Thursday, 21 May 2009

Out with the old in with the new

After much tweaking, refining and noodling the Big Picture website is finally up and running.
This blogsite will be fazed out over the next few weeks, so pop over to the full site for your (almost) daily does of in-depth articles, reviews, interviews and loads more. The site is also your one stop shop for magazine downloads and news on upcoming Big Picture events.

See you there...

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Film Review: Synecdoche, New York

If I didn’t know any better, and I’m not sure I do know any better, I’d have to regard Synecdoche, New York as writer and first-time director Charlie Kaufman’s stab at a cinematic suicide note. So from the outset if the prospect of witnessing the chronicled dwindling on a man towards inevitable painful death is not something that appeals to you I’d strongly suggest that you join the line of easily pleased customers queuing for Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past right about now.

Even if you’re the sort of filmgoer who relishes the kind of intellectual challenges that a film like Synecdoche, New York throws in your path I would still advise caution. Having one’s mind bent and patience tested by the temporal jigsaw puzzle that Kaufman languidly invites you to piece together might just possibly appeal to those of us who fancy the idea of a game of Sudoku with no starter numbers in the grid, but only just. Furthermore, if you’re at or near the age most associated with the symptoms of mid-life crisis, this is as much a drab shop widow display of forthcoming ‘attractions’ as it is a depressing personal meditation on the diminishing returns of the creative process, and about as appealing and satisfying.

An early scene shows the central character, theatre director Caden Cotard (played for the most part by Phillip Seymour Hoffman with all the suitably lumpen weariness and dread of a bee-stung orang-utan on death row), probing his own excrement for signs of blood, an obvious indicator that an awful lot of protracted paranoid self-examination will shortly follow. Audio-visually speaking, it takes a good forty minutes or so for the film to rise up from the mud of incoherence. You know you’ll be lingering a while in the under-lit recesses of Cotard’s (Kaufman’s) mind when the only flash of early colour is the unexplained green poo produced by his four-year-old daughter.

Hoffman’s carefully palsied performance is matched in these initial stages by that of Catherine Keener, underplaying the part of Cotard’s ex-wife Adele with all the bleary ennui she can muster. Adele’s own artistic success, based on a series of postage stamp sized paintings that require a pair of magnifying lenses for the onlooker to appreciate, leads her to relocate to Berlin, robbing Cotard of access to his daughter. The nearest thing to amusing irony in the film is that the success of these miniscule works of art manages to overshadow Cotard’s own vast creative enterprise.

A huge and unexpected MacArthur ‘Genius’ grant (an award given each year to a handful of US citizens who show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work, in case you were wondering) allows Cotard the chance to mount a gigantic dramatic recreation of his own life inside a cavernous Manhattan warehouse, played out on a sprawling recreation of the city, the synecdoche or stand-in of the title. Cotard populates his set with stand-ins for the people that have touched his life, and as the ‘production’ peters along over months, years, the stand-ins themselves become inveigled in the director’s experiences and inevitably wind up being portrayed by further stand-ins, each iteration embodying a less and less focussed representation of the originals.

One might expect this gradual ‘Russian doll’ disassembly of layers to reveal hidden truths about Cotard’s character and life, but the result ultimately is a blurring of reality, an ironing-out of detail and meaning. Perhaps regrettably this is the truth, or at least the truth of the creative endeavour as Kaufman sees it. The more one pursues the meaning of art, the less distinct and quantifiable it becomes. The film’s final gradual fade to grey-white caps this notion succinctly. It is the ashen colour of physical death and also the blank page or canvas of creative death. Quite what Kaufman will follow this with is anyone’s guess – is there life after death?

Recommending a viewing of Synecdoche, New York is a little like ringing your mates up to let them know there’s a guy about to jump off the building across the street from them. Except it's not quite as exciting as that. So forgive me if I pull back from the brink of a full endorsement, even though I feel compelled to by its anti-mainstream posturing. I would anticipate that even Kaufman fans will struggle to digest it; it makes the intricacies of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation seem about as unfathomable as a Kate Hudson romcom. This much I can say by way of advocacy: the supporting cast, numbering Brits Samantha Morton and Emily Watson in their ranks, are as committed to Kaufman’s thesis as Cotard’s players are to his. As such the direction is firm-handed although for the most part the visual palette he deploys is some way off the realisation of a Spike Jonze or a Michel Gondry (who’s promo video for Björk’s Batchelorette this partly resembles) and his editing style possesses a dry truncation that will annoy rather than intrigue.

If you do choose to go and see it, and I fear the queue will be short, I can at least relieve one possible anxiety for you. It’s pronounced ‘sin-eck-da-key’.

Jez Conolly

Friday, 8 May 2009

Interview with State of Play and the Last King of Scotland director Kevin Macdonald

On a recent visit to Bath to promote his new conspiracy thriller State Of Play, Director Kevin Macdonald took time out before attending a screening of the film, organised by Bath Film Festival, to talk to Jez Conolly about the process of adapting the television series for the big screen, Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg's 1971 film, not Brad Pitt's much-discussed departure from the project) and his next film The Eagle Of The Ninth set, rather appropriately given the location of the interview, in Roman Britain.

J.C: Were there any elements of the State Of Play TV series that you would have liked to have included in the film that you had to leave out in the process of cutting six hours of material down to two?
K.M: Yes and no. I realized early on that it had to be its own beast. The film had to exist outside of the TV series to do something different. I ceased to think of it as a straight adaptation. It was the central ideas that interested me. I wanted to take those and run with them and make something that was my own interpretation. I was concerned that everyone was going to remember the TV series and question why it should be taken to America, but I think the themes of the material are strong enough to withstand that kind of adaptation. The ideas at the heart of the series, friendship, betrayal, guilt, are all there. I loved the idea of making a film about journalism, I’m a big fan of newspapers, I wanted to be a journalist myself. Everyone will tell you that newspapers are dying and so I wanted to tell the story of a dying newspaper and how a journalist on the trail of a huge, huge story in some ways saved the newspaper temporality.

What has been the off-the-page response from newspaper people to the film?
The actual reviews have been middling to good but the informal response from journalists themselves at previews, in the UK at least, has been fantastically good. Some journalists in America have said that it’s not really accurate, but we made quite a lot of effort with the central character of Cal McAffrey, to figure out who he is within the hierarchy of the newspaper and what his actual job is. Some of the critics have described him as an investigative journalist. Of course he’s not, he’s what they call in America the metro reporter, a relatively small time employee, somebody who works on local crime, corruption in City Hall and the like, but they didn’t pick up on that.

Brad Pitt’s walking away from the project is well documented. How much did Russell Crowe bring to the development of the character in the relatively short run-up or during the shoot?
Because he got involved at the last minute quite a lot of the things that go into forming the character were already there, the script was there, the sets were built including his apartment. He had to come in and ask ‘Okay, this is where I live - what am I like?’. I worked with a fantastic production designer (Mark Friedberg) so Russell started from the page and was then able to know what his car and apartment looked like on the inside. From that Russell was able to build up the character of somebody you’d believe you could meet walking down the street. He turned up the day before filming saying that he wanted to wear a pink cancer awareness armband. He felt that Cal’s mother had died of cancer and that this might help to explain why he had been unable to or refused to develop a long term relationship with a woman. He also wanted a little shrine to the mother on set, which you never see but it was important to him for it to be there.

You recently talked about Nic Roeg’s Walkabout on The Film Programme on Radio 4. You mentioned that films like
Walkabout are emblematic of something we’ve lost in filmmaking. What is it that we’ve lost, and can we get it back?
We’ve lost a lot of things I think. To start with it’s impossible to imagine a film like Walkabout being made today and distributed in any kind of commercial context. We’ve lost a broadness, a cineliteracy in the audience, and I think that even extends to something like State Of Play. Five years ago a film like State Of Play would have made a lot of money in America. These days it’s the fifth or sixth grown-up movie in a row that hasn’t really performed at the box office in America, which is sad and indicative of the fat that adults don’t want to go to the movies any more, that teen and early twenties audiences don’t really want to be challenged in any way, they want to have an experience that is about sensation, they don’t want to think about character, the story isn’t even that important to them. Nic Roeg was able to express the content of the film visually in a way that very few filmmakers have successfully done, through the use of the camera, editing, music, sound effects. I think the days when you could make mainstream art movies in Britain are pretty much over, but they may return.

With your move from documentary to feature, how much do you see the sensibility of documentary influencing mainstream feature films?

There have always been two schools of cinema; at the beginning you had the Lumiere brothers setting up cameras to record real events and almost simultaneously you had Georges Méliès creating works of fantasy and imagination. These two strains of cinema continued through the years and so on the one hand you had Hitchcock following the Méliès tradition, where every single thing is controlled, virtually every gesture is scripted, and on the other hand you had Vittorio De Sica and Italian Neorealism and Humphrey Jennings in Britain trying to make films that have spontaneity and capture real life, and I’m very definitely in the Vittorio De Sica tradition. One of the things that I love in a drama is that little sensation you get when there’s something in the way a person is talking or the way they move their face that feels very real. Mainstream entertainment cinema has adopted some of the tricks of the documentary trade, for example the use of handheld cameras. Effectively they are the same old Hollywood stories but with the veneer of the documentary style. With my own work one of the interesting questions I’m always grappling with is ‘who is the camera?’ Is it the audience or a person in their own right? What perspective is the camera giving? When you use the documentary camera as I do what you’re saying is the camera is a person, and that immediately differentiates how you view the movie. If you feel like the camera is moving like it’s a person, if it feels like it’s only in positions that a person could get into compared to a camera that is totally mobile and fluid, then I think it’s more honest.

I read a short piece by you about the much-missed cinematographer Jack Cardiff in which you single out The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus as the height of his achievements. Thinking back to what you had to say about Nic Roeg’s pure visual cinema, do you see yourself moving further away from documentary-style realism and into more painterly filmmaking?

Like many people I’m driven by cravings for new experience and adventure. I don’t have a grand master plan to adhere to a dominant aesthetic that will surmount everything in my life or in my work, so yes I would and if the right circumstances came along I would love to do something like a musical or a comedy. I don’t know if I’d be any good at them but if somebody gives you the opportunity to do those things I’d think why the hell not?

What can you tell me about your next picture The Eagle Of The Ninth? I believe it’s based on a childen’s novel.
It’s a teen novel really, and it’s certainly not a children’s film. It’s a book I read when I was 12 or 13. It comes from a genre of writing that doesn’t really exist anymore, at least not in its original form. It’s a teen adventure, quite sophisticated, historically textured and accurate. It was written by Rosemary Sutcliff who wrote many historical books set at the time of the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages dealing with the clash between the Celtic and Roman cultures. I found out that the producer Duncan Kenworthy owned the rights to it and I pleaded with him to let me do it. The idea is not to make something like Troy or Gladiator. I’m not going to have armies of 100,000 computer generated Romans. There’ll be a little bit of CGI used to recreate Hadrian’s Wall, but it’s really a character drama about the relationship between a Roman soldier and his Celtic slave. It’s an exciting old-fashioned adventure.

Was there a particular film that had a big effect on you as a youngster?
I had very unsophisticated tastes as a child. The film that I remember seeing as a ten-year-old and enjoying the most was called Sky Riders. It’s an adventure story about a very inventive gang of thieves who rob a fortress using hang gliders. It was made by someone called Douglas Hickox, and weirdly the very first award I received, for my film One Day In September, was called the Douglas Hickox Award given at the British Independent Film Awards.

What later films got you interested in filmmaking?
There are two films; one was, unimaginatively, a film made by my grandfather [Emeric Pressburger]. When I was at university I went to the film club where they showed The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp. I watched the film and was so moved by it because it felt so personal to him and everything I knew about him, but also because it was so entertaining and yet intelligent. That was something that I took on board; I wanted to make films that were entertaining but don’t insult the audience’s intelligence. I recognized so much of him in it and he died very shortly after I saw it so it’s a movie experience I remember very vividly. The other movie that really got me interested in making documentaries was The Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris, which is for my money the greatest documentary ever made. It changed the whole aesthetic of documentaries. It proves a man innocent of murder - what more can you hope to do in your life – and it used the camera like a psychiatrist’s couch. To get people to reveal things about themselves that they would never ever want to have revealed. There was a formalism about the film that I found completely mesmerizing. Morris used the same 50mm lens on every single interviewee and placed them all a certain length from the camera. I found that formalism, in opposition to the wild, handheld observational style which was very prevalent in documentary at the time, to be fascinating and influential on the documentaries that I made.

What was the last film you saw that excited you?
Rachel Getting Married by Jonathan Demme. I haven’t seen much in the last couple of years that I thought was really new cinema. I loved that film because I thought it had a documentary sensibility to it and a warmth and inclusiveness. It also had the greatest surprise performance I’ve ever seen. Anne Hathaway gives a wonderful, ambiguous, unlikeable kind of performance in the movie which I thought was fantastic, and even though the film has faults I like the faults. I thought it was the kind of movie they don’t make any more, it was a 70s style movie and I enjoyed it very much.

State of Play is on general release now

Interview by Jez Conolly
With the kind assistance of Alexandra Chapman from the Bath Film Festival

Film Review: Chéri

Imagine a world in which you have servants to run your bath; you have a wardrobe which no shopping spree could ever hope to improve on and a home that even the upper class would lust after, and you’re imagining the life of a retired Parisian courtesan in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Adapted by Oscar winning screenwriter, Christopher Hampton (Atonement, Dangerous Liaisons), from a novella by the late French novelist, Colette, Chéri tells the story of a love affair between an ageing courtesan beauty, Léa (Michelle Pfeiffer) and the title character, Chéri (Rupert Friend), the son of a competitive and interfering ex-colleague, Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates).

Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Dangerous Liaisons) presents us with a visual array of colour. The camera takes us on a smooth and seductive tour of 1920s Paris with clothes and architecture to die for. Despite the setting, Frears does not bombard us with the stereotypical shots of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe to remind its audience where this is set. Instead we periodically go for drinks at Maxims or get a passing shot of the Seine.

Chéri is a pre-World War I Pete Doherty. The music scene aside, the pale skin, dark features, excessive alcohol consumption and drug use along with his skin and bone appearance is somehow completely alluring to beautiful women, in this case the (getting close to past it) Léa. His almost gothic appearance leads you to wonder if he’s just stepped out of one of Tim Burton’s dressing rooms. Raised without a father and surrounded by beautiful women and their accessories, Chéri has a pertinent attraction towards feminine material items. He wears silk pants and has an obsession with pearls and despite Léa’s attempts to convince him of ‘something more masculine’ there is no male figure to guide him. It’s quite a contrast to see Friend play such a feminine and dark character in comparison with his recent amicable performance as Prince Albert in The Young Victoria. We will be seeing more of him no doubt and his re-emergence in period drama draws a likeness with the quick rising talent of James McAvoy.

Have Pfeiffer’s eyes always been so blue? Despite the title of the film, it is Pfeiffer that steals the limelight. In her first liaison with Frears since the Dangerous one of 1988, her performance is outstanding and the closing shot of the film, which I won't spoil, reaffirms her status as one of cinema’s leading ladies. Undoubtedly aided by her magnificent costumes, her appearance is mesmerising and many a character are drawn to her looks. Others remain green with envy.

Kathy Bates, as always it seems, plays the maternal figure. Suitably annoying and perhaps the film’s main antagonist, if there is one, Bates portrays the rivalry between the courtesans superbly. Chéri’s virginal bride, Edmée (Felicity Jones) was cleverly cast and is the perfect Blousey Brown character suitably envious of Lea’s Tallulah beauty.

Frear’s uncredited narration is reminiscent of that in Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona. Used with success at the beginning and end of the film, it occasionally reappears like the voice of someone sat behind you in the cinema, talking in your ear, making you jump as you had forgotten that they were still there.

As you might expect in a world where the women know nothing but how to pleasure the opposite sex, Frears presents us with numerous love scenes, some more alluring that others. Oysters, despite their notorious aphrodisiac qualities, have never been such a turn off.

The costumes are as delectable as one would have hoped. The use of colour is well thought out reminding me of Vivien Leigh’s dramatic colour changes in Gone with the Wind to reflect shades of character. On Chéri’s first departure, Léa purchases a green emerald ring - the ultimate symbol of jealousy. However, on Chéri’s return the tables are turned and he assumes the ring to be from a new lover transforming him into the green eyed monster.

The script is witty; the score–performed by The London Symphony Orchestra–is quirky, cheeky even seductive but disappointingly the ultimate draw of the period drama– romance – is lacking. Despite their performances and the undeniable chemistry between Friend and Pfeiffer there is no heart pounding realisations of true love in this film and sadly this will not meet the majority of audience’s romantic expectations.

Joey Beard

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Accounting for taste (or ‘You like what??!’)

We were getting on famously, this girl and I. Our tastes in music, books, comedians, pet peeves – all were lining up nicely. We got on to classic musicals.

‘Easter Parade?’ I ventured.

‘Crikey yes,’ she returned. ‘Singin’ in the Rain?’

‘Absolutely,’ I murmured appreciatively. ‘Singin’ in the Rain. Still, if push came to shove, I’d have to go with Astaire rather than Kelly.’

The lengthening pause told me that something was awry.

‘No,’ she said finally. ‘Mine would be Gene.’ She sighed, crestfallen. This wasn’t going to work out.

Everyone loves a good barney about movie favourites. But we can't help finding significance in people’s cultural preferences; we scan each other's bookshelves and DVD collections for clues to their character. The complete works of Leni Riefenstahl? Yikes. Especially if the CD shelf includes Wagner's Ring Cycle.

I always preferred Astaire’s gangly introspection to Kelly’s compact, muscular eagerness. The climax of the ‘Broadway Melody’ sequence in Singin’ in the Rain always makes me tense up – we seem to be about to collide with Kelly’s gleaming all-American gnashers. And don’t even get me started on that 'aw shucks' thing he does when he pushes his hat askew mid-routine. But can you divide the world into Astaire fans and Kelly fans, like some Myers-Briggs personality test? Are those in the Fred camp more prone to dark fits of brooding? Do the Gene contingent show more of a tendency to break out in twinkly grins? Unlikely - they're not sufficiently different to polarise opinion.

The Chaplin-Keaton dichotomy, on the other hand, can divide a room pretty neatly: do you go for the ambitious all-rounder obsessed with his own legend or the melancholy underdog with a self-destructive streak? Buster is easier to love, probably because he went easier on the sentiment and because his own life was fairly crammed with pathos and misfortune; Chaplin's plucky little guy always on his uppers seems a little too self-serving for a man who became immensely wealthy by playing a tramp. Who in their right minds would prefer Chaplin? Who am I to pass judgement on their judgement?

Sean Connery’s 007 v Roger Moore’s 007 is less contentious, although there are doubtless a few individuals who disdain Connery's ever-so-slightly feral charisma in favour of Roger Moore’s smirky Yacht Club lothario. How narrow-minded of me to consider this an indication of some kind of dysfunctional personality. But surely, you'd have to be round the bend...

By the same token, people unfortunate enough to have witnessed me ranting about the crass stupidity of Kevin Smith's Dogma, or the appallingly misjudged mawkishness of Life is Beautiful, have most likely come to their own conclusions about the ranter. We should all, of course, exercise some latitude in judging the taste of others, and overlook the odd penchant for - let's say - Cheech and Chong or Adam Sandler. Then again, spying a box set of Fassbinder in someone's collection should still give one pause. I mean, you have to draw the line somewhere.

Nick Riddle

Monday, 27 April 2009

The modern Bank Holiday movie: ‘move along please, nothing to see here’

Oh the agony of choice! When faced these days with the dozens of viewing options on movie channels, online or on the walls of rental shops I start to experience a throbbing tension around the temples, a mild blurring of vision and a distinct inability to make up my mind what to watch.

The condition is always at its worst around Christmas, Easter and bank holidays. I think I know why. Back in the 1970s, in the days of three-TV-channels-and-that’s-yer-lot, I felt, somewhat ironically, spoiled. Boxing Days were a seamless watch of chocolate factories and mad, mad, mad, mad worlds and great escapes and airport 75s. Bank Holiday Mondays promised Sinbad and Argonauts and lands that time forgot. I’d sit there, soaking it all up, my face growing as hot and red with excitement as those of the cast of The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure. This was my movie nursery; I suckled at the teet of Irwin Allen, played soldiers with Lee Marvin and learned to ride a bicycle with Newman and Redford.

All I had to do to gain this education was turn the television on. The relative lack of choice meant I was forced to watch only quality movies. I have genuine pity for today’s youngsters, able as they are to tap into hours and hours, days and days, of indistinguishable pre-digested movies with all the character and depth of baby food/shit, falling off the end of the Hollywood turd factory’s conveyor belt, onto a small screen and into their small heads.

However, let’s discuss that word quality. I wouldn’t want to suggest that all of the films that ticked my boxes as a lad were uniformly quality productions. They certainly weren’t. I’ve seen most of them again in adult life and on more than one occasion the total lack of quality, when the readings of grown-up critique are taken, is painfully evident. I’ve even gathered friends together for screenings of some of them, only to suffer from audible toe-curling when the non-toxic-crayoned memories of youth viewing are embarrassingly laid bare.

I think I’ve learned my lesson though. When the urge to blurt out ‘you really must see Monte Carlo Or Bust’ to a co-worker comes over me I tend to bite me lip nowadays (although I do reckon the whole 1960s Edwardian-Jallopy-Racing sub-genre deserves another look) and pull back from opening out what would probably be a very one-sided discussion about Bank Holiday movies on TV. With one exception.

I must have been about six the first time I saw 633 Squadron. Released in 1964, it depicts the exploits of a fictional RAF Mosquito squadron as it attempts to destroy a German V-2 rocket fuel plant secreted at the end of a Norwegian fjord. When you’re six you don’t question the fact that the very Mediterranean-looking George Chakiris is meant to be Norwegian. You don’t quarrel with the logic that led the Germans to conveniently build their fuel plant directly below an enormous precipice just big enough to crush it if the bombs were dropped on the right spot. And you certainly don’t mind that the effects team sourced plane models from their nearest Airfix retail outlet.

Somehow at that tender age you get caught up in the whole brio of the picture, and at the end you feel almost like you’re sat there next to Cliff Robertson and Angus Lennie in the cockpit, not stopping to question the lousy back projection behind you, not worrying about being cropped as a result of some lamentable 70s pan-and-scan. That’s your thumb on the release button as the kite heroically disgorges its payload onto the craggy Norwegian rock (played by a craggy Scottish rock filmed at Glen Coe).

Several years passed. The Ron Goodwin theme tune with its ‘da-da-da-da-da-da-daaar-daaar-daaar’ six/three time signature provided the soundtrack in my head for many a stiff-armed sortie in the back garden as I dive-bombed my tortoises with assorted pieces of Lego.*
Then I went to the pictures to see Star Wars and that was when it got interesting.

The main reason why I still extol the virtues of 633 Squadron to this day is because I came out of the cinema that warm afternoon in June 1977 telling everyone that George Lucas had, almost shot for shot, ripped off 633’s ending for his assault on the Death Star. See, I was a movie bore even at the age of 11. Nevertheless whenever Star Wars comes into the conversation I still question the originality of its denouement and point people to 633 Squadron for proof.

So if you’re stuck for something to watch over either of the upcoming Bank Holiday Mondays you could do worse than seek out this flawed masterpiece, with its acting and sets chiselled from the same piece of balsa wood and its plot and planes suspended from the same nylon threads.

Jez Conolly

* No tortoises were injured in the writing of this piece.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Death of the Cut: The changing face of film censorship

Although Zombie Flesh Eaters was granted an X-certificate cinema release in 1980, the BBFC sliced out a hefty 106 seconds of footage before passing it. This included the infamous shot where a woman’s head is forced into a wooden splinter, bursting her eyeball - nicely disgusting, although it lacks the sheer bewilderment of the ‘zombie vs. tiger shark’ fight.

Thanks to such hefty cuts, the BBFC was often accused of being over-zealous in its censorship between the 1950’s and 1990’s. The cuts weren’t just limited to violent titles such as Straw Dogs and Last House on the Left either. Even Rebel Without a Cause was meddled with, for fear it would encourage ‘teenage rebellion’. Of course, films containing graphic sex or violence were always the ones dealt with the most harshly. Banned scenes were the subject of great excitement amongst horror fans, especially those lucky enough to find a ‘hardcore’ uncut version on video.

There was no legal requirement for videos to be classified up until the early 80’s, but concern grew that these titles would fall into the hands of impressionable young children, who would undoubtedly grow up to be cross-dressing serial killers. This resulted in the Video Recordings Act of 1984. From then on, all commercial videos for sale or hire in the UK had to be classified according to their suitability for ‘home viewing’. However, through the passing of the Video Recordings Act, the BBFC had already begun to evolve away from their censorship past. This was reflected in a title change, from the British Board of Film Censors to the British Board of Film Classification.

The term ‘video nasty’ soon became a media buzzword, one which was bandied about with glee by the likes of the Daily Mail. This attitude sadly continued well into the 90’s, but despite media pressure, the BBFC had become cautious about unnecessarily cutting any so-called controversial titles. Larry Clark’s Kids was swiftly labelled ‘child pornography’ by the press, but the BBFC passed the film with only minor cuts after investigating the actual age of the main actors. Crash was another movie thrust into the spotlight, thanks to several graphic sex scenes featuring car crash victims - including a memorable shot of James Spader getting it on with a vulva-like scar. The BBFC screened the film to a group of disabled people before passing its verdict, eventually releasing it uncut.

At the turn of the new millennium, the BBFC decided to poll the UK public for its opinions on film classification. The results showed that people weren’t quite as bothered about violence and bad language in movies as previously thought. For parents the main concern was drug use, as well as violence in the lower classification categories that could be easily imitated by their sprogs. Not amazingly shocking - even the likes of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had been vilified in the past, for encouraging kids to construct katanas or nunchucks out of bits of wood.

Sex scenes, however, appeared to get a big thumbs-up from most of those polled. The result was that real sex became acceptable in 18-rated films, as proved by the likes of Intimacy and 9 Songs. Sexual Violence was still a grey area, especially in the case of Baise-Moi, a 2001 film featuring an explicit rape scene. The film inspired much debate over whether the sexual content was actually pornographic - Director Coralie Trinh Thi suggested not, because it was “not for masturbation.” The BBFC limited their cuts to a 10-second penetration shot, which they claimed eroticised sexual assault, then passed it with an 18 certificate.

Recently, the BBFC has taken to providing detailed consumer advice about every UK release on both the film posters and its own website. Jurassic Park 2 was the first to get this treatment back in 1997, with a warning to parents about ‘scary scenes of violence’. Since then we’ve been treated to cautions such as ‘contains scenes of criminal activity’ for Pickpocket, and ‘contains sexualised posing’ for the recent Fast & Furious (surely ‘contains Vin Diesel’ is all you really need to know). Perhaps the most legendary advice so far is ‘contains mild peril’, already notorious for being almost completely meaningless.

Still, at least the BBFC are now clear in their role as a classification board. Instead of slicing out huge chunks of films to ‘protect the general public’, they’re instead letting us make our own minds up. As the board itself has stated: “Who’s to decide what adults can or can’t watch?” And for the Zombie Flesh Eater fans out there, the movie was finally released fully uncut with an 18 certificate in 2005, as part of the ‘Box of the Banned’ set. Time to settle down for some good splinter action, horror chums.

Chris Barraclough

Brilliant Failures #1: The Fall (Tarsem, 2008)

Released last month on DVD, The Fall is the visionary fantasy from the Indian director Tarsem Singh (known simply as ‘Tarsem'). Normally one should be wary of directors with singular nomenclature (e.g. the anti-brand that is ‘McG' - director of the revamped Terminator franchise) but I encourage you to put your prejudices aside for this stunning slice of fabulation, in the spirit of The Princess Bride.

Like Reiner/Goldman's film it uses a similar meta-narrative. Alexandria, a young girl with a broken arm (astonishingly played by Catinca Untaru) befriends/besieges a crippled stuntman, Roy Walker (Lee Pace), who spins a far-fetched yarn about five heroes from the four corners of the world who set out to avenge the various evils inflicted by the nefarious Governor Odious.

Contrasting vividly with the muted tones and realism of the hospital in a 1915 Los Angeles (‘long, long, ago) - the Surrealist story the stuntman weaves (the ‘fall' guy of the title) provides at first an amusing distraction and then a consoling fiction from the pain of existence (Roy has lost his heart's desire to the leading man and wishes to kill himself), before becoming an acceptance of death - that pain is part of life. That to live life is to ‘fall'. The near-death of the little girl, caused by her attempt to steal some morphine for the stuntman (or perhaps herself after she wakes up in the night and witnesses a nurse and doctor having sex), provides Tarsem an opportunity to dazzle the already visually saturated audience with a wonderfully bizarre stream-of-consciousness section (nightmarishly in the style of Czech animator Jan Svankmajer). This accident shocks the stuntman out of his suicidal wallowings, and he now completes his narrative for both of them - the mask of his thinly disguised analogue for his own frustrated line of desire slips completely, as figures from his own narrative (the leading man; his trophy girlfriend) appear in the tale. As with The Wizard of Oz, characters from the framing narrative double-up in disguise in the special world of the story - hospital orderlies, fellow film crew become the larger-than-life band of buccaneers - and Alexandria becomes ‘Dorothy', popping up in the stuntman's story as a mini-version of Roy's ‘blue bandit' alter-ego, a surrogate daughter to his surrogate father. Her presence starts to affect the narrative - a virus from the real world, infecting it with fatality.

A criticism would be that the film is a clear example of style over content. Tarsem seems more focused on creating stunning visuals than a meaningful narrative - and at times it resembles a pop video or expensive advertisement (both of which are in Tarsem's portfolio). Yet stunning visuals are what cinema is best at delivering, and the costumes (designed by Eiko Ishioka) and computer-enhanced sets and settings are spectacular. Tarsem made the film over several years in 18 locations around the world - and part of the fun of the film is trying to identify the locations. In its globe-trotting it's like a Bond film on acid, and indeed at least one of the locations overlaps both wildly different paradigms (the Lake Palace of Udaipur, used in Octopussy). The film is impossibly glamorous - and could be seen as nothing more than an expensive confection, but the performances of the stuntman and the girl provide solid human interest and anchor the narrative in something meaningful. There's echoes of Guillermo del Toro's baroque imagination as well - but the film is easier viewing than the disturbing violence of Pan's Labyrinth, if no less imaginative.

The film ends with a touching montage of early screen-stunts - made all the more astonishing as we realise how dangerous such stunts were. How many stuntmen lost their lives in the name of entertainment, of a more impressive thrill? The film acts on one level as a paean for all stuntmen and women, and for the sheer folly of cinema - which offers consoling fictions to this wounded world. As a post 9/11 fairy tale it perhaps attempts to provide a fabulist band-aid for us 21st Century Humpty Dumptys, and so perhaps the film isn't as trivial as it may appear. David Fincher and Spike Jonze should be applauded for backing such a bold experiment in cinema, with more imagination than a whole multiplex of CGI blockbusters.

Kevan Manwaring

The Fall is now available to rent on DVD

Friday, 17 April 2009

The ‘Golden Era’ of 3D

A popular urban legend has it that at the first ever public screening of L’arrivée du Train, the Lumière brothers’ 60-second film, the audience was so terrified that the approaching train would jump out of the screen that many of them leapt to their feet and promptly exited the building. This seems almost plausible, as the year was 1895 and the cinema experience was brand new. However, many cinema experts dismiss this tale, or at least in part. It’s actually far more plausible that audiences were scared witless by the 1934 remake, which Louis Lumière shot in full 3D - because the train actually was coming out of the screen at them.

In the first half of the 20th century, stereoscopy - the science behind 3D imaging - was still very much experimental. Film releases were restricted to short productions such as the Lumière brothers’ effort, which must go down in history as one of the most effective horror movies of all time. It wasn’t until 1952 that the first feature-length motion picture to use 3D was released. Bwana Devil was based on the real-life story of the Tsavo man-eaters that killed numerous Uganda Railway workers, and promised ‘a lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!’ Critics universally trashed it. One branding it ‘the worst movie in my rather faltering memory’, and claimed that the 3D effects gave him a hangover. Time magazine simply called it a ‘dog’. Despite this, the film sold a lot of seats and set up 3D’s ‘golden era’, which studios hoped would encourage people to turn off their televisions and get back in the theatres.

House of Wax, released in April 1953, was the first time American audiences enjoyed a film with stereophonic sound. The visual 3D aspects were largely gimmicky, and included well-known scenes such as a man playing with a bat and ball, and a host of can-can girls giving it their all. Amazingly, the film’s director, Andre De Toth, was blind in one eye and couldn’t perceive the extra dimension. As the film’s star Vincent Price recalled: “He really was the wrong director for 3D. He’d go to the rushes and say, ‘Why is everybody so excited about this?’ It didn’t mean anything to him.” Price went on to become known as the ‘King of 3D’ after featuring in several other 3D features such as The Mad Magician and Son of Sinbad.

Come the autumn of 1953, the theatrical 3D craze was already dying down. The main cause was the complex equipment required to exhibit 3D movies, as well as the awkward arrangements. Two projectionists were often required to keep prints in sync, and if the reels ever did fall out of line, the picture became virtually unwatchable and gave the audience headaches and eyestrain.

Despite this, 3D did make a comeback at the end of 1953 with the release of MGM’s musical Kiss Me, Kate, which was well received by cinemagoers. This prompted the release of the infamous The French Line, a 3D musical starring Jane Russell. The film was all about sex appeal, and the revealing costumes and risqué lyrics resulted in a release without an MPAA seal of approval. The tagline, ‘it’ll knock both of your eyes out!’, says all you need to know.

One of the last famous Golden Era 3D films was 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, starring Ben Chapman as the rubber-suited Gill-man. This was the only 3D feature of the time that spawned a 3D sequel, Revenge of the Creature, released in February 1955. The sequel brought the ‘golden era’ to a close for good, as exhibitors were still uncomfortable with the expense and effort of showing 3D features and turned to other developments such as Cinemascope as alternatives.

3D films are once again popular in theatres, and their return has reopened the age-old argument, trashy gimmick or effective immersion technique? However, a more pertinent question might be, how long will the craze last this time? It’s impossible to say, but maybe longer than you think. Many esteemed directors such as Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton have already embraced 3D for their upcoming efforts, while James Cameron’s Avatar - his first film in almost 12 years - was filmed in 3D using custom cameras and special effects, and is already the most expensive movie ever made, with a budget breaking the $300 million mark. Advancement of technology has made shooting 3D films more cost-effective and distribution much simpler, as well as eliminating motion sickness and migraines, but technological advancements may also send 3D films to their graves as soon as the ‘next big thing’ in cinema comes along. Until then, be sure to keep a tight hold on your popcorn.

Chris Barraclough

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

How was it for you?

The audience was stirring uncomfortably. The opening titles had played out over a series of shadowy shapes writhing behind semi-opaque screens. Now we were in the movie proper, entering the first scene. The tone was being set; we were looking for clues as to what kind of a movie this was to be. And we were watching... oh good God... full-on shagging.

The cinematography was soft-focus, the score was all sultry strings, and the woman was astride the man. Nervous titters started breaking out in the cinema. Even in the dark, one could sense a collective blush. This was the Norwich Odeon after all, not some tacky dive in Soho. Something was wrong.

Then the woman reached for a scarf. The strings darkened. We hesitated, still squirming. The woman tied the man's hands to the bed. As they were reaching climax, out of nowhere she produced an icepick. We watched her stab the man again and again in a horrific, bloody frenzy. We all breathed a sigh of relief. This wasn't porn after all, it was a violent thriller. We could live with that. We settled down to enjoy the rest of Basic Instinct, now that order was restored.

Moviegoers can, with varying degrees of comfort, sit through explicit depictions of mutilation, dismemberment, decapitation, disembowelling, and take it in their stride. But show them a graphic sex scene and a whole different kind of queasiness can set in.

And it's not hard to figure out some of the reasons why. In mainstream movies, violence advances the plot; sex generally brings it shuddering to a standstill. Film has always had to strike a balance between narrative and spectacle - take the Alps at the beginning of The Sound of Music. The camera swoops and dives through gorgeous scenery, we drink it all in, then just at the right moment, the music swells and up pops Julie Andrews to kickstart the narrative. The sex at the beginning of Basic Instinct is like the Alps: it's an establishing shot, after which the music swells and up pops Sharon Stone. But ladle on the scenery too thick, and impatience sets in.

Then there's the voyeuristic nature of cinema itself. During the ascent of film studies to the status of academic subject, some joker hit on the idea of applying the theories of Sigmund Freud to the act of watching movies. And here's one of the ironies of 'adult' cinema: Freudian film theory argues that the pleasure of watching movies has a lot to do with our re-experiencing infantile urges while sitting in a dark auditorium. Essays have been written on how we as viewers re-enact 'the primal scene' - Freud's phrase for that symbolic moment when the child stumbles upon his/her parents having intercourse - and how all physical action in cinema is a metaphor for the sexual act (I'm condensing outrageously here). If this is true, and we experience all action scenes as sexual on some level, no wonder watching a literal depiction of the sexual act can make us uneasy. It's too much, too direct, especially in a social setting. It raises the spectre of a taboo. Maybe that's why sex and violence seem so inseparable; that troubling act of voyeurism must be cancelled out with violence. And ice-picks.

Arthouse movies have more licence to confront these things head-on; often they thrive on creating discomfort. And with the added bonus of a looser approach to plot, the arthouse gives sex more room for manoeuvre. Last Tango in Paris and In The Realm of the Senses achieved notoriety in the 1970s for their forthright approach to sex, but both plots ended in a murder; more recent films, like 9 Songs and Shortbus, try to move things on by doing away with the violent ending. Which is interesting. Except that it isn't. It's dull.

It's no coincidence that Hollywood slackened its plotlines around the same time that film censorship became more liberal, in the early 1960s. There were major pluses - more focus on character, less predictability - but it could be argued that thrillers, and especially film noir, of which Basic Instinct aspires to be a modern example, never quite recovered. Those plots will keep powering down while the protagonists indulge in a bit of athletic trysting.

Not that sex doesn't belong in movies - of course it does, and it can be entertaining and titillating. Hell, it can even advance the plot. But sometimes it's worth trying it with the lights off.

Nick Riddle

Saturday, 4 April 2009

The Day The Earth Cried ‘Please, No Remake!’

I’ve had it with CGI disaster movies. There, I’ve said it. I’m now officially on the ‘Paintbox Armageddon’ wagon. I shun the catastrophe tourism of The Day After Tomorrow. I eschew the Blair Witch 9/11-ness of Cloverfield. I’m not going to see any more pixelated apocalypses.

All those perfectly captured panoramas of destruction, every droplet of tidal wave water rendered in exacting digital detail, every particle of dust visible as it settles on the incredibly accurate ruins of the city. It’s a bit like running a magnifying glass over a corpse for two and half hours. Enough already. At the same time as taking the pledge I’m also saying a little prayer in the hope that during the current round of WETA-filtered carnage remakes Hollywood’s merchants of computer generated mayhem decide to continue overlooking a possible retread of Val Guest’s magnificent 1961 movie The Day The Earth Caught Fire.

It’s a slender hope; I can see the fat index finger of a studio exec running down a page of Ebert’s Movie Yearbook and at the appropriate point a thought bubble forming over his head like a three-day-old fart: ‘Boys, we got ourselves the basis for a sequel to The Day The Earth Stood Still!’ That’s the last thing we need, believe me. The head-cancer-inducingly awful 2008 remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still is out on DVD on April 7th. If you’re holing up with some viewing matter over Easter and are lucky enough to be a member of a rental shop that doesn’t smell of popcorn, only stock copies of the latest Jason Statham release by the hundred and employ monosyllabic mouth-breathers, then do yourself a favour. Stop short of the Keanu chaos-in-a-basket in the D section of the A-Z and grab yourself a copy of the one where we catch fire rather than stand still.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire charts the fate of the planet following simultaneous American and Soviet nuclear tests that set it spinning off its axis towards the Sun. The story is primarily told through the experiences of Peter Stenning, a hard-drinking Daily Express journalist, for whom the impending global catastrophe is backdrop and metaphor for a personal journey through the loss and partial retrieval of faith in the human race.

Made in the wake of the CND Aldermaston march in 1958 and shortly before the Cuban missile crisis, the inhabitants of London (and thereby Britain), along with their leaders, are shown to be powerless in the face of the impending apocalypse. Practically all of the main characters display a weary, resigned cynicism. There is a sense that people must continue to play out their lives against the background of mounting international tension and likely obliteration, simply because there is little else they can do. However, as fights break out in the water rationing queues, beatniks party riotously and nihilistically in the streets and the evacuation process falters, we witness the gradual collapse of order and the evaporation of the national sang-froid.

Placing much of the drama in the offices of the Daily Express helps to suggest that the country can only report and comment on the crisis from the sidelines and no longer participate in global governance. The sense of lack of influence and loss of power is clearly tied to the erosion of Britain’s imperial role since the Second World War and the difficulty for Britons of coming to terms with having a diminished role in a changing world.

The loss of faith in former national and social institutions is emphasised through the character of Stenning; a borderline alcoholic, his marriage over, his career under threat. Little wonder that he regards the descent into anarchy going on around him with a jaundiced eye. He is propped up by his colleague Bill Maguire, a pivotal, patriarchal character who, as chief science writer for the Daily Express, deals with the crisis with a wry, weary but informed professionalism. He effectively provides the film’s commentary and presents the audience with a way to deal with the crisis in the absence or observed failure of conventional leadership. In some respects his deadpan cajoling provides the closest thing to reassuring stability and continuity, both for Stenning and the audience, in the film.

All rather relevant in the wake of G20. It’s been said before in relation to the film’s foreshadowing of global warming, but it bears restating; with every passing crisis the potency of The Day the Earth Caught Fire continues to abide. So if you want to watch a movie that seriously and intelligently deals with the global consequences of humankind’s actions, with a script that crackles louder than a forest fire and homespun special effects that don’t have CGI’s obliterating effect of spreading so much smooth peanut butter on your eyeballs, you know what to do.

Jez Conolly

Monday, 30 March 2009

A New Sound at the Cinema

The recent success of Anvil! The Story of Anvil has seen the heavy metal band performing live in cinemas across the UK. Gail Tolley looks at a growing trend for events that fuse film, music and performance at the cinema.

Music and film have long been comfortable bedfellows. From the ‘rockumentary’ (The Filth and the Fury, The Doors) to the fictional accounts of the rock and roll lifestyle (Almost Famous, Velvet Goldmine) to the biopic (Control, I’m Not There, The Devil and Daniel Johnston) – the list is endless. And that’s not even touching on the films which have seen bands performing as part of the story, just think of The Yardsticks performance in Blow Up or Nick Cave in Wings of Desire.

But Anvil!, the documentary about the Canadian heavy metal band, has taken this relationship one step further, not only by bringing the band into the cinema to perform after screenings but also by creating an experience that lasts long after the credits roll. The documentary follows the two main members of the group some 25 years after they first tasted success with their influential album Metal on Metal. Yet unlike their contemporaries, such as Metallica and Anthrax, the group never made it big. With a heavy nod to the spoof documentary This is Spinal Tap director Gervasi uses humour to entice the audience into what becomes an emotionally involved trip following the group as they continue to chase their childhood dreams. By the end of the film even those with a complete dislike for heavy metal will find themselves rooting for the band.

What appears to be unique about Anvil! was that the film experience, for many, lasted far beyond the 2 hours of the film. A quick search online shows that the group gained a dedicated following after the film’s release which has lead to them gaining prominent slots at festivals this summer. They’re due to play Download festival and there’s even a petition to get the ageing rockers to play at Glastonbury. Never have an audience been able to make such a difference or felt so involved with a film’s story – a story that still continues to develop. On release of the film the band also played a series of gigs in cinemas after screenings, for those lucky enough to get the opportunity to watch the film and then see the band it was an unusual case of the on and off screen world merging. More than any other film in recent years, Anvil! managed to create a truly interactive film experience as epitomised by the act of bringing live performances into the cinema.

Film events that fuse music, film and performance are an increasingly frequent occurrence at the cinema. At the Edinburgh International Film Festival last year Brighton indie stars British Sea Power performed against a backdrop of specially curated images and at Glasgow Film Festival a selection of local bands came together in a similar event, entitled Shhh! An Evening of (Not So) Silent Movies - playing to accompany films from the silent era. They’re not the only musicians to have been inspired to give live soundtracks to early silent films: front man Black Francis of influential 90s punk-rock group the Pixies, performed a specially composed score for German Expressionist film The Golem at the San Francisco Film Festival in 2008. And in the UK Steven Severin (of Siouxsie and the Banshees), recently created a modern day score for Germaine Dulac’s surrealist work The Seashell and the Clergyman. The Barbican in London have also taken to putting on monthly events of a similar nature.

Such events are almost a return to how cinema would originally have been experienced during the silent era; with audiences watching silent images with a live musical accompaniment. The growth and predominance of sound films has meant that the sense of performance at the cinema seems to have been lost – it’s often only at festivals that audiences feel compelled to clap after the film has finished. Bringing musicians into the cinema can only be a good thing - not only does it introduce new audiences to films from cinema’s early history but it also brings an energy and dynamism to the whole experience of seeing a film. Film (and music) fans hungry for something new won’t be disappointed.

Gail Tolley

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

“Again” – Why did the Coen brothers develop a taste for Swiss cigarettes?

British American Tobacco Switzerland is the producer of the Parisienne cigarette brand. Although one of its oldest brands, in recent times the company has broadly marketed it as the ‘truly Swiss’ brand and have taken pains to project it as ‘progressive’, dynamic’ and ‘an icon for the Swiss avant-garde spirit’.

This spirit has been projected through a series of advertisements produced exclusively for Swiss cinemas. Since the early 1990s a director noted for his avant-garde reputation has been given (apparently) complete carte blanche to produce a thirty-second commercial that presents their interpretation of the simple strapline “Parisienne people”. The campaign has included work by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Guiseppe Tornatore David Lynch, Roman Polanski, Wim Wenders and Robert Altman. In each case the work produced has contained many of the hallmarks and idiosyncrasies synonymous with these directors. In most cases the actual Parisienne product has barely featured in the finished advert, apart from the required strapline.

The 2003 entry was directed by Joel and Ethan Coen and demonstrates their characteristic quirkiness. The advert setting is reminiscent of a traditional Vaudevillian theatre. At the beginning of the advert we see a performer in heavy stage make-up, dressed in an antiquated pinstripe suit, bowtie and derby hat on the proscenium stage of the theatre, mid-way through an audition performance of the song “Wait ‘till the sun shines Nellie”. Our view of the performer is that of the show director overseeing the audition.

Shortly after the tumultuous final bars of the song the director, now focusing squarely on the performer, utters the simple response “Again”. At this the pianist can be heard playing the song’s introductory phrase and we are left assuming the performer is required to run through his
audition piece one more time. The piano phrase is accompanied by a static shot of a stage-mounted Vaudeville-style placard delivering the strapline and credit “Parisienne people by Joel & Ethan Coen” in customary theatrical script.

The use of the word “again” can be read in differing ways. In the most immediate sense it is the director giving an instruction for the performer to repeat his performance. It can also be read as an exclamation of the desire to revisit the moment of pleasure and artistic illumination derived from the smoking of the cigarette. This is arguably the central message of the advert; that people, specifically ‘Parisienne people’ such as the show director, achieve a state of heightened
creative contemplation through the smoking of this brand, a state that the discerning smoker can frequent at his or her leisure.
'The fact that the campaign would, outside of the Internet, only be viewed in Swiss cinemas, might have provided sufficient reassurance to the directors that their reputations would not be tarnished.'
To some extent this reading is only semi-serious. The Coens’ cinematic output shows them to have an artistic sense of humour and a penchant for pulling the legs of critics and audiences. Given the hackneyed characters and situation depicted, together with the apparent carte blanche extended to them, one can imagine the filmmakers having fun with the whole notion of selling a product through a process of subtext and implication.

Ultimately from the production company and product manufacturer’s point of view the main reasoning behind the Parisienne advertising campaign is that if film directors of the magnitude of the Coens, Lynch, Wenders and others are prepared to put their name to a brand of cigarette, that brand will on some level be imbued with a degree of cultural capital among the ‘progressive’ and ‘dynamic’ Swiss cinema-going audience. The on-screen directorial credit is at least if not more important than the advert strapline. It is a clear attempt to associate the Parisienne brand with the avant-garde aura possessed by these luminary directors.

One might speculate as to the reasons why these directors would be prepared to be involved with the promotion of such a controversial product. The endorsing of cigarettes by known public figures carries serious risks for those figures, if indeed they are concerned about how their association with the product would be viewed in a wider public context. The fact that the campaign would, outside of the Internet, only be viewed in Swiss cinemas, and only then appended to adult-rated films, might have provided sufficient reassurance to the directors that their reputations would not be tarnished.

The carrot of seemingly complete directorial control over the finished advert would perhaps have been an irresistible lure for some, although quite what would happen if one of these directors made full use of the carte blanche brief and submitted a vehemently anti-smoking advert is unclear. However, the opportunity to create a potentially highly personalised addition to their body of work may for some of the directors, who might otherwise struggle to find capital backing for their films, be motivation enough.

March 11th was National No Smoking Day. Stub it out film fans.

Jez Conolly

Monday, 2 March 2009

My Brother, the Film Star

You know how it is. You go to the DVD rental shop, you make your viewing choice based on some positive reviews that you’ve read, you take the disc home, slap it into the tray, spend five minutes hunting for the remote, eventually find it and press PLAY, start watching the film, get about three-quarters of the way through and then suddenly your brother appears on the screen.

Not fleetingly, not a street scene bystander or a face in the crowd, but stood on a beach, trousers rolled up, an accordion strapped to his chest, belting out a shanty. For several minutes uninterrupted.

OK, you probably don’t know how it is, but this is what happened to me when I first saw Andrew Kötting’s superb 1998 movie Gallivant. I was so taken aback to see John on the screen that I must surely have frantically knuckle-rubbed my eyes with all the cartoon surprise I could muster. Let me get my capsule review of the film out of the way right now:

Why…didn’t …he…tell…me…he…was…in…it?

Actually I shouldn’t really be surprised that he neglected to mention it. This is the man who I learned very recently from a taxi driver – just a random taxi driver mind you – used to schmooze with the likes of Paul Simon in the 60s. If I’m honest I’d long ago packed John’s music and reputation away in a little taped up cardboard box, felt-tip-pen-marked ‘Warning: contains weapons grade folk music – keep out of reach of small animals and potential girlfriends’. Suffice to say I was so bowled over by his performance, and not a little impressed by his association with one of our finest filmmakers, that I wore it like a badge for a few weeks. I told so many friends and colleagues about it that I lost track of who I’d told, and once or twice the tale’s lap of honour was met with “I know, you told me already”. So I stopped telling people. Until now.

Sibling stardom aside I really love Gallivant and recommend that you see it. To ease you into a viewing here’s my real actual review:

The patchwork travelogue journey taken by Andrew Kötting in the making of the film is both transformative and celebratory. Beginning and ending at Bexhill-on-Sea, Kötting, his grandmother Gladys and his daughter Eden travel together around the entire 6000 mile coastline of mainland Britain. Throughout their journey they meet a host of likeable, genial and frequently eccentric inhabitants on the fringes of the land, and in the process get to know each other. The need for this belated acquaintance is heightened by the knowledge that both Gladys and Eden have limited life expectancy. Gladys is drawing to the end of her days and Eden has the neurological condition Joubert Syndrome. In filming his family members undertaking this journey Kötting managed to capture an unsentimentalised yet affirming and personal pilgrimage shot through with touching intimacy. Gallivant’s language is the family seaside holiday home movie made manifest; its visual aesthetic is all Super 8 sans synch speech, primary colour picture postcard cut-ups interspersed with black and white jump cuts, flits between video and film, tripod and hand-held, in what one commentator described as an ‘idiot cubism’.

It is the succession of idiosyncratic local people that Kötting encounters in the coastal towns and wilds that gives the film its warmth and democracy. In his featured essay on Kötting for Luxonline, Gareth Evans’ opinion of Gallivant in his profile of the director bears this out: ‘It has a wide ear and eye, both for folk, their ways and for signage, for the scale sweep and the sweet stall. It makes the personal a generous filter into the social. It understands the switchback exchange between the two. Deeply, it belongs.’

Amid the flickbook of found moments Kötting pauses to persuade some of the locals variously to remember the words to the song ‘John Peel’, display their bunions, show off their best gurning face and deliver a whiskery sea shanty while slowly sinking into the sand at Cleethorpes.

Kötting deals in what Evans calls ‘the littoral truths of this island’; rather than use cosy, familiar icons of Nation-On-Sea as his currency of communication (save for occasional shots such as the beach huts at Bexhill that recall Betjeman) he chooses to look the Land in the face and speak as he finds. It would not be unreasonable to wonder why Kötting could not have simply opted for a more straightforward, logistical A to B journey. But this is an odyssey of understanding, a circuit of enlightenment. Only by completing his circumnavigation, by probing the nooks and crannies of the country’s beached margin, can Kötting capture the essence of his homeland and come to know his family and himself.

Jez Conolly

Sunday, 22 February 2009

The Dying of the Light

When is an hour only twenty five minutes long? When, in the experience of the late cinematographer Nestor Almendros, you’re talking about ‘Magic Hour’, the brief twilight period that he famously captured for Terrence Malick’s 1978 masterpiece Days Of Heaven.

In accounting for this apparent temporal anomaly Almendros described the term as “a euphemism…it is the moment when the sun sets, and after the sun sets and before it is night. The sky has light, but there is no actual sun. The light is very soft, and there is something magic about it." The logistical difficulties of exploiting such a fleeting moment would prove challenging for any director of photography. Even more so when one considers that Almendros was losing his eyesight at the time of the film’s making. In Almendros’ case there’s something clearly emblematic about his use of ‘Magic Hour’ in the Malick movie, a memorable last-chance-to-see tattooed on the retina as a final beautiful reminder of a world. When one considers his contribution, and those of other visually impaired filmmakers to this most visual of media, the consideration of film is perhaps lent an added dimension.

Few could deny the impact of the colour palate that John Ford used for The Searchers. And yet it’s unlikely that the man himself could fully appreciate the stunning earth and sky hues so superbly realised by his cinematographer Winton Hoch. Prior to making the film Ford entered hospital for the removal of cataracts. While recuperating after the surgery, he became impatient with the bandages covering his eyes and tore them off earlier than his doctors told him to. As a result Ford suffered a total loss of sight in one eye. Despite this setback there is little critical doubt that The Searchers remains the brightest beacon of Ford’s artistic vision. As such it’s interesting to imagine that this partial loss of sight may have worked in his favour, the colours in his creative mind coming to the fore through his script and art direction collaborations.
Aside from his well-regarded string of B-movies, André De Toth’s prime contribution to film history is his 1953 3D classic House Of Wax. It is one of cinema’s greatest ironies that the maker of arguably the finest example of 50s 3D was completely unable to appreciate the effects produced by the process, owing to the loss of an eye in his childhood. But again, is it possible that the director’s enforced detachment from the effects that he was striving to achieve could have given him a creative advantage? Perhaps there are parallels to be drawn between the product of Ford and De Toth’s labours and the effect that poor sight lent to the works of Claude Monet (cataracts) and Edgar Degas (maculopathy) – would their output have been less outstanding if they had been blessed with 20/20 vision?

It remains to be seen – pardon the pun – whether the work of the blind filmmaker Joe Monks can be credited with any similar qualities. Monks, an independent comics groundbreaker for the past two decades, lost his eyesight in 2002 after a long battle with diabetic retinopathy. Since then he has completed his first feature The Bunker. Monks is quite clear about how the blindness has affected his output: “I think it would be a thousand times more difficult if I had never been able to see…It isn't about being blind and making a film. It's about making the film despite being blind. Every filmmaker has obstacles, I just happen to have one that's unique and a little more difficult to get around than a producer clamping down on spending or scheduling conflicts with the actors. I know it adds a great angle to this story, but what's important isn't a blind guy making a film, it's--hopefully--about a guy making a good film who happens to be blind.”

Jez Conolly

Monday, 16 February 2009

Dare You Delve Inside the Mind of Film Director Mark Locke?!...

…Those who have would probably say they couldn’t forget the experience, and wouldn’t want to give up the laughs for anything.

Yes, Birmingham has a secret you should definitely know about.

People who saw Locke’s acclaimed 2002 film Crust—pub landlord and failing boxer, plus girlfriend Shaz, take on the world... aided by a lethal seven-foot boxing shrimp—know the man is not afraid to be different, nor does he give a damn for humoring trends. He just wants to make good films, for the people.

While countless young film-makers spent the early ‘90s moaning about ‘breaking-in’, Locke grabbed a camera, took the film world by the balls and shook it ‘til it screamed.
In 2009, long after critics hailed Locke’s early shoestring shorts as cult-classics (including curry house nightmare, Eat In and When I Leave The Sixth Form I’m Getting Straight Into Something Media Related), the man is back with Three Stags, and he hasn’t lost his grip.

Q: Your shorts were unique—unusually touching, hilarious, and occasionally disgusting all at once. What was your attitude when you started and how has it developed since?
A: It’s more or less stayed the same, I just try to make the kind of films I’d personally like to see. Though there’s always a battle between the side of me that comes up with odd ideas and the side that tries to ground them in reality. So the material usually ends up somewhere in the middle, for example three ordinary people and an enlarged crustacean, or vampires running a garden centre.

Music videos seem to have been a natural progression from your shorts. What was the big break that made you think ‘great, no more crap jobs!’?
There wasn’t one, and there’s always a chance that a crap job might have to be an option because even with music videos - I think of them as pretty personal things and I’m not gonna chase big gigs for money if I’m not into the music. However I recently became a Dad so watch this space for my Girls Aloud video.

People may say ‘Mark who…Locke?’, even though you’ve just finished two new Misty’s Big Adventure videos and before that directed infamous anti-folk hero Jeffrey Lewis’s Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror. Where have you been since 2002’s Crust?
Crust sent me into a bit of a spin 'cos the final thing didn’t totally feel like my movie. I’m still proud I had the balls to try it as a first feature but the vibe of it is a bit Full Monty with big shrimp whereas I was after more of a Jim Jarmusch film with big shrimp kinda feel. So I was in no rush to make another three million quid movie and I was also enjoying doing music videos for bands I loved for a while. But I kept writing new stuff and eventually stuck my head above the parapet to get something made, just on a lower budget and on my own terms, like my shorts.

How did you get to know Kevin McNally (of both Crust and Pirates of the Caribbean fame)?
He came in and he was great. He’s a great guy. He had his Pirates beard at our premiere as he was just off to do the first one, and he snogged my next door neighbour Jill with it.

You’re known universally for comedy. What other M.L. media projects people might not be aware of?
I recently did an UNKLE video, which surprised a few people—but it had the required moodiness and just won a best music video award, so I’m allowed to call it my award-winning UNKLE video now. Plus my two new Misty’s videos aren’t comedy either, in fact you might even get choked up over them if you’re in any way sensitive.

You begin shooting Three Stags this summer. What can fans of your previous work expect? How will the world react to the second-feature coming of Mark Locke... is it ready for the shake down?
Well there’s no bonkers idea for a start, since some stuff I wanna do is low concept and 100% reality-based. It’s about a non-macho guy trying to navigate his way through three different stag weekends in one summer, and has what could be my favourite movie tagline ever – ‘five men, one big pussy’. But it’s not gonna be some cheesy Britcom, it’s in the spirit of films like Swingers and Sideways and other good American Indies that are low key with a lot of heart. Although I’ll try and deliver on the tits and debagging front too, obviously.

Three Stags begins pre-production in the spring. To see a selection of Mark’s films visit

Interview by Chris Pink

Monday, 9 February 2009

The Road to nowhere?

There’s an empty place setting at this year’s awards nominee banquet. Missing from the Slumdog/Winslet/Ledger group hug is John Hillcoat’s take on the post-apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy novel The Road.
The film was originally slated for a November 2008 release, easily putting it into the Oscars running and tipped by many as a serious contender, but has instead remained firmly ‘in post production’ on IMDB and currently still has no firm release date in 2009. While the no-show can be partly put down to the financial turmoil at Weinstein who decided to put all their eggs in one basket and back The Reader as their best shot at commercial and awards success this time around, there are arguably some underlying wider cultural reasons why now is not the time for a movie about the collapse of Western Civilisation as we know it.

At a time when people in the US and around the world are pinning their hopes on the Obama Advent to lead them back from the brink of oblivion, nervy producers are going to be disinclined to push something that offers a glimpse of a possible future world where all of the feared financial, political and environmental collapses have already happened. Or maybe they just feel that the pre-millennial tension and post 9/11 sobriety ‘Armageddon Dollar’ has finally been exhausted. Whatever the case, it’s hard not to feel that a film with such outstanding potential and credentials – Viggo Mortenson working with Hillcoat who’s coming off the back of the much-lauded The Proposition to ride the McCarthy No Country For Old Men book-to-film bounce – is a casualty of downturn-inspired jitters because of the horrors that it presents.

It’s interesting to reflect upon the relationship between the Great Depression of the 1930s and the hugely successful cycle of horror movies produced by Universal Studios at the time. The intention behind these films, and horror fiction and film before and after the Universal cycle, was to bring people back from the brink through a form of engaged escapism. Audiences’ fears were embodied by the fantastical monsters that confronted them on screen and the creatures’ eventual death or destruction encapsulated the desire to see an end to those fears. However some commentators have suggested that part of the success of the 1930s Universal horrors was based on American audiences’ association of the monsters with ‘aliens’ in their midst and their long-held but misconceived belief that immigration lay at the heart of their country’s predicament. Certainly the likes of Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Mummy could be viewed as frightening embodiments of otherness from the Old Country.

The truth is that good horror satisfies through the sublimation of whatever fears each individual audience member brings into the cinema with them, a point that William Freidkin has often made to disavow himself of any subjectivity in relation to the way The Exorcist was and continues to be received. One can only hope that audiences will eventually have a chance to judge for themselves in the case of The Road. The concern is that the current downtime is being used to up the cannibal-holocaust ‘fear of the Other’ quotient and dilute the serious potency of the message. If this is the case we can look forward to a post-Easter/pre-Summer burial for the movie – if we’re lucky, straight-to-DVD hell beckons – and guaranteed invisibility come the 2010 round of gongs. The static placeholder screen at is kind of pointing to this.

In the mean time you could always read the book.

Jez Conolly

Thursday, 5 February 2009

I Went to the Movies and All I Remember Were the Filthy Rats

While settling down to watch Revolutionary Road at my local cinema last week, the customary roll of ads flicked by until one particular thirty second spot nearly made me drop my popcorn – and lose my lunch.

The ad, by pharmaceutical giants Pfizer, uses a dead rat being pulled out of man’s mouth to allude to the dangers of counterfeit drugs – informing us that rat poison is just one of the many dangerous substances found in drugs bought online.
Mmmm, thanks.

Reminiscent of the banned X.Cite chewing gum ad of a few years back in which another furry fellow emerges from a man’s cakehole (this time a scruffy looking dog) – and which was pulled due to a flood of viewer complaints – the Pfizer spot uses the same innocuous opening few seconds to lull us into a false sense of security before hurling its stomach-churning ‘money shot’ straight into the audiences snack laden laps.

Now, to be fair shock advertising of this sort isn’t new and does occasionally have its merits.
Perhaps, like me, you were brought up on all those horrific public information films of the 70s and 80s in which cute kids would come to a sticky end in all manner of nasty ways such as electrocution, railway disasters and cycle crashes and so became somewhat inured to shock tactics in advertising. More recent campaigns by the likes of Barnardos, Think! Road Safety and Benetton have also come mighty close to bad taste in their use of shock to inform, but once in a while an ad comes along that makes you think as well as simply remember.

But jeez c’mon, a stinky rat… out of a man’s mouth… while I’m eating my jelly beans!!?

What happened to those nice, cuddly adverts for the local curry house or carpet showroom I so fondly remember from my youth? Those blink-and-you’ll-miss-them idents all shaky and out of focus as if directed by an inebriated, one-eyed, second hand car salesman. Pearl & Dean, Kiaora and Muzak.

The pre-feature ad in cinemas should gently ease the audience towards the main event, not club you over the head, strip you naked and pour hot coals down your trousers (difficult I know if you’ve been stripped naked, but you get the point). Whether it be gobby rats, 13 year old junkies or suicidal transvestites, I have paid my six quid to be entertained thankyou (albeit in a rather sombre way considering Revolutionary Road’s subject matter) and do not take kindly to having my conscience prodded (and stomach churned) while knowing full well that you Mr. Adman know I have no choice other than to sit and watch.

Please. A light beverage suggestion here, some confectionary advice there – a gentle neon strobe effect with a polite notice to discard my waste on the way out. This is the extent of the mental exercise that should be exerted on me while I sit in my ridiculously overpriced velour contoured seat. The cinema-going experience has been likened to that of being in the womb and I’ll be damned if some ad exec is going to soil my cocooned existence with his (well it has to be a he doesn’t it?) filthy product, no matter how nobly and justly dressed up.

So please, let’s keep the rodents out of my local picture house.
Unless it’s a re-run of Ratatouille.

Check out the ‘offending’ advert:

How they used to do it in the good old days:

Gabriel Solomons