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.
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.
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.
Birmingham’s Flatpack Film Festival, running from April 4-9th 2017, is one of the most wildly creative film festivals: Kino Trains in the middle of New Street; live music; short films; Holoramas; discussion panels; documentaries; silent films.
Having barely scratched the surface of last year’s festival, I volunteered. After a long day handing out flyers and a frantic writing session at Starbucks, I arrived at The Old Rep, one of Birmingham’s best stage venues: its impossible slope of seats assaults the eye. I entered the performance without expectations, nor any interest in football either.
In History History History, Pearson relates the story of the failed Hungarian student revolution of October 23rd 1956 that resulted in military intervention and her grandparents leaving for Canada: tied up within the fate of a film, starring her grandfather, repressed by Soviet censorship to filled seats the following year. History History History has already been performed across the globe, with upcoming dates in Edinburgh and Australia.
Pearson’s premise should be simple. But history is never simple, comprised of many narratives. All films owe something to our own lives, relating something about the world around it: our lives and histories. As a seemingly innocuous football comedy starring Ferenc Puskás, the film may never be canonized as a masterpiece. Pearson highlights the difficulty of availability: occasionally played in Canadian cultural centers; a VHS tape she grew up with, symbolically fetishized with meaning whilst unable to decipher intent; downloaded off the internet; unavailable within Hungary itself. Its very existence is politicized.
Pearson’s focus on preserving film and searching for meaning seems at antithetical to Communist reality: objective truth, a singular dictator, shared communes. Yet Soviet reality is slippery, constructed within film and propaganda – eliminating people from existence, in present and past, constructing national sentiment. Vertov’s mechanical kino-eye created constructed reality through editing; Eisenstein’s masterworks recreated the 1905 and 1917 revolutions as cinematic epics. But the documentary medium itself relies upon artificiality in creating an image of reality.
Pearson constructs her “live documentary” through various sources: projecting sequences, narrated over; a small, framed screen, playing the film in the background of the performance; drawings, illuminated through magnifying glass on a classroom-esque projector; archival photographs of family and revolution; a placard held by Pearson, adding a third dimension to the image whilst making faces within more visible. Pearson researched her own history, travelling to the Corvin Cinema and conducting interviews with screenwriter Tibor Méray, her mom and grandma, narrating the film in absence of translation. Pearson injects the piece with mock subtitles, like a game of Mad Libs or an episode of RiffTrax, attempting to understand a language that isn’t her own yet means so much; the Downfall (2005) meme on a personal level.
Film acts as a document, with a trace of a past that has come before. Pearson allows us to situate ourselves, within the theatre, in the embodied space of the present moment, and contemplate the time before: our legacies and ancestors that intersect together. But those narratives are constructed: the stories we tell ourselves, or our told by our parents; the things we’re allowed to remember, or allow ourselves to remember. The camera will never capture everything, for all its power and presence.
History History History is so strong it deserves to be enshrined as a film of its own; it does not deserve to be ethereal, but that is part of its beauty.
Todd Haynes’ filmography splits between two themes: a deep connection to a musical artist and their hidden backstory, or a destructive suburban life, presented from a feminist perspective. Superstar, long suppressed, reliant on bootleg copies, brings all these themes into focus in its short 40 minute runtime.
In an interview around the release of I’m Not There. (2007), Haynes spoke of the process of acquiring consent of the artist for his projects – received from Bob Dylan for I’m Not There., rejected by David Bowie for Velvet Goldmine (1998), and sued by Richard Carpenter for Superstar. Though these films are about real historical figures, they were never about the real figures themselves, but something larger: a mythology; a reflection of time and culture, that could be expressed through an analogue, but not the person themselves.
Haynes both speculates and projects: in I’m Not There., Haynes reaches the ultimate level of subversion, embodying different Dylans reflecting different eras, repurposing artistic influences as analogues. Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), poet under interrogation; Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin), black kid blues singer travelling across the Midwest in the back of train carriages; Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), documentary subject and gospel singer; Robbie Clarke (Heath Ledger), James Dean-esque rebel without a cause; Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett), moving across the London art scene a la Dont Look Back (1967); and Billy McCarty (Richard Gere), rural, turn-of-the-century outlaw.
In Velvet Goldmine, Haynes folds multiple 1970s music personalities into one to create an analogous portrait of David Bowie through Brian Slade (John Rhys Meyers), and his relationship with musician Curt (Ewan McGregor), combining the soundtrack with the music of Brian Eno and shifting through musical eras from mods and rockers to glam rock. Beyond the image of the static artist, Haynes’ artist becomes fluid: a performative identity. Haynes never seeks to create the authentic biopic: only the sense of one.
To Haynes, the musician is central to the construction of his identity: in Velvet Goldmine, Arthur (Christian Bale) becomes analogous to Haynes, embracing his sexuality through Slade’s music. Haynes never directed Superstar through sinister intentions: first and foremost, it is grounded in an appreciation of the music itself. Superstar could never exist without the Carpenters’ music, recreated in stage performances. Haynes speaks of his appreciation of Karen Carpenter himself in a documentary segment, credited as DJ Todd Donovan, expressing what was so radical about her work.
As listeners to an artist’s work, we are never aware of their authentic lives: only the sense, represented within lyrics, newspaper headlines, interviews and speculation. In Velvet Goldmine, the private persona reveals Slade’s queer identity; here, Karen’s private persona reveals her struggle with anorexia. Objectively, Superstar is a biopic about Karen Carpenter. Yet where Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There. acted as a retrospective celebration of the musical scene of the 1960s and 70s, Superstar is more the story of a woman’s struggle with anorexia, though embodied through the persona of Carpenter.
Karen Carpenter’s name may not carry the same cultural recognition today as it had in 1988, but the narrative of the vulnerable female celebrity recurs throughout culture, from Marilyn Monroe to Amy Winehouse, whose struggle with drug addiction became posthumously represented in Amy (2015) through archival footage. Yet we do not understand their personal struggles through a reality, we understand it through a constructed image. As Lindsay Ellis explains in her Loose Canon analysis of Marilyn Monroe’s representation within culture, Monroe became more a symbol than a person: a brand and a piece of intellectual property.
Haynes juxtaposes Karen’s musical performances with her personal struggle. As a cultural icon celebrated by Nixon, Karen feels the weight of representing positive American values. Singing about being “on top of the world” becomes ironic: she is in her depths. In the final scene, Karen’s music coalesces together as collage, removed from comprehension as her bodily self degrades.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the film is how Haynes is able to communicate emotion through dolls. Haynes simultaneously saves his budget whilst presenting a heavily cited influence on body image – the slender, impossible body perpetuated by Barbie. As the film progresses, we see Karen’s body become slenderer and slenderer – just as the ideal body size decreases as the years and decades pass.
Haynes accepts the limitation of low-budget filmmaking and uses it to his advantage, never losing anything in the process: he understands composition, uses period-appropriate sets, understands how to use colour (as so beautifully shown in Far from Heaven(2002)), lights every scene perfectly, understands editing. Haynes is no amateur: he isn’t a 15 year old directing an Action Figure Adventure. Haynes recreates Karen’s musical performances, depicting her in the recording studio, or in a black TV studio draped in colourful lights. Haynes doesn’t need to show a studio audience; the performance conveys enough. Yet in bootleg VHS form, Superstar becomes defined by its lo-fi nature.
In part, the film takes on the form an essay film, presenting historical context (the TV plays in the background of the family home, with news reports about the riots and revolutions of the 1960s and the Nixon administration) alongside propositions and arguments, examining the Carpenters’ place in American society and the rise of anorexia, illustrated through scenes. Haynes places information around anorexia in the form of expositional title cards, whilst his documentary-style footage acts as a source to be analysed.
When we were taught about anorexia and bulimia in high school, it never felt like it was going to achieve much. Eating disorders were as badly taught as sex education was in the same classes, unable to communicate how widespread rape is and how consent is misunderstood, exempted from queer narratives in favour of the dominant heterosexual one. Anorexia was taught in a collection of testimonials presented on a page, never presented as a real, tangible thing, treating male anorexia as uncommon and an afterthought. Its sufferers were never living, breathing humans, not acknowledging that many of the people in the room may also come to suffer, or have suffered, from it.
Through the character of Karen, Haynes presents scenes that may feel familiar. Karen feels the pressures of being a public media personality, encouraged to experiment with diets, like the Stillman diet, in order to lose weight, because a columnist described her as “chubby”. These pressures are only amplified today, through constant comment from sexist Daily Mail paparazzi shoots and social media, or the edited instincts of Photoshop. Karen finds restaurant and family meals difficult, refusing to eat from her plate as Richard asks her to just take a bite. Karen’s revulsion to food becomes the enemy; in a disjuncture edit, food is shot in stark monochrome as though it were a 1950s horror film. Haynes’ editing is subversive and experimental, showing the constantly decreasing weight on the scales, lips moving, plates being replaced and taken away, to depict a indescribable relationship with anorexia.
Haynes implicates a number of pressures: the Ex-Lax pills promise an easy fix and obsession, only servicing consumer culture in a culture of overabundance. Similarly, when Karen reaches 108 pounds, her family toasts her progress – only making Karen feel like the process will be easy; recovery becomes just as dangerous as the condition alone. When Karen confides in her dietician over the telephone, she feels unable to progress through a “long, hard battle” that will last several years.
Haynes grounds these pressures within the suburban home of the latter half of the 20th century. In the opening sequence, the camera pans through a suburban neighborhood, until focusing upon the Carpenter household. Through the production design, Haynes recreates an authentic image of the 1970s household. The suburban home as a constructed self-destructive prison within society to a female protagonist saw Carol develop chemical sensitivity in Safe (1995), Cathy’s socially taboo relationship with Raymond and her husband Richard’s queer sexuality in Far from Heaven, and Carol’s secret relationship with Therese in Carol (2015). Here, Haynes implicates the overprotective family: Karen’s mother, Agnes, believes she must be protected by living at home, away from a lifestyle of drugs, though Karen is in her 20s. She becomes imprisoned by her own family, only to develop a dependence on an entirely legal drug.
Yet this suburban lifestyle exists because of the era it exists within. Through exposition, Haynes links the post-war end of rationing, bringing about the plentiful availability of food, to the rise of anorexia. Karen experiences the pressures of femininity – as a woman with a career, she feels the pressures to look good that many men do not experience. In exposition, Haynes describes anorexia as a rejection of the “doctrines of femininity”, in line with how Susan Bordo described anorexia as a resistance to cultural norms and a rebellion against femininity in Unbearable Weight (1993).
Karen wants agency over her music career, social circles and her body, yet encounters continual obstacles. She declares she will move away from home to undergo her treatment, yet encounters resistance from her parents. Undergoing the treatment, she feels “more in control than ever”, yet still does not have full agency.
Haynes’ editing adopts the structure of a music documentary, combining montages of remixed archival footage, animated newspaper headlines, news reports on anorexia’s effects, and vox pop interviews with people on the street. In I’m Not There., documentary became a central part of the narrative: we learn of Jack Rollins’ life through documentary extracts, interviewing family and past collaborators, with archival footage of Rollins receiving an award and performing at a church presented with the benefit of hindsight. In the sections focusing on Jude Quinn, we become aware of the unseen observer, D.A. Pennebaker, documenting the events seen in Dont Look Back (though the timeframe of events is rearranged), reinforced through cinéma-vérité-esque monochrome cinematography. Haynes becomes interested in telling multiple narratives, rather than relying upon a single source.
Superstar should not officially exist, buried through lawsuits intended to protect Karen’s legacy. The film never seeks to present the official narrative of Karen’s career or relationship with anorexia. Taken as a precursor to Haynes’ later film work, Superstar is an essential watch, often uneasy and depressing, yet no less powerful.
The 1980s are my decade. Which feels odd to say, given I was born in the late 90s. Politically, the period is interesting, juxtaposing commerce and capitalism and giving rise to neoliberalism (see: every Adam Curtis film ever), alongside nuclear paranoia and the legacies of Thatcherism and Reaganism. Comic books became darker, bringing interesting and meditative new takes to superheroes through V for Vendetta (1982-88), The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Watchmen (1986-7), Batman: Year One (1987) and The Sandman (1989-96). Music became what Donnie Darko (2001) would go on to celebrate. Meanwhile, the decade was populated with directors like Joe Dante, Oliver Stone and Walter Hill.
This list will never be complete: by my count, I watched 40 films from the decade over the course of the year. There’s simply too many to devote enough space to Blow Out(1981), The Last Starfighter (1984) or From Beyond (1986). But hopefully this will give a good overview of a decade whose cinema was populated by a diverse set of worlds.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (1982), dir. Lou Adler
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains feels like how a model for how a Jem and the Holograms (2015)movie should be done. Rather than a surface level message around embracing individual identity and a modernised narrative of the social media popstar, the Fabulous Stains tells a story of teenage musicians from a genuine place, implicating the role of the media in promoting artists (and demonising its young followers) and its effects on the artists themselves. Where the punk aesthetic saw youth disenfranchisement and nuclear obliteration in Repo Man (1984), here we see how a cult emerges around an artist. Through the mantra of “never put out”, it grounds itself within the punk ideology of not selling out – but how tenable is that position? Incorporating faux news footage, Fabulous Stains settles more for ambivalence than anything else.
Lou Adler’s name may seem familiar – Adler has spent his entire career producing musical artists and launching Cheech & Chong as known artists. Adler knows the industry, so is able to use that experience to build an authentic narrative.
This type of empowering, feminist film feels particularly 80s; in The Legend of Billie Jean (1985), the commercialised, media cult of personality is again called into question, as Billie tries to defend herself against her rapist. In Brian K. Vaughan’s comic series Paper Girls (2016-present), the suburban young teenage narratives of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and more recently Stranger Things (2016) is subverted, applying those same coming-of-age struggles to female protagonists.
Starman (1984), dir. John Carpenter
No other decade is as good at science fiction as the 1980s: from the acceptance of mortality in a Floridian retirement home in Cocoon (1985), to the nautical first contact of The Abyss (1989), to the apocalyptic, reality TV visions of The Running Man (1987). I have a soft spot for John Carpenter, and that’s not just because I spent the year blazing through his filmography with Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and Christine (1983), or saw him perform live in Manchester. Starman is far from one of Carpenter’s best efforts, and frequently transcends credibility, yet Starman is such a heartfelt story of a man from another world that it hardly matters.
The Starman’s appearance on Earth is Christ-like, visiting for a handful of days to bring peace until he must return home. Though he may seem creepy as he stalks Jenny and initiates a relationship with her in the form of her dead husband Scott, his only malice emerges from outside influences: government operatives, or a fight in the bar. In some ways, Starman is a road movie, as the Starman must travel from Wisconsin to Arizona in Jenny’s car before time runs out. Though Starman will never reach the cult appreciation levelled towards Escape from New York (1981) or They Live (1988), it still carries a special place in Carpenter’s filmography. Hopefully, with Indicator releasing Christine, Vampires (1998) and Ghosts of Mars (2001) from Sony’s catalogue on Blu-ray, we’ll be able to see a UK release of this very soon.
Blue Velvet (1986), dir. David Lynch
I’m unable to deal with the fact it took me five years to lose my David Lynch virginity. Back in 2011, when my friend Zach was introducing me to the Criterion Collection and other incredible films, I never thought to pick up the David Lynch DVD boxset I was eyeing up. I’ve still not watched Eraserhead(1977) or Mulholland Drive(2001), whilst I’ve still yet to complete my journey through Twin Peaks (1990-91) that I began in June amongst every other film or TV series, like Class (2016) or Black Mirror (2011-present) that is on my radar.
Rarely do I give a film 5 stars, unable to determine whether something is truly perfect, or the difference between 4.5 and 5. Yet Blue Velvet is as unquestionably perfect as a Stanley Kubrick film. Lynch stared into the frame and created a film with a true vision. As with the musical sequences within Twin Peaks, music takes on a performative female identity. Within the noir genre, aided by the presence of Kyle MacLachlan, Lynch creates a gripping portrait of sexual power, dominance, masculinity and femininity, with shades of some of his later works.
Miracle Mile (1988), dir. Steve De Jarnatt
Miracle Mile opens in a nighttime coffee shop in Los Angeles; it ends in a helicopter. Over the course of the film, Harry tries to outrun the inevitable, moving between the Mutual Life Benefit Building and gymnasiums, rescuing family in the process. Miracle Mile‘s nihilistic approach to the end of the world seems to have shades of how the Death Star’s power is treated in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story(2016). Yet it fits with an entire genre of 1980s cinematic nuclear apocalypses, from The Day After (1983), Threads (1984) to When the Wind Blows (1988).
Yet Miracle Mile embeds lightness within its darkness: Night of the Comet (1984) may have dealt with the death of almost everybody in Los Angeles, but it still had Girls Just Want to Have Fun. Here, we open in a diner defined by caricatures, from drunks to clerks to drag queens; later, we meet body builders, or old women going on dates. Unlike the soul-crushing Threads, the strength of Miracle Mile is how it oscillates between these two tones, only amplifying the power of the desperation of the film’s ending.
For All Mankind (1989), dir. Al Reinert
Brian Eno’s music can help make any film moving and incredible, from Rachel’s struggle with cancer in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) to Todd Haynes‘ portrait of 1970s London in Velvet Goldmine (1998). Here, Eno’s music almost becomes a transcendental experience, as beautifully linked to the visuals as Philip Glass’ was in Koyaanisqatsi (1984). Rather than leave archival footage of the moon landings in a vault, ready to be used in extract form in every TV special or documentary, alongside assorted talking heads of variable value, allows this footage to be played in full, in the best quality available. For All Mankind is one of very few films which can truly attest to being largely filmed in outer space.
Space may be just as inspiring within fictional narratives, but For All Mankind is something special. We never doubt the science, or the dubious CGI, or if this is what a spacecraft is actually like. Yet it still feels like science fiction, never our reality. Though many voices have tried to retell their experiences of the Apollo missions, here their voices become a collective – a collective experiences of multiple missions – told within one story. For All Mankind never reaches the narrative suspense of what one expects from a fiction film or a documentary – but it remains a spectacle, that needs to be seen. Not in some 480p YouTube version – but on the Criterion or MOC Blu-ray. Looking out at the universe, this film deserves to be seen in all its glory.
Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), dir. Steven Soderbergh
Sex, Lies, and Videotape makes for uncomfortable viewing. But it’s meant to. Often, there’s a recent tendency with films examining the emotional impact of sexuality to rely upon explicit sex scenes, whether simulated or real. Think of recent examples like Shortbus (2006), Nymphomaniac (2013) or Love (2015), even outside of Fifty Shades of Grey (2015). These films seem split in critical opinion: are they porn, or are they art? I’ve had an uncomfortable relationship with my own sexuality. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and bad decisions, something I’ve really had to confront over the past year, embracing my asexuality.
Sex, Lies, and Videotape is uncomfortable, yet it is uncomfortable in its characters and scenarios, from Graham’s VHS library to Ann’s actions within the film, instead resorting to confessional style monologues; never does it use sex itself to make the viewer uncomfortable. It is not about the sex act itself – but the impact of it. Videotape carries a universality around its taboo – whether one is poly, ace, mono, straight, queer, everyone has their own relationship to sexuality. Soderbergh deconstructs sexuality – just as he does with masculinity in Magic Mike (2012).
Scientology almost feels like a parody of a belief system. A 20th century science fiction writer, L. Ron Hubbard, is hailed as a prophet, creating generations of fanfiction in the decades ahead. But Arthur C. Clarke did not turn his fiction writing into a religion. The religion’s followers participate in acting classes, therapy sessions, lie detectors; become naval officers; own massive stretches of private property; produce high production values (yet incredibly tacky) promotional videos in a Hollywood studio.
Religion needs to be adapted into a modern concept and accept scientific progress and avoid fundamentalism in order to survive. But is Scientology the answer?
Louis Theroux is a documentarian I’ve admired for a while. Having spent the past decade and a half making films for the BBC, his feature film debut marks both a beginning and an end for Theroux. Theroux has been investigating American life his entire career, from Weird Weekends (1998-2000) until as recently as By Reason of Insanity and Transgender Kids (2015), before returning to the UK for this year’s television films (Drinking to Oblivion, A Different Brain and Saville). Investigating the Church of Scientology in Los Angeles, the film feels like somewhat of an epilogue to LA Stories and Twilight of the Porn Stars (2012).
Theroux’s shift to the big screen takes some getting used to. Theroux has always stood out as a documentarian because, alongside Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock and others, he never hides his presence from his films, but embraces it, presenting both a sense of objectivity and transparency. Unlike Moore and Spurlock, Theroux is more restrained in his interview style, the very antithesis of Hollywood production styles: it isn’t showy, and refuses to be overly dramatic. But Theroux never feels as at home here as he is in his television documentaries.
Open call to any #Scientologists out there. I would love to speak to you for a documentary I am working on. About Scientology.
Alongside Kate Plays Christine (2015) and The Act of Killing (2012,one of the inspirations for this film), Scientology is notable for its use of re-enactments. Scientology’s practices are not merely explained to the viewer, but acted out, sometimes even by the very same people who experienced these events years ago. In the absence of video footage and access to the people themselves, both David Miscavige (the leader of the Church) and Tom Cruise (one of its biggest advocates) are portrayed by actors.
But the film is under no illusions: re-enactments are no substitute for reality. We become immediately involved in the process of how these re-enactments are constructed, following Theroux as he auditions actors to portray both Miscavige and Cruise, interspersed with original film footage of the actual people from media appearances.
This is given further credibility through former Scientology official Mark Rathbun giving his blessing on certain subjects to recreate Miscavige. Even when the re-enactments choose slick, HD visuals, we remain aware of the constructed nature of the set: cameras on all sides, microphones from above, plywood behind rooms.
Theroux’s most recent documentary, Saville (2016), proved at its most interesting when Theroux reflected on his experience as a documentarian, questioning his sense of responsibility and his personal relationship with Jimmy Saville through new interviews with his victims and archival footage. Theroux’s interactions with Mark Rathbun also offers some level of introspection. Rathbun questions the very documentary formula of Theroux repeating a question multiple times to get a different answer, waiting for Theroux to ask him an interesting question. Later, they get in an argument after being harassed by some members of the Church, as Louis questions Rathbun’s own involvement in the very same process. Rathbun tells Theroux to go fuck himself.
Theroux does not deem this material unworthy, to be left on the cutting room form or included only as a DVD extra, but as an essential part of the documentary process. Rathbun reminds us that documentary subjects are not one-dimensioned individuals, but multi-faceted individuals. Where other documentarians may take an interview and twist a line of dialogue to define a person’s character, Theroux instead attempts to present a complex man who has different feelings at different times. He is not a monolithic person who always wanted to escape from Scientology.
Often, it doesn’t even feel like a documentary, it feels like a conspiracy thriller. Theroux is pursued by a white truck around LA; filmed outside his filming locations by Church members who refuse to disclose their name; finds Rathbun attacked as a “squirrel” numerous times; enters disputes over what counts as public property or trespass. Scientology’s followers rely on the omniscient, all-seeing God of the camera, documenting everything for their archive – something Theroux stresses when he raises his cellphone, creating an unending duel with a cameraman as they silently film each other.
These sequences provoked the biggest laughs in my audience, but they are also the most empty – we as viewers know what the Church’s response is going to be. Scientology is so guarded that the documentary often has to rely on presenting its guardedness in lieu of interviews.
Scientology closes far too soon, with too many lingering, unanswered questions. Yet the notion of creating a documentary on Scientology is a problematic idea to begin with; the film can never be definitive. Even in Saville, Theroux is able to provide some closure on the Jimmy Saville case. But Scientology has no answer, nor any way to validate its beliefs. I have no doubt that more information will come out over time; more members will defect and it will unravel itself. But now is not the time.
Screening at Coventry Cathedral, with a live score performed by Mogwai
I wore no Mogwai or Eels t-shirt. The only black I own is skinny jeans. I don’t even know who Mogwai are. Gizmo in Gremlins (1984)? There were lots of different entry points: the cathedral itself, with its history in bombing and aims of truth and reconciliation; people moved by Mogwai’s music; fans of Mark Cousins’ experimental documentaries. It was great to hear the music live, but the acoustics of the cathedral were unable to really elevate it to spectacular. It was fine – but there wasn’t the sense of the inherent chaos of live performance, where the music can be twisted in subtle ways impossible through CD or Spotify.
There are traces of Adam Curtis throughout: unlike I Am Belfast (2015), it exists as a ‘remix documentary’, utilising old newsreel footage and adapting it, without the need for talking heads or an overarching VO. Where this footage would otherwise be given a moment’s notice through the occasional viewer on YouTube, watched in isolation, or accessed by the student or the historian, it is given new life and new narrative meaning – a style to need to pay closer attention to in the digital age.
It’s easy to assume the nuclear age is history: Cold War hostilities are over; Hiroshima is a living memory only in the very old. But though a large focus of the footage is on the 40s-90s, the film also gives focus to more modern protests, and the 2010 Fukushima nuclear disaster. As North Korea becomes an increasingly nuclear state, and Trident is voted on to be renewed, we need to stop thinking of the nuclear age in terms of “duck and cover” and “protect and survive”.
The film raises the question of being active. In one scene, a man talks about how he’s doing enough by turning up to a protest, because that’s all he can do. Soon after this, we hear a haunting protest song. Millions of people are dead, despite the protests. Because we didn’t lobby the government. We didn’t do more.
Citywide nuclear devastation feels impossible – but is it really? As the film tells us in the exposition in the final scene, only South Africa has shifted away from being a nuclear state. Only the US pays reparations to victims of nuclear attacks. Over 15,000 nuclear warheads are active.
I owe Mark Cousins a lot. His sprawling epic, The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011), launched me into the worlds of Metropolis (1927) and Seven Samurai (1954) and many others, and began my descent (or ascent?) into the world of cinema, beyond animation and the mainstream. One of the complaints I’ve seen again and again about Odyssey is “I couldn’t get into it because I didn’t like his voice!” Critics of Cousins’ voice may be relieved to hear that this film doesn’t feature his voice all that much.
Except when it does. Functionally, I Am Belfast is a monologue, with the personified Belfast given anthropomorphised form within an elderly woman, relating stories of the city’s inhabitants and its history through the Troubles to today. Yet it’s actually a duologue, with Cousins coordinating a dialogue with her. This wouldn’t be a problem, if Cousins actually had anything interesting to say. Instead, he gives empty interjections without any substance. This is the reality of conversations and conducting interviews – but it is then the role of the editor to take those interjections out. Cousins needlessly peppers the film with vintage film references (including some footage from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)), because of course, Cousins has seen every film known to man.
I Am Belfast is a poetic documentary, and touts itself as a “city symphony”, consciously placing itself among giants: Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927); Man with a Movie Camera (1929); Koyaanisqatsi (1982). I Am Belfast has big shoes to fill, yet it never really lives up to that. It merges several forms: travelogue, monologue, historical archival footage, but it never strings together in a coherent form. Of course that’s the function of the poem. But there aren’t even beautiful visuals (besides a couple of pretty shots of mountainscapes) to make it a tourism film; nor is there the invaluable record to the historian provided by Symphony and Movie Camera.
But perhaps Belfast is to be defined by its dullness. Behind these musings on the line between the line that divides Catholics and Protestants is a man photographed from the other side of the street, standing by a wall. We are to be amazed by the fact he wears blue, standing next to some street art he clearly didn’t paint. We are to wonder: did he ever consent and sign off to being part of a film shown in cinemas across the country and available to buy in HMV? We have the dullness of a couple who sit in a cafe talking to Mark Cousins about the fact they’ve been together for 50 years. In the penultimate scene, we experience the tragedy of a woman who left her shopping at the bus stop, as the bus driver asks the customers if it’s okay if they turn back. I pray that her shopping has gone missing from the bus stop, and there will be some narrative excitement as she mourns the death of a bag of groceries. There is not.
There’s one scene that works. In the most thoughtful part of the film, Cousins wonders what it would be like the day the last bigot in Ireland dies. That is of course a falsehood, as if to imply this could ever happen. At its most surreal point, we see an open coffin carried through a car park, as drag queens and protestors with placards celebrate the death of the last hater. A new, liberal age of Belfast, where we can all live in harmony. Yet it also undermines the film’s sense of reality, as if it were captured on the streets. Because this centrepiece is so clearly staged; it seems ridiculous to suggest Cousins hijacked somebody’s funeral for the one impressive sequence of his film.
I Am Belfast is not my least favourite film of the year, but it remains lifeless.
It’s at this stage during the festival where I’m debating whether I should actually watch another film. I want to sleep, and I don’t want to sleep. I want to eat, and I don’t want to eat. I toy with the idea of catching something more simple like VHS Massacre (2015) that I can disengage with, but I’m glad I didn’t. I grab a burrito, and probably ruin my digestive tract as I rush off to the cinema on the other side of town.
It’s a cinema known as the Hollywood Cinema that I haven’t been to in years, but it makes up my childhood memory of films, from Spider-Man 2 (2004) to The Muppets (2011) to Fred Claus (2007), and far too many more to count. Their exterior still displays Shrek and Spider-Man, as if I were still 5 years old, still watching films projected on celluloid. They are the last place I expected to screen a documentary about a Sengelese director.
The dreaded Screen 4: once a bar, now a cinema screen no bigger than a flat screen TV. Nearly a decade ago, I watched Bee Movie (2007) in this screen, a film I still contend as an absolute masterpiece.
I knew about Sembene thanks to the BFI’s release of Black Girl (1966) last year (which still remains on my excessively long watchlist), but I knew very little about the man himself. The films refuses to be a ‘talking heads’ documentary, instead relying on archival footage and the reminisces of academic and friend Samba Gadjigo, who managed to get Sembene’s name out there and distribute his films through festivals, before becoming a confidant and ally; now, after Sembene’s death, Gadijo is the holder of his legacy, holding onto his estate. There’s something meta about watching a documentary about a director who became famous through film festivals within a film festival itself.
As we see footage of Sembene directing his last film, Moolaadé (2004), in his old age, there’s something inspiring in how he continued on despite his disabilities, delivering a powerful film on the issue of FGM when no one else would.
I’d have liked to have seen more of Gadjigo’s journey after Sembene’s death, exploring the world he left behind through his house: art, paperwork, film reels, and the local neighbourhood that once knew him.We never hear enough words from the personnel and the actor’s who worked on his films, either.
Often, it feels like a generic career retrospective. The tragedy being, I won’t be able to see his most interesting films for years to come. The film launched alongside the restoration of Black Girl, and at points feels no more than a commercial for his filmography. But this isn’t a bad thing. I feel a thirst to watch his most overtly political work, like Camp Thiaroye (1988), Guelwaar (1992) and, most of all, Moolaadé. We glimpse extracts from these new HD masters, but it’s a shame I’ll have to wait to see them in full.