Wednesday, 29 October 2008

London Film Festival, Part II

What follows are a few thoughts on the films and events that I was able to catch during the second half of the London Film Festival. You can find my thoughts on what I saw during the first half in my previous post, here.

As stated in the intro to the first part, these posts are by no means meant to be a thorough report on the festival as a whole, but more like a few notes on each of the films I saw and the events I attended. Items are listed by the order in which I saw them.

High Treason (1928)
Made in 1928, High Treason was shot in two versions; one a talkie and one a silent. It is now believed that the sound on the talkie version has disintegrated to the point of being unscreenable, and so it was the silent version that was shown. The film screened as part of the 'London Loves' strand of the festival, which shows British silent films at free outdoor screenings in Trafalgar Square. Although it's a great idea, it does, of course, have one inherent flaw: being outside, in London, in October. About a minute into the screening it started raining, and I'd be lying if I said I enjoyed the experience of watching the film outside in the pouring rain. However, I did enjoy the film. It tells the story of the World League of Peace attempting to prevent a war between the Federated States of Europe and the Atlantic States after a 'border incident' occurs. Set in the highly futurist world of (ahem) 1950, the film was supposedly attempting to be a British answer to Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Well, Metropolis it ain't, but that doesn't mean that there isn't plenty to enjoy here. Sure, there are aspects of this future world that don’t quite make sense, some of the character motivations aren't clear, and it has a sense of morality so strong that it feels like a propaganda piece, but it's solidly made and good looking. Furthermore, there are some interesting ideas raised about war and peace which, although perhaps rather simplistic, still seem pertinent today, and at times the film seemed strangely prophetic in some of the details of its imagined future. In my opinion, it's a film which definitely deserves to be seen by silent cinema aficionados.

At the screening, High Treason was preceded by a great little comedy short from 1924, called
The Fugitive Futurist. It's available on YouTube through the BFI (here), and I certainly recommend a quick look.

The Ethical Problem of Violence on Film
A free panel discussion on the topic of the title, between the filmmakers
Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, Pat Holden, Richard Jobson and BBFC examiner Hammad Khan, hosted by film professor and writer Linda Ruth Williams. Although the discussion was always interesting, I didn't find it particularly insightful (in that I don’t feel like I walked away necessarily knowing anything more than what I knew when I went in, a few specific example asides). However, an interesting point was made by Hammad Khan about what he perceives as the distinction between the Hollywood treatment of violence and the way that it is treated by independent filmmakers. Hollywood, he suggested, presents the violence in a way that will be passively accepted by the audience, while independent filmmakers often attempt to get viewers to engage with what they are seeing, and to think about both the violence on the screen and their own reactions to it (and thus we get the mainstream wave of so-called 'torture porn' as opposed to, say, Michael Haneke's damning critiques of violent cinema).

Benicio Del Toro Screen Talk
Benicio Del Toro was in London to promote the UK premiere of his new film Che, and, as a result, a lot of this talk understandably centred around the film (for more on which, see below). Throughout the interview, Del Toro came across as affable and amiable, with a tendency for rich, self-deprecating humour ("I'm one of those fucking 'hair' actors!".) However, although clearly intelligent and articulate, he frequently broke off his answers with "brah brah brah brah", stating that he felt he was talking too much! It often seemed as if he didn't want to say too much, or, perhaps, that he wasn't able to comment on something which is, to him, an internal process (for example, when asked about his use of facial expressions, he replied "I don't think about it. It just happens".) In this way, he reminded me of Woody Allen. All in all, the talk was a good accompaniment to the screening of Che, but perhaps a little disappointing within itself.

Che (
Part I and Part II, 2008)
[For clarity, I refer below to the film as Che, and the man as Guevara].

Despite its perhaps unconventional approach to the genre,
Steven Soderbergh's two-part epic must, essentially, be understood as a biopic. As a result of this, much of what has been written and said about Che has focused (perhaps rightly, perhaps unfairly), on its portrayal of Ernesto "Che" Guevara (played here brilliantly by Benicio Del Toro). Some, it seems, are outraged that the film was made at all, feeling it to be another example of 'Hollywood leftism' going too far in glorifying a murderer, while others, it seems, are criticising the film for not glorifying him enough. Whatever one thinks of Guevara as a man (and personally I feel ambivalent and under qualified to make a staunch judgment), one cannot deny that he has become a cultural icon. Furthermore, it must be admitted, on both sides of the argument, that his image is far more widely seen (and sold) than it is understood. And it is this reason – as opposed to an unbridled glorification – that both Soderbergh and Del Toro have given for embarking on the project: to help people understand the man behind the icon.

Soderbergh has stated, moreover, that the intention behind the project was simply to give a sense of what it was like to 'hang out' with Guevara. From my viewpoint, I felt that the film achieved this perfectly. Predominately framing in long and medium shots, Soderbergh's camera acts almost as a casual observer to Guevara's actions. The effect of this on the film is what feels like an objective, nonjudgmental stance: we, as viewers, are left to interpret Guevara's work and actions as we see fit (and the film's meditative pace gives the viewer plenty of time in which to do this). At the Screen Talk the night before the screening, Del Toro firmly stated, much to the derision of some in the audience, that there were many things that he respects in Guevara, but also things in him with which he disagrees (like his support of the death penalty). This ambivalent sentiment, which admittedly does reflect my own stance on Guevara, seemed to be embedded within the film. Although I believe that the objectivity towards Guevara continues throughout both parts of Che, Part II does perhaps lean our sympathy more pointedly towards Guevara and his cause, by painting the Bolivian government as blacker than black. However, despite pointing our sympathy towards Guevara, I don't believe that the film ever glorifies his actions.

By taking a distant and cerebral stylistic approach to the material, Soderbergh shows us the inherent tedium of guerilla warfare, while also showing us its sheer brutality. At no times revelling in its violence, the film shows us the cold, remorselessness of war (thus giving lie to the silly idea that all war films inherently end up glorifying war, as recently discussed on Shooting People). At no time did I feel like the film was embracing Guevara as a hero, because, quite frankly, its style constantly keeps us at one remove. For some this is the film's greatest problem, and people have seen it as a sign of the film's failure (and indeed I could sense a growing restlessness around me in the cinema). It is, however, precisely this seemingly apathetic treatment which stops the film from descending into hero-worshiping propaganda.

As always with Soderbergh's films, Che looks amazing. I honestly believe that Soderbergh, besides being a great director, is also one of the most accomplished and underrated cinematographers working in mainstream cinema, and this film clearly supports that belief. Much has been made elsewhere about the difference in style between the two parts (later to be released as separate films), but in my opinion the difference is more in tone than in style: Part II has a narrower, more claustrophobic aspect ratio, a different, more emotive type of score, and a simpler, more focused, linear structure (Part I flashes back and forth between Guevara's campaign in Cuba and his trip to New York years later). Along with the increased sense of sympathy for Guevara as mentioned above, the tonal differences in the second part lead to an increasing sense of jeopardy in, and engagement with, the work. That said, I think that, perhaps because of the non-linear structure, Part I is potentially the more impressive and interesting of the two. However, that aside, I do believe that the films should be taken as a single work, and I'm certainly glad I had the opportunity to see them in this way. At the Screen Talk, Del Toro stated that Soderbergh explains the two part structure as Guevara making five moves which work on one girl, and then trying the same five moves on another girl, only for them not to work. Thus the first part supports the second, and vice versa.

As one whole, single piece, the film has the epic feel and scope of the auteur cinema of the 1970s. Indeed,
Terrence Malick was on board the project for a while, and, whether remnants of his contribution or pure coincidence, there are times when his work is invoked (most notably in a beautiful shot of the revolutionists crossing the river in Part II which recalls the striking opening shot of Malick's The New World).

Although I don't think that Che stands as Soderbergh's greatest film, I do believe that it is a landmark achievement in modern cinema, providing a fascinating and unbiased examination of an important and controversial cultural icon. I hope that, in time, it will overcome the mixed reaction it received at Cannes, and come to be genuinely regarded as the masterpiece of cinema it so clearly is.

The Living Corpse (1929)
The Living Corpse, is not, as its title might suggest, a Caligari-style horror piece, but is, instead, a rare, silent melodrama about the limiting of personal freedom under a state-controlled society (and indeed it takes this to a propagandist extreme, showing just how unhappy state laws which limit freedom can make people be). The story revolves around Fyodor Protasov's (excellently played by none other than
Vsevolod Pudovkin) attempts to get divorced from his wife, who he believes is in love with another man, so that she can be free to live happily with this man (it has to be said, though, that the film muddles this a little bit, implying at one point that Protasov and his wife's sister might have feelings for one another, implying at another that it's Protasov who's responsible for the disintegration of the marriage and not his wife, and inconsistently suggesting several times that his wife loves only him and not the other man – it's also unclear if it's the characters or the filmmakers who are confused). Directed by Fyodor Otsep, the film was the first international coproduction between Germany and Russia, and the style of the film seems to draw from both of these traditions, mixing muted expressionism with moments of flashy and effective montage (with many striking uses of cross fades and double exposures, and some great practical implementations of Eisenstein's intellectual montage theory). The film has a beauty and a physical texture to it that one can only find in silent cinema, and it's certainly a well made and enjoyable film. However, in addition to the confusion I’ve already noted, there is also a major flaw in its central plot point, which is hard to discuss without giving too much away. Suffice it to say, then, that the central plot development on which the whole film hinges is, unfortunately, unbelievable and unconvincing (and also not fully explained). In all, I think it has enough good and interesting things in it to make it worth recommending (and it may also be of interest to cineastes as Martin Koerber's first restoration), but ultimately it remains an unsatisfying experience.

Despite not ending on the high with which it began, my experience at this year's festival has been a great one, and the only shame is that I didn't get to see more. Other people I've spoken to have agreed that it's been a strong year for the festival, and recurring highlights from others include
Hunger and Lake Tahoe.

Roll on LFF 2009!

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Monday, 27 October 2008

London Film Festival, Part I

What follows are a few thoughts on the films and events that I was able to catch during the first half of the London Film Festival. As this post has gotten rather lengthy, I will post the second part – about the screening and events I attended during the second half of the festival – later in the week.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to afford tickets for anywhere near the number of films that I would have liked to have seen at the festival, but luckily I did manage to get tickets for everything I tried for. Due to the idiosyncrasy of the final selection, this post is by no means meant to be a thorough report on the festival as a whole, but more like a few notes on each of the films I saw and the events I attended.

Items are listed by the order in which I saw them.
As I have alluded to elsewhere, one of things I like most about Joe Swanberg's work is that each piece he does has a strong idea behind it. Here the idea was to explore a long distance relationship, and especially its more unpleasant side. Furthermore, within this outer idea, there are, embedded within seemingly throw away lines, many other ideas, and it is one of these which has really caught my attention: the question of what role we will play in someone else's story. As the saying goes, there are two sides to every story, and Nights and Weekends plays as a strong two-hander between Greta Gerwig's Mattie and Swanberg's James. In years to come, Mattie asks, if they are no longer together, what role will she play in James' versions of events? Will she be forgotten and not mentioned at all in the telling of his life, or will she form a poignant memory? The moment she asks this in the film is certainly a poignant moment, and it's one of many in a film built upon the types of moments which many films leave out altogether.

Once again, Swanberg has created a world populated by real people. One of the best things about his films is, for me, the way that his people look like people – their skin is not airbrushed Hollywood perfection, and the film’s penetrating close-ups allow us to see these real faces looking real. I've
recently expressed my positive views on the close up of the human face, and, quite frankly, what faces these are, because they are real faces. As the quote on the poster rightly states, the film is 'so close to real life, it's barely a movie', and seeing life captured in this way not only allows us a glimpse into the lives of the characters, but, most importantly of all, also allows us a reflective glimpse of ourselves (and let’s not forget what it tells us about the filmmakers and actors behind the film).

Birdsong (aka
El Cant dels ocells, 2008)
There is a line near the beginning of this film, which tells the story of The Three Wise Men travelling across the desert to visit the baby Jesus, when one of the Kings says to the others 'At times we’re awe-struck by the beauty of things'. As the film unfolds, the statement begins to seem almost like a reflexive manifesto, or perhaps like a viewer’s response. For, whatever people say of
Albert Serra's film, and I’m sure that the film will have its detractors, I defy anyone to claim that it's not beautiful.

The film unfolds in a series of long, static shots. With minimal use of dialogue and editing, and only one use of music, the film certainly won't be for those short on patience (indeed, several people walked out of the screening I attended). Many of the scenes play out in one or two shorts, and the majority of these shots are wide enough to keep us at one remove from the facial expressions – and thus the inner thoughts – of the characters. In its wordless scenes of the Kings wandering the desert, the film called to my mind the similar endurance-testing lethargic beauty of
Gus Van Sant's Gerry. The film’s sheer refusal to compromise also bought to mind the films of Michael Haneke and Béla Tarr, and indeed the static nature of Serra's camera could almost be read as a response to Tarr's waltzing kineticism. Despite their differences (and there are many) what these two filmmakers do share is an eye for creating images of crisp black and white perfection, and sometimes seemingly never-ending duration.

However, if all of this makes Birdsong sound overly dry, then I've misled you: there's a strong, rich vein of humour throughout the film.

In the question-and-answer session which followed the film, Serra revealed that he thinks of Birdsong as a spiritual film (which 'shows a very innocent version of religion'), but, although admitting that he is 'ultra' Catholic, stated that he sees it more as 'a work of art' than a polemical religious text. When I asked him after the session what the influences on his film were, he answered by naming the neorealist directors (and especially their religious works, such as
Rossellini's God's Jester and Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew). Like the films of those neorealist masters, Birdsong struck me as a very human film, very down to earth and very, well, 'dirty'. Although some of the shots in the film are almost abstract in their lightness or darkness, there is a constant foregrounding and emphasis on the physical world around the characters. This emphasis results not only from the choice of long shot as the predominant shot size, but also from the fact that the extreme duration of the shots allows for clouds to move far enough overhead that the lighting conditions are often visibly changing. As a consequence of this focus on the environment, the film grounds the action on earth, and in the mud, the perfect framing all the while making it beautiful.

While it seems that the intention behind this beautifying of nature may well have been to imbue the film with some kind of
teleological spirituality, the ultimate result of it is, for me at least, a humanising of the story: instead of mystical transcendence, I felt that – despite the references to and the appearances of angles – the film was almost secularising the story through its constant emphasis on Earth's physicality.

To illustrate my point, I offer an example of almost the antithesis:
The Passion of Joan of Arc. Here, Dreyer achieves transcendence by reducing the background of the (often close-up) images to as plain a canvas as he could, and fragmenting the film’s grammar, thus placing the action of the film on a spiritual, metaphysical plane (apologies, but I am again drawing upon Rudkin here). Although the plane of Birdsong is indeed plain, it is also nature, life, beauty, and here we are reminded not of the spirit, but of the body.

Although it might sound like it, I by no means wish this to come across as a criticism of the film. The film is clearly a masterwork by a truly visionary director, and my point is only that, when all is said and done, the film seemed (to me) closer to the secular, depopulated landscapes of Antonioni than it did to the transcendent spaces of Dreyer, Bresson or
Bergman. Indeed, I wonder if, in some ways, the Jesus of Birdsong is more human and less God than even the Jesus of The Last Temptation of Christ.

Indiewood Is Dead... Long Live the New, True Indies
Indiewood is Dead... was an excellent panel discussion about the state of American Independent cinema, featuring
Ramin Bahrani, Azazel Jacobs, Barry Jenkins (see also below), Kelly Parker and Joe Swanberg (see also above), and chaired by LFF programmer Michael Hayden. The panellists entered the discussion with full gusto and insight, with only Kelly Parker perhaps getting a little sidelined.

When discussing what the term 'independent' means to filmmakers today, they all seemed to agree that it was about a refusal to compromise, with Jacobs suggesting that this should be taken to the extreme: to be independent, he suggested, is to make a film without thinking about your audience, and to make the film first and foremost for yourself. Swanberg, meanwhile, suggested the truthful albeit cynical point of view that the term has become a marketing tool used to help filmmakers sell their films.

Bahrani suggested that the market for independent US cinema is not as strong as it once was. With the proliferation of digital filmmakers, many territories now have their own sustainable markets and are therefore not importing as many titles, while the multitude of choice means that the audience is thinner spread, making it harder to have a true breakout film. Seemingly on the flipside of this, Jenkins thinks that the new digital platforms for films will open up a range of choices for filmmakers which were not previously available. Both Jenkins and Swanberg suggested that independent filmmaking needs to learn from independent music, with Swanberg also suggesting that filmmakers should learn to be okay with 'touring' and then 'coming off the road' in order to work a day job for a few months to make a living. Furthermore, they should learn to be okay with their films only playing to a limited audience, and keep working in the hope that the audience will grow with each successive film and each successive 'tour'. Jacobs offered support to this mindset, by positing that there is no longer a stigma attached to not securing a distribution deal, and pointing out that self-distribution is an option (though it’s not an option that Bahrani would approve, suggesting that it takes too much energy away from the filmmaking itself). Indeed, Swanberg suggested that if filmmakers keep working, and each film makes a little bit of money, they will, over time, be able to create a sustainable career. Finally, Swanberg also talked about the immediacy of making content for the internet, the freedom it offers, and its direct line to the audience (which also therefore acts as publicity for other work).

From my perspective, as audience member and filmmaker, the talk was entertaining, insightful and informative (and more so than my notes above suggest). All of the panellists spoke very well, and I look forward to seeing the films of those whose work I'm not yet familiar with.

Medicine for Melancholy (2008)
Medicine for Melancholy marks
Barry Jenkins' first foray into feature filmmaking, and it's a startling, breathtaking debut. Mixing racial politics with great characters who we can actually believe in, the film plays out with love and humour. Love for the characters, yes, but also for the city that they spend a day and a night wandering around, and at times the whole thing seems like a love letter to San Francisco. But as lead character Micah says, although he loves the city, he also hates it, and the film doesn't shy away from exploring some of the city's political problems. Visually accomplished and always absorbing, the film is beautiful and heart-warming, with a fascinating use of near black and white filmic colour supporting the narrative's emphasis on Micah's obsession with race. Brilliantly acted and stunningly shot, the film is one of the strongest debut films I've seen from recent years, and I hope that the film manages the success that it deserves.

[Update 29/10/08: click here for Part II of this report]

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Friday, 24 October 2008

Quote for the Week

I’ve recently started reading In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu (seems I’m still a little bit in Vampyr mode), and this quote, from the story Green Tea, seems, to me, to support the ideas behind my post from earlier in the week:

‘There are certain expressions of that powerful organ of spirit – the human face – which, although I have seen them often, and possess a doctor’s nerve, yet disturb me profoundly’.

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Monday, 20 October 2008

In Defence of the Close-Up of the Human Face

Over the last fifty-or-so years there has developed a notion that the close-up, and especially the close-up of the human face, is 'uncinematic'. The reason for this notion seems to be, principally, as follows: the size of the screen on a television set is significantly smaller than the screen at the cinema. Wide, panoramic shots therefore hold up less well on television, as one can't see the details (due to the small size), and so, in the syntax of television, the close-up is king. If this holds true, then the close-up becomes 'uncinmetic' by nature of being a 'televisual' device (for the cinema has a want and need - both artistic and economic - to distance itself from television). Moreover, of course, the size of that giant screen should be used to full effect (so the argument goes) and show us a jaw-dropping panorama in awe-inspiring detail. Although it could be argued that things are changing as the size of television sets and the use of home projections increases, so too must mention be made of the increasing number of people whose primary screening medium is the minute online stream.

I feel it necessary, therefore, to briefly comment in defence of the close-up, before it becomes not only 'uncinematic', but also 'untelevisual'.

It is hard to sum up in words the powerful effect that the human close-up can hold, or the transcendence it can achieve. In his monograph on Vampyr, (which I referenced recently here), David Rudkin mentions that
Benjamin Christensen 'locates the cinema's true landscape of ecstasy and suffering in the human face' (page 8) and I think this goes a long way to capturing my point perfectly. Rudkin goes on to to comment that Carl Th. Dreyer 'spoke of the face as a 'land that one never tires of exploring'' (ibid), and again this supports my point. Through studying the human face the very essence of our being becomes visible, and I find it hard to see how anyone could find that 'uncinematic'. This ability, to make visible the very nature of being, is what defines cinema as an art form, what makes it alive, and what gives it its power.

To illustrate my point, I leave you with four images, two from acknowledged masters of cinema, and two from contemporary directors who I believe could well prove themselves also to be all time masters:

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Monday, 13 October 2008


Being a self-confessed, and shameless, 'Scorsese fan boy', I have, several times now, had to endure a conversation which goes along the following lines:

Me: Yeah, I'm actually a big Scorsese fan.
So-Called Big Scorsese Fan: Oh yeah, me too! He's actually my favourite filmmaker!
Me: Oh, cool. (Beat). What did you think of The Last Temptation of Christ?
SCBSF: Oh, I didn't see that one.
Me: Oh, okay. Did you like The Age of Innocence though?
SCBSF: Yeah right, like I saw that one!
Me: Kundun?
SCBSF: Kun-what?
Me: New York, New York?
SCBSF: Come on…
Me: Gangs of New York?
SCBSF: Didn’t see it. Heard it was rubbish.

By this point I've normally given up, but if I'm in an argumentative mood, I'll carry on the conversation, and it'll play out something like this:

Me: You do know that The Last Temptation of Christ and Gangs of New York were both long-cherished projects of his, right?
SCBSF: So what. I saw GoodFellas and Taxi Driver.
Me (despairing): You know, all the films I've mentioned are amongst his best work...
SCBSF: Piss off. Everyone knows his best films are GoodFellas and Taxi Driver.

And this is the point at which I sigh, hang my head in (their) shame, and walk away...

The problem with these 'So-Called Big Scorsese Fans' is by no means with the works that they like. Scorsese is a great filmmaker who makes great films, and, to date, he's only made one film which has left me cold. As a body of work, his oeuvre is immense, full to the brim with towering achievements and full of staggering variety. And in this lies my point. A study (hell, not even a study: a quick glance) at his body of work as a whole shows a depth and breadth all too often overlooked. To be absolutely clear about this, I am by no means wishing to belittle or insult the achievements of the more popular works; my point is simply that there's a lot more to Scorsese than gangsters and guns. And this is what gets missed by people, even by his so-called 'fans'. Furthermore, Scorsese is, was, and probably always will be first and foremost a spiritual filmmaker.

Sidestepping the fact that, as a child, Scorsese considered entering the priesthood, to concentrate on the films themselves, Scorsese's religious vein can be detected right from his very first feature, most commonly known as Who's That Knocking at My Door? (which actually shows exactly how fully-formed Scorsese's themes and style were right from the off). The film itself is tied up through and through with Catholic guilt, and already shows the outside world clashing with faith (and, what's more, through the use of candles!): in one scene, the Girl lights some candles for dinner, only for J.R. (a young Harvey Keitel) to inform her that these are 'holy' candles and to be used only for religious purposes.

Scorsese's next film was Boxcar Bertha, one of his lesser works and often acknowledged as one of the least personal of his films. But even here there is a use of religious iconography, notably in Bill's crucifixion (which, of course, foreshadows nothing so much as The Last Temptation itself).

Boxcar was followed by Mean Streets, which I suspect is the earliest of his features to be seen by the SCBSFs, and, in my opinion, one of the keys to an understanding of Scorsese as primarily a spiritual filmmaker. I say this because not only do the opening words of the film provide us with the framework through which to understand the film, but also with the framework through which to understand Scorsese's entire oeuvre:

You don't make up for your sins in church – you do it in the streets.

These immortal words, seemingly spoken by the film's protagonist Charlie (Keitel again), but actually recorded by Scorsese himself, say it all. Although he strangely doesn't make the connection with this quote, David John Graham talks in his essay Redeeming Violence in the Films of Martin Scorsese (found in Explorations in Theology and Film, ed. Marsh and Ortiz) about how Jake La Motta's beating at the hands of Sugar Ray Robinson in Raging Bull should be seen as 'redeeming'. Although I found the essay a little disappointing overall, this is a key point, and illustrates perfectly how the quote from Mean Streets can help with an interpretation of Scorsese's other works: by not fighting back, La Motta is receiving punishment for – and thus annulment of – his sins, and he is doing this 'in the streets' as opposed to 'in church'.

(Interestingly, it's my opinion that this quote can also be applied to Crime and Punishment, and that Mean Streets can be understood as a reinterpretation of Dostoyevsky's work, with Charlie, standing in for Raskolnikov, seeking his own redemption through his relationship with Johnny Boy's Sonya. A self-confessed Dostoyevsky acolyte, Scorsese would later go on to loosely adapt The Gambler for his section of New York Stories, so it's possible that he was indeed influenced by Crime and Punishment when formulating Mean Streets.)

Of course, to say that Mean Streets is Scorsese's most religious film would not only be ridiculous but also a blatant oversight of the fact that his oeuvre contains two religious biopics: The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, and indeed the former of these is perhaps the other key text necessary for a true understanding of Scorsese's tortured (anti)heroes.

“The dual substance of Christ –
the yearning, so human,
so superhuman,
of man to attain God...
has always been a deep
inscrutable mystery to me.
My principle anguish and source
of all my joys and sorrows
from my youth onward
has been the incessant,
merciless battle between
the spirit and the flesh...
and my soul is the arena
where these two armies
have clashed and met.”
Nikos Kazantzakis
From the Book
“The Last Temptation
Of Christ”

So begins one of the best films of all time: with a quote from one of the best books of all time. And here, perhaps, in Jesus, do we find the prototype for the Scorsese (anti)hero: a conflicted individual torn between the pleasures of worldly delights and the calling for/of something higher. Perhaps it is here that we find a way to understand Jimmy Doyle, caught between his music and his love for Francine (in New York, New York). And thus, although it's often overlooked, I believe it's genuinely possibly to find as much spiritual angst and confusion in the works of Scorsese as it is in those of Bergman, Tarkovsky or indeed Dostoyevsky.

I'm aware that I'm not necessarily breaking any new ground with these comments, but I felt compelled to write this blog as it still astounds me how many people overlook this aspect of Scorsese's work in favour of admiring them only for their violence (for, if we're being truthful, that's what SCBSFs like about his work). By ignoring this aspect of his work and by overlooking his 'smaller' pictures, the SCBSFs are not only missing out on some of Scorsese's best and most interesting works, they're also missing out on a true understanding of his work as whole, GoodFellas and Taxi Driver included.

- - - - - - - -

To pre-empt the criticism: I am aware that by focusing on the spiritual side of Scorsese's work this post is overlooking that other key aspect of his work: its inherent intertextuality and its revelling joy in the history of cinema. It has indeed been argued by others that Scorsese's films rewrite and rework those of others, and I intend to discuss this in full in a future post further down the line.

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Sunday, 12 October 2008

Quote for the Week

As it happens, the most powerful and pertinent quote from what I've been reading this week comes from Andrew Sarris' 1966 review of Carl Th. Dreyer's Gertrud ('The academicians are right, of course. Dreyer simply isn't cinema. Cinema is Dreyer', quoted in The Village Voice Film Guide, ed. Dennis Lim, page 121), but I'm aware that nominating that as my Quote for the Week would equate to too many Dreyer-centric posts in too short a space of time (if there can ever be such a thing!). And so, instead, I decided upon something I noted down a long while back, from the opening monologue of Douglas Coupland's JPod:

'You're always hearing about "following your dream," but what if your dream is boring? What if you had a dream to sell roadside corn – if you went and sold it would that mean you were living your dream? Would people perceive you as a failure anyway? And how long would you be happy doing it? Probably not long, but by then it's too late to start something else. You're fucked'.

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Sunday, 5 October 2008

8½ Suggestions for Double Bills

In their August 08 issue, Sight & Sound celebrated the 'lost world of the double bill'. As well as alerting me to new films and pointing out similarities between films I already knew, the article also got me thinking about what double bills I'd have chosen or would chose, should I ever need to. And so, without further ado, I present you 8½ suggestions for double bills…

1) King of the Hill (1993) and Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
Although The Spirit of the Beehive would clearly be a more obvious choice to pair with Pan's Labyrinth, I've chosen Steven Soderbergh's criminally over-looked King of the Hill. In very different ways, the two films both show child protagonists using their imagination to help deal with the world around them (okay, so in Pan's Labyrinth it's likely the fantasy elements are real, but that's beside the point for the purpose here!).

2) The Trip (1967) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Upon it's release, Kubrick's film was advertised as 'the ultimate trip', and rumours abound to this day about people going to see the film merely in order to be able to drop acid during the Star Gate sequence. So, what better to accompany 'the ultimate trip', than, well 'The Trip'. Written by Jack Nicholson, directed by Roger Corman and staring
Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper (and made two years before Easy Rider) the film tells the 'story' of a TV commercial director (Fonda) having his first LSD trip (and yes, that's basically the whole story).

3) Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) and The Company of Wolves (1984)
Both ostensibly horror films, these two classics each deal with the transitional period of a young girl on the verge of adulthood, and as such can be seen as clear companion pieces perfect for a double bill.

4) The Parson's Widow (1920) and Smiles of a Summers Night (1955)
Both Dreyer and Bergman have reputations as being directors of difficult, serious, and, dare I say it, austere works, but as these two films show, these reputations weren't fully justified. Not only touched with the genius and trademarks of their creators, these two films also show just how funny (and accessible) the filmmakers could be when they wanted.

5) People on Sunday (1930) and Before Sunrise (1995) and Quiet City (2007)
Okay, so I'm cheating a little bit here by suggesting a triple bill, but a double bill of any of the three films listed above would work equally well. Essentially, all three films tell the same story: two people meet at a train station (or, in the case of Before Sunrise, on the train) and then proceed to spend the next 24(ish) hours hanging out together. However, each film handles the narrative in a different way, and offers the story filtered through a different decade (20s, 90s and 00s respectively).

6) American Graffiti (1973) and Dazed and Confused (1993)
Again, two films with similar narrative outlines, set in different decades: here, a group of teenagers spend a final night together before heading off for college in the 60s, and the last night of school for the class of '77. Again, there are more differences than similarities, and a juxtaposition of the works offers us an insight into life as a teenage during the two periods in which they're set.

7) La Belle et la bête (1946) and Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Two fairytales about outsiders which are as powerful and as poignant for adults as they are for children.

8) Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and Mean Streets (1973)
Although Scorsese's love of old James Cagney films is well documented (not least by himself in A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies), I've never been able to find anything in which he directly talks about Angels with Dirty Faces, certainly the most clearly and typically 'Scorsesean' of the one's I've seen (if anyone reading this knows of anywhere where Scorsese has mentioned this film, I'd be grateful if they could let me know). The plot of Curtiz's film, about a group of 'dead end' kids caught between admiration for
James Cagney's hoodlum and the attempts of Pat O'Brien's priest to keep them on the straight and narrow, sounds not only like perfect territory for a Scorsese film, but also like something straight out of the milieu of his early life. In a way, the choice of Mean Streets is a little arbitrary, and could easily be replaced with, say, GoodFellas or Who's That Knocking at My Door. However, as I intend to discuss in a future post, I think that Mean Streets contains a key to allowing an understanding of Scorsese as a spiritual filmmaker, and hence the suggestion of pairing it with Angels.

8½) Boccaccio '70 (1962) and RoGoPaG (1963)
The reason for this being a 'half' suggestion is twofold: one, I am only half suggesting it, and two, and I am perhaps only suggesting half of it (and of course the presence of Fellini also gave rise to the idea doing eight other suggestions). The problem with presenting this as a suggestion for a double bill is, moreover, also twofold: one, the two films have a combined run time of almost five and half hours, and second, well, some of the sections in these two portmanteau films aren't very good (RoGoPaG, for instance, contains the least interesting work I have seen by Rossellini). So, why suggest it at all? Easy: Fellini's The Temptation of Dr Antonio, De Sica's The Raffle, Pasolini's La Ricotta, and, to a lesser extent, Gregoretti's Il Pollo ruspante. Perhaps, therefore, the answer, as alluded to above, would be a partial screening, containing half of each film.

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Saturday, 4 October 2008

Quote(s) for the Week/Candlelight Part II

Last weekend I finally found the time to sink my teeth – no pun intended - into the new Masters of Cinema Vampyr DVD (which, by the way, is fantastic and also my hot tip for DVD of the year, if not the decade – seriously, this package takes a lot of beating). As is usual for me, after watching the film I then got started with the features and set about reading everything I could on the film, notably, in this case, David Rudkin's BFI monograph on the film. My schedule this week hasn't left me time to read much else, so, if you'll excuse the second Dreyer-orientated post in as many weeks, I'm going to nominate two quotes from Dreyer as my Quote(s) for the Week...

'How is it even possible to make two films of the same tenor right after each other? One puts too much into the first one to do that' – Carl Th. Dreyer, quoted in Waking Life by Casper Tybjerg, in Sight & Sound, September 2008.

'What interest me – and this comes before technique – is reproducing the feelings of the characters in my films...The important not only to catch hold of the words they say, but also the thoughts behind the words. What I seek in my films, what I want to obtain, is a penetration to my actors' profound thoughts by means of their most subtle expressions. For these are the expressions...that lie in the depths of his soul. This is what interests me above all, not the technique of cinema' – Carl Th. Dreyer, quoted in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 4th ed. by David Thomson, page 253.

While I'm on the subject of Dreyer and Vampyr: in his monograph, Rudkin points out another metaphorical use of candles by Dreyer. Here, Rudkin rightly deduces, the candles are being used as a metaphor for the 'protector' of the house [Spoiler Alert]: When the Lord of the Manor, the 'man' and 'protector' of the house, is shot dead, he drops his candelabra and his candles are extinguished. When Gray is asked to stay in the house, and thus take on the father's vacant mantle as 'man' and 'protector', one of the first things he does is light some candles, hence symbolising his assumption of this role.

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