With a story so bizarre it can only be true, Errol Morris has fashioned another great documentary that's both funny and disturbing. Tabloid recounts the strange tale of Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming who fell in love with a Mormon and followed him to England, where she kidnapped him and kept him shackled to a bed as her sex slave. Talking directly into the camera in the manner that gives Morris' films their distinctive style, she denies this take on the story, claiming that he was a consensual partner and that their relationship has been tarnished by the Mormon church and muckraking journalists, with Morris delighting in throwing the conflicting versions of the truth up against each other. The director draws visual inspiration from the tabloid newspapers that squeezed every drop of salacious copy out of the McKinney affair in 1977, and includes testimonies from Express columnist Peter Tory (who seems amusingly fixated with the word spread-eagled) and Mirror photographer Kent Gavin, who helped expose Joyce's call girl past. As ever, Morris manages to draw frank and highly entertaining revelations from his interviewees, and the jovial, passionate yet weirdly oblivious McKinney is an endlessly fascinating subject. Tabloid works as an off-kilter tale of obsessive love and a study of the murky manner in which tabloid reporting can spin a story for its own ends, with one paper painting McKinney as a wronged innocent and another labelling her a devious prostitute – "Somewhere in the middle, maybe, is the truth" Peter Tory suggests. Oh, and if you're wondering what the dog in the above picture has to do with anything...I think I'll let you discover that particularly unusual twist for yourself.
Cinema can be poetic, but how can you make poetry cinematic? Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have attempted, and failed, to do just that with Howl. The film operates on three levels. One narrative strand takes place in a courtroom, where Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl is being tried on the grounds of obscenity; a second features Ginsberg himself (James Franco) telling his story and espousing his philosophy in an interview; while the third is a reading of the poem, visually represented by Eric Drooker's animation. The problem is that the elements are not sufficiently interesting in themselves and they never cohere in any kind of effective or satisfying manner. The animation is drab and overly literal, and as hard as Franco is working in the lead role, I got frustrated that his part essentially amounts to a monologue that never allows him to interact with any other actors. This frustration was compounded by the fact that Howl has a fantastic cast at its disposal, with David Strathairn, John Hamm, Jeff Daniels, Alessandro Nivola, Mary-Louise Parker and Bob Balaban all featuring in its courtroom sequences, but none of these fine actors are really stretched by their roles. Howl is stiff and unimaginative and it quickly becomes dull, with its greatest crime perhaps being the fact that it never makes a convincing case for the greatness of its source material.
The Nine Muses
John Akomfrah's The Nine Muses is beautifully made but stupendously dull. Two years in the making, the film is a very personal essay on post-war immigration, mixing a variety of archive footage, music, literary quotations and newly filmed sequences in Alaska to create a rather ponderous and impenetrable picture. The film is divided into chapters, each of which is named after one of the muses, and Akomfrah's filmmaking if often strikingly beautiful. The wintry Alaskan landscape is stunningly captured by Dewald Aukema's camera, but I don't get what the figures wandering through it in coloured jackets have to do with the director's greater theme. Likewise, while The Nine Muses features some great archival material of the first immigrants to get off the boat and start a new life in the UK in the 50's, the use of voiceover and music too often feels arbitrary and disconnected from what we're seeing. Excerpts from Beckett, Shakespeare, Joyce, Homer, Eliot and Dickinson are all use to little effect, while the score – ranging from Schubert to Lisa Gerrard – is full of nice pieces but again it never seems to connect to anything. I was lost and bored quite early on in The Nine Muses, and its monotonous pace makes it feel a good deal longer than 90 minutes.
Jardim Gramacho is the biggest landfill in the world, taking in 70% of Rio de Janeiro's rubbish every day, and Lucy Walker's brilliant Waste Land shines a light on the people who make a living sifting through that trash for recyclable materials. Brazilian artist Vik Muniz had the idea of visiting this location and helping the pickers create self-portraits using the materials they have retrieved from the mountains of garbage they wade through every day, and Waste Land follows this project from its conception through to its extraordinary climax. The film is driven by the great characters and human stories that it finds in Jardim Gramacho: Tiaõ, the charismatic young man determined to form an association to support the pickers along with his colleague Zumbi; Isis, a woman who dreams of finding love and who has suffered a terrible tragedy; Valter, the enthusiastic veteran who is constantly offering words of wisdom, such as "99 is not 100." In sharing their stories and ambitions, Walker really makes us care about these individuals, and there is a tremendous sense of excitement in seeing their hard work pay off when Muniz begins taking their portraits to exhibitions around the world, raising much-needed funds and showing them a world they never imagined they'd see. Vik and his team do pause for thought at one point, wondering if it is wise to give them this glimpse of another life before sending them back to the dump, but in the picture's exhilarating finale we see how they have been inspired by their experiences to make a positive change in their situations. Walker does a wonderful job of balancing the overall arc of the film with the human stories within it, and the second half of the film moved me to tears on numerous occasions.
As much as I've admired Kelly Reichardt's previous films, Meek's Cutoff feels like a real advancement for the director. This story of three families lost on the Oregon trail in 1845 has a timeless, fable-like quality to it, and Reichardt never falters in her delicate handling of Jon Raymond's screenplay. She creates an authentic sense of time and place while simultaneously evoking a strange, otherworldly atmosphere, superbly utilising the landscape to create a sense of isolation and despair in the unforgiving sun. The families have been led into this wilderness by Meek (an unrecognisable Bruce Greenwood), who covers his folly with big talk and bluster but who is increasingly viewed with suspicion by Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams, outstanding again). When a Native American crosses their path, the party is split – some think he should be killed on sight, others think that he can lead them towards salvation – and under Reichardt's ambiguous gaze, we're never sure which option will give these lost souls the best chance of survival. Meek's Cutoff is a stunningly crafted film, with Chris Blauvelt providing some breathtaking cinematography and Jeff Grace contributing a compelling, haunting score. The sound design is also exceptional; just look out for the way the women try to listen in on a distant conversation. It reminded me of There Will Be Blood and made me recall parts of the 2006 western Seraphim Falls, but this is very much a distinctive and singular piece of work. From the handmade opening titles to the chilling final shot, Meek's Cutoff feels like something very special indeed, and it is unquestionably one of the great American films of the year.
Cristi Puiu's last film The Death of Mr Lazarescu spent two and a half hours in the company of an ailing man, and by the end of the film, we felt a closeness and sympathy for him as he breathed his last. His new film Aurora gives us three hours in the company of Viorel, and by the end of the film we feel we hardly know him any better than we did at the start. As played the director himself, giving an astonishing performance, Viorel is a quiet, dead-eyed character who seems permanently distracted. We observe as he performs mundane tasks in a slow, shambling fashion, but then he interrupts his regular routine to buy a rifle and ammunition, and we realise that Viorel is calmly preparing to commit a murder. Puiu intentionally leaves huge gaps in our understanding of this character and his world and never allows us to see behind his protagonist's masks to get a sense of his motivations. The character is a blank, but watching him in action is utterly compelling. This is partly down to the director's perfectly judged performance in the central role and partly to do with the way he orchestrates his long takes, ensuring the scenes of bloodshed receive no more emphasis than a shot of a man driving his car or painting his flat. Aurora is darkly humorous, with Puiu allowing the irritations of real life to constantly undermine Viorel's murderous momentum, and while the length of the film may strike many viewers as excessive, I found I was gripped pretty much throughout. A lengthy character study of a man who is essentially unknowable, Aurora is audacious, challenging and hugely impressive.
So that's LFF week one out of the way. I watched 18 films from Monday to Friday (including non-LFF press screenings of Easy A and The Social Network), and generally the standard was good, with things picking up considerably towards the end of the week. So far, Meek's Cutoff, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Tabloid, Waste Land, The kids Are All Right and Aurora are the standouts. The public screenings for most of those films are sold out by this stage, but at the time of writing, tickets are still available for both screenings of Waste Land, and I highly recommend you take this opportunity to see it.
Looking ahead, there are plenty of exciting prospects in the coming seven days, with Never Let Me Go officially opening the festival on Wednesday night (It will be screened for critics on Wednesday morning). The biggest films of the week include Carlos (all 325 minutes of it!), Another Year, The American, Blue Valentine and Let Me In, but I've also got my eye on a few smaller offerings, such as Cold Weather and Sandcastle. I'm also very excited about the chance to see a restored print of Pandora's Box on Thursday.