Tag Archives: Cinema of Attractions

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.

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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!]

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A Long Take on Ruben Östlund and Involuntary

It’s no doubt hard to imagine a time when Swedish cinema wasn’t just about sadists and the broken individuals that pursue them. Sure enough there is a Swedish film industry apart from all things criminal and in the shadow of all this attention is a really rather brilliant film called De Ofrivilliga (or Involuntary to give it’s English title) that’s about to get a UK release. Five separate stories interwoven across and hour and forty minutes which, to quote the director Ruben Östlund, all build on the question of  ‘how is the individual affected by the herd mentality.’

Which is to say, how far would the individual go to not lose face in front of their peers? The conceit is simple, but the realisation nuanced, exploring a number of situations which not being universal are none the less recognisable in an abstract sense. The patriarch of the family gathering, refusing to admit the need for medical attention after taking a firework right in the eye; the tweenage girls leaning on a young man, a complete stranger, to buy them alcohol; the teacher ostracised in the staff room for speaking out against the transgressions of a colleague;  the recognised actress who can’t admit to having broken a coach toilet; the ‘lad’ who can’t reconcile his friends for having gone just too far. Each scenario is a unique approach to the same question, and watching the subject of each quietly writhe in subjugation is agonising yet perfectly recognisable. The fact that the film is shot in agonisingly long takes, consistently in extreme long-shot, or framed in such a manner as to exclude the majority of the action, really locks the viewer into every excruciating moment of discomfort.

Some might take this as a springboard to discussing how the pangs of individual concern throw a spotlight on the enshrined national responsibility towards social welfare, but this isn’t Wallander and all Swedish cinema is not just about the collapse of the Swedish Model. Not to underplay or under-read the film either, it’s just that Östlund’s filmography is far from conventional, and the stylistic influences he brings to bear aren’t so much Bergman and Sjöström, but by his own admission draw more from Youtube and extreme sports filmmaking. This is not to be glib or contrary either, as there’s a clear line of influence stretching right back to Östlund’s first break making off-piste skiing films.

The kind of fare in question is the sort you used to find on expensive vhs tapes, sold from behind the counter in skate and ski shops, and Östlund made a name for himself in the mid-nineties. His approach was marked by eschewing the fast cut, slow-motion-heavy ‘white powder porn’ of most skiing films,  and instead drawing on the unbroken aesthetic of skating and snowboarding videos. To borrow a well-worn truism from introductory film courses everywhere: Every Cut Is A Lie, but especially so in stunt driven extreme sports. With the cameramen perched on distant peaks, tele-photo lenses gazing across the valley, you don’t get any second chances and come missed jumps, broken bones, or even avalanches, whatever happens you keep on rolling. The effect is terrifying in it’s own right, and set to an upbeat soundtrack of mid-nineties Swedish indie-rock, the complete package is part travelogue, part music video, and bizarrely compelling irrespective of your prior interest in skiing.

His love of filmmaking came to supersede his interest in the subject, and his outsider filmography was his ticket to three years at the School of Photography at the University of Gothenberg. His approach persisted even in his graduate work, and in his 2002 documentary Familj Igen, in which Östlund reunited his divorced parents of 23 years, the 59 minutes of the film is broken by a mere 21 cuts. By the time he moved onto his first feature film the application of the extended take becomes a dangerously effective device in fudging the lines between fact and fiction. The provocatively titled Gitarrmongot [literally The Guitar Mongoloid, but you can replace Mongoloid with Spastic or any other equally un-PC playground barb] takes an even more disparate collection of characters and follows them as they go about their lives in Gothenburg. Some of it’s staged, some of it’s not. Some characters have their faces blurred out in a way which suggests they refused to sign an image-release form. Unless told otherwise you could easily mistake it for an open form documentary, much like the Finnish Living Room of the Nation. It’s not, but then you can’t say it’s a wholly fictional film either.

This merry melding of categories and expectations, a willingness to simply mess around with form is perhaps why I’m growing to like Östlund so much. I’ve not had a chance to see his latest short film Incident by a Bank, but it’s technical conceit alone is enough to really make me want to see it. A failed bank robbery, shot in high resolution digital (4K in case you care) in a single extreme long-shot take across a public square, with the narrative reconstructed by focusing the frame on specific actions within the fixed shot. Editing by means of pan and scan, if you will. Maybe I’m just curious out of a purely technical aspect, but a Gold Bear at the Berlin film festival gives me hope that it’s more than just a gimmick.

The shower of critical accolades and festival awards has also given Östlund enough of a platform to be technically experimental, and to stand by it. In a bizarrely informal breakfast programme interview on Swedish television Östlund was quietly taken to task for his ideology in approaching film. Gently pilloried for being internationally lauded but still overlooked by the Swedish Guldbagge film awards, Östlund gladly took the Swedish establishment to task for shunning non-conventional cinema. When asked what his main creative influences were he readily cites Youtube as his first port of call: an infinite sourcebook of staged and un-staged human emotion, both in terms of the viewer and the viewed. Allowed to cite a specific film Östlund asks the show to screen the clip Pygme Jerboa from Youtube, showing  a kangaroo mouse filmed by it’s doting owner.  To quote Östlund himself:  ‘In terms of vitality there isn’t a scene in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo which can even measure with this clip.’ This isn’t said with the straightest of faces, but Östlund remains none the less earnest in highlighting how dead he feels the Swedish film establishment is.

When he says that his next film (called Play and currently in production) is primarily inspired by the Youtube film The Battle at Kruger you have to take him on his word, albeit with a pinch of salt of course. He’s no ‘Enfant Terrible’ but like his formal and aesthetic forebear Lars von Trier, you can’t take Östlund on his every word. There’s a humour and a openness in his approach to filmmaking, and goodness knows that’s something Swedish film is calling out for. A young Swedish director to get excited about is a very rare thing indeed, and hopefully there’s more formally interesting stuff to come.

If Involuntary is screening anywhere near you then you’d be well advised to seek it out.

Involuntary has it’s UK release on the 29th of October, and will be screening as such:

In London at the Apollo West End, the Odeon Panton Street and at the French Institute’s CinéLumière

Outside London at Zeffirellis (Amberside), The Filmhouse (Edinburgh), The National Media Museum (Bradford), and the Chichester Cinema at New Park.

[PS: If you’re at all curious about the film, do yourself a favour and skip the trailer and just watch this short film instead. It’s an obvious precursor in exactly the same vein as Involuntary but without giving the film itself away. It’s also a cracking short film in its own right.]

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Kill Switch and Hollywood Editing

his girl friday requiem for a dream kill switch montageYou could argue endlessly about the most overlooked job in the film industry, but I’d make a strong case for that of the editor. Many would say that their role falls into the realm of striving for seamlessness; unnoticed if done well. But that’s doing these crafty cutters a great disservice, as continuity and the impact of the edit can be tremendously powerful devices. As proof were needed of the fact, seeing my friends stumble out of the living room absolutely shell-shocked after seeing Requiem for a Dream was a timely reminder of the combined power of music + cutting to wholly traumatise the hapless moviegoer.

In my own misadventures I remember getting into an argument with one of my tutors about a scene in His Girl Friday, and the power of straightforward continuity. The scene in question comes seven minutes into the clip below.

It’s a blink and you’ll miss it cut, but just as Cary Grant picks up and then drops Rosalind’s be-ringed hand, the next shot shows him holding the hand again. I spent a good five minutes arguing that it must be a mistake in the edit, but it turns out it was the classic ‘Cary Grant Double Take’ which pops up in countless other films. I’ve only spotted it in North by Northwest, but still, lesson learnt:

– Hollywood Does Not Make Mistakes. Everything is Deliberate –

kill switch windowSo taking this lesson and applying it to later work in the oeuvre of Steven Seagal, the repercussions become quite serious. It’s all fine and well having a chuckle at things stumbling along, but there comes a point when the mistakes are writ so large that they just can’t be mistakes. Unfortunately we cannot discount the whole of Kill Switch as a grand mistake, for in its opening scene there comes a challenge to conventions of Hollywood continuity, a challenge so bold that it posits a complete tabula rasa of editing as we know it. Not quite a jump back to year zero, but rather a jump to the year 1903.

With moving pictures barely a few years old, the visual grammar of continuity we understand today had only just been embarked upon. Narratives were mostly limited to single scenes, much like the theatre, with action entering from the sides. Other early films kept to the school of what Tom Gunning has defined as the Cinema of Attractions* borrowing heavily from the worlds of the fairground and the vaudeville theatre, with one-act spectacles of wonder or contortion. Moving pictures were a spectacle in and of themselves, and the first film subject tended to be equally spectacular.

The change towards film with a more straightforward narrative came in the first decade of the century, and plenty has been said critically on that matter. The path to Hollywood continuity as we know it today was long, but even at this earliest stage can be noted some attempts to create a different visual discourse, less conventionally linear and with greater focus on repetition. A prime surviving example of this is to be found in the Edison company’s Life of an American Fireman. Stories of fire, imperilled women/children and daring rescue were all the rage in the early 1900s, and Life of plays straight to this early genre.

While the film itself might not strangle the attention of the average modern viewer, it is important to note the peculiar repetition of action. The sequence inside the burning house is played out in full before the action cuts to outdoors, and the viewer is then treated to seeing the complete action from a wholly separate perspective. The multiplicity of angles is primary above the linearity of continuity, and while jarring to the modern eye, this approach made a lot of sense to early audiences still open to the as yet undefined grammar of film. To borrow a term from Charles Musser** there is a ‘malleablility of temporality’ wholly lacking in most modern cinema. It flies in the face of anyone who might see these films and consider them primitive or simple.

Full respect then to the director Jeff King and his editor Jamie Alain with their work on Steven Seagal’s Kill Switch, a film which in one scene pays both homage to Life of an American Fireman while simultaneously challenging all modern understandings of continuity in Hollywood cinema.

another kill switch windowIn the sequence of one man getting kicked out of a window there are seventeen separate cuts, seven different perspectives and a complete recasting of temporality. It would take a matter of seconds for a body to hit the ground after being thrown out of a third storey building, yet in this sequence the action takes close to half a minute, stretching the horror of falling into an absurd, almost hovering sensation of crushing inevitability. The guilt of Seagal’s corrupt character is given no space to hide in the brevity of his decisions, his actions, its consequences are played out again and again, challenging the viewers ingrained positive disposition towards Seagal as an actor and transmutable character. The jarring punctuation of the scene with the clichéd one-liners typical of the action genre establishes an unease which fails to let up at any point in the film.

There is something bizarrely uncompromising about this film, and its debt to early cinema is astonishing. Almost more astonishing is role Seagal himself played in the writing, producing and selling of the film, and there’s more to come on that.

* For more by Tom Gunning on the Cinema of Attractions, check out Early Cinema: Space Frame Narrative (edited by Thomas Elsaesser)

** Musser has written extensively on this film plus Edison’s early film history in History of the American Cinema to 1907: The Emergence of Cinema. His extensive history of early Edison director/cameraman Edwin S. Porter can be found online in Before the Nickelodeon.

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