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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