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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