Friday, August 30, 2019

“A sense of otherness is important” - An Interview with Mark Jenkin

At first glance, you might be forgiven for thinking Bait is a newly discovered lost film, the print having languished for decades in the recesses of an abandoned cinema. The black-and-white footage is scratchy and prone to flaring, and the sound has obviously been post-dubbed, but Mark Jenkin has deliberately used archaic filmmaking techniques to explore very modern concerns. Set in his native Cornwall, Bait centres on the tension between the struggling fishing community and the influx of holidaymakers who have changed the face of the area, and while Jenkin’s images may evoke names like Robert Bresson or Roberto Rossellini, his debut feature is a true British original.

What have the reactions been like as you’ve travelled with this film? Stylistically and culturally it seems like a niche object on the surface, but there’s a fundamentally classical narrative underneath it.

When I started writing the film 20 years ago, I thought it was very local, very specific to Cornwall, and in the 20 years since I’ve put it down and picked it up again, it now seems that everybody can pick their own relevance out of it, and their own significance to their lives. It’s not even their own lives, necessarily, and from the Q&As and stuff people seem to recognise the state of the world in microcosm. It’s that old cliché about something very specific being very universal. Somebody came up to me in the Walter Reade at Lincoln Centre after the American premiere, it was this woman who was American but whose dad had been a fisherman in Barbados, and she said, “This is the story of my dad.”

Read the rest of my interview at the BFI website

"I've just got to go for it and push everything as far as I can, most of all myself" - An Interview with Joanna Hogg

Three films into her career, Joanna Hogg had already established herself as one of the most distinctive and exciting artists working in contemporary British cinema, but even by her own high standards The Souvenir is something extraordinary. This portrait of a young film student's relationship with an troubled older man in 1980s London is both her most nakedly autobiographical film and most ambitious project to date. The film as it stands is a singular and perfectly crafted gem, but for the director it’s only half-complete, with The Souvenir: Part II set to continue Julie’s story. She had just finished shooting the second instalment when we met in London recently to discuss The Souvenir.

We've spoken in the past about how you often begin your projects with a particular location in mind and then develop the characters within that space. With The Souvenir you've got a different starting point, drawing on your own memories and experiences. Did that make it a very different process for you?

I'm not sure in the end if it did change very much, but I suppose the starting point was different, which I was aware of. It concerned me in the beginning when I was first thinking about doing it because, you know, what was going to be the place? At that point I hadn't really thought about the reconstructing of the apartment and the film school, but it quickly became clear that I also needed a place to set this film. That place became the aircraft hangar we found that has ended up being – both for part one and part two – the container for everything, in a way. There are locations outside that hangar, but it is the centre of it. So in a way it is no different from the others, but then as the container for a lot of scenes and ideas it challenged me into making formally different choices with this film, and I was aware of that and aware of wanting to push myself. With those three previous films I felt there was a pattern emerging that I consciously wanted to break and confuse and destroy.

This is a memory piece and I'm fascinated by the way it feels like a memory. The moments feel very specific but the whole feels more elusive and fragmented.

[Long pause] You know, I was actually going to preface our meeting by saying that I feel completely emptied out after shooting the second part. It's a strange thing – and I will try to answer your question – but for the shoot it's such an intense moment. As a filmmaker you don't get to shoot that often, so I think I've got six and a half weeks here, I've just got to go for it and push everything as far as I can, most of all myself. At the end of it I'm sort of an empty vessel, and that's exactly where I am right now. [laughs] Now there's a little bit of a confusion between part one and part two, because I've been completely immersed in part two, and I have to try and remember what part one is and what I wanted to do with that and how to talk about these two separate things. For me it's all part of one piece of work.

With Exhibition – although that fits into the pattern of the previous films – I wanted to challenge myself with that in terms of trying to tell a story in a non-linear way, in a more fragmented way. I think Exhibition is more fragmented than The Souvenir; the first part, anyway, I don't yet know if the second part will be more fragmented. The first part seems quite linear in a way, and when you talk about the precision in one sense but the fragmented nature in another, I suppose just by the nature of the way I work and what I'm searching for there are...it's so hard to articulate right at this moment, to be honest. I don't want something too loose even though the way I work seems very open and allows a lot of things to come in, but that has to be very tightly controlled, so it's a mixture of extreme control on the one hand and letting things go. The result of that is something between those things.

It has an ellipical quality, like we're just getting these snapshots of a relationship.

It's interesting, because I didn't set out for it to be those snapshots, and I thought maybe this film would be less elliptical, because I'm aware of that with the other films. This was my attempt to tell more of a conventional narrative but I guess it's hard for me to do that

Your work often withholds things from the audience and leaves things unsaid, but I felt that aspect was particularly potent here. What's unsaid is often hanging heavily over every scene.

Yes, well, I think of the other films and maybe my experience in life is often people not saying what they mean, and speaking for myself, I don't think I'm very good at saying in everyday life what I want or what I think. I guess that opaqueness sort of washes over the films. I'm interested in depicting a scene and just letting it sit there. It's not even something I talk about with Helle [le Fevre], the editor I work with, but we're very interested in editing scenes together but letting the effect of them sit there and not wanting to spell too much out, even though I did think I was going to spell out more with this film. [laughs]

I was just thinking about that scene where they're having the birthday meal and Tilda is talking about taking a course at the Courtauld and everyone's having a nice time, but right behind them we see the broken mirror from when Anthony had his withdrawal meltdown. I kept wondering, have they discussed this? Do the parents know what happened? Are they all choosing to ignore it?

It's funny, because I remember my perspective on that when we shot it and edited it was, is it too obvious having this broken mirror in the background?

Do you talk about that kind of thing with the actors?

I do remember a certain amount of conversation around that. It was interesting because James Spencer Ashworth, who plays Julie's father, he's not an actor, he's actually a farmer in life. He would often ask those questions as someone who wasn't coming from an acting perspective. He would ask me, "Should I know that?" or "What would I know in this situation?" so some of those questions came interestingly from him just because he put himself into this new situation and had a natural curiosity I wouldn't encourage him to work out too much or think too much about the situation, but as a person he just wanted to understand what things meant. Tilda and Tom, and even Honor, were happy to just be in that situation, and Honor wasn't party to the story so she wasn't questioning anything because she really didn't know what was going to happen from one moment to the next.

You've often cast non actors. How do you know someone with no experience is going to be able to handle a role? Is it just gut instinct?

I think it's a gut instinct and – talking about James, for example – knowing that he didn't have to stray too far from who he is as a person, so I'm not asking him to play a pawnbroker or something. When I cast a non-actor I won't push them to stretch too far from who they are in life, and I think that helps a lot. But to answer your question about whether I know how it's going to be, I really don't. Even though I might take those precautions, the excitement for me is not knowing how it's going to be on the day. Someone might be playing who they are in real life but they might be very uncomfortable or self-conscious in front of the camera.

Do you screen test them?

No. I think I just create a comfortable environment for them to be in and that's maybe half the battle, having a calm set and creating a certain atmosphere that they can be themselves in. That's the same for the actors, actually, I want to create that atmosphere for them too.

Tom Burke is a remarkable actor. He has such a distinctive presence and delivery. What drew you to him for this role?

Again so much is instinct, but knowing and having seen him perform brilliantly in certain things I had more evidence of his ability as an actor. He just had some qualities that reminded me of the original character and there was just something about his physique that is so different from the physique of a lot of young actors now, who are going to the gym all the time. There's a sort of body consciousness that I find off-putting sometimes. I want their mind to be connected with their body, I don't want this concern of looking right, and that's not where Tom is and that's not what he's interested in. I thought he reminded me a little bit of a young Orson Welles, he's not off to the gym every five minutes.

Anthony feels very specifically constructed as a character but he's also very enigmatic. How did you work with Tom on developing this?

I cast him quite early on and I gave him a lot of materials to use as foundation for the character, so he had voice recordings of the original character, letters, photographs. He's an incredibly intelligent actor and from these materials he was able to build a picture of someone that in the end was spookily close to the person I knew. That happened over weeks and months. It was a wonderful thing to meet Tom and spend that time with him in the lead-up to the shoot, because often I'll cast quite late in the day and won't have that opportunity, but it seemed so right with this character that he was carefully constructed. The person was very carefully constructed, in a way, and it needed that time and energy and focus.

The fact that he was so well prepared and Honor wasn't helps create that unbalanced power dynamic between their characters.

Yes, that's true. She came in very late and didn't know where she was going.

What I loved about Honor's performance is the way it shows how being in love can make someone so vulnerable. She doesn't hold anything back, she doesn't protect herself in any way. Did you discuss that with her or was that something she brought to the character?

I think a lot of that is Honor. She was party to some materials but in a very different way to Tom, and in a very sped-up way because she was cast so late in the process. I did show her some of my diaries from the time. I didn't show her so many letters but I showed her some materials so she could get an idea of who this young woman is at this point in her life. As well as diaries I showed her some of the screenplays I attempted to write and the film I did. I didn't want her to know anything about the relationship because that was going to happen during the filming, when she was going to meet him; in fact she didn't even know it was about a relationship. She knew it was about a young film student and I just wanted to have an idea of the projects and the impetus of a filmmaker and photographer. It was the creative and artistic side I wanted her to inhabit.

I know you like to put your actors into a scene with little preparation and to capture their spontaneous reactions. Can you maintain that sense of spontaneity when you're doing multiple takes?

Of course there's always a risk that after the first take the innocence has gone in a way. It always surprised me actually, even with Honor who had never acted before and never had a desire to be an actress, how she was able to repeat that surprise and that feeling of not knowing after a number of takes. That has continued to surprise me in shooting part two as well, her ability to perform.

This is the first feature you've shot on film. Did that change your process?

It did, it changed a lot because I can't have such long takes. I really liked having that disciple. I really liked having something telling me that a take could only be so long, the economy of it, how many rolls of film we were getting through. I found that very exciting actually, having those limits. I decided to put those limits on myself even more in the second part. So part one is partly shot on 16mm, partly digital and super 8, and the second part the ratio is more towards film. There are some digital moments but most of it is shot on film, and I absolutely loved that.

You're using close-ups a lot more too.

Yeah, and I feel like I'm pushing that even more in the second part, in terms of where to put the camera and how to shoot scenes. I'm trying to move the camera around a bit more too.

It's interesting that you've had this big gap between shooting the two parts. Was there ever a thought of doing them as one production, or was it the money factor that dictated that?

It was a money factor. I wanted to, actually, and in the lead up to shooting part one there was always the possibility of doing both back-to-back. I didn't want to have a break and certainly not a break of two years, but we just weren't able to get the commitment and raise the money for shooting two at the same time. I think in the end it's probably a good thing, actually, because I had much more time to construct part two. At first I thought what  a shame to lose momentum, but there are certain ideas that I hadn't come up with then that I'm really pleased I got a chance to do.

The Souvenir is in UK cinemas from August 30th

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The Souvenir

Joanna Hogg has evolved as an artist with every film she has made, but her fourth feature is a memoir of her first faltering steps as a director and the toxic relationship that almost derailed her. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a 24-year-old film student in 80s London who is captivated by Anthony (Tom Burke), the older man who saunters into her life and stays there. Anthony is worldly, enigmatic and charismatic, and we can see why she falls for him, but he's also prone to mysterious disappearances and erratic behaviour. He's harbouring a destructive secret that Julie is too naïve – or too smitten – to see.

Read the rest of my review at The Skinny

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2019

"I read an article the other day that claimed the world's weather is changing" Cary Grant tells Ingrid Bergman as they discuss the unseasonably muggy atmosphere in Indiscreet (1958), which screened from a vintage Technicolor print at year's Il Cinema Ritrovato. The line got a laugh from viewers frantically fanning themselves inside the Arlecchino Cinema because the encroaching heatwave had been a prime topic of conversation in Bologna all week, as it had been across much of Europe. "Hell is Coming" was a headline that confronted me as I read The Guardian over breakfast one morning. It's not really the kind of thing you want to read on your holiday.

The stuffy atmosphere inside the Arlecchino can threaten to make even a brisk trifle like Indiscreet feel like a slog, especially when the cinema is packed to capacity with viewers even sitting in the aisles, as it often the case for these Technicolor screenings; Alfred Hitchcock's Under Capricorn (1949), hardly one of his most popular films, was similarly oversubscribed. Fortunately, the star power on display in Donen's film cannot be dimmed and it was a real treat to experience it with such a huge and appreciative crowd, particularly the increasingly farcical and funny second half of the movie. David Kossoff's perfectly timed appearance at the door following his protracted rehearsal towards the end of the film brought the house down.
The heat only defeated me on one notable occasion. When I watched the German film Der Ruf (1949) on my last evening in Bologna, I just couldn't focus on the movie. My energy had been completely sapped by the oppressive weather and I couldn't connect with a film that everyone else seemed to love. Perhaps it wasn't all down to the heat, though. I wonder if the film's steady pace and muted drama made it feel a little stodgy after the imaginative and zippy German films I'd enjoyed earlier in the week. The “We Are the Natives of Trizonia” strand focused on the immediate postwar period of German cinema, when filmmakers began contemplating the country's traumatic recent past and uncertain future. The methods they used to do this were frequently surprising. Helmut Käutner's In Jenen Tagen (1947) is narrated by the wreck of an old car, recalling its seven previous owners as it is stripped down in a scrapyard. Through these vignettes, which begin in 1933 and end in 1945, In Jenen Tagen attempts to tell the story of life in Nazi Germany from the perspective of ordinary citizens. In the hands of many filmmakers it may have felt gimmicky and clunky, but Käutner is such an elegant director, and so good at developing characters in a few swift strokes.

Käutner's touch was also evident in Film Without a Title (1948), with his ingenious screenplay being directed with great verve by Rudolf Jugert. The film begins with three filmmakers (including Willy Fritsch, hilariously spoofing himself) debating whether it's possible or even right to make a lighthearted romantic comedy in these dark times, and as they continue to argue the point we see the romance between a professor (Hans Söhnker) and his maid (Hildegard Knef) rewritten several times, with elements of social realism bleeding into the comic storytelling. What's so striking about these films is how they steered clear of the neo-realism or 'rubble films' that one might expect from a nation emerging from a destructive war. Instead they are slick, stylish entertainments made with great confidence and wit.
It's easy to imagine someone like Käutner crossing over into Hollywood and becoming one of the great studio directors. Il Cinema Ritrovato tends to put one Hollywood figure under the spotlight every year. In previous editions we have celebrated Leo McCarey, Carl Laemmle, Jr. and John M. Stahl, and this year Henry King was the main man, with eleven of his films (a fraction of his long career) being presented. I'd already seen two of the films in the programme – Twelve O'Clock High (1949) and The Gunfighter (1950) – and I caught another of his collaborations with Gregory Peck in Bologna with the riveting western The Bravados (1958). This is a shockingly dark and violent western, with Peck on excellent form as a man consumed by his need for vengeance, but the King films that really captivated me blended emotional complexity with a deceptive lightness of touch. State Fair (1933) and Wait till the Sun Shines, Nellie (1952) displayed King’s gift for recreating a nostalgic, idealised vision of American life and investing it with a melancholy undertone.

Wait till the Sun Shines, Nellie in particular is an extraordinary piece of work. Shot in dazzling Technicolor by Leon Shamroy, the film follows fifty years in the life of both a town and the barber (David Wayne) who was one of its original inhabitants. His willingness to placate his frustrated wife through a series of lies and his determination to dictate his son’s ambitions drives them both away from him, and there’s a fascinating tension in this film between the colourful, high-spirited surface and the bitterness and regret that haunts its protagonist. Wait till the Sun Shines, Nellie is a very strange film that shifts direction three or four times, even incorporating a gangster subplot and a musical number into its decades-spanning narrative. That strangeness is a key part of its appeal, though, and while this programme may have presented some Henry King films that feel more cohesive and complete, none of them got under my skin and lingered in my thoughts in quite the same way.
The question of what constitutes a filmmaker’s greatest achievement is an interesting one to consider. When introducing one of the Felix Feist screenings, programmer Eddie Muller described Tomorrow is Another Day (1952) as this director’s masterpiece, and it certainly is a fine film; Steve Cochran and Ruth Roman are excellent as the ex-con and the dame he gets mixed up with, and the film moves into morally ambiguous territory in its third act. It’s unquestionably a classier piece of filmmaking than The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947), but give me the choice right now and I’d choose to re-watch the scrappy hour-long B-picture instead. This is a drum-tight noir with a hint of screwball comedy in which Laurence Tierney (on brutish, swaggering form) hitches a ride to make his getaway and causes all manner of problems for the driver and two women they pick up along the way. Within its limited boundaries the film is nimbly plotted and directed, and Feist finds room for several eccentric supporting characters who relish the hard-boiled dialogue (such levity was notably absent from The Threat (1949), the second half of this double-bill). Feist was a director capable of great elegance when required – I loved the understated, unnerving climax of The Man who Cheated Himself (1950) – but the title of this strand was ‘Brutal Nasty and Short,’ and no film lived up to that billing better than The Devil Thumbs a Ride.

Both Henry King and Felix Feist enjoyed long careers and varying degrees of success, but what happens to a director when a film just disappears? Spring Night, Summer Night (1967) has a fascinating ‘what if?’ story to tell. The film was programmed in the 1968 New York Film Festival before being dropped to make way for John Cassavetes’ Faces (1968), and that was pretty much it for Joseph L. Anderson’s film, which largely slipped out of public view for the next five decades, although it briefly emerged re-cut as an exploitation film entitled Miss Jessica Is Pregnant. Now it as been restored for Nicolas Winding Refn’s ByNWR streaming channel and it should finally earn its place as a major work of American independent cinema. It’s a tale of incest between two siblings (Ted Heimerdinger and Larue Hall) who come from a broken, bickering family in a rural Ohio town, but the film proceeds with no judgement and respects the complexity and ambiguity of each character. It’s a stunningly evocative piece of filmmaking, with crisp black-and-white photography and a haunting sense of place; it’s as vivid and moving a portrait of small-town American life as The Last Picture Show (1971). The performances are so naturalistic and affecting (particularly Larue Hall, who is jaw-droppingly great) it’s hard to believe that these actors have such few credits to their name, and I was glad to hear that a blu-ray release is currently in the works which will hopefully shed further light onto this overlooked masterwork.
Seeing forgotten directors be rediscovered is one of the great joys of this festival, particularly when those filmmakers are present to receive their long-overdue applause. I witnessed such an occasion two years ago when Med Hondo was present to give emotionally charged introductions to his films, and Hondo – who died in March – was a spiritual presence at this year’s festival with his film Les Bicots-Nègres vos voisins (1974), an imaginative and provocative examination of colonialism, capitalism, socialism, immigrant labour, exploitation and racism that unfolds in a series of arguments and sketches. This is the fourth film I’ve seen by Med Hondo and every one of them has been audacious, original and powerful. He wants to activate his audiences, to provoke questions and action, and in this is perhaps his most directly confrontational work.

One of the central questions Hondo poses in Les Bicots-Nègres vos voisins is to ask what exactly constitutes African cinema. It’s a question that the festival has attempted to answer in recent years in collaboration with the African Film Heritage Project, which aims to restore and distribute fifty African films over the coming years. The latest fruits of its labour were presented at this year’s programme, with the best of them being Jean-Pierre Dikongué-Pipa’s Muna Moto (1975), a riveting portrait of misogyny and exploitation within an African community. The film has a raw emotional force but Dikongué-Pipa brings lyrical touches to his direction – his use of direct point-of-view shots is particularly potent – and it’s brilliantly structured, opening with a dramatic confrontation and then flashing back to show how a young couple in love reached this moment of crisis. A film made with great passion, anger and artistry, Muna Moto deserves to be rediscovered by a new audience, and it was a privilege to be present as Jean-Pierre Dikongué-Pipa shared this moment with us. As the director told festival curator Cecilia Cenciarelli: "You didn't restore my film, you restored me."
Many of the themes touched on in Muna Moto were reflected in Baara (1978), another of the African films presented in Bologna. The film’s title translates as Work, and almost every scene focuses on labour or capital; a series of negotiations through which Souleymane Cissé details a whole social and economic fabric of this patriarchal society, and the cycles of exploitation and corruption inherent within it. Like Muna Moto, Baara feels incredibly alive and resonant, but much discussion in the post-film Q&A focused on the quality of the presentation rather than the knotty themes of the film itself. Cissé was very unhappy with the quality of the 35mm print screened (which was the best the festival could locate after a months-long search and having rejected even worse prints), and in fact he said he would rather see this print destroyed than be shown again. It felt like an overreaction to me – the print certainly was far from the worst I’d seen, and it in no way diminished the film’s power – but I can understand his frustration at seeing his rarely screened film presented in sub-optimal conditions. One hopes this exceptional piece of work is next on the World Cinema Foundation's restoration list.

Director Q&As are a rarity in Bologna. The filmmakers who do attend usually introduce their films rather than take questions after them, and sometimes that’s more than enough; Nicolas Winding Refn’s antics during his pre-festival intro to Drive (2011) caused a full-body cringe from anyone who recalled them over the following days. Sometimes an impromptu Q&A session can break out in an unexpected way, though. "I don't want to disrupt the event... well, maybe I do" Francis Ford Coppola said as he began to question why an event billed as a ‘masterclass’ was in fact a staid onstage interview and expressed the desire to speak directly to aspiring filmmakers and students in the audience instead – to talk to them "student to student" as he put it. Soon a long line of young admirers was lining up to ask their questions with Coppola eagerly answering every one of them, resisting his interlocutors’ attempts to get the event back on track and refusing to leave the stage until he had addressed each question, even as the event overran.
But it wasn’t just his rebellious, disruptive spirit and passionate engagement with his audience that made this such a special event, it was the tone of his speech. He was full of earnest advice for the next generation, encouraging them to find new ways of making films, to form collectives and write from the heart and take advantage of modern technology to bypass the traditional cinematic structures. Coppola has always been a forward-thinking artist – remember his “one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, you know, and make a beautiful film with her little father's camera” line from Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991)? – and it was thrilling to see how insatiably curious he remained about the potential of this medium. Il Cinema Ritrovato is a festival that celebrates cinema’s past, but its most invigorating spectacle was provided by a great filmmaker looking with boundless optimism and excitement into its future.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Apollo 11

Fifty years on, what’s left to be said about the flight of Apollo 11? The eight-day mission that fulfilled President Kennedy’s eight-year-old pledge to place a man on the moon before the end of the decade is one of the most widely documented events in human history. We all have the fuzzy, black-and-white footage of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface etched into our collective memories. We know their words by heart (“The eagle has landed…It’s one small step for man…”), and in 2018, Damien Chazelle recreated the journey from Armstrong’s perspective in the meticulously crafted First Man.

So how can Todd Douglas Miller, the director of Apollo 11, offer us a new perspective? First of all, he has the benefit of using footage that we’ve never seen before, thanks to the discovery in 2017 of a wealth of materials in the NASA archive, including more than 60 reels of 65mm film related to the Apollo 11 mission. Miller is a smart enough filmmaker to know that this footage is his trump card, so he gives it to us straight; no explanatory voiceover, no talking heads, just captivating images that remind us of the awesome scale of this project.

Read the rest of my review at Little White Lies