Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Pat Collins on Song of Granite

There are many words you could use to describe Song of Granite – just don’t call it a biopic. “The thing with biopics is that I just don’t like them as a genre,” Pat Collins told me when the term came up in our conversation. “I can’t think of many that I really liked. I think Roger Ebert said something to the effect that biopics make every life the same and no matter whether it’s a singer, an actor, a president or whatever, every life comes out the same in a biopic. I suppose I wanted to avoid that, and I wouldn’t have started it if I’d felt I had to use standard biopic setups.”

So if Song of Granite isn’t a biopic, what is it? Collins’ film is a portrait of Joe Heaney, the man widely regarded as the greatest practitioner of sean-nòs, a form of traditional unaccompanied Irish singing. He was said to have a repertoire of over 500 songs stored in his memory, and he became a star in the American folk music revival of the 1960s, first at the Newport Folk Festival and then in various cities across the country, where he performed to sold-out crowds and was fêted by avant-garde composers such as John Cage.

Filmed in atmospheric black-and-white by Richard Kendrick, Song of Granite gives us a snapshot of various stages in this unpredictable life. The film unfolds in three distinct acts, first presenting Heaney as a child in Connemara in the 1930s before skipping ahead to his travels through the UK and US in the 1960s, and then catching up with him as an elderly man in America, reflecting on his past and his legacy. We get a sense of the overall shape of Heaney’s life by the end of the film, but how much have we really learned about him? Beyond the bare biographical details, Heaney has long been an enigmatic, elusive figure, and while some filmmakers might have been tempted to try and fill in the blanks, Collins felt it was important to stay true to this aspect of his character.

“There have been two books written about him, a documentary and now a feature film, but I can’t say that anybody really knows anything about him,” Collins says. “We know certain facts – he moved to New York, he worked as a doorman in Manhattan, he taught at the University of Washington – but we don’t know how he felt about any of that. There are some small revelations in his letters to people but I don’t know if he spoke to anybody about his wife and family, for example, because it was actually a shock to a lot of people that he was even married or had kids. I don’t think I’d presume to know what’s going on inside his head so I just couldn’t go down that route.”

Read the rest of my article on the BFI website

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Sight & Sound Magazine: January 2018

Always a highlight at the end of the year, Sight & Sound's annual poll of the year's best films has already caused some consternation this year with the inclusion of Twin Peaks: The Return in second place. I didn’t vote for it (I didn’t even see it!), and in fact I think this is the first year since I’ve been invited to partake in the S&S poll that none of my selections have ended up in the final ranking. It’s a solid list, though, and the new issue contains a number of selections by individual voters, which is always the most interesting part of a poll like this. I’ve also contributed to the end-of-year review with an article looking at the veteran filmmakers who have made late works in 2017, and I’ve reviewed David Gordon Green’s new film Stronger. The magazine is on sale now.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

F for Fake

How should we describe F for Fake? Orson Welles’ penultimate completed feature (to be followed by the made-for-television Filming Othello) has been labelled as both a documentary and an essay film, but neither description seems an entirely comfortable fit for this slippery, shape-shifting creation. Welles himself was unwilling to definitively categorise it, only venturing to describe it as “a new kind of film” and a conscious departure from anything he had produced in his career to that point.

Perhaps the best way to approach F for Fake is to view it as a cinematic magic trick – the work of a master illusionist. The film opens with Welles demonstrating his sleight-of-hand for an awestruck child, and this introduction sets the tone, with the director shuffling the different elements of his story as easily as a deck of cards. “I’m a charlatan,” he cheerfully admits at the start of the film, before quickly adopting a grave tone and making a solemn promise: “During the next hour, everything you hear from us is really true and based on solid fact.” Like any good conjurer, Welles is taking this opportunity to profess that he has nothing up his sleeves before he proceeds to transfix, distract and hoodwink his audience.

Read the rest of my article at Little White Lies

F for Fake will have a rare 35mm screening at the ICA on December 9th as part of Little White Lies' Light Show #1 weekend.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

“She was a big name in black-and-white films, not doing too well in colour,” we’re told near the start of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. “Always played the tart.” Of course, there was a lot more to Gloria Grahame than that, but film biopics have an unfortunate habit of flattening out the complexities and inconsistencies of a person’s life to fit a familiar, simplistic template.

In the 1940s and ’50s, Gloria Grahame was involved in some of the greatest films of the studio era, winning an Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful and being nominated for Crossfire. She had four marriages (including a notoriously tumultuous one with Nicholas Ray), and her insecurity about her looks led her to undergo a series of damaging plastic surgery procedures. Paul McGuigan’s film, however, is interested in just two things: her late-in-life romance with a much younger man, and her sad decline as she finally succumbed to cancer.

Read the rest of my review at Little White Lies

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Marjorie Prime

In the opening scene of Marjorie Prime, an elderly woman and a younger man sit across from each other in a plush living room and have a long conversation. If something feels a little off about the way they are interacting, we soon learn why. Marjorie (Lois Smith) is 85 years old and in the early stages of dementia, and the man she’s conversing with isn’t a man at all.

He’s a sophisticated hologram, or a “Prime”, programmed to look and sound exactly like her late husband Walter (Jon Hamm), and to recall memories that Marjorie and her family have fed to him. For example, Walter remembers the time he proposed to her, after they saw My Best Friend’s Wedding. “Julia Roberts, etched forever on our lives,” Marjorie complains. “What if we saw Casablanca instead? Let’s say we saw Casablanca in an old theatre with velvet seats, and then on the way home, you proposed. Then, by the next time we talk, it will be true.”

Read the rest of my review at Little White Lies