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, AndrĂ© 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

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Hollywood Gave Me Unrealistic Expectations About Love

Despite our ongoing need for the boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl routine, somehow we consistently have to remind ourselves that as a rule, Hollywood’s depictions of love are far from realistic. It’s because of such films like Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail (both co-written and directed by Nora Ephron) that we are conditioned to expect a happily ever after: a dizzying motion as we are swept up in an all-consuming kiss and a drive off into the sunset with a ‘just married’ banner strung to the rear bumper. What is so easily forgotten about these films is that they all deal with the same stage of a relationship – the thrill of the chase. The road to love is only ever exciting when obstacles are put in its way – a love rival, a set of awkward parents or a geographical divide. What these films rarely consider is what we in life have to face – what happens after the happily ever after?

Why is it we rarely consider this part? In our own lives we are constantly looking towards the future yet when we watch a film, we are perfectly content to accept that the satisfying, well-rounded resolution to the story is the end. There will be no more changes. No one would dare to question Annie and Sam’s future in Sleepless regardless of the fact they have only exchanged a handful of words during the whole film. Without question they will be together forever. Similarly, in Casablanca, we don’t expect that Rick and Ilsa will make attempts to reunite – we are left satisfied that they will go on to enjoy the rest of their lives regardless of their separation.

The films which started the whole comical routine of falling in love were the screwball comedies of the 1930s beginning famously with Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable. These comedies emerged as a result of the Motion Picture Production Code which in 1930, stated that ‘the sanctity of marriage and the home shall be upheld and scenes of passion should not be introduced when not essential to the plot’. Consequently Hollywood devised its own way of bringing men and women together in a comedic battle of the sexes. Like its successors, these films would also only let their leads get together in the closing frames of the film, quite often with the hint, or perhaps vivid depiction of holy matrimony.
Sleepless in Seattle deliberately hones in on the female aspiring to love in the movies. The characters of Annie (Meg Ryan) and Becky (Rosie O’Donnell) weep over the romanticism of An Affair to Remember (Leo McCarey) telling themselves ‘you don’t want to be in love, you want to be in love in a movie’. Women’s preoccupation with great romances of the past is not by any means a unique theme in romantic comedy. Several films – You’ve Got Mail, Bridget Jones’s Diary (Sharon Maguire) and The Jane Austen Book Club (Robin Swicord) make reference to one of literatures finest romantic novels, Pride & Prejudice. The saddest part is, if you take the time to watch the biopic, Becoming Jane (Julian Jarrold), and read about the real Jane Austen you will find that she lived a lonely existence and had very little experience of romance at all. The fact is these films offer a sense of hope and a sphere of escapism. They deliver the opportunity for us to nostalgically daydream about a fictional past. They are essentially fairytales for adults with love as a product, marketed by the movie industry to sell films. That’s what it’s all about at the end of the day – is it not?

Joanna Beard