Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), dir. Jon Watts

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Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy captivated a generation, myself included: back when film was projected on film, the projectionist visible behind. I took a Spider-Man 3 (2007) pencil case to school every day. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) remained meaningful, spending summer days reading comics and watching movies.

Seeking an on-screen legacy, Marvel sold rights decades ago to Cannon Films, becoming stuck in development hell as an unmade James Cameron film. Before the Disney acquisition, Marvel Studios was as outsider, partnering with Paramount for distribution; it wasn’t unreasonable for Sony and 20th Century Fox to lead the way as major, pre-established studios. Following the hack surrounding The Interview (2014), Sony information leaked spin-off and sequel plans, Andrew Garfield’s casting and negotiations with Marvel Studios.

Sony’s franchise relaunches have met criticism: Ghostbusters (2016) received middling box office and critical response, and though films like Baby Driver (2017) prove Sony can tell new stories, Sony lacks the cachet or cultural impact of Columbia’s early days. It’s been a long time coming: The Avengers (2012) almost added the Oscorp Tower to the Manhattan skyline. Sony still wants to expand, developing Venom, Silver & Black and an animated film with Miles Morales. Spider-Man is inescapably tied to Marvel’s identity, the iconic logo first used in Spider-Man (2002). The Marvel Studios logo plays over a confused remix of the iconic Spider-Man (1967-70) theme, never achieving the intended impact.

Spider-Man has been defined in relation to other heroes: in The Amazing Spider-Man #1 (1963), Spider-Man is rejected from the Fantastic Four. Peter’s relatable problems, through high school, college and adulthood, provides a counterpoint to more symbolic characters or superhero team unity; his non-hero life is almost more important than hero life. Captain America: Civil War (2016) re-introduced Spider-Man as a wisecracking teenager (Tom Holland) living in Queens with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), recruited by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Shooting an iPhone vlog without the finesse of Casey Neistat, Parker’s teenage joy frames a new perspective on the airport battle. Stark becomes a reluctant mentor alongside Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), a director cameo no longer appearing in his own movie. Downey never feels committed, struggling to recreate what made earlier performances so special despite reportedly having the highest actor salary worldwide. Iron Man wirelessly controls his suit from India, deserving more conflict whilst demanding more space for Peter’s character to develop. It feels like a spiritual sequel to the Iron Man films (2008-13): Stark, Hogan and Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) plan a press conference, an engagement ring suggesting belated marital unity. Even Stan Lee’s cameo disappoints, especially after Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) revealed him as multiversal being hanging out with the Watcher: New Yorker Gary yells out a neighbourhood window, unable to compete with his heroic cameo in Spider-Man 3 or the school librarian in The Amazing Spider-Man.

Homecoming finds a smaller lens to wider events against a refigured timeline. (Was Peter born in 2004, or did the Battle of New York take place in 2009?) Eight years ago, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) cleans up the wrecked Grand Central Terminal, carrying a crayon drawing of the Avengers, shifted away by Anne Marie Hoag (Tyne Daly) and Damage Control. A heist crew wears Avengers masks; high schoolers debate which Avenger they’d fuck, marry or kill. Captain America (Chris Evans) hosts anachronistic state sponsored instructional videos in gym and detention, though Coach Wilson (Hannibal Buress) acknowledges he’s probably a war criminal. The post-credits, without the lost promise of the Sinister Six’s gear or promoting X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), acts as self-reflective commentary but offers nothing to get excited about. Framing the film around the Avengers moving facility, first glimpsed in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), mirrors every teenager’s feelings moving away, packing up Cap’s shield and Thor’s Megingjord.

Spider-Man’s suit feels more Iron Spider than ever, with Ditko-esque abilities: pushing out air, moving eyes, webbing underneath armpits. The film’s insistence upon CGI over physical suit might allow for some stunts, just as Iron Man’s suit has been reduced to CGI, but lacks the physical presence that could afford a greater impact. An internal OS is no longer the dream it seemed in 2008: AI Karen (Jennifer Connelly) is a personalised extension of Siri or Alexa, performing the same role as Bruce Campbell’s voiceover tutorial in the opening to the Spider-Man (2002) tie-in game. The voice inside Peter’s head given manifest form, Karen diminishes his power, never allowed to talk to himself or shout and scream at the sheer joy of swinging about New York City with superpowers. Trapped in concrete in the Damage Control facility, he lays around, confiding his crush on Liz (Laura Harrier) whilst learning abilities. Though Homecoming isn’t an origin per se, Peter follows a learning curve, proving his worth as hero and Avenger.

Each new writer creates a new status quo: Stan Lee introduced Peter Parker as a 60s teenager, balancing school alongside working at the Bugle; he grew up, graduating and meeting Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane at college; Straczynski depicted him as a Midtown High teacher; Slott moved him up to employee of Horizon and head of Parker Industries; a constant fixture of the Avengers since Bendis’ The New Avengers (2005-12). But high school has been continually revisited, throughout Ultimate Spider-Man (2000-09), Spidey (2015-16), and romance-oriented, manga-infused Mary Jane (2004) and Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane (2005-07), centred round a homecoming setting.

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Mary Jane: Homecoming #4 (2005)

Where The Amazing Spider-Man (1977-79) positioned Parker as scientist in college, Raimi’s trilogy largely avoided high school and college life altogether, more interested in him as young adult, limiting high school to the opening act of Spider-Man. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) plays Peter as introvert and outcast skater kid, trying to deal with the death of his parents and Uncle Ben. Holland might seem perfect casting, and though a 20-year-old playing 15 is more convincing than a 28-year-old playing 17, Holland still looks his age. The Amazing Spider-Man had me obsessed with Garfield: I asked the hairdresser to make my hair look like his (it didn’t). But Holland exceeds Garfield as the hottest Peter Parker ever gracing the screen. Holland achieves hipness and smartness, shirts and jumpers neither too cool for school nor pretentious; pop culture nerd and science nerd. But Holland never conveys a sense of teenage wasteland.

Spider-Man becomes down to earth, concocting webfluid in shop class; his handmade hoody-esque suit inverting Ben Reilly’s Scarlet Spider costume. Where Peter spent time away from the costume in Spider-Man 2 (2004) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), struggling to reconcile personal relationships and grief, Spider-Man returns to his costume as proof of worth, just as Garfield’s Spider-Man was inspired by a kid standing up to the Rhino. Iron Man teaches Parker a paternal lesson of power and responsibility, considering damages from interference, including neighbourhood shops aflame to a ferry split in two, struggling to maintain the integrity of in homage to The Amazing Spider-Man #33 (1966). But Spider-Man is still a vigilante: a nobody celebrated by Peter’s high school after Washington DC.

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The Amazing Spider-Man #33 (1966)

He patrols New York fighting small criminals, screwing up along the way, saving bicycles without owners and setting off car alarms. A hobo with a boom box cheers on, reprising his role from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). Spider-Man changes into costume awkwardly in back-alleys, webbing up his clothes, far from Clark Kent spinning in a telephone booth in Superman (1978). Though Peter might feel held back by the Training Wheels protocol, his hesitance is a sign of immaturity: his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) helps hack the suit, turning off trackers. As a teenager, Peter thinks he’s more than just a kid: anti-authoritarian, fighting the FBI on the ferry and cops and helicopters in DC, more resonant real world obstacles than any supervillain. Peter Parker is nothing without his suit, learning his identity and how he balances his life. His audacity to say no to Stark is maturity: self-reasoning his own interests, rejecting a room next to Vision.

New York City is a central location to both Spider-Man’s identity and the MCU as a whole. In Spider-Man, the New York landscape became an inescapable reflection of national mourning to 9/11: the World Trade Center had been the centrepiece to an early teaser trailer; Spider-Man became directly framed against the American flag. Peter Parker had witnessed the tragedy himself in The Amazing Spider-Man #36 (2001). Previous films use bridges, office blocks, theatres and Times Square as central locations, the Empire State Building on the skyline. Homecoming isn’t interested in New York as tourist destination but as somewhere lived and breathed. Though largely filmed in Atlanta and Georgia, New York was used in important moments; Los Angeles had been utilised as doubles through Spider-Man to The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Though The Avengers suggests a centrality to New York, the MCU has largely avoided it: Age of Ultron and Civil War were international; Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) travelled across the universe, teaching the value of family; Doctor Strange (2016) moves across interdimensional worlds, Kathmandu, Hong Kong and London, though based in Greenwich Village.

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The Amazing Spider-Man #36 (2001)

Homecoming embraces the small scale of Queens: Spider-Man stands on top the Metro, performs to a hotdog vendor atop a roof and regularly visits Mr Delmar’s (Hemky Madera) corner store, petting his cat at the counter. In The Amazing Spider-Man, the corner store represented a plot point in Uncle Ben’s death; here, it represents the city. Though we see the Statue of Liberty’s torch aflame, even tourist locations are lesser known: the sands and attractions at Coney Island, best represented on screen by The Warriors (1979); the Staten Island Ferry, moving across the waters. Moving outside New York, we embrace different skyscrapers: in Washington DC for the Academic Decathlon, Spider-Man runs past the Lincoln Memorial, saving the Washington Monument from crumbling. Washington DC is wasted, carrying none of the conspiracy thriller symbolism from Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), just another background losing the film of some of its New York identity.

Ned, as Peter’s best friend, lacks enough characterisation, a geek interested in being a good friend and the guy behind the desk, but little beyond that. A far cry from Ned Leeds: he isn’t working for the Bugle, and being the Hobgoblin and suffering psychological breakdowns seems unlikely. He’s closer to Ganke, Miles Morales’ best friend, putting together a LEGO Death Star with Peter amid his massive collection of Star Wars action figures. Ned is the definition of awkward, attending parties wearing a fedora; pretending to look at porn when caught at homecoming on the computer by a teacher.

Ned wants to know as much about Spider-Man as possible, learning Peter’s secret identity as he changes out of costume. He uses it for street cred, talking about Peter’s friend Spider-Man. It almost feels like a queer coming out: Ned asks detailed questions, from how far he can shoot his webs (yikes) and if he can spurt venom or lay eggs. May walks in on Peter undressed with Ned around, choosing not to ask questions. In the final shot, May walks in on Peter in costume, shocked. The Amazing Spider-Man #37 (2002) played a similar reveal: May walks in on Peter’s shattered, bruised and bloodied body and torn costume, but accepts him.

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Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #2 (2011)

Peter respects May: she’s understandably concerned, sneaking out every night and losing his internship, adopting both maternal and paternal roles. A waiter at the Thai restaurant and Stark have hots for her, but this isn’t controversial: May was engaged to Doc Ock in The Amazing Spider-Man #131 (1974). Without the baggage of Peter worrying about health issues, their relationship becomes equal: showing how to put on a tie, dance and act around girls, she channels the relationship between Jack and daughter Andie in Pretty in Pink (1986). But Tomei struggles to compete with Rosemary Harris and Sally Fields, or the power of May learning his identity in The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

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The Amazing Spider-Man #37 (2002)

The Midtown School of Science and Technology as a group of clever kids is interesting: Ultimate Comics Spider-Man (2011-13) made Morales enter a selective lottery for charter school, beyond the public education free-for-all. Homecoming’s cast is diverse, made of a wide number of characters: Betty Brant (Angourie Rice) and Jason Ionella (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) host the school’s news network: poorly edited, bad interviews, green screen, Comic Sans awkwardness. The Bugle may be struggling under fake news and social media, but newspapers still exist, yet the Bugle hasn’t been seen on screen since Spider-Man 3. Flash (Tony Revolori) seems more complex than previous films, no longer a thuggish jock but throwing insults and DJ’ing along to “penis Parker” at the party, but lacks the military background that defined him as Venom.

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Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962)

The previous films’ heart and soul were its love interests, providing Peter with humanity and motivation. We feel their love as Mary Jane and Spider-Man kiss in Spider-Man, through tribulations, MJ’s acting ambitions in Spider-Man 2 and their engagement in Spider-Man 3. In The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel, Garfield and Stone’s chemistry was real. Peter never had one ultimate love interest, seeing many different women from Anna Maria to Carlie Cooper to Debra Whitman to Michele Gonzales. But Peter and Liz have nothing: Liz is just a crush, without investment when she accepts Peter as homecoming partner or moves to Oregon. It isn’t power couple; it’s just there, destined to break up. Peter becomes the sweet kid to show off and take selfies with; they never even make out. Though Liz was attracted to Spider-Man, she never had feelings for Peter in the comics: she dated Flash, fathering a son with Harry Osborn. The most engaging female character is Michelle (Zendaya): woke and progressive, planning to attend a protest, refusing to approach the Washington Monument because it was built by slaves. Michelle has an aura of mystery never articulated: she sketches in detention, reading constantly, trying to channel Allison from The Breakfast Club (1985). Adopting the initials MJ, the film hints to a larger role for future films.

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The Amazing Spider-Man #5 (1963)

Spider-Man’s rogue’s gallery might only compare to Batman’s in number and notoriety, offering constant space for new ground. Villains translated to screen were largely millionaires and moguls, scientists and professors: Green Goblin, Doc Ock, the Lizard; only Spider-Man 3 offered a more sympathetic view of Sandman, doing everything for his daughter. Homecoming embraces the underdog; the Vulture planned since the aborted production of Spider-Man 4. Keaton’s Vulture is neither Birdman nor Batman: Toomes is a family man, though stinks of hypocrisy. He riles against the oppressed and 1% in a monologue to buy time, but lives in a house few could afford. The Vulture becomes a literal vulture, re-appropriating Chitauri tech with the help of the Tinkerer (Michael Chernus).

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The Amazing Spider-Man #2 (1963)

Toomes assembles a crew, including the Shocker and Prowler (Donald Glover). Jackson Brice (Logan Marshall-Green) might only be recognisable as the Shocker thanks to padded sleeves, groomed out with a tightly trimmed beard, quickly replaced by Herman Shultz (Bokeem Woodbine) because of Toomes’ ineptitude. Perhaps the most welcome presence is Aaron Davis, Glover embodying a coolness. Hobie Brown is more iconic as the Prowler, a young black man in the Bronx that helps protect Spider-Man’s identity in The Amazing Spider-Man #79 (1969), but Davis’ presence has far greater implications: Davis is in his mid-30s and uncle to Miles Morales, interested in helping out kids and not being a criminal. Donald Glover can do no wrong: his last album as Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love!” (2016), was a funk-infused masterpiece, Redbone gracing the soundtrack of Get Out (2017); the Han Solo solo movie is my most anticipated solely for Glover playing Lando. Glover provided a template for Miles Morales, and played his role in the Ultimate Spider-Man (2012-17) animated series; it’s fitting to see him here. The postcredits scene brings in another villain, barely sans costume in shaved hair and prison clothes: Mac Gargan (Michael Mando), better known as the Scorpion.

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Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #8 (2012)

The strength of a villain is in personal stakes against the protagonist, best illustrated by the Green Goblin, conflicted between friendships and parental roles; Venom embodies an inverted reflection of our hero’s identity. In Birdman (2014), Keaton acted against his daughter Sam, played by Emma Stone; Keaton plays the in-law once more as father to Liz. Conflict becomes about identity: hit by streetlights, Toomes figures out Peter’s secret on the drive to homecoming, playing up the sinister in dramatic irony against what Liz, Adrian, Peter and the audience knows. Fears become uniquely teenage, but the final confrontation upon the plane never lives up to potential, never affected by the knowledge each character knows.

Homecoming never achieves a John Hughes tone, barely departing from the superhero film formula. Watts interprets Hughes as an 80s aesthetic, without recontextualising: the soundtrack is dominated by the Rolling Stones, Ramones and A Flock of Seagulls, without the MGMT that worked so well in the first trailer; the homecoming is event 80s-themed. There’s no sense of the music Peter likes, no indie or synthpop or R&B that might define this generation. Using contemporary music doesn’t need to be as desperate as the Raimi trilogy using Maroon 5, Corey Taylor and Aerosmith to shift compilation albums; music is an extension of identity. There’s Hughes elements: teenage rebellion sneaking out to the hotel pool; teachers not giving a shit about pupils, but Hughes’ films were defined by performance and comedy. Trying superficially, Watts never captures what it means to be a teenager in the 2010s; texting becomes just another graphic on screen.

Neither cinematography nor score stands out: Michael Giacchino afforded beauty and wonderment to the scores for Inside Out (2015), Doctor Strange and Rogue One, but achieves nothing but blandness here, unable to elevate mood and tone as Danny Elfman and James Horner achieved masterfully. Even the credits hit the wrong note: Spider-Man becomes reduced down to sketchbook illustrations on lined paper, with the edginess of middle school of the credits to Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2008). Though boasting a strong performance from Tom Holland, Homecoming becomes let down by an unfocused structure, introducing too many action set-pieces without weight, never allowing Peter’s high school scenes to have emotional impact. Even the final scenes of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 carried pathos, in spite of its many flaws. With many elements to set up, Homecoming struggles to carry a cohesive whole.

David Lynch: The Art Life (2016), dir. Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes & Olivia Neergaard-Holm

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David Lynch might seem enigmatic: his films are full of mysteries that only he knows the answers to, requiring elaborate fan theories to decode. An artist at heart, Lynch never sought to become a filmmaker. As visual mediums, art and film aren’t separate, but bounce off each other to reveal and create something new. Lynch follows the daily notion of the “art life”: he drinks coffee in the morning, without distractions, and paints. Even for those not interested in the art world, The Art Life remains engrossing. Other documentaries like Cutie and the Boxer (2013), depicting Ushio Shinohara’s and Noriko’s lifetime of sculptures and performance art, present us with the intricacies of being a creative and its routines and relationships.

Lynch’s enigma remains in place. Lynch splits himself into three identities: his family, friends, and his representation of his inner self within art. Lynch talks about his adolescence in Missoula and Boise, becoming just another normal guy; Missoula is no longer just the birthplace of Maddy Ferguson in Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017). Lynch recalls efforts to convince his father Donald that being an artist is a viable career decision: Lynch was the rebel who hanged out with the bad kids, working late nights in the studio after class, remembering how his mother was disappointed in him. Remembering his early 20s, his recollections become more interesting: smoking marijuana as his friend drove down the freeway; leaving a Bob Dylan concert; living in Philadelphia, where he came across dead bodies shot out in a diner, and encountered crazy people in the street.

But The Art Life is frustrating: the film chooses its endpoint as the production of Eraserhead (1977), suggesting an end of a chapter with more stories to tell, reinforcing the notion that Lynch is more filmmaker than artist. But Lynch embodies different kinds of art, never slowing down; he carried on with life. Directors Jon Nguyen, Olivia Neergaard-Holm and Rick Barnes illustrate Lynch’s recollections with his current, mixed media artwork, but without offering direct commentary. But Nguyen, Neergaard-Holm and Barnes also don’t hide the reality of Lynch’s life: he’s a father, playing with his young child; he takes a drag of his cigarette, frustrated at his own paintings and artwork. Lynch speaks reflections into his anachronistic microphone, just as he has done in his own reflective documentaries like Eraserhead Stories (2001).

Even shot on digital, The Art Life is never able to compare to the closeness and authenticity of the direct cinema movement of the 1960s and 70s, lacking neither enough insight nor a complete portrait to make it interesting enough, especially amid an existing canon of films interviewing the director. The film’s directors struggle to find a singular authorial voice, acting instead as a meditation that lacks the coherence one might expect to find.

Coming Out (1979), dir. Carol Wiseman

Coming Out provides an interesting counterpoint to Girl, produced 5 years later for the BBC’s Play for Today strand of programming. Unlike Girl, Coming Out is directed by a woman, Carol Wiseman, but follows a largely male cast of characters; scriptwriter James Andrew Hall is male. Frustrated children’s author Lewis Duncan (Anton Rodgers), writing in the queer underground press under the ridiculous pseudonym Zippy Grimes, is an unrelenting misogynist, dismissing his assistant Judy (Melanie Gibson) at all costs. He forgets her birthday; makes her miss her train; passes off all his half-concocted writing off to her to make some sense of. Lewis is continually unlikeable, never allowing the audience any sympathy for his situation. When Judy brands him as a “sexist pig”, wanting to be allowed her own life where she can go out with her boyfriend, we side with Judy.

Lewis faces constant pressure to come out, filtering his emotions into a manuscript. Everyone around Lewis tells him he should come out, but coming out has material consequences. With a queer perspective, Lewis has a burden of representation: he writes books imagining everyday situations around straight relationships, but his position will always be as an outsider. Lewis has a responsibility to write about queer themes, characters and settings. Lewis becomes a figure for other characters to open up to: Mrs Cooper (Helen Cherry) approaches him, talking about her struggle to deal with her priest son Jamie’s coming out. As a tutor and children’s writer, Lewis has to be careful, subject to homophobia: teaching young Brian, he becomes seen by Brian and his father as a “poof”, perverted and dangerous and a menace. Lewis faces pressure from his editor to be open as a column writer.

Lewis’ friends are equally reprehensible, never acknowledging their own privilege. Richie (Nigel Havers), Gerald (Richard Pearson) and Gunnar (Michael Byrne) are all in unhappy relationships, in a space neither monogamous nor polyamorous, creating a toxic culture of jealousy and dishonesty that cannot be easily resolved. Richie becomes an epitome of gay sexuality: blonde, young and beautiful, he becomes a artist’s muse, posing for Renaissance-esque paintings. Lewis meets for a night with black prostitute Polo (Ben Ellison), but remains unaware of the issues black gay men face as Polo recounts how few other opportunities are available to him and being stabbed by a policeman; even £500 a week is difficult to get by on as he attends to other people’s needs. At the dinner table, Gerald makes clear the many issues facing gay men, including the police threat. But Lewis never acknowledges this reality until it hits him square in the face: he rejects radicalism, decrying as an egalitarian prophet that all people are the same. Lewis is blind to real issues: misogynistic against women; homophobic against his own community. His struggles seem minor in the face of all other issues.

Coming Out ends upon a positive note, as Lewis commits to writing out his own experiences, clacking away at his typewriter. But Lewis remains an unlikeable protagonist who never really evolves over the course of the piece, never able to attract audience sympathy.

Girl (1974), dir. Peter Gill

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The Loft is a cute queer venue in the middle of Birmingham’s Gay Village. Produced in collaboration with Shout Festival, Shout have hosted LGBT film screenings throughout last November and this year’s LGBT History Festival. Shout are offering greater visibility to archival content, screening rarely seen TV productions of Girl and Coming Out (1979) as part of the Flatpack Film Festival. Even with the advent of YouTube, VOD and streaming, both productions remain difficult to come by, rarely screened and tied up behind paperwork. Festivals and events offer a role in curating the archive: behind the immensity of decades of content, little incentive exists to seek out forgotten relics on one’s own. It needs to undergo a process to be found again, amid a lack of positive queer representation.

Girl’s existence is directly tied to Birmingham: the piece was produced as part of the BBC2 series Second City Firsts (1973-78), recorded around Pebble Mill. Looking for early representation, we might be tempted to look at cinema, but as documentaries like The Celluloid Closet (1995) explore, LGBTQIA+ representation was largely hidden behind coded characters, although not entirely out of sight. But television offers a quicker production cycle, responding to social issues from young writers without the protracted process of drafting screenplays, scouting locations and concerns around budget. Girl feels disposable, relying upon theatrical staging and dialogue constrained to one room, but it’s of its time, never produced to be watched 45 years later. Broadcast post-watershed, Girl is an important milestone, the first same-sex kiss broadcast on British television, exploring the relationship between Jackie (Alison Steadman) and Chrissie (Myra Frances). Though 1970s audiences needed prior warning for its queer content, Girl still feels radical.

Set within a military institution, Girl lacks any male characters. A male presence is still felt: posters of male pin-ups adorn the wall; Maggie (Stella Moray) worries about pregnancy and brags about dicks. Girl’s characters are filtered through codes of masculinity rather than codes of femininity, providing an interesting insight into a period where queerness seemed in opposition to being a soldier, a conflict persisting to this day even without the same institutional discrimination. Girl was produced on the cusp of 2nd wave feminism. Before our contemporary debates around identity politics, intersectionality and online discourse, Girl’s questions are still relevant, but less well defined: marriage and abortion are rejected as remnants of patriarchy, in conflict with Catholic religious doctrine that similarly strengthens a patriarchal system.

Even today, queer women on screen remain marginalised: queer cinema invariably focuses upon attractive, shirtless white cisgender men than affording space for other identities, or are filtered through a male gaze. Some break through: Saving Face (2004), Transamerica (2005), Appropriate Behavior (2014), Carol and Tangerine (2015), but these are exceptions. Ghostbusters (2016) codes Holtz as queer, but her identity was suppressed through studio pressure and Feig’s unwillingness to push further.

Girl is inescapably subject to the male gaze: the piece is written by a male, directed by a male and approved by heads of department that are male. But Girl never uses its sexuality to elicit the male gaze, instead depicting real power to female intimacy. Jackie and Chrissie never just kiss: Steadman and Frances present closeness rarely captured elsewhere, enraptured in bed together under blankets; cigarettes evoking visceral sexuality. Jackie and Chrissie dance to a record, love made beautiful. Chrissie might be a player: she’s done this before, skirting outside lines of monogamy without ever being open and honest about it, but their love remains intense and instantly heartwarming. Against hate and oppression, seeing queer, female love on screen is powerful for its very existence.

My Life as a Courgette (2016), dir. Claude Barras

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Courgettes are perhaps one of the most underrated vegetables. They can be done as slices; as batons; bathed in olive oil; served with couscous, with chickpeas, with risotto. 2016 has seen a strong selection of releases, but My Life as a Courgette has been one of the most anticipated. Its title might confound anyone who hears its name, but behind its title and delicious vegetable is a beautiful tale of adolescence.

As the film began, I was confounded: My Life as a Courgette was playing in its American dub, lacking both zucchinis and its French voice cast. I almost walked out: dubs are something I avoid at all costs. Dubs are a necessary part of international distribution, not only to attract wider audiences, but allowing accessibility for its target demographic: kids. Studio Ghibli’s films weren’t ruined by their dubs, but broadened the potential audience. Courgette’s dub is strengthened by its voice cast: Nick Offerman, better known as Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation (2009-15), excels as police officer Raymond, providing a sense of both his exhaustion and joy for these kids.

Studios like Laika have redefined what children’s stop motion can be, both as portraits of adolescence and as meditations upon death, thanks to the pathos of Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012) and Kubo and the Two Strings (2016); Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox elevated a Roald Dahl adaptation to a beautiful piece of filmmaking. In its stark realism, Courgette goes beyond the fantastical elements of Laika or the adventurous nature of Aardman for something far more grounded. Screenwriter Céline Sciamma built her career writing portraits of conflicted adolescence. Tomboy (2011) is one of the few works on gender dysphoria in childhood and parental conflict; Girlhood (2014) is brutal, portraying a conflicted young black teenager forced to fit into different social circles.

The orphan might be a trope of film and literature, but director Claude Barras makes this trope seem real. Icare, nicknamed Courgette, isn’t happy go lucky, and neither is the rest of the orphanage, suffering great trauma after accidentally killing his alcoholic mother. My Life as a Courgette frames us within the real world: Camille wants nothing to do with her abusive aunt, whilst other orphans lost parents to drug addition or suicide, still feeling the effects. We care for the orphanage as a unit, never wanting to see them torn apart; Simon becomes an ally, providing covert surveillance.

My Life as a Courgette’s darkness doesn’t lose it of soulfulness, using humour to great effect as kids come to term with sexuality, forced to mature at a young age. Courgette experiences his first crush on Camille, wanting to understand her and her traumatic background more deeply. Kids seek to understand: staring at diagrams of men and women, confused; chuckle under covers at night and on the bus about how willies explode. The film’s conclusion is one of hope, but problematizes Courgette and Camille’s relationship to make it just a little bit creepy. Can they really expect things to continue as they stand? During a party scene, Eisbaer is played, becoming an earworm for the ages.

Although My Life as a Courgette disappointingly lacks the deeper portrayals or queer themes that pervade Céline Sciamma’s work, Barras’ film provides a powerful portrait of overcoming trauma and abuse in childhood that demands to be seen, for all its short duration.

Eraserhead (1977), dir. David Lynch

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The highlight of the Flatpack Film Festival was something I’d anticipated for weeks: a sold out screening of David Lynch’s first feature Eraserhead, presented with a live score by French indie band Cercueil. Cercueil’s score pervades the film with unease, heightening the surreal atmosphere. Sparse dialogue becomes distorted, echoing through as though in a tunnel. Cercueil’s score is no substitute, but a welcome alternative.

#davidlynch's Eraserhead at a sold out screening with live score! The hype is real

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1977 was an important year in cinema history: Star Wars redefined what the blockbuster and science fiction fantasy could be, drawing massive crowds. Close Encounters of the Third Kind proved Spielberg wasn’t going away, inspiring a generation to watch the skies. But 1977 was also the year David Lynch was unleashed upon the world, catapulted through midnight screenings outside the studio system. Eraserhead’s development was long, emerging from a grant during Lynch’s period at the AFI’s Center for Advanced Film Studies.

Lynch had been working on a 45-page script for a film called Gardenback, based upon one of his paintings. Recalling in Eraserhead Stories (2001), Lynch didn’t remember writing a script, but developed a 21-page outline. Lynch was afforded space and time to develop, living and working from stables in Beverley Hills that were mostly his. The crew worked other jobs: assistant director Catherine E Coulson worked a day job at BBQ Heaven; Lynch delivered papers at night for the Wall Street Journal.

Lynch’s name might be best at home with experimental artists that defined underground cinema through the mid-to-late 20th century: Kenneth Anger’s occultism and queerness; Stan Brakhage’s abstract shapes; Derek Jarman’s punk aesthetics applied to cinema. Lynch’s filmography may bend rules of narrative cinema to Lynch’s own aesthetic, but largely holds onto its generic conceits: engaging protagonists, narrative goals, mysteries. Plot is never Eraserhead’s priority, going far deeper into the depths of Lynch’s mind, into the surrealism of experimental cinema. Eraserhead is identifiably Lynch. Lynch explores female sexuality, bathed in pools; the mother making moves on Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), although perhaps not to the extremes of Blue Velvet (1986), Mulholland Drive (2001) or Fire Walk with Me (1992). The carpet is identical to the carpet in the Red Room in Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017), cast in stark monochrome. The Lady in the Radiator, emerging from a picture Lynch scribbled in the food room, sings In Heaven in haunting, emotive repetition.

In Heaven
Everything is fine
You got your good thing
And I’ve got mine

Over 6 years of production, Lynch followed a wave of creativity. As he tells Chris Rodley, Lynch developed an idea for an educational series with Coulson entitled I’ll Test My Log with Every Branch of Knowledge, about a young mother who lost her woodsman husband in a forest fire and carries her log everywhere, that eventually manifested as the Log Lady in Twin Peaks.

Lynch’s use of monochrome is superb, showing dedication to the image thanks to cinematographers Herb Cardwell and Frederick Elmes. Monochrome might be born of necessity from economic limitations, but has aesthetic potential both in adding dramatic weight and surrealism. When done wrong, monochrome can seem flat, but monochrome can elevate films like La haine (1995) and Nebraska (2013), evoking an entire mood, beyond the evocations of historical contexts in Schindler’s List (1993) and Ed Wood (1993). Lynch wanted to capture a mood, filming at night without external lights or sounds, creating a descent into the subconscious.

Though Eraserhead is surrealist, its power doesn’t lie within abstraction, but grounded within the real. Eraserhead’s concerns are human: tending after an ailing parent, raising a son, resolving family conflict, the relatable circumstances of Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) bringing her boyfriend home to her awkward yet interested family, a ritual all likely go through. Lynch had explored conflicted parental relationships in his experimental short The Grandmother (1970), but Eraserhead goes deeper. The industrial landscapes were drawn from Lynch’s own time in a decaying Philadelphia, forming “a world between a factory and a factory neighborhood” of “little torments” that is “neither here nor there”.

Though never autobiographical, Lynch drew upon his experiences, both in his deteriorating relationship with his wife Peggy and daughter Jennifer, who spent time on set. As Joel Blackledge writes, Lynch was a “reluctant father”: Jennifer was born with club feet, whilst Spencer’s “dark suit and gravity-defying hair” evokes Lynch’s “trademark look”.

Eraserhead moves into our own consciousness and bodies. Consciousness is an absurdity: minds within an embodied vessel of flesh and bone. Lynch questions our existence and its unreality, manifesting latent fears and anxieties within cinematic form. What makes us us? The head, beyond a vessel for consciousness, is an easy subject for experimental cinema. In A Trip to the Moon (1902), Méliès’ anthropomorphised moon gazes upon us; in Dimensions of Dialogue (1982), human faces meld into each other. Lynch’s visual effects are incredible, creating a design of an alien baby that stuns to this day. Lynch relies upon shock: a chicken dances; creatures stomped on; an eraser’s head is sharpened.

As he tells in Eraserhead Stories, Lynch found resources for the film from wherever he could, raiding a closed down studio for wire, nails and backdrops. Lynch contacted a veterinarian to acquire a dead cat that Lynch placed within a jar and dissected, watching the colour drain away from its internal organs; the cat never appears in the film in a recognisable form. Spencer’s suit and shoes were acquired from Goodwill; Coulson cut his hair. Eraserhead was completed and found distribution outside the festival circuit thanks to the monetary investments and finishing money from Jack and Mary Fisk and Sissy Spacek; its legacy continues to be felt.

The Giant (2016), dir. Johannes Nyholm

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Having finished watching Clash, I sat waiting around in the Everyman for the start of The Giant, presented with a Q&A with director Johannes Nyholm.

Sweden’s cinematic legacy seems defined by Ingmar Bergman, perhaps one of the most celebrated world cinema directors to have ever lived, for his melancholy tales of humanity. Other films and directors have come after Bergman: Let the Right One In (2008) might be one of the most well known, with its teenage vampire romance, whilst directors like Lukas Moodysson have a noticeable presence.

Nyholm has previously worked on music videos and short films like Puppetboy (2008), but The Giant is his first feature. As Nyholm tells in the Q&A, the road to The Giant was a 10-year process, developing the script and other ideas in the meanwhile, filming another yet to be released feature in 2011. Nyholm found funding from Dutch financiers, but remained limited by budget. Nyholm explored The Giant’s basic concept in his music video It Will Follow the Rain (2006), but music videos and cinema are two different, though connected, realms.

When I asked Nyholm the inspiration behind the project, Nyholm related a time when he had a dream, aged 4 years old. In the dream, his body was bloated; Nyholm was unable to move, his mind turning to existential thoughts. Rikard’s love of pétanque comes from Nyholm too: Nyholm used some of his old teammates from the game in starring roles, largely relying on nonprofessional actors; Nyholm used only 4 professional actors within the film.

The Giant might be difficult to describe in terms of genre: the film combines sports, magical realism, drama and the western, finding a perfect balance between each, combining surrealism with the mundanity of everyday life, juxtaposing moods against each other. Other recent films like A Monster Calls (2016), through its giant, embodied monster, balance the dark world of mortality and the wish fulfilment of children’s fairytales. Nyholm achieves similar: the giant embodies two aspects of Rikard’s self. Rikard holds onto a dream to compete in the Nordisk pétanque championships, but Rikard feels constantly held back. Rikard imagines what it would feel like to be free. As a 30 year old with a deformed condition, Rikard feels infantilised, looked after constantly by carer Roland. In scenes shot through Rikard’s own perspective, we see how difficult it is within his body: though Nyholm injects Rikard with personality and humanity, through his distorted, circular vision, he struggles to see the world around him.

But Rikard feels joy: at his birthday party, he is enraptured by the love and care afforded to him by others, surrounded by gifts and multiple slices of birthday cake; Nyholm makes a cameo during this sequence. Speaking to Roland on the bench outside the hospital, they joke about blowjobs, showing only some maturity; he still has sexuality, despite his condition. Rikard insists his individuality and ability to look after himself: he refuses to stay down in a hospital bed; he holds onto a deep relationship with his mother, insisting he see her. As Nyholm tells, Elisabeth’s song also came from his own family.

Like the disabled characters of Freaks (1932) and The Elephant Man (1980), Rikard must prove his humanity in the face of otherising and dehumanising; the carnival sideshow of Freaks drank alcohol, had interpersonal relationships, had their own existence, despite the hate and mockery of others. Rikard’s skull is fractured in an intentional attack during a game, but Rikard becomes the one punished by management. At a train stop, bullied by a group of men, Rikard’s misery is turned into spectacle, recorded on their phones; attacked by his own pétanque balls. In the championships, Rikard is constantly underestimated within the tight, restrictive rulebooks of the game.

In Rikard’s paintings, he sees himself as master of his own universe: he paints landscapes, as a joy and passion of expression as other senses fail him. In pétanque, the formation of the game represents the motion of planets within the galaxy, drawn upon his restrictive bedroom floor where he can’t make too much noise; Rikard is at the centre. Through animation and model work, Nyholm injects the film with bright autumnal orange sunsets, as the giant walks among trees; his giant foot lands upon train tracks. The camera moves across the landscape, amid the trees and mountains and waters; a place truly beautiful. In the final scene, he rises from the ambulance. The giant rises upon the city as Godzilla or King Kong; everyday citizens run for their life. Rikard emerges as powerful, two bodies as one.

Clash (2016), dir. Mohamed Diab

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The morning of Saturday 8th April 2017 was a morning of firsts: I took my first Uber ride; made my first Instagram post. After a morning distributing flyers and boards around the Birmingham canals and SeaLife Centre, I prepared for an afternoon at Flatpack Film Festival with a great series of films lined up.

The @everymancinema is rad! The Giant starts here at 5pm

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The Everyman Mailbox might take the record for the comfiest cinema in Birmingham. Hidden away inside a shopping centre, the Everyman is decked out with a bar and unreasonably comfy seats, enough space to chill out and relax with a few drinks.

Egypt’s image might be as a land of pyramids and pharaohs, trapped within its history and tourist industry. Egyptologists and adventurers seep through the sands, looking for the great mysteries of the ancient ages. But Egypt is far more complicated than we can be led to believe. As the Middle East is engulfed by conflict and the emergence of ISIS, Egypt’s existence is far from stable. The Arab Spring emerged throughout Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria, becoming seen as emblematic of the participatory nature of the internet, alongside the Occupy movement: a powerful, leaderless force, manifesting mass protests through social media, with the power to topple governments. But the Arab Spring has not seen the birth of new democracies, but waves of extremism and oppression; Syria has collapsed to rubble, creating a mass refugee crisis and troubling use of chemical weapons by Assad. Tahrir Square stood as a symbol of revolution, but revolution dissipated. Clash situates us within the aftermath of the Arab Spring, in July 2013, retelling the military coup overthrowing Mohammed Morsi from power as president. Coproduced with French and German financiers, with assistance from studios like ARTE and Pyramide, Clash recreate protests through its use of contained space and assembling a group of extras to act as a mass of protestors, struggling with the difficulties of financing and distribution and limited budgets.

Much of what we understand about Egypt comes from journalism, not only in reportage but photojournalism. In an age where journalism is justifiably questioned more than ever, from clickbait to social media, to dubious online advertising to paywalls and fake news, we need more diligence than ever. Journalists need time and resources to cover stories in-depth, rather than throwaway headlines awash with speculation. All the President’s Men (1976) and Spotlight (2015) act as powerful defences of news journalism’s impact in exposing the truth. But often, film is unable to use journalism effectively. No Man’s Land (2001) and the re-edited Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956) insert English-speaking journalists in a way that feels clumsy, explaining away events for international viewers outside the film’s native country, destroying narrative logic and authenticity. As AP journalists, Adam and photographer Zein could be presented as easy international audience conduits. But Adam’s heritage gives him narrative license: as an Egyptian-American, Adam buried his dad in Egypt; the future of his country is just as much of interest to him as it is to any other Egyptian. Adam is constantly treated like shit, but his presence is essential in drawing international attention to injustices and events.

Clash conveys immediacy through its use of handheld camera, creating a documentary quality. Released only 3 years after the events depicted within the film, Clash walks a line between historical events and contemporary politics. Clash’s documentary quality lacks narrative justification: there is no unseen cameraman within the van following events. Clash refuses to conform to the found footage element of films like Chronicle (2012) that often strain credibility, instead evoking the form to create a mood that feels raw and contemporaneous. Events are depicted that cannot be captured as documentary, transcending limitations. Though we live in an age where cellphones are everywhere: potentially, no event can go uncaptured, every minute of the day committed to film through multiple angles, there are still limitations. As journalists risk their lives in warzones, there are still blind spots: atrocities can still be suppressed. The camera on Zein’s smart watch feels like a Dan Dare-esque gadget: Zein acts as guerrilla filmmaker, depicting the people on the van. Later, the camera acts as a memento, depicting song and joy as a record of people assembled together. Adam and Zein must negotiate their positions between acting as journalists and as trustworthy friends and allies; the van’s occupants remain self-aware they are being watched.

Cinematographer Ahmed Gabr achieves a strong use of cinematography, looking out to the world outside, lit out in lights, lasers and fireworks and punishing purples. After A’isha’s father’s death, her face becomes engulfed by reds, conveying her internal emotions.

Enclosed within a van, the film creates a sense of suffocation. Clash might be best watched in the confinement of a shaking van on a miniature TV. Hitchcock used contained spaces in Rope (1948) and Rear Window (1954) not only to focus upon the intensity of character performance but to focus upon location as a character within itself. Conflict arises with human emotion at its most tested, separating into tribalism instinctively as they are forcibly moved in a vehicle against their will. Though our characters begin as blank slates, we come to know them much more deeply. Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Journalists. Protestors. Everyday citizens. Mothers, fathers and children. A wannabe DJ, a film star, soccer fans. Rather than a homogenised mass, Diab grants each character subjectivity, with their own backgrounds and experiences.

Each character finds their own way of coping against the inevitable. Diab builds uneasy prescience around our characters’ doom: they remain aware that in the van before them, 40 people died, bound to be left for death. Characters negotiate with soldiers and police as captors, wanting at least basic human dignity, still with basic human needs: water, air, needing to piss. Clash has some gore: open wounds, stitches, blood, exploding bodies, but the film never becomes too gory, instead seeking realism. Some hold onto a faith in God, knowing a better day will come. A’isha removes her hijab to find a pin, in order to force the door open, contending against the systems of respect and oppression built into Islam. A’isha plays a game of noughts and crosses upon the wall, reflecting wider conflict within the rules of the game.

Around China with a Movie Camera (2015)


 

Last year, I appreciated the Old Rep as a venue for live performance with Faust (1926), presented with an immersive live score, animating the carnival and capturing the elemental forces of nature. This year is no short of live performances, adding an added dimension to film that demands physical presence, bringing new life to almost century old material. Ruth Chan’s score, complete with orchestra, combines Chinese and western influences to reflect the BFI’s compilation of an archive of decades of home movies, newsreels and ethnographic film, often filmed from western perspectives.

Around China with a Movie Camera seems at home with the city symphonies of the late 1920s. The film is not as interested in the progression of time as in the progression of space, moving between Beijing and Shanghai, using cities themselves as a point of departure to examine shared culture and location. Man with a Movie Camera (1929) experimented radically with editing, technique and form, placing the everyday life of the streets upon the screen without relying on traditional narrative, compressing Odessa, Moscow, Khariv and Kiev into one shared location. Where Around China with a Movie Camera lacks is its limitations: as a compilation, it has no authorial voice. It feels like a series of short sketches, comprised of extracts; the BFI’s website even offers a wider archive. Other recent BFI projects like The Stuart Hall Project (2013) feel similarly limited by form: manipulating an existing archive without offering coherent structure or anything much new to existing material.

But preserving early film carries importance, adding visual record to the stillness of photographs and the prose of monographs. Film deteriorates, left in archives or badly stored, unwatched or forgotten. As a physical medium, film is limited by the amount of stock available. The camera excludes: positioning and light affects how the image itself is perceived. We follow missionaries, tourists and honeymooners, capturing ethnographic images of a culture they do not live within, with their own decisions on what is valuable to shoot, rarely following a Chinese perspective. Early films like The Epic of Everest (1924) provide a valuable record of not only Mallory’s expedition to the Antarctic but Tibetan rituals, faces long since forgotten: but the camera conceals an imperial gaze.

Preserving an archive is ultimately a question about ourselves: how will we as people be remembered? Beyond the scarcity of physical records, modern technology allows for a seemingly infinite archive, amassed of photographs, videos, messages and emails that seem to exist for an eternity, impossible to organise in any reasonable way: but the instability remains. Files deteriorate; websites rebrand; the cloud is a fallacy, concealing the physicality of server farms. Around China with a Movie Camera is limited by time: the earliest film contained within the archive is thought to predate 1900. But dating relies upon conjecture and other available records. Were photography to emerge as a medium before the 1840s, and film before the 1880s, what other images could have been captured? What other images have been lost to eternity, or degraded beyond recognition? Inks, oils and pencils provide another insight into the past, but stylises the artistic image.

Film becomes filtered through the presence of time: we witness the days before the Shanghai massacre, but its relevance becomes heightened through the massacre its subjects and cameraman never knew of at the time. Subjects stare at the camera, in awe at an invention never before witnessed. Everyday life and farming techniques become captured upon film: irrelevant at the time, yet afforded new meaning in the century that has passed since. Its subjects, without knowledge of their lives or personalities, become blank slates, anonymous bodies to project upon who they might have been, containing entire lifetimes within seconds of film.

Around China with a Movie Camera captures some truly beautiful visions: tinted images and stencils light up the screen, attempts at colour that never feel realistic yet a truly wonderful spectacle. Although Around China with a Movie Camera never achieves aesthetic transcendence, its value as a document of the past cannot be underestimated.

Monterey Pop (1968), dir. D.A. Pennebaker

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Premiering in a new 4K restoration by Janus Films and Criterion and presented with a pre-recorded introduction by 91-year-old director D.A. Pennebaker, Pennebaker has been working tirelessly on presenting Monterey Pop in its best possible version. Held in the Monterey County Fairgrounds from June 16-18th 1967 to an audience of 50,000, producer Lou Adler sought a friendly, non-commercial environment where artists played for free and profits went to charity, no artists receiving top billing.

Thinking back to the late 1960s, it’s easy to romanticise: its inhabitants become caricatures, preaching about free love and peace, smoking dope, yelling groovy. 16mm creates a historical distance: it lacks the immediacy of digital, noise allowing a trace to the photochemical process but also displaces the film from the present moment. Rather than focusing upon artists alone, Pennebaker intercuts close-ups of the crowd, presenting a shared social space. Some subjects perform to the camera; others are caught unaware. People might seem eccentric: a man wears a top hat; clothes bathed in colour; a woman wears flowers in her hair; another man wears a pinstripe suit; a mother carries her baby in a homemade pouch; a monkey eats food standing on a man’s shoulder.

But the festival, in its ethos, doesn’t seem so far from Glastonbury or others today: watching the people within the frame, we see people who could be us. Behind the clothing lie people with similar values, aspirations, fears and desires. There might not be cellphones recording every performance live on Snapchat, but it isn’t so different technologically either: Jefferson Airplane use fragments of film in screen projection, prefiguring modern LCD screens and more elaborate set-ups. We pan by tents and stalls selling posters, art prints and zines; people stitch together colourful kites, an entire subculture long forgotten. Audiences embrace music, feeling individual relationships with the artists. Pennebaker portraits couples in love: cuddling, making out, laying next to each other, a generation that have grown up, broken up, aged or died, but aren’t so different from the young couples learning love and learning life at festivals today.

As Kevin D. Greene writes, baby boomers at the festival felt “resentment” against an “era of unparalleled affluence”, in a background of the Cold War, assassination of JFK, Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. Pennebaker finds narratives, conducting interviews with the crowd: he interviews a police chief, concerned about numbers attending and the Hell’s Angels, in a decade defined by riots and clashes against police. A woman cleans up litter, as Pennebaker focuses upon the immensity of empty seats all around. Their generation had their own battles for individual autonomy, before our modern battles for identity politics. Some attendees might seem surprising: Pennebaker captures young kids, Hells Angels, African Americans and Asian Americans, beyond our preconceived notion of a white, young adult monolith.

In his 1969 essay Anatomy of a Love Festival, Robert Christgau wrote that the “love crowd is America’s affair with bohemia”: attendees weren’t just hippies or “lost kids”, but liberals, college instructors, and “everyone who smokes pot, and in California that happens to be a lot of everyone.” Christgau recalls taking a ride back with an elderly Jehovah’s Witness couple that asked if the concert attendees believed in God; Christgau didn’t have an answer.

Pennebaker focuses on the mundane: eating food, finding shelter from pouring rain, lighting cigarettes; Pennebaker closes the gap between present and past, as though history hasn’t changed. Attendees inevitably held onto their own mementos and memories for the rest of their lives, but Pennebaker captures a photographic memory of shared space, creating, as Matthew Eng writes, “moving scrapbooks”, offering a “multiplicity of perspectives” amounting to a “democratic document” that mirrors the festival itself.

Monterey Pop has one major difference from Pennebaker’s most intimate works, Dont Look Back (1967) and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973), never offering the same unprecedented backstage insight that defines him. Monterey Pop lacks a negotiation between artistic persona and human being that captured Bowie looking into the mirror applying make-up, or Dylan interacting with fans and journalists. Pennebaker emerged from television, working with Time-Life and ABC on Primary (1960) and the innovation and portability of 16mm news cameras. Pennebaker worked alongside 6 cinematographers and documentarians, including Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles with 5 cameras and 4 track tape recorders, lacking synchronised sound, leaving them alone, supplied with rolls of film. Pennebaker’s most recent film, Unlocking the Cage (2016), still reveals a strong directorial voice, following an animal rights lawyer whilst making a coherent argument around a fascinating subject, without demarcating an obvious, un-contestable position.

Direct cinema might seem outmoded in an age of immediacy of daily vlogs and Instagram, but recent documentaries like Weiner (2016) follow similar principles, creating a developed portrait of a personality beyond the constantly shifting present. Our iconic images of the 60s seem authorless, a predestined record of time ingrained within national and global memory, but each image has an artist, director or photographer behind it: people like Abraham Zapruder, Eddie Adams and Steve Schapiro. Documentary cinema and photojournalism are processes, based upon what we choose (or are able) to capture. Direct cinema affords an interesting relationship to history: Medium Cool (1969) intersects along both the reality of the chaos outside the DNC and the film’s fictional narrative.

Monterey Pop exists in a place between concerts photographed today, with neither the extended duration of live TV broadcasts nor the condensed coverage of vlogs or newscast montages. Pennebaker allows a structure to emerge, condensing 3 days into an 80-minute piece, allowing intermissions as days close and mornings rise: people wake up in blankets, put on pants; an airplane sets down on tarmac. At points, the film seems amateurish: other cameramen appear in shot, perching their tripod upon the roof. From the opening, there’s a home movie quality: text appears on screen, not in type but handwritten marker pen scrawled across screen amid psychedelic flashes; after the credits, the reel dissolves into burns and scratches. It’s not so far from the casualness of Dylan holding up an endless stream of cuecards to Subterranean Homesick Blues in the opening to Dont Look Back. Concert films have many approaches: Sign o’ the Times (1987) may not be the most radical, but conveys clear choreography of Prince’s theatrical spectacle.

Monterey Pop may not be as narratively involving as most cinema, but it doesn’t need to be. The film feels like a compilation with a curated selection of tracks, letting artists guide the viewer along. Many artists seem familiar: Simon & Garfunkel, The Who, Jimi Hendrix. Some are remembered more vaguely: The Mamas & the Papas, Country Joe & the Fish, Ravi Shankar. But who remembers Canned Heat, Hugh Masekela or Eric Burdon? Instruments and genre might represent the biggest difference from today, before synth, sampling, punk or heavy metal.

The opening shots might seem overly sentimental: Pennebaker traces arriving crowds as Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) plays over, but Pennebaker quickly launches into performances. The Mamas & the Papas offer circularity, appearing early and performing again towards the close, dressed in Russian clothing defying comprehension. Others become overblown through the limitations of 16mm, drowned by light: Simon & Garfunkel are scarcely visible, covered in red lighting; Otis Redding is captured from behind, white flashes encompassing his face. Some are welcome surprises: Jefferson Airplane transcend the limitations of Jefferson Starship in The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) through the enjoyable High Flying Bird; Eric Burdon covers Paint It, Black, though unable to rival the iconic Rolling Stones original. Janis Joplin’s Ball and Chain never leaves the mind, portraying powerful intensity that can never be matched, concealing an internal struggle.

My Generation by The Who and Wild Thing by Jimi Hendrix become easy rivals to Jim Morrison’s on-stage anarchy: at the end of their performance, The Who smash their guitar into shards, never giving up, as security and stagehands walk in to chaos, genuinely confounded. Hendrix grinds into his amplifier, has sex with his guitar and sets it on fire, threatening to leave the entire stage and electrical equipment aflame with it, before throwing the lone remnant of the guitar into the audience. But Ravi Shankar offers some genuine calm: Pennebaker surveys his audience, sitting in prayer or content with the present moment, bored or waiting around, holding on Dhun for the duration of the performance as he plays his transcendent sitar, something never heard before. As Christgau wrote:

It isn’t likely that a third of those present had more than the most rudimentary understanding of what was going on. But Shankar played to his audience.

Monterey had some setbacks. As Rolling Stone reported the following year, a backlash emerged from an “ugly collection of voyeuristic “taxpayers””, arguing the festival “resulted in sale of pornographic literature, trafficking in narcotics, an invasion of “undesirables,” and “open fornication”, that may not have been entirely inaccurate. Its artists represent a generation soon lost: Hendrix, Redding and Joplin passed within only a few years of the festival, gone too soon – something uneasily familiar to Pennebaker with his short Lambert & Co. (1964), film becoming a document of the transient. Monterey and Pennebaker set a high bar for the music festival and concert film that may be difficult to ever top.