Monthly Archives: November 2014

London Film Festival 2014 Part 6

By now, several of the films I’ve mentioned, or am about to mention, are on show normally. It’s a slightly odd feeling, having taken them in already. In theory, this should make room for more, which is good. However, it does mean that the turnover in cinema listings feels particularly slow, when there’s nothing “new” on.

The next of my London Film Festival screenings was Phoenix, by Christian Petzold. Before it started (at Odeon West End, or OWE as it says on the tickets), I heard someone explaining Tarkovsky’s Solaris to her companion, decrying the Soderbergh version. Films of his I’ve seen are Yella, an acidic commentary on the corruption of German business and Barbara, a harrowing tale of political oppression in East Germany, both starring the wonderful Nina Hoss. She was present for this screening, and I think she gave one of the best Q&As of the entire festival. The interesting question is, I suppose, whether this coloured my view of the film. It covers the immediate post-war period in Germany, which is not one I’ve seen dramatised before. As usual Hoss is startlingly good. She took on a special walk, to “hide her femininity” and described her character as a “newborn”, an

“alien, who doesn’t know who she is”

All of this she conveys successfully, the most heartbreaking aspect being when the character can’t help herself, and is almost giddy, even though this giddiness is pushing her to make bad decisions. The plot is clever, with a particular song and its performance straddling the war and post-war periods, forming the arc of the film. Very highly recommended – I’m not sure when it will be released properly.

In passing, I note with dainty disdain that a man was watching Siralan on his tablet before the film started. Tsk.

The next day, at OWE again, was Mommy. I think this was one of those I bought later, after the festival had begun, when a scheduling conflict was removed. In the lobby I saw people taking “selfies” with a fairly short, well-dressed man. During the Q&A I realised this was the director, Xavier Dolan, and that he provoked a lot of excitement in the crowd. In my ignorance, I wasn’t particularly aware of his work, and had chosen this one for that reason. Because it was a gala screening, there was free chocolate again. The first thing I noticed about this film was the strangeness of the Canadian French dialect/accent, very different than the seemingly standard French you normally hear. It’s a slightly hysterical story, relying upon bold performances from the mother (who was a little reminiscent of the mother in Secrets and Lies) and the son, with a pretty downbeat ending. There’s an impressive moment when the aspect ratio completely changes, in a scene reminiscent of the imagined escape in The 25th Hour. Dolan said that he argued at length with the cinematographer about this and he felt he’d won the argument when there was applause at this point during an early screening. During the Q&A there was a rather pointless political question, lamenting the fact that Dolan had made films about mother figures but not father figures. The eager crowd booed at this and Dolan responded that he’d see the questioner for his next film, which is about a father. Another interesting point was about the music chosen for the soundtrack, which he defended from accusations of crude ironism. He said he

“wasn’t being funny”

with those choices. They were songs that were important to him.

After two days with just one film a day, it was back to the multiple film experience the next day, starting with a daytime screening of Foxcatcher. Here I think the less you know about the plot and the historical incident on which it’s based the better. I knew nothing and felt I enjoyed it more that way. Steve Carrell is chillingly good as du Pont. In fact, I didn’t realise it was him until afterwards. Adopting the Tom Paulin role, I’d have to say that it’s as much about America’s view of itself now, compared with the relative impunity of America in the 1980s, while also reflecting on the sinister narcissism of what in the old days we would call magnates. I agreed with the verdict of the person I overheard saying:

“That was a deep one. Extraordinary story. Those two were so good”

(referring to the two lead actors). Mark Ruffalo is also very good. One experience I couldn’t share was that of the person talking about the

“very expensive tour I did of the gardens, they were by du Pont”.

There was a bit of time before the next film, so I walked to the LRB shop, and fixed a niggle in my magazine obsession by finding an issue of the LRB that I’d missed, in the pile they have at the counter. Relax.

Back to the Vue West End this time, for 1001 Grams. I’d previously enjoyed Bent Hamer’s Kitchen Stories and Factotum, and the context of the Norwegian Metrology Service was curiously appealing. The scenes of the special meeting about the new kilogram were quietly hilarious, as was a cameo from a zealous French customs official. The overheard verdict this time was:

“Gentle, wasn’t it. A bit slow.”

I think gentle and slow go together and it’s a very satisfying film. Ambient quotations from the audience, not related to 1001 Grams:

“The Gobi. I always think of that being more Northern Mongolia”

and

“Everything that should have been made of wood, was made of tyres”.

I will be tracking down films of his I’ve missed, after the pleasure of this one.

Before the third festival event of that day, for reasons of proximity I walked to the National Portrait Gallery to see the Virginia Woolf show. Because it was one of their “Late Shift” Fridays, there were musicians warming up and drones filled the entrance hall. The lady who sold me the ticket sighed over these noises. Someone sneaked in through what was supposed to be an exit, and was spotted by the staff, but excused herself as being “with someone”. The exhibition told the story of Woolf’s life well, the paintings and photos by various Bloomsbury Set members and their associates drawing you through her life. Her letters, often when she was in great distress, were very poignant, while the black book of people the Nazis planned to suppress upon invasion, which included Leonard and Virginia Woolf, was chilling.

The evening event was a Screen Talk with Bennett Miller, who directed Foxcatcher and Moneyball, both of which I enjoyed. He was an engaging, diffident interviewee, among the quotes being that “every portrait is a self portrait”. He referred to

“the price of answered prayers”

and wondered

“How do we know a story?”.

Talking about his experience of filmmaking with one of his collaborators he said

“we had a wonderful miserable time together”.

Asked about style, he claimed that

“Style is inherent, like the colour of your eyes.”

His description of his journey through film school and into eventually becoming a director was interesting and I liked his quiet confidence in his work.

On Saturday 18th I saw Winter Sleep, the Palme D’Or winner by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, now on general release like Leviathan. The person giving the introduction described it as

“quite an interestingly long film. An inaction film”.

It’s only a little over three hours, so not that long really. Apparently, some think it’s not as good as Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, which I confess I haven’t seen yet. There’s very little action, it being much more a character study, in Ceylan’s usual Chekovian mould, though there is one scene that in context is very shocking, reminding me of a similar highly charged moment in The Idiot. If you can sustain interest for this sort of duration, it’s very satisfying. One of the three best I saw at the festival, along with Phoenix and Leviathan.

The final film for me was 6 Desires: D.H. Lawrence and Sardinia by Mark Cousins, at the ICA. It’s a form of re-creation essay documentary, but with Cousins’ usual impish authorial reminders and interventions. His narration voice guides you along, giving way to his collaborator’s voice half-way through. As with his bracing A Story of Children and Film, at first he makes you feel bad for not having seen or read as much as him, but then inspires you to try and catch up. Right at the end he claims he will deny us something, for valid artistic reasons, with the possibility of relenting… An unusual treat for my own ending.

 

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London Film Festival 2014 Part 5

After A Girl Walked Home Alone At Night, I had a few hours of my day off to fill, before the evening’s film. Walking out of the Vue, I heard someone declaim:

“It happened to me, so I have to tell my story”,

which is, I’m afraid, a telling signifier of the coarsening of our public discourse.

One of the exhibitions on my list was “Our Friend Larionov” at Pushkin House. Displaying unusual geographical ambition, inspired by the usual tedious quest for efficiency, I wanted to see the famous suspended building in Covent Garden on the way. Even midweek there’s no shortage of mobile gawpers in Covent Garden and there was a whole phalanx exploring Chinneck’s work and looking for the best photo.

Take My Lightning, But Don't Steal My Thunder

 

“That’s a hell of a lever”,

commented one Dad, while the man guarding the piece patiently explained all about it to a couple of pensioners, who I think had just encountered it accidentally. Soon after, he had to chide a boy who was standing on one of the fractured columns – “Young man. Young man.”

I’ve already been to the Calvert 22 and GRAD galleries, but not Pushkin House, which is conveniently close to the British Museum and the LRB shop, and claims to be the “home of Russian culture”. On entering, it became clear that it really was a town house, and I wasn’t sure which way to proceed. I asked one of the staff, who said that the show was across three levels, and she advised starting on the floor above, working down. This sort of primitivist art is usually very dynamic and expressive, which I like, and I also like artists with manifestos, who want to form new groups, and the commitment that indicates. One slightly odd aspect was that I couldn’t find the painting included on the press release. I asked the person who’d directed my visit, and after checking, she couldn’t find it either. I think I agreed with the two cultural ladies who left just before me, one of whom told her friend that she was going to the basement to:

“look at the pears one more time. There’s so much feeling in it.”

For some reason I associate Billy Childish with John Peel, so one should presume in his favour. It was as a result of this visit that I found out about an event at Pushkin House that I will describe in another instalment.

Around the corner to the British Museum, where there was time to see a couple of the small, free displays. Just by the main entrance there is an enormous print by Albrecht Dürer, of a triumphal arch, until 17th November. What a treat to see him on such a large scale, complete with griffons (my favourite of the mythicals) and injunctions of which Balfour would have been proud:

“Keep to moderation.”

Dürer and German Medals

On the side of the room are some related works, including one of a triumphal procession which, hilariously, includes some sorrowful Indians amongst the prisoners, even though no such people had been captured, because that seemed appropriate for a triumph. Upstairs and at the other side, there’s a small room containing lots of German medals made during the First World War. They’re so different than the British ones, expressionist and abstract. To me, much more interesting. It’s open until 23rd November.

Flickr set from the British Museum.

For Leviathan, people were taking photos of each other, standing on the red carpet. Perhaps they’ll be able to add beckoning paparazzi later. Unusually, the introduction was by the film’s producer, who said he was very proud to have worked with Zvyagintsev. I remember seeing his excellent The Return at Cornerhouse in 2004, and Elena two years ago. The film is inspired by a real-life case from Colorado of a man running amok with a tractor, combined with the story of Job. It’s a truly great film, elemental in the imagery, the performances and the resonances of the plot. There are two surreptitiously powerful scenes consisting entirely of a court official reading out verdicts, at what seems like incredible speed – the implacability and remorselessness of the State. The ending is incredibly powerful, with the fate of the hero rendered brutally, and the chilling self-satisfaction of the attendees at a sermon, the Church seen as riven with venality and corruption. The upturned, gleaming faces of the congregation resembling nothing more than the youthful believers in Cabaret. Philip Glass’ music contributes to the true catharsis achieved by the film, which like several others in the festival is set on the coast, with the mesmeric power of the waves, and of the water-resembling vodka. It also chimed in its handling of the hangers-on and their machinations with The President’s Last Love by Andrei Kurkov, that I read last year.

The film I saw the next day, a normal working day, was nearly as good.

London Film Festival 2014 Part 4

When Gravity was coming out, I tried to buy tickets to the few IMAX showings. However, this was an unsatisfactory ‘experience’ – the only showings available were at unfeasible midnight-related hours of the night. Hence, the BFI IMAX remained just a building I saw during frequent trips to the Southbank, when taking a specific route to Waterloo, avoiding travelators for the Jubilee Line. What I hadn’t predicted was that my first visit there would be for a Jean Luc Godard film, in 3D. It’s actually quite a weird place to reach, with its isolation in a sort of roundabout, and a profusion of tunnels, only one of which leads to the entrance (more or less).

Though I love the early films of his I’ve seen, Breathless, Alphaville up to Le Weekend, and quite liked Eloge de l’amour, I’ve generally avoided the more sternly political Godard output of recent years. However, I couldn’t resist the idea of seeing Goodbye to Language on the huge screen, notwithstanding the dreariness of 3D glasses.  The people behind me had a similar elitist attitude, describing a previous visit:

“Normally I hate 3D films. We came and walked out.”

Regarding their ticket purchase, they said that they’d joined specially to buy tickets for that film. Before the screening started, there was a brief introduction from Jonathan Romney, including the pleasing revelation that two of the actors would be answering questions afterwards. Romney prepared us by saying that it was like being savaged (or a similar violent simile). As usual, there was a period of acclimatisation to the 3D, but in this case Godard deliberately kept us on our toes, because at points we would use two different images, not to create the appearance of depth but to create a ghostly overlapping of two different versions of a scene at once, which was a disturbing but very effective trick. (For instance, you would see characters in two different positions at once, conveying different social dynamics). It may have been with this in mind that the question of whether the “non-working 3D was deliberate” was raised, to general bemusement.

Because I hadn’t read the blurb properly, I wasn’t aware how prominent a role the dog Roxy would play. In fact, he’s one of the main protagonists. A human says at one point that he “looks depressed”.

“No, he’s dreaming of the islands, like in the Jack London novel”,

responded another. The actors later lamented that they never got to meet Roxy during shooting. Some of the dialogue was textbook Godard:

“He’s just an individual…”

“I hate characters”

Someone asked whether the subtitles had been sub-contracted, explaining the errors he detected. The actors responded that Godard is involved directly in every part of his films and they assumed this applied to the subtitles as well. One of them also revealed that they’d watched it from the top of the IMAX, and the audience effectively appeared in the film for him. “Bravo”, was his verdict. It was another appearance for the now familiar French interpreter for the BFI, leading to the suggestion that soon

“we’ll need an interpreter for our own thoughts”.

As ever with Godard, the amount of female nudity didn’t seem fully justified and it was perhaps difficult to engage with the characters. However, it was highly distinctive and bracing, and thought-provoking. As Jonathan Romney said, it’s the

“most violent use of 3D ever”.

This was one of the two-film evenings, when I had to travel from Waterloo to Mayfair, for The Falling at the Curzon. On the way I bought some form of “super salad”, but forgot to take the free fork. Suffering some moral anguish, I nevertheless took a free fork from another shop, to save unedifying finger-based eating, which wouldn’t go down very well in that area. I’d never seen that Curzon so busy. There was basically no room inside, so people were congregating by the doors, sheltering from the unhelpful rain. A man was desperately trying to impress his lady companion with the tale of his recently-acquired flat, how he had out-foxed Foxton’s. After a false alarm, they came back out and he conceded that there is an “extra buzz” of seeing a film at a festival, being surrounded by journalists who’ve seen two films already. I think there were a lot of industry types there, judging by the comments such as

“the first film I ever art directed”

that I heard in passing.

Of course, I remember Carol Morley from the semi-infamous Tot in Manchester in the 1980s, who appeared on the Debris magazine compilation I bought from Eastern Bloc. The Alcohol Years was an intriguing glimpse into the Manchester of my teenage-hood, a little before I became aware, and Dreams Of A Life was wonderful. The Falling I found a little disappointing. Maxine Peake’s character was very thinly drawn and she was under-used, while the air of over-heated unreality that’s necessary for this sort of story wasn’t earned. It was interesting to see another film in which a tree had a central role (after the Japanese banyan), and I think it might benefit from a second viewing, for the generally good performances at least. It’s quite close to being a great film, but misfires somewhat. One distracting aspect of the Q&A was that as Carol Morley moved around on stage, her face was covered with a projected @ sign and a # mark, from the film festival message.

The next day, I had taken the day off work, trying to fit in as much as I could. Around lunchtime, it was back to Leicester Square (bah), for A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, one of the three the festival director had recommended on the Film Programme. The film’s director appeared briefly beforehand, exclaiming:

“What’s up, London”,

rather incongruously. Fairly recently I saw a Lebanese vampire film, so I added to my collection with this (American-)Iranian one. Sheila Vand is striking as the protagonist,

“kind of young and old at the same time”,

as Amirpour said. It’s certainly enigmatic, with some unexplained assumptions and gruesome rituals amongst the townspeople, and the cinematography is great. Someone asked how she’d obtained permission to film in Iran, not realising it was in fact shot in America. I can’t remember the name of the town, I’m afraid, but one of the lead actors was also present and his summary of the town was:

“I won’t be going back there again.”

Naturally it’s not available in Iran, but the director said she was confident that it would be, once it’s been released in the West on DVD… She had a surprising sympathy for some of the largely “bad” characters in the film, which perhaps came from what she described as:

“the dark mass of my brain”.