In the Beginning There Were Documentaries

A Man with a Movie CameraWith certain fanfare and a headline interview on Radio 4’s Today programme, Sight & Sound today announced the results of their poll for the greatest documentary ever made. And as lists go it quickly set the wires of social media humming with outrage and consternation, as Dviga Vertov’s masterful Man with a Movie Camera was noted as comfortably taking the top spot. Should we even call it a documentary, is it just an art film, and what are documentaries even good for. So the debate ever was, it made for good reading for those with a real passion for the genre, if genre should even be considered the right word.

And so the occasion was taken by at least one commentator to take a pop at the eight ‘unimaginative’ souls who had picked out the Lumière’s first publicly screened film, the presumptively titled Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory. Much merriment was had at such a boring choice, and well, it sure as shit isn’t as exciting as that other classic of the Train Pulling Into the Station. As someone who so gladly proselytises for the occasionally put upon subject of Early Cinema, of course my heart sank.

Almost any Lumière film taken out of context is probably going to appear a bit dumb, and I’d certainly not question anyone who found them tedious, because I’ve slept through more than a few early films. And that considering most are under five minutes long. And sure, anyone idly picking the film for the sake of posterity should certainly be singled out as being unimaginative, but I doubt that’s the case. There’s far more to it than that.

On the walls of Chauvet CaveThe crude analogy that comes readily to mind, would be showing someone the 32000 year old paintings in the Chauvet Cave, so wonderfully captured in 3D documentary form by Werner Herzog in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and to have them turn and say “well they’re a bit shit, aren’t they?” Now you can’t argue that they’re masterpieces by the standards of modern or contemporary art, but then that is to quite colossally miss the forest for the trees. The analogy touches on the whole world of misguided discourse which would frame Early Cinema in terms of being ‘primitive’ and ‘unevolved’, where old cinema is ultimately a stepping stone before cinema could realise it’s all-singing, all-dancing, widescreen Technicolor 3D razzmatazz true self, which it was always MEANT to be. Which is so historically chauvinistic I struggle to know where to even begin.

But what is there to say for the Factory Gate? Context is of course king, and what excites me about considering such an unsupposing title as documentary is that it captures the first moment anyone thought to film life just as it was. No staging, no performance as with Edison’s Kinetoscope films, just working life as it was in that moment in time. That we should imbue film with such meaning and significance is completely ridiculous, and Louis Lumière sensed no occasion in capturing movement on a technical novelty he saw absolutely no future for. Yet in the beginning there was documentary, and still the form became secondary from the off all the same.

Discussing the matter with Pam Hutchinson of the brilliant blog Silent London, she conceded that the film is just a tech demo, but that “it takes imagination to see that it’s more than [that]. But once you see that… boom.” Which is as fine a case as could be made for appreciating Early Cinema, but it’s not easy to convince the sceptics.

Those looking for a supporting arguement in this debate would do well to take the uninitiated to see A Night at the Cinema in 1914, a special programme of Early Cinema programmed by the BFI and currently doing a tour round the UK. Picked out by the archivist Bryony Dixon, and with a score from the brilliant accompanist Stephen Horne, early reviews of the programme are positive, and it’s far better a defence of Early Cinema than I could ever state.

Complete dates for the nationwide tour of A Night at the CInema in 1914 can be found on the BFI’s website.

[My thoughts on what constitutes an unimaginative choice for greatest documentary ever made, and what films I’d put on my own list might however have to wait for another day!]

Tagged , , ,

Staying in For A House of Cards

Beyond saying that it is just painfully good, how can I convince the undecided viewer that they really should make an effort to watch the new House of Cards? On its initial release last year the quality of the show came a hollow second to the sheer novelty of Netflix funding and debuting the show as a stream-only venture. The quality of the product itself was sold as a fortuitous matching of top film talent with unchallenged creative freedom, and a blank check from a new studio all to happy to spend. The whole exercise was of course underwritten by Netflix’s magical motion picture content algorithm/crystal-ball which showed that the Venn diagram of ‘Quality Drama’, ‘Kevin Spacey’, and ‘British Imports’ equals a surefire public and critical hit. Yet looking beyond the wild zeal of technology and entertainment reporters, and beyond the begrudging acknowledgement of TV critics, to approach the show itself a fresh is not the easiest proposition.


At first glance the sceptic might ask how I can so wholeheartedly recommend something so bitterly cold in every sense. In its visuals, in its emotional heart, or digging further down into its moral core, the whole package is an incredibly frosty sell to the first time buyer. But crack the show’s shell and you’re treated to an intricate drama that rewards your investment exponentially episode by episode. To dance artfully around describing it as a ‘grown-up’ series, (a detestable concept in its own right), what makes the show refreshing is perhaps how utterly unfrivolous it is. For all the clap-trappings, clichés, and cliff-hanger pomp of many other TV shows, the first season of House of Cards just took an assuredly good story and let it play out over the course of thirteen episodes. The greater arc of the show is drawn up to carry over into the second season, which debuts in its entirety on Netflix today, and the promise of another thirteen ‘chapters’ in a third scheduled season after that is a more than dizzying prospect in its own right.

That it’s a political drama set in the heart of the American executive may spook the more lackluster viewer, but again don’t let that put you off. As with all good political dramas or satires, the crux of the show is the viewer’s curiousity in the human and extremely petty world of personal politics which we normally only glimpse and through cracks in the noble and selfless veneer of public politics. From the flying expleitives of Malcom Tucker in The Thick of It, to the endless bumblings of Jim Hacker in Yes Minister, Kevin Spacey in the role of Congressman Frank Underwood outdoes them all as the shrewd and obscenely calculating politician who can manipulate every man, woman, or child to his every beck and call.


Kevin Spacey himself might rub you up the wrong way, and his gentle Foghorn-Leghorn Suuthern draawl might stick in the ear of someone who knows the accent, but just by the same measure he piles on the gentlemanly charm with a callous glint in his eye, the glint of a man with his eye on far higher prizes. The show’s central device of having Underwood constantly confiding with the audiences in secret yet candid asides stands out from the usual televisual convention and is thrilling as a device in its own right. The instant switch between cold public face and sarcastic and self-aggrandizing inner monologue plays right into our curiosity of wanting to know what politicians are really thinking and saying behind mask of their public face. Where the British original of the TV series saw the original Francis Underwood give nigh-on theatrical monologues straight to camera, Spacey’s approach is almost casual in comparison, addressing the viewer as confidant as opposed to spectator.


And what of the American remakes association to the much vaunted original BBC series? The passage of time makes it hard to compare the two superficially, but what the original does hold is a slightly sharper satirical edge, especially in light of its close proximity to the politics of the time. Yet where Ian Richardson acted as a lynchpin for the whole series, the strength of the newer version lies in the knockout strength of its ensemble cast. Beyond Frank Underwood, the superb counterpoint played by Robin Wright as Claire Underwood broadens the drama, and balances out the almost sociopathic tendencies of her husband, and together they form one of the most terrifying power couples ever seen on screen. Add to this a dynamite cast of characters that Frank has in his pocket, like Kate Mara as the intrepid reporter, and Corey Stoll as the troubled congressman for South Philadelphia, and the push and pull of the conspiracy makes for an absolutely brilliantly taunt drama. A cruel casting manager might very well list these characters as secondary, but in their performances they’re anything but, and Stoll and Mara to name but two, have already had me chasing down the prior filmographies of all involved to see where I can catch them. (Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway in Midnight In Paris being the standout example in an otherwise flim-flam flop of a film.)

What else is there to knock? Well there’s some egregious product placement, limited to maybe three occasions as when Spacey’s obliged to ask about another Congressman’s son’s PS Vita (“Oh I say, is that a portable games console? What games has he got?”), but if you can survive those sixty seconds, I’m sure you’ll live to enjoy the rest of the show.

In the middle of an awards season bogged down with films masquerading as give-me-an-Oscar actor’s workshops, the audacious prospect of a well-written TV series delivered by an outstanding cast comes as an almost rare treat. This really is not-to-be-missed television, and through the miracle of modern technology it’s always there should it take you fancy.

Tagged , , , ,

The Bridge is Not a Documentary

“Come quickly, it’s Stockholm on the telly” my Mum shouts. It’s a BBC World documentary with a brief segment on the place of migrants in the city. Happy fruit and flower sellers on Hötorget speak proudly of how integrated they are, how their children have been born and raised as Swedes, and how glad they are for the opportunities afforded to them. Then the bright summery colours of the market fade as the voice-over concedes that “Sweden also has a darker side, as reflected in the recent popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction”. A bearded white baby-boomer is rolled out to read an extract from his latest novel, something about a dead woman, maybe strangled, something about the smell of flowers. This man’s books have sold well internationally, why is that asks the interviewer. Oh because it flies in the face of this utopian vision everyone has of Sweden, the sad reality that in some senses the country has become a “lost paradise”. Not that it took such a colossally ill-judged reference to Milton to raise the hackles of my family, as even the mention of ‘that’ genre had eyes rolling and groans rumbling.

The voice-over reflects that “this is of course fiction” with the qualification that it still “tells us something about the state of Sweden today”. Quite how well this crime novel matches Ulysses in capturing a city in a moment of time I’ll never know, as both will remain unread (or at least unfinished) for the foreseeable future as I busy myself unearthing the state of European relations in the 1930s from Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

A Sunny Day on the Bridge Season 2

This of course is not to begrudge the relentless success of these marauding Nordic writers and producers, but rather an appeal against the endless, countless, and generally quite pointless one-note readings of the region spun out by tireless features writers everywhere. Social commentary is certainly a kernel to the formula of Scandinavian crime fiction, but it is not the sole point of the genre as boldly stated by at least one British journo. Maybe I’m too wound up as a half-native, but what can the average viewer hope to learn from The Killing, The Bridge, or indeed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Yes, Malmö and København are surprisingly close to each other after the opening of the Öresunds bridge. Migrant integration is a serious issue, look only to the Husby riots in Stockholm last spring for that. Racism is on many levels endemic, and worryingly institutionalised, although thousands have taken to the streets against this. Women are broadly speaking more liberated, but that isn’t for a moment to say misogyny has been eradicated. Likewise folks are generally a bit more open about sex, or at least not crippled by embarrassment at the hint of the subject, but neither does that preclude increasing levels of sexual violence.

Spelling out these issues in such ludicrously broad terms is making me feel like an idiot for even mentioning them, which is perhaps why I’m getting a tad fed up with crime fiction being taken as the outsider’s one true conduit to the ‘dark underside’ of the Scandinavian social model. To the uninitiated there is no doubt much to see and learn from a drama set in a completely new culture, yet for all this novelty and exoticism I doubt many will be blinded the simple fact that The Bridge is not a documentary, but rather an incredibly well paced thriller with interesting and three dimensional characters.

winter on the Bridge Season 2

The new season, like the first, is packed with flourishes, twists and seemingly ceaseless turns as the Danish Martin Rohde and Swedish Saga Norén again team up to solve a new sprawling mystery. Their collaboration, and their poles-apart approach to personal interaction cuts through the whole of their investigation, and it is their mutual drive which keeps the viewer interested and up to speed with every step of the drama. Although there are more than a few cheap narrative tricks along the way (last minute SUDDEN CLIFFHANGER warnings abound), the show steps far enough away from the recognisable conventions of the emerging Scando-crime TV format to keep things interesting and unpredictable. Dissect or analyse the narrative for whatever social commentary you can find (and good luck with that in the new series), the real strength remains the characterisation of the show’s two leads, and the new series does plenty of digging into both their psyches and their past. The culmination of this latest series and its absolutely dizzying conclusion will have audiences howling for answers, in the best possible way.

While the second series kicks off with a double episode on BBC4 tonight, the bad news for the newcomer is that you really really REALLY have to start with the first series, as the first two minutes of the new series completely gives away the game of the latter. The good news is that the whole thing is readily available on UK Netflix right now, so there are no excuses not to get stuck in right this instance. Any object lessons in Scandinavian culture picked up from either series will be gladly received on the back of a postcard, questions likewise so.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Showing at the Showcase: Argo

While it’s fair game to attack a documentary for playing loose and easy with the facts, levelling the same accusations against a ‘Based on a True Story’ feature isn’t as straight forward. The numerous, and endless crimes of omission and embellishment committed by such films will always be ready fodder for comedians and commentators, and a critical engagement with historical retellings is of course a discipline in its own right. A discipline called ‘History’. But skirting around what any given audience knows, what the filmmakers assume, and the dizzying gap in between, can I ever really be justified in criticising a Hollywood thriller for not being balanced?

From the start it should be said that Argo is a painfully well-paced action thriller. Charting the storming of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, the hostage crisis that followed, and the dramatic escape of six embassy workers to the Canadian ambassador’s house is pretty nerve-wracking in its own right. Add to this the CIA’s madcap plan to fake the production of a Star Wars style science fiction adventure, as a cover under which to smuggle out the six US embassy workers, and you have a ‘True Life Story’ too fantastic for fiction, but perfect for the form that Argo takes. Adding to an already respectable track record as a director, Ben Affleck deftly proves his abilities both in-front of and behind the camera, and he clearly has the pulling power to fill the rest of the cast list with countless actors you’ll recognise from meaty bit parts in that film, or the other US TV show. From the hatching of the plan, to its execution, and inevitable climax, the film may as well have had a progress bar running along the bottom of the screen, steadily creeping up from the off towards ‘100% Dramatic Tension Agony’. Some of the final moments are pretty blatant in their daftness (SOMEBODY PICKUP THE RINGING TELEPHONE, THE FATE OF THE FREE WORLD DEPENDS ON IT) but for all of that it’s still really good fun. Like any Hollywood film, just harmless good fun.

Which of course isn’t quite the case. This isn’t some hypothetical spy-drama based on the well-worn tropes of airport pulp novels, but rather it comes with the momentum of being ‘Based on a True Story’. While examples like The Baader Meinhof Complex are perhaps more blatant in how they unblinkingly glamorise political and historical events, Argo presents a less clean cut proposition. The impetus of the drama is driven by its historical context, and how the political tension between the US and Iran made this a life or death proposition on a personal level, while also dangling the threat of all out global strife should these diplomats be caught and executed. The stakes, as they say, don’t get much higher than this.

As a dramatic devices go, you’d struggle to find a more effective omnipotent threat (murderous mobs AND nuclear horror), but in practice the context is given scant attention. There’s a laughable 1-minute cartoon recap of 3000 years of Persian/Iranian history at the very front of the film, and possibly two or three actual Iranian characters in the whole film. The rest of Iran is cast as the furious marching revolutionary horde, easily riled and quick to action. The furious mob is of course a terrifying prospect, inescapable and non-negotiable, and its immediacy is recognisable following the recent attack of the US embassy in Benghazi, and the tragic murders which followed. This terror is nothing new, but in taking such a force and neutering it of any political underpinning, what you’re left with is a zombie horde devoid of anything but a murderous impulse. Just not specifically focused on brains.

For the thriller-driven purposes of the film this simplification makes certain sense, yet in skirting over the complexity of historical as well as contemporary Iranian politics, a chance to deepen the narrative has been missed. Not that Affleck could have given the angry mob a reasoned voice, and perhaps the broader actions of the Ayatollah’s forces can’t be balanced in any reasonable sense, but in only throwing a handful of lines to the two or so Iranian characters afforded any dialogue Affleck only hints at the conflicted position of the individual stuck in the terrifying political climate of Tehran in 1979.

Not that I could reasonably beat the film with the journalistic stick of fair-and-balanced reportage, and the Wikipedia page for the film does a good job of covering all the bent and broken facts necessitated in the telling of this story. Chalk what you will up to artistic license, and enjoy the film for the ride it is, I still feel sorry that for all the energy spent sourcing all the meticulous period detail (clothes, props, facial hair), that maybe a bit more focus could have been afforded to the period’s politics as well.

A score? Ar-go make up your own mind.

(or Four out of Five if you do insist)

Tagged , ,

Showing at the Showcase: Pusher

Growing up a child of Stockholm’s many video rental stores, the hovering presence of the Danish Pusher trilogy always stood out. The catatonic stare of round-faced Kim Bodnia seemed to glare from the walls of every cornershop, face covered in grime and blood, guns toting left and right, and garlanded in glowing praise from a phalanx of lads-mags. The film was brutal, blunt, unflinching, and Danish of all things. And yet my teenage self hadn’t even the slightest impulse to give it a second look.

That was before the WHOLE WORLD discovered Scandinavian crime drama, and here we are sixteen years and one genre phenomenon later, and Pusher (DK) has been retooled for an English language remake. Which meant I had to go rushing back to see the Danish original, with the hindsight of age and the knowledge that it was the debut of the director who made rather a success of Drive. And sure enough, Pusher (DK) lived up to its gritty profile, being the frenetic story of drug deals falling like dominos, forcing the titular middle-man into a doomed endgame of cat-and-mouse. Being the low-budget feature of first-time writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn, the whole is a bit of a rough mess, with an uneven script, but still exciting overall for its knock-about observational style. The grime of Copenhagen’s relentlessly unglamorous drugs trade is shot through a grey and dirt-speckled lens, and the moral ambiguity of the ‘Juggo’ [read: Serbian] importers helped give the film a sense of being only two steps removed from the real underworld. Which it patently wasn’t, but the complete package of Pusher (DK) holds together well enough to suck you in.

Now that we get to Pusher (UK) and the approach taken has been to brush off all the grot of the original, to polish it to a sheen to match the most expensive of adverts, and the sum total is a happily glamorous take on London’s cocaine trade. Sure, everything still goes to hell in a handbasket, but along the way we have plenty of club scenes with thick slices of ThumpThump, plenty of WubWub, and drink, and drugs, and merry times all-round. The girls! The glitz! The good times!

Where the moral and emotional vacuity of the Danish protagonist gives the original a really uncomfortable edge, Richard Coyle acting as the British equivalent refuses to fall back on this safer ambiguety. Maybe I can’t escape my liking of the actor, probably best known as the surreal Welshman Jeff in the sitcom Coupling, but his very best attempts at wringing a moral character out a not very strong script makes for some hard watching. Matching this with a cast of other wafer-thin secondary characters played by some equally lightweight acting talent, and the whole exercise just fails to be convincing on any effective level.

To put the glitzy remake in direct contrast with the bleak original is perhaps unfair, but a real opportunity to try something different has been missed here. Slight tweaks to characters and scenes have somehow managed to water down what was an obscenely taut script, missing the dramatic punchlines the Danish original hit every time. How they manage this is beyond me, but I suppose a Danish dub of Eastenders would still fall just as flat for that.

One out of Five

Pusher is showing at the Showcase Cinema De Luxe in Bristol’s Cabot Circus from the 12th of October 2012.

Tagged , , ,

Showing at the Watershed: Berberian Sound Studio

In the realm of modern popular cinema the expectation is that the craft remains for the most part seamless. The editing should not be distracting, the cinematography should not be too self-conscious, the score should not be too overbearing. Where these lines are drawn is the cut and thrust of film criticism itself, and one person’s subtlety is another’s frying-pan to the head. When a film comes along that tugs at these very seams, and indeed starts pulling them apart, critics very easily, and not unjustifiably go into fits of ecstatic praise.

Some British critics are going absolutely wild for Berberian Sound Studio. In part this is because Berberian is a demonstration of how intricately sound can be woven into a picture, and having established this fundament the film quite merrily pulls it apart stitch by meticulous stitch. Knowing as this process is, the manner of this rather brutal deconstruction makes for a really compelling film.

A 1970s period piece set in the titular Italian sound studio, the fastidious British sound engineer Gilderoy is shipped over to help record the soundtrack to a brutal yet perennially unseen Italian horror film. When the sound effect artists are suddenly taken ill, it is poor Gilderoy who has to step away from the mixing desk, and into the role of hardcore vegetable mutilator. Plump marrows dropped from great heights; heads of cabbage given the slasher treatment; whole watermelons tenderized to pulp; radishes torn stalk from head, all towards recreating the symphony of agonies bestowed variously upon set upon schoolgirls, and tortured witches alike.

The sonic body horror is one part of the chorus, and a rotating gallery of vocal talents are drawn in to scream their lungs out, or merely to supply the inhuman howls and cackles of the fiends which haunt the film we’re still forbidden to see. Add to this mix the lilting creep of synthesisers, and the manually looped and manipulated samples of music and noise, and resulting score is just as frenetic and souped up as you’d expect of a 1970s Italian horror film. Gilderoy is a consummate master of his craft, and in Toby Jones‘ strikingly careful performance can be found a quiet joy in just watching him tinker, manipulate and layer all the sounds step by step.

In focusing on sound alone Berberian somehow exceeds the fictitious Giallo it’s supposed to be shadowing. It’s neither breathless or lurching in its dramatic shifts; instead it builds up a tense and anxious mood which is never really scary per se, just endlessly uneasy. Which of course is indubitably worse in its own quiet way. Match this with an uncertain narrative arc, a seamless (!) if occasionally disjointing transition between scenes, and a final act which leaves you grasping at every hint of a conclusion, and the sum total is a non-horror film which is quite impishly beguiling in its own right.

While the first flush of the UK release is limited to the larger arthouse cinemas across the country, the alternative option of watching the film ‘on-demand’ instantly via computer can only be recommended for those too far away from an obliging bricks-and-mortar cinema. Like Enter the Void, Berberian Sound Studio thrives on being played in a dark room with a big screen and a LOUD sound system, and a tinny laptop speaker isn’t going to capture the uneasy creaks and synthesised hums which really gives the film its nervous life.

When the big studios are unremitting in promoting 3D as cinema’s last premium-worthy USP, it’s quite telling that one of the last films funded using the UK Film Council’s ‘Low Budget Feature Film Scheme’ can prove how vital the cinema ‘experience’ is, without the need for plastic glasses or condescending adverts.

Four out of Five

Berberian Sound Studio is showing at the Watershed in Bristol for two weeks from the 31st of August 2012.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Getting Stuck Up River With Swandown

In the lift and on my way to see Swandown, I bumped into a neighbour. Niceties quickly dealt with, and his purpose towards Tesco established, I ended up trying to explain a film I hadn’t yet seen:
“This guy gets a pedalo shaped like a swan, and he rides it from Hastings to the Olympic village.”
“Ha, ok, right, so is it a documentary?”
“Well, sort of, a bit like a comedy too, I think.”
“And it’s got Stuart Lee in it as well.”
“Oh, ok.”
While I do live on the fifth floor, my lift really isn’t as slow as that sounds. And nor is the film itself, which lugubriously floats along the aforementioned outline with a strange momentum all of its own.

Starting with a fruitless battle against a ceaseless tide, artist/captin Andrew Kötting eventually sets to sea with the skipper and word-smith Iain Sinclair at the helm. Their floating steed is a fibreglass swan-shaped pedalo called Edith, and over the course of a couple of weeks, the vessel does indeed get from A to B. As he journeys up the canals and rivers of East Sussex, Kötting casts out countless points of association for all and sundry to latch onto. He meets a few odd folks on the banks, and goes ‘fishing for sounds’. There’s no plan or scheme, just a simple impulse for adventure, and a strong faith in the power of serendipity.

The pleasure of the film is in its visual, be that the gorgeous misty morning shots of Edith calmly gliding through a modern pastoral idyll, or more directly in the sight of Kötting jumping fully be-suited into waters and muddy banks with aplomb. That, and we get a short sequence with Stewart Lee and Alan Moore riding the swan for a while, as bewildered in the act as any knowing witness would surely have been to see it.

The film quite happily establishes itself within the distinct realm of artist-driven filmmaking, and an immediate comparison, in form, and in its handling of British landscapes could easily be found with Patrick Keiller’s Robinson trilogy. Or you could quite happily associate it with Apolcalypse Now, or Deliverance, or any film which happens to go up or down a river. The associations are there for the taking, and the journey carries on quite happily regardless.

It’s difficult to say if the film would have held all 94 minutes of my unbroken attention if I’d just stumbled across it in a gallery, but even without conflict or purpose the film still held a strange allure. Though maybe not a universal allure, as the middle-aged burke in front of me swiftly found something of unbroken interest lurking on his luminous Blackberry. Having been reprimanded by an usher (!) he spent the last hour of the film itching and twisting like a caffeinated seven-year old at a slow church sermon. His declaration on leaving that ‘that was a load of fucking bollocks’ certainly cuts to the nub of the matter, but you can’t help but wonder what he was expecting. A song and a dance number? A laugh a minute? A nice nineteenth century oil painting of, y’know, REAL art?

Each to their own I suppose, but while Swandown hardly surprises it still manages to elicit the odd laugh, and to keep you watching. A strange if beautiful beast, to say the least.

Tagged , ,

A Bridal Procession in Hardanger: Some Screening Notes

Included below are the screening notes I drew up for the benefit of the wonderful Bristol Silents, for a club screening of theirs earlier this year. Introducing the film I also went into a bit more detail about the Hardanger fiddle, which is interwoven into both the film and Norwegian folk culture more generally, and in my humble opinion is quite a spectacular instrument to hear. I love it. If you want a sample then check out a 15 minute BBC radio documentary in the Musical Migrants series on it. Or just go crazy on Youtube, as there’s plenty to be found!

A true classic of Norwegian cinema, Rasmus Breistein’s Bridal Procession in Hardanger (1926) is not only a high point of the nation’s body of silent film, but also stands as a vital piece in their visual and cultural history. Stunningly shot on location on the fjords of western Norway, the film recreates a rural idyll of 19th century Scandinavian life to tell a compelling melodrama of young love, marriage, class division, and the lure of emigration to brighter lands of new promise.

In many ways the film stands as the culmination of Norway’s artistic movement of National Romanticism, which sought to encapsulate a true reflection of the nation’s emergent identity. The original Bridal Procession in Hardanger is in fact a landscape painting by Adolph Tidemand and Hans Gude, dating from 1848. A sharp and vivid panorama of a traditional bridal party crossing the Hardangerfjord, the oil painting is now widely regarded as one of Norwegian art history’s most important pictures. At the time of its creation Norway remained sub-ceded by its union to Sweden, and the art establishment in the country sought to galvanise what it meant to be Norwegian in all areas of culture. This perspective combined an over-arching reverence for Norwegian nature with a nostalgia for the country’s traditional dress, music and craft; qualities we can all see brought together in the original Bridal Procession of 1848.

The novella Marit Skjølte was also born out of this movement of romantic nationalism, and it stands as inspiration for the film we are to see tonight. Written by the priest Kristofer Janson in 1868, the story took inspiration from the painting of Bridal Procession, while also building on contemporary tensions around the draw to emigrate, which was pulling on many Norwegians at the time. The tale of a young generation tempted to leave poverty and social division for the opportunities of the New World is one that has been told many times, yet in Janson’s telling the issue is brought in sharp contrast against the art movement which sought to celebrate Norway culture. How could the case for Norway’s independent future be made if its young wanted nothing more than to escape on the first boat they could take to America?

In the drawing together of this novella, the visual look of Norway’s national romanticism, and the celebrated craft of its rediscovered folk-culture and music, we now find the film Bridal Procession in Hardanger. While Norway had found true independence from Sweden in 1905, the question of national identity still remained important, and a new generation of artists sought to re-engage with it. Tired with the continued success foreign filmmakers found in adapting Norwegian literature for the silver screen, established stage actor, and accomplished fiddle-player, Rasmus Breistein brought together Norway’s theatrical talent to stake their own claim in cinema. Up until this point filmmakers had failed to find much traction for a professional and independent film production in the still young nation, yet Breistein broke through with Fante-Anne (aka Gypsy Anna) in 1920. An adaptation of a rural melodrama, the film won high praise from the Norwegian press, with one critic heralding it as proof of film’s new status as an art-form in its own right.

Bridal Procession is Breistein’s fourth film, and by some reckoning his most accomplished. Having already found an audience for rural dramas, Breistein took to making Bridal Procession with a new found dedication to showing a very personal Norway, set as it is in region where he was born. Breistein saw the film as the perfect medium to portray his own Western Norwegian perspective on rural life, and the film is almost documentary in its observation of the Hardanger people and their customs. While the film stars a young Aase Bye, the rising diva of Norwegian stage and screen, the vista of the Hardangerfjord is practically a star in its own right, and Breistein readily acknowledged the towering beauty of “those wonderful Norwegian landscapes which nowadays people from all parts of the world flock here to see.”

The film was a tremendous hit on its premiere on Boxing Day 1926, and the success continued as the film went on a year-long tour of Norway. Breistein himself was also canny to the film’s international value, and since crowds of tourists now flocked to the fjords, why not take the fjords to the world? Much like the emigrants of the film, Breistein went to America despite not knowing a word of English, and the Bridal Procession and Fante-Anne went on a 200 show tour of the United States, where every screening was introduced with a lecture on Norway, and every performance accompanied by Breistein himself on traditional Hardanger fiddle. The tour was a hit, and while box-office takings were set aside for Breistein’s next production, the director also spent time in Hollywood studying new techniques and approaches to filmmaking. In this sense Breistein stands out from many other European filmmakers of the time: he went to Hollywood, not to join the dream factories of California, but rather to source the skills and the funds to start new film productions back in Norway. His career continued with uneven success into the early sound period, but through a series of popular and critically lauded documentaries in the forties and fifties, Breistein established him as one of the most important filmmakers of Norwegian cinema.

Finally a note on the version and the music which accompanies it: with only six copies printed on the film’s first release, the popularity of Bridal Procession saw the original copies worn ragged. The Norwegian Film Institute discovered an unedited copy of the film, lacking intertitles, in their collections in 1997. A copy of the intertitles were then traced to the Swedish Film Censors, and a reconstructed version was put together for the Pordenone silent film festival in 1999. This is the version we are seeing tonight, and it is accompanied by a superb orchestral soundtrack scored by Haldor Krogh, and performed by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Ole Kristian Ruud. Of particular note in this score are the segments which feature the beautiful Hardanger fiddle, a six-stringed violin-type instrument indigenous to the region. Easy to spot being played at various points in the story, the lilting and haunting tones of the fiddle rise out of the soundtrack and bring the film to life in a stirring and unique way.

Tagged , , , , ,

Staking a Claim for Kill List

Playing ‘spot the location’ with Kill List is a pretty thankless task for a Sheffield resident. The better part of the film is set either in soul-less ring road hotel suites, if not in equally beige new-build suburbs. In a Q&A following a preview screening in Sheffield, the director even made it clear that “it’s not supposed to be Sheffield, really” and that a local audience could probably pick holes in a story that purports to stretch across a large, if indefinite, part of the country. And a near anonymous backdrop makes sense for an occasionally graphic horror film, the emotional imbalance of the hit-men set against a strangely lonely and faceless world.

In a country covered in generic branded service stations, corporate hotels, and near identical high streets, the setting almost gives the film a universal quality; a dullness any Brit could instantly recognise. And it’s hardly the first time that Sheffield and its environs have taken the role of ‘wholly generic British backdrop’. In most recent memory is the 2008 horror Hush, where the lifeless scenery of Yorkshire service stations punctuates the stalking terror of a motorway trip from hell. Finding horror in the everyday is something you might normally associate with British cultural staples like Dr Who or John Wyndham, and both Kill List and Hush do a fine job of conjuring really quite unsettling weirdness in a rather mundane world.

Those in the know will already have spotted that the common link between the two horrors is Warp Films, the independent film production company based in Sheffield. Higher up the funding chain we find Screen Yorkshire, who no doubt played a big part in selling the city as the best place for filming. One of my favourite, if somewhat esoteric, of film artefacts is a Screen Yorkshire location catalogue, a lavish picture book of sites around God’s Own Country that can represent a surprisingly broad range of settings.

It’s not quite as wildly optimistic as this location map put out by Paramount in 1927, yet the case it states is quite the same: Yorkshire’s more versatile than you might think.

Yet the degree of recognition any given audience can find in a film presents all kinds of issues. My previous post on Four Lions stirred up quite some interest in Sheffield readers keen to pinpoint those backdrops they half recognised from the film. You could even say that the local audience actually claimed some small ownership of the film, with the film screening for close to three months straight at the Showroom cinema in town, representing one of their largest ever box office successes. The fact that scenes of the film were shot on the roof of the same cinema probably didn’t hurt sales either.

Stepping back from this local perspective, even Four Lions positioned itself in a broad and non-specific setting. Its backdrop is a working class Northern city with a muslim population, which could easily be any city North of the Watford gap. Yet even this regional nuance was lost on some international critics, with the film reviewer of the Toronto Star noting that the film’s bumbling jihadists ‘live in or near London’; a misobservation a Sheffield local would likely not take lying down.

But to return to a question of audiences and ownership, what stakes can we ever legitimately claim to a film? Sheffielders took Four Lions to its heart, but in all probability won’t do so with Kill List, as there’s nothing local which they can claim as their own. Conversely a wider British audience of film critics and genre fans have already started championing Kill List as the best ‘British Horror/Thriller/Genre Film in Years’, garnering it with awards galore at FrightFest, with and four and five star reviews both left, right and centre.

Much as I enjoyed the film, it still somehow felt uneven, brilliant in parts but never with enough momentum to give the story’s twists and turns the heft to ever be convincing. The blowing of trumpets and banging of drums which has since followed all feels a bit out of proportion for a film which is good but still flawed.

Yet like a number of others who share these reservations, I still side on the concluding remark that it is worth seeing, and that we should all get behind it, more of this sort of thing, yes thank-you kindly! The ownership here is towards something broader, namely an independent British genre film with a modicum of ambition. Perhaps it’s a gross disservice to claim that people like the principle of the film more than the film itself, but I think you’d be hard pushed to ever actually separate the two.

However complicated and thorny this question is, the film is definitely worth a look. If nothing else I’m keen to hear how the film lands with others less conscious of championing or scorning the film. And furthermore and most importantly, I’m ever keen to hear from those who might be able to contribute to the location map below. As before, be warned for HERE BE SPOILERS:

Tagged , , , ,

Oh, Isn’t That… Thomas Jane?

There’s a breed of actor that’s strangely recognizable by sheer dint of being a through- and-through jobbing actor. You might classify them as the more than competent character actor, others have an even simpler function as the rent-a-stock figure. Rarer still are the dashingly handsome not-quite-leading types, whose old-skool Hollywood good looks get them parts in the strangest films. For the casual film fan these actors represent a familiar but nameless presence (“oh, I know him, where do I know him from?”) For the obsessive follower of film (and increasingly TV as well) their appearance is like seeing an old acquaintance. The more you watch, the more rewarding the echo of recognition, irrespective of the feature itself. Match enough of these appearances with unheralded yet unexplainably brilliant films and you get a dangerously unquestioning devotion.

Which is to say, I absolutely love Thomas Jane and the frankly baffling films he’s been in.

He partly falls into the category of the chisel-jawed would-be leading man, having even had a crack at the BIGTIME twice, first with the shark-baiting shenanigans of Deep Blue Sea, and later with dangerously wonky yet flat comic-book adaptation The Punisher. But for his failure to launch in these hero driven action flicks, it’s in the role of the Average Joe thrust into extraordinary circumstance where Jane has really come to shine. The handsome everyman who in spite of his dashing looks is quite easy to relate to; a touch self effacing, a little world weary (but not resigned), and probably unshaven. Effortless in so far as he could not care less.

He pops up in a brilliant and rather broad range of bit parts and cameos: the bushy moustachioed drug dealing partner of Boogie Nights lead Eddie Adams; the high-fiveing officer of the Vegan police force in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World; playing himself as a method acting tramp in Arrested Development; and perhaps best of all, a soldier at the end of Thin Red Line with a brief reflection on being left behind. Some might take the fact that Terence Malick cut scenes with Mickey Rourke, Adrien Brody, Martin Sheen, Billy Bob Thornton, Viggo Mortensen, Gary Oldman and Bill Pullman from the final cut, but left in Thomas Jane in for all of minute and a half as sign that there’s something special about the guy.

My first brush of surprise came with a mob of friends in a videostore, for reasons untold picking up the unassuming Thursday. Settled architect (Jane) is caught up by his drug-dealing/guns-blazing past, with a series of increasingly inexplicable characters appearing at the door of his suburban home. The film more than lives up to its risible blurb as a ‘post-Tarantino’ film, but for all its deficiency of imagination in regards snappy camera work and shuffled narrative, the twists in the pretty daft tale keeps bubbling along.

Jane’s role is the hub around which the whole film spins, the man trying, and failing to be a suburban nobody, deflecting the increasingly bizarre procession of callers that come throughout the course of the day. He’s matched by the suitably smarmy Aaron Eckhart as his wheeling and dealing partner of old, and the clash of the not-quite-leading-men makes this a surprisingly strong pairing. The film’s pretty garish at points, and the ending’s a complete cop-out, but a conveyor belt of recognisable faces (Mickey Rourke/James LeGros/Michael Jeter) lifts a uneven script. The film barely works as a whole, but by force of a baffling cast, some disjointed humour and fair dollop of misplaced passion it sort-of pulls it off.

The second Jane-related broadside came in the nigh forgotten Stander, the embellished story of a real-life South African police officer turned bank robber. I’m sure the first  time I noticed the film was in the queue at a supermarket, the floppy wig, big sunglasses, automatic weapon, and competitive price point (~£3) more than enough to catch my eye. Cost aside, the film is rather neatly summarised as being about a man dressing in silly get ups for increasingly brazen hold-ups. Set in 1970s South Africa, Andre Stander is the cop fed up with enforcing the cruel Apartheid rule of law, and recognising the stupefying goodwill shown by banks towards white folk, decides to exploit the system. What starts off as a nihilistic dare turns into a rather elaborate scheme, with a criminal crew, nationwide hunt, and constant misleading of his police colleagues.

The exposition of the righteous political motives behind Stander’s wreckless campaign aren’t the most robust, but Jane throws himself into the role with a dizzying level of eagerness. The accents are surprisingly solid, the dynamic between the criminal compatriots a nasty mix of best-buddies and fiery contention. The disguises used in the bank heists are almost as ludicrous as the 70s fashion on parade, and the small but tight action sequences are underscored by an absolutely thumping afrobeat score. It’s one of those films where the cast are having an absolute whale of a time, and thankfully that enjoyment is incredibly infectious. By dint of being a rather small indie action film it’s probably going to be forgotten at the bottom of the bargain basket, but honestly, dig it out wherever you can.

Finally a mention has to be made to The Mist, the Stephen King short story polished to perfection by Frank Darabont with a cast of actors each of whom could readily qualify in the category I tried defining in the opening paragraph. The approach of the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances is pretty much King through and through, but Darabont brings an edge of physical horror with some gorgeous b-movie Cold War/War-on-Terror undertones to the piece. Jane is a jobbing film poster artist living in a picturesque small town East coast USA, and following a particular bad storm gets stuck in an old fashioned supermarket with his son when the store gets swathed in an almost noxious looking mist. Panicked citizens rush in screaming of unfathomable horrors lurking in the gloom, the captured crowd stuck in two minds whether to venture out or not.

The film develops into a sort of one room drama, with die-cast characters bouncing off each other in paranoid delusion, in bickering drama, in all kinds of stupid powerplays for control of the group. Again Jane is the hub of the film, the unassuming hero that desperately doesn’t want to be leading things, but who will none the less step up in the moment of crisis. The kind of hero we flatter ourselves by relating to. There are set piece dramatic confrontations, real fireworks that play right to the strengths of a cast of character actors more used to the stage than the screen. Then the monsters actually start to appear, or at least poke a toe in, and then things get a little Jurassic towards the frankly spectacular final reel. To say its bleak would be a cruel understatement, but through the course of the film you get pulled emotionally in every direction, Jane standing as the anchor you’re left clinging to as the whole world collapses around him. Monster movies with grander subtexts rank very high on my list of odd subgenres, and this comfortably tops that list.

Sadly 2011 doesn’t hold much promise for the Thomas Jane acolyte. A rom-com starring Miley Cyrus, whose title is an explanation of what LOL means, followed by an independent project, I Melt With You, co-starring Sasha Grey (aka, the actress whose filmography is probably funnier than many a film you’ll see this year). There’s another season of Hung due on HBO, which should hopefully see Jane on run-down form as the unwitting Michigan gigolo, but that’s unlikely to set the world alight. Not that Thomas Jane ever will set the world alight, but I’m ok with that, and hopefully he is too.

Tagged , , , ,

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 962 other followers