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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