Cast: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Paul Giamatti, Danny Huston
Israel, Germany, Poland, France 2013
In 2008, Ari Folman astounded audiences with Waltz with Bashir, in which he used a mix of animation and live action to tell a devastating account of his experience as a soldier during the 1980s Israel-Lebanon war. Six years later, he returns with a remarkably ambitious, intelligent science-fiction film loosely based on Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress. Richly resonant, multilayered and beautifully psychedelic, The Congress again combines live action and animation to tell the story of Robin (Robin Wright), an ageing actress forced to sell her scanned image to her studio Miramount for them to use as they please. Twenty years later, she attends a congress on the future of cinema, which takes place in a zone of chemically-induced animated hallucinations. But following a violent intervention by rebels, Robin finds herself propelled into a strange future world that is even less real.
Virginie Sélavy talked to Ari Folman about transposing Stanislaw Lem’s novel to our world, the merits of escaping from reality, and why The Congress is a documentary.
The Congress is released in the UK on DVD + Blu-ray on 8 December 2014 by Studiocanal.
Virginie Sélavy: Waltz with Bashir was a very personal film, while The Congress is a much larger-scale speculative reflection on our world. Was adapting a novel a way of getting out of the realm of your own personal experience?
Ari Folman: Making Waltz with Bashir was very tough, travelling with the film afterwards was very tough, so I needed an escape route from Bashir, from myself, from history, from war, from everything you can imagine. And I thought The Congress was a good one because it’s a novel I read when I was very young and I loved it. I’m a sci-fi buff.
Stanislaw Lem’s idea of a world that is made of grimmer and grimmer layers of reality disguised by illusory appearances feels fairly prescient. Was that one of the reasons why you wanted to adapt it?
Yes, it was. In many aspects I think that The Congress is a documentary. I only make documentaries – and sci-fi. The Congress is documentary sci-fi. When I wrote the script I had no clue that they’d been scanning actors in LA for a long time now. In the film it’s supposed to be an X-ray-machine room, and when I arrived in LA I read for the first time about the scanning facilities that they have over there. Technology has changed tremendously, in cinema you now have CGI, motion capture, scanned actors and everything. They can make movies with no actors. It doesn’t mean that they’re going to do it, but it could be done. So that’s the first part of the movie. The second part is more inspired by Lem’s novel, it’s about identity, human identity. So yes, I’d say it reflects our lives in many ways.
That’s one of the major changes you’ve made to the book: space traveller Ijon Tichy, the main character in the book, becomes an ageing actress, and you shift the action from the world of science to the world of cinema.
When I optioned the book I didn’t know what I was going to do. Then in Cannes I met this ageing American actress, very famous, from the 60s-70s, and I didn’t recognize her at all. I had this vision, it was going to be her, a goddess from 45 years ago who now is a nobody. That was the starting point for the script. I went backwards in time, thinking about identity. I didn’t live in Poland in the late 60s communist era when Lem wrote his novel, so I had to make this translation to things that I’m really into. That’s how I ended up talking about cinema and the future of cinema, which is represented by an ageing actress in our world.
That adds another layer to the novel’s blurring of fiction and reality, because of course cinema is also about reality and its representation.
Not all cinema – I don’t think that it is what cinema always does. But in general, for me, good cinema is taking this real time that we live in, which is the time that our subconscious lives in, and trying to make it one piece of time that you work into a movie. It’s what I try to do, this combination really attracts me.
Was Robin Wright the actress you wanted from the start?
No, it was meant to be Cate Blanchett, and I wrote the treatment for her. But then I met Robin Wright by chance in LA, and the moment I saw her I knew that it could only be her.
That adds even another layer, as she plays ‘Robin Wright’ in the film. How involved was she in the project?
She was very much involved from the very beginning. I researched her and I pitched the project to her, then she joined me and we worked on the character together, and I went home and wrote the script. She was involved in many aspects, from the writing until the end of editing. She was a great partner, very intelligent woman, very sharp. She really was the best partner that I could have.
As in Waltz with Bashir you use a mix of live action and animation, but with different implications: here it is perfectly suited to the exploration of the real and the unreal. Do you see this mix of filmic forms as essential to your work?
After Waltz with Bashir I decided I wanted to explore, I wanted to make something that mixed the two, live action and animation, no matter what I was going to do, I wanted to try, for the sake of the experiment. With The Congress, and with Waltz with Bashir as well, we decided to start with documentary rather than fiction, and fiction rather than sci-fi, because otherwise it can be a bit conventional. I try to explore new things, and here the biggest challenge was writing and directing a movie where you go from a first, straight hour with a lovely actress and a story, and then in the second hour she breaks the conventions and she becomes animated, and that was a big challenge for me as the director to make it happen.
Live action in your films is always about a terrible reality, and animation is a way of escaping, or dealing with, the full horror of that reality. Is that fair to say?
I hadn’t thought of that but that’s an interesting idea. . I think that maybe live action is there for bad issues and actions.. It happened with Waltz with Bashir, and here again I make the most of the beautiful creatures of the animated world, because we are exposed to a very tough and harsh world, and it can probably be shown only in animation. I think animation gives you many more layers as a director – I’m talking about animation for adults, which is a rare thing, unfortunately.
At the end, there is no easy answer as to what is best, whether living in the real world or hallucinating a more beautiful world. Was that openness essential to you?
Yes, absolutely. With my films, it’s a matter of interpretation, you have to decide what you think with what you are, with your conscience, your psychology. It’s not my duty to guide you towards a decision as to what is best. It’s a conscience that we experience in the Western world every day of our lives, because the world of hallucinations is a metaphor for a lot of things: it could be money, it could be addiction to sex, it could be addiction to many things, it doesn’t have to be just drugs. In the book, of course, Lem goes for drugs, and it looks very cinematic and psychedelic, but everyone has to find an escape route, which can be very addictive and has nothing to do with real life. And it’s your own decision to know what’s best.
Some elements in the film suggest that what we see from the moment it becomes an animation could be the product of Aaron’s (Robin’s son) mind. Is that a possibility that you wanted to put in the audience’s heads?
I’ve heard this interpretation. It was not one of my intentions, but I really like to hear other people’s interpretations of the film. When I walked out of the premiere in Cannes, my sister came to me and she was very pissed off. She loved the movie and she couldn’t understand what happens to Aaron at the end. She said, ‘it’s a shame, you shouldn’t have done that’. I tried to explain to her that it’s not like that. I told her, ‘I wrote the script, I know what I wrote’, but afterwards I gave up and I liked that interpretation. I thought, OK, this is what she saw in the movie and she has her own specific reading, and that’s fine.
Would you make the same choice as Robin at the end?
Alongside other notorious enfants terribles such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Russ Meyer and John Waters, Walerian Borowczyk became an iconoclastic mainstain of the legendary Scala repertory cinema club, most notably with the infamous The Beast (La bête, 1975) and the twisted The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981), which screened in a pleasing uncut print to salivating artsploitation freaks munching on hash cakes and muffins. In his heyday, The Establishment very much saw Borowczyk as a censor-baiting braggart. However, time has brought respect, and looking back at his oeuvre, one can detect a sense of playfulness in his self-centred obsession. Borowczyk merely presented his fantasies as personal cinematic gestures – can he be to blame for the media frenzy and the shock tactics of his distributors?
Before elevating himself to spunking monsters and GLC certificates, Borowczyk paved a delicate, refined path in sideways installations, which the newly restored shorts from Arrow represent, for those wishing to look back at this quirky auteur’s roots. Borowczyk’s background in painting comes to the fore in these esoteric chocolate box confections: Rosalie (1966) features snappily shot agit-edits alongside Švankmajer-esque stop motion while in the eye-popping Gavotte (1967), fighting dwarves wrestle for their ceremonial seat (showcasing the director’s bizarre sense of mischief, which would come to typify his later works).
Darker expressions emanate from the dadaist Les jeux des anges (Angels’s Games, 1964): Borowczyk incorporates potent Dalí-esque visualisations into a 12-minute pre-psychedelic mindfuck (it would make for amazing wallpaper), while a dingy, low, humming musique concrète aria permeates on the OST (riffing on the music heard in Polish concentration camps). Théâtre de Monsieur & Madame Kabal (The Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal, 1962) connects grotesque Ubu-esque stick pencil scrawls with sepia-toned live action. At a feature-length running time of 72 minutes, this satirical beast is best experienced on a BIG monitor in the company of cracked stimulants and a 7.1 system. The bizarre Renaissance (1963) throws a wink to Man Ray with its creepy dolls and grapes that appear to the growling, popping sounds of a clanging typewriter (it genuinely put me off my cereal).
A respectful tip to Arrow for their care and attention in restoring these left-of-centre shorts, an eclectic selection from an experimenting genius whose reputation has been overshadowed by controversy for far too long. Now where’s that Emmanuelle 5 tape…
Taking place across six days, the 14th Nippon Connection film festival, held in various venues around Frankfurt, continues to act as the vanguard for showcasing both populist and independent Japanese cinema in Europe. As with previous years, the festival proudly presented the latest efforts from up-and-coming talents alongside some of the biggest directing names working today. With a hugely diverse selection of features, shorts, documentaries and experimental films in four main strands – ‘Cinema,’ ‘Visions,’ ‘Animation’ and ‘Retro’ – it is impossible to see everything that’s on offer. Below is an attempt to collect some thoughts on a cross-selection of films from each programme.
Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats (Yosuke Fujita, 2014)
The festival’s opening film, and one of the more warmly received, Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats is a sometimes absurd, sometimes crass, but always charming comedy from the director of Fine, Totally Fine (2008) and Quirky Guys and Gals (2011). Residing in the titular FukuFuku apartment building, Tatsuo Fukuda (Miyuki Oshima) is a kind and chubby decorator who lives on his own but always has time to solve the problems of his dysfunctional neighbours. But despite his popularity, Fukuda – or Fuku-chan – has always been unlucky in love, partly as a result of an embarrassing episode involving a conniving girl during his school days. His fears are put to the test when the girl (Asami Mizukawa), now an aspiring photographer, re-enters his life. The film is very much like its protagonist: slightly flabby but with a big, smiling heart. Its absurdities and eccentricities are regularly counteracted with moments of disarming pathos, and it also manages to make you care about its otherwise oddball cast of characters. Co-produced by Asian cinema distributor Third Window Films, expect to see Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats on UK release at some point.
Band of Ninja (Nagisa Oshima, 1967)
Around the time when Nagisa Oshima was directing many of what would become his seminal works of the mid-to-late 1960s – Violence at High Noon (1966), Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967), Death by Hanging (1968), etc. – he found the time to make Band of Ninja, an innovative motion-manga that photographs the panels of Sampei Shirato’s popular manga series of the same name, complete with dialogue, music and sound effects. It’s useless to try and fashion a pithy plot summary, as the two-hour runtime covers a lot of ground, so much so that it’s easy to lose track of what’s going on. Therein lies an issue with directly adapting from the page: an advantage of reading graphic literature, as opposed to watching it, is that you can absorb the material in your own time. But it is better to be confused than bored, and Band of Ninja certainly isn’t boring. Its slightly rickety appearance is belied by its frequently violent imagery, compounded further by Oshima’s quick cutting during these sequences, making the inanimate seem animate for the briefest instance. Band of Ninja is both thrilling and perplexing in equal measure.
Unforgiven (Lee Sang-il, 2013)
Although it is always amusing – and sometimes bemusing – to see the polarity of US/Japanese film remakes reversed (the 2009 Japanese version of 2004’s Sideways springs to mind), was there really much point in remaking Clint Eastwood’s classic revisionist Western Unforgiven (1992)? This is a question that looms large over Lee Sang-il’s version of David Webb Peoples’s story of a retired gunslinger teaming up with his old partner and a cocky, young rookie for one last murderous hurrah to assassinate a couple of cowboys who cut up a whore. Many of the narrative beats from the original film are handsomely replicated here, with only some minor deviations. The main draw, though, lies in the cultural transplantation from the American West to the dawn of the Japanese Meiji era, and the recasting of Eastwood’s grizzled shootist to Ken Watanabe’s shogunate relic. Another interesting detail is the new government’s detestation of the Ainu aborigines that hail from Hokkaido, which serves as the story’s new location. However, while finely made in its own right, this version is not quite as gripping as the original, possibly due to its overt familiarity and, for all its minor narrative additions and immaculate photography, lacks much of the shading that made Eastwood’s film so compelling the first time around.
Watch the trailer for Unforgiven (2013):
Backwater (Shinji Aoyama, 2013)
While there was a strong showing of light-hearted comedies in this year’s ‘Cinema’ section, such as Robo-G (2012), Yokohama Story (2013) and the aforementioned Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats, all of which are pleasantly innocuous, it was strangely refreshing to see something as prickly and dark as Backwater. Taking place in a small, dead-end riverside town in the late 1980s, the film follows 17-year-old Toma (Masaki Suda), who lives with his father (Ken Mitsuishi) and stepmother (Yukiko Shinohara). His real mother (Yuko Tanaka) has moved out but lives nearby, as she could no longer endure the violence her husband exhibits while having sex. Engaged in a sexual relationship with one of his classmates, Toma is concerned that the apple may not fall far from the tree, and that he too may have a predilection for such tendencies. Equally threatening to veer towards both dour misogyny and histrionics, Shinji Aoyama’s iconoclastic psychosexual drama is largely carried by the unsettling vibe conjured by Takahiro Imai’s graceful yet downtrodden camerawork, and a sound mix where hyperbolic insect buzzes and swells of ominous discordant noise place us firmly in an environment of sweltering oppression. Backwater is certainly an interesting work with plenty to ruminate on, but whether it can be liked is another matter.
My House (Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2012)
Shot in stark monochrome, My House looks at the meaning of ‘home’ through observing two groups of characters with two very contrasting lifestyles. The first is a collective of vagrants living in two makeshift domiciles (which can be packed down and wheeled away at leisure) in Nagoya Park, who scavenge for discarded odds and ends. The second group is a family, consisting of a mysophobic mother, a stern father and two kids, living in a reasonable modern suburb. Best known for the 20th Century Boys films, director Tsutsumi returns to his indie roots with this subtle and quietly thought-provoking work. The often enrapturing black and white cinematography not only reflects the harshness of destitute living, or by turn the sterility of a house scrubbed and cleaned within an inch of its life, but also lends the film a mythic quality that helps distance it from straight-up social realism. Tsutsumi’s observant style doesn’t hit the viewer over the head with messages, it merely suggests. My House proves to be an understated and rather endearing surprise.
Number 10 Blues/Goodbye Saigon (Norio Osada, 2013)
A Japanese/Vietnamese co-production made on location during the closing months of the Vietnam War, Number 10 Blues/Goodbye Saigon was recently unearthed by the National Film Centre of Japan. It was intended to be the directorial debut by Norio Osada, who worked as a screenwriter with Kinji Fukasaku throughout the 1970s and 80s. However, tumultuous political conditions and the production company going bankrupt left the film unfinished for nearly 40 years. It was finally completed in 2012. Number 10 Blues follows a Japanese businessman posted in Saigon (Yusuke Kawazu), who goes on the run with his Vietnamese club-singer girlfriend (Lan Thanh) and the son of an Japanese ex-soldier after accidentally killing a slightly deranged Vietnamese man who used to work for him. Cue foot chases on the mean streets of Saigon, clandestine cross-country travel and shootouts with a gang in close pursuit. Like many Asian genre films of its era, Number 10 Blues is overly macho and too earnest to be the fun and breezy potboiler it could have easily been, which is disappointing considering the effort undertaken to get the film finished after so many years.
Watch the trailer for Number 10 Blues/Goodbye Saigon:
The Tale of Iya (Tetsuichiro Tsuta, 2013)
Nearly three hours long, The Tale of Iya was tucked away in a late-night slot in the ‘Visions’ strand, a risky programming decision that strangely paid off. There was something about watching this sprawling rural epic near the witching hour that lent it a dreamlike aura; one could simply melt in the chair and let its majestic 35mm imagery wash over the senses. Set in a small farming community, the film follows a disparate cast of characters whose lives overlap and impact on one another. An old man who lives alone on the mountain rescues a baby, the sole survivor of a recent car accident, from a blizzard. Now a teenager, Haruna spends her days going to school and helping her adoptive grandfather tend to the crops. Meanwhile, a disillusioned man from Tokyo arrives seeking a more humble life. He crosses paths with a construction company that is building a tunnel through one of the mountains, as well as the group of gap-year Westerners opposing its progress. Evoking past classics such as The Ballad of Narayama (1958/1983) and Kaneto Shindo’s The Naked Island (1960), the ambitions of the film’s young director – only 28 at the time of production – are highly commendable. However, the film perhaps overshoots, indulging in a final act set in Tokyo that doesn’t quite sit with what came before, even though it leads to the kind of wonderful moment that can only be realised in cinema. But even if it does meander, The Tale of Iya is by turns grounded and magical, and bears all the hallmarks and directorial assurance of a modern, almost masterpiece. It is a deeply impressive and immersive work.
Antonym (Natsuka Kusano, 2014)
In an era where most new Japanese films seem to be clocking in at over two hours, the presence of Antonym, a sprightly 73-minuter, was all the more intriguing. Partaking in an evening writing class, Aya (Yuri Ishikaza) wins a competition that will see her 10-minute radio play broadcast on a midnight time slot, but only on the condition that she take on a co-writer to rework the script. Intending to work on the project alone, the stubborn and selfish Aya asks a work colleague, Sachiko (Asami Shibuya), to pretend to be her co-writer and sit in on meetings with her teacher. However, Sachiko has a natural knack for writing and wants to get properly involved. What follows is a delicate drama on an intimate scale about two characters of opposing dispositions, but each lonely in their own way. Aya is insular, whereas Sachiko yearns for connection, going out of her way to be friends with the former who, frustratingly, does not wish to reciprocate. But as their relationship develops, it begins to unwittingly mirror the themes of Aya’s play, climaxing in the unlikely pair performing the re-developed script in a recording studio. Antonym is a decent little debut from director Natsuka Kusano, although, unfortunately, perhaps too modest and esoteric to find a broader audience.
Patema Inverted (Yasuhiro Yoshiura, 2013)
With Studio Ghibli curiously absent from the animé line-up (especially strange considering the recent releases of Hayao Miyazaki’s supposed final film The Wind Rises and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Isao Takahata’s less publicised return after a 14-year directing absence), the role of flag bearer for the ‘Animation’ strand arguably fell to Patema Inverted. A mind-boggling adventure set in two dystopian worlds that have opposing gravitational directions, the film follows teenager Patema (Yukiyo Fujii), who lives in an underground city. While out exploring in the ‘danger zone’, she falls down a vertical shaft and soon discovers an outside world where everything appears to be upside down. She befriends Age (Nobuhiko Okamoto), a fellow teen who is confused about the totalitarian state in which he lives, despite the educational propaganda that claims those who are ‘inverted’, like Patema, are sinners who need to be persecuted. While the narrative endeavours to keep us guessing over which ‘world’ is in fact the right way up, it also ensures that we never lose sight of the budding, gravity-crossed relationship at its centre, which gives the film a beating heart and plenty of emotional weight. Maybe a Studio Ghibli title wasn’t needed this year after all.
Watch the trailer for Patema Inverted:
Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2013)
Winner of the Grand Jury prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and the closing film of this festival, Like Father, Like Son poses an impossible dilemma no parent would want to experience. When two couples from different backgrounds find out that their six-year-old sons were accidentally swapped at birth, they must decide whether to swap them back or remain as they are. As with Nobody Knows (2004) and I Wish (2011), Koreeda continues to riff on the theme of broken families, but in doing so further solidifies his reputation as a world-class filmmaker, often showered with daunting comparisons to Yasujiro Ozu. But maybe these aren’t so daunting anymore as, with Ozu’s best work, Like Father, Like Son is humble, humanistic, deeply edifying and executed with such gentle precision you are barely aware of the mechanics at work in making you feel engrossed and moved. Certainly one of the strongest Japanese films of recent years, and seeing as it’s not long been released on DVD and Blu-ray, there really isn’t any excuse to miss it.
Short Peace (Shuhei Morita, Katsuhiro Otomo, Hiroaki Ando, Hajime Katoki, 2013)
An omnibus feature composed of four short animated stories, Short Peace is a mixed bag of minor successes and near misses, which has enjoyed exposure due to the involvement of Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo: he wrote and directed the second segment, ‘Combustible’, and his manga served as the basis for the fourth, ‘A Farewell to Weapons’. The format of equally allotted segments is problematic. The first segment, ‘Possessions’, feels a little too long, whereas the aforementioned ‘Combustible’, a story about firefighting in feudal Japan, feels too short and ends just as it starts to get interesting. Segment three, ‘Gambo’, where a famed and mythical white bear fights a hulking red demon, and urban combat set piece ‘A Farewell to Weapons’ are better paced, although the latter is tonally mismatched with the first three due to its futuristic setting. Despite being assembled by some of the industry’s leading figures, Short Peace, while intermittently worthwhile, doesn’t quite coalesce as a whole.
However, special mention needs to be given to one of the screenings’ supporting shorts. The Portrait Studio(Takashi Nakamura, 2013), a beautifully executed story of a late 19th-century portrait photographer who tries to coax a smile out of a particularly stubborn customer over the course of several decades, was of a similar length to the individual segments of Short Peace and roundly upstaged them all with its pictorial animation style, nostalgic air and delightful piano score.
Watch the trailer for The Portrait Studio
The Ko Nakahira Retrospective
This year’s ‘Nippon Retro’ strand honoured the work of the little known Ko Nakahira, an early innovator of the 1960s Japanese New Wave who laid the groundwork for the likes of Shôhei Imamura, Nagisa Ôshima and Seijun Suzuki. Nine films were selected to be shown at the German Film Museum, which served to highlight the variety of styles, genres and production circumstances that Nakahira worked within while at Nikkatsu throughout the 1950s and 60s.
Nakahira often got into hot water with studio executives over the quick pacing of many of his films, concerned that audiences acclimatised to the more tranquil and metered styles of Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse et al., would have difficulty keeping up. He also got into trouble with the censors over his frank handling of sexual issues. For instance, That Guy and I (1961) is a vibrant yet bawdy school comedy focusing on the new youth culture that rocked the archipelago at the turn of the decade. Characters openly discuss sexual desires with one another as well as bodily functions like menstruation. But the film also isn’t afraid to touch on serious political issues, such as the student riots and the rape of one of the female characters. Only on Mondays (1964) is about good-time girl Yuka (Mariko Kaga), whose life consists of little more than exploring her sexual prowess and her hold over several men, all the while eschewing genuine intimacy as the result of a psychosexually damaging childhood trauma. Stylistically, the film seems to be a reaction to the French Nouvelle Vague, which in turn was partly influenced by Nakahira’s work – reportedly, François Truffaut was particularly receptive to what would be Nakahira’s calling card, Crazed Fruit (1956).
The retrospective also looked at the other side of Nakahira’s career: his less personal, director-for-hire output. A highlight of this was most certainly The Black Gambler – Devil’s Left Hand (1965), the last in a six-part Black Gambler series of films starring Akira Kobayashi as a superstar gambler, who beds women effortlessly and often gets caught up in plots of international intrigue. A professor from the fictional nation of Pandora concocts a scheme to take over Japan’s gambling industry, and plans to build an army (it is revealed that the nation’s army consists of only 56 soldiers) with the revenue. For reasons that are never quite explained, the professor must defeat Koji, the Black Gambler, in order to fulfil his plans. He enlists the help of his three brightest students at Pandora’s University of Gambling: an old woman, a blind man and a precocious child, who each take Koji on. Tongue firmly in cheek, what follows is akin to a Roger Moore-era Bond film (although this was produced before Moore took over from Sean Connery), a franchise that the Gambler series emulated in a number of ways to capitalise on its popularity.
The Koji Yamamura Retrospective
The ‘Animation’ strand also had its own retrospective of sorts this year, a screening that collected several short works by independent animator and teacher Koji Yamamura. Yamamura attended the event to present 11 of his films. Standout pieces included the Oscar-nominated Mt. Head (2002), a modern interpretation of a traditional rakugo story of a man sprouting a small cherry tree from his head after eating cherry seeds; The Old Crocodile (2005), an amusingly macabre tale based on Histoire du vieux crocodile (1923) by Léopld Chauveau; and Muybridge’s Strings (2011), an exquisitely crafted visualisation of Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 experiments of consecutively photographing each phase of a galloping horse’s movements. Filled with wit, intelligence and unusual ideas, Yamamura’s work shows a different side of animé, proving that there’s more to it than giant mechas, busty schoolgirls and fan service.
Bernard Parmegiani (1927-2013) was one the most formidable composers to emerge from Pierre Schaeffer’s music research group the GRM in the 1960s. Parmegiani’s work abounds with a vivacious corporeality. His compositions are extremely animated and dynamic, and the sounds he composes with are especially distinctive for their kinetic physicality and visceral presence. They meld environmental noises and impulses with electronic sounds and enhancements in a way that, as clichéd as it is, can best be described as alchemical. Yes, there is much in the way of transmutation or, to evoke Catholicism, trans-substantiation. A sound event or impulse without discernibly doing so becomes another event or impulse, or becomes redolent of something else, and one starts to question the nature of what one is hearing. One becomes an active listener. It is true acousmatic music. There is also a great sense of humour and a genuine sense of motion in his work. Interestingly, Parmegiani trained to be a mime artist with Jacques Le Coq in the late 1950s.
His album De Natura Sonorum (1975) is the defining musique concrète LP, a masterpiece. Notable for its exquisite timbral richness and dynamic interplay, it is also very percussive and physical. When you hear what sounds like a woodblock being struck it sounds and feels like it’s happening six inches away from your head. Although it is part of the musique concrète canon and was composed in 1975 it still radiates a sense of being sui generis and extra tempus.
Parmegiani was also a prolific composer for television and cinema, working notably with the Polish auteur Walerian Borowczyk. In Daniel Bird’s short documentary Eyes That Listen, he discusses his soundtracks for Borowczyk’s animations: ‘It’s a type of music which on purpose doesn’t exaggerate distance from the sound to the image… what you see and what you hear… is as in real life… when something falls down the chute it falls down… da, da, da…’ I think he’s underplaying just how unique his sounds actually are.
Parmegiani wasn’t the only composer Borowczyk worked with. Indeed, the Polish director was something of a pioneer in using electroacoustic music in animation. In collaboration with animator Jan Lenica, he had already worked with composers like Andrzej Markowski and W?odzimierz Kotoński, both members of the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio. It was after Borowczyk came to France in 1959 that he started working with Parmegiani on a number of films, including the macabre 12-minute animation Les jeux des anges (1964).
Perhaps Parmegiani’s most widely heard but little known work is the ident for announcements at one of Paris’ major airports, Indicatif – Aéroport Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle. This stunning, glistening micro-composition is full of mystery and magic and excited the ears of travellers for 34 years between 1971 and 2005.
I met Parmegiani once. It was at a London Musician’s Collective concert at the Institute of Contemporary Art. He was sat drinking wine with his wife, relaxing before he diffused some of his work through a monster sound system. I’d recently released a 20-minute composition on a 3” CD published by the Spanish label Oozebap. I gingerly approached Parmegiani and offered him a copy of the CD. He asked me what was on it and I said ‘It’s a collage…’ He looked back at me doubtfully and said with a slight rising inflection and hint of incredulity, ‘You like collage?’ I don’t recall my reply.
Richard Thomas will be part of a musical response to Walerian Borowczyk’s film scores at Café Oto, London, on 10 June 2014: Octothorpe presents Borowczyk: Mise-en-scène, featuring Aleks Kolkowski + The Dufay Collective (Vivien Ellis, Jon Banks, Paul Bevan & William Lyons) + Secluded Bronte (The Bohman Brothers & Richard Thomas) + short films.
Cinema of Desire Venue: BFI Soutbank, London Dates: 1-27 May 2014
The Listening Eye Venue: ICA, London Dates: 20 May-27 June 2014
For more information visit the BFI and ICA websites
While Walerian Borowczyk (1923 – 2006) had been a keen amateur filmmaker since his youth, his professional debut was a handful of short films made with another poster artist, Jan Lenica (1928 – 2001). These films took what was interesting about the Polish posters of the 1950s (the economy of means, a ‘hand-made’ quality) and translated it into cinema. In 1958, Borowczyk co-wrote a documentary film on posters (Sztuka ulicy), which connected both mediums in that they express thoughts and feelings through images and text. Unlike posters, however, films are about movement. Borowczyk was not just a filmmaker, but also a painter and sculptor. During his later years, he returned to graphics (using a technique he referred to as pulverographie, or ‘dustography’, which involved colour photocopying) and produced a series of bizarre wooden sound sculptures (34 of Borowczyk’s ‘dustographs’ illustrate his 1992 collection of short stories, L’anatomie du diable (The Anatomy of the Devil) available as part of Arrow Video’s upcoming special edition box set release Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection. Three of Borowczyk’s sound sculptures are featured in the ICA exhibition ‘Walerian Borowczyk: The Listening Eye’ (The Fox Reading Room, ICA, 20 May-6 July 2014).
Borowczyk was fascinated with early cinema – the motion studies of Etienne-Jules Marey (which feature in Dom), the praxinoscope of Charles-Émile Reynaud (upon which Borowczyk’s 1979 short Jouet joyeux is based), the special effects of Georges Méliès, the physical comedy of Keaton as well as the montage experiments of Eisenstein. Borowczyk did not have a singular style so much as a way of thinking about the world. Some of Borowczyk’s short films are made up from photographs (e.g. Szko?a, Les astronautes), others involve the manipulation of objects (e.g. Renaissance, Le phonographe) or a combination of the two (e.g. Rosalie). In that, he is close Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovskii’s conception of a poetic cinema in which objects could be used to express abstract concepts. Shklovskii described Battleship Potemkin as an ‘uprising of dishes’ on account of the plates smashed during a monologue in which a crew member expresses discontent. Borowczyk took this idea to an extreme – objects are not only on a par with actors (e.g. Rosalie, Une collection particulière) but in some cases displace them completely (Renaissance, Le Phonographe).
While Borowczyk considered painting and filmmaking as two separate genres, he nevertheless fulfilled Fernand Léger’s dream of an artist being able to express themselves through paintbrush and film camera (during the 1950s, Borowczyk had travelled to France to make an amateur film about Léger at work in his studio, and would later make a remarkable documentary featuring Ljuba Popović paintingL’amour monstre de tous les temps). Like both Norman McLaren and Len Lye before him, Borowczyk sometimes painted directly onto celluloid (e.g. Sztandar M?odych) or animation cells (e.g. Théâtre de Monsieur & Madame Kabal (The Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal) and Scherzo infernal). Alternatively, he used the rostrum camera to make elaborate tracks around paintings (e.g. Les jeux des anges). As with many Polish poster artists of his generation (e.g. Lenica, Roman Cieślewicz, etc.), collage was profoundly important to him. Through cinema, the constituent elements could move (e.g. L’encyclopédie de grand-maman).
In 1968, Borowczyk made his live-action feature debut, Goto, l’île d’amour (Goto, Island of Love). Thematically, it is a love story about the lengths a man goes to possess a woman. Stylistically, it was the culmination of Borowczyk’s formal experiments concerning the use of objects as a means of telling stories (e.g. Rosalie), framing (e.g. Les jeux des anges, Gavotte) and combining black and white with colour (e.g. Renaissance, Diptyque). Divorced from both time and place, Goto works as an adult fairy tale, which attracted the attention of Angela Carter. Goto also paved the way for a generation of graphic artists who wanted to work in film (e.g. the Brothers Quay, Craigie Horsfield, Andrzej Klimowski and John Goto – who liked the film so much he changed his name).
After four years and a couple of shorts, Borowczyk’s next feature film was Blanche, a personal project in which he invested his own money. It is loosely based on Mazepa, a drama by the Polish Romantic poet Julius S?owacki. Set in medieval France, Blanche recreates an entire world through set design and props. In addition to painting the sets, Borowczyk fabricated many of the objects that feature in the film. Ostensibly a period drama, Blanche has a number of surreal touches, like a crucifix that transforms into a crossbow. He was a great fabricator, who loved distressing wood to make it appear antique (e.g. Une collection particulière). At the heart of Blanche is Borowczyk’s wife, Ligia, a woman with a remarkable screen presence whose angelic demeanour conceals a demonic sexual impulse. If Ligia was Dietrich, then like von Sternberg, Borowczyk was a master at creating atmosphere. Blanche bombed at the French box office, although it played for over a year at the Paris Pullman Cinema in London.
With La bête (The Beast), Borowczyk tricked his audience into thinking they were watching a refined costume drama, before confronting them with a Monty Python version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ involving gallons of fake sperm. Often described as an erotic film, La bête is more of a Rabelaisian comedy. If anything it was a parody of pornography. Both La bête and Contes immoraux (Immoral Tales) were box office smashes in France. In terms of the way Domenico Scarlatti’s harpsichord music is used as a counterpoint, the role played by objects and animals (satin slippers and slimy snails) as well as its dreamlike quality, La bête is pure Borowczyk. The sexual aspect was nothing new (it had always been there, lurking under the surface) but now it was visible. The premiere of Contes immoraux and La bête coincided with the election of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and the abolition of film censorship.
Borowczyk’s intention was never to solely titillate. Instead, he was interested in sexuality as a theme, just as violence was a theme in Sam Peckinpah’s Westerns. Borowczyk was interested in how people and society had, historically, dealt with sexuality. As a Catholic, he was particularly concerned with the role of the Church, both in Poland (e.g. Dzieje grzechu) and Italy (e.g. the ‘Lucrezia Borgia’ episode of Contes immoraux). Borowczyk believed in the importance of sex in Renaissance art, particularly the significance of Raphael’s mistress (the ‘Margherita’ episode of Les héroïnes du mal). Many of Borowczyk’s films deal with the repression of sexuality, and its manifestation in the form of taboos (Contes immoraux) and dreams (La bête). Borowczyk himself was preoccupied by the idea of sin, and thought of his films not as erotic, but ethical. Critics preoccupied with flesh are blinkered to the more transcendental aspects of Borowczyk’s films (both Renaissance and Goto, l’île d’amour are concerned with resurrection). If the displays of self-sacrifice in Blanche have overtly religious overtones, then it is worth remembering that Borowczyk wished to follow up the film with one about the Passion of Christ…
Between 1983 and 1987, Borowczyk attempted to mount a project about the life of Nefertiti, an adaptation of Dumas’s La reine Margot, a film about Chopin and George Sand, an English-language period drama based on a script by Cherry Potter (The Ancestral Mansion), as well as a return to feature-length animation (an expansion of his 1984 short Scherzo infernal, much like Théâtre de Monsieur & Madame Kabal elaborated on Le concert). However, all of these projects collapsed. Then Alain Siritzky, the producer of the Emmanuelle series, turned to Borowczyk as a means of bringing some artistic prestige to his franchise. In this respect, Borowczyk sold out no more than Sam Mendes did when he signed on to direct Skyfall. The teaser for Emmanuelle 5, in which a dildo is fashioned, origami style, out of a napkin, is typical Borowczyk. However, Siritzky imposed an actress on Borowczyk, Monique Gabrielle. Borowczyk did not speak English and, by all accounts, did not get on with Gabrielle. Having left the main shoot to his assistant director, Borowczyk focused on the second unit photography: close-ups of objects (including those Borowczyk fashioned for Une collection particulière), reportage of the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, not to mention the recreation of a plane crash using scale models (having led an uprising in a harem, Emmanuelle joins her lover, a Howard Hughes type, in an attempt at flying a ‘Spruce Goose’-type seaplane…).
If Borowczyk was guilty of a crime, then it was his inability to delegate work – he had to do everything all by himself on his terms in total freedom. In later years he sought out producers that he thought would allow him to work in complete freedom. He spent much of the 1980s fighting producers (over the title change of Le cas estrange du Dr Jekyll et de Miss Osbourne to Dr Jekyll et les femmes, the inserts from a Joe D’Amato feature spliced into Ars Amandi, not to mention losing control of Nefertiti, which was eventually produced in 1995 as Nefertiti, figlia del sole). Some see Borowczyk as a Jack-of-all-trades, while others see him as a Renaissance man in the vein of Eisenstein or Welles. At his best, Borowczyk made films as if he had invented cinema. At his worst, he filmed like a Martian who had fallen through time and space to make clandestine documentaries about human mating rituals. In many ways, Borowczyk was ahead of his time (his later work deserves to be taken as seriously as, for example, Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac or the films of Catherine Breillat). He was by far the most interesting Polish filmmaker of his generation, and his best films – the shorts of the 1960s and the features from the early 1970s – rank alongside the best of Bresson (in terms of rigour) and Buñuel.
Tony Collingwood’s 23-minute animation Rarg (1988) is a charming ode to sleep, dreaming and the subconscious mind. Through Collingwood’s enchantingly detailed drawings and Philip Appleby’s mesmerising soundtrack, the film creates an absorbing idyll of ‘peace and tranquillity; a world so perfect that the sun never rose until it was absolutely sure that everybody was awake’. Rarg is a place where everybody is happy, from its leader, the Rargian senator, to the nesting birds singing outside his window. The key to this happiness lies in the vast library of Rarg: endless shelves stacked with books detailing the revelations of generations. In Rarg, thought and intellectual discovery are highly prized; ‘they discovered simply for the sake of discovery’. The sonorous voice of narrator, Nigel Hawthorne, introduces us to towers filled with professors working away on ‘discoveries’, from tiny revelations to the biggest question of all: ‘where exactly are we anyway?’
To our amusement and surprise, this latter enquiry is answered by an enormous sneeze. One of the professors has installed ‘information-sucking electrodes’ throughout Rarg to determine the meaning of existence. As the professor flicks the switch to turn on these electrodes, an image of a sleeping man named Edwin Barnes appears on his computer screen. When Edwin produces an almighty ‘Achooo!’ the ground shakes in its wake. After six minutes acclimatising to this strangely harmonious world, we realise that Rarg is a construct: the inner mind of a snoring man.
And so the film becomes an allegorical exploration of what happens when we sleep. The industrious professors are the workings of our subconscious minds, building on buried archives of knowledge (the library of Rarg) to reveal truths which remain hidden during our waking lives. And the senator of Rarg, with his delight in creativity and ‘discovery’, shows how our imaginations take flights of fancy when they do not have to deal with the practicalities and complications of our daytime existences. The peaceful harmony of Rarg is – put simply – an illusion and a very fragile construction. This utopia hangs in the balance as Edwin’s alarm clock ticks down to 8 AM. With five minutes left, the inhabitants have two weeks in Rargian time to hatch a plan. The Rargian senate calls a meeting for the first time in 8000 years. Time in Rarg is as fluid as it appears when we dream.
At the prospect of waking up, the mind stages a revolt and the Rargian inhabitants take action to rescue (or rather kidnap) Edwin from ‘reality’ and bring him to Rarg. As the hushed mission gets underway, Collingwood creates some lovely silent comedy set pieces. Like miniature Oliver Hardys, four rotund figures are sent forth with pillowcases on their feet to carry Edwin’s bed. The nuances of their movements are beautifully rendered to produce a delightfully silly heist scene. And, as these figures make their way through Rarg’s streets, a baby bird falls dangerously close to Edwin’s sleeping body, creating another wonderfully tense sequence of physical comedy. These scenes perfectly mimic the lightest stage of sleep in which we might wake from our slumber, every tiny external sound threatening our peace. Edwin survives these perilous moments and the subsequent result is an ending so unexpected and surreal, it is bound to make you smile from ear to ear. As a meditation on the beauty of sleep, Rarg makes you want to turn your alarm clock off, roll over and take another 40 winks!
Mark Stafford reviews some of the highlights of the London Film Festival, including Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt and David Ayer’s End of Watch, out on UK screens this month.
John Dies at the End
Your new favourite film. A flip, funny thrill ride full of trippy headfuckery, rubber monsters, snappy dialogue and wild ideas, adapted from David Wong’s cult novel by Don (Phantasm/Bubba Ho-Tep) Coscarelli. Trying to explain the film’s singular tone is difficult: it’s like a punky horror/SF adventure infused with the snarky, iconoclastic sensibility of Fight Club.
Any attempt at a plot summary would be pretty much doomed; suffice to say that it concerns the effects of an intravenous drug called ‘soy sauce’, which has the effect of not so much opening the doors of perception as blowing them off their hinges. Users are apt to receive phone calls from the future and see physical manifestations of beings from other planes of existence, as a prelude to entering a multiverse of trouble and what looks like an inevitable spectacularly messy demise. David Wong (Chase Williamson) is trying to explain his recent life history on the sauce to a journalist (Paul Giamatti), the tale of how he and college buddy John (Andy Meyers) came by the stuff and started a chain of events that leads to them attempting to save the world from creepy inter-dimensional interlopers. Nothing is straightforward in this fast-paced genre mash-up: time and space are distorted, people aren’t what they seem, and metaphysical conundrums pop up with alarming regularity. I’m not sure if it’s about anything, exactly. There is a suspicion that it’s more smart-arsed than smart in places, and the random nature of the story means that it loses a little momentum before the home stretch, but I’m quibbling. It’s a blast, a wonderfully weird, eminently quotable midnight movie. Just don’t ask what happens to John, I wouldn’t want to ruin it for you.
A Liar’s Autobiography
Fourteen different animation studios pitch in to realise the late lamented Python Graham Chapman’s memoir, A Liar’s Autobiography, using recordings that Chapman made himself, assisted vocally by John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Carol Cleveland, among others (Cameron Diaz voices Sigmund Freud). The result is a somewhat disjointed, inconsistent, hugely affectionate film that leaps from point to point through a charmed and blighted life. It’s a woozy, drifting thing, where memory often gives way to fantasy, and you’d be hard pressed to decipher from it the actual biographical detail, the who, what, where and when, of Chapman’s life. But that’s hardly the point. He emerges as a kind of anti-Kenneth Williams, utterly un-tortured by his sexuality and status, but a bugger for the bottle, as a Python song would put it, seriously destroying his health, but never apparently committing the sin of being bad company.
The animation varies from stiff and flat to gorgeous and accomplished – I loved the nightmarish delirium tremens sequence, and the Scarborough holiday moments. A bit of a mixed bag, but on the whole it’s all rather lovely.
Thomas Vinterberg’s outstanding film features Mads Mikkelsen as a kindergarten teacher, a likeable man in a small Danish town of other likeable types, starting to pull his life together after a messy divorce, until one day he is accused by an angelic child, daughter of his best friend, and one of his charges, of inappropriate sexual behaviour. What follows is a tense, occasionally agonising drama as a good man’s life is systematically destroyed by reasonable people reduced to violence and hatred by an unfounded suspicion. It’s all well thought through, and nightmarishly plausible. Mikkelsen puts in fine work, but then none of the performers strikes a false note. The child especially comes across as a real living, breathing girl, whose actions make sense in a little girl way, worlds away from any number of Hollywood moppets. Photography is crisp and unfussy and the whole thing is full of well observed domestic detail that add weight to the horror and heartbreak. Not an easy watch, but worth it.
The Hunt is released in the UK on 30 November 2012 by Arrow Films.
In which Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein), a slight, vulnerable-looking boy, spends his days nicking the expensive gear of holidaying skiers at a Swiss resort, so that he can sell it on to the kids at the bottom of the mountain and support his feckless older sister as she quits job after job and fools around with a succession of jerks. He’s a ballsy, resourceful kid, but it’s clear that the precarious existence he’s created cannot last forever, and something is clearly wrong with the family situation. Ursula Meier’s film is perfectly fine, in a low-key sub- Dardennes kind of way. Gillian Anderson cameos as a guest at the resort, representing a way of life lost to the little thief; the location gives the film an aesthetic buzz; and John Parish’s throbbing score is sparingly used but damn fine. It’s clearly a heartfelt piece by a smart director – wish I could say I liked it more.
End of Watch
David Ayer’s cop drama feels at times like a recruitment ad for the LAPD gone seriously askew. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña playing the kind of unambiguous hero cops who’ll leap into burning buildings to rescue children – true blue, courageous, good husband and boyfriend material – which the film pits against the population of South Central Los Angeles, who, on this evidence, are all irrational, cruel and clueless, when not being actively malignant. Every house our partners enter contains another horror story, every car they stop contains a maniac with an AK 47, and as time passes their actions interfere more and more with the activities of a seriously nasty Mexican cartel, who have no qualms about putting out a hit on a couple of heroes.
The essential problem with End of Watch is that the vérité dynamics of the performances and camerawork are totally at odds with the heart-on-sleeve good versus evil schematics. The visuals are saying ‘this is real’, with all the action supposedly captured on surveillance and personal cameras, while galloping clichés and unlikely incidents are saying ‘this is horseshit’. The film starts with the legend ‘Once upon a time in South Central’ and names its main bad guy ‘Big Evil’, then knocks itself out straining for grimy authenticity.
You find yourself waiting in vain for some ambiguity to creep in, some acknowledgement of Rampart or Rodney King. Likewise, you keep expecting the ‘digital witness’ styling, which is consistently foregrounded, to actually have some significance to the story. But it doesn’t, and the horrible suspicion grows that this is just a pro-cop flag-waver with a simplistic Michael Winner agenda.
For all that, it’s actually pretty damn entertaining, largely because Gyllenhaall and Peña have a definite chemistry and are fun to watch, as are the outrageously horrible gang they’re up against, who provide some diverting, sleazy thrills. It’s funny and tense when it needs to be, has moments of oddball, Joseph Wambaugh-esque detail and it moves at an agreeable clip. But at the end of the day it’s not much cop.
End of Watch is released in the UK on 23 November 2012 by Studiocanal.
My Amityville Horror
This fine, puzzling documentary by Eric Walter consists largely of interviews with Daniel Lutz, who is, nowadays, a worker for the UPS, but who was, back in the 70s, the oldest son of the Lutz family, who were at the heart of the ‘Amityville Horror’ paranormal case study/ media franchise. Walter gets to film Daniel playing guitar, riding around in hot rods, visiting a therapist and meeting up with various people who had a connection to the original case in some kind of quest to attain closure and peace.
The film lets everybody speak for themselves, with no editorial voice-over or evident bias, which is fair enough, though it does kind of assume that you’re familiar with the AH phenomenon, in which the Lutzes were supposed to have endured 28 days of supernatural assault after moving into a house that they picked up as a bargain after it had been the scene of a nasty mass murder (Daniel was 10 at the time). I, for one, could have done with a few more subtitles spelling out the facts where the facts are known. But this is a case where hard facts are hard to find. AH is a battleground between those who believe that it was all a hoax and those who believe the Lutzes’ account, with the waters further muddied by Jay Anson’s decidedly dodgy bestseller and the 1974 film, with its various sequels and remakes.
There are some great characters and strange ideas revealed along the way, and a visit to a psychic’s house (dozens of occult carvings, twin roosters crowing in cages, a piece of the ‘true cross’ revealed) that is weird comedy gold. But the main reason to watch is Daniel, clearly scarred by the dysfunctional home life that erupted into a media sensation. He fled home at 14 and is now estranged from his family, paranoid, intense and angry, and prone to making forceful statements that beg more questions than they answer. A brittle man in a macho shell, he recalls the subject of Errol Morris’s 2011 doc Tabloid, another film where the very idea of ‘truth’ becomes slippery and elusive. Did this stuff happen? Does Daniel need to believe it did? A film to argue over.
Julia’s Eyes writer Oriol Paulo turns co-writer and director for this wonderful piece of creepy hokum, an implausible cocktail of Hitchcock, Agatha Christie and Les Diaboliques, which, for the most part, features a man surrounded by suspicious cops being elaborately framed, apparently by a dead woman, for a murder he has committed. In a morgue. During a thunderstorm. Can we call a film delicious? I think we can.
An effective, nasty little film from Craig Zobel. Something fishy is up at the Chick-wich fast food outlet, it’s a busy day and they’re low on bacon, when police officer Daniels phones to accuse one of their members of staff, Becky (Dreama Walker), of theft. Stressed manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) goes along with his requests, searching Becky’s things, and then, at his repeated insistence, strip-searches Becky herself. So far, so creepy, but as the day wears on and the promised cops fail to show up, the demands of Officer Daniels become more and more extreme…
Zobel clearly wants to make you feel uncomfortable and does a great job of it, stretching out the moments of stilted conversation, dawning realisation and disbelief. His film walks a fine tightrope, how far can he push this? You find yourself in a state of growing anger, hoping that someone on screen will have the balls to question the caller, or refuse his demands. Which I guess is the point. I doubt I was the only one to recall Stanley Milgram’s psychological experiments of the 60s. How far do you obey authority’s demands? What are you willing to do if given permission? Big questions for what some would dismiss as a horrible piece of exploitation. But then Zobel has the ultimate get-out clause in that Compliance is based on true events, that happened over and over again.
Although the film isn’t particularly explicit, it clearly crossed a line for many in the packed audience I was in. The sound of seats flipping up started at about the half-hour mark, and built to a crescendo, with one man yelling, ‘come on every body, time to leave!’ as Becky’s humiliation continued. The majority of us stayed though, squirming in the dark. I guess we were compliant.
West of Memphis
A long haul, two-and-a-half-hour documentary that absolutely needs that length. Amy Berg’s film details the ‘West Memphis Three’ case from 1994, when three eight-year-old boys were found dead in Arkansas, in what was suspected by the police to be a case of satanic ritual abuse. Three likely teenage suspects were rounded up and tried. The film then follows events through the 18 years they spent in a supermax prison as clamour slowly grew to overturn a miscarriage of justice and set them free. The clamour first took the shape of the documentary Paradise Lost, which galvanised the likes of Henry Rollins and Eddie Vedder into campaigning and fund-raising for the long battle, and, more pertinently, gained the attention of producer Fran Walsh and director Peter Jackson, who got on board to bankroll investigations to produce new evidence, and demolish the prosecution’s case. This is a Wingnut film, produced by Walsh, Jackson, and Damien Echols, one of the WM3.
Considering that, West of Memphis is fairly even-handed, giving voice to a fair few interviewees who still believe, or profess to believe, that the three teens committed the crime, but it’s clear where the film is coming from, and it’s difficult to argue with that perspective. The flimsiness of the original prosecution beggars belief: an alarmist conflation of dodgy ‘witnesses’, spurious medical evidence and the heavily coerced testimony of a borderline retarded teenager, it’s simultaneously blackly amusing and enraging to see it all torn apart. More enraging still is the state of Arkansas justice, where opportunities for retrial after retrial are denied for clearly political ends despite DNA evidence and new witnesses. One of the odder moments sees the campaigners praying for Judge Burnett’s bid to run for senator to succeed, purely so that he’ll no longer be in a position to stonewall.
It’s a fascinating story, full of twists and turns, dark ironies and striking characters, and Berg’s film largely shapes it as a long march to justice. Ambiguities remain, however. The outcome of the campaign is highly unsatisfactory, a baffling piece of legal chicanery that means that the likeliest suspect (Terry Hobbs, stepfather to one of the boys) is never going to see a courtroom. There is a glossed-over element of the tale, when the makers of Paradise Lost 2 seem to have tried to finger the wrong man for the crimes, based partly on the same logic of the WM3 conviction (i.e., that he was kinda funny lookin’, being a mulleted redneck, rather than a goth). And we’ll probably never know what actually happened to those boys in 1994. It’s an indication of how weird and twisted the whole thing gets that the only time Terry Hobbs is placed on a witness stand to answer questions about the murders is as a result of his attempt to sue one of the Dixie Chicks.
All of the key players are interviewed, and the unobtrusive soundtrack is by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. I wish I could say it makes the locale look starkly beautiful, but it really doesn’t, a polyester-clad trailer park hellhole of foetid water and barren scrub. But you only have to spend a hundred and fifty minutes there. I was never bored, it’s very much recommended, but viewers should be warned that it contains a lot of distressing forensic footage. And a scene where a snapping turtle attacks a dead pig’s testicles. I’m not going to forget that in a hurry.
West of Membphis is released in the UK on 21 December 2012 by Sony Pictures.
The London International Animation Festival (LIAF) returns next week with its ninth edition of eclectic programming, spanning 30 countries and three London venues. This year sees a special focus on Japanese animation with a retrospective of filmmaker Koji Yamamura and special screening of Keita Kurosaka’s Tokyo-set feature, Midori-Ko, which presents an apocalyptic, dystopian city ravaged by food shortages. There will also be a series of shorts programmes that aim to showcase the diversity of recent works produced in the country. Several of the selected works provide poignant reflections on the effects of the 2011 tsunami: Florian Piento’s The People Who Never Stop shows human resilience through the persistent flow of pedestrians, who remain unfazed by earthquake tremors or engulfing sea water but finally stop in contemplation, looking skywards as cherry blossom petals fall; while Isamu Hirabayashi’s award-winning 663114 reveals the endurance of life through the tale of a 66-year-old cicada.
As usual, specific filmmaking techniques are also celebrated at LIAF with a flipbook challenge workshop and a special programme of live action/animation hybrid films. The use of live action also crops up in several films screening in this year’s international competition screenings. In Joseph Pierce’s The Pub , hand-drawn faces replace actors’ features to create a drinking cast of grotesque animals down a North London boozer: the local ex-gangster morphs into a chest-thumping gorilla and a raucous hen party become a group of clucking chickens. In Anja Struck’s How to Raise the Moon, actress Tora Balslev acts the part of a sleeping pianist enveloped in a surreal dream world of time-lapse camerawork and stop-motion puppets. Struck’s unique, otherworldly animation will be playing as part of a special strand – Into the Dark – devoted to the creepiest, darkest shorts submitted to the festival; a screening that promises to provide a nice complement to the festival’s much-loved Late Night Bizarre.
As well as welcoming back other popular annual fixtures such as the British Showcase, LIAF will be screening some new works from previous festival attendees. Theodore Ushev, who was the focus of a special event last year, returns with a beautiful, impressionistic short, Nightingales in December. Building on techniques displayed in Lipsett Diaries (2010), Ushev has created a stunning work of claustrophobic, pulsating paintings – with hints of Francis Bacon and World War I landscape painters – that fade into pixels with the crack and fizzle of an old television set straining to keep signal. Excitingly, there will also be an opportunity to see It’s Such a Beautiful Day, the final part of a much anticipated trilogy by Don Hertzfeldt, whom LIAF brought to London in 2009, and Max Hattler’s Spin, which was produced by Parisian animation studio Autour de minuit, who received a special LIAF retrospective in 2010. Spin begins as a simple kaleidoscope of toy soldiers spiralling through vaudeville zoetropes and Busby Berkeley formations into increasingly intricate and farcical set routines that powerfully and inventively portray the de-humanisation and mass murder involved in modern conflict.
These shorts – wide-ranging in their subject matters and techniques – are just some of the treats in store at LIAF. Other highlights will include a screening of unseen pilots by Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo (who created the first three series of The Simpsons) and the opening night screening of For No Good Reason , a feature film that explores the work of British artist Ralph Steadman through vibrant animated sequences. The organisers of LIAF always provide one of the most energetic and imaginative programmes in the capital and this year promises to be no exception.
Based on the novel Jakob von Gunten by:Robert Walser
Cast: Mark Rylance, Alice Krige, Gottfried John
Colonial Report on Cinema from the Dominion of Canada
Zeitgeist Films Brings Robert Walser via the Brothers Quay to North America
Greg Klymkiw Chats with the Twins
There was a time in the Dominion of Canada, on the hallowed shores of Lake Winnipeg, when a group of virile young men, the Drones, assembled at Loni Beach in the village of Gimli to pay homage to the Holy Fjallkona of Islendingadagurrin. After many days of serving the needs of their respective mothers, they looked longingly at the ‘Woman of the Mountains’, who for one of their kind, the mightily domed Magma Head, represented the dream of Icelandic nationhood. For the others, being Mieuxberry, The Love Doctor, The Claw, Squid and Little Julie, the Fjallkona was the Mother of All.
She stood high atop the Fjallkonan Float as it cascaded down the streets – past the Viking Motor Hotel, Red’s Billiards and Tergesen’s General Store. She stood proudly and waved. The Drones were, however, conflicted twixt deep respect for that which was pure and a foul stirring of the loins as they gazed lovingly upon the decades of hardship etched upon her visage, her upper torso hunched over in servitude to the menfolk of her nation and her digits wracked and twisted with arthritic glories that could only represent her ultimate service to man and country.
At day’s end, their bellies filled with Hardfiskur, Skyr and Vinatarta, the Drones retired deep into the bowels of Loni Beach Forest and entered Mieuxberry’s palatial Canadian Pacific Railway boxcar. Mieuxberry took his rightful place in a top bunk with Squid for ’twas only Squid who was amenable to the late night involuntary eruptions of dearest Mieuxberry’s Hagfish – followed often by nocturnal meanderings whilst deep in the Land of Nod.
Though The Love Doctor preferred snuggling against the shapely baby-fat buttocks of Squid, he made do with Little Julie’s belly, which was soft as a down-filled pillow that might indeed have been stuffed by the Fjallkona herself.
The Claw required a place to rest his head that was unfettered by the immediate presence of any others of the manly persuasion. The Claw was, in the words of He who specialised in especially odious diseases of the mind, ‘in denial’. (In fairness to The Claw, however, none of the Drones were likely to admit to the afflictions of urnigism as defined by Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing in his great work Psychopathia Sexualis.) [Editor’s Note: Greg, are you sure ‘urnigism’ is the right term? I can’t find it anywhere. Greg’s Response to Editor: HAHAHAHAHAHAHA – It is indeed the proper term and is buried deep in Krafft-Ebing and appears in an Archangel voice-over – a joke which is meant to make about 10 people in the world laugh: ‘Head size – normal. No evidence of urnigism in family.’]
Magma Head entered the boxcar and as he did every evening, proceeded to silently and gently tuck all the Drones in. He then took his place upon the tree stump in the centre of the boxcar, moved the oil lamp closer to his proximity and removed a slender volume from his pocket. The twinkle in his eye and an ever so slight pursing of the lips was enough to instil curiosity amongst the Drones as to what manner of tale would be read aloud to complete a most perfect day.
‘Will it be the Huysmans?’ The Love Doctor ejaculated.
‘Bruno Schulz would do me very nicely,’ cooed Little Julie.
‘You know what I want,’ growled The Claw, ‘And I know you will not bestow it upon me, so I shall not profane Him by even uttering His name.’
‘Oh thtuff it, Claw!’ Mieuxberry volleyed with the pronounced lisp that consumed his palate whenever Claw haughtily implied that he’d never hear Ruskin’s Ethics of the Dust, his bedtime words of choice. ‘We’ve had to hear that damned Ruthkin tho’ many timeth becauthe of you, I fear we might all become little crythtalths, for Chrith’th thake!’
‘I’m good with whatever,’ Squid opined cheerfully.
‘Will it be the Huysmans?’ The Love Doctor ejaculated once again.
‘Thtuff it, L.D. You’re getting to be ath bad ath Claw. We had the bloody Huythmanth all fucking week becauthe of you.’
‘I’d settle for some Bataille,’ The Love Doctor offered meekly.
Magma Head chuckled and shook his elephantine skull to and fro.
‘Tonight,’ he said, ‘I have something very new, very special and very appropriate for you lads – especially in light of the magnificence of this year’s Fjallkona. So rest thine weary heads fellows, put aside thine petty squabbles and allow me to purvey the greatest words I have yet to lay my eyes upon.’
‘Greater than Hamsun?’ Little Julie queried.
‘Greater than all,’ beamed Magma Head and in dulcet tones, he did read:
‘One learns very little here, there is a shortage of teachers, and none of us boys of the Benjamenta Institute will come to anything, that is to say, we shall all be something very small and subordinate later in life . . .’
The Drones’ rapt attention clearly suggested that Magma Head’s reading that evening would be no mere precursor to slumber. The eyes, the hearts, the minds of all the young men were fixated upon the tale of Jakob von Gunten and the profound recognition they all did feel in the prose of Robert Walser. They would be wide-eyed and silent until the dawn would break over the hallowed waters of Lake Winnipeg and spill into the boxcar, whereupon Magma Head would gently turn the oil lamp down and continue to read as the golden tresses of God’s warm light of morning caressed the remaining pages.
And their lives, such as they were, would be changed forever.
In 1995, the Quay Brothers unleashed their stunning feature-length adaptation of Robert Walser’s novel Jakob von Gunten and I experienced an identical sense of eye-opening to my first helping of their film as I did when I first heard, or rather, read the novel for the first time. Granted, the book and the film are two works that exist separately from each other in completely different mediums and as such, are of lasting value insofar as I believe it is possible for anybody to experience one without the other.
Ah, but what joy to know Walser when diving headlong into the Quays’ magnificent motion picture. Then again, what joy it is to know the Quays’ movie, then dive with the same headlong abandon into Walser.
The tale, in both book and film, is much the same. One Jakob von Gunten (Mark Rylance) enters into the study of servitude at the Benjamenta Institute, a school devoted to turning out the very best butlers and servants to ply their trade throughout Europe.
Alas, the Institute has seen better days – at least it surely must have – for when Jakob flings himself into its womb of servile academe, he is perplexed by its dank decrepitude, slightly surprised over the money-grubbiness of its principal (Gottfried John) and completely, utterly and wholeheartedly enamoured with the chief lecturer Lisa Benjamenta (Alice Krige).
Endless days and weeks are spent in rigorous exercises devoted to subservience. Jakob occasionally attempts to subvert this, just to mix things up a bit, but as he is drawn deeper into the spell of Lisa, her brother, the Principal, draws himself ever closer to Jakob.
Death, it seems, is just around the corner, for the Institute and its spirit – personified in one who clings to rendering all to a supine position of grovelling. Life in the Institute, such as it is, is not unlike a dream.
Like all dreams, however, it must fade.
Some will fade with it.
Others will move on.
I first saw Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life at the Locarno Film Festival in the summer of 1995. The experience was one I shall never forget. So emotional was my response to the film that I finally gave way to a physical need to respond to the beauty and brilliance of what the Twins had wrought from Walser. At a certain point, my elation caused me to emit tears of joy over their supreme artistry, which astonishingly converged with tears wrought from the profoundly moving sequence towards the film’s end when the character of Lisa Benjamenta, surrounded by the mournful humming of her pupils, fights to stave off the inevitable whilst betraying the deep knowledge that resistance is indeed futile.
This is something that has seldom happened to me while watching a movie – an almost spiritual experience of being deeply moved by the filmmaking and its sheer genius just at that salient point when the film’s narrative and themes are equally moving. It was at that point I was quite convinced I was watching a film destined for masterpiece status.
Add to this the fact that visually, Institute Benjamenta is a feast of epic proportions, with both production design and cinematography that have seldom been rivalled (in the years following its release) in terms of originality and dazzlingly sumptuous beauty. Add yet another element of perfection: a screenplay that captures the spirit and key building stones of Walser’s book with grace, humour and emotion. Add to this a perfect cast, a spirit of cinematic invention and last, but not least, a musical score of such power that it haunts the world of the film as equally as it haunts the viewer.
It has been 17 years since I first saw the film. In that time, I have seen it more times than I have counted. My most recent helping was a new re-mastering of the film by the British Film Institute and imported into an exquisite new DVD from the now-legendary Zeitgeist Films of New York for consumption here in the colonies.
The film is just as great and gets richer with every viewing. If that’s not a masterpiece, I don’t know what it.
I had not laid eyes upon the Twins since 1995. My last memory of them was sitting in some reception hall within the British Film Institute during the London International Film Festival and trying to determine on a map where my Ukrainian ancestry originated to see where it lay in relation to that of Bruno Schulz. At the time, my knowledge of my roots was murkier than it is now and I’m pleased to say that Schulz did indeed come from an Oblast next to mine and that he did indeed reside in the same Oblast for a good portion of his life and career.
Seventeen years, however, is a long time to not converse with artists whose work has infused me with such joy, so in honour of the North American release of Institute Benjamenta via the Zeitgeist Films label as well as two major programmes at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) – one being a film retrospective entitled Lip-Reading Puppets: The Curators’ Prescription for Deciphering the Quay Brothers and the other being a historic exhibit entitled Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets – please find below my conversation with the Quay Brothers on Institute Benjamenta.
Greg Klymkiw: I’m thrilled Institute Benjamenta is now available for home consumption via Zeitgeist Films in North America. I trust you were involved intimately in the process?
Brothers Quay: It was made from a 35mm fine grain and a low-contrast 35mm print both held by Channel Four and cinematographer Nic Knowland, and the two of us supervised the transfer.
I usually avoid watching such extra home entertainment items as ‘On the Set’ segments, as I find they can have the potential to remove any future magic I will derive from the film itself. That said, I trust you both approved its inclusion.
To be honest, the ‘On the Set’ segment is very small, is actually quite all right, and will help considerably in its own modest and informative way as to the location we found and how we worked with it.
Upon watching the segment, I found it moving to witness such commitment, joy and good humour from all the participants in your production, which is so important when one is creating magic. Though this phrase has sadly become a clichéd line from too many who create anything but magic, I still steadfastly hold to the belief that movies ARE magic. I think, though, for that magic to live and breathe on screen it must work its way through every crevice of the picture’s soul, ever forging new waterways and swirling kaleidoscopic tributaries. This is what I see on your set. On a strictly personal level, the ‘On the Set’ segment brought me back so vividly to the production of Archangel where my dearest Mr Maddin and I never once felt the set was anything BUT a secret playground. Am I wrong in assuming you, like Disney’s dwarves, are ‘whistling while you work?’ Is it important to have fun? Are there aspects of moviemaking that bring you back to the joys of childhood? The make-believe? The play? Even to the extent that ‘work’ IS play?
I think we were much too nervous to whistle – literally – but we did have the confidence and the utter loyalty of our hand-picked team. We finished on schedule and under budget and I think we surprisingly proved that our strain of American Protestantism was augmented by Shakerism and Amishism. In the end, yes, everyone was at full ‘play’.
Prior to writing Jakob von Gunten, Walser studied to be a servant and did indeed briefly hold such a position. When not writing, he held several jobs that one might consider to be representative of complete and total servitude. In your film, one of the most indelible sequences for me is when Jakob begs/demands for a decent place to ‘rest his head’. At least initially, this is something that clearly sets him apart from his fellow students in the servant academy (as I suspect Walser himself must have felt like when he himself toiled in similar inconsequential positions of employ).
No one wrote more beautifully about the notion of ‘freedom’, and the un-freedoms within freedom, than Walser. In real life he was a great interloper, a loner, extremely restless, a permanent wanderer and he knew hard and difficult penury but these odd jobs that he so frequently took up were there to protect and keep his writing independent. In Jakob von Gunten, he is both proud and a little defiant, but in order to explore those ‘grey nether regions’ of zero-dom he simply needed a decent place to rest his head and no doubt a table to write on. There was also an enormous element of play-acting, mischievousness, in his role as the servant, but there were lessons he learned and admired and submitted to at the Institute Benjamenta: the renunciations, the strictures.
YES!!! I do so love that notion of ‘play-acting’ in both life and movies. At times, the actors playing the Benjamenta students are infused with a quality of gentle pantomime, certainly not unlike the magical qualities of silent cinema, where performance was rendered stylistically and with a theatrical sense of projection. Granted, so much in those early days of movies came from such theatrical sources as vaudeville, melodrama, and yes, traditional British pantomime. It brought an added magical quality to the medium that, to a certain extent, is lacking in the post-silent era. (There was and is magic, of course, just rendered differently.) However, I am very interested in how so much of Benjamenta is relayed visually – I can even imagine a movie that includes music and soundscape, but where the ‘text’ is conveyed via intertitles. I find your film is so delicately, exquisitely balanced in this regard that while every element of the storytelling is infused with ‘style’ it does not draw attention to itself – you set the ‘parameters’ of Walser’s world in cinematic terms and we go with the flow. To what extent are you consciously invoking elements of ‘archaic’ storytelling and making it your own in order to serve Walser’s vision?
We promised ourselves that everything that we learned in animation wouldn’t be jettisoned just because we moved into our first live-action feature and that the dialogues were NOT going to over-dominate; that Walser’s voice would be heard but only when necessary; and that like in our animation films image/music/sound would dominate first and foremost.
The very exigencies of your production ‘parameters’ (as witnessed in the ‘On the Set’ featurette) seem to allow an even greater penetration into the realm of magic (as cinema and vice-versa). Did making the film in this fashion provide greater freedoms?
No, our first intuitions were correct when we wrote the script. We always told Alain, our co-scriptwriter, that we first had to imagine the setting first, the décor, the light, the music and sound, and only then could we safely permit one single line of dialogue to transpire. AND a lot of them were voice-overs, which allowed even more independence for the image. As you know perfectly well, to do animation is long and patient work, so you think twice and ten times when you have to do a retake. It was so joyous to ask an actor to redo a take and to see how much you could reshape a performance or have them propose something more daring. In that sense we might provoke something and then be there to ‘capture’ that moment. So we were very happy ‘trappers’. We always said that we treated our actors with as much respect as our puppets – which is clearly NOT the same thing as treating your actors as if they were only puppets.
In terms of the flow of both the film and its narrative, there is a clear emphasis on this sequence. To what extent was it of import to establish Jakob’s ‘difference’ at this juncture in the proceedings?
Yes, it was very important that early on there be this sudden unexpected moment of Jakob’s revolt. It’s the moment where he’s trying to swallow the gruel for dinner that he begins to gag and violently shoves the plate away, and then there’s a hard cut to him falling onto the floor and grabbing Lisa’s ankles and begging her desperately for his own room. But after that it all takes care of itself and we don’t make a feast of it.
In terms of crafting a final shooting script, did the process of creating this sequence affect the content that precedes and follows this sequence?
No, it was always there in the script, as it was in the novella, but it allowed for his singular subjective voice-overs to really begin to flow and to comment on the hermetic cosmos of the moribund Institute Benjamenta, the mysterious brother and sister, his fellow students, particularly Kraus, who was all important for Jakob – and for us – in terms of creating the ‘Benjamentian’ perfect zero.
Do you recall the nature of your conversations with Mark Rylance, Alice Krige and Gottfried John regarding this sequence?
No, we don’t, but for sure Lisa has already divined in Jakob the ‘Prince-ling’ who will hopefully come to awaken her from her deep human sleep with a kiss, so she’s already highly pre-disposed towards him as this mysterious interloper who’s just arrived at the Institute. It’s as though at the beginning of the film when she’s bathed in sweat and dream, she’s invoked his arrival. And of course she’s Sleeping Beauty. So there was the whole fairy tale element, which was so important in Walser’s writing, which we overlaid in the film: that Gottfried was the Ogre, the students were the seven dwarfs, etc etc. To this we added the entire fairy tale animal kingdom of deer, and that it was all set in a former perfume factory – musk coming from the deer – that the Institute Benjamenta had moved into and that it had inherited the defunct Deer Museum on the top floor.
As human beings, as artists, was there (or were there) a moment (or moments) when you found yourselves demanding or requesting or proclaiming that you needed something that would allow you to serve either your muse, the art of cinema, or for that matter, anything/anyone else?
No, not in Walser’s demonstrative fashion. But we’re all prepared to!
The Institute’s motto declares: ‘Rules have already thought of everything.’ To what extent, either historically or in contemporary terms, is there truth to this in how the world of man conducts itself?
It’s one of many placards seen on the walls of the Institute but this one so powerfully evokes an implacable dead-end-ness and that it is useless to revolt. So submit!
While I’m sure there are virtues to be found in dominance, it rather seems like an awful lot of work. Submission involves pure innocence (some might say ‘ignorance’) and the exertions of following, of OBEYING, allowing one to drain the exertions of thought and to concentrate on the matter at hand. In this sense, perhaps there’s more potential for a few ‘followers’ (like Jakob) to reverse the power positions as reaction to orders can hypnotize, but just as easily open one’s mind, or at least, open the powers of instinct.
Submission for us – and for a Jakob especially – would not be tolerable if there wasn’t space to breathe with a sense of subversion even if it tests one’s limits, and then the exertion might be so demanding as to make one break down from the negation.
What are the dangers or virtues in this as you see it?
But of course the Institute Benjamenta could easily serve as a wider metaphor, not ONLY as an anti-authoritarian tract but also as a kind of potential spiritual terrain that shapes Jakob’s interior life, and that in all the Institute’s strictures and submissions an immense inner freedom could be located.
Are Jakob’s submissive qualities those that allow him to move more gracefully from reactive to active?
Walser and Jakob pre-exist in that open state already. They merely have to test the boundaries.
German sociologist Max Weber describes a bureaucrat as someone who faithfully, almost blindly, exercises delegated duties in strict accordance with rules that are completely impersonal. This, of course, seems to describe the servants-to-be in the Institute and their ultimate ‘fate’ upon graduation. So, that said, I feel that the universality of Walser’s work and your film is a key element in their place in the world as art – as a reflection and perhaps even a commentary upon mankind.
Only indirectly in so much as we were fascinated, as was Walser, by how one might navigate such a closed and seemingly hopeless and negated realm; that the suppression of freedom makes it possible to experience freedom. We felt we knew and understood that realm quite intuitively.
Beyond Walser’s indelible style, are the aforementioned thematic elements things that have drawn you to him? Were they key elements that infused you with desire to make the film? And if so, to what extent did they drive the film’s story and style?
We chose this novella by Walser because it was like an intimate chamber work and as it was our very first venture into feature films and working with live actors, we wanted to be cautious and not take on something too grand and beyond our scope. We read our first article on Walser written by his translator Christopher Middleton and it was called ’The Picture of Nobody’. Naturally, that appealed instantly to us and we slowly started to devour all his writings – what was available at the time. But whilst first reading Jakob von Gunten we realised at once at just how cinematic it could be. And we also felt very close to the ‘diary’ form so we embarked on writing the script without really knowing if it would ever get financed. We wrote the script with Alain Passes, a writer friend, but we also wrote it visually with great detail, always including the quality of light and the décor.
When writing with such attention to visual detail, to what extent do you think you consciously (or even unconsciously) tie these details into the ‘actions’ of the characters?
We must have had some intuitions how an actor might handle that scene but that was for us the only ‘unknown’ quantum in the equation we were trying to create, but whatever the actor created, it was all bonus because everything else we could pretty much control.
The use of black and white, aside from its inherent aesthetic beauty, seems to enhance a sense of a world where blind servitude is the most logical pre-requisite to unquestioningly follow impersonal rules. At the same time, the medium itself (as I believe, life itself) is replete with ‘colour’ in so far as there are literal shades of white, black AND grey. Why did you see the movie in black and white? Did any of the above have an influence and/or were there other reasons? (Perhaps even practical ones?)
From the very beginning we intuitively knew that the film had to be in black and white, that all the inner rhymes would be found in the classroom blackboard and chalk, in the ethereal dimension that only black and white can give and we asked our cinematographer, Nic Knowland, to exploit the full range of the most intense whites, to the richest of blacks and the most beautiful and mysterious of greys, to shoot with wide open f-stops, and that light was one of the main protagonists and that Lisa knew precisely the hours where and when the sun would journey through the Institute and her rooms.
The idea of light as a protagonist is such an inspiring one. Would you say that the importance of light to the medium of all visual arts – particularly cinema, where the images, the story, the world of the film must be conveyed THROUGH light (whether it be a movie projector or HD monitor) – is something you as filmmakers are keenly, if not always, aware of? It’s been said great filmmakers (and specifically cinematographers) often paint WITH light. How in this context does it inform your work, and specifically, the world of Institute Benjamenta?
Well, since with animation you have to learn ALL the metiers: to build the décors, the puppets, to give them their ‘climates’ and ‘stimmung’ through light, to know the camera and what lenses could give you, to animate the puppets, to learn how to edit, how to do sound – and we’ve always ALWAYS had music first before the film even began. So when we asked Nic Knowland to come on board to be our cinematographer we had a lot of experience about how to light – although very amateurish by comparison. And the element of ‘choreography’ in its widest sense appealed to us not only in terms of literal movement, but because the ballet doesn’t use dialogue but for the most part music only and it tells its stories via gesture and music and décor.
I cannot imagine anyone other than Alice Krige as Lisa Benjamenta. What was the process behind casting her?
Initially we had Charlotte Rampling on board – she was a name and we thought it was a coup to have gotten her for the production. But at the last minute Channel Four refused to insure her because she’d walked off a previous film set. Our lovely casting agent had been pushing Alice all along and suddenly we had to pitch the project to her and she wasn’t initially terribly convinced by the script, saying she didn’t know what she could bring to it. So in a panic, we sent her a snowdrift of faxes explaining what we were after and she said yes and jumped on a plane and arrived on the weekend. The filming started on a Monday for six weeks in an old country house near Hampton Ct on the edge of Richmond Park where deer grazed next to the house.
I am in serious love with her performance. It’s impossible to take one’s eyes off her. In that sense, was this notion of her magnetic qualities ever a consideration in shots that involved her? Did her natural qualities ever force you to block and/or shoot anything to maintain the perspective(s) necessary to the individual dramatic/thematic/artistic beats of the work?
It was the great unknown blessing to have gotten Alice to play Lisa and she was a dream to work and collaborate with, as were of course Mark and the wonderful Gottfried John. She would keep asking for further takes and you could see she was searching and taking her character deeper and deeper. She kept a flow chart in her hotel room and as we shot the film out of sequence she would always consult us to where emotionally she had to be on such and such a scene.
What was Ms Krige’s understanding and appreciation of Walser, the work itself and her character?
It wasn’t necessary for her to have read beyond the script as we talked to her about Walser and Lisa, his real sister, and all that might help her but she also really responded to the décors and the space we created for her, the climates, the quality of light. And she loved working in black and white. Even after the official shooting ended she came freely to our studio to shoot some extra close-ups that we had devised.
In recent days, I’ve imagined some Ruskin-like Ethics of the Dust transcript involving Ms Krige presiding over a ‘tutorial’ involving yourselves and the other cast members.
No, alas nothing like this.
Well, one can only dream, then.
Of course, Alice was never more beautiful than when she was dead.
From the first time I saw Institute Benjamenta and through almost every time I have seen it, I’m reminded of how beautiful death can be on film. The actor, of course, is infused with the quality of life and no matter how great they can be as actors, this natural quality is especially useful in making characters in death look ‘never more beautiful’. The shots of Ms Krige in death are right up there in my personal pantheon of gorgeous screen corpses, ESPECIALLY in Carl Dreyer’s Ordet. In fact, Dreyer is an artist whom I’m pleasantly reminded of when I see Institute Benjamenta. (In fact, I sometimes imagine a Dreyer adaptation of Benjamenta appearing in his canon – probably between Gertrud and his never-made Jesus.) Is he someone you yourselves admire? Might there even be a conscious or unconscious Dreyer influence on your work?
When we were in Copenhagen to do work on the décors for a ballet with Kim Brandstrup, our choreographer on Benjamenta, we visited Carl Dreyer’s grave. He has been one of the most important influences on our work and we have watched and re-watched his films.
One thing I suspect I will never forget, and indeed, think of often, is the young saplings sequence where the men rock back and forth humming, almost chanting, and you favour Lisa in those exquisite shots where Ms Krige evokes both desperation and heartache.
Before the scene was filmed she told us she’d wing it, that she wasn’t sure what would happen but to stay with her. But it was this slow swaying of the students, their backs to her, along with their mounting humming, that of course started to slowly and implacably swamp her appeals, but it is all so dreamlike and strange and troubling, with Jakob helplessly standing off to the side holding pinecones, watching Lisa become undone. But it’s true that by the end of the scene, when Lisa sees Kraus writing the giant zero, you can see that her gaze has seen beyond this life into another one.
From the first time I saw your film in that huge indoor sporting complex (or whatever the hell it was) in Locarno so many years ago, and upon each subsequent viewing, this sequence has moved me to a combination of tears, trembling and physical sensations of tingling and gooseflesh.
Yes, initially this scene was placed much earlier in the script but because of its emotional strength we moved it further back in the film.
The young saplings sequence inspires me with many levels of meaning and emotion, but I will keep them to myself and ask what this sequence means to you, what you wished to achieve with it and how you prepared for it, shot it and rendered it in final form?
The sequence was a premonition of Lisa’s emotionally becoming undone, that she could no longer reach her students, not even her preferred one, Inigo, and that a darker and more disturbing and bleaker finality loomed before her.
Ever the optimist, I suspect we all have a ‘darker and more disturbing and bleaker finality’ looming before us. And speaking of finality, I have one final question for you. Are there things in Benjamenta you’re not completely sold on these many years later or, if given a chance, things you’d do differently (and if so, what they might be)?
No, you couldn’t have really thrown any more money at the production and we didn’t need famous actors. A six-week shoot seemed perfect although how could we have known. We had a very experienced first assistant, Mary Soan. We stayed small and it was beautifully in control and it was a unique and moving experience for us. We actually lived in the top floor of this old abandoned country house during the entire shoot. But there was one scene where I wished we’d been a lot braver, and we’ve talked about it much later with Alice, and that was the scene where she goes upside down and guides Jakob to her. She should have been boldly naked beneath her gown and as Jakob was blindfolded he would have been so disoriented by this unknown region of flesh and pudenda, but we as an audience would have gasped at her erotic boldness.
From the northern most point of the Bruce Peninsula in the Dominion of Canada, I bid you: Bon Cinema!
For the past three years, Flatpack Festival has acted as my annual spring clean; a blast of inspiration that blows mental cobwebs away. It’s an idiosyncratic festival – part straightforward cinema, part walking tour, part historical society, part workshop, part performance art, part club night, part young, part old, part serious, part play. And, despite my worries about how government cuts might affect the festival, my Saturday spent pounding the streets of Birmingham revealed one of the liveliest editions of the festival yet.
I decided to forgo features and dedicate my day to special one-off events, an area in which Flatpack excels. I started out at the city’s iconic Custard Factory, in the industrial setting of Digbeth, for a special magic lantern show hosted by Mike and Therese Simkin. I’d seen Mike and Therese back in 2010 and was pleased to see their show return to the festival. The slides provided a different perspective on early cinema, tracing the influence of vaudeville, magic and Japanese shadow plays, as well as a snapshot of social history in the form of painted advertisements shown before features at Birmingham’s early picture houses. A demonstration of different types of slide culminated in an ascent of Mont Blanc through the panoramic images of Victorian journalist and unlikely explorer Albert Smith. The slides were acquired after two months of cajoling an antiques dealer in Liverpool, and they were worth the effort. Therese pulled the long, intricately painted panes of glass through the lantern, emulating impossibly long panning shots of glowing snowy landscapes punctuated by a caravan of plucky climbers. The story of Smith, a bon viveur who took no less than 90 bottles of wine on the expedition, was humorously brought to life by Mike’s commentary, as he emulated the showmanship of a 19th-century lanternist.
The link between stage and screen was an important element of the next event on my list, located a hop, skip and jump away from Digbeth at a late Victorian pub, The Bartons Arms. A trip up the wide, ornate staircase took me to an original ‘Palace of Varieties’ (these days slightly more ‘function room’ than ‘palace’), where the assembled guests awaited a talk and screening celebrating Laurel and Hardy in Birmingham. The comic duo visited the city on a number of occasions to perform at the Hippodrome (they even stayed at The Bartons Arms itself) and the third wheel in their cinematic double act – Charlie Hall – was a local boy and Flatpack patron saint. Each year, the festival chooses an unsung, Birmingham-born hero and Hall was 2012’s choice. A rather reluctant son of Brum, he was desperate to leave the Midlands (especially during an enforced return after suspension from the Hal Roach studios in the 1930s) for the glamour of Hollywood. The audience learnt the ups and downs of his career from Charlie Hall expert John Ullah, an informative and lively host. It’s always refreshing when festivals reach beyond the usual filmmaker Q&As and industry panels to find an enthusiast whose depth of knowledge has been acquired through years of passionate obsession. I was reminded of a similar event organised by the London International Animation Festival in 2010 where Felix the Cat fanatic Colin Cowes brought together reels of rare and lost films. The films chosen by Ullah nicely demonstrated the physical theatricality of early cinema from a humongous, unruly custard pie fight to a farcical feud as the beleaguered pair tried to sell a Christmas tree to an extremely resistant potential customer.
My return to the Custard Factory took me to The Icebook, perhaps the most magical events I’ve ever seen at Flatpack. A group of 10 was ushered into a small, blacked-out room, on to chairs and stools huddled around a large handmade book, placed on top of a table. Behind the table, a long box led towards the back wall of the space. The event began as a lone performer slowly opened the book, fixing its open page in position. Projected light from inside the box transformed the page into a screen and revealed an intricate pop-up structure representing a miniature house. The page-turner, seated to our right, flipped switches to illuminate each of the house’s windows as a film played showing a Borrowers-sized figure wandering from room to room, snow swirling outside the building. It was mesmerizing. The next 30 minutes of page-turning revealed more finely crafted screens and clever tricks of lighting, magnets and green screens. The narrative built slowly, images lingering like a half-remembered dream. Influenced by Russian fairy tales, the story traced the hero’s journey to find an Ice Maiden, with the ethereal aesthetics of Hans Christian Anderson’s Snow Queen and an ending reminiscent of childhood tearjerker The Snowman. As well as an enchanting fairy tale, The Icebook provided an interesting exploration of contrasts between the immediacy of cinema versus the more contemplative practice of reading; and the inclusive atmosphere of live performance versus the removed distance of pre-recorded film.
Floating out of The Icebook, I made my way to my final event of the day: a screening of recent animation shorts presenting alternate ‘Through the Looking Glass’ worlds. It was the most straightforward event in my chosen line-up but it still managed to represent the weird and wonderful wonderfully well. There were some very nice choices – like Juan Pablo Zaramella’s Luminaris, Julia Pott’s Belly and Masaki Okuda’s Uncapturable Ideas – and, although I had seen several of the shorts at other festivals, it was an enjoyable few hours. The cinema was lively, jolly and fit to burst. En route to the screening, I realised I had a little time to kill and, taking the long walk into town, found myself alongside the murky waters of Birmingham canal. I decided to join an ensemble of festival-goers crowded around a brightly coloured narrow boat, and after stepping aboard we took our seats on chairs lined up on each side of the boat, with a trio of musicians – E. L. Heath and friends – taking up their positions behind us. As the lilting of guitars and voices began, a series of archival films started to play on the screen ahead, each chosen and edited by members of the Ikon Gallery’s Youth Programme. They were wonderful evocations of time and place – personal, everyday moments captured in the collective history of the canal – from a bride arriving at her wedding by barge to little girls making their way along the towpath with hair ribbons bobbing on long plaits. The industry of the area was captured with historical footage of workers loading and transporting goods along the water. A particularly striking moment showed men’s feet on a tunnel roof as they lay on their backs, pushing the boat along with the force of their soles.
The Slow Boat screening was a lovely example of the inventive, thoughtful events put on by Flatpack. Each year when I write about the festival, I talk in terms of the personal, perhaps because it’s a festival that focuses so much on place and viewer. There is a great deal of interactivity and, while it’s possible to attend conventional screenings of features and documentaries, the settings themselves feel infused with history, providing a more individual experience. As my train meandered home, my mind was full of strange and magical images and felt beautifully refreshed.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews