Friday, August 17, 2018

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2018

It can get pretty hot in Bologna in June, particularly inside the cinemas. A perennial complaint in previous editions of Il Cinema Ritrovato was the sweltering and suffocating atmosphere in the Arlecchino and Jolly cinemas, where the most eagerly anticipated screenings tend to take place, and which are often oversubscribed, with every seat taken and attendees sitting in the aisles. I remember feeling rather light-headed during a packed screening of Vertigo on a rare Technicolor print, or emerging from Trouble in Paradise last year drenched in sweat and gasping for air – hardly the customary response to the Lubitsch touch. So this year's festival began on a high note, with an announcement before John Ford's The Brat that the cinemas were now equipped with air conditioning. In fact, I found myself suffering from a slight chill in some screenings this year, but it really would be churlish to complain.

The Brat was the opening film in the William Fox strand, curated by Dave Kehr at MoMA and scheduled to continue at next year's festival. The programme was a mixed bag of pre-Code pictures, some of them undeniably being minor films from major directors, but still possessing certain charms. The Brat won't trouble anyone's list of their favourite John Ford films, but it's beautifully photographed and very funny, with a couple of inspired comic sequences, and I loved Sally O'Neil's wide-eyed and squeaky-voiced performance. It's a shame her film career petered out just a few years later. Raoul Walsh's Women of All Nations similarly isn't anything like the director's finest hour, and in fact many audience members could be heard tut-tutting at its sexist and racist gags, but I have to admit that the sequence in which El Brendel tried to hide a monkey in his pants almost made me choke with laughter, and on that basis alone I am prepared to declare this film a rousing success.
More consistent laughs could be found in Bachelor's Affairs, a sprightly comedy in which Adolph Menjou marries a gold-digger half his age and finds it impossible to keep up with her. It's a lot of fun, beautifully played by every actor, and it gets the job done in 64 minutes – the joys of pre-Code cinema! Other films in this strand might have taken a look at Bachelor's Affairs and learned a few lessons about tight pacing. Now I'll Tell is built around a tremendous performance from Spencer Tracy, who plays an incorrigible gambler and liar, but it seems to run out of steam in the final twenty minutes, limping to its conclusion when the build-up had promised so much more. At least it fares better than 6 Days to Live, however. The title seems to promise knife-edge tension, but this sluggish thriller only comes to life during the surreal sci-fi section in the middle of the picture, when a recently assassinated politician is reanimated in the hopes that he can identify his murderer. There's so much potential in the wacky premise but the film squanders most of it, proving to be a slog even with a 72-minute running time.

The Jolly cinema, where the Fox films were shown, was usually my first port of call in the morning, and it was also where one of this year's major director retrospectives was held. Going into the festival I'd seen about half a dozen films by John M. Stahl and admired or loved them all. Now I’ve seen twice as many, I’m starting to wonder if the man ever put a foot wrong. The Bologna programme had a couple of his lesser-known features, like the solid WWII propaganda film Immortal Sergeant and the amusing farce Holy Matrimony, but of course Stahl is at his best working in melodrama mode. When Tomorrow Comes (one of three Stahl films later remade by Douglas Sirk) is a beautifully crafted love story, following Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer as their romance develops in bustling New York locales – a diner, a union meeting, a sidewalk – and then forcing them to spend a night together as they take shelter from a raging storm. The film won an Oscar for its atmospheric sound design, but the moment that really pierces the heart is one of the film’s quietest, as the two leads sit together and acknowledge that they must go their separate ways. The final close-up on Dunne as Boyer walks away is perfection.
When Tomorrow Comes is a near-masterpiece, but might Seed be even better? It certainly felt like the greater revelation; more measured and thoughtful in its approach to tricky material, and with an even greater emotional punch in the final moments. Made in 1931, Seed stars Stahl’s favourite cad John Boles as a man who gave up his dreams of being an author and instead dedicated himself to a humdrum life as a clerk in support of his wife (Lois Wilson) and their five children. When he meets a glamorous old flame (Genevieve Tobin) who rekindles his writing urge, Wilson begins to suspect that she is losing her husband, both to his ambitions and to the other woman in his life. In contrast to the more heightened style of Sirk, Stahl’s films are stylistically restrained, constructed through simple two-shots and close-ups that are charged with emotion. He frequently lets the camera rest on Lois Wilson’s face, which betrays all of her character’s desires and fears as she watches her family fall apart in front of her, and the climactic ten minutes had me weeping. Seed is one of the great films about maternal love and sacrifice, and it ends on a wonderful, unexpected note of female solidarity.

Of course, restraint and female solidarity aren’t things associated with Stahl’s best-known film Leave Her to Heaven. While my Bologna experience is usually built around discoveries, it’s also a great opportunity to revisit favourite films on rarely screened prints, and when I learned that Stahl’s wonderfully lurid melodrama would be playing on a vintage dye transfer Technicolor print, it instantly became a non-negotiable part of my schedule. I’d seen the film projected digitally before, but this was something else. Gene Tierney’s green eyes and red lips have never looked so vivid, and this screwy, unsettling melodrama has never felt so deliriously transporting. Is there anything to match the feeling of seeing a masterpiece projected in its original format? Re-watching films like Deliverance, Meet Me in St. Louis and The Godfather on rarely screened Technicolor prints was a thrilling, revelatory and deeply moving experience.
Rare prints are always my priority in Bologna, but digital restorations are an increasingly prominent part of the Il Cinema Ritrovato programme. This year the great René Clair had two films on show, with his madcap silent comedy Two Timid Souls and his homage to early filmmaking Silence is Golden providing two of the most delightful viewing experiences of the festival. But the major revelation was from the man who challenged Stahl’s status as Il Cinema Ritrovato’s resident master of melodrama: Emilio Fernández. The Mexican director's excellent Enamorada was one of the big event screenings in Piazza Maggiore, being introduced by Martin Scorsese (and I was thrilled to find my Sight & Sound article on the film being using for the accompanying programme notes), but I was completely blown away by his 1951 film Victims of Sin. Set in Mexico’s red light district, Victims of Sin stars Ninón Sevilla as a cabaret dancer forced to raise another woman’s child, and protecting him from gangsters with the ferocity of a lioness protecting her cub. The intensity that Sevilla brings to her performance is something to behold; in a way, it reminded me of Elizabeth Berkeley’s full-throttle turn in Showgirls. Working again with master cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, Fernández delivers one powerful, dynamic scene after another, punctuating the narrative with exhilarating dance numbers. It’s a sensational, unforgettable picture.

Aside from the pleasing amount of melodramas contained within the festival lineup, It's hard to find many consistent themes or recurring motifs across Il Cinema Ritrovato's sprawling, eclectic programme. Sometimes it throws up odd double-bills, however; films made decades and continents apart that seem to be telling the same story in very different ways. On one afternoon I caught a 35mm presentation of a Chinese film called The Winter of Three Hairs, which is the story of street urchin who is entirely bald except for the three long strands of hair in the centre of his head. Sanmao is apparently an Iconic cartoon figure in China – as distinctive as Charlie Brown – and co-directors Yan Gong and Zhao Ming give their film a comic-book sensibility, with exaggerated performances, lively visuals and frenetic, episodic action. Despite being destitute, Sanmao remains a figure of dignity and honour; when pressed into stealing by a street gang, he feels guilty and immediately returns the victim's stolen goods, and he won’t take handouts from a rich family if it means changing his identity. Fortunately for Sanmao, Communism – in the shape of an abrupt ending, hastily added after Mao’s 1949 revolution – is here to save the day.
But who would save the street kids of Brazil? A couple of hours after The Winter of Three Hairs I sat down for Pixote (roughly pronounced as Pee-shoat), Héctor Babenco’s shocking portrait of delinquent kids, which has just been restored by the World Cinema Project. Within ten minutes we’ve seen a child get brutally gang-raped, and from there it only gets worse, with Babenco sparing us nothing as he follows 11-year-old Pixote’s downward spiral into crime, drugs and depravity. The director cast real street kids in the film and drew on their experiences and ideas as he crafted his story, with the young actors bringing an unsettling authenticity to their dead-eyed performances, while Marília Pêra is outstanding as the aged prostitute with whom Pixote and his gang enter into a short-lived criminal enterprise. This is a film driven by anger and despair but made with real artistry, with Rodolfo Sánchez’s richly textured cinematography creating a series of vivid images. Pixote ends with the young protagonist, gun in hand, walking alone down the train tracks towards God only knows what fate; an ending given an extra weight by the knowledge that the actor Fernando Ramos da Silva was gunned down by police within a few years of the film’s release.

Last year in Bologna I made two major directorial discoveries. Med Hondo and Helmut Käutner were filmmakers I’d never heard of going into the festival, but having seen three extraordinary works from each of them I instantly felt the need to see more. There were no such standout individuals in this year’s festival, and in general my discoveries felt more disparate and idiosyncratic. Consider The Czar Wants to Sleep, for example, a bizarre Soviet comedy about a spelling mistake that can’t really maximise the potential of its premise, but remains utterly compelling just because it’s so damn weird; and I was stunned by Lights Out in Europe, a 1940 documentary that captures preparations for WWII in the UK and abroad, containing astonishing footage that offered a fresh perspective on this dark era. I had a blast with the cheap but colourful Republic production Laughing Anne, I loved both the inventive Technicolor climax and the daft ‘Oirish’ insults in the rambunctious Marion Davies-starring comedy Lights of Old Broadway, and I snoozed through a 3D screening of Revenge of the Creature. (Although I appreciated the cameo from young Clint.)
Of course, I still came away from Il Cinema Ritrovato with regrets. The programme is so dense and wide-ranging it’s impossible to see everything, and it can be galling to hear friends raving about a film that you skipped; a film that you might never have another opportunity to see projected. It’s a big festival, and every year it seems to get bigger, with more people squeezing into every cinema, so it makes sense for additional venues to be brought into the mix. This year I visited the glorious Teatro Comunale for the first time, to hear Martin Scorsese talk, and I attended one screening in the Cantiere Modernissimo. Still in the construction phase, with exposed concrete and makeshift seating, this underground space opened its doors for the first time this year for daily screenings of the 1918 serial Wolves of Kultur, and even in its unfinished state it provided a lovely space to watch a movie. When the work is finished, it’s going to be a wonderful addition to Il Cinema Ritrovato; and, most importantly, it’s lovely and cool down there.

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?

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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