Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Sight & Sound: August 2018

In a new essay written for the updated edition of his 1972 critical study Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, Paul Schrader recalls the moment when his eyes were first opened to this mode of spiritual filmmaking: “As a film critic for the Los Angeles Free Press, I watched the LA release of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959). And I wrote about it. And then I saw it again. And I wrote about it again. I sensed a bridge between the spirituality I was raised with and the 'profane' cinema I loved. And it was a bridge of style, not content.”

Forty-five years later, Paul Schrader has finally crossed that bridge as a filmmaker with First Reformed. After a career spent making movies that strayed far from the transcendental template, he has now made one in which the influence of the great directors he studied can be felt in every frame. Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), the pastor in a small Dutch Reformed church in Upstate New York, decides to keep a journal for one year in an echo of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), and his crisis of faith is exacerbated when a militant young activist, Michael (Philip Ettinger), fills his head with thoughts of impending environmental disaster, just as the priest in Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1963) was disturbed by China’s development of the atom bomb. First Reformed recalls those films stylistically too; its stark framing, measured pacing and all-round austerity being a million miles away from the anything-goes anarchy of Schrader’s prior film, the gleefully offensive crime comedy Dog Eat Dog (2016), starring Nicolas Cage. "No, no, no, that's not me,” Schrader would always tell people who expected his interests as a critic to be reflected in his movies. “You'll never catch me on that thin Bressonian ice." So how did he end up here?


Read the rest of my interview with the great Paul Schrader in the August 2018 issue of Sight & Sound. This issue also contains my interview with Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, director of the outstanding Thai prison drama A Prayer Before Dawn, and I contributed a capsule on David Thomson's Suspects for the magazine's superb 100 Novels About Cinema feature.

Friday, June 08, 2018

Ismael’s Ghosts Blu-ray

Although it received a muted response at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts is another audacious, discursive, surprising and exhilarating effort from one of the most exciting filmmakers currently working in French cinema. I was delighted to have the opportunity to dive back into his world recently when Arrow asked me to write a new essay on the film for inclusion in the upcoming blu-ray release. Ismael’s Ghosts will be released in the UK on September 24th and you can pre-order it here.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Lek and the Dogs

Lek and the Dogs opens on a desolate landscape, completely empty except for the naked figure we see scrambling across the ground on all fours. Is he man or beast? At this point in Lek’s life, he doesn’t seem to to fit comfortably in either world.

This new film by British maverick Andrew Kötting is a loose adaptation of the acclaimed play Ivan and the Dogs by Hattie Naylor, which was inspired by the true story of Ivan Mishukov. In 1996, four-year-old Ivan walked out of his family home in Moscow, away from the clutches of his mother’s drunken and abusive boyfriend. He lived on the streets for the next two years, befriending a pack of wild dogs with whom he could scavenge and sleep. These animals offered him a greater sense of companionship and protection than he had ever experienced with his family, and he would flee with them whenever the police attempted to bring him back to the human world.

Read the rest of my review at Little White Lies

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

"With the visuals you can create a space but the sound is so much more effective at creating tension, because it comes from everywhere." - An Interview with Lucrecia Martel

At first glance, Zama seems like a real departure for Lucrecia Martel. After three films (La ciénaga, The Holy Girl and The Headless Woman) that focused on the anxieties of the middle-class in her home town of Salta, Zama is a period film set in 18th century Paraguay, and it  marks the first time she has adapted a novel for the screen. The film itself, however, is instantly recognisable as another work of peerless craftsmanship and incisive intelligence from one of the most exciting directors in contemporary cinema. The story of a disillusioned Corregidor pining for home, Zama is a film about colonialism, frustration, bureaucracy and a man gradually falling apart. I met Lucrecia Martel during last year’s London Film Festival to discuss it.

When you read Zama, when did you know you wanted to adapt it? Was there one particular image or idea that jumped out at you?

It's a mixture of things, but the first thing that affects me is dialogue, the oral parts of the story. When you read a book there's a sound to it. We tend to think of films and books as very different, because with a book you have letters on pages and with film you have the image, but they both have a sound. Literature has a sound and a rhythm. What is that sound? What is the sound that we have in our head as we read? When we read about horses or birds, we don't just imagine how they are or what they look like, we also imagine the sound that they create. I think when we talk about adapting a book to film, we underestimate that aspect.

So the sound something that you are thinking about right from the start, rather than something you develop in post?

No, it's impossible for me to do it in post. In the process of writing, I make those decisions about sound. For example, the Shepard tone was something that I knew I was going to use. All those offscreen sounds during dialogues that focus on Zama were decisions that I was making at the writing stage. This probably comes from sound films, this idea that firstly the image is produced and then the sound is produced to accompany it. To give you a concrete example from Zama; the birds, the toads, the insects in the book, we knew from the outset that we wanted them to sound slightly electronic. They are natural, but they seem electronic. Those insects existed in the 18th century so that means the 18th century had this electronic quality to it. These decisions can seem very arbitrary but they are decisions that I take very early on, and during the filming process we were very attentive to make sure that we recorded the sounds of all the insects and toads. That strong narrative that I have, which is based around sound and the dialogue I've had with Guido Berenblum, the sound designer, over the years makes that understanding very simple and very quick.

What about the way you approach the look of your films? You’ve worked with a different director of photography on every film. What are you looking for in that relationship?

The image for me is something that I see as a different experiment in every film, so I see changing the director of photography as a reasonable move from film to film. Guido and I have a lot of meetings throughout the process of making the film, and these meetings are always very enjoyable because we discuss things that require us to make requests to the art team; for example, we have to think about the sound of wood, the sound of sand. There is a detail in all period dramas in Latin America, that leather boots will have a heel that's a hard leather, almost like wood. So if I was to put those characters in that environment with those boots, first of all it would be absurd, and secondly it would give them an impact, a resonance to their footsteps that wasn't really appropriate, because they're all such fragile people. There are many of these little decisions. For example, in The Holy Girl – I just remembered this now because in the Screen Talk they showed a clip from it – I needed her to see the doctor but for the doctor to not be able see her well, but still be heard. So I chose to put her in this situation where she would be making this noise - pling, pling, pling - and the doctor would be hearing this noise and it's a very threatening, tense note. That's a small decision that works more effectively than the visuals. With the visuals you can create a space but the sound is so much more effective at creating tension, because it comes from everywhere.

Although the film has that sense of tension, I was also struck by its sense of humour. Was that something you brought to the adaptation?

In some aspects, yeah. The book has a very chilling and dark sense of humour, and I accentuated that in the film, because I thought it was important for the film to not be solemn. These sort of films always tend to be very solemn. There is an Italian film from the 1960s called L'armata Brancaleone by Mario Monicelli, and I think that is like a relative of Zama. This film has a lot of relatives, and this is something I discovered after writing the script of Zama, an Italian producer would say something like "Oh, it reminds me of this film." The Saragossa Manuscript is another one.

How did you work with Daniel Giménez Cacho? I loved the way he charts the character’s physical, emotional and spiritual decline across the course of the movie.

Daniel was very easy indeed, because he took the decision with this film to immerse himself fully into the character. I think it's not something he has done previously. We began by filming the end of the film, because we needed him to be thinner and have the beard, so his process had to go from the end, which was very interesting. This was the director of production's idea because we realised the work would become gradually easier as we went on, so it was a good way to manage our efforts, to start with the hardest things. This is another thing that was very interesting, because by starting at the end – which is the only time we see Vicuña Porto – that allowed us to have an image of Vicuña Porto, which we needed.

Yes, I am fascinated by the idea of Vicuña Porto. His absence seems to make him a greater figure than he could possibly be if he was present.

I think Vicuña Porto is like the enemy we all need, the scapegoat. It's more like a social construction of the enemy. It's an enemy who has already been terminated but continues to exist. I don't know if you get the same thing here, but in Latin America there has been a very strong discourse on this idea in relation to crime. With crime – and the same thing happens with terrorism – a crime is never seen as the consequence of something, even though it's the consequence of a social system that generates this insecurity and creates these enemies. Often in Argentina, when there are 15 year-olds or 20 year-olds committing a robbery, it's immediately deemed that they're a nasty person; they're lazy; it's in their nature; they don't want to work. What we don't do is stop and think about why that person was prepared to risk so much for so little. What are they lacking? Robbery is never understood or seen as somebody taking a huge risk with their life, it's always an attack on private property. What is it that pushes that person to take that risk? It's an obvious question that society chooses to overlook. There is an Argentine director called César González who came from one of the poorest suburbs of Buenos Aires, and he said something that was very difficult for society to understand, that when he was fifteen he didn't even have enough money to buy a pair of shoes, so he committed a robbery in order to be able to buy himself some shoes. There was no reason for him to be in that situation at fifteen years of age, there is no justification for it. Vicuña Porto is the enemy we need to be able to justify the inequalities and injustices that exist.

Finally, are you working on another project now? I hope we won’t have to wait another decade to see your next film.

I'm finishing a documentary, which is like an essay on photography. It's about an indigenous leader named Javier Chocobar, who was killed in 2009, and his story reveals a particular link between image and power.

Zama will be released in UK cinemas on May 25th

Monday, April 09, 2018


Even if I walked into Wonderstruck without knowing who had directed it, I'm sure it wouldn't have taken me long to figure it out. Before the opening scene has elapsed the film has already cited Oscar Wilde's quote “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” and a character has put on Bowie's Space Oddity. The combination of these two icons immediately called to mind Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine, which I think is one of his worst films, and for a while I feared that Wonderstruck would fail in similar ways to his confused glam-rock odyssey by telling too many stories, mixing too many styles, and allowing the thin characters to be swamped by the fetishistic evocation of a bygone era. Ultimately, my fears proved to be unfounded and Wonderstruck did enough to win me over, but it's an awkward and uneven movie that plays to Haynes' weaknesses as much as his strengths.

The film eventually finds its feet, but the opening scenes are disastrous. In trying to set up two parallel narratives, Haynes creates a clumsy cross-cutting rhythm that doesn't allow either of them to settle, and leaves both feeling strangely stunted. They are both stories about deaf children taking a daunting trip to New York in search of a lost parent, and they take place fifty years apart. In 1927, a girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds) has little happiness in her life – we see her writing things like “Help Me” in her notepad – and so she often escapes to the movies, where she gazes upwards at the screen star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) in Daughter of the Storm, a silent pastiche that suggests both Griffith and Sjöström. When Rose emerges from the cinema, she sees posters announcing an exciting new development in the cinema experience – the talkies. With her one source of solace on the verge of being snatched away from her, Rose cuts her hair and heads to the big city, where Mayhew is performing on stage.

In 1977, we meet another deaf kid, although he isn't deaf at the start of the movie. Ben (Oakes Fegley) loses his hearing in a freak accident and then abruptly decides to run away from the hospital and take an overnight bus to the city where he thinks he might find the father he's never met. The only thing he has to go on is a note that he found in a book called Wonderstruck, which belonged to his late mother (Michelle Williams). He has asked her a number of times to tell him something about his father, even admitting that it was his wish when he blew out his birthday candles, but she always denied his request. My question is, why? When we finally find out who Ben's father was we discover that he wasn't a bad person, that there was nothing for his mother to be ashamed of. We even find out that she took Ben to his funeral when he was too young to remember, and that something he saw at that time has resulted in unexplained recurring nightmares. No, the only reason she doesn't share this information with him he because that's what is needed to kick-start the film's convoluted plot.

That sums up one of the major problems with Wonderstruck. The film has been adapted from a book by Brian Selznick, who also wrote the source material for Martin Scorsese's Hugo, and he clearly favours clockwork narratives that turn on contrivance and coincidence. We know that Ben’s narrative is going to intertwine with Rose’s story in some way but getting there requires a series of torturous plot devices that have a limiting effect on Haynes’ ability to tell this story in an elegant way. The sense of wonderment promised by the film’s title only occasionally flickers into life and Wonderstruck too often feels bogged down by incident, with Haynes’ focus fatally caught between the two narrative strands. When the director does choose to give certain scenes time to play out at length, I’m not sure he picks the right moments. A long stretch of the film’s second half takes place in the American Museum of Natural History – with both Ben and Rose having key encounters there fifty years apart – but there is an awful lot of faffing about before they make their key discoveries, and watching these kids run from one exhibit to another is nowhere near as engaging or magical as Haynes seems to believe it is.

And yet, there is magic in Wonderstruck. Haynes’ regular collaborators Sandy Powell, Carter Burwell and Ed Lachman are on prime form here, with Burwell and Lachman doing a great deal of heavy lifting given how much of the film unfolds without dialogue. It’s a gorgeous picture to look at, the golden hues of ‘70s New York contrasting with the grainy black-and-white of the 1927 section, and at its best – particularly in Rose’s strand of the story – it captures the enchantment mixed with trepidation that being alone in a big city for the first time can induce. Those transcendent moments are nowhere near as frequent as they should be, but by the time it drew to a close Wonderstruck had just about done enough to move me to tears. So much of Haynes’ work is about people yearning for a connection, and when he finally brings this film’s twin narratives together it has a heart-stopping emotional charge. The manner in which Haynes reveals all of the film’s answers – using a model panorama of New York and dollhouse-like recreations of Rose’s past – is an unbelievably beautiful sequence that recalls his own Superstar: The Karen Carpenter story, and there is a lovely sense of tactility throughout the whole film.

Wonderstruck is a film obsessed with the expressive, totemic properties of objects, sounds and faces and – for all of its narrative problems – it has a level of craftsmanship and ambition that comfortably eclipses most current releases. All of this in film aimed at younger audiences? Perhaps it's churlish to complain. I’d certainly encourage every parent to take their child to see Wonderstruck before any of the soulless blockbuster franchises that dominating our cultural diet, and I hope they’ll be transported by Haynes’ vision, filled with wonder as they gaze up at the stars.