Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Quote for the Week

Lermontov: Why do you want to dance?
Vicky: Why do you want to live?
Lermontov: Well I don't know exactly why, er, but I must.
Vicky: That's my answer too.

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Tuesday, 15 December 2009

A Complex Complex

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to see Michael Haneke in conversation at the BFI Southbank. Although I'm a little hot and cold on the Austrian auteur (I like some of his films more than others and I still wonder if he really belongs in the 'pantheon', so to speak), he is undeniably one of the most interesting and powerful directors working today, and he certainly has several complex masterpieces under his belt – complex being the key word here.

Like many filmmakers, Haneke's best work succeeds because it plays on several levels, composed as it is not only of surface narrative but also of deeper themes and ideas which force us to confront our preconceptions and attitudes. In short, the thing that makes Haneke's films what they are is their complicated, multifaceted nature.

It therefore came as no real surprise when Haneke spoke out about the ridiculousness of the 'pitching' stage of filmmaking, and specifically the idea that filmmakers should be able to convey their entire idea in a single sentence. Obviously this isn't a problem for high concept work ('It's Jaws in Space'), but for anyone working in the 'arthouse' sphere it certainly raises some issues. Trying to encapsulate the films of filmmakers working on the level of Haneke in such a brief way – even once it's completed – seems a rather pointless (not to say futile) exercise. This is perhaps even more the case with a filmmaker like
Béla Tarr, whose work deals as much with the ineffable as it does with more tangible concerns.

So, I guess the questions then are: why has this 'culture' of the one-liner (the logline) emerged, and who is it ultimately benefitting? The writer? The audience? Or, for want of a better word, the executive?

Clearly it's the latter.

But let's not be flippant about this. Even at my stage of career, my time has become a premium. As a writer I find loglines infuriating to create, but as a director looking over prospective projects they're a great timesaver – if I like the sound of the project I'll read on, if I don't then I won't. So it's clear that these loglines, as inappropriate as they often are, do serve some kind of purpose. But I do wonder (and worry) about the future of an industry in which projects can be passed over (or commissioned) on the strength or weakness of a single sentence – a space which is completely adequate to encapsulate the entirety of a project (unless it's high concept or, God help us, hollow).

I'm not sure that, as yet, I can think of a solution to this problem. People are busy and there needs to be a way to sort through the mountains of projects in a quick and timely fashion. But I also think that there needs to be a more widespread recognition of just how absurd the whole idea of the logline really is. I've heard of writers working backwards, creating a great logline and then trying to construct a script around it. Effective high-end material aside, I fail to see how this can really create great, complex cinema and it suggests that we could reach a time where projects are dumbed-down to the point that (mainstream) cinema excludes anything which takes more than a few seconds to summarise. Some would no doubt argue that all films, no matter how complicated, can be effectively summarised in a few words, and perhaps there is some truth in that. But we have to remain open to those projects that can't be, and not be so rigid in our acceptance of the ludicrous logline that we overlook filmmakers attempting to make complex work that will challenge us. Otherwise there'll be no new filmmakers able to continue the spirit of people like Haneke. And, let's face it, the world would be a far more boring place without them.

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Thursday, 3 December 2009

Beyond the Canon

A few months ago I was asked to take part in a poll of the best films 'beyond the canon'. Essentially 'a greatest films poll, only without the greatest films', the idea was to put together a list of the best films beyond those that are normally found in such lists. A list of 'The Canon' – i.e. films that were ineligible – was provided, and participants then drew up their lists of the 'best of the rest', so to speak. My personal list can be found here, and the final results are here.

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Sunday, 22 November 2009

Quote for the Week

'Back in 2002, when I asked [Soderbergh] if he was happy with Solaris, he commented: "it almost doesn't matter, because I'm really driven by process. I'm not a result oriented film-maker."' – From Split Personality by Demetrios Matheou in the December 09 Issue of Sight and Sound.

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Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Goodbye Filmstock, We'll Miss You

Me in the rogues' gallery. The numbers represent the first Filmstock attended.

As regular readers of this blog might remember, around this time last I year I wrote about my first trip to Filmstock International Film Festival, which I attended as a screening filmmaker with my short film Canbury. I wrote about the 'friendly, passionate and supportive ethos with which the festival was run' before talking about some of the great films that I'd seen while there. Well, this year I was fortunate enough to have two of my shorts selected: Hungerford: Symphony of a London Bridge and Paintbrush (which, I'm thrilled to say, also picked up the audience award for its session). Getting into any festival is always a good feeling, but I was especially excited about being invited back to Filmstock. After my experience there last year I'd have attended the festival even if they'd have kicked my films back, but I have to admit that the fact they selected them added to my enjoyment and gave the trip more of a purpose (other than just that of having fun!). However, as pleased as I was to be returning to the festival, I also knew that the trip would be tinged with sadness: shortly before the festival began it was announced that this would be the last ever edition of Filmstock.

The poster for this year's festival.

Given this fact, I'd like to focus more on the festival itself rather than the films, though I did see many that liked. I doubt that what I write here will be able to capture the frankly indescribable experience of attending Filmstock, but hopefully I'll at least be able to express something of what I feel. Returning to the festival was like returning to a family fold, as warm and as welcoming as one could hope for – as well as being able to pull together a strong festival programme, it seems like organisers Neil and Justin have a knack for finding great people to work with. To restate my friend and collaborator Rahim Moledina's comment from last year, you can really 'feel the love' (this year's festival poster, as seen above, says it all). Clearly, I'm not the only one who feels this way; many people that I spoke to had returned from previous years and those who were new to the fest seemed agreed that they'd come to the party too late. I don't feel I can write much else without slipping into hyperbole, so I'll finish here, but I'd like to add that I feel immensely proud and grateful to have been a part of this festival for the last two years. I saw some great work and made some great friends, and I'll never forget my Filmstock experiences.

Finally, although this is the end of Filmstock, I'm sure it isn't the end of Neil and Justin, and I can't wait to see what they do next – both with their filmmaking and with any future festivals or events that they put on. As I said before, Filmstock is like a family, and I can't wait for there to be some kind of reunion – in whatever form it takes. So here's to Neil and Justin and whatever their future holds! Goodbye Filmstock, we'll miss you.

Me with Rahim (right) and festival organisers Neil Fox (left) and Justin Doherty (second from right).

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Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The Quietus LFF Roundup

A feature article that I contributed to for The Quietus has been published here: http://thequietus.com/articles/03176-the-quietus-london-film-festival-2009-roundup. Due to length the editor decided not to include all the reviews the contributors sent in, so here are the ones I did that didn't make it in:

Hadewijch

The story of a theology student whose extreme devotion to God gets her kicked out of her convent for being a 'parody of a nun', Hadewijch is a frustrating mess of a film. Struggling to reconcile her love of God with His ever-deafening silence, Céline is taken down a devastating path by her new Muslim friend Nassir, who persuades her that God 'manifests himself through admiration'. The film starts as an insightful investigation into faith in the modern world before moving into its strongest section, in which Céline and Nassir find common ground between their faiths – surely an important message given the current political climate. It's all the more frustrating, then, when the film descends into fundamentalist stereotypes and, more crucially, stops making sense; taken on both a literal and a figurative level the last third of the film is problematic, confusing, and unsatisfying.

Alexander the Last
Although Alexander the Last might be produced by Noah Baumbach and be director Joe Swanberg's first film starring professional actors, it's still every bit as fiercely independent as one would expect a film from Swanberg to be. Dealing with an actress' struggle to keep her feelings for her onstage lover in check and her offstage marriage intact, it's hard not to read the film as a personal reaction to the making of Swanberg's previous film, in which he starred as a man in an intense long-distance relationship. Once again working with improvisation to create his material, Swanberg has managed to make an intelligent film which deals honestly with the emotional struggles faced by those attempting to be truthful and committed in both art and life.

The Time That Remains
Starting with the 1948 surrender of Nazareth to Israeli troops, and continuing up to the present day, Elia Suleiman’s new film is a deft mix of the personal and political, perfectly blending his family history with the political history of Nazareth. Although a knowledge of Palestinian politics probably helps, the family drama, stunning photography and deadpan, absurdist, and often visual humour ensure that there’s still plenty to enjoy for more casual viewers.

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Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Death and Disability at the London Film Festival 2009

A piece that I wrote about a couple of trends I noticed in the films I saw at LFF has been published over at BritFilms. You can check it out here: http://www.britfilms.tv/index.php?id=9152.

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Saturday, 31 October 2009

The Exploding Controversy

Now that the London Film Festival has closed its doors for its 2009 edition, I thought I'd comment briefly on one of the things I found most surprising about my first stint as an accredited member of the press. Based on the post-screening conversations I had, the most critically controversial film of the festival was not any of the obvious choices; say, for instance, the new films from 'provocatrice' Catherine Breillat, or 'provocateur par excellence' Gaspar Noé, or even Bruno Dumont who 'has a way of dividing audiences like few other directors' (all quotes from the LFF brochure). No, this year's greatest divider was none other than Bradley Rust Gray, with his film The Exploding Girl, about an epileptic girl who returns home for spring vacation and finds herself getting close to a long-term friend as her college relationship crumbles around her.

So why exactly has this charming, tender film proved so controversial? Well, it's a good question – I was initially surprised to find that anyone had found such a seemingly innocuous film offensive in any way. However, after a little thought it wasn't so hard to see what people disliked about it: it's quiet, it's unfussy, it's slow, it's subtle – all attributes which many people dislike in films, even though they might claim otherwise. To compound matters further, it's also incredibly simple – a fact that even admirers such as myself have to concede. As beautiful and as likeable as the film is, there's no denying that there's not a huge amount of depth to it, playing as it does as an extended will-they-won't-they scenario. In short, it's a one note film. For its detractors, it didn't matter how well acted it was or how striking the cinematography looked – it just wasn't interesting enough to sustain its slender 79 minute run time. For the people who champion the film (amongst whom I class myself), it was one note played so well that the lack of variation to its melody wasn't a problem.

What I find so interesting, therefore, about the whole debate that blew up about this film is a) that out of all the films this was the one which split people so passionately, and b) that there seems to be a certain level of agreement between the people on each side of the argument. So, regardless of whether what I've said here makes the film appeal to you, I'd urge you to see it when you get a chance, so that at the least you'll know which side of the fence you fall on....

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Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The Converging I's – Double Take

Last week I attended one of the LFF screenings of Johan Grimonprez's film Double Take, in which Alfred Hitchcock returns to his office during the shooting of The Birds to find himself confronted by his double (an older version of himself). The encounter between the two Hitchcocks is inspired by a story from Jorge Luis Borges' late story collection Shakespeare's MemoryAugust 25, 1983 – something which I didn't realise until I saw the story mentioned in the Double Take credits (there is no reference to Borges in the LFF blurb about the film, nor on the film's IMDB page). I think the fact that I was familiar with the Borges story, but not familiar enough to recognise it instantly (it's been a few years since I read it), added a very appropriate extra layer of doubling to my enjoyment of the film; it felt somehow familiar, like a half-forgotten dream.

The film also reminded me of a short story that I wrote a few years ago for a competition (after I'd discovered Borges but before I'd read August 25, 1983, I hasten to add). Although reading it again now makes me realise it's a bit of a mess, I thought it was still worth posting on here. As I remember it, there were two main things I was trying to achieve with it. The first was thematic, to do with identity and specifically how one deals with one's past and future selves. The second idea was concerned with form and style. As it was a story about time travel, and therefore about the non-linear unfolding of time, I wanted to attempt to create a similar effect through 'time travelling' parts of the story in and out of sequence. I'm not fully convinced that it worked, but please judge for yourself...

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From the journal of C– B–, 25th June, 2006:

Somewhere in there, there was a story. Perhaps. But I’d started at the end, so it was impossible to tell exactly what, or where, it was. I was writing my journal – this journal – when it began. Or at least as much as something like this can be said to begin…what happens to narrative chronology when the very fabric of time itself is folded and delineated? I suspect, like time itself, it becomes a mess, embedded through and through with inconsistencies and paradoxes. He I We He Me I How to refer to my future-self? Surely the personal pronoun of ‘I’ still suffices, for although when in a face-to-face meeting such as this I am two separate entities, present and future, my future self still remains myself, nevertheless? It was over and I stepped out of the light, and the shadows reclaimed me, never to be seen again (back to my own time, I suspect). Having now left myself alone with myself, it seemed that I also wanted to return to my own time, and so I too stepped back into the shadows to be reclaimed by my past. Yet still my present memory remained unchanged by this meeting. The pen scratched over the browning paper in my crowded study. Ink flowed onto the pages as I sat writing down my thoughts of the day into my journal. The room was dark, illuminated only by my desk lamp. Around me shadows abounded – the very shadows from which they I came. ‘Yes, you will remember this day, and what is said here. I remember this day’ I said to myself. ‘Indeed, it was fundamental to my – our – discovery, to us solving our lifelong dilemma’. I interrupted myself: ‘well at least in your branch. In mine it was our next meeting which solved our problems’. I sat, dumbfounded, unsure of what I – either I – was saying. Although my ink had been flowing before my arrival, my mind was dry. I had got no nearer to finishing my life’s work: how to manipulate the flow of time in order to travel along it at a disproportionate speed, or even, perhaps, to turn it back on itself. In short I was alone in my study hoping to crack the secret of time travel. If I knew then what I know now, perhaps I would have ended my quest long ago…I was staring at myself dumbfounded when the second I arrived (that is, the second I that wasn’t the I that is here now). I was as dumbfounded as I, evidently not expecting myself to arrive for a third time. I explained it to my two other selves: ‘I know neither of you remember me at this meeting, but afterwards I decide that even this present time is too long after the start of my search , and head back even further to reveal the secrets’. ‘Huh’, I said, obviously grasping this better than I had. I continued: ‘but then how come I do not remember being here twice before? And I was only present twice at the previous meeting…and surely even the I younger than me but older than you would remember this, remember being here before?’. ‘Ah, of course’ I responded to myself ‘in this branch of the future I know less than I do in my own past…how silly of me to forget…I will be informed at this meeting by my past self – I – that each journey through the time stream results in a new branch – an alternate time, an alternate reality being formed. Of course, I also tell this to myself when I return to the past and share the very secret of time travel’. I nodded. I too was beginning to grasp the ludicrous situation before me: ‘So I have come here to tell my past self the secret of time travel?’. I – both Is – nodded to myself. My nib was running dry. I was about to refill the cartridge when I first stepped from the shadows. ‘Do not be alarmed’ I told myself. But I was nevertheless…I was being faced with my own shadow, no, my own reflection, no, my own self! ‘I have come from your future to put an end to this quest of yours – of ours…’ My voice halted as another set of footsteps soaked up from the flower-patterned carpet. I turned and I turned also, only to see myself step forth from the shadows…oh, to be young again!…The wrinkles on my forehead were nowhere to be found on this earlier version of myself. ‘And so’ I concluded to myself ‘there you have the answers that you seek. Like I have said, where they came from I do not know, but now at least you know them too’. I nodded to myself. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘and now you know also that you must go further back, and continue the cycle’. I nodded, and so did I. I continued: ‘and don’t forget to explain to yourself that when you travel you only travel into a possible past…a new branch. A new possibility’. I nodded again. It was over. I wished myself luck and stepped backwards, away, going. Gone. ‘Ah,’ I said in response to myself. ‘But if I inform myself of this branching, then again the paradox ensues…this paradox is destroying me, you know? It’s the one thing I haven’t answered. Perhaps, youngest self, you can answer it…you seem to know more than me…if these ideas are being passed from my older self to my younger self, where do they come from to begin with?’. I sighed. ‘I may have solved the mystery of the branching, of unremembered past activities, but this even I have not solved. Perhaps by the time the I of my branch reaches the same age as the I of your branch, I will know. But where do any ideas come from?’. ‘It’s true,’ I responded ‘that ideas are usually generated by oneself…given to oneself, but this seems different. I am here to tell my younger self the secrets he is looking for, and in years to come he will repeat the cycle, and the idea will go around continually, never ending, but seemingly never starting either’. I nodded – the I that is the I that writes this I – adding ‘perhaps it is not for us to understand the nature of the divine’. I nodded in unison to myself. There was nothing left to do but conclude. Indeed, there is nothing left to do but conclude, and it would seem I must get going. I have a date with myself, and secrets to share…

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The Informant!

Last night was the UK premiere of Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! at the London Film Festival. I'm pleased to say that my doubts about the film were quickly dispelled - it's smart, funny, moving and engrossing. I should have had more faith in Soderbergh, who is still yet to make a bad film. Here's the LFF trailer. Go and see it at the festival, or when it comes out on general release - you'll enjoy it. Plus, if it's a hit it'll no doubt help Soderbergh be able to do another film more in the vein of Solaris or The Good German, which can only be a good thing.

video

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We Live In Public

A short piece that I wrote on Ondi Timoner's We Live In Public has been published on the Electric Sheep website as part of their preview of week two of London Film Festival. You can check it out here: http://www.electricsheepmagazine.co.uk/news/?p=717

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Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Kin

Following on from the publication of my Cambridge Film Festival report last week, I thought it might be a good idea to talk about Brian Welsh's Kin a little bit further. Why? Two reasons, really. Firstly, I’m worried that this great piece of work is in danger of being overlooked and therefore remaining undiscovered, and, secondly, in a slight contradiction, because as much as I loved it, it also represents something I really dislike about British cinema – namely a constant focus on the lives of miserable working class people being miserable, getting drunk, and then abusing each other. (People often refer to this type of cinema as 'gritty', but what they really mean is 'miserable and depressing'.) Though the Dardenne brothers were quoted by Welsh as one of his main influences, the film's low-budget, interior, hand-held style and focus on character over plot can't help but bring the spectre of 'mumblecore' to mind (I'm going to sidestep my own inner conflict at using the 'm' word, as it serves as a useful shorthand in this context). I won't dwell on this for too long, but I do find the difference of focus (essentially navel-gazing romance vs. drunken abuse) an interesting one, and I wonder if it perhaps says something about the difference in mentality between the US and the UK. I want to make it clear that I'm not attempting to say that one mentality is better than the other, but if I'm being honest I know which one I'd rather watch given the choice (you can find me gazing at my navel on a regular basis, no doubt). Still, I think I've made it clear that Kin is a superb piece of work, and I hope these comment don't detract from that; I sincerely hope that it gets distribution and finds an audience. But, perhaps in the future, us Brits could put the bottles down and instead lift up our shirts to gaze at what's underneath...

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Sunday, 11 October 2009

Quote for the Week

'An intense inner life quietly lived' – Creation director Jon Amiel talking about Darwin's wife Emma during the question and answer session following the film at its screening at the Cambridge Film Festival. I think he may have been quoting from someone else, but it struck me as a very beautiful description of a certain way of living. It also captures perfectly the nuances of Jennifer Connelly's portrayal of Emma in the film.

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Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Cambridge Film Festival 2009

A piece that I wrote about this year's Cambridge Film Festival has been published over at BritFilms.TV. You can check it out here: http://www.britfilms.tv/index.php?id=8941.

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Sunday, 4 October 2009

Quote for the Week

Dreaming. – Either one does not dream, or does so interestingly. One should learn to spend one’s waking life in the same way: not at all, or interestingly.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 232

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Sunday, 27 September 2009

London, Capital of Film

Right now feels like a great time to be a film fan living in London. October is always an exciting time due to the London Film Festival, which seems to be going from strength-to-strength (and this year is no exception). But in addition to the looming 53rd LFF there are also a number of other great film events currently going on in the capital. Take, for instance, The National Gallery's Paradise Lost film season, which started on Saturday with Jerzy Kawalerowicz's 1961 masterpiece Mother Joan of the Angels, and which continues over the next couple of months with two classic Bergman's (Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light), Bresson's masterful Procès de Jeanne d'Arc and my favourite Buñuel (Simon of the Desert), amongst several others. Meanwhile, over at the Tate Modern there's the UK's first retrospective of the acclaimed Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa. According to Sight & Sound's recent article on Costa, DVDs of his work are going to start trickling their way into the UK market (his debut, O Sangue is now available courtesy of Second Run), but this retrospective offers a great opportunity to discover these hard-to-see films on the big screen. I find it interesting that these two great seasons are happening in art galleries and not in cinemas, and I wonder what it says about the cinema scene in the UK – but that's a topic for another day.

So, what else there to be excited about? Well (in a facetious way) how about the new monthly
networking and screening night that I'm running? No? Okay, well, on a more serious note, how about a Barbican 'Directorspective' on Wojciech Has? In my opinion, Has is one of the most cruelly overlooked directors of all time. In recent years, his work seems to have been undergoing something of a 'rediscovery' thanks to Martin Scorsese's and Francis Ford Coppola's restoration of The Saragossa Manuscript which was first released in 2001, and which enjoyed an extended run at the BFI at the end of 2007, swiftly followed by Mr Bongo's DVD release. Featured in none of the many film books in my collection, it seems like Has has been largely and unfairly sidelined in the history of cinema when, based on the four films I've seen by him, he really deserves to be right up there in the 'canon' of master filmmakers. Split between psychological realism and more surrealist work, his oeuvre seems to be crying out for a true reappraisal and adoption into the ranks of the 'canon'. Hopefully this retrospective (which is also touring to other cities the UK) will help others to discover the work of a filmmaker who has provided acknowledged inspiration for directors like Luis Buñuel, David Lynch, Lars von Trier and Martin Scorsese (all of whom have, at times, described The Saragossa Manuscript as their favorite film). A work of poetic beauty and magical realism, I'd easily also recommend it to fans of writers such as Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges.

The events that I'm mentioning here are, of course, not the only things happening in London film-wise, but with all this going on how can anyone have time to do anything else? Before finishing I'll return (briefly) to where I came in...

The LFF line-up does seem very strong this year. I've managed to get a press pass for the festival and intend to write about everything I see in one way or another, so I'll be posting articles, capsule reviews or links up here as and when I can/want to. A few of the films I'm especially excited about and therefore very much hoping to see are (in no particular order):
The Portuguese Nun (because of Kieron Corless' comments in the latest Sight & Sound), Father of My Children (because it's based loosely on the life of producer Humbert Balsan), Alexander the Last and Beeswax (because I like these kinds of films), Laila (because it's directed by George Schnéevoigt, who shot four of Dreyer's silent films), The Informant! (okay, so the trailer is terrible, but Soderbergh is still yet to make a bad film, so I have faith...), The Men Who Stare at Goats (because Grant Heslov did great work on Good Night, and Good Luck and Unscripted), The Road (because The Proposition was a masterpiece), and The Touch (because it's Bergman).

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Friday, 25 September 2009

I Am One

Well, this blog is now officially one year old. I'm aware that the frequency of my posting has been up and down over that time, but I'd like to thank everyone who's been reading it – from the official 'followers' to the regular readers to the irregular readers to those who have just stopped by the once. Thanks to each and every one of you for your support and your comments. I hope that you've enjoyed what you've read and that you'll continue to enjoy what I write. Here's to another year!

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Thursday, 17 September 2009

Quote for the Week

Do you think we're gonna make it? I don't know unless we try
you could sit here scared to move or we could take them by surprise
- Lyrics from 'The Gauntlet' by Dropkick Murphys

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Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The Problem with Listening without Following the Lyrics...

I'm aware it's been a while since my last proper post, and that this post is completely out of keeping with my previous posts. But hopefully this uncharacteristic entry will be considered a brief, amusing, sidestep before normal service is resumed...

I was listening to the radio yesterday when '
I Predict a Riot' by the Kaiser Chiefs came on. Now, the funny thing about 'I Predict a Riot' is that I first became aware of the song when it was played in clubs while I was a student and, not knowing anything about it (not even the name of the song or who it was by), I was utterly convinced that the lyrics to the chorus were, in fact, 'I'm Fully Tourettes, I'm Fully Tourettes'.

Well, what can I say? We've all done it at some point or other.

For the longest time not only myself but also all of my friends held a steadfast belief that the chorus to 'Got It On Tuesday' by
The Wildhearts was not 'I got it on Tuesday, just like a cheque in the mail' but was, instead, 'I got it on Tuesday, just like a kick in the nads'. Finally, in a similar vein (somewhat literally), and perhaps most amusingly of all, for some reason I originally thought that the lines 'You got me lying with ease / I'm only keeping the peace' in their song 'Whoa Shit, You Got Through' were 'You got me lying in lenis / I want a kick in the penis'. Which makes no sense whatsoever. So there you have it.

Normal service to resume shortly, you'll be pleased to hear...

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Sunday, 6 September 2009

Quote for the Week

Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them in: but as a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents. – Arthur Schopenhauer, On Books and Writing.

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Sunday, 9 August 2009

A Response to the Kid In The Front Row: What impact can we have as filmmakers? And with impact, do we have responsibility?

Over on his blog, the Kid In the Front Row has written a post entitled 'What impact can we have as filmmakers? And with impact, do we have responsibility?', in which he asks the following questions:
What is the maximum impact we can have as filmmakers? Can films really change lives? Can they make us act for social change? Can they change us for the better?
As the post has been written to encourage debate, I thought that I would write a post detailing some of my own thoughts in reply to these questions, as well as commenting briefly on The Kid's own post.

Essentially, The Kid's answers to these questions (as I understand them) focus on how films can change people in the sense of our political and social ideas, or, in other words, the way that film can affect us (or indeed manipulate us) to change our views in a somewhat 'practical' sense. To put it another way, The Kid is, whether intentionally or not, discussing the role of film as propaganda. Personally, I do not believe that audiences are necessarily susceptible to indoctrination (for want of a better word) through cinema, but I do believe that 'campaign' films can be dangerous if they go unchecked, especially when they offer very biased views. To take a recent example, there was a Channel Four documentary which put forth the idea that climate change doesn't exist, a view which was readily adopted verbatim by several people I know. So here is a practical example of a film (or, in this case, a television documentary) having a direct impact on people and explicitly influencing their views in life, and therefore their behaviour. As I said before, however, I don't necessary believe that films themselves have the power to change people outright, and I would suggest that the people I know who are now so rigid in stating their denial of climate change probably had this belief before seeing the programme. (If they didn't, surely the most the programme would have done would have been to spur them into conducting further research? Though perhaps I am overestimating the strength of the human spirit in my belief that people cannot be so easily influenced!).

For my own answers to these questions, I would take a slightly different approach, and I hope it's not an approach which is at odds with the original questions. To me, film can have a huge impact on our lives in a way which, perhaps, can be referred to as spiritual. I'm not sure that spiritual is a great term for it, just as practical probably isn't the right term to discuss the effects that I've spoken about above but hopefully these terms, at the least, make sense in the context of this post. So, what do I mean by spiritual? Well, I'm thinking of the way that certain films – such as, say, those by Bergman, Tarkovsky, or Haneke – make us think about the world around us, and our approach towards it (for instance, by exploring responses to violence, religion or grief). By making us think about a diverse range of philosophical and ethical concerns, these filmmakers provoke responses which change us as people, and they do so not by propaganda, but by provoking reactions and making us look inside ourselves in order to find new facets of understanding about our existence and our approach towards the world in which we live. In this way, I would argue, filmmakers can have a huge impact on their viewers, and can indeed change them 'for the better'.

So the difference between what I see as essentially propaganda, and what I see as films which can provoke change within us, is that the former promotes a message and tries to persuade us that this message is right, whereas the latter ask us questions which open us up to our own responses and allow us to find our own 'meaning', our own 'message'. As both a filmmaker and a film fan, I would suggest that the latter is a far better – and more morally responsible – way to elicit change within the viewer.

Before finishing, I'm aware that many would argue that a filmmaker such as Haneke should fall into the former category and not the latter, but I would respond that although his films often have a very clear authorial 'message' to them, they convey this message in such a way as to provoke the viewer into her or his own response to the message, rather than simply expecting the viewer to soak it up wholeheartedly and unquestioningly.

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Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Narrative in Cinema

The other day I was out with a friend of mine and I said something rather flippantly, not thinking much of it at the time (it was just a part of our conversation). But having thought about it for a few more days, I wonder if there actually is some truth to what I said. My basic point was this: narrative cinema is dying out because arthouse filmmakers have effectively moved beyond narrative in an attempt to find greater meaning and insight, while mainstream filmmakers have, quite simply, forgotten how to tell a story. Obviously it's a bit of a rash generalisation – and it depends on how you define 'narrative' – but I wonder if there's something to it. Feel free to leave me a comment and tell me what you think.

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Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Quote for the Week

Towards the end of last week I finished reading the Penguin Classics version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories. I made this note, from “Alice” on the Stage, in which Carroll is discussing the actress portraying Alice in a stage version of the story:

‘But what I admired most, as realising most nearly my ideal heroine, was her perfect assumption of the high spirits, and readiness to enjoy everything, of a child out for a holiday. I doubt if any grown actress, however experienced, could have worn this air so perfectly; we look before and after, and sigh for what is not; a child never does this: and it is only a child that can utter from her heart the words poor Margaret Fuller Ossoli so longed to make her own, “I am all happy now!”

I found it a rather poignant sentiment: that we, as adults, look and judge in ‘negative’, defining things by what they are not and by what they exclude; because we have a higher level of knowledge and higher standards than children we are more aware of the concept of ‘imperfection’, resulting in a striving for ‘what is not’ which prevents us from simply enjoying ‘what is’. Perhaps if we learnt to look and judge in ‘positive’ we could start enjoying things for what they are, rather than criticising them for what they are not; perhaps what we all need is a little more child-like wonder in our lives...

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Saturday, 18 July 2009

Exosquad

Like most people, I grew up watching a healthy dose of Saturday morning kids’ cartoons, and like most people, I had my favourites. I often hear people talking about this show and that show, but for me there was one series that blew all the others away: Exosquad. Like many great works, the show seems to have been largely overlooked and forgotten by all but a dedicate group of loyal followers (see http://www.stwing.upenn.edu/~pdanner/resolute2.shtml for one of the longest running and best respected fan sites). Over the years, the fans, myself included, have petitioned for the release of the series of DVD. Finally, on April 14th 2009, this wish was granted when Universal released the first season on DVD in the States. It took me a while to hear about the release, but I ordered the disc within minutes of finding out about it – that’s how excited I was to finally be able to see the series again.

But, of course, that level of excitement is a dangerous thing. Can a kids’ cartoon from the early nineties really be all that good? And let’s face it, my taste in television programmes hasn’t exactly stayed the same over the years. So I was very worried about being disappointed. When the disc arrived, I placed it into my player with extreme excitement, but also trepidation that I was about to crumble my childhood memories to dust (I used to love this show so much that I literarily had dreams about it)...

But I needn’t have worried. The show is amazing, and every bit as good as I remember it. And it’s not just me saying it. Look at any of the fan reviews for the disc, and everyone’s saying the same thing: that it’s just as good as, if not even better, than they remember it. So, what is it that makes the show so great? Quite simply, it’s the writing. Forget about
Heroes or Lost or any of the other supposedly great shows – Exosquad genuinely delivers what those shows promised and failed to do: it gave us characters to care about, action sequences to get excited about, and ideas to actually think about. Undoubtedly one of a kind, it’s certainly one of the best TV shows that I’ve seen, and I urge you all to go out a buy the Season 1 DVD. I don’t say this only to help you discover what you’ve been missing, but also for the selfish reason that I want need the first season to be a success so that Universal will release the second.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find a version of the opening introduction which I could embed, but you can watch it here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=52WvNMUt7Pk

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Friday, 10 July 2009

Quote for the Week

I’m currently reading Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Although Carroll’s work obviously offers a whole host of interesting quotes, its focus on language (and more specifically the footnotes quoting from Lewis Carroll’s Symbolic Logic) reminded me of a quote that I have been thinking of putting up for quite some time. It comes from Seamus Heaney’s introduction to his translation of Beowulf:

‘But in Hiberno-English Scullion-speak, the particle ‘so’ came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom ‘so’ operates as an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention’ (from page xxvii).

Ever since reading this I’ve never been able to write the word ‘so’ at the beginning of a sentence without thinking about it. Like many other words, ‘so’ is a simple, common word that we use on a daily basis and because of this we use it automatically, without even really thinking about what it means or the power that it contains. What’s great about the quote from Heaney is that it takes us back to the word itself and makes us consider language in a (perhaps) new way. Although I wouldn’t say that I hold any particularly special interest in linguistics or semantics, as a writer I like to feel that connection with language and I love the way that Heaney expresses the outright power which can be conveyed by the conjunction of two simple letters.

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Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Edinburgh International Film Festival, Part III

Please note that this is Part III of a three part post. Part I is here, and Part II is here.

Day 4: Tuesday 23rd June
Started at 09:00 at Cinemaworld for the industry screening of
Masquerades. The film took me a while to warm to, but by the end I really enjoyed it. It’s not so much funny as humorous, but somehow it’s a very human and feel-good film, and possibly one of my festival highlights. I’d certainly recommend it strongly.

After the screening I actually had a few hours with nothing scheduled, so I decided to head into the videotheque to check out
A Light in the Fog. For those that don’t know, A Light in the Fog is a new Iranian film which had two public screenings and one press screening scheduled at EIFF, and which was actually the film I was most excited about seeing (I had a ticket for the first public screening). Unfortunately, however, the political situation in Iran meant that the print of the film the festival was going to screen couldn’t get out of the country. I checked the EIFF website on a daily basis in the hope that the print would arrive in time for me to see it, but as it wasn’t looking likely I decided to settle for seeing the film in the videotheque. I later found out that the second public screening of the film did go ahead, which was rather frustrating. I heard a lot of great things about the videotheque but I have to say I didn’t enjoy my experience. Quite rightly, press and distributors get priority, but that means that as a filmmaker it took me a long time to get a machine, and when I did it was only under the proviso that I could get kicked off at any time to make way for press or distributors. For an action film that extra sense of anxiety might have been a bonus, but for a film like A Light in the Fog, it was a bit of a killer. To make things worse, the film was low quality, had a logo in one corner, and writing across the screening saying ‘for screening purposes only’. Based on what I saw on the monitors around me, this quality wasn’t typical, but it was annoying. So, obviously these viewing conditions were not ideal for watching a slow art film. But the film’s power was clear all the same. Compared by EIFF to Sokurov, the film called to my mind the works of Tarkovsky and Angelopoulos, not only because of the long takes, but also because of the texture of the images and especially the mist. It had an almost magical quality, and was a breathtaking piece even in the compromised circumstance under which I saw it. The ending was fantastic too, and I would love to see it again in better circumstances. But film distribution being what is I doubt I ever will...

Next up, at 15:00, was the public screening of Black Box Shorts 1. As it happens, the one-to-one that I was able to get after the Film Funding in the UK ended up being slap-bang in the middle of the screening (although it was originally supposed to be between 12:30-13:30!). So after seeing the introduction and the first couple of films (including my own), I rushed out to have my one-to-one meeting. The meeting was with Katherine Butler from Film4, and we discussed my feature project,
Life Just Is). Although the project is too microbudget for Film4 to consider (they don’t get involved with anything under £400,000) it was a very worthwhile meeting, and I found Katherine to be a very friendly person. As soon as I was finished with her, I had to rush straight back to the Filmhouse to do the audience Q/A. Having done a few of these things now, I’m starting to get a little more confident, even though I’m generally a little uncomfortable in the spotlight, so to speak. But I think it went well overall and I managed to answer people’s questions in a reasonably successful manner.

With my collaborator Rahim Moledina outside the Filmhouse before our screening.

Our screening was followed by the now obligatory networking up until 19:00, when I headed to the Cameo for the public screening of Lynn Shelton’s Humpday (which picked up the Rotten Tomatoes Critical Consensus Award at the festival). I know I’ve been seen to be a bit biased towards this type of cinema, but I have to say that Humpday is a really great piece of work; as well as being very funny, it also offers a good exploration of friendship, relationships and the nature/creation of art. In the Q/A that followed the screening Shelton described how the project partly came about due to her desire to work with Mark Duplass and I think that he is undeniably a large part of the film’s appeal. In its approach to onscreen relationships and off-screen creative process (as discussed by Shelton), the film reminded me of Duplass’ film The Puffy Chair. Interestingly, Shelton explained the film’s premise was inspired by a filmmaker friend who came to stay with her and, although being straight, couldn’t stop talking about the gay porn that he had seen at real life ‘Humpfest’ (although Shelton didn’t reveal the name of the filmmaker, it should be obvious to anyone who has been keeping half an eye on some her recent acting work...). She then explained that she was drawn to the idea of straight men and gayness. The reason why I find this interesting is that I would not necessarily outline this theme as one of the film’s main ideas. I guess it just proves that the film explores a strong, wide-ranging number of issues. Shelton also spoke about how they tried to make the film believable even though they thought that it was a ridiculous premise to try and make believable. The fact the filmmakers managed to pull off making it believable is testament to the skill of all involved. It really is a strong piece and I hope that it achieves the success that it clearly deserves.

After the Humpday screening, I headed back to the delegate centre for the Short Filmmakers Party, which was actually a bit of a letdown in that it wasn’t particularly well attended and it ended rather early. Still, I met some great people, and that’s what it’s all about.

Day 5: Wednesday 24th June
09:00 and time for the first industry screening of the day:
Pontypool, which was a lot of fun, and which offered an interesting spin on the zombie genre along with the best one-liners of the festival (‘We’re going to need a flamethrower!’). In all, it was a bit ridiculous and I’m not sure if it all made logical sense, but it was funny and had a few genuine scares which more than made up for all that. One piece of advice for anyone viewing it – make sure you stay till after the end credits!

11:00 bought the second industry screening of the day:
35 Shots of Rum. For me, there was a lot interesting stuff going on in this film, but it didn’t quite work – I wasn’t fully engaged, and I felt like it suffered from multiple-ending syndrome. There was one scene in the film though – when the characters go to a cafe after their car breaks down in torrential rain – which really was quite extraordinary. Later in the day I caught up with some friends whose opinions I trust, and they really liked the film and made some very interesting points about it, so I think in all I’d like to reserve proper judgement until I see it again.

Next up was the 13:00 public screening of
The Wild Angels. It was a solid, well made film with some great moments, but which, for me personally, was actually a bit too nasty to be enjoyable or to recommend; personally I don’t enjoy films which show morally reprehensible behaviour in this sort of casual way and I’m aware it’s a subjective criticism and not an objective comment about the film.

I was due to go and see
Gulabi Talkies at 16:00, but I found out at the last minute that I had been given a slot for the ‘Meet The Experts’ event, which involved having a private session with a panel of industry experts to talk about my feature. Although it was a shame to miss the film, the session was worthwhile and I was pleased to have the opportunity.

Next up I got to see the legend that is
Roger Corman live in conversation. Unfortunately, the event wasn’t as interesting as it could have been. The talk was conducted by Kim Newman and, although I have a huge amount of admiration and respect for Newman, I don’t think hosting interviews is his strong point. Corman himself was graceful and fascinating but the event contained too many clips which went on for far too long, and overall it didn’t have the appeal that it could have had with a stronger interviewer. Still, Corman did reveal some interesting facts, such as that the reason why he worked so hard and made so many films was simply because he loved it, and how he typically plans 80-90% of his films in advance in order to be able to shoot them so quickly (most were shot in just ten days). He talked about never wasting time on set, even when they’d finished shooting everything they had planned (it was in a spare half hour at the end of the day that he shot the murals in the pit in The Pit and Pendulum). He also revealed that he shot The Masque of the Red Death in England with flats left over from Becket, and talked about how he tries to put a theme or a comment in every film that he does.

After the Corman talk I actually had a bit of spare time, and didn’t know what to do with it – it seems that only having twenty minutes between screenings is vastly preferable to having an hour and a half! Still the film that was after the break was
Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, so it was certainly worth the wait. I thought it was a really interesting, powerful film about human interaction and dependency, but I’m not sure that it was quite the masterpiece I was expecting. I’ve seen it said that Soderbergh wanted to continue in the vein that he started with The Limey, and although the structure of The Girlfriend Experience raises a number of interesting reactions, I think that, as a whole, The Limey works better as a way of using cinematic language to reflect the contours of the human mind. As ever with Soderbergh, the filmmaking itself is impeccable and I look forward to peeling back further layers of the film in subsequent viewings.

The Girlfriend Experience was followed by the DigiCult Party, which was a little too noisy and sweaty for me and the people I was with, so after a while we defected to the Filmhouse. It was a good way to spend my final evening in Edinburgh.

Day 6: Thursday 25th June
I had been hoping to make the 09:00 screening of Black Box Shorts 3, but as it was my final morning I needed to start getting ready to check out and ended up just heading to the Filmhouse for the 10:45 screening of
West Point, which was also screening as part of the Black Box strand. The film was a sensual and impressionistic account of two siblings looking back over their lives and the effect of their mother’s murder while they were children. It took an interesting approach to the narrative and I’m sure it’s a film which would be rewarding in subsequent viewings. For some reason it reminded me of Chris Marker’s work, but I’m not sure why. The film played with two shorts and, although one didn’t do much for me, the other – Horse Camp – was the surprise of the festival and, if I dare say it, the film which I liked the most...So, in all, a great end to a great trip!


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Edinburgh International Film Festival, Part II

Please note that this is Part II of a three part post. Part I is here, and Part III is here.

Day 3: Monday 22nd June
Back at Filmhouse for 08:30, and this morning was the only time there was actually a big queue in front of me – it seems like people were really excited about the prospect of seeing Darren Aronofsky in conversation...

First up was the industry screening of
Süt at 09:30. The film started with a fantastic opening scene which ranks along my personal festival highlights. Unfortunately, the rest of the film didn’t continue in such a strong manner: the final scene felt especially weak, and I have to admit that I got lost amongst the symbolism along the way. I felt like the film definitely had something, but if I’m honest I’m not sure what...

11:30 bought along the first proper industry event that I attended: Compromise or Commerce? Packaging and Selling Your Project for International Markets. The panel was moderated by Ali Jaafar, and featured Peter Trinh (ICM), Jeremy Barber (United Talent), Samantha Horley (Salt) and Tanya Seghatchian (UKFC). I thought that the session was very interesting, and appreciated the candid honesty of what the panellists had to say. A few key points from the discussion were as follows:
• There are now more films being made than can be distributed, which means that people are paying less for the films that they are buying.
• There is a worldwide market for action movies and thrillers, but dramas are a tough sell and need big names to work. When writing a drama it is important to think about the essentials which make it universal.
• Getting a theatrical release in the US will help the film’s performance in foreign markets.
• Blockbusters are actually doing very badly in US right now, but are doing very well in export. They are not being solely funded by the studios. Private investors have less investment options with their money than they used to, so they are now willing to put cash into films.
• There are going to be fewer buyers in the independent sector and there will be a lot less private money for arthouse films and ‘brave’ work.
• Right now, the European market is strong enough to be able to make a film financially viable without having to target it at the US market. Some films are being made only for the UK market.
• New media and multiplatforming has paralysed the industry as people aren’t yet sure how to make money from it, but it’s clear that the traditional theatrical model will not stay.

Straight from this I rushed to the delegate centre for another industry event: Film Funding in the UK. This event was split into three different panels: ‘National Organisations Funding Film’, ‘Funding from the UK’s Nations’ and ‘Regions and How to Cast Public Funding in your Film’. The first detailed the facts and figures behind what Film4, the UKFC and BBC Films can offer, and also what kind of work they’re looking for (essentially the same for all: director lead projects which stem from a unique vision and contain an individual voice). The second panel did the same, but focusing on each of the regional agencies (best tip: find someone Welsh to work with). The panel also discussed how we need to start thinking regionally with our projects and conceive projects which embody the culture of a specific town or region, so that we can get local funding in exchange for promoting the local culture. There was also talk of the changing distribution models and the need for the industry to adapt to the potentials of new media. As Suzanne Alizart of EM Media rightly stated, we need to see the rules for ‘premieres’ change, because we no longer live in that kind of linear world. In the third discussion, the panellists talked about the ways in which people can use public money in their films. By the time it started the audience had thinned, and it felt like it was the least successful of the three panels, despite the interesting panellists. At the end of the session it was possible to book a one-two-one session with one of the panellists. I gave in my CV and project pitch and found out the following day that I was lucky enough to get one....

Following this event, I spent some time catching up with an Edinburgh-based friend, before heading off to the Cineworld to see
Darren Aronofsky In Converstaion at 18:30. At the risk of seeming blasphemous, I want to be upfront about the fact that I have only seen two of his four films (π and Requiem for a Dream) and that I don’t hold either in particularly high regard (so I was very amused when he was introduced as ‘one of the best directors in the world’). Still, I have to admit that the talk was very interesting, and I’ve since purchased a copy of The Fountain to see if I can get into his more recent work. When they showed a clip from π during the talk he said ‘I haven’t seen it for a long time. It’s pretty humiliating’ as soon as it had finished, and then spoke about how he saw Requiem again recently and didn’t recognise the director that he was when he made it. This self-deprecating vein came across as very genuine, and when the interview started he seemed very shy and quiet, though he did warm up as the talk went on. Overall, I thought he was a very unassuming presence, and in fact I heard several stories about people not recognising him during parties and screenings.

One thing he said that struck a chord with me was that ‘If you do your job and you make a good film, there is an audience for it’. As well as talking more specifically about each of his first three films (they didn’t have time to discuss
The Wrestler!), he also spoke more generally about certain things; for instance, how he tries to express emotion with the camera, and how every setup has to say something about the story. In short, he sees himself as an impressionist rather than a realist. He believes in the power of collaboration and he is loyal to his collaborators. Everyone involved in π – from the director to the actors to the grips – was on the same percentage, having worked for a stake in the film rather than money. Now that they are in profit everyone gets cheques; something like $1,200 every six months.

He spoke about his opinions on 3D, which I found particularly interesting. Like me, he finds wearing glasses on top of glasses a terrible idea, stating that it ‘sucked’. Overall, he finds the whole thing very annoying, and stated that he thinks it’s a gimmick which doesn’t actually represent the world any better than 35mm. His main reason for this was that both foreground and background elements are sharp, which isn’t like life. He said that he would love to see someone like John Waters do something with it as it has that sort of kitsch value! On a more serious note, he does think that James Cameron will do something amazing with it.

He also spoke a little bit about his time on Batman, stating that he wasn’t that interested in doing it, but worked on it in the hope that it would help him get funding for The Fountain. He was only going to write it and wasn’t going to direct it. Apparently, the version he was working on was even more realistic than what Nolan did with it and it would have featured a ‘duck tape’ Batmobile. Finally, he refused to discuss what he was going to do next, and when someone asked him about Robocop, he claimed not to know what they were talking about...

Next up, at 20:30, was a public screening of
Spread, which I thought was perfectly well made, but just not very interesting. It had a strong ending, but up to that point was fairly predictable and uninspiring, while never being less than serviceable.

Finally, the day was rounded off by the Trailerblazers Party. Although I met some great people and had some good conversations, it was essentially a loud, crowded bar, which isn’t really my idea of fun (or Aronofsky’s apparently: he headed off early!).

Click here to read Part III of this three part post.

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