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.

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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:

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Tuesday, 13 October 2009


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:

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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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