At Doc/Fest: Circus Dynasty

The show must go on. The old show business truism never fades, and the old promise is as much a cry of resilience as it is an affirmation of the status quo. From the performer gritting their teeth and riding through the pain, to the notion that the traditions of circus must live on, a quiet note of defiance holds across both. In the documentary Circus Dynasty we see this truism first-hand, and are allowed to witness the tireless momentum which carries these performers forward in life, despite the many trials they face in their chosen profession.

CassellyFamilyDocFestCircusDynastyAt the heart of the doc we find the young couple of Patrick Berdino and Merrylu Casseley, the oldest children of two respected circus families working out of Denmark. While Patrick is being lined up to inherit the ringmaster role from his grandfather, Merrylu has made a name for herself as a spectacularly agile animal acrobat. Together they have devised a spectacular act, where Patrick throws Merrylu around himself, while riding on the back of two harnessed horses. The film showcases such staggering acts, and despite their breath-taking qualities, it’s the human drama which shines above all else. Like watching spinning plates in a shooting gallery, as the circus patriarchs admire their love-bird prodigies perform in the ring, beaming at the box-office potential, you just feel the weight of the crash that’s coming. With their families futures unrealistically put on the shoulders of two 19 year olds, you don’t have to be a fortune-teller to know the relationship cannot last.

PatrickBerdinoDocfestCircusDynastyWhile the split happens off camera, countless sparks fly between the two youngsters, and the parents stand by glum faced as the rift slowly starts to pull the families apart. But the show must go on, and so it does. Despite kicks from horses, despite awkward falls off grown elephants, the tears are always held behind the scenes, and ringside they always put on their firmest smiles and their best performances. Only once do the cameras capture the facade crumbling, when in a moment of jealous fury Patrick calmly walks up to Merrylu and starts sniping at her as she sells programmes to the audience. The scene is caught in medium shot, in the hub-bub of the audience, but far away enough to not be caught by the mics. In this closed and mute drama the tensions of their unresolved relationship play out, unguarded and illcitly performed in the sacred space of the ringside. This riveting scene is the death of all lingering romantic notions still held onto by their parents, and marks the start of the film’s final act as the families professionally break from each other.

MerryluCassellyDocfestCircusDynastyThe drama sails extremely close to the winds of soap opera, but as the filmmaker himself stated in the Q&A after the screening, he did everything he could to downplay the story’s melodrama. His care in this regards is thankfully evident in the finished product, as the film avoids caricaturing either villains or victims. The story ends on a departure, and an emotional note for love lost and familial ties broken. The romance the film holds for its young couple, for the history of the circus, and for the future troupe that could have been persists throughout, yet its strength ultimately lies in the emotion it chooses it temper rather than the story it might have chosen to exploit.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Looking Forward to Doc/Fest 2015

Doc/Fest, it’s been a good while. 8 Years in Sheffield gave me more than ample opportunity to get to know you, heck I even remember when you still went by the more austere name of The Sheffield International Documentary Festival. One year as a volunteer, two years covering it for the Steel Press, and plenty more besides just stuffing myself with brilliant docs. A move away from the city and some absurdly-prohibitively-exhaustingly expensive rail fares have kept me away of late, but that’s not to say I haven’t missed you.

TheGreatestShowsonEarthcometoSheffield

Then something really quite special gets announced: my old boss is putting on the world premiere of The Greatest Shows on Earth. Which is to say an archive doc built wholly on materials from my archive alma mater. Directed no less by the Icelandic gent behind one of my favourite films of last year, and scored by an Icelandic duo who are also no mean shakes. Well I really liked their first album at least. An all-singing all-dancing multimodal spectacular at Sheffield City Hall you say? Well maybe that rail-fare bullet is just going to have to got bit, because I sure as shit ain’t going to miss that show. When Prof. Vanessa Toulmin decides to put on a show then you do well to clear the schedule and book early. On Sunday she will be repeating her famed inaugral lecture as part of Doc/Fest, and the show of her Twenty Performing Wonders is quite the sight to behold, not least for the chance to see the deeply uncanny Dancing Pig (1907) on the big screen.

DancingPigTerrifiesSheffieldBut hauling myself up to Sheffield for a long weekend of Doc/Fest is an exciting prospect, and while I will only be able to get a whiff of all the festival has to offer, there are a couple of films high on my hit-lists. On the back the Greatest Shows opening gala there runs an invisible strand with a carny theme of sorts, and I’ll be doing everything I can to catch them. A thumbnail sketch of Circus Dynasty paints it as a Romeo and Juliesque story of two young proteges of rival acrobatic clans coming together in a frought romance. How that plays out in a documentary remains to be seen, but I’ll be hoping for some breathtaking feats at the very least. The story of Tyke the Outlaw Elephant also looks like an intriguing one, being the archive re-telling of the American circus elephant that went crazy, killed it’s trainer, before rampaging through a city. The staged execution of colossal caged beasts is a spectacle that goes back to Thomas Edison’s notorious film, and as morbid a draw as the doc’s tragic conclusion is I’ll be interested to see how the story is spun. Maybe a land-based Blackfish is on the horizon?

TykeontheRuninSheffieldDocFest

As an unimaginative sort I’m also drawn towards the Swedish productions which have been accepted to the festival, and perhaps most noteworthy of those is The Confessions of Thomas Quick, the serial killer that never was. A highly peculiar story of Swedish jurisprudence, Thomas Quick was the boogey-man of my youth: he who killed dozens and was sent down for a long time. Only it turned out Mr Quick’s only sin might have been a hyperactive imagination, being a mentally unstable fellow who for reasons unknown was more than happy to accept the blame for countless crimes he might not have committed. A justice system all to eager to close these cases took his word without following due process, and over time did it actually come out that Mr Quick might have been telling porkie pies. The story was an absolute sensation in Sweden, but struggled to break into the international press, so it will be interesting to see how these documentary makers repackage this story for a new audience.

ThomasQuickkommertilSheffield

Being a huge fan of Hugo Olsson’s Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 I’m more than a little excited for the doc Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. A political movement that was meticulously captured by a terrified media, and tracked by an even more obsessive CIA, the cause was lionized and demonized in inequal measure. Being a subject that could either fall over into fawning imbalance, or into cold detached objectivity, there are plenty of pitfalls for the film to traverse so I’ll be going in with certain trepidation, but holding out hope for what could be a promising doc.

BlackPanthersatDocFestSheffield

Beyond that my eye’s been caught by a few odd films and the keywords that leap out about them: The Russian Woodpecker [Chernobyl, subjective], Containment [non-documentary, maybe extra-terrestrials?], Beyond Zero [Bill Morrison, WW1], Best of Enemies [Gore Vidal, pitbull politics], Good Girl [Norwegian, depression, performance art], Scrum [rugby, and rugby], Death of a Gentleman [India, cricket], Addicted to Sheep [sheep, and sheep], and somewhere out there there’s a short doc about Henderson’s Relish. That’s more than twice what I might be able to manage during my two and a half days out of six at the festival, but I’ll be having a crack at trying to blog about as much as I can muster. Sincerely hoping I might stumble across something brilliant that I can share with those who care to read about it. So come on Sheffield Doc/Fest, you’ve had good form in the past, don’t let me down this time.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Dizzy Heights with Mountainous Films

Sometimes you get that odd confluence when a string of films of the same ilk all pop up at once. Well two and a half anyways, with one modern film, one silent, and a string of documentaries on the BBC iPlayer to follow. The release of the British Film Institute’s beautifully restored version of the silent Epic of Everest is a visually stunning and particularly rare treat on broadcast and catch-up TV, and the accompaniment of the archive-rich documentary Battle for the Himalayas is a hugely welcome double bill that feels all too rare these days. That all this should be followed by a documentary about a have-a-go vertiginous sheep-herder at the Cube in Bristol this week is perhaps half-ways tenous, but with Audrey of the Alps it feels like the altitude of my recent watchlist has gone up a few thousand feet in a very short space of time.

The Epic of Everest

The mountaineering genre holds an odd place in film history, from early expedition documentaries such as Epic of Everest, to the politically charged Bergfilms that fired German pre-war audiences, and the more immediate and almost resurrective stories of Touching the Void and Alive, the core drama is of the human spirit overcoming the odds be that for personal triumph or national glory. The recent news coverage of the duo that managed the first free climb of the notorious Dawn Wall of El Capitan in California shows there’s a still a wider interest in stories of conquest where we can find them, and the tension of potential/inevitable tragedy is the fuel of jeopardy that feeds a good story.

Setting up camp on El Capitan

While the assurance of a dramatic mountain backdrop practically guarantees something visually arresting on screen, the insistance by Netflix that nigh-on every mountaineering/skiing film in their collections features ‘stunning cinematography’ makes you wonder if the cameramen even have to bother beyond pointing the camera in the right direction. Which further begs the question why so many independently produced skiing and snowboarding films are so utterly dull? Beautiful vistas and the threat of serious injury or death, and still they can’t visually muster anything more complex than tricks and pratfalls to whatever shade of punk suits. An odd exception is Swedish director Ruben Östlund who cut his teeth making daft skiing films on the Val D’Isere, eventually got to film school, made some critically lauded observation dramas, before in time getting around to setting his latest award winning feature on, where else, but the Val D’Isere. There’s more to be said for Force Majeure when it hopefully gets to British cinemas later this spring, but the film balances the destructive force of mountains with the seismic fissures in a shattered family dynamic. It may be a mountain film, but not as we know it.

Anyways, for the soul with time to kill and a hankering for good screen histories on mountaineering the iPlayer is the place to go at the moment, with the aforementioned Timeshift documentary Battle for the Himalayas being of note, as well as a repeat of Eiger: The Wall of Death. Both are rich in archive footage and to-the-point talking head interviews, and both document periods when mountaineering achievements were a running story of national interest.

Audrey of the Alps at The Cube

As for the story of Audrey of the Alps, well I don’t know much beyond the blurb about it being a doc following a twenty-something trying to find themselves in the Alps. With a load of sheep. Beyond it’s pitch as a possible lost episode of the TV series Girls, the prospect of fine wines and even finer fromages from The Bristol Cheesemonger is the sort of thing which quite easily swings me towards at least giving the film a go. Get yourself to the Cube in central-ish Bristol for 8pm on Tuesday the 3rd if you too are easily tempted by wine, cheese, and a peculiar new documentary.

Tagged , , ,

Can Somebody Name a Film That’s Actually About Coffee?

A Film About Coffee: It’s title seemed to come more like a question than it did as a label for a new documentary. Maybe years spent in video rental stores and DVD libraries have somehow wired my lizard brain to instinctively assume the inquisitive tone whenever a film about ‘something’ comes up. Too many times I’ve had to look someone in the eye and recall a film that meets the wildly dissociated criteria they can dream up at the given moment: “give me a German film about, skaters maybe?” or even “can you think of an old British film about something, issues maybe. With a bit of grit?” or better still “have you got a Japanese comedy about food? Or better still a documentary about Japanese food?” Yeah sure, let me think about that, give me a minute and I’ll get you a few to pick from. But a film about coffee? That’s a much tougher question that you might first assume.

This Is CoffeeBecause certainly there have been a couple of documentaries that are explicitly about the bean, the process, the roasting, the industry and the global market for the rejuvenating juice, Black Gold being a recent example that comes to mind. Better yet is the delightfully perky THIS IS COFFEE! a public information film put out by the Coffee Brewing Institute in 1961. In its scant twelve and a half minutes it manages to be all your Mad Men wish-fulfilment dreams rolled into one. Exoticism, imagined foreign travel, brewing instructions, and staged tableaux of coffee being drunk “on the breakfast table” “at the writers desk” “at the college meeting” “at the romantic meal”. Coffee is LIFE, coffee is everywhere! It truly makes you wonder how many boozy lunches the dry men of the Coffee Brewing Institute had to sit through before Don Draper sold them that pitch.

The GZA the RZA the Bill Murray with Coffee and CigarettesBut how about films concerning coffee, than aren’t documentaries? Ask around and any hepcat worth their salt is bound to mention Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, so much so it’s practically a no-brainer. A good friend of mine hit the nail on the head when he noted that it’s essentially eleven short films that play like eleven awkward dates. Two people meet, they drink coffee, they have some stilted conversation, exchange a furtive glance or three, they maybe smoke a cigarette or two. The film’s a hit and miss oddity, a clever portmanteau of Jarmusch’s early short films glued together with some newer scenes, and it holds an undying attraction to music fans eager for theopportunity to see The White Stripes, or Iggy Pop and Tom Waits on screen. For myself the joy is seeing The RZA, The GZA and Bill “Groundhog Day, Ghostbustin Ass” Murray brought together in a mad moment of method acting. That and the fact that the three actually discuss coffee rather than just drink it.

But that’s it, that’s where the list stops short for most people I’ve managed to ask in the last couple of weeks. Whether it’s film nerds, or even challenging some of Bristol’s finest coffee experts, this line of inquiry has left me grasping for good films about, or at least intricately involved in the act of making, drinking and enjoying coffee. There are of course plenty of brilliant scenes built around drinking of coffee, sometimes the withholding of coffee, and more than few singing the praises of a “DAMN fine cup of coffee”. There’s some great comedy in the serving of coffee, some humour even in the noirish concoction of Steve Martin’s own java, but nothing which seems to distinguish itself beyond that.

Old Ingmar Bergman Having a Cup of JoeThe truth of the matter lies closer to my own crackpot theory about Swedish cinema, namely that there isn’t a single film (or TV series) set in the modern era which does not feature someone making or drinking coffee at some point in the whole affair. It’s a theory I’ve only had the casual chance to test in the Swedish films I’ve seen recently, but it’s holding up with an almost unnerving 100% consistency. Coffee is everywhere in Swedish film, just as it is an ever present part of Swedish life, and while neither a song or dance is made of the matter, it’s always just there.

And this truism obviously carries across borders, and my inability to find a good Film About Coffee hinges on the fact you don’t get good films about furniture, or breathing, or washing. Coffee is part of the firmament of everyday life, and until someone teases the subject out into something greater, the act of coffee itself is not likely step beyond it’s perennial bit-part status on screen any time soon. I’ll be curious to see what the actual documentary A Film About Coffee turns out to be like when it gets it’s South West debut at the Arnolfini in Bristol on the 7th of November, but I’m not expecting a paradigm shift in the starring role of coffee any time soon.

Instead I’ll end with my favourite coffee making scene in cinema, from the opening credits of the Ipcress File. Freshly ground beans and a French press isn’t a euphemism of how Michael Caine starts his days, but the brilliant title sequence to this spy classic still hints that there’s some romantic entanglement of which we’re not getting the full picture. Simple, effortless, and endlessly cool. Which is to say, quite unlike a good cup of coffee.

Tickets for the A Film About Coffee screening in Bristol are available on the Get Invited website.

All the other films I’ve been surreptitiously linking to can be found at the brilliant video store 20th Century Flicks, on the Christmas Steps in central Bristol. They too can do a brilliant job of recommending films to match your free-association taste requirements.

Tagged , , ,

Finding Sheffield’s Loose Threads

Protect and Survive Mushroom CloudThe docu-drama you are about to witness is one of the most intensely realistic portrayals of nuclear holocaust ever seen. So daring is this British production, that it has never been scheduled on U.S. network television. Threads is not a polished Hollywood star-studded feature… it is an honest portrayal of events that could take place should there be a nuclear war. “Threads” is graphic and shocking, and may not be suitable for children. Viewer discretion is advised.

Between those who stayed up to watch it on the 23rd of September 1984, and a whole generation of children who were shown the film at school, the impact of the BBC TV play Threads seems to have left an indelible mark on viewers well beyond its original broadcast. The warning quoted above, given by the local Vancouver station CKVU, both captures the impact the film had on audiences while also overselling what is ultimately quite an understated film. It is indeed about the end of the world, but its power is its focus on two very average families and the domestic drama which ties them together. The horror is of course how a narrative so familiar from British soaps gets up-ended by thermo-nuclear war. Absurd as that sounds the film demonstrates that the abstraction of a truly global catastrophe can only effectively be told through a more immediately personal perspective.

For some audiences the horror is also inextricably wound up in the film’s use of location, and the familiarity of Sheffield plays strongly to locals, but also to a wider recognition of a location which is identifiably the North of England. As discussed a very long while back, the strength of Sheffield as a location on screen seems to consistently be that it is both visually striking yet on some level quite anonymous too. Threads bears this out, with a very limited number of wider establishing landscapes shots breaking up a string of location shooting which presses in to limit recognisable features. The trained eyes of Sheffielders on local history, and local interest forums have however done a fair bit of work identifying the city with the scant clues to be seen on-screen, and along with this information I did a rewatch recently to see what other locations I could work out. The results made for quite a satisfying google map:

The locations pinpointed are not all locked, and I’d be very interested to hear anyone’s ideas about other sites from the film in the comments section below. Threads Sheffield Radio Times CoverAdditions and corrections will of course be made to the map as suggested!

As for the status of Threads in Sheffield, it lives on with an eerie after-life that goes well beyond any form of ‘cult’ status that might be bestowed upon it. Over the years I lived in the city there was a consistent club night that took the name of the film, but which has since gone into retirement. The film also has an ever growing word-of-mouth reputation that swells with each new intake of students, and working in a university video library it was plain to see that the single copy we held got a lot of usage throughout the year as word got around about the uncanny post-apocalyptic tale set on those recognisable hills. It was after all from a battered VHS copy in the very same library that I first had a chance to see the film, and I’ll always quietly resent the friend who suggested we give this unknown film a go at ten to midnight on a weekday.

Anecdotally I’ve heard that a number of attempts have been made over the years to put the film on ‘officially’ at a cinema in Sheffield, but owing to a nasty mess of rights, and the fact that the contract wranglers at the BBC had never conceived that someone might want to show the TV play on the big screen, meant that a screening could never be cleared. Thankfully the brilliant Sensoria music and film festival in Sheffield have pulled it off this year, with a special screening taking place outdoors next to Park Hill in the city centre. Ruth in ThreadsThe fact that tickets for the event sold out 4 days before the screening stands as some testimony to the TV play itself, especially when tickets stand a few pounds North of what you might pay for a DVD of the film.

The final enshrining of Threads as a Sheffield classic has however been sealed in the week gone by the efforts of the ’30 Years of Threads’ project which deftly pulled together a number of comments and readings of the film by staging a co-ordinated twitter “live re-watch” of the film on the exact 30th anniversary of the film, down to the minute of its original broadcast! One of the curators behind the project, Rob Barker, did a good job of summarising the event and the film, and you’d do well to cast an eye over his notes and review of the event over here.

Add to this a curated film and audio work by Matt Stokes, which used contemporary performances from Sheffield locals to imagine and re-stage the long-term impact on the world well after the attack portrayed in Threads. The resulting installation, In Absence of the Smoky God, uses film and dialogue, alongside materials borrowed from Barry Hines personal archives, sounds riveting and original, and I’m gutted to be missing it. Those within reach of Sheffield would do well to get there before it closes on the 8th of November.

For a former resident stuck in another corner of the country with only a DVD to go on, the overflowing source of Youtube has proven a valuable distraction for all things tangentially related to Threads. A QED documentary from 1982 proved to be a spark which instigated the commissioning of Threads, and is well worth a look. As is the Newsnight discussion which followed the original broadcast of the TV play, which while being a bone-dry panel debate between experts on all sides of the issue, is still interesting as a historical document, in particular in showing the odd minutiae which the panellists get hung up on.

Overall it’s brilliant to see such a devastating film enshrined and lionised by the cultural establishment and the people of Sheffield itself. Unforgettable is an overused word, but the horrific images and the devastating story of Threads is not an easy one to block out.

Tagged , , , ,

Political Trainwrecks and Cultural Shorthand

For the all the times musicians have come out to slander the politician who dared to use their tunes for political ends, you’d think the establishment would have understood the pitfalls of using cultural shorthand. With the Labour even getting a drubbing for having the temerity to play The Horror’s I See You, not symbolically but just as muzak, shows that the politician dressing in the raiment of cultural referents still does so at their peril. Not that such risk worried George Osborne, when at this year’s Tory Party conference he took the moment at hand to close his speech on a rousing cry taken straight from the pages of Trainspotting.

The ‘Choose Speech’ took on a much grander life with the 1996 film, and Renton’s immortal words found their way onto a stylized poster which seemed to win fans with disaffected students across the country. They could get onboard with the speech’s anti-establishment ethos, without having to get grubby with the realities of either heroin addiction or being Scottish.

Trainspotting-choose-lifeSo what then of Osborne adapting the form to drill home why the Tories are the natural choice for the discerning voter? An easy assumption might be that a politician without a slogan can always fall back on a crowd favourite, but however you cut the Tory demographic I think you’d be hard pushed to find any block support for the film in their ranks.

Suspicion edges towards this being a cynical echo, a knowing tip of the hat to an openly un-Tory film with a reference that might fly over the head of most, but would at least get the chattering classes twittering and blogging [why hello!] about it all. That Irvine Welsh’s response on twitter was practically guaranteed seems to show that the speechwriters could sleep easy in the knowing that coverage of the speech wouldn’t JUST be about strangling benefits to Britain’s poorest working families.

Ever since their Suspicious Minds billboard campaign of 2010, where a practically white canvas and David Cameron’s blank face was offered up to disgruntled photoshoppers everywhere, it seems pretty clear that the Tory’s are calculating how to play the moans of the easily riled twitter bubble to lock down their eye-rolling core voters. Osborne isn’t trying to say anything by using this cultural touchstone, but has rather taken a list of liberal Trigger Warnings to make sure his speech (if not his actual message) gets enough traction on social media. In a move so cynical I wonder if I really should be throwing another 500 words on the social media bonfire.

Or maybe I shouldn’t be so cynical. Maybe on quite a fundamental level it should be argued that the Choose Life diktat of self-determination and free choice are the ultimate prizes in a Thatcherite word view. Without a good word or qualification to his name Renton manages to kick the habit and fuck off to London to be become an estate agent during the property boom of the mid 1990s. When his life-long friends come down South and embroil him in the shadiest of drug deals he manages to screw them all, and get away with the capital that will secure his future above all else. The ultimate self-actualisation and the master of his own destiny, I suppose Mark Renton is a Thatcherite hero after all. Maybe that was Osborne’s reason for choosing Trainspotting, but to quote the punchline that the old Etonian never got around to, who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?

Mark Renton Chose Life Not The Tories

Tagged , , ,

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.

HouseofCards_titlecard

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.

KevinSpacey_HouseofCardsBW

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.

HOUSE-OF-CARDS-CAST

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 , ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,108 other followers