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Argo (US 2012)

argo-poster-header 
Argo is based on declassified information about a little-known episode during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1980. A group of Islamist students stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took its staff hostage for 444 days. The Iranians wanted the terminally ill Shah returned for trial from the US where he had been given asylum. US diplomats were ill-prepared for the waves of popular rage that crashed over the embassy walls, and which led to all US nationals inside being taken hostage. However, on the day of the occupation, six members of the staff managed to slip out unnoticed and found shelter in the Canadian ambassador’s residence. Argo tells the story of the CIA operation to smuggle these six diplomats out of Iran.

CIA ‘exfiltration’ expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with a plan for the group to pose as members of a Canadian film unit scouting locations for a science fiction film to be shot in Iran. In order to make the scheme convincing, it’s necessary to select an actual script (hence “Argo”), assemble a Hollywood production team and promote the planned film to the trade press. They generate documentation, storyboards and sundry media paraphernalia to convince the Iranian authorities that all is as it seems. Mendez enters Iran, posing as the film’s producer, and has to lead the group in their escape.

The film works fairly well as a thriller. One effective method of ratcheting up the tension was to have Iranian kids employed to sift through the paperwork the CIA had shredded before the embassy fell to see if they could find anything useful. We see at various stages the jigsaw coming together so that by the time the diplomats are heading to the airport, the authorities have a photograph of one of them. (I recall a similar technique used in an earlier political thriller from the 1980s – I can’t recall the name of the film but it may or may not have starred Robert Redford and if anyone is familiar with it please put me out of my misery! – which showed the a photograph of the hero, who was in danger, gradually crystallising from the pixels on the computer screen).

In terms of the drama, it would have been better had the film ended as the plane was leaving Iranian airspace and we would have been spared the sentimental backstory of the FBI agent and the commentaries at the end with the originals the characters are based on bringing us up to date with the characters’ stories – a dubious kind of plea for authenticity. (As often is the case in such films, there is a caption, “Based on a true story”, a special pleading that I find annoying). But as a genre piece, a hybrid of thriller, heist and caper movie, I found it quite successful. The cloak-and-dagger operation mounted by the CIA does make for an exciting film.

Another generic strand (or tone) in the film is comedy. Mendez recruits two Hollywood veterans, the affable makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), designer of Mr Spock’s ears for Star Trek, and the grizzled old-school producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Their cynical humour (“You could teach a rhesus monkey to direct a film in a day,” Siegel states – a line which reminds me of Orson Welles’ daft statement about Citizen Kane that anyone could learn how to direct a film in a week) lightens the tension. Another such put-down of the Hollywood system occurs when Chambers asks Mendez when he first explains his plan. “You want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in.” The conspirators take to greeting each other with the catch-phrase, based on the title, “Argofuckyourself”

And so I found that the film worked fairly effectively on these levels. However, what I found somewhat far more problematic was the film’s overall portrayal of the hostage crisis. It fails to convey the idea that the USA in general and the CIA in particular were hated by wide layers of the population and for good reason. The success of the Shah’s brutal dictatorial regime depended upon its support by Washington. Now It’s true that the film opens with a brief summary of Britain and America’s role in overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Dr Mosaddeq whose policy was to nationalise the oil. We are also shown footage of the Shah in a TV interview denying knowledge of the torture carried out by Savak, his secret police. And a CIA operative tells Mendez that when they were evacuating the Shah, the plane struggled to take off, such was the volume of stolen gold the Shah had taken onto the plane.

These serve to provide a veneer of objectivity to the film but what dominates throughout the rest of the film is something quite different. While the film invites us to empathise with the CIA hero and the diplomats and laugh at Hollywood’s antics, it also urges us view Iranians as the enemy. What struck me in particular was how the Iranian characters are not individualised in the film: they are seen just as “the mob”. We hear none of the debates taking place between different factions (including the secular left) that were taking place throughout the hostage crisis. The Iranian characters lack any real subjectivity.  In a couple of key scenes where we see Iranians on screen, we are not given sub-titles. This first occurs in the market where Mendez takes the group to meet the Culture Ministry officials and they run into some local people who shout at them aggressively. We can probably guess what they’re on about but it would be useful to hear what they had to say. Another occasion was while the Americans were facing the final terrifying hurdle of  the airport guards. While their officer does not play the clown  à la Sacha Baron-Cohen like so many middle-eastern villains in Hollywood films, most of the little he has been given to say remains untranslated.

Coming out at a time when Israel is openly threatening to bomb Iran, and the American media have ramped up their campaign of fear-mongering, the film can’t help but seem to play into the hands of the most reactionary elements in the US ruling class. And given its box-office success, it has already had millions of viewers flocking to theatres to hear the story of how innocent Americans were victimized by the jihad-crazed Iranians and the CIA came in to save the day.

This despite the fact that Ben Affleck and, in particular, George Clooney, who initiated the project and is co-producer, have campaigned for liberal, even leftist causes. They supported radical historian Howard Zinn and before his death they campaigned to get a TV series adapted from his major work off the ground.  (In Affleck and Matt Damon’s script for Good Will Hunting, they have the arrogant young genius played by Damon sneer at his Boston psychiatrist for “surrounding yourself with all the wrong fuckin’ books. You wanna read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. That book’ll fuckin’ knock you on your ass”). Clooney and Affleck seem oblivious to the fact that the film, whether they like it or not, has become part of the effort by the most reactionary elements in the American ruling class to drag the US into a war with Iran.

Is Affleck so desperate for a box office hit and a return to his star status which has been frittered away over the years in mediocre work that he blinds himself to the possible political effects of the film? Or is there something about the culture of Hollywood that makes so many artists vulnerable to pressures and moods and social forces that they may only be partially aware of?

The extract below takes place near the end of the film as the American diplomats have to negotiate the hurdle of the airport guards:

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Maudie (Ireland-Canada 2016)

Everett (Ethan Hawke) and Maud (Sally Hawkins on their wedding day

Maudie is the kind of film that as a young person I might have given a miss but now I’m older, and I hope wiser, I appreciated it a great deal. In simple terms Maudie is a partial biopic of Maud Lewis from Yarmouth in Nova Scotia who in later life found fame as a well-known ‘folk artist’ in Canada. Actually, however, it is mainly a moving love story about two people both too easily seen as marginal in their contemporary world.

Maud/Maudie (Sally Hawkins) comes from a ‘good’ background but she has developed severe juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and then, a different kind of social ‘disability’ sees her mistreated by her family. Determined to live her own life in small town Nova Scotia of the 1930s, she applies for an unlikely job as what is really a ‘scivvy’ (a maid, hired to do menial tasks) for a lonely fish peddler. His home is a small shack out of town on the main highway. There is barely room for him to live in the shack and she has to find a space alongside the dogs and chickens. Everett (Ethan Hawke) is an uncouth man who has struggled in the economic hardship of the Depression and he has no idea how to treat Maudie. When she starts to paint on pieces of card with any materials she can find his interest is only really aroused when he realises that there are people willing to pay a few cents for Maudie’s ‘art’. That’s the opening of a story we follow through to 1970 by which time Everett has mellowed and Maudie’s fame has spread nationally, though it will be many years before her paintings are traded at prices that reflect her importance for Canadian art.

One of the landscapes by Maud Lewis

There are two main reasons why Maudie works so well. First, it is a very beautiful film in its use of landscape and in the presentation of Maud Lewis’s art. Aisling Walsh is an Irish director who trained at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology and then the National Film and TV School in the UK. She has made several features and also worked extensively in UK television for over twenty years. I note that she made one of the BBC’s Wallander films and I wonder whether the location shooting in Sweden in any way informed Maudie. She has said that she found Maud’s story familiar in some ways because of its connection to landscape and small-town life in the West of Ireland. Her vision is presented in the film through the lenses of Guy Godfree who trained in the US but is himself a Nova Scotian. I was struck by the light in the film, the skyscapes and long shots (of the arthritic Maud walking long distances). I was also struck by the music organised by Michael Timmins of the Montreal band Cowboy Junkies. Three distinctive singing voices come from Michael’s sister Margo Timmins, the magical Mary Margaret O’Hara and the Irish singer Lisa Hannigan providing a mix of Irish/Canadian folk/country/rock. The script was written by Sherry White from Newfoundland and in one of those quirks of funding, a film featuring distinctive landscapes was actually shot in Newfoundland because the Nova Scotian authorities decided to withdraw funding support for film productions. Labrador and Newfoundland stepped in to fill the gap. I can’t tell if that makes a difference but I’ve read that the landscapes are similar. Either way the film looks terrific.

The film’s beauty is complemented by two stunning central performances by Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke. They are quite different performances with Sally Hawkins studying carefully how to represent the impact of arthritis (which constricted the size of paintings Maud Lewis could attempt) and trying to learn the subtleties of a Canadian dialect. Her performance includes a lot of ‘external work’ to represent the twisted limbs of the arthritis sufferer but she definitely ‘inhabits’ the character and it never feels like simply ‘putting on an act’. By contrast, Ethan Hawke seems to be much more instinctive in his presentation of Everett. There are several interviews online in which Hawke seems to tease his audience by pretending to have done no preparation and praising Hawkins for her diligence. Both performances worked for me, but I think that Sally Hawkins was able to ‘age’ more convincingly over the course of the narrative which ends when she is in her late 60s. The real Everett was older but Ethan Hawke still seems middle-aged by the end. This is a common problem with biopics but it didn’t worry me in this case.

I’ve seen criticism of the film because of the way Everett treats Maud, especially when she first moves in. There are claims that this is domestic abuse and that the film isn’t critical enough of Everett’s behaviour. I can see that this might be a reading but I think that the narrative presents Everett as a man who has learned to live alone and is ignorant of how to treat anyone he has to share a house with. Maud must quickly see however that despite his rough demeanour he does not treat her differently because of her physical difficulties and social position. As their love slowly develops it builds towards a beautiful relationship.

I’m probably biased because I’m a sucker for this kind of narrative about small-time Canada in the 1930s-60s. This will go down as one of my favourite films of the year. It’s still on release in the UK and well worth seeing. In the first clip below you can watch a short National Film Board documentary about Maud Lewis and her paintings and then catch a glimpse of Sally Hawkins as Maud in the trailer for the film.

Vertigo Sea (UK 2015)

John Akomfrah is one of the UK’s premier filmmakers and has been since Handsworth Songs, the documentary he directed as part of Black Audio Film Collective, won the John Grierson Award in 1987. It says something about British Cinema that much of his subsequent work has been for TV and that in the last few years he has become internationally known as a visual artist whose work is exhibited in galleries rather than cinemas. I managed to catch Vertigo Sea at the Whitworth gallery in Manchester just before its four-month run ended.

Vertigo Sea was first seen at the Venice Biennale in 2015. It’s a three screen video installation lasting just over 48 minutes. At the Whitworth it was screened in a large exhibition space, suitably dark (but far too warm on a summer’s day) but with only three benches some distance from the screens. The large screens were placed almost next to each other in a straight line (i.e. not like the curved screens of cinerama). The ‘project’ was part-funded by the Arts Council and other agencies and ‘managed’ on tour by the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol and the Lisson Gallery in London and New York. Here’s the Arnolfini ‘trailer’ that gives a glimpse of how the installation appears in the gallery:

Black Audio Film Collective and its successor from 1998, Smoking Dogs Films, has been consistent in a focus on migration and memory and on an excavation of Black history and culture and in particular colonial and post-colonial narratives and representations. Smoking Dogs Films’ website introduces Vertigo Sea like this:

A meditation on the aquatic sublime, Vertigo Sea brings together a collection of oblique tales and histories that speak to the multiple significances of the ocean and mankind’s often troubling relationship with it. Touching upon migration, the history of slavery and colonisation, war and conflict and current ecological concerns it is a narrative on man and nature, on beauty, violence and on the precariousness of life.

The installation runs continuously and I arrived about two-thirds through the presentation. I then watched it all the way through so I ‘experienced’ it for around an hour. I would have liked to have watched it again but I don’t find galleries easy places in which to watch films. This is the big disadvantage of installations – if you have to travel 40 miles to visit them and there is no DVD to watch later. The three screens are utilised creatively, so although it appears that the same or similar material is showing on each screen, the viewer can’t be sure that there isn’t anything unique on a screen not being watched. What to do? Should you quickly scan all three screens, trying to keep all three in your field of vision – or focus on just one screen and watch the whole presentation three times, focusing on a different screen each time? Montage becomes a different concept with three screens and sometimes it feels as if the screens are bleeding into each other – while at other times the visual juxtaposition of one screen to its neighbour is striking.

The mixture of source material for Vertigo Sea is in line with John Akomfrah’s previous work. He is the great user and manipulator of archive material and here there are newsreel images and some beautiful footage from wildlife filming as well as some original images which echo aspects of The Nine Muses (2010). In that earlier film, lone figures stood in the snowy landscapes of Alaska. In Vertigo Sea, a range of figures, some historical, stand in landscapes of mountains and the sea in Skye, the Faroes and Norway. There are other elements including three archive photographs of Black males – a boy, a younger man, an old man. The black and white images with creases and scratches might be from the 19th century and I found them difficult to place. I also found them striking as just that morning I’d read a news report suggesting that new archaeological finds proved that the migration of people from Africa to Australia had taken place much earlier than previously thought – perhaps 60,000 years ago.

The three screens with one of the archive portraits of Africans

The starting point to the films is migration. In interviews Akomfrah has said that the initial idea came from a survival story about a Nigerian migrant who was thrown from a people smugglers’ boat but survived by clinging on to netting. The horror of ditching human ‘cargo’ in this way is then taken up with reference to the infamous treatment of slaves during the Atlantic trade – the Zong incident which became the subject of a court action in the UK in which the legal status of slaves was disputed. This case was featured in Amma Asante’s film Belle (UK 2013). In turn, this is then linked to the ‘disappeared’ in Latin America – the men and women (‘political prisoners’) flown over the sea and then ejected from the aircraft. This was exposed in Patricio Guzmán’s film The Pearl Button (Chile-France-Spain-Switz 2015). Akomfrah provided me with a new link to the use of similar techniques by the French against FLN prisoners in Algeria in the 1950s. Why ‘Vertigo’? Is it the sense of plunging into the sea from a great height? The central connection in the film is between the jettisoned human cargo and the practice of whaling with its cruelty towards marine mammals – a link which is underlined by footage of carcases on the sea bed being devoured by scavengers and the bodies of slaves washed up on shore. There is a strong sense of an ecological discourse in this film. One of the most shocking archive sequences for me was the hunting of polar bears in the Arctic in which a bear is shot and skinned – and the carcase is just left on the ice. Inuit hunters would use most of that carcase and a rather different form of (white) migration in the 20th century disrupted the balance of people and wildlife in the region.

The sharp contrast between the beautiful images of natural landscapes and seascapes and the horror of slavery and whaling is stark and easily understood on a visceral level. In addition to images of migrations (and the loss of life), Akomfrah also forces us to think about the pollution of the sea by nuclear testing. Less easily accessible is the use of the stationary figures in landscapes and the arrangements of incongruous objects – clocks, bicycles, prams. Again, as in The Nine Muses, these images are complemented by readings – in this case from Melville (Moby Dick), Heathcote Williams (Whale Nation) and Virginia Woolf. Reading some of the reviews of Vertigo Sea, I realise that I missed some of the symbols in these sequences and I certainly didn’t make all the connections. I think another two or three viewings would be needed. The three films do also have soundtracks of music, sound effects and the readings mentioned above, plus the commentaries on the archive newsreel footage. I think that sometimes there are competing soundtracks on the three films, but again I wasn’t always sure which sounds went with which images. I think I remember the sounds of whales.

For convenience I’ve referred to John Akomfrah as the ‘author’ of Vertigo Sea, but really this is a Smoking Dogs production and John would always stress his commitment to collective production. Original Black Audio founders and Smoking Dogs partners Lina Gopaul and David Lawson plus sound designer and original Black Audio member Trevor Mathison all worked on Vertigo Sea and I was intrigued to see Ashitey Akomfrah down as Production Manager. The credits reveal a number of ‘Archive Consultants’ and archive sources but it would have been good to list the sources in more detail. Was that a feature film that included the sequence of the African slaves thrown into the sea?

A still from archive footage of migrants at sea. I think these are the Vietnamese ‘boat people’ of the late 1970s?

I found Vertigo Sea to be disturbing, shocking, beautiful and provocative – so much so that I abandoned a planned trip to the cinema afterwards, feeling that I couldn’t cope with another narrative. But I didn’t appreciate the gallery setting. The benches were uncomfortable. I would have liked a cinema seat (to support my back and help my concentration) and I would have liked to get closer to the screens so that they filled my vision, but to do so by sitting on the floor would have interrupted the view of the others in the ‘audience’. I have heard John Akomfrah argue that film, television and installation work are different forms with their own conventions and I know too that there are reasons why working on installations makes economic sense given the state of contemporary film funding for production, distribution and exhibition. But couldn’t we at least get the chance to see this work via DVD? Vertigo Sea is definitely worth seeking out if it comes to a gallery near you and there are several other Smoking Dogs installations dealing with similar issues. Interviews with John Akomfrah and with John and Lina together are posted on YouTube. They are excellent talkers and have a body of work and an evolving practice of over thirty years. Here’s John talking about the collective’s work, Vertigo Sea and “Why History Matters”.

Cézanne et moi (France 2016)

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Guillaume Gallienne (left) as Paul Cézanne and Guillaume Canet as Émile Zola

This biopic about the post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne and the novelist Émile Zola is part of the ’24th French Film Festival’ with screenings across a range of venues in Scotland and England between November 3rd and December 7th. Primarily a Scottish affair, this festival makes us in England very envious, but also grateful for the opportunity to catch one or two titles. Cézanne et moi played at Hebden Bridge Picture House which also screened The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge).

French cinema deals with ‘heritage’ topics much like British cinema with adaptations of literary texts and historical dramas and this biopic fits the pattern of 19th century dramas – strong on surface realism and ‘authenticity’. It is beautifully photographed by the experienced Jean-Marie Dreujou and writer-director Danièle Thompson has assembled a mainly female creative team who do an excellent job on set design, costumes, make-up etc. Thompson herself has a long track record as a scriptwriter and this is her sixth directing role after some fifty years in the industry. Her earlier scripts for historical dramas include La reine Margot (1994) and a well-received TV adaptation of Stendahl’s Le rouge et le noir (1997). My overall impression is that this latest film is a conventional biopic in terms of its structure.

I went into the screening with relatively little knowledge of the details of the lives of either Cézanne or Zola and though I recognised the names of many of the other characters, I could not claim any real knowledge of the ‘community’ of artists or writers in 19th century France. As a result, I was engaged by the film mainly because I was learning about these interesting artists (and as far as I can see the film is historically accurate, though some manipulation of dates here and there may have been necessary to create a satisfactory narrative structure). On the other hand, I did struggle to recognise characters and with more prior knowledge I might have got more out of the ways in which the differences between the two men are presented. In the simplest terms, Zola suffered from the early death of his engineer father and struggled for money as a young man but eventually became a best-selling writer and a wealthy man. By contrast, Cézanne’s family was wealthy and he received an allowance as a young man before inheriting the family fortune in later life, yet he struggled to sell his paintings during his lifetime and it was not until after his death that his genius was fully recognised by the artists of the early 20th century.

The casting decision about the two leads intrigued me. Cézanne is played by Guillaume Gallienne who is billed as a member of the Comédie-Française. Although I have seen him before in some of his many film roles, this still makes me think of him as first a theatre player. Guillaume Canet who plays Zola is, I would argue, a French film star (and director). In this film, though both players were very good, I did feel that Gallienne ‘inhabited’ Cézanne as a character, whereas Canet did seem to ‘acting’ in his performance. These were just my impressions and they may have more to do with the nature of Cézanne and Zola as characters. The film’s title implies that the narrative offers Zola’s view of Cézanne. I’m not sure the narration has that emphasis, though it is certainly Cézanne who is the principal focus in the latter stages. But then, it often seems that the process of painting is more amenable to representation on screen than that of writing. But it does mean that we learn more about Cézanne’s attempts to capture the landscapes of Provence, portraits and still life compositions – whereas we see little of Zola’s inspiration for his realist/naturalist novels.

Zola and Cézanne first met as boys in Provence in the early 1850s when Zola’s father was an engineer on a large dam. They were re-united in Paris as young men and remained friends until the late 1880s and the publication of Zola’s novel L’œuvre in 1886 which tells the story of an artist who struggles to paint the great picture which will be seen as worthy of his genius. The suggestion is that Cézanne found the character to be too close to his own experience and that it implied he had failed as an artist. Thompson moves between the various periods of the relationship between the two men and I do wonder if a tighter focus would have made for a more effective narrative (with possibly more about Zola’s work).

Despite its focus on the two men, Danièle Thompson also develops the roles for the women in their lives and I enjoyed the performances of Déborah François as Hortense, Sabine Azéma as Cézanne’s mother and Alice Pol as Zola’s wife Alexandrine. Here’s a trailer with English subs:

Leeds Film Festival Short Film Winners

Drama

Drama

This was a programme of the winners in Short Film City at the 29th Leeds International Film Festival screened at the Hyde Park Picture House. This was a good opportunity to see the films selected as the ‘best’ all at one shot. One of thing I noticed about the programme overall was the amount of explicit sex and violence. There was more than I remember from earlier festivals and more than I saw among the short films I did catch during the actual festival. So I had a look at the four Juries. The four trios consisted of five filmmakers, two film programmers, three artists working with film and two members working in Higher Education. Their short biographies did not shed any light on the issue. Perhaps there was a higher level of such content this year.

The programme ran for 85 minutes. The various films and formats were projected from a DCP.

Louis le Prince International Short Film Competition 2015

Winner: Drama (Guan Tian, USA)

This is an eleven-minute film, and whilst made in the USA has Chinese dialogue. The protagonists, a boy and girl, watch the outside world from inside a car. “An intimate look at human voyeurism’. This was a film I really liked. I thought the plotting was imaginative and the technical aspects were extremely well done. It was very funny as well.

World Animation Award 2015

Winner: Manoman (Simon Cartwright, UK)

Another eleven-minute film using puppets. The premise is the protagonist Glen creates his own ‘homunculus’, [a representation of a small human being]. This attempt at sublimation opens ‘uninhibited impulses [that] lead to disastrous consequences in this night-long insane rampage . . .’ The film aimed to be disturbing and succeeded, though I was not convinced that there was an articulated comment. The catalogue also includes a comment, [presumably by the filmmaker], ‘A film about limits, with no limits!’

British Short Film Competition 2015

Winner: Rate Me (Fyzal Boulifa, UK)

This film ran 17 minutes. Its main protagonist was a teen escort Cocoa. But we do not really see much of her directly. The extremely smart premise of the film is to learn about her through reviews posted on an online forum. This was effective and witty, but I thought that there was not enough import for the whole length of the film. The postings do reveal as much about the authors as the object, but there were limited variation. I suspect if you follow such online forums the film is more effective.

Yorkshire Short Film Competition

Winner: Cargo (Oli Carr, UK)

Cargo

Cargo

We had a slight hiccup with this film; the sound did not work at first. I thought this was going to be a really strange type of story. Then we stopped and re-started, with sound and dialogue. Two Syrian refuges hide out in a truck crossing from Europe to the UK. This takes 15 minutes and the opening is deliberately slow and then the tension mounts. I thought the plotting was well thought out, since the story is one that repeats many times a day. And the resolution left space for the audience to consider the implications.

Leeds International Screendance Competition 2015

Winner: Choreography for the Scanner (Mariam Eqbal, USA)

This film used animation for nine minutes. Apparently the technique involved a flatbed scanner: this might be a first. It relies on repeating and multiplying sets of images. Variations were introduced by compressing and elongating the imagery. I did find that the repetition ran out of interest before the end.

Leeds International Music Video Competition 2015

Winner: Lightning Bolt – The Metal East (Lale Westvind, USA)

I cannot really write much about this film. It had the loudest sound track I have heard in ages, surpassing that of Mad Max: Fury Road. I took shelter in the foyer for the approximately four minutes of running time.

Leeds Short Film Audience Award 2015

Winner: The Reinvention of Normal (Liam Saint-Pierre, UK)

This eight minute film follows “an artist / inventor / designer. on his quest for new ideas.” The creations in the film were oddball. There was a slight feeling that this was meant to offer a sense of the surreal. What is did offer was the eccentric. But I felt that needed a more personal voice to sustain interest.

Audience favourite across all short films.

Madam Black (UK New Zealand 2015)

This was almost a family friendly film. A photographer accidentally runs over the pet of a little girl. In order to avoid the painful truth he constructs an alternative world for the child. So we follow Madame Black on her travels and the postcards that she sends back. The film also managed to tie in a slight romance. A pleasure to watch.

I am afraid I missed the last two entries in the programme,

Dark Owl International Fantasy Short Film Competition

Winner: A Boy’s Life (Howard McCain, USA)

Dead Shorts

Winner: Milk! (Ben Malleby, UK)

You can check out the winners and also all the short films featured in Short Film City on the LIFF WebPages.

LFF 2015 #9: Very Big Shot (Lebanon–Qatar 2015)

verybig_shot

On the set of the movie production in ‘Very Big Shot’

LFFThis was an entertaining way to finish my visit to LFF 2015. That is if some perfunctory murders can be counted as entertainment. But in the context of the rest of the film perhaps they can. Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya is a locally-trained Lebanese filmmaker who seems to have taken inspiration from a story about the Lebanese film industry in the 1950s. ‘Very Big Shot’ refers, I think, to the lead character Ziad (Alain Saadeh) a local Beirut criminal whose career up to now has involved a small scale drugs business run out of a pizzeria alongside acting as courier for a bigger operation. Ziad has plans to set up his own restaurant with his second brother Jad. Youngest brother Joe (the pizza chef) is against this idea if it means selling the family house. Here’s a family social issue that might be the background to a typical crime film – especially since we know that Zaid and Jad have already attempted to involve Joe in their criminal activities.

The film takes off in another direction when Ziad needs to ship a large consignment of drugs abroad. Visiting a customer who isn’t paying his drugs tab, a nerdy aspiring filmmaker, Ziad watches a documentary featuring an interview with veteran Lebanese film director Georges Nasr (the director’s film school mentor) in which he refers to an Italian film production in Lebanon that included drugs smuggled out in sealed cans of undeveloped film stock. To do this involves a customs certificate awarded to genuine film producers. Ziad decides to be come a real film producer and sets up a shoot for the hapless wannabe director. The filming process pushes the film into a comedy of ineptitude and then into a satire on media and celebrity. Ziad moves quickly to become director as well as producer and when his ideas create incidents on the street he is interviewed on local television, finally emerging as an astute political operator.

very-big-shot-03

Alain Saadeh as Ziad

The central plot idea is, I now realise, similar to Argo (US 2012), bit this never occurred to me as I watched the film, perhaps because I found it funnier and more interesting than Argo. Or perhaps it was just more ‘exotic’ as a Lebanese film using popular genre elements? There are some gentle digs about the state of the Lebanese film industry as well as some sharp social commentary and the film ends in an open manner which hints at a satire about politics and the media in the context of organised criminal activities. Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya was present for a Q & A and his film was warmly received at the Vue West End. This revealed that both the director and his co-writer and lead Alain Saadeh come from families with several brothers so they felt comfortable creating the relationships in the film. The director’s brothers were the producers of the film. The very impressive Saadeh trained as a method actor and the director encouraged this by suggesting that the actors’ interpretations would lead the filming process. The final question asked whether the film had a chance of being shown in other ‘Arab speaking’ (sic) countries and the answer got a round of laughter when the director suggested that it would depend on whether governments would accept the film’s open ending (i.e. the criminal who becomes a politician). Several reviewers have suggested that local audiences would actually get a lot more from the film but I think it could also work well in international distribution.

Birdman (US 2014)

Two worlds – and underpants – collide in 'Birdman' 2014

Two worlds – and underpants – collide in ‘Birdman’ 2014

We often write through frames – such as national cinema, authorship or institutional context.  With Birdman, Mexican auteur, Alejandro González Iñárritu, has made that beautifully awkward.  Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton)  has been successful in a superhero franchise several years before but is now looking to relaunch and reinvent himself in the theatre.  He has adapted Raymond Carver’s short story, What do we talk about, when we talk about love into a play in which he will direct and star.  Mike (Edward Norton), a last minute replacement but a seasoned theatre actor states the obvious when he says: “that’s ambitious.”  The clash between theatre and film as different art mediums is centre stage and it’s given a voice through Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan exuding her own verbal dry ice), the highbrow, New York critic who can destroy someone’s play and who announces to Riggan that’s exactly what she is going to do to this work of the theatrical ingénue. What follows is Riggan’s slow unravelling in the face of opening night.  Whether there is an ultimate triumph will not be written here – not only for ‘no spoiler’ purposes but because it may also depend on how you read it.

That the film has several layers and is self-reflexive in being all about the film industry and film as a medium is visible early on.  Riggan’s dressing room mirror has the gnomic statement ‘A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing’ (apparently Susan Sontag’s) stuck to it in the motivational corner and it could be a statement about so many parts of the film itself.  This includes Riggan’s relationships, the play and his performance in it as well as the film itself.  Theatre and film critics are harshly treated in this story of artistic revival and courage; as in many films before this, they are unpleasant algae feeding of real matter.  Many reviews have certainly referred back to such creatures as Addison de Witt (George Sanders in All About Eve (1950)) and J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success (1957)).

So, take ‘things’ for what they are, including this film, it suggests, frames and criticisms of all kinds are simply distractions.  Not least, it tells you to stop thinking about Iñárritu’s authorship.  This film has simply baffled all attempts to place it in his oeuvre.  Taken for what it is, it’s a very uncharacteristic and entertaining story of a rollercoaster ride towards opening night on Broadway for a once big Hollywood star, his cast and his family.  It’s a rollercoaster ride you are made part of because of the technical brilliance of the device of an apparent uninterrupted take for its entire length and the digital effects which take us flying with Riggan, sharing his moments of fantasy (perhaps?), over the New York cityscape.   Just like Riggan’s airborne escapes, critics such as Paul Julian Smith in Sight and Sound have embraced Iñárritu’s liberation from his previous body of work.  Smith refers to the “po-faced” Biutiful (2010).  If The Big Lebowski was the so-called  ‘fart in the face’ of the Academy after the Oscar-winning Fargo (by the Coen brothers) then there feels a far greater release of artistic tension – and seriousness – by Iñárritu, this time in the face of his own work.

However, it is not just focused on this one ‘thing’, but is a film deliberately functioning on several levels and on all the information we bring into the cinema with some witty, satirical points to make about the media context these artists function in.  If Iñárritu is expressing liberation he is also identifying the constraints of the media actors, directors and producers (Riggan is, after all, embodying all three) face in the modern digital film world and its context of social media.

Actually, the film feels satisfyingly old school in other ways. This is absolutely the messy, shambling backstage world where Bette Davis’ Margot Channing drags off her wig and moans at Thelma Ritter’s Birdie. Lindsay Duncan’s tense performance as the critic, Tabitha, recalls deWitt’s compulsive need for power (and actual power) as the key theatre critic of the day. In a newspaper article, writer Anthony Quinn traces the problems of the critic in general  in film fiction. Although in order to focus ultimately on his own book on English theatre, it covers some interesting territory. He refers to the fact that ‘Tabitha’ is a witch’s name (very different to the suggestion of ‘Addison deWitt’ with all its English, eighteenth-century, Alexander Pope ambience) as if a woman who would destroy the work of men can only be ‘witch-like.’  In fact, Duncan delivers – eloquently and more strongly than that suggests – exactly a DeWittian high culture disgust for all that popular culture represents and a cold, intellectual anger that ‘Birdman’ would intrude on their territory.

For a film that is about the theatre, the form of it is crucial.  And in a film that is about the clash of film and theatre so directly, there is a brilliant simplicity in deciding to use a stylistic device – most famously rendered in Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) – to portray the developing tension between Riggan and his situation, his struggling daughter, his fellow actors, their relationships to each other, the problems of the producer, the interaction between ‘Birdman’ and his fans and, not forgetting, the increasing breakdown between the reality of Riggan and Birdman inside one or other of their heads. It is this device, alongside the tense drum score by Antonio Sanchez, which ensures we are inside the thing itself (a score not eligible for awards due to the presence of other, non-original music).

The film is founded on digital effects – just as much as any superhero film – but they are done in order to bring forward a very actor-centred and talkative script.  High tech is employed for low tech purposes for much of the time. Riggan is searching for authenticity in returning to the stage – everything about this film suggests a real delight in artifice.

Iñárritu paints a clash of old and new – Riggan dismisses new media but finds himself ‘trending’ when caught outside in his underpants. Returning to theatre does not mean escape from the modern world, but something essential that’s present in the best of that old-style Hollywood filmmaking whilst utilising very modern techniques of digital cinematography to accomplish it. The use of the close-up on Keaton, the praise he has earned for exposing his (ageing) face, is one of the ways we experience his collapsing inner world. It’s the most powerful device still in cinema. Roland Barthes wrote about Greta Garbo, that her face on the screen “belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philtre.” (‘The Face of Garbo’, Roland Barthes, Mythologies). Keaton’s face in this is certainly the antidote to the old-style Hollywood close-up, but it still allowed for getting lost – this time in a face written over with its life and experience. I’ll mention I went back to Sunset Boulevard (1950) after seeing Birdman, and I think there’s something of the Norma Desmond as well as the Margot Channing about Riggan. And just as with the surprising effect (on an audience) of Norma’s or Margot’s warped egotism, it’s Riggan’s flaws and failures and insecurity  that, for all its cleverness and artifice, means this film could be intensely moving and, not least, because we see him close-up as he abandons ego and faces up to himself. Emma Stone’s brilliantly delivered speech as his daughter is crucial here – that nothing and no-one finally matters. Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York (2008) does resonate at several points (not least in the break down of fiction and reality) but that film takes the dark, novelistic rather than the lighter, comic and cinematic path that Birdman chooses. Iñárritu  and Emmanuel Lubezki (cinematographer)’s ‘seamless’ take allows cinema to provide another kind of literal ‘losing of oneself’ in this film.  For all the digital effects and flights of the superhero film (neatly satirised here) it’s still human story at the centre – and a crucial part of why it’s laugh out loud funny. This old lady sat amongst the students at Tyneside Cinema and we both laughed, often together. Not always, of course, since they lack the comic advantage of a midlife crisis.

And finally about framing the discussion. Gravity (2013) showed the triumph of cinematography and individual performance (Sandra Bullock) over a weak plot and script and its ability author a story mainly through the visceral experience of the inky-black 3D. Perhaps it’s time to shift authorship further (something Kaufman managed as a writer) and refuse the cinematographers cry that their art should always only be in the service of the film. Perhaps I’m going to start making an appointment with Emmanuel Lubezki’s immersive cinematographic authorship.

Gone Girl (US 2014)

Amy (Rosamund Pike) and Nick (Ben Affleck)

Amy (Rosamund Pike) and Nick (Ben Affleck)

Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl was an immediate bestseller on its appearance in 2012, generating considerable discussion in mainstream and social media. Now she has written the screenplay for David Fincher’s film adaptation, her ideas about modern marriage and her presentation of an array of female characters – most of them perhaps unlikeable but nevertheless dominating the narrative – are again at the centre of public discourse.’Gone Girl the film’ is being hailed as one of the possible saviours of the 2014 box office in both the UK and US. It has also become the focus of a number of hostile reviews and claims that it is in some ways ‘anti-feminist’.

I decided to run a public event on Gone Girl on the basis of the initial interest in the novel. I’m not a David Fincher fan, though I respect his filmmaking skills. My reactions to his last two cinema features, The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo were not particularly positive. I’m aware that Fincher has many fans but I’m not really clear what it is that is supposed to distinguish his approach. His previous films have often been relatively expensive productions which haven’t always attracted audiences in the numbers that might be expected. Box Office Mojo suggests that Fincher’s second feature Se7en remains his most popular film so far (when adjusted for inflation). I wondered therefore if Gone Girl would be a box office winner and if Fincher’s style would suit the material. Given that most of Fincher’s films have been ‘action’ orientated, including the two with female leads (Aliens 3 and Panic Room) I did further wonder if Fincher was the most appropriate director for a film which is ostensibly about marriage.

Having watched the film twice (all 149 minutes of it!) in two days and discussed it with several regular local filmgoers, I’ve come to some conclusions. First, my overall opinion of David Fincher as a director hasn’t really changed. Gone Girl is well-made. It looks good, it moves at a good pace, the performances are very good and it provides genuine entertainment (although if you have read the book, the film narrative of course doesn’t offer the same level of surprise). For me, Gone Girl was a ‘clever’ book – and I mean that in a complimentary way. Gillian Flynn knows what she wants to do and she does it skilfully. It’s also a long book with many characters and several sub-plots. There is no way that everything in the book could arrive on screen – or that the central ideas in the book could be thoroughly explored in a film that wants to include all the exciting action. Fincher himself said this about the book in a Screendaily.com Interview (20/9/2014):

“The thing I thought was profound and has not been articulated in this way is that we construct a façade of ourselves, an image for people to deal with us and understand us and hopefully we learn from teachers, parents, siblings how to present the best version of ourselves.

“Then we go out into the world as adults and mate, couple and seduce people with this projection of ourselves. Often, completely oblivious to the fact that that person is doing that too, and there comes a point where one who enters into this contract says I can’t keep it up. I’m not interested in being the man of your dreams or the woman of your dreams anymore. I don’t know what to tell you. This movie was about the resentment that might engender.

“A marriage is hard and really hard under the glare of 10,000 watt magnified 24-hour a day news cycle. No one can survive it.”

I agree with him. This is an interesting observation and that should be at the core of the film. Unfortunately, I think it takes second place to the psychological thriller/noir mystery aspects of Fincher’s film. All the ingredients are there but they didn’t have the impact I expected. Overall, my small group discussing the film concluded that it was an entertaining film, but it didn’t really tell us much about marriage – and it didn’t project a sense of Fincher’s personal style (whatever that might be). It felt like it could have been made by any mainstream experienced Hollywood director.

I’ve purposefully not mentioned the plot so far since the film has been so heavily promoted. Let me just point out that it is a story about a married couple told throughout by each marriage partner in turn from the moment when the husband discovers that the wife is ‘missing’ with some evidence suggesting that she has been abducted. He is immediately under suspicion and a tabloid media storm ensues in which he is effectively accused of her murder. The narrative twist is that Amy (Rosamund Pike) tells her story through diary entries that start seven years previously when the couple first met – she disappears on their 5th wedding anniversary. Nick (Ben Affleck) tells his story starting from the day of her disappearance. Amy is an ‘unreliable narrator’ via her diary entries. Nick’s version is told in the third person in the sense that we watch him and his actions – but we also listen to what he says to the police and others.  A second and third part of the story are narrated in a similar style but with the time differences between the two narrations shifting. I won’t ‘spoil’ the narrative twists.

I suspect that our discussion group is not representative of the mainstream audience. Mark Kermode in the Observer offers a much better analysis of how the film might work with a popular audience. He links it to the popular/populist successes of Paul Verhoeven/Joe Eszterhas in the ‘erotic thriller’ stakes, naming Basic Instinct to go alongside Fatal Attraction and references to Hitchcock, Clouzot etc. I think he is probably right. I think he is also correct in this observation:

Shooting in handsome 6K digital widescreen, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth keeps the visual tone cool and detached even as events heat up, eschewing the tics and flashes of yore. This is a picture-perfect world, presented with the untouched clarity of a crime scene, fine-tuned and framed by Fincher . . .

Gone Girl is a conventional American thriller that should please mainstream audiences. I think that in its presentation it comes across as more of Flynn’s film than Fincher’s. I’m not a fan of Ben Affleck but in some ways he was well cast and he played the role well. But he typifies a problem with American leading men. He’s so buffed up with bulging muscles in arms and thighs that he just doesn’t look or feel right for a man who seemingly does very little and eats badly. Rosamund Pike is just terrific in every way.

In the end the important debate about Gone Girl should be about the array of great roles in the film for female actors – and the debate about the importance or not of so many female characters who are presented in a ‘negative’ way. But then, apart from Nick’s sister Margo, the investigating detective Rhonda and the lawyer (played by Tyler Perry) almost every other character is there to be the subject of criticism. As a Guardian reader I’ve been taken aback by the ‘op ed’ pieces by Guardian journalists online and in the paper – they don’t seem to have seen many films and read this one in very black and white terms. I wish they would think a bit more before they submit copy.

Gone Girl won its first weekend in North America. Nothing is certain these days, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t still around in a few weeks time, going on to be Fincher’s biggest hit.