Friday, November 09, 2018

The Other Side of the Wind


It’s hard to believe that The Other Side of the Wind is finally here, 48 years after Orson Welles began shooting the film and 33 years after his death. The film has been hauled over the finish line by Peter Bogdanovich, Frank Marshall, Oja Kodar and others, with the financial muscle of Netflix being the key required to unlock the various legal entanglements and propriety claims the project has been embroiled in. For decades it seemed like the completion of this project was an impossible dream, and there was even a certain poetry in it continuing to languish out of sight; a final representation of the many setbacks and frustrations that blighted Welles’ career. The Other Side of the Wind is, after all, a film about the impossibility of finishing a film, with the arty feature being shot by Jake Hannaford (John Huston, on grand cigar-and-dialogue-chewing form) falling apart when the leading man walks off the set. Even before that incident, the film appears to be on shaky ground, with money rapidly running out and Hannaford’s loose style bewildering even his closest confidants. “Is Jake just making it up as he goes along?” a producer asks, as he watches the rushes. “He’s done it before,” comes the weary response.

How much of The Other Side of the Wind was Welles making up as he went along? The film was shot in bits and pieces across the span of six years, and much of it has a fizzing, improvisatory quality. The film has two components, with the bulk of it taking place at Hannaford’s 70th birthday party where the director imperiously holds court amid a swarming and chattering crowd of acolytes and critics.  These scenes are shot with handheld cameras, many from the vantage point of the news cameramen and media students in attendance, with the image flipping back-and-forth between colour and black-and-white stock. Given the ad-hoc method of production and the confluence of multiple perspectives and film stocks, it’s remarkable how fluid and coherent it feels. Taking his cue from footage Welles had already cut together before the money ran out, editor Bob Murawski creates a swirling, cacophonous atmosphere that can be maddening at times, but which possesses an entrancing rhythm and energy.

Occasionally, the filmmakers give us a break from this claustrophobic environment, when Hannaford screens the rushes of the film he has been working on, also titled The Other Side of the Wind; an Antonioni-esque oddity, consisting of a young man (Bob Random) and a woman (Oja Kodar) as they wander wordlessly through a series of desolate landscapes, shedding their clothes along the way. The image stretches from 1.33 to 1.85 in these scenes and explodes into vivid colour. It’s a trippy, deliberately obtuse endeavour – it plays like a parody of existential ‘60s art films – but it has been made with a sense of craft and imagination that allows it to transcend pastiche. Cinematographer Gary Graver delivers dynamic compositions film with bold primary colours and lighting, and a couple of the set-pieces in this film-within-the-film take the breath away. Kodar strides through a unisex toilet in a nightclub, where carnal activities are taking place in every stall, and she pulls off her wet clothes before pushing an ice cube into the mouth of a young woman who observes her, agog. This sequence is followed by a sex scene inside a car, with the camera getting uncomfortably close to the actors within the cramped vehicle, as rain lashes the windows and red lights flash. These are intensely erotic piece of filmmakings, with astounding framing and cutting.

The film inside The Other Side of the Wind is like little that Welles had ever made before, and that’s by design. Welles intended The Other Side of the Wind as a departure, and in fact he allowed Oja Kodar (who co-wrote the screenplay with him) to direct herself in the ‘movie’ sections of the film. Even so, the way his camera watches Kodar reveals how fixated he was on her, in awe of her beauty and the way her body moved. Welles’ relationship with his partner/collaborator/muse is one of the key relationships that The Other Side of the Wind throws into a fascinating light. Others include Pauline Kael (represented here by the terrific Susan Strasberg), who peppers Hannaford with criticism throughout the party scenes, Marlene Dietrich (Lilli Palmer), and Bogdanovich himself, who plays a cocky young filmmaker on the rise and perhaps surpassing his old mentor. "For years I didn't want this document shown because frankly, I didn't like the way I came off in the piece. But I'm old enough now not to care anymore about how my role in Jake’s life is interpreted,” Bogdanovich states in character in the film’s opening narration. “My name is Brooks Otterlake, probably Hannaford's most successful acolyte.” The Other Side of the Wind is a caustic examination of the myriad ways in which filmmaking can define, warp and destroy people, with Hannaford's loyal gofer Billy (played with a note of vital pathos by Norman Foster) emerging as one of the film’s most tragic and empathetic figures. “Movies and friendship,” Hannaford intones, “those are mysteries.”

The Other Side of the Wind is rife with mysteries, references and revelations. It’s a dense and sometimes overwhelming experience, with the adventurous editing style Welles utilised in F for Fake being pushed even further here by Murawski and his collaborators. That question of collaboration is an interesting one to ponder – how much can we consider this picture, finished three decades after his death, ‘an Orson Welles film?’ I’m reminded of a passage from Simon Callow’s recent Welles biography One Man Band, where he writes: “Welles packed more living into his life, pursued more professions, thrust out in more directions and formed more intense relationships, than any twenty men put together.” That’s what The Other Side of the Wind feels like, a film that is intensely alive from moment-to-moment; pushing, exploring and thrusting in multiple directions at once. The Other Side of the Wind might not have been finished under the supervision of its creator, but it has undeniably been made in his spirit. “You old guys are trying to get with it. Is that what this movie's about?" one critic asks when looking at Hannaford’s footage, but this is a film that was always destined to exist out of time. The Other Side of the Wind would surely have been greeted as an audacious, singular achievement in 1976, but in 2018 it feels even more exhilaratingly like a great and radical work of art to grapple with.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead

At the end of his review of Free Fire (April 2017, Sight & Sound), Tony Rayns suggested that Ben Wheatley and his partner Amy Jump “could yet turn out to be England's belated answer to Rainer Werner Fassbinder.” Whether they will end up earning such a lofty comparison remains to be seen, but there's no denying that the pair share Fassbinder's knack for working in a way that's fast, cheap and prolific. Wheatley shot his micro-budget debut Down Terrace (2009) in eight days, and even after making his breakthrough as a filmmaker he has still shown a willingness to turn away from high-profile pictures for experimental fare like his hallucinogenic black-and-white odyssey A Field in England (2013), which was shot in less than two weeks. Now, after the ambitious spectacle of the J.G. Ballard adaptation High Rise (2015) and the starry shoot-'em-up Free Fire, Wheatley has cut loose once more with Happy New Year, Colin Burstead. Shot earlier this year in just 11 days, it's a notable picture for a couple of reasons: this is the first film Wheatley has made since his debut that doesn't have a co-writing or co-editing credit for Jump, and it's the first Ben Wheatley film that doesn't contain any violence.

That's not to say people don't get hurt in Happy New Year, Colin Burstead - Doon Mackichan stumbles within the first 15 minutes and spends half of the film with a bag of frozen peas strapped to her ankle - but the pain is primarily emotional rather than physical. Colin (Neil Maskell) has decided to hire a grand country mansion for his family's New Year's Eve party, but when we see him nervously vaping and listening to meditation music under the opening credits, we can sense that he's already regretting this decision. The family has barely settled at Cumberland House before Colin has to deal with his mother's ankle injury and his almost bankrupt father (Bill Paterson) tapping him for an emergency loan, and every additional guest only seems to add to Colin's anxiety. The wild card is David (Sam Riley), Colin's tearaway brother, who has been persona non grata since some unspecified transgression five years earlier. He has been invited by their sister Gini (Hayley Squires) as a surprise for their mother, but he's a most unwelcome surprise for the many partygoers who still harbour ill feelings towards him.

Read the rest of my review in the December 2018 issue of Sight & Sound

Friday, November 02, 2018

Peterloo

For a director who will forever be primarily associated with his intimate studies of ordinary British families, it's an odd coincidence that the past two Mike Leigh films have opened on foreign soil. Leigh's scope has expanded the further he has pushed back into the past. His 2014 biopic Mr. Turner began with a bucolic scene in the Netherlands, as the artist sketched a windmill in contented isolation, but his new film Peterloo begins with a much less tranquil scene. Leigh plunges us straight into the carnage as the battle of Waterloo reaches its bloody final days. We take the viewpoint of a startled bugler (David Moorst), staggering through the explosions and the bodies, with Dick Pope's camera circling him to capture the chaos. Joseph simply wants to make it home, but when he does return to Manchester he finds little comfort. Stricken by PTSD and with no work available to him, Joseph rejoins a family that is already struggling to make ends meet.

This opening suggests that Joseph will be one of Peterloo’s key protagonist, but he soon recedes into the background. Mike Leigh’s films are usually built around a strong central figure or a key relationship, but in examining the events that led to the massacre at St Peter's Field, Manchester in 1819, Leigh has taken a panoramic view of history. The film is a sprawling ensemble piece, cutting between multiple points of view and different classes to expose the inequality and oppression of 19th century Britain. It’s by far the biggest subject that this great filmmaker has ever tackled and at times the scale of the project seems to preclude the qualities that usually distinguish his work. Our time with each character is fragmented as Leigh switches his focus between the various factions, and he struggles to locate the film’s emotional centre. It seems Joseph’s family – including his mother (Maxine Peake) and father (Pearce Quigley) – should be where our interest and sympathies lie, but these characters don’t come to life in the way we’ve come to expect from Leigh’s pictures.

Instead, it’s the more colourful characters who make the biggest impression, or in some cases the ones who speak loudest. One of Peterloo’s central themes is the power of oratory, with characters such as Samuel Bamford (Neil Bell) or the renowned but vainglorious Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) frequently stating the need for reformation through impassioned speeches, emboldening the disenfranchised masses. Leigh’s decision to construct his film largely through these town meetings and exchanges of rhetoric makes it feel intermittently stimulating and rousing, but oddly static. Offset against these working class declaimers are the upper classes, presented as sneering grotesques, with Vincent Franklin’s bringing an entertainingly theatrical edge to his furious pomposity as the Magistrate Reverend Ethelston, and Tim McInnerny going into Blackadder mode as the oblivious Prince Regent.

There is unmistakable and justifiable anger in the filmmaking here, and that anger is what carries us through Peterloo’s uneven and rough patches, with the film gradually building a cumulative force. All roads lead inexorably to August 16th, 1819, with the build-up to the massacre taking up much of the film’s climactic hour. Leigh follows the massive crowds – families walking hand-in-hand, clad in their Sunday best – as they converge on St Peter's Field, developing a queasy tension and we anticipate their fate. As they gather below, the magistrates sit in their elevated vantage point, drinking wine and preparing to unleash the assembled military forces on the crowd. The ensuing carnage is shocking and brutal, shot in close quarters and cut with a visceral energy by Jon Gregory. The panic and fear is tangible, the atrocity indefensible. It’s by far the most ambitious and complex sequence Leigh has ever staged, and he carries it off with breathtaking assurance.

And then we have the calm after the storm, with the Prince Regent – reclining as he is fed sugared treats – praising the magistrates for restoring “tranquillity,” as a family stands huddled over a grave and a group of journalists surveying the scene of the bloodshed prepare to share what they have seen. The massacre at Peterloo has been spoken of as a defining moment in the history of the working class struggle for enfranchisement, but Leigh doesn’t place the film in its historical moment; there are no blocks of text at the end of the film to explain what happened next or why Peterloo matters. Leigh’s aim is to make this story feel immediate and current rather than demarcate it as a piece of ancient history, leaving it open for us to draw our own contemporary parallels with what we have seen. Peterloo isn’t consistently involving enough to rank among the very best Mike Leigh films, but the film’s aggressive, blunt power – alongside the typically immersive attention to period details and language – is enough to make this story come to vivid life right at the painful end. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Wings of the Dove screening + Q&A at the Prince Charles Cinema

I’ve long been a fan of Iain Softley and Hossein Amini’s adaptation of The Wings of the Dove, which intelligently dissects Henry James’s dense novel and refashions it into a riveting and passionate tale of love and duplicity. Released in 1997 – a boom time for James adaptations – the film earned Oscar nominations for Amini’s screenplay, Sandy Powell’s costumes, Eduardo Serra’s cinematography and a Best Actress nomination for Helena Bonham Carter, whose performance as the manipulative Kate Croy still ranks as her finest work. I’ve been waiting for years for the opportunity to see this film on 35mm, so I was excited to see it appearing in the Prince Charles Cinema’s upcoming programme, and I was even more thrilled when I was asked to moderate the post-screening discussion with Softley and Amini. This is an extremely rare chance to see this superb film projected from a print and to hear its creators talk about the daunting task of adapting Henry James for the screen. The screening takes place on November 1st at 20:35 and tickets are available from the Prince Charles Cinema website now.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

London Film Festival 2018 Podcast - Widows / Ash is Purest White / Joy

I appeared on the Sight & Sound podcast to discuss this year's opening night film Widows, Jia Zhangke's Ash is Purest White and Sudabeh Mortezai's Joy. You can listen to it here:

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

London Film Festival 2018 - Styx / Sunset / Vox Lux

Styx (Wolfgang Fischer)
A woman sets out alone on a sailing trip in Styx, and for much of the movie you might be thinking that you’ve seen this story too many times recently. Rieke (Susanne Wolff) is sailing from Gibraltar, where she works as a paramedic, to Ascension Island, and Wolfgang Fischer’s film calmly observes her as she dutifully prepares for her trip, and enjoys the solitude and freedom of the open sea once she has reached open water. Soon she gets hit by a violent storm, but this is no mere survival thriller in the vein of All is Lost or Adrift. When the storm clouds have cleared, Rieke spots a nearby vessel in some distress. She calls it in to the coastguard, but as the people on board the sinking ship are refugees nobody wants to touch it, and Rieke is warned to keep her distance. Fischer and his co-writer Ika Künzel place their protagonist in an impossible quandary, one that’s only exacerbated when a teenage boy named Kingsley (Gedion Oduor Wekesa) swims to her boat. She can’t save all of the refugees with her small boat, but how can she sail away and leave them to their grim fate, particularly when Kingsley is imploring her to go back for his family? Styx pits one woman’s compassion against a society’s widespread indifference to migrant deaths at sea, with the coldly bureaucratic voices Rieke encounters on the other end of her emergency calls having a chilling effect. Susanne Wolff brilliantly charts her character’s thought process with almost no dialogue, going about her business with efficiency and attempting to keep her emotions in check as she considers her options, and The film gives us plenty of time and space to consider this situation while offering no easy answers. It's a taut and riveting piece of filmmaking, brilliantly shot by Benedict Neuenfels, with night scenes often being lit by Rieke's small torches and breathtaking aerial photography reminding us just how alone these lost souls really are.

Styx currently has no UK distribution

Sunset (László Nemes)
László Nemes has found his directorial signature and he's sticking to it. Sunset is the director's second film and it follows the template of his attention-grabbing debut Son of Saul. Once again, we have a character on an ambiguous quest, and the film sticks closely to their point-of-view, placing the protagonist in the centre of the frame and allowing us to see little of their surroundings as they venture into the unknown. As a central character, Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) is just as haunted as driven as the lead in Son of Saul, and we are propelled along as she in investigates a mystery surrounding the famed hat store that her late parents used to run in fin-de-siècle Budapest. Details of what happened to her parents and the brother she didn't know existed are dropped sporadically and often in hushed, frantic conversations, and for much of the film's opening half-hour I was a little confounded by its opaque storytelling. Still, the film exerts a powerful grip. Nemes has an uncanny gift for creating an immersive environment through his dynamic camerawork and richly layered sound design, and I was completely drawn into the nightmarish, twist-laden, often perplexing narrative that he has crafted. He stages a number of exhilarating and terrifying set-pieces that are executed in a single, propulsive take, and Mátyás Erdély's lighting throughout is breathtakingly beautiful and atmospheric. Nemes has certainly delivered a worthy follow-up to Son of Saul, which must have been an intimidating act to follow, but I wonder how much further he can take this aesthetic? He has proven his ability to create compelling, subjective narratives defined by disorientation and obfuscation, and I'd love to see what he could do with a more expansive view of his characters and their world.

Sunset will be released in the UK by Curzon Artificial Eye

Vox Lux (Brady Corbet)
A star is born in the aftermath of a school shooting in Brady Corbet's Vox Lux. As Corbet traces the rise to pop stardom of Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), a 13 year-old injured when a classmate massacred her fellow students in 1999, he attempts to tie her loss of innocence and life marked with tragedy with that of the United States (even implying the loss of her virginity coincides with 9/11) – after all, as the film's subtitle states, this is “a 21st-century portrait.” This director certainly doesn't lack ambition or ideas, and he has the technique and confidence required to pull most of them off, but bringing them all together into a single film that doesn't feel overreaching, pompous and half-baked seems to be beyond him. Vox Lux's considerations of celebrity, violence and The Way We Live Now feel facile, with Willem Dafoe's wry and detached narration filling in the gaps in Corbet's sketchy screenplay. Lol Crawley's 35mm cinematography is less dynamic and expressive here than it was in Corbet's similarly audacious and flawed debut The Childhood of a Leader, and the director's creative flourishes generally fall flat; a speeded-up tour of Europe is less effective than the one staged in The Rules of Attraction, while the climactic musical performance is a dud. Having said that, Vox Lux is unusual enough and bold enough to command the attention, and Natalie Portman has a lot to do with that. Playing the adult Celeste (with Cassidy now playing her daughter), Portman arrives in the second half of the movie as a diva worn down by life and viewing the circus that surrounds her, through jaded, cynical eyes, having long passed the stage when she gave a fuck about what people think of her. “I’ve got more hits than an AK-47,” she unwisely says at a press conference when a terrorist attack is linked to her music, and the sight of Portman throwing everything she has at the role – almost carrying the film to the finish line through sheer force of will – is one of the more galvanising experiences I've had at this year's festival.

Vox Lux currently has no UK distribution

Thursday, October 11, 2018

London Film Festival 2018 - Asako I & II / Lizzie / Petra

Asako I & II (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's 2015 film Happy Hour won well-deserved plaudits for its complex examination of female relationships and its collection of wonderful performances, but the film's five-hour running time unfortunately meant its presence outside of film festivals was severely restricted. Asako I & II comes in at a much more conventional two hours, which should hopefully increase its commercial prospects, but there's little that is conventional about the film itself. After a beguiling meet-cute – an instant connection amid exploding firecrackers – timid Asako (Erika Karata) falls completely in love with the mysterious Baku (Masahiro Higashide), but when he abruptly disappears (something he apparently makes a habit of) she is bereft. Two years later, she runs into his doppelgänger Ryôhei (also played by Higashide), and a tentative romance begins between them, but is she in love with Ryôhei or is she still dreaming of the one that got away? Questions of fate and second chances run throughout Asako I & II, which Hamaguchi has adapted from Tomoka Shibasaki's novel, and it's easy to imagine some viewers being put off by its serendipitous storytelling or the characters' quirks; particularly Asako's chronic indecisiveness and introspection. But it's just as easy to imagine viewers falling in love with this film, as I did, and being thrilled by the way it keeps spinning off in unexpected directions. Although I adored much of Happy Hour, I felt that Hamaguchi's focus on performance and character dynamics sometimes came at the expense of his direction, resulting in a number of poorly constructed and flatly lit scenes, and Asako I & II is a real advance in this respect. His blocking and composition is masterful, his touch with actors is as sure as ever, and he handles the film's numerous tonal shifts with impressive grace. I'd have been happy to spend three more hours in the company of these characters.

Asako I & II currently has no UK distribution.

Lizzie (Craig William Macneill)
"Lizzie Borden took an axe, And gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one.” That's the Lizzie Borden story neatly wrapped up in a folk rhyme, although it's not exactly accurate. Abby Borden, Lizzie's step-mother, was struck around 18 times and her father a mere 11. The rest of what happened in the Borden household on August 4th, 1892 is open to speculation. Lizzie was cleared of the crime but in Craig William Macneill's Lizzie there'sno question who wielded the axe, with the film attempting to explain why Lizzie Borden (Chloë Sevigny) and her Irish maid Bridget (Kristen Stewart) took this drastic step. Both women were dominated and oppressed by Lizzie's father (Jamey Sheridan) and Lizzie's inheritance and freedom was threatened by her shady uncle (Denis O'Hare). They took solace in each other, escaping to the woodshed for sex, and when their covert relationship was rumbled they saw no other solution to their predicament than to smash The Patriarchy in the face with an axe. This is a story of love, hatred, thwarted passions and revenge – so why does it feel so staid? Macneill has a good eye but his careful crafting of every frame leaches all sense of life out of the movie. The characters stalk around their creaky old house as if in fear of upsetting the mise-en-scène. The movie is a chronic drag. This might not be such a problem if we felt fully immersed in this time and place, but Lizzie never convinces. Sevigny and Stewart are strikingly modern performers (perhaps intentionally, to put them at odds with the world around them) and all of the characters and relationships are sketchily realised by Bryce Kass' uneven screenplay. The film finally explodes into life with the murders themselves, which are staged with a conviction that the movie never exhibits elsewhere, but this late flurry aside, I never got the impression that the filmmakers had a clear sense of how or why they wanted to tell this story.

Lizzie is distributed by Bulldog Distribution and is in UK cinemas on December 14.

Petra (Jaime Rosales)
I knew nothing of Petra before I walked into the screening, having not even glanced at the film's synopsis, and that was a wonderful way to experience Jaime Rosales' film. This is a movie that likes to withhold its secrets; in fact, Rosales withholds the whole opening chapter, beginning his film with “Chapter II” and saving the first instalment for much later in the film, when its dramatic import will be far greater. Rosales relishes dropping these revelatory bombs  - arguably overdoing it in the final act – and another filmmaker could easily have dialled this material up into ripe melodrama, but instead the director dials it down. Petra is leisurely in its pacing and unfolds in long takes, with Hélène Louvart's camera (the film is gorgeously shot on 35mm) stalking around the characters and through the spaces they inhabit. Petra is a film about the legacy of secrets, the destructive power of men and the resilience of the women who are forced to withstand that power, and Rosales uses his exceptional ensemble to explore these ideas from a variety of angles. Bárbara Lennie is quietly superb as the title character – an artist attempting to unlock a mystery that has haunted her whole life – while Carme Pla has a small but heartbreaking turn as the maid who sacrifices everything for her family. But the film is dominated by Joan Botey as Jaume, the artist around whom all of these lives revolve. Jaume – an artist driven by acclaim and financial success rather than integrity and truth – takes evident delight in controlling and manipulating the lives of others, and Botey gives a magnificently loathsome portrayal of unchecked male ego and aggression.

Petra currently has no UK distribution.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

London Film Festival 2018 - After the Screaming Stops / The Guilty / A Paris Education

After the Screaming Stops (Joe Pearlman, David Soutar)
“I think the letters H-O-M-E are very important,” Matt Goss explains, “because they personify the word home.” Matt is showing us around his American abode (complete with energy crystals, his ‘conversation corner’, and a painting of his beloved bulldog holding a beer), but his thoughts keep drifting back the city he grew up in. “I’m a London boy. Big Ben. Embankment. Cab Drivers.” He’s about to return to London for a reunion with his brother Luke – with whom he formed the pop sensation Bros in the late 1980s – for a series of reunion concerts, and After the Screaming Stops follows a fractious few weeks before they appear together at the O2 for the first time in almost thirty years. Co-directors Joe Pearlman and David Soutar mine plenty of awkward comedy from the brothers’ idiosyncrasies and primarily from Matt’s overreaching metaphors and cod-philosophical statements (“I made a conscious decision, because of Stevie Wonder, to not be superstitious.”), but there’s also real pathos here. Both men come close to cracking under the pressure of trying to recapture something they had three decades earlier, and simmering, long-buried resentments (Luke feeling overshadowed by his brother, Matt feeling like he’s not being take seriously) keep bubbling to the surface. The filmmakers skilfully craft the film towards a cathartic, triumphant climax at the O2, although there’s an undeniable suspicion that intriguing and complicated parts of the story have been cleaved off in order to facilitate this narrative trajectory; for example, the London gig is presented as a one-off show, when in fact a number of UK dates were announced before being abruptly cancelled. Still, the film packs a lot of laughs and some surprisingly poignant insights into its 98-minute running time, and as Matt so sagely puts it, “Rome wasn’t built in a day. Fuck me, that’s true…but we don’t have the time that Rome had.”

After the Screaming Stops currently has no UK distribution.

The Guilty (Gustav Möller)
A few years ago at the London Film Festival, one of the major highlights was Caroline Bartleet's short film Operator. This six-minute drama starred Kate Dickie as an emergency services phone operator who receives a 999 call from a woman trapped in a burning building. All we had was Dickie on screen and the frantic sounds on the other end of the line, but with these elements in place, Bartleet generated a heart-stopping tension. (It was certainly superior to the mawkish The Phone Call, which won an Oscar in the same year.) Gustav Möller's The Guilty proceeds in a similar fashion – the camera never leaving the call centre – and at times it churns up a comparably clammy atmosphere of anxiety and dread. Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) is a cop demoted to the emergency services night shift while a disciplinary investigation takes place. He picks up a call from a woman who has been kidnapped and immediately sets about solving the case, but there's an interesting twist here. In Operator, the drama revolved around the protagonist's ability to remain unflappable and professional in a crisis, whereas Asger quickly proves he is no stickler for the rules. He begins ignoring protocols and launches his own attempts to bring the kidnapper to justice, possibly doing more harm than good in the process. With the film being confined to this one drab location, we are forced to share Asger's frustration, receiving only fragments of the narrative and waiting on offscreen voices to fill in the gaps. This is very much a debut feature, with Möller setting himself achievable parameters and hitting the marks he needs to hit. To his credit, he doesn't strain too hard to juice the film up visually with extravagant angles and cuts; he trusts that his leading man and his intriguing narrative will be enough to hold viewers rapt, and for the most part, he's right. Cedergren gives a commanding performance, as Asger's arrogance bleeds into doubt and desperation with every new revelation, but it's those revelations that cause the film to stumble slightly. In an attempt to stretch this plot to feature length, Möller and his co-screenwriter Emil Nygaard Albertsen pile on the twists in the film's third act, with some being clumsily handled and straining credibility. Less is often more in the world of the single-location thriller, but a few missteps aside, this is an impressively slick, tight and gripping effort.

The Guilty is distributed by Signature Entertainment and is in UK cinemas on October 26

A Paris Education (Jean-Paul Civeyrac)
I guess I'm predisposed to like a black-and-white film about a pretentious cinephile in Paris, falling in and out of love with a series of gorgeous French women, but even when I started the screening so firmly in its corner, Jean-Paul Civeyrac's A Paris Education tried my patience. Étienne (Andranic Manet) is the aspiring film director who has left behind his provincial home (and his long-term girlfriend) to begin his life as a film student in the French capital. He has ambitions and ideals but not yet much life experience or a clearly defined voice, and A Paris Education is partly about the need to look outside oneself and open up to new people and new experiences. Étienne gets called out for his solipsism and navel-gazing more than once, which can make him a frustrating protagonist to spend time with. I saw shades of Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore in this film, but Manet has none of Jean-Pierre Léaud's vitality or dexterity. It's left to the supporting actors to breathe life into the movie, which they frequently do. Some of the best scenes in the film focus on his friendly and flirtatious relationships with two roommates – Valentina (Jenna Thiam) and Annabelle (Sophie Verbeeck) – while the most intriguing character in the whole movie is Mathias (Corentin Fila), who everyone in the film seems to be obsessed with. It's easy to see why; Fila is a confident, charismatic performer and his character – who remains shrouded in mystery – seems to bring the narrative into focus whenever he appears. The rest of the time, A Paris Education meanders through monotonous scenes of Étienne sulking, brief romantic trysts, and characters arguing about the merits of contemporary cinema. “I’ve had enough of whiny French films,” one student complains, and I wondered if Civeyrac was attempting some kind of autocritique.  Also wondered what these students, who rhapsodise about the works of Vigo and Ford, would make of A Paris Education's images. It shouldn't be hard to make a beautiful black-and-white film in Paris, but Pierre-Hubert Martin's digital cinematography is shockingly drab, casting everything in a washed-out hue, and Civeyrac does little of interest with his framing. It's one of the drabbest-looking films I've seen in some time.

A Paris Education currently has no UK distribution.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Elaine May on The BBC Radio 4 Film Programme

With just one week to go until The Badlands Collective's 35mm Elaine May retrospective, I was invited to discuss Elaine May's work on BBC Radio 4's The Film Programme. I enjoyed talking about A New Leaf and the rest of May's work with host Antonia Quirke and producer Caitlin Benedict, and you can listen to our conversation here.

After five years of dreaming about this retrospective, it almost feels surreal that it is finally upon us. The opportunity to see all four of Elaine May's films as a director in one place, and all projected on incredibly rare 35mm prints, is probably not going to come around again, so don't miss this once-in-a-lifetime event and buy your tickets now!

Full Season Infohttps://www.badlands-collective.com/painfully-funny-the-complete-directorial-works-of-elaine-may/

Ticketshttps://www.ica.art/films/painfully-funny-the-films-of-elaine-may

Season Trailerhttps://vimeo.com/289500344

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Painfully Funny: The Complete Directorial Works of Elaine May

When I joined Ian Mantgani and Craig Williams to form The Badlands Collective in 2013, our goal was to celebrate films that had been overlooked and filmmakers whose work was in need of reappraisal. At our first meeting we made a list of directors who fit the bill, and one of the first names on that list was Elaine May. We believed that May was one of the most distinctive, brilliant and influential artists to emerge from that celebrated New Hollywood wave of the 1970s, and yet her films seemed to have slipped through the cracks as her contemporaries have been integrated into the canon. Nobody on the rep circuit was screening Elaine May’s films, nobody was releasing them on DVD and blu-ray, and nobody was talking about her as a great American director. We resolved to do something about it.

Doing something about it turned out to be a lot easier said than done, however. Elaine May’s work has been so neglected over the past four decades, viable prints have become incredibly scarce and the rights to them have become very complicated. For many years it seemed that our plan to present all four of her films together as a director on 35mm was going to prove to be a pipe dream, but now – five years later – we are finally ready to bring Elaine May back to the big screen.

The Badlands Collective is proud to present Painfully Funny: The Complete Directorial Works of Elaine May at the ICA in London on the weekend of September 21-23. We are screening A New Leaf (1971), The Heartbreak Kid (1972), Mikey & Nicky (1976) and Ishtar (1987) and we have secured some rarely seen 35mm prints for this special event. This could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Elaine May’s small but remarkable body of work presented on film, so book your tickets now and join us at the ICA to discover and celebrate a comic genius.

Full details are available on the Badlands Collective website

Tickets for each individual film are available from the ICA website – £12 for each film (£11 concessions) or £35 for a pass to all four features (£8.75 per film).



Saturday, August 25, 2018

BlacKkKlansman

The central characters in Spike Lee’s new film BlacKkKlansman are two police officers, one black and one Jewish, who work together to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. That’s a juicy hook right there, and one that’s perfectly aligned to Spike Lee’s filmmaking sensibilities, with the fact that it’s based (however loosely) on real events making it an even more intriguing proposition. So why does the film feel so tepid? Perhaps that sounds like an odd way to describe a movie that left me feeling shaken, angry and tearful as the closing credits rolled, but the undeniable impact of the closing five minutes just left me wondering where that fire and fury had been in the preceding two hours.

It certainly begins in an attention-grabbing fashion, opening with a clip from Gone With the Wind that segues into a white nationalist recruitment video, with Alec Baldwin (a frequent Donald Trump impersonator, of course) raging against the black and Jewish encroachment besmirching his proud white America. As Baldwin spits invective, images from DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation are projected onto the screen behind him. Griffith’s film becomes a key motif in BlacKkKlansman; this was Hollywood’s ultimate racist epic, a film that led to the rebirth of the KKK, and Lee frequently references it while also subverting its famous cross-cutting technique. Lee also references Tarzan in a speech given by Kwame Ture, to talk about the ways in which black audiences were historically forced to empathise with white heroes, and by extension to hate themselves. Spike Lee’s films have always been keenly aware of America’s past cultural sins, and BlacKkKlansman is attempting to engage with that legacy, while simultaneously telling a story rooted in the 1970s and commenting on America as it stands, or falls, in 2018.

That range of perspectives and layers of meaning isn’t unusual for a Spike Lee film – a sense of overreach, of a film pulling in multiple directions at once, is often what makes his work feel so energetic and alive – but here they are allied to a central narrative that fails in a series of ways. When we first meet Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) he is starting work at the Colorado Springs Police Department, and he is the only black man in the precinct. He is warned that he may face hostility and resistance, but his path from the records room to undercover work is smooth, with only one overtly racist cop apparently embodying the entirety of the force’s prejudices. This is a truly baffling decision on the part of Lee and his four co-writers, with this one bad cop getting the whole police department off the hook. The scene in which he gets his comeuppance is laughable, sitcom-level nonsense. Just what is Lee playing at here?

The simplicity of BlacKkKlansman and its broad, sketchy characterisations becomes more glaring the deeper Stallworth and his white partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) get into the Klan. The two lead actors give fine performances, but they are given nothing to play. How does Stallworth feel as a black man, sitting on the phone with David Duke (Topher Grace) and attacking his own race and saying “God bless white America”? He generally seems flippant and chilled, as if it’s water off a duck’s back. Similarly, Zimmerman is a Jewish man making anti-Semitic remarks when he’s in the Klan’s company, and he has to spout racial epithets while his black partner listens in; in one instance he even says it to his face. How does he feel about this? Does it take any psychological toll? The agnostic Zimmerman is given the most intriguing line in the film: “I never used to think about it,” he says of his identity. “Now I think about it all the time.” But the film doesn’t follow this thread and go deeper than that. We have a black man pretending to be white and a Jewish man pretending to be a Gentile, with both men expressing hatred of their own people, and the tension and complexity of this situation is never explored.

But it’s quite clear that Lee isn’t interested in these people as characters, he’s after a bigger story. The Ku Klux Klan exist in BlacKkKlansman as representatives for the white supremacy movement in the United States that has culminated in the Trump administration, and he draws the parallels bluntly and repeatedly. He puts familiar phrases into their mouths – there is talk of “making America great again” and chants of “America first!” – and characters discuss the idea that a man like David Duke may one day ascend to the highest office in the land, a line that provoked knowing chuckles from the viewers I saw the film with. Knowing chuckles isn’t what you sign up for with a Spike Lee film, though, and only in its final moments does it really grab audiences by the throat. The natural endpoint of the KKK/Trump equivalence that Lee has developed throughout the film is the footage from the Nazi march in Charlotesville in August 2017, the murder of Heather Heyer, and Trump’s notorious claim that there were “very fine people on both sides,” which is the footage he uses to bring the film to a close. The images are shocking, enraging and upsetting, and they’re guaranteed to have people leaving the cinema in a sombre mood, but they feel strangely disconnected to what’s gone before.

BlacKkKlansman is still a Spike Lee movie. It still has a “sheeeeeee-it!” from Isiah Whitlock Jr. and a trademark dolly shot, and it still has standout scenes that feel like the kind of moments only this director can conjure. I loved the close-ups on the audience during Kwame Ture's address, their faces spotlit in a beatific light, and a late monologue by Harry Belafonte carries a raw emotional force – like the ending, it’s a moment in which Lee confronts the viewer with the stark reality of racial hatred. But these powerful episodes only serve to highlight how sketchy, cartoonish and banal the rest of the film feels. BlacKkKlansman is consciously a work aimed at appealing to a mass audience, but this attempt to make a more mainstream film seems to have dulled the blade of a director who has done far more audacious work recently in a bunch of films that nobody cared about. A Spike Lee-directed studio release is inevitably going to be more interesting than a regular mainstream movie, but after the immediate impact of the film’s ending had dissipated, I couldn't help wondering what else we were meant to take from it.

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