Andrzej Wajda is one of my favourite directors and thanks to Second Run Innocent Sorcerers is available in a typically (from them) great print. Wadja had completed his great ‘war trilogy’ with Ashes and Diamonds two years earlier and, at first, you wonder why he bothered with such relatively ‘slight’ material of two rather ‘cool’ youngsters finding love. Wadja’s four films were typical of the Polish School as they had been about Poland in World War II. Of course the direction in Immaculate Sorcerors is immaculate and there’s some great location shooting in Warsaw but, like my previous post, Heartbeats, I wondered whether I was too old to be interested in young love. I was wrong.
The central section of the film takes place in Bazyli’s bedsit and consists of a long flirty, conversation between the protagonists. As part of their ‘cool’ playfulness they make up names for themselves; she says she’s Pelagia. The scene is strikingly similar to one in Godard’s seminal Breathless (France) of the same year but without the jump cuts and is far more engaging. Innocent Sorcerer, though, is modernist in a number of low-key ways: the opening credits run over a poster for the film; a song associated with the film is heard on the radio; the film’s composer, the great Krzysztof Komeda, plays himself as a member of Bazyli’s jazz group. Roman Polanski, incidentally, plays the band’s bassist; there’s a lot of talent in this film.
Bazyli (Tadeusz Lomnicki) is a doctor and jazz drummer who enjoys toying with women’s affections until he crashes into Krystyna Stypulkowska’s Pelagia; it was Stypulkowska’s first role and she only appeared in two other films. The brilliance of the film is that the development in their relationship is evident not by what they say to each other but through their behaviour and non verbal communication; and of course the actors’ performance.
Wadja, at the ‘old’ age of 33, was afraid he might be out of touch with young people and the 23 year old Jerzy Skolimowski, who has a small role as a boxer, was hired for rewrites. It’s a fascinating glimpse of Warsaw at the time, we see fashionable young people spending their time in jazz clubs; much like they were in the west then. The political situation is barely mentioned; the protagonists, at one point, joke about themselves as ‘model workers’. The Daily Telegraph‘s critic suggested:
‘Bazyli and Pelagia move with languid ease and listen to American jazz throughout Innocent Sorcerers, but, when push comes to shove, they’re not as free as they think they are. Pinned down by Poland’s bloody past and hemmed in by oppressive Soviet rule, both erect a stylised cool to cover for the emotional sterility that lies beneath.’
However, I wonder to what extent this is an example of western critics’ penchant for reading ‘Iron Curtain’ films, that they admire, as criticising the Soviet domination of the Eastern bloc. As Michał Oleszczyk notes ‘Pelagia says mid-way through the film: “Our generation has no illusions.”‘ I doubt the concerns of Polish youth in the early ’60s were much different from those of youngsters in western Europe: earning enough money to have a good time and sex. Come to think of it, it’s the same now. As to the rather awkward title, a Polish friend suggests a better translation would be Innocent Charmers; that certainly summarises the characters better.
Wadja’s still making films and it’s extremely irritating that most of his oeuvre is not available in the UK.
A few years ago Her might have been called a ‘smart film’ – made for and appreciated by a specific niche audience (of well-educated, arthouse patrons). In 2013-4 it has taken $23 million at the box office in North America and I’ll be intrigued to see how it does in the UK. It already has an IMDB score of 8.4 and 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. I found it an ‘interesting film’, well worth seeing but not completely satisfying. It’s been described as a romcom which I don’t think is helpful. I would say that it is a hard science fiction film utilising comedy. I realise that this won’t be a common reaction, but I can argue a case.
I find it very difficult not to see most SF films coming out of the US as anything other than Dickian narratives – i.e. inspired in some way by the ideas of Phil K. Dick. Possibly I haven’t read enough or I became obsessed by Dick at a particular moment in my cultural education and I can’t throw him off. Still, I can imagine this as one of Phil’s short stories. Set in the ‘near future’, Her focuses on Theodore (itself a Dickian name, referring to ‘God’s gift’). He’s in early middle age, recently separated from his wife and working as a writer of emotionally-charged letters for customers who are themselves less than emotionally literate. His social life is as he indicates a non-choice between internet porn and videogames. One day he buys a new Operating System, ‘OS1′, for his phone/computer and promptly falls into a relationship with the artificial intelligence who voices the software and calls ‘herself’ Samantha. I don’t want to give away any more than that (though in contemporary cinema, blogs and promo material tend to tell you everything).
The film looks beautiful. It is shot in LA and Shanghai which provides cityscapes and, I suspect, the High Speed train that takes Theo on holiday. The photography by Hoyte van Hoytema who has worked in Sweden, UK and North America and the costume design with its distinctive (but hideous) high-waisted pants for men combine to create a world of warmed-up pastels and bland environments. The music, mostly by the Canadian band Arcade Fire, surprised me by sounding a little twee for my taste but it worked in terms of the narrative. Joaquin Phoenix as Theo and Amy Adams as his close friend give good performances and Rooney Mara copes well with the difficult role of Theo’s wife. The problem is that as a film the narrative poses problems for writer-director Spike Jonze. Many scenes consist of shots of Joaquin Phoenix talking to Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) via his smartphone’s integrated microphone. I confess that people who talk on their mobiles in public via earphone/mike combinations drive me almost to murder so I was aggravated by these long sequences. OK, perhaps that is an extreme reaction, but these sequences are not cinematic. The Amy Adams character is trying to construct a documentary film about sleeping. This – and the reactions to it from Theo and Amy’s husband – make for an interesting commentary on the overall narrative of the film.
There is a great deal of talk about relationships – and about sex. There is little sexual activity on screen though I did find one scene strangely arousing. I’m not sure that there is much ‘romance’ and for me not much emotion. More important, I think is the satire on social relations in this future world. And what a sanitised world it is – seemingly ‘cleansed’ of old people, poor people, black people, disabled people etc. I was reminded at various points of Charlie Kaufman’s script for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I don’t think Her is as good.
I am intrigued by the discovery that Samantha Morton is the Executive Producer on the film and that she was initially the voice of the OS. It seems that her voice was replaced for production reasons. I’m a huge Samantha Morton fan and I do wonder what her voice would have contributed. Johansson does a good job, but it would have been a different element in the mix as voiced by Morton.
Her did make me laugh at various times, not because of the romance but more because of the recognition of human frailties in the face of artificial intelligence. I think the film could lose 30 minutes and it might have benefited from more, not less, ‘plot’. I don’t regret 126 mins in the cinema and I enjoyed the overall experience, but as with American Hustle, if this is one of the Oscar choices, American cinema is in trouble. The film is in some ways ‘global’ but its sensibility seems to be the wan emotionless world of Southern California.
Avé is a teenage girl who arrives at a roadside outside Sofia and starts to thumb a ride. Already there is art student Kamen and he isn’t too keen to have competition. Inevitably though, the two get a ride together and the adventure begins. This is a road movie/romance/coming-of-age drama with a leavening of humour, mostly supplied via the performances of Andjela Nedyalkova as Avé and Ovanes Torosian as the long-suffering Kamen.
As the journey continues, Kamen discovers that Avé likes to reinvent herself for every new situation and he tries to separate from her when her fantasies threaten to involve him. But we know he can’t – this is a road movie and they’ll get back together. A prologue has already hinted at Kamen’s need to travel to the town of Ruse on the Danube across from Romania for the funeral of a friend, but it’s some time before we learn the reason for Avé’s journey – and should we believe her anyway?
I’m not sure if I’ve seen a Bulgarian film before but I recognised the region. The ‘Scope digital print looked very good and I enjoyed the film very much. It’s a first feature by co-writer and director Konstantin Bojanov who has previously been involved in documentary production. It was a pleasure to take in long shots of landscapes. Although Bulgaria isn’t at its best viewed from major roads, there is still a sense of adventure and who can resist a story that holds out the promise of a trip to Varna (from whence came Nosferatu/Dracula)? Avé tells us at one point that she has lived in Delhi and that you can find Indian girls in Bulgaria. Again this could be a fantasy but it is a road movie staple, that sense of wanting to be somewhere else. In reality, the distances the couple travel are not very long (300 kms from Sofia to Ruse) but they seem greater in narrative terms.
This interesting interview with the director reveals that the film was completed for around 600,000 Euros and that it s story was partly based on his own experiences. Bojanov has lived in New York for the last 15 years but he tells us that his self-education in films (he was at art school in Sofia) was of 1960s and 1970s European and American New Wave films. He cites Y tu mamá también as the kind of modern road movie he likes – and that makes sense. I’m not sure if Konstantin Bojanov is a diasporic director as such – are there Bulgarian communities in the US? – but his film certainly has both a ‘local’ and a ‘global’ feel. Nice music too.
Avé is a specialised film, not a commercial mainstream film so don’t expect a Hollywood ending. I’m glad about that because it meant I could leave the screening thinking about travelling by train through Bulgaria and wondering what happened to Kamen and Avé. I expect to see more of Andjela Nedyalkova who has genuine star quality. This is one of the six films in competition in Bradford and it stands a good chance of winning. It has already been picked up for distribution by Network Releasing so watch their website for details of screenings.
Never Let Me Go is an interesting film that is, in relative terms, ‘failing’ at the box office. It’s in some ways a brave film. It doesn’t always happen, but the spread in Sight and Sound (March 2011) in which novelist Kazuo Ishiguro and writer-director Mark Romanek make their case for the film, is for me quite convincing. Unfortunately, the audience who do go to see the film probably won’t read the journal and may well be disappointed.
I’m not going to ‘spoil’ the film narrative, but most potential viewers will know that the film is ‘dystopian’ and will therefore expect the characters to be struggling against some form of tyranny or chaos. But many such stories end with a triumph of some sort. Some potential viewers may also expect a strong romance element and a consequent depiction of the agonies of love – the pain and the passion. All of these expectations might be dashed.
Ishiguro’s novel is set in an alternative history of the UK. This makes it an example of speculative fiction. All we are told at the beginning of the film is that medical science has helped to transform lives. In the Sight and Sound piece, it becomes clearer that the basic premise is concerned with an alternative to the success British science had in the 1940s re nuclear physics. ‘What if’ all that research work had gone into medicine and ways had been found to extend life-spans to 100 years or more for most of the population? I’m not sure if this starting point was more explicit in the book, but in the film, apart from a single onscreen statement, we first see 28 year-old ‘Kathy H’ (Carey Mulligan) watching a medical procedure. This is the mid-1990s and we flashback to the late 1970s when Kathy is at a boarding school with her close friend Ruth and new boy Tommy, who is having problems settling in. Later, we meet the three characters when they have left school but have been transferred to a hostel in a remote rural setting – this is the mid 1980s. The older Ruth (Keira Knightley) has by then developed a relationship with Tommy (Andrew Garfield), but Kathy remains celibate working to maintain her friendship with Ruth and repressing her desire for Tommy – she was the first to befriend him. So far, so ménage à trois, but we know something terrible is going to happen (we actually learn what this is, but not all of its consequences, during the boarding school phase).
Part of my fascination with this film is to disentangle the original proposal and its treatment in an industrial/commercial context and the ways in which it has been approached by several distinct potential audiences. The first adaptation of a Kazuo Ishiguro novel was The Remains of the Day in 1993 which proved to be a major arthouse success starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. There would certainly be an audience of Ishiguro readers who would consider another adaptation favourably, although speculative fiction offered by ‘literary’ authors is sometimes a more difficult sell. This audience may also be concerned by the ways in which film adaptations can emphasise action over reflection, changing the tone of the novel. With this audience in mind, Never Let Me Go could perhaps have been a small-scale ‘specialised film’. When the film production got underway, this might still have been possible. Carey Mulligan was cast on the basis of early sightings of her performance in An Education – before she became a celebrity figure. She persuaded her friend Keira Knightley (and the producers) to appear as Ruth. Knightley is a major star/celebrity figure, but she has appeared in smaller films without noticeably disrupting those films via her star image. However, I think that in this case the casting of Andrew Garfield probably helped tip the scale. As with Mulligan, when production began Garfield was a highly regarded young actor, but not a big ‘name’ Hollywood star. Now he is a lead in a hit film, The Social Network, and is currently ‘in production’ as the new Spider-Man . When Never Let Me Go opened in the UK, there must have been a potential young audience, longing for a sight of these stars in a mainstream romance film. At the same time, the specialised cinema audience which enjoys intelligent and intriguing speculative fiction/science fiction may have been put off by the prospect of a Hollywood-style romance. So, three different audiences all with possible problems. My first inkling of the problem was during the London Film Festival when I couldn’t help overhearing the woman behind me telling her friend that she’d seen Never Let Me Go as the Opening Film of the festival. She had found it so harrowing that she had immediately bought the biggest box of chocolates she could find and taken it to a screening of the Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz film Knight and Day as an antidote.
How can I explain what Never Let Me Go is about without a spoiler? Let’s just say that the three young people face a terrible prognosis of what is in store for them. This is hinted at quite cleverly in the opening sequence of their early schooldays. They don’t have full names – just a first name and an initial, rather like the character in Kafka’s tales of paranoia. There is something decidedly spooky about the school – not least Charlotte Rampling as the headteacher. In a Hollywood movie our heroes would intuit the danger, find out the true story and then fight to be free. In real life, as Kazuo Ishiguro argues, most people faced with a terrible prognosis don’t fight it in a Quixotic way (though a handful do – and they often become the subject of biopics or melodramas). Most of us would focus on mundane daily routines and on our relationships with those nearest to us. Under pressure and frightened of losing control we look for something we can hold on to. In this film, the trio have only each other and the complicated feelings they have for each other. They each love the other two in different ways. But what is love? What do you want for the person you love and how do you express that love?That’s what this film is about and how it ends, how that love is expressed, is the key to the film’s resolution. The film’s title is echoed in a ‘fictional’ song that the child Tommy gives to Kathy on a music cassette and in a way ‘letting go’ becomes the crucial question for the characters – whatever it may mean. I confess that while I enjoyed the film as I watched it, I found the Sight and Sound material very helpful and I’ve thought about it at some length since.
Technically, the film is very well made with cinematography, editing and sound beautifully representing the tone of the narrative and the fictional world – the ‘not quite there’ feeling of the time periods and the strange but familiar English landscapes (at least one location in Scotland though). The casting and acting performances are excellent all round and the young actors morph into the well-known faces in quite an uncanny way. I did feel sorry for Keira Knightley in that her role is as the least sympathetic of the main characters and the least likely to gain favourable notices. On the other hand, Carey Mulligan couldn’t ask for a better role and she is extremely good. She’s now at the point where she will be offered the roles that could make her a major star. I hope she chooses wisely.
Afterthought: I meant to mention that the script adaptation is by Alex Garland, known recently for his two science fiction scripts for Danny Boyle (28 Days Later and Sunshine). This may have contributed to audience expectations. By all accounts, his script keeps close to the novel’s narrative.