Monday, November 01, 2021

Genre highlights at BFI London Film Festival 2021

Most of the conversations (and the longest queues) at the London Film Festival tend to be centred around the high-profile gala screenings, whether they’re the big studio pictures gearing up for the Oscar race or arthouse fare on the festival circuit, but there are plenty of smaller films worth talking about if you delve deeper into the programme. This year’s festival opened with Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall, a boldly revisionist take on the western, and one that set the tone for a series of films that tried to look at familiar genres in a fresh way.

Sometimes these films can look extremely familiar at first glance. The screenplay for Inexorable could easily have been the template for a glossy ‘Nanny from Hell’ Hollywood thriller in the mid-90s. Instead, the Belgian director Fabrice du Welz takes the film in a different direction. Shooting on Super 16mm, he has made something that feels grainy, rough and intimate, despite the palatial surroundings of this family’s country retreat. The hangdog Benoît Poelvoorde is Marcel, a writer who has failed to deliver a second novel in the twenty years since his hit debut Inexorable, and Mélanie Doutey is his wife and editor Jeanne, who is also the daughter of his late publisher. “I feel like a usurper” Marcel admits after moving his things into his former father-in-law’s office, but the real usurper is walking up the driveway in the shape of Gloria (Alba Gaïa Bellugi).

This is a classic interloper plot, with a stranger arriving to expose the fissures in a family that apparently has it all. Du Welz doesn’t make any attempt to disguise how unhinged Gloria is – she gives herself a black eye to expedite the family’s sympathy and acceptance – but the true reason for her fixation on Marcel, whose novel she has memorised, remains under wraps until the end. It perhaps stretches credulity that Marcel and Jeanne would be so trusting and immediately hand childcare responsibilities over to Gloria, but Du Welz and his actors make these characters real people with raw, complicated emotions, and when we reach the inevitable bloody finale, it feels messy and tragic for all concerned rather than exciting or cathartic. Inexorable may be a film uninterested in sticking rigidly to the Hollywood playbook, but Du Welz does acknowledge his influences, giving special thanks to John M. Stahl and Gene Tierney in the end credits.

Monday, October 18, 2021

The London Film Festival 2021 - The Dance / Hit the Road / Munich: The Edge of War / Money Has Four Legs

The Dance (Pat Collins)
A young girl stands on a table, facing an accordion player with the head of a ram. A curtain is pulled back, to reveal the intimidating sight of twelve black-clad figures wearing masks. This is the atmospheric opening to MÁM, the dance work created by choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan that opened at the O’Reilly Theatre in Dublin in September 2019. Eight weeks before that opening night, Keegan-Dolan sat in a community hall in Dingle with nothing but twelve dancers and the desire to create something. None of them had any idea what the show that resulted from their work together would be. Pat Collins’ new film The Dance documents that creative process, following the intensive process of collaboration and exploration from which a fully formed show was gradually born. Keegan-Dolan’s practice is to create a space of complete freedom, where every idea has value, and where people can try anything. Their exercises are sometimes reminiscent of the theatre troupe’s games in Rivette’s Out 1, and might appear comical to an outsider, but Keegan-Dolan’s approach is all about encouraging them to experiment with conviction: “Whatever you do, even if it’s the most ridiculous thing in the world, do it as if it’s the most serious thing in the world.” Collins observes the company’s work with a straightforward objectivity that recalls Frederick Wiseman, but he also uses his camera to achieve a real sense of intimacy, and his camera is always alive to the movement of bodies and the electricity of interactions. Where the Wiseman comparison falls down is with The Dance’s brevity, as it runs just over 93 minutes and flows beautifully, with some incisive editing from Keith Walsh, who earns a shared credit block with the director. One thing we don’t get is a sense of the audience reaction – I’d be particularly intrigued to learn what an invited audience thought of their unfinished preview – but that would go against Keegan-Dolan’s ethos, as he tells his dancers to avoid thinking about anything outside of what they’re doing. The act of creation in itself is everything.

Hit the Road (Panah Panahi)
Panah Panahi is the son of the great Iranian film director Jafar Panahi, and on the evidence of Hit the Road, his debut feature, Panahi Jr. is a born filmmaker. Like his father, who spent plenty of time shooting in cars recently in films like Taxi Tehran and 3 Faces, Panah Panahi appears at home on the road. His film follows a family on a journey, the purpose of which is unclear for a long time. The four members of this family – and their sickly dog – are crammed into the tight confines of their car, and Panahi displays an uncanny knack for framing and a playful imagination from the start, with the six-year-old younger brother (Rayan Sarlak) idly playing out the film’s opening score on a piano that he has drawn onto his father’s leg cast. Hit the Road is full of such eccentric comic moments, but there is also a growing gravity to the picture, with an undercurrent of uncertainty and fear being embodied by the older brother (Amin Similar) and the mother (Pantea Panahiha) as they get closer to their mysterious destination. Outside of the car, Panahi shows he has an equal facility with panoramic shots, staging a couple of brilliant sequences late in the film where the characters appear as tiny figures moving across the landscape. The younger brother finds himself being tied to a tree during one of these scenes, complaining about it at some volume, and I’m sure many viewers will see that as a fitting fate for a character who never shuts up. I found him to be mostly very funny and the distinctive characteristics of the four people in this car allows Panahi to find interesting and contrasting emotional textures throughout the film. I think Hit the Road has some pacing issues and not all of the director’s eccentric ideas land, but I loved its ambition, its sense of humour and its tender heart, and I am excited to see whatever either Panahi does next.

Munich: The Edge of War (Christian Schwochow)
Signed in 1938, the Munich Agreement annexed the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia to Germany and – as was widely believed at the time – settled Hitler’s territorial claims in Europe, preventing the prospect of another war. As we all know, this treaty was merely a postponement, as Hitler invaded Poland a year later, but that knowledge is a problem for Christian Schwochow’s Munich: The Edge of War. This adaptation of the novel by Robert Harris revolves around an attempt to smuggle a document out of Germany that reveals Hitler’s true plans for Europe, but given the fact that we know what happened and when, the actual relevance of this document getting into the hands of the British feels diminished, and the film suffers from a chronic lack of tension. There’s a bit of cat-and-mouse business in Munich as George MacKay and Jannis Niewöhner attempt to avoid suspicion while behaving very suspiciously, and Schwochow throws in a fight scene between MacKay and August Diehl that feels hilariously perfunctory, but mostly the film just trundles along with little energy and style (Schwochow’s direction is all coverage and close-ups). Jeremy Irons has fun in his role as an arrogant and doddery Neville Chamberlain, but the permanently stricken-looking MacKay lacks the charisma to carry off the lead role. Things are better on the German side of things, thanks to  Niewöhner’s passionate performance and the always welcome presence of Sandra Hüller, but Ulrich Matthes doesn’t work at all as Hitler (although, having played Goebbels in Downfall, we can congratulate the actor on his promotion). Regrettably, Sandra Hüller’s role is the only half-decent spot for a woman in sight. Jessica Brown Findlay spends a few minutes nagging MacKay for focusing on the impending war over his family before being written out of the movie, Liv Lisa Fries is an appealing presence in flashbacks before – you’ve guessed it – being written out of the movie, and Anjli Mohindra is left playing a deeply unconvincing plot device.

Money Has Four Legs (Maung Sun)
The title comes from a proverb that is brought up halfway through this film: money has four legs, meaning you’ll never catch it if you’re chasing it, and there is no escape if money is chasing you. Money is just one of the problems that young filmmaker Wai Bhone (Okkar Dat Khe) is facing as he tries to make his directorial debut. His script has already been pulled apart by the censorship board, which has looked unkindly on any scenes involving sex, violence, bad language (“Try replacing this word with fothermucker”); he has to deal with actors who won’t show up, and don’t know their lines when they do; and above all else, he has to cope with the well-meaning interventions of his drunken brother-in-law. This knockabout satire plays like a Burmese version of In the Soup, with Wai Bhone facing one obstacle after another before resorting to burglary and blackmail to try and clear his debts and finish his film. The pacing is perhaps a bit too leisurely and the film is beset by some obvious budget and talent limitations, but there are some very funny scenes here, notably the build-up and execution of the bank heist. Maung Sun also includes a number of sly meta gags, like a false start for the end credits before the story has been wrapped up, and a dream sequence interrupted by the admonishment: "You're a supporting character, you're not allowed a dream sequence!" The film’s real ending is surprisingly resonant, being reminiscent of Kubrick’s The Killing but given a wry comic spin thanks to the obliviousness of the two central characters.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

The London Film Festival 2021 - Boiling Point

Expanding on the BIFA-nominated short film of the same name that he made in 2019, Philip Barantini’s exhilarating Boiling Point takes us behind the scenes at a busy east London restaurant in the run-up to Christmas, on a night when seemingly everything is going wrong for head chef Andy Jones (Stephen Graham). When the film opens on Andy he is already stressed and running late, and when he arrives at Jones & Sons in Dalston, the news that a visiting hygiene inspector has downgraded his restaurant from a five-star rating to a three (largely as a result of Andy’s failure to maintain proper paperwork) sets the tone for the evening. Tensions in the kitchen continue to rise when it is revealed that Andy has also forgotten to make a substantial meat order, and by the time celebrity chef and former colleague Alastair Skye (Jason Flemyng) has turned up for dinner with a notorious food critic (Lourdes Faberes) on his arm, we can see what the film’s title is getting at.

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

The London Film Festival 2021 - The Alleys / Memory Box / The Outlaws / See for Me

The Alleys (Bassel Ghandour)
“Enough with the stories,” one character tells another towards the end of The Alleys. First-time director Bassel Ghandour certainly has plenty of stories to tell, and at the start of the film his camera moves through the intertwined back alleys of the Jordanian capital Amman. This is, the narrator tells us, a place where “a story spreads like wildfire,” and The Alleys is one of those movies where multiple narrative threads cross paths, and where a series of fateful decisions set into motion a chain of events that has tragic consequences for almost everybody. The plot is kick-started by two young lovers, Ali (Emad Azmi) and Lana (Baraka Rahmani), who have to meet in secret – with Ali climbing into her bedroom – to avoid Lana’s stern mother Aseel (Nadira Omran). When Aseel discovers that their nocturnal trysts have been recorded by an unknown voyeur, who attempts to blackmail her, she turns to the widely feared local gangster Abbas (Munther Rayahnah) to find the blackmailer and warn off Ali. In many respects, the characters are stock archetypes, but Ghandour – who co-wrote Naji Abu Nowar’s Theeb in 2014 – has a knack for swiftly introducing and defining character details, and he has cast his film well. Munther Rayahnah is a commanding presence as Abbas, and Maisa Abd Elhadi comes into her own as the film progresses, being the beneficiary of a flashback that shows Hanadi to be just as vicious as her boss. Ghandour has clearly constructed his narrative meticulously, but he also gives himself a lot of loose end-tying to do in the final act, which is is the one part of The Alleys that feels sluggish and labouriously contrived, and the late reveal of our omniscient narrator as a peripheral player in the drama feels like a too-cute trick that doesn’t come off at all. As a director Ghandour shows little visual flair, and while he undoubtedly has gifts as a storyteller, perhaps he could have used a more experienced director at the helm to bring such an ambitious screenplay to life with a little more finesse.

Memory Box (Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas)
There's something very appealing about the tactile nature of the photographs, journals and cassette tapes that teenager Alex (Paloma Vauthier) studies to illuminate her mother's past in this film. In stark contrast, the digital 'memory box' of her generation – the mobile phones that she uses to share her mother’s story with her friends – seems so ephemeral. The directors of this film, Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas, employ some neat visual trickery to bring these items to life: photographs run together creating a kind of flipbook effects that leads into a flashback; when a character in a photograph is shown firing a gun, the muzzle flare appears to burn a whole in the corner of the frame. Through these techniques the filmmakers create something that exists somewhere between the lived experience of Maia (played as an adult by Rim Turki, as a teen by Manal Issa) and Alex’s own projections of the past, which have been evoked by the recollections she is poring over. The scene that best exemplifies this is a beautiful shot of Maia and her lover on a motorbike, serenely gliding down the street, unperturbed by the explosions that illuminate the sky around them. Khalil Joreige and Hadjithomas don’t quite quite do enough to illuminate these characters – it feels like we’re just getting scraps – and the film spends a lot of time developing a sense of mystery around Maia’s broken relationship with her one-time best friend Liza, before just letting it fizzle out. Memory Box is at its best in the way it evokes a sense of what it was like to grow up in Beirut in the 1980s, and the film has a genuinely moving ending, that depicts the catharsis and reconciliation that’s achievable for those who engage with the past instead of burying it out of sight.

The Outlaws (Henrik Martin Dahlsbakke)
The Outlaws begins at the end, with the two fugitives having apparently reached the point of no return. Mikael (Filip Berg) and Johannes (Åsmund Høeg) are at the wheel of a car, both stunned and wounded, and a line of police are standing in front of them, with guns drawn. From here, writer-director Henrik Martin Dahlsbakken flashes back to see how they got to this point, but their journey doesn’t follow a straight road. Dahlsbakken has chopped his narrative up into fragments, and he has pieced them together out of order, creating an impressionist portrait of two men on the run. We see how they got together, with the more sophisticated and focused Mikael picking up the softer Johannes by the side of the road, and we get further flashbacks to Johannes’ own past before their meeting. These scenes focus on his days logging in the Norwegian wilderness, when he developed a homoerotic longing for workmate Peder (Benjamin Helstad), which leads to a burgeoning affection for Mikael. But I don’t think we really get much of a sense of these two men beyond this, and I can’t see the benefit in presenting the film in this way. The Outlaws can’t develop any forward momentum or sustain any tension as it leaps – seemingly at random – back and forth between time periods. Dahlsbakken is clearly trying to capture fleeting moments and sensations, and he is aided in this attempt by some lovely cinematography from Oskar Dahlsbakken, but the film is hazy on details and it’s even weirdly fuzzy on point-of-view. Johannes appears to be or protagonist, with his character being given marginally more shading, but the intermittent voiceover narration is provided by Mikael, who remains a cipher in most request. In its surprisingly skimpy 79 minutes, I never felt that The Outlaws was giving me anything to hold on to.

See for Me (Randall Okita)
See for Me is a solid thriller in the Wait Until Dark mould, which is distinguished from other entries in the 'blind woman in peril' genre by the casting of a real blind woman the lead role. Skyler Davenport is very good as Sophie, who stubbornly resists the help of others and tries to find ways to use her blindness to her advantage, but who comes to rely on the telephone guidance from Kelly (Jessica Parker Kennedy) when three crooks break into the house where she's cat-sitting. The script by Adam Yorke and Tommy Gushue follows a familiar template and the characters are thin – the crooks are cut wholesale from the Panic Room template – but I welcomed the way they tried to complicate Sophie's character, and in fact the film is at its most compelling when it briefly suggests that she might join the crooks for a cut of the loot. Part of me wishes See for Me had gone further down that road instead of going where I always thought it was going to go. Still, Randall Okita manages to sustain a certain degree of tension as Sophie is pursued around this apparently labyrinthine home, with Kelly – first seen guiding her online colleagues through a shoot-em-up video game – pointing the way and helping her turn the tables. The camerawork is efficient, particularly the use of wide shots to show cat and mouse in different parts of the house, and the score by Joseph Murray and Lodewijk Vos has a propulsive effect. I don’t think Okita quite has the chops to generate the kind of nail-biting ride this premise may have engendered in more accomplished hands – I kept waiting for him to really turn the screw and ramp up the tension and excitement – but it’s an engaging and accomplished 90-minute thriller that finds a few new wrinkles in familiar material.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor on Rose Plays Julie

“Who are you?” Those are the words we see scrawled on a Post-it Note towards the end of Rose Plays Julie, and it’s a question that goes to the heart of Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor’s work. Since making their feature debut with Helen in 2008, this filmmaking team has explored the slippery nature of identity and the way past traumas can shape our present lives, and Rose Plays Julie is their most potent examination of these themes yet. This quietly riveting film follows a young Irish woman named Rose (Ann Skelly) who adopts a new persona as she tracks down her birth mother, Ellen (Orla Brady), and subsequently discovers the shocking truth about the circumstances of her conception.

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Victor Kossakovsky on Gunda

If you’re going to make a movie about a pig, there are a few ground rules to follow. Your porcine protagonist should be cute, it should talk, and it should have some sort of adventure – think of Babe (1995) and its sequel Pig in the City (1998), the 2006 adaptation of Charlotte’s Web or Hayao Miyazaki’s fighter pilot in Porco Rosso (1992). That’s the received wisdom, at least. Without a few anthropomorphising touches and an injection of drama, it’s hard to imagine many producers lining up to back a film about a pig that’s content to be a pig.

Enter Gunda, the titular sow in Victor Kossakovsky’s new film. Over the course of Gunda’s 93 minutes, we see this animal give birth, feed her young piglets, stroll around the farmlands, shelter from the rain and wallow happily in some mud. The soundtrack consists of nothing more than the grunts and squeals emitted by Gunda and her offspring, or the moos and clucks of the cows and chickens that Kossakovsky occasionally cuts away to. Gunda simply invites us to spend time contemplating these animals and – the director hopes – to see them as something other than a source of food.

Monday, May 24, 2021

The Cremaster Cycle and River of Fundament

This month, The Hayward Gallery is hosting Matthew Barney’s first solo UK exhibition in over a decade, an exhibition that includes a presentation of his new film Redoubt. To mark the occasion, here is my account of my first encounter with his work, which was originally published on MostlyFilm in 2014.
Norman Mailer may have won the Pulitzer Prize and unanimous critical acclaim for The Executioner’s Song, but as he collected his plaudits the author believed that his true masterpiece was yet to come. “I was working with the vanity that this was the nearest I was ever going to come to the possibility of writing a great book,” Mailer told George Plimpton a few years later when discussing the decade-long gestation of his sprawling 1983 novel Ancient Evenings. But when that book was finally published, not everybody shared his view. “It is, speaking bluntly, a disaster,” The New York Times stated, while New York Magazine described it as “nasty, brutish and endless” and The Nation dismissed it as a “long and tedious wallow in the faeces of Ancient Egypt.” Nevertheless, the book sat in the bestseller list for 17 weeks and it still has many ardent defenders today.

Whether you think the book is a misunderstood masterpiece, an unreadable slog or something in between is a matter of personal opinion, but the one thing everyone could surely agree on was that Ancient Evenings was unfilmable. Opening my copy of the book (which I long ago filed away in the “unreadable” section) at random, my eyes landed on the following passage, which is indicative of the novel’s content:

“Then Thoth put His hand on the hips of Set, that is, so far as He dared, for Set was shaking with rage, but Thoth proceeded to make the same speech to the semen of Horus. Would it appear? A voice flew right out of Set’s buttocks. It was a full, sweet-smelling wind, and it said, ‘I am the transformation of the seed of Horus.’ This wind smelled sweet as lettuce. The Gods roared. For They knew Horus had buggered Set.”

Stanley Kubrick famously argued that “if it can be written or thought, it can be filmed,” and in this case the only man bold enough – or foolhardy enough – to accept the challenge was Matthew Barney. Appointed to the task by none other than Mailer himself, who regarded the artist as an authentic genius, Barney has very liberally adapted Ancient Evenings into an epic, six-hour extravaganza called River of Fundament. This magnum opus recently received its UK premiere in London, having prompted applause, disgust, awe, walkouts and general bafflement at its previous screenings. I felt it would be unwise to immediately jump in at the deep end with River of Fundament before familiarising myself with the artist’s work, and so, before his latest film screened, I spent the day with Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle.
It’s hard to know where to start with the Cremaster Cycle. I would just start at the beginning but even that’s not as straightforward as it sounds. Matthew Barney produced the five films in the series over the course of eight years, but he made them out of order, beginning with Cremaster 4 in 1994 and finally completing the work in 2002 with Cremaster 3. The Whitechapel Gallery arranged its day-long event in numerical order, as per the artist’s request, but I’m not sure that’s the most satisfying way to view them. It’s not as though there is a clear narrative shape to be respected here, and there’s also Barney’s growing confidence as a filmmaker and the better-quality filmmaking tools available to him throughout the production of the cycle to be considered. In his post-screening Q&A Barney admitted that he made his first two films with a television mindset and only started working towards a more cinematic style with Cremaster 5 in 1997, and a huge leap in ambition and craft is evident in the final two pictures, with the three-hour extravaganza of Cremaster 3 clearly acting as the series’ apex. After enjoying the dazzling spectacle of that film, it comes as something of a jarring comedown to then be faced with the flat visuals and limited scope of Cremaster 4.

Having said that, each of these films contains at least one moment that will astonish you, and most of them achieve that feat multiple times. The cycle unfolds in a series of self-contained sequences that defy explanation, and while the programme notes handed out at the Whitechapel made a valiant attempt to explain the narrative that runs through the films, Barney’s work resides in my memory as a series of individually stunning and singularly weird images that are linked by theme rather than story. Cremaster 1 features a Busby Berkeley-esque chorus of dancing girls on a blue football field, their movements dictated by the long-limbed woman hiding under tables and stealing grapes in the Goodyear blimps that hover above them. Although Barney never really develops this situation in any interesting way, this 40-minute prelude acts as a gentle, imaginative and amusing introduction into his universe, with Cremaster 2 being markedly more adventurous and compelling. This atmospheric instalment is where Barney’s kinship with Mailer first emerges, with Gary Gilmore – the subject of The Executioner’s Song – being portrayed by Barney while Mailer appears briefly as Harry Houdini, possibly Gilmore’s grandfather. There’s a very strange sex scene involving bees, a wonderfully imaginative reconstruction of Gilmore’s crime, and a quietly intoxicating atmosphere that slowly seduces us and sets us up nicely for the sensory overload of Cremaster 3.
At 182 minutes, Cremaster 3 is by far the longest film in the cycle and if it simply stood alone as a single feature it would surely be regarded as a considerable achievement, as Barney brings a sense of shape and purpose to his work while simultaneously pushing his obsessions and stylistic idiosyncrasies to new heights. Ostensibly a reimagining of the construction of the Chrysler building, Barney successfully juggles multiple narrative threads that often seem to have little to do with each other, but he is always building towards a spectacular climax. The sequence in which a bizarrely attired Barney must climb the levels of the Guggenheim Museum while completing challenges is a near-perfect short film in itself, but there is simply so much extraordinary material to appreciate here. There’s a slapstick sequence involving a barman, a demolition derby in the Chrysler building lobby, Barney laboriously filling an elevator with cement, Aimee Mullins (Barney’s wondrous muse) slicing potatoes with her feet and being some kind of tiger/human hybrid, an anal prolapse, a zombie horse race, and some very elaborate performances of Irish songs. The scale of the production, the attention paid to costumes, prosthetics and choreography, and the sheer batty single-mindedness of Barney’s vision is something to behold. It is a feast.

I began queuing for the Cremaster Cycle at 10:30am. By the time we sat down for the fourth part of our day it was after 5pm and I was beginning to flag. The cumulative effect of the first three films, climaxing with the overwhelming Cremaster 3, had left me with an awful lot to wrestle with, and I was still trying to digest those films as I watched Cremaster 4. The motorcycle racing, tap-dancing and through-a-Vaseline-cave-crawling of the penultimate film sometimes surprised and tickled me but failed to resonate, and when neither the appearance of Ursula Andress or the sight of water nymphs tying doves to Barney’s genitals managed to provoke much of a response in Cremaster 5, I knew I was defeated. Seeing all of these films in one day is simply too much, and while I was left feeling exhilarated by the first three instalments, I was just exhausted when I had experienced all five. Getting to grips with Barney’s world demands a lot from the viewer – these are not films to be enjoyed passively – and by the end of the day I was all Barney’d out. But he wasn’t finished with me yet.
The fifth Cremaster film takes the form of an opera, an artistic medium that suits Barney’s approach rather well, and so it was perhaps fitting that I found myself at the London Coliseum, the home of the English National Opera, the following day for River of Fundament. Indeed, Barney has spoken of his pleasure at showing the film in proscenium theatres, but I wonder how much of that is down to a cheeky satisfaction at presenting something so depraved and scatological in these opulent surroundings. I doubt the ENO has ever staged anything to resemble what we see in River of Fundament‘s opening act, which begins with Matthew Barney emerging from the titular river, wrapping a turd in gold paper, and getting sodomised by the pharaoh Usermare, and ends with the spirit of Norman Mailer (played by his son John Buffalo Mailer) cutting open a dead cow, removing its organs, and crawling inside. While all of this is going on, we are invited to spend time at Mailer’s wake, as a number of guests – including Salman Rushdie, Elaine Stritch, Jonas Mekas, Fran Lebowitz and James Toback – gather to remember the author and discuss his legacy. So begins the now-familiar Barney rhythm, in which long, often impenetrable stretches are interrupted by extraordinary and shocking images, but the difference here is that all of it – the spectacular and the banal – is equally mesmerising.

Barney’s cinematic sensibility has developed to an astonishing degree since the last Cremaster film. River of Fundament has been made with a real sense of directorial control, with Barney and his regular cinematographer Peter Strietmann capturing the vast set-pieces in a series of breathtaking compositions. The film looks incredible and it sounds incredible too, with composer Jonathan Bepler rightfully sharing equal billing with Barney, both for his eclectic and imaginative score and for the complex sound design that – filtered through the Coliseum’s specially arranged speaker setup – created a truly immersive experience. As I watched the film’s centrepiece sequence, the destruction of a car in an enormous set of furnaces, the heat practically radiating from the screen, I was staggered by both Barney’s ambition and the craft that had gone into realising it. How many filmmakers in the world are making work on this scale? River of Fundament is often simply overwhelming and it is the rare film that guarantees to show you things you’ve never seen before.
Whether you’ll want to see them is another matter entirely, of course. A woman gives birth to a bird, a man is tricked into eating semen-encrusted lettuce, a shit-covered reincarnation of Norman Mailer interrupts a teenage wank, Maggie Gyllenhaal squeezes milk from her breasts, a woman pisses all over the dinner table, and there is a lot of anal action involving cocks, tongues, dildos and, in one particularly memorable scene, an eyeball. Many of the people sitting in my vicinity didn’t return after the second intermission, which was disappointing but understandable too. As well as frequently being provocative and unpleasant, Barney’s work is incredibly dense with arcane references and layers of meaning that he refuses to make easily accessible for the viewer, and all of that can make it seem like something of an endurance test.

But this is a film that amply rewards the commitment that viewers make in watching it, and while there is no straightforward meaning and no easy answers to be gleaned from the film, I think all of us who emerged from the London Coliseum after six astounding hours felt like we had seen a major statement from a major artist. The human experience is reduced to its essence – we are born, we shit and fuck, we die, and life goes on – but the grandeur, beauty and boundless imagination that Barney brings to it is a celebration of the brilliance and messiness of humanity. River of Fundament will stay with me for a very long time, and it’s something that should be experienced by any curious filmgoer whenever the opportunity presents itself. Dive in, surrender to Matthew Barney’s vision, sink or swim, and perhaps emerge reborn.

Matthew Barney: Redoubt is at the Hayward Gallery until July 25th

Sunday, March 28, 2021

My Feature on Terry Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Back in 2017, I flew to Portugal and spent a day watching Terry Gilliam film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, the cursed passion project that had suffered a number of false starts since his first shoot was abandoned in 2000. Filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe were also on set at the time, and to coincide with the VOD release of their behind-the-scenes documentary He Dreams of Giants, Sight & Sound has republished my set report online:

When a freak hailstorm and flash flood struck the set of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in September 2000, the actors ran for cover, the crew scrambled to secure the cameras, and the embattled director Terry Gilliam walked out into the storm. He raised his fists to the skies and shouted at the top of his lungs, and then he stood and watched as much of their equipment was washed away on a torrent of mud.

The indelible image of Gilliam staggering against the elements was captured in the tragicomic documentary Lost in La Mancha (2002) and – having already endured the disruptive presence of Nato bombers flying over their location – it seemed to mark the point when he knew that his dream project, which he had first conceived in 1989, was falling apart. When they attempted to resume shooting, a double herniated disc incapacitated his septuagenarian lead actor Jean Rochefort and removed all doubt. Five days into production, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was doomed.

Seventeen years later, I arrive in Portugal to observe Gilliam’s latest attempt to resurrect The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, and the prevailing mood is calm. There have been no illnesses, no mishaps and no acts of God; in fact, the company has experienced just two days of inclement weather so far, which happened to coincide with days scheduled for shooting interiors. Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, the directors of Lost in La Mancha, have been documenting the film’s progress again, but so far their sequel is shaping up to be considerably less dramatic.

Everyone is quietly moving forward with a production that has already come through five weeks in Spain unscathed and has now descended on Tomar, a small Portuguese city founded by Knights Templar in the 12th century, with the spectacular Convento de Cristo offering a perfect backdrop for Gilliam’s tale of a knight-errant. One section of the convent has been commandeered for today’s shoot, while tourists continue to roam around the rest of the building, some of them confusedly snapping pictures of a giant wooden pyre that production designer Benjamín Fernández is constructing for a later scene.

When I reach the set I find Gilliam busy preparing for a shot that will involve a long camera movement and 20 actors on horses, and the animal factor is giving him a headache. The horses have to be lined up two-by-two in the same order for each take, and some of them are more compliant than others. “I’ve always avoided horses and now they’re here, it’s a nightmare. You have this idea that you’re going to be like John Ford and everybody else, but no,” Gilliam complains, pining for his Monty Python days. “We were really smart when we were young: we just used coconuts.” Still, if the biggest issue currently facing the director is a few uncooperative horses, then perhaps the cinema gods are smiling on Gilliam at last.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Mike Nichols: A Life

When Mike Nichols stepped onto the set of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1965, he had no idea how to make a movie. As the cameras rolled for the first time, he crouched in anticipation and waited for his actors to deliver the performances they had shaped in rehearsals, and there was an awkward pause before Elizabeth Taylor said, “I can’t act until you say ‘Action.’” His inexperience was exposed in a variety of unexpected ways. When planning a close-up shot of Taylor and Richard Burton walking through the front door, he worried that the opening door would hit the camera until the focal length of lenses was explained to him; and after he and cinematographer Haskell Wexler had spent four hours setting up the shot, he realised the hinges on the door had been affixed on the wrong side. “I wanted to cry,” Nichols later recalled. “I thought, oh my God, here I am making a film and I can’t even get them through the front door. I turned to [Wexler] and said, ‘Get me out of this hole.’ And he did.”

By the end of the 1960s, Nichols was among the hottest directors in Hollywood, having directed Virginia Woolf and The Graduate, two hit movies that had become cultural phenomena, earning twenty Oscar nominations between them. He was about to embark on an adaptation of Joseph Heller’s seemingly unadaptable Catch-22, and he had been given a sizeable budget and the freedom to do whatever he wanted with it, but just a few years later, his filmmaking career appeared all but over. A string of expensive flops and an abandoned production of Neil Simon’s Bogart Slept Here (later to become The Goodbye Girl) in 1975 severely damaged his reputation, and he wouldn’t direct another feature film until 1983. The theatrical wunderkind appeared to be a cinematic flash in the pan.

I’ve always been intrigued and perplexed by the maddeningly erratic trajectory of Mike Nichols’ filmmaking career. While other directors of his generation displayed a consistency of vision that gave their genre experiments a recognisably personal through line, it’s harder to define exactly what ‘a Mike Nichols film’ is. At his best he made incisive, acerbic, vividly acted portraits of complex relationships (it’s no coincidence that his sole 1970s bright spot, Carnal Knowledge, is a film about four people talking), but he was equally prone to directing bloated and drab flops that left you wondering what on earth prompted him to take on the project in the first place.

The great value of Mark Harris’ engrossing new biography Mike Nichols: A Life is the way he gives a narrative shape to this wayward career, and makes sense of the reasoning behind Nichols’ choices. Sometimes he chose a project because he really wanted to work with a particular star, sometimes he chose it because he really needed the money (Nichols liked to live the high life, and he had expensive habits, among them Arabian horses and cocaine), and often he simply trusted his gut instinct. On more than one occasion Nichols would take on material believing he could locate the theme or whip its half-realised ideas into shape during production, only to realise too late that he was in trouble. When he was struggling with the messy screenplay of Wolf in 1993, he sent out an S.O.S. to his old partner Elaine May. After reading the script, she quickly identified the nub of the issue. “Mike, you have a story about a guy who wants to become a wolf, so he becomes a wolf,” she told him. “I think this is going to be a very short movie.”
Throughout his life, Mike Nichols flourished by aligning himself with key collaborators, and Elaine May was the one he turned to again and again. Harris does an excellent job of explaining how revolutionary their comic partnership was in the context of the 1950s entertainment scene, and how perfectly their individual strengths complemented each other. She was an improvisational genius, whose moments of inspiration frequently left him in awe (Nichols once tried to trip her up by asking her to perform the title song from her forthcoming musical version of The Brothers Karamazov, and she reeled off some impromptu lyrics without missing a beat), while he had a stronger sense of narrative, pacing and structure. The seeds of his subsequent career as a director were planted in this era.

It’s hard to overstate just how enormously successful Nichols and May were. They sold out 311 performances on Broadway, they made a fortune from appearances on television shows and commercials, and Harris tantalisingly reveals how close we got to seeing a Nichols and May sitcom, as they so nearly signed a deal with Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball’s production company Desilu. “The two went over to CBS and, on the precipice of signing a contract, looked at each other. “Maybe we shouldn’t,” May said to him. Nichols giggled. “I don’t think I will,” he said, and put down the pen. They laughed and flew back to New York.” Perhaps that was a bullet dodged, however, as the story of Nichols and May is also presented here as a cautionary tale about the price of success and how expectations can so easily become a prison.

As they became bigger and grew more reliant on the hit sketches that the paying public turned up expecting to see, they stopped changing the dialogue – which was particularly disconcerting for May, who wanted every moment to feel fresh – and the act began to calcify. The dynamic between them began to shift too, and tensions bubbled to the surface with increasing regularity. “We don’t speak, except onstage,” May told a reporter, to which Nichols added, “She resents those two hours,” and it wasn’t clear how funny such remarks were meant to be. Nichols became more controlling as May chafed against constraints and tried to reinvent sketches on the fly. “I had to push the sketch ahead because I couldn’t invent as she could,” Nichols admitted. “She was a real actress, and I was beginning to be a real pain in the ass to her. I was very controlling – ‘You were a little slow tonight.’ Once that happens, you’re in very bad trouble. We could not recover.”
Nichols’ spotty behaviour with his collaborators is a recurring theme throughout the book. After a series of painful encounters with major stars early in his career as a theatre director – an egotistical Walter Matthau kept going rogue during The Odd Couple, while George C. Scott would disappear on days-long benders during the rehearsals for Plaza Suite – Nichols instituted a “no assholes” rule on his sets, but it soon becomes clear that he often was the asshole. There are numerous accounts of Nichols behaving poorly throughout the book, most notably on the disastrous production of What Planet Are You From? in 1999.

“I got to the set and I thought, Oh my God. What do I do? Who do I have to fuck to get off this movie?” Nichols admitted, and his surly mood was exacerbated by an injury picked up early in the shoot that left him relying on crutches. He and the film’s writer/star Garry Shandling were at each other’s throats from the moment a devastated Shandling caught Nichols rolling his eyes behind the monitor after his first take, but the sharp wit and keen understanding of human frailty that made Nichols such a brilliant director could be lacerating when used with venom. “I’m sad to say that Mike just treated Garry terribly, in a way that I had never seen. He was humiliated,” Annette Bening recalls. “And it was more upsetting because Mike was a hero to us – we all knew how much he loved actors.”

It’s true, he loved actors, and most of the actors who worked with Mike Nichols loved him back. If there is such thing as a definable 'Nichols touch' it lies in his work with actors, and the multitude of techniques he used to guide them towards their best performances. This appears to have been particularly true in his stage work – which Harris superbly brings to life – where the rehearsal period gave Nichols and his actors a sense of time and a space to explore that he often missed on film productions. Whether it involved having the cast lie next to each other on cots to read through the play, getting them to swap roles in rehearsal, finding the perfect bit of blocking for that moment in the play, or simply telling a story from his own life that they could relate to, Nichols had an unerring sense for the best way to unlock each specific actor and help them find the character within themselves.

It’s a remarkable thing, to see the full breadth of Nichols’ career collected in a single volume, to appreciate just how much he managed to achieve in his 83 years, and to consider the depth of his legacy. The final chapters of the book movingly capture Nichols confronting his Jewish heritage and his own mortality, as his body began to fail him at last, but even in his weakened state he kept on working. He continued trying to develop projects in the years following his unhappy final film production Charlie Wilson’s War, and he had one last hurrah on stage in 2012, finally tackling Death of a Salesman in a celebrated revival that won him his ninth Tony Award. His curiosity about behaviour and relationships remained insatiable right up to the very end, and when he died, Harris notes, he left behind an appointment book for the coming week that was completely full.


Mike Nichols: A Life by Mark Harris is on sale now.