Bayou Maharajah (US 2013)

BM_poster

Music documentaries appear in UK cinemas fairly regularly. Tonight I could choose between two and ironically the director of the one I didn’t choose was thanked in the credits of the one I did. However, I later discovered that Bayou Maharajah was actually on the festival circuit in 2013 and has had to wait three years for a release in the UK. It was worth the wait and it will play at various venues across the UK in the next month. See dates and venues on the Music Film Network website.

James Carroll Booker (1939-1983) was a New Orleans piano player who was considered a genius by the major musicians of the New Orleans scene – the ones featured in the film include Dr John, Irma Thomas, Neville Neville and the late Allen Toussaint. If you own any records produced in New Orleans between the early 1960s and the late 1970s, you will be able to hear James Booker backing the star name. Like many geniuses before him – and sadly many in the future perhaps – James Booker’s talent was difficult to corral and confine in a recording studio. His difficult early life left him with a propensity to develop a drug and alcohol addiction. He also had poor mental health, at some point lost an eye (various stories are recounted as to how this might have happened) and he was openly gay in the New Orleans bar scene of the period. But he could play piano (and alto and tenor sax) like an angel.

Bayou Maharajah is a conventional documentary by an inexperienced filmmaker. Lily Keber was working in a bar in New Orleans in 2006 when she first heard James Booker tracks on the jukebox and drinkers talking about Booker’s exploits. By 2010 she had raised $10, 000 on Kickstarter and started to collect material. Her documentary succeeds because, apart from having the enormous talent of James Booker at its core, the film does simple things very well. Keber has found Booker’s friends, admirers and colleagues and gathered interesting anecdotes. The talking heads are presented without gimmicks and the bulk of them are very engaging. Keber has also found archive recordings of Booker’s playing, sometimes on very degraded video material – and she hasn’t messed with the aspect ratios, hoorah! She’s also found high quality stills and she presents a mini master-class by Harry Connick Jr. (who became Booker’s eager pupil aged 12). Connick demonstrates the incredible keyboard techniques that underpinned Booker’s playing. As a non-pianist, I was very impressed. I suspect piano players will be suitably wowed.

It’s important in films like these to present at least one or two complete performances. That’s certainly the case here. Like too many other African-Americans of his generation, James Booker had to leave North America to find appreciative bookers and audiences in Europe. It’s interesting to see him appearing as a solo act in France and Germany. He appreciated the respect he was given in Europe but it didn’t encourage record companies in the US and he suffered badly from very low earnings for his session work on various recordings. Part of the problem was that Booker didn’t have a manager – no-one could manage him says one interviewee.

There is one almost avant-garde use of what I took to be ‘found footage’. A black and white film of one night at a New Orleans bar is speeded up to last only a few minutes as almost subliminal figures suddenly flash on screen. At the time I think I puzzled over what to make of this but on reflection it seems like an effective means of representing James Booker’s life in New Orleans. He was only properly appreciated by a few but his talent was such that his presence remains embedded in New Orleans music culture.

I never did find out why the film has the title ‘Bayou Maharajah’ but it fits somehow. James Booker could play everything from Chopin to jazz. Most of all though for me he captured that essential New Orleans sound and now I want someone to make a film explaining why New Orleans piano-playing is so distinctive – in both cultural and musical terms.

Here is the trailer plus a clip showing one of the archive performances. I hope these will convince you to look up this film:

Évolution (France-Belgium-Spain 2015)

Max Brebant as Nicolas

Max Brebant as Nicolas

Lucile Hadzihalilovic, the director and co-writer of Évolution is the partner of Gaspar Noé (who is thanked in the credits of this film). I wonder what they talk about at breakfast? Noé is controversial in terms of treatment of sexuality. Hadzihalilovic has three short/medium length films to her credit plus two full length features. Her previous feature, Innocence in 2004, focused on a mysterious girls’ boarding school. Évolution introduces us to a small community of pre-pubescent boys who live with female carers (not their mothers according to one of the boys) close to the sea in small concrete block houses. There are no men in the community and seemingly no girls.

The film begins with an underwater shot, looking up to one of the boys swimming on the surface. He dives down towards the camera and finds something on the sea-bed which will propel him forward as the protagonist of this tale. We aren’t surprised that as all the heroes of fantasy/horror/science fiction/tales of mystery, Nicolas our hero will investigate to uncover the truth and will risk himself becoming a victim of whatever is happening in this unusual community.

Stella (Roxane Duran) first meets Nicolas when he cuts himself on a rock.

Stella (Roxane Duran) first meets Nicolas when he cuts himself on a rock.

What follows is a triumph of camerawork (Manuel Dacosse), editing, set design, production design, effects, music and, not least, performance. The landscape of Lanzarote with its black volcanic ‘sand’ is matched with the dark interiors of a classic horror hospital – with dingy lighting, peeling paintwork and water running down the walls. As one reviewer has pointed out, the opening shot reminds us that humanity came out of the sea and water remains in our consciousness as connected to ‘birthing’. How can I explain anything about what happens without ‘spoiling’ the narrative? All I’ll say is that Nicolas is a real hero and that he has a ‘helper’ – a nurse in the hospital who is for some reason attracted to this boy. In the final reel, Nicolas calls out her name, ‘Stella’. In the opening sequence, referenced above, Nicolas sees a red starfish. A starfish isn’t actually a fish and is perhaps better considered under its alternative name of ‘sea star’. In Latin this is ‘stella marina’. ‘Stella’ (Roxane Duran) is a red-haired nurse. The sea star is an amazing creature and Lucile Hadzihalilovic must have spent some time thinking about this creature and its habits. I certainly found it interesting to research them. In doing so I found a group of Haitian midwives associated with a project called ‘Stella Marina’ – which aims to provide ‘birthing kits’ for use in poorer communities.

I’m not going to say any more about what actually happens in Évolution. All I would say, to give you a flavour of the film, is that it reminded me at one point of the John Sayles film The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) featuring the myth of the Selkie – the creature that can transform from seal at sea to human on the land. Others, less squeamish than me, refer to David Cronenberg films and the cycle of ‘body horror films’ from the 1980s. I can see those references but Évolution is different in tone with its 10 year-old protagonist. It really is a remarkable performance by Max Brebant. It’s only 82 minutes long, but there is a great deal packed into the narrative and trying to tie together all the elements is intriguing.

Discover Tuesdays

Évolution was the latest screening in the Picturehouses programming slot in the UK. This involves the possibility that any cinema in the Picturehouses chain (or, I think, programmed/booked by Picturehouses) can show a film for a single screening on a Tuesday. These are films presumably deemed by Picturehouses as not commercial enough for a proper release of multiple screenings across a week or so in selected cinemas. I have heard arguments that this is a positive move because it gives the possibility of a specialised film becoming available at cinemas across the UK. That may be so and as a concept it goes back to the beginnings of digital cinema in the UK as something similar was suggested as part of the first round of subsidised digital cinema projectors instigated by the UK Film Council in the 2000s. Even so, it works against the idea of local programming and strategies which attempt to grow a local audience through ‘word of mouth’ screenings. There were 10-12 people in the cinema when I saw this film. Perhaps there would only have been three or four if it was showing two or three times this week, but I’d like to think that with good reports the audience for this and similar films could be grown. Instead, Picturehouses is using those other possible programme slots to show Independence Day and Absolutely Fabulous and if you can’t get to a screening on Tuesday at 18.00, then specialised cinema is not for you. So, I guess you’ll have to look for Évolution online.

Garnett, Hines and Loach

CFPM

This event is organised by the Northern section of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom. The Unity + Works Hall is only two minutes walk from the Wakefield Westgate Railways Station.

This full and varied afternoon kicks off with 45 minutes of Tony Garnett talking about his newly published memoir. Garnett is a key figure in alternative television and film, and his work with Ken Loach in the 1960s and 1970s is seminal, both for television and for working class representations.

The Price of Coal were two interlinked television plays for BBC 1 filmed in 1976. They were scripted by Barry Hines, produced by Tony Garnett and directed by Ken Loach. Meet the People (1977, in colour) is broadly a comedy set round a royal visit to a colliery. The follow-up Back to Reality, is a darker more sombre play. This first play runs for 75 minutes.

And then there will be the appreciation of a key collaborator and writer Barry Hines by Ian Clayton, about 45 minutes.

So a rich three hours celebrating some of the best and most politically felt work on British Television and the filmmakers who created this.

La loi du marché (The Measure of a Man, France 2015)

Vincent Lindon as Thierry. In this scene we see him listening to feedback on his performance in a role-play.

Vincent Lindon as Thierry. In this scene we see him listening to feedback on his performance in a role-play.

(Keith reviewed this film last year when it was in the Leeds Film Festival – see the comment below with a link.)

Vincent Lindon is possibly my favourite French actor and for La loi du marché he won the acting prize at Cannes and a César Award in 2015. IMDB informs me that he comes from a wealthy family background and that he has supported a centrist politician in elections – yet he has the star persona of a rather tough, brusque but honest and intelligent working-class man in many films. In his third film with writer-director Stéphane Brizé he takes this familiar star persona a step further. The English translated title makes this film sound personal and rather abstract. I much prefer the French title which I translate as ‘The Law of the Market’. The emphasis is quite different. In this narrative, Lindon’s character  is certainly tested, but the function of the narrative is to expose, in a way that is ‘open’ but also quite subtle, how contemporary working conditions and attitudes towards both employment and unemployment impact on workers and their families.

Thierry and his wife live in a modest house with their teenage son who needs their care and support to progress in his education because of some physical disabilities. Thierry has been made redundant from his job as a skilled machine tool operator. In his early 50s he has been out of work for many months and has suffered humiliation and rejection when he has attended interviews and training courses. When he finally gets another full-time job what kind of work will it be and what will have happened to his dignity and sense of worth?

This bare outline suggests a film comparable to those of Loach-Laverty and the Dardenne Brothers as well as that broader tradition of films about the workplace and industrial relations in French cinema. But in several ways this film is distinctive. Stéphane Brizé describes the kind of production he wanted like this:

Right from the beginning of the writing process, I knew the film would be shot with a tiny crew, and non-professional actors would work with Vincent. I went even further and told Christophe Rossignon (the producer) and Vincent Lindon that I wanted us to co-produce the project by imposing a limited budget and investing the better part of our salaries in the film, while paying the crew the normal rate. Not every film can be made this way, but this one allowed it. Content, style and financing echoed one another, and I liked this coherence. There was also the affirmation that films could be made differently at a time when the industry is seriously questioning how it finances production. I also had to rethink my set design and staging, as well as my themes. This film is the fruit of necessity. (From an interview in the film’s Press Pack.)

The result is a film which is visually quite austere and in which Thierry is clearly the central character. Brizé deliberately chose a young documentary cameraman Eric Dumont with no experience of fiction films and asked him to frame scenes for 2.35:1 CinemaScope. This enables Brizé to focus on Thierry but also to include other characters or décor that provide context for what Thierry is experiencing. Sometimes there is some blurring of the image on one side of the frame. I couldn’t see what was causing this. In much the same way the soundtrack has a visible hum in some scenes set in small functional rooms with harsh lighting. I wondered if this was deliberate or the result of low-budget shooting – such scenes also use hand-held camerawork. I know it’s a cliché but these ‘flaws’ do enhance the sense of realism. The film does indeed feel like a documentary but it is very slowly paced with long takes and sometimes a quite static camera. As far as I can see most of the ‘cast’ are non-professionals who play roles they also perform in ‘real life’.  There is none of sensationalism or voyeurism of ‘reality TV’, nor any of the melodrama or comedy found in Loach-Laverty and slightly different Dardennes forms of social realism. If this makes Brizé’s film sound dull, it only takes a few minutes of a couple of the various well-chosen scenarios to reveal the power of the writing and to engage the viewer in the tragedy of Thierry’s situation and to marvel at his patience and strength. I got very angry very quickly but I also marvelled at the mixture of subtlety and brutality in these scenes.

Thierry finally gets a job as a store detective – watching customers and staff. How does hee feel about this job?

Thierry finally gets a job as a store detective – watching customers and staff. How does he feel about this job?

At the centre of every scene is Vincent Lindon’s performance. Does he deserve all the praise and the awards? Absolutely, I would say. Physically, Vincent Lindon is a strong man – his facial features, his muscular arms – who we are convinced could do most manual jobs, but who would also have the inner strength to tackle other kinds of employment. In interviews in this film, Thierry is routinely humiliated. His interviewers don’t directly insult him, rather they carry out their routine questioning as they have perhaps been trained to do. The effect on Thierry is seen in his eyes and his posture. The brilliance of the performance is in the way Lindon’s body seems to crumble at the edges. This is neatly represented in a sequence in which Tierry and his wife Karine (Karine de Mirbeck – the non-professionals keep their own names?) go to a rock ‘n roll dance class. Everything is fine until the dance teacher tries to show Thierry how to move. The point here is that the non-professional actors are very good at representing themselves – the script sets up a situation that humiliates Thierry rather than their performances. Lindon as the professional has techniques and insight and physical control. The contrast is fascinating.

I should point out that the film does not have a happy ending. Instead, it is ‘open’, but I’m sure most audiences will worry about what will happen to Thierry, Katrine and their son Matthieu. I watched this film in one of my favourite cinemas where it is always a real pleasure to watch a film. Unfortunately, on this occasion I found myself sitting in front of a group of people who talked on and off throughout the film and often cackled or laughed loudly. The film isn’t a comedy although I did smile and laugh quietly once or twice. I fear that the laughter behind me was cruel and responded to the indignities heaped on Thierry, but perhaps it was fear? In one scene I felt so much for him I had to turn away from the screen. La loi du marché won’t be for everyone, but it’s one of my films of the year and a film every actor, scriptwriter and director should watch and learn from.

Congrats to New Wave, one of the most reliable UK distributors who still manage to bring us the best films. If only more exhibitors would be prepared to show them.