeat ghost story The Innkeepers, Ti West continues on his idiosyncratic path with a faux documentary investigating a religious cult in a far-off land. Presenting itself as an ‘immersionist’ Vice piece, it perfectly captures the mixture of reckless bravery and self-conscious ‘craziness’ that typifies the magazine through the characters of reporter Sam (AJ Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg). When photographer Patrick decides to visit his former junkie sister Caroline in the commune she has joined, they tag along to document the reunion. Although they are met by intimidating armed guards when their helicopter lands on the island, their initial interviews with commune members seem to paint an idyllic picture of life at Eden Parish. But after a bizarre on-stage interview with Father, the charismatic cult leader, the surface begins to crack, and a far more sinister reality is revealed.
Very restrained in its use of violence, The Sacrament is about a disturbingly realistic kind of horror, recalling the Jonestown Massacre and similar fanatic cults. Key to the film’s emotional power is the complex character development, one of Ti West’s greatest strengths, helped by tremendous performances from the excellent cast. Aimy Seimetz is both unnerving and pitiful as the screwed-up sister who has traded drug addiction for another kind of escape, and Gene Jones is extraordinary as Father, a frighteningly intelligent, creepy, manipulative man, who also desperately believes what he preaches. There is a great sense of human tragedy in all of the characters, including the gung-ho reporters who sober up as they become the unwitting catalysts for horrifying violence. An intelligent, original, category-defying gem. VS
Virginie Sélavy, Mark Stafford, Greg Klymkiw, Sarah Cronin
To mark the UK Blu-ray release of Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession, Daniel Bird looks at the genre implications which stem from the film.
In 1996, I met the writer and musician Stephen Thrower at a programme of Jess Franco films at the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead, London. Thrower was the editor of Eyeball, a fanzine celebrating art and exploitation in European cinema (although in the last few issues Thrower expanded his horizon globally). Eyeball was designed to mimic the layout of the defunct Monthly Film Bulletin. With wit and intelligence, Thrower (along with the likes of Pete Tombs) mapped out a zone of convergence between European high art and more low-brow tastes (genre film, comic books, pornography, etc.). In Eyeball, a review of Godard’s Pierrot le fou would rub shoulders with a reappraisal of Franco’s Virgin among the Living Dead – and why not? Ado Kyrou flagged up the ‘sublime’ moments to be found in ‘bad’ films. Franco made lots of bad films (so has Godard). Thrower was particularly keen on Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981) – a film that was, at the time, pretty much loathed all round. In short, its ‘artiness’ pissed off the horror crowd, while the monster and copious blood-letting excluded it from the prissy gaze of the ‘art house’ set. Thrower, however, loved it, and had no qualms about dedicating the last issue of Eyeball to Żuławski.
In spring 1997, Thrower and I travelled to Paris to interview Żuławski. Szamanka had opened in France and was about to close. It was only playing in one cinema in Saint Michel, and the reviews plastered outside the foyer made for an entertaining read. Libération urged anyone who saw ?u?awski approaching a movie camera to shoot him with a tranquilizer gun. Szamanka did not disappoint: it offered an unhinged performance by a beautiful unknown, and bruising social comment (not to mention cannibalism and nuclear war). Żuławski was admirably intransigent during the interview, rubbishing Terry Gilliam’s Fisher King, Ken Loach’s social realist camera set-ups while proposing that if Martians land on earth then they should be made to watch The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ‘because they might learn something about what it is to be human’. That is not, however, to suggest ?u?awski was a ‘fan’ of genre cinema – on the contrary. Anything that adhered to a ‘formula’ (ironic or otherwise) clearly bored him senseless. It reminded me of an interview Thrower conducted with Alejandro Jodorowsky around the time of the UK release of Santa Sangre. Jodorowsky said that, for him, the horror film was the only genre in which film poetry could still exist. Similarly, David Cronenberg asserted that he was not interested in gore, but rather imagery that could only be shown in the horror genre – like the tumour firing ‘cancer gun’ in Videodrome (Cronenberg, it seems, has gone back on this stance in favour of middle-class respectability). One of the things that impressed me the most about Possession was how Żuławski did not ‘suggest’ the monster (as Polanski did in Rosemary’s Baby), but rather showed it in its slimy, tentacled glory.
Towards the end of the 1990s, the French magazine Starfix asked a number of directors to list their films of the 1980s. Żuławski’s list included:
All That Jazz
Fanny and Alexander
Two trends can be discerned: first, take The Shining, The Thing and Blade Runner – three films that were marketed as genre films, but whose beauty, initial commercial failure and current ‘classic’ status rest in the fact that they are – like Possession – anything but formulaic; second, All That Jazz, Fanny and Alexander and Platoon are rooted in personal experience – but in each case Fosse, Bergman and Stone take what could have been mere memoir material to the realm of cinema. All That Jazz and Fanny and Alexander are not just honest and painful – they are also fantastic and, in the case of Platoon, hallucinatory. Żuławski’s list is of films that, like his own, all in some way ‘pierce reality’.
I have no problem with the word ‘genre’. Genre just means category. The novel is a genre, as distinct from poetry. The Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin wrote about how the ‘novel genre’ was rooted in banter, gossip and jokes of the market place as opposed to the sombre, authority of, say, a church sermon. By the same logic, a feature film is a genre in itself, period. However, when the ‘tropes’ that define that category become prescriptive, then the result is familiarity, boredom and apathy. Another Russian, the critic Viktor Shklovsky, wrote about how the job of the artist was to come up with a device that made the familiar seem strange. The ‘strangeness’ sets our brain a challenge, and the process of dealing with it is engaging – not just on an intellectual level, but an emotional one too (see Ben Wheatley’s ‘horror’ films – Kill List, Sightseers, A Field in England). Take The Thing – the Howard Hawks original is a respected, but ultimately hokey ‘man in a suit’ affair. In Carpenter’s version, however, all bets were off: anything could be the thing; we, as viewers, had to readjust to this – the result was something very disturbing indeed. In Possession, Żuławski made a marital breakdown ‘strange’ by showing ‘the horror’ – this was not Scenes from a Marriage – it was something else. Let us not forget that Bergman also turned to the fantastic (The Hour of the Wolf – a film that would make a great double bill with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). The monster in Possession (like the thing in Carpenter’s film) is incredibly poetic in the sense that it conjures up intense emotions through imagery – not unlike Kafka’s cockroach in his short story, ‘The Metamorphosis’.
Kafka frequently wrote stories about animals, but Disney is never going to pick up the rights from the Max Brod estate. The problem, for me, begins with the culture of ‘pitching’ ideas. Frederic Tuten, the co-writer of Possession, once told me an anecdote about a friend who was commissioned to write a script for ‘Jaws in Venice’. Tuten said that while the idea is ridiculous – the juxtaposition of those two elements – a killer shark and urban canals – conjures up an idea that can be, above all else, sold. The problem with such pitches is that they are often reductive and restrictive. Yes, Anna Karenina is ‘about a woman who is unfaithful’ – but it is also so much more. Similarly, Possession is not just ‘about a woman who fucks an octopus’. To pigeonhole Possession as a genre film is to go into the film wearing blinkers. Genre elements are often a disguise, like masks worn during a carnival (see Dostoevsky – whose stories all feature ‘crimes’ but could in no way be confused with episodes of C.S.I. – although it might be interesting to see Crime and Punishment in the style of C.S.I. , just as The Idiot could easily be recast as a love triangle between a geek, a jock and a cheerleader). To only see the mask and not sense what the mask is hiding is to lose out on what makes a film special. The ‘genre mask’ in itself is not interesting. Rather, it is a prop in the game of cinema, which itself is a reflection on life.
Possession is released in the UK on Blu-ray by Second Sight on 29 July 2013.
Just like the weather – after all the most talked about subject in Cannes, besides the films and the red carpet hoopla – the 66th edition of the festival was a patchy affair. There were some true marvels that staggered people’s imaginations, interspersed with a number of average efforts, but thankfully very few real stinkers. If Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’or winner Blue is the Warmest Colour and J. C. Chandor’s All Is Lost (screening out of competiton) represented the most welcome and exciting surprises, then Takashi Miike (Shield of Straw) and François Ozon (Young & Beautiful) delivered merely mediocre, and quite possibly, their least thrilling films to date in the Competition. Likewise, the three major sidebar sections – Un Certain Regard, Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week – proved as strong, unpredictable and adventurous as ever, with even one or two remarkable stand-outs and smaller-scale cinematic pleasures, which could have easily rivalled the big players in the official selection. Below, Pamela Jahn revisits some of the highlights worth looking out for in UK cinemas or at other festivals in the coming months.
The Congress (Ari Folman, 2013)
Opening this year’s Director’s Fortnight, Ari Folman’s follow up to his 2008 Cannes competition entry Waltz with Bashir is an idiosyncratic masterpiece, highly ambitious in its scale and complexity, and fuelled with dazzling animated beauty. In a daringly intimate performance, Robin Wright plays herself, an acclaimed actress just past her prime with a market value diminished to zero, her previous stardom being long buried in Hollywood history. When her agent, Al (Harvey Keitel), tells her she’s being given one last chance by her studio, Miramount, Robin reluctantly agrees to a meeting, unknowing what this final offer entails. The plan is to motion-capture Wright, to copy her body, feelings, memories, and gestures in order to create a digital alter ego that can easily be adjusted to fit into any blockbuster, TV show or commercial as required by the studio. As part of the deal that promises her both a generous pay-off and the guarantee of eternal youth on screen, the real Robin Wright must retire with no claim as to how her virtual self is being used in the future. At first, she refuses, but family constraints force her to reconsider.
So far, The Congress might appear as a vicious, darkly cynical take on the movie industry in the digital age and how Hollywood treats its ageing goddesses. What then happens, however, about 50 minutes into the film, is best seen first-hand. Loosely inspired by Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress, and again combining animation and live action to puzzling effect, Folman jumps forward 20 years to find the real Wright aged and out of business, while her alter ego has become one of the biggest action heroines on screen as ‘Rebel Robot Robin’. Invited to Miramount’s Futurological Congress, the actress must pass into a strange animated zone, which opens an entirely new, imaginary universe of its own, crowded with celebrity doubles who escape their daily misery through drug-induced hallucinations; it’s a place that visually blends the style of 1930s Betty Boop cartoons and the trippy aesthetic of Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World. At the same time, Folman slows down the action to plunge into something darker, deeper, more inventive and more existential than merely teasing the Hollywood system to the core. Soused in gorgeous imagery and surreal, intoxicated melancholy, the second half of The Congress meanders gracefully between philosophical, religious and ideological reflections on the human condition, yet despite minor flaws, never loses sight of its original premise. The film is a fiercely original, bold and riveting meditation on the future of the silver screen and the stars that make it shine.
A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, 2013)
Although director Jia Zhangke officially denied in interviews that his close relationship with Office Kitano was more than simply based on financial support for this production, A Touch of Sin feels like a ferocious piece of work very much in the same vein as the best films by the Japanese director and friend, albeit intensified by the social-political backdrop addressed here. Based on four real-life criminal cases (including a murder, suicide and a couple of killing sprees), Zhangke’s protagonists represent a cross section of contemporary Chinese society, from different areas of the country. Seen from that perspective, the film, which deservedly won Zhangke the award for Best Screenplay, is a sanguinary, tense investigation into the Chinese economic miracle and the brutalising effect it has on the lives of ordinary people at the bottom end of the ladder, who ultimately can’t help but vent their rage, rising up against authority, in a world not theirs. Likewise, on a visual level, A Touch of Sin is a powerful war of the senses, in the way the stylised violence seems gently aligned with the character’s innermost thoughts and emotions, enabling the audience to savour a similar cold adrenaline rush as those wuxia and Lady Vengeance-type characters on screen.
Blue is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)
The winner of the Palme d’Or 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 does have 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.
The Dance of Reality (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 2013)
Jodorowsky’s first film in over 20 years is a strictly personal affair, an attempt to reconstruct his life from childhood to the present. For most of its 130-minute running time, The Dance of Reality (La danza de la realidad) feels like a potpourri of adventures both magical and tragic but, sadly, the film meanders along a bit too nicely and gradually loses momentum in the second half. That is, of course, if you compare it to the vicious energy and boldness that his earlier midnight movie masterpieces (El Topo, Santa Sangre) generated, which clearly does this beautifully constructed and aptly surreal biopic a little injustice. Arguably, the more revealing film about the Chilean director might have been Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune, which premiered in the Director’s Fortnight section alongside Jodorowsky’s feature film, and is an eye-opening, highly entertaining glimpse into the truth behind Jodorowsky’s famously aborted plans to bring Herbert’s epic fantasy novel to the screen.
The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
Certain parallels aside (Rome, the passive journalist protagonist, the lavish life-style), The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) is no simple remake of La dolce vita, although it might ask the same big existential question about the meaning of life in a city that, as it appears in Paolo Sorrentino’s film more than 50 years after Fellini’s, is as dazzling and captivating as ever.
The Great Beauty is released in UK Cinemas by Artificial Eye on 6 September 2013.
An ageing art journalist, one-off bestselling author and tireless gigolo, Jep Gambardella (brilliantly played by Sorrentino’s favourite and long-term collaborator Toni Servillo) knows many a secret and the entire high society in Rome, but can’t seem to make sense of his own extravagant life. At his 65th birthday party, his façade of irony and ignorance slowly begins to crumble as he bemoans the lack of ‘true’ beauty in his world of excess, luxury, endless spiel and easy women, and blatantly shares his disgust with his so-called friends and enemies, as much as with himself. The film itself is somewhat exhausting, and might seem to some superfluous from the start and preposterous in the execution, but it’s also a beautiful film about loss, death and sacrifice, and about those special, unforgettable moments you share with others that make life worth living.
Bastards (Claire Denis, 2013)
As soon as this year’s festival programme was announced in April, debates emerged about the lack of women directors in the Competition (there were none last year and only one this year), and in particular, the question over why a director as accomplished and exciting as Claire Denis would be screened in Un Certain Regard instead, which was once thought of as more of a discovery zone for new and emerging directors. And while Denis’s film clearly felt more at home in this section than Sofia Coppola’s Bling Ring, which opened Un Certain Regard, Bastards (Les salauds) could have easily competed at the top level. Denis’s latest, about a man’s doomed shot at payback for crimes committed against his family, is a puzzle-like drama of family struggles and secrets, and lives destroyed by the power of money and a ruthless businessman with a taste for vile sexual entertainment.
Artificial Eye will release Bastards in UK cinemas in Spring 2014.
Delivering a rock-solid performance, Vincent Lindon plays Marco, the lonely cowboy (or in his case, supertanker captain), whose plans for revenge are frustrated by his own emotional desires as he starts an affair with his enemy’s long-term mistress. While Bastards has a dark, gloomy allure throughout, accompanied by an intriguing score by her frequent collaborators Stuart A. Staples and Tindersticks, the fragmented, non-linear structure and opaque character development run fatally dry towards the end. It might not go down as Denis’s best works, but it’s still a film worth watching if you are familiar with, or would like to explore, the director’s contrary, elliptical style, which is full of alluring shady textures and tones.
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.
Watch the trailer for Only Lovers Left Alive:
Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)
As expected, the latest offering from the Coens was one of the hottest tickets of the festival. 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.
Watch the trailer for Inside Llewyn Davis :
Festival report by Pamela Jahn
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews