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