Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988), dir. Todd Haynes

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.

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Haynes as ‘Todd Donovan’

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.

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The film’s title cards lend an essayistic structure

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.

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The Ex-Lax pills become a source of dependency for Karen

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.

My 2016 in Film: The 1980s

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 ManchesterStarman 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 ChristineVampires (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).

My Scientology Movie (2015), dir. John Dower

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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.

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.

Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise (2015), dir. Mark Cousins

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.

Unlike the fantasy created in X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), the warheads are still here.

I Am Belfast (2015), dir. Mark Cousins

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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.

Sembene! (2015), dir. Samba Gadjigo

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Screening at the Norwich Radical Film Festival

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.

Daughter of the Lake (2015), dir. Ernesto Cabellos

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Screening at the Norwich Radical Film Festival

I slept four hours last night. I dragged myself awake, somehow managed to step foot in the shower, and am being fuelled by a horrific mess of tea and coffee and a bowl of cereal. I stayed up late last night to write up my review of Johnny Got His Gun (1971). Now, Timothy Bottoms is sitting in the row behind me. I see a sign in the corner: “no food or drink”. I finish my coffee in a couple of gulps.

Daughter of the Lake is a surprise. Whilst there are some minor technical issues that betray the film as somewhat amateur, these minor issues can be forgiven for the strength of the subject covered. Rather than approach the issue of gold mining from the perspective of corporations and miners (as was the case with VICE’s documentary on the subject in Colombia), it instead looks at the effect on traditional communities. In long shots, we see how truly beautiful the topography of the mountains is, something so unimaginable except in Peru. The water holds a spiritual quality, as we hear in Nélida’s opening and closing monologues. It is at these points the film is at its most cinematic, but it still comes from an authentic place.

We’re introduced to a fashion designer from Amsterdam, as we see tribal topless models walk down the catwalk. She believes in sourcing gold ethically – but do the locals appreciate her efforts? Another conflict we see is between tradition and modernity. Nélida doesn’t want to betray her past; she wants to live a simple life on the farm, yet she is training to be a lawyer in a city of concrete slabs she feels disgusted by. These oppositions give the film a level of nuance.

As the eponymous daughter stands by the lake, my bladder starts to question the nature of water. The coffee has caught up with me. I tell myself: this must be the end. The scene cuts to police officers swarming out at the peaceful protesters, reminiscent of the chaos in Mexico in Cartel Land (2015). I grab tight on my genitals, hoping that doesn’t look totally weird to Timothy Bottoms right behind me. The scene cuts once again to the daughter, and I want this to be over.

It’s over. I rush to the bathroom. I’m glad it’s on this floor.

When I return to the room, everything has descended into a state of chaos. Peruvians argue about the state of their country. A priest speaks about his own experience of discrimination in South Africa, at first making an impassioned plea for every school and every church to show the film, all valid points, before he descends into a rambling mess straight out of the “I’m mad as Hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” speech in Network (1976). Obama should be doing more to tackle sex work in LA; the monarchy should be abolished; we need to solve the migrant crisis. He speaks fondly of his wife who passed, and how he used to fuck her every day of the week.

The moderator is taken aback. The audience goes into applause. The Q&A is over.

Visitors (2013), dir. Godfrey Reggio

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Lest it be mistaken for “staring at the faces of people for 80 minutes”, Visitors continues a theme begun in Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Powaqqatsi (1988): GIF: The Movie. It feels more comfortable to place Godfrey Reggio alongside photographers than filmmakers. More so than the Qatsi trilogy (1982-2002), Visitors feels more at home at an art exhibition than on a stream played through MUBI on a laptop screen. Visitors is not detached from the trilogy either – combining visuals with Philip Glass’ music, we see a sequence of time lapse photography of brutalist skyscrapers, drawing an immediate parallel to Koyaanisqatsi, only now cast in monochrome.

Taking a break from editing my own photography in Photoshop, it’s important to stress that monochrome is its own aesthetic: it’s not just to look edgy, or to create the illusion of age. To remove colour is to remove distraction or identifying features: all we have is our own eyes, and the canvas is ours to distinguish on our own terms.

Koyaanisqatsi could hold onto a vague thread of narrative, yet Visitors must truly be considered non-narrative filmmaking. There are some recurring elements – the surface of the moon (the only part of the film in colour, where we see the blue of the Earth glare out at us), or the face of a gorilla – but that’s about it. I found it easy to draw parallels between Koyaanisqatsi and Man with a Movie Camera (1929), whilst the fourth wall breaking closing scene, as with Movie Camera, reveals the artifice of the image on screen fades away to reveal rows of people in a theater: a Reggio’s dream of packed rows, though I somehow doubt the actual theaters watching this film were this packed.

The film invites us to speculate. Why did the subjects of the film agree to be involved? How much did they get paid to stand in front of the camera and make expressions? Why did Steven Soderbergh decide to jump in and get involved, as Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas had done so with Powaqqatsi? What was the board meeting like where they described the concept of the film? Yet there are other questions than the obvious ones. One begins to deconstruct what a person’s life is – or even their age, gender, etc., projecting onto them based on their faces alone, when one’s mental image could be very different from the reality. It frequently becomes uncomfortable; whilst time passes, I never felt I was waiting for it to finish. It’s a world to lose yourself in, where time loses all meaning.

Visitors feels like a digital progression from Koyaanisqatsi. Koyaanisqatsi must have been absolutely stunning when it was released, and whilst it does still hold that power, the predominance of cameras, and drone footage in vlogs by Casey Neistat and many others, capturing similar photography without a major budget or in their own time,- have somewhat nullified it, compared to the many years spent compiling and editing the footage used in Koyaanisqatsi. Visitors could only be done digitally, with the technology to compile time lapses with speed, and slow down footage without  feeling unnatural or jittery.

Heart of a Dog (2015), dir. Laurie Anderson

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Screening at The Electric as part of the Flatpack Film Festival in Birmingham

Last December, on my first drive back home from uni, a song played on the radio. An insistent, repeating sound. Mum winced. She couldn’t handle the electronic beat, and promptly changed it over to something far less remarkable.

When I got back, I searched the song up on YouTube.

“This is the hand, the hand that takes.
Here come the planes.
They’re American planes. Made in America.
Smoking or non-smoking?”

Occasionally, the words “O Superman” pop up. Laurie Anderson’s song was clearly very personal: a memory of childhood, or an account of motherhood? There’s something remarkable, yet hard to describe.

Dedicated to her late husband Lou Reed, Heart of a Dog is similarly autobiographical. And there’s something very much not like it. It reminds me of works like Alison Bechdel’s graphic novels Fun Home (2006) and Are You My Mother? (2012): simultaneously meditative, hilarious and distressing, yet avoiding convention but also taking advantage of a visual medium.

On one level, it acts merely as a heart-wrenching account of the death of Laurie’s dog Lolabelle, and how it affected her. But this would be too reductive an analysis. I’ve never owned a pet, except a long dead hamster and guinea pig, who live on in memory as the answer to a security question. The sense of intimate connection is something I’ve never forged. As a child, the dog acted as a symbol of fear for me: barking, jumping up right in your face, not a loving companion. Lolabelle forms the crux of the film, but this is only a starting point for an exploration of Anderson’s personality. Lolabelle is a daughter to Anderson – as we see in the introduction of the film, depicting an abstract dream where she gives birth to Lolabelle.

She forges connections between the life of a dog and the life of a human – showing that we are not so apart as we may think. Fear of being prey (in the face of surveillance and aeroplanes); how we treat death; the complication of putting a dog “to sleep”; composing music and painting art. But she makes other connections, comparing data centers to the hieroglyphic data contained within the pyramids of ancient Egypt.

The film’s most powerful sequence, where Anderson accounts Lolabelle’s 49 days in the bardo of Tibetan theology, intercut with shots of rain, gave me probably my strongest existential crisis since Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957).

“Here come the planes.
They’re American planes. Made in America.”

Anderson’s style is decidedly experimental, although one wouldn’t expect anything less from her. Photographs from childhood; recreations with actors; digital video footage of airport security; phone footage of Lolabelle shots of telephone wires superimposed with more abstract shots and the voice of her neighbor. But the film isn’t without narrative – Anderson merges these disparate parts together in a way that works.

The Beales of Grey Gardens (2006), dir. Albert Maysles & David Maysles

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Psycho (1960) presented us with the struggle between a mother and her adult son in a decrepit old house; Grey Gardens (1976) told the struggle between a mother and her adult daughter.

The Maysles’ companion piece to Grey Gardens, edited for its 30th anniversary, isn’t as well structured as the film it originates from. Some of the more clever narrative devices, from its introductory shots of the newspaper articles establishing the house through to looking through old portraits, and the closing letter from Edie, aren’t here.

Whilst the world of Grey Gardens was insular, creating the sense that the Beales never left the house, this film opens it up a little more. We see Edie walking to church, and walking past a car to the beach. But we also expand the world through the presence of more people: a woman visits the house, giving Edie a magazine, and we see a greater presence of Jerry and his quest for work in Canada. Within Grey Gardens, he was given far less of a voice, and ultimately became more of a handy man than anything else.

More than anything else, Beales shows more personality, focusing on the character of the Beales themselves rather than the character of the house. Edie comes across as incredibly likeable and intelligent, discussing issues from her hate of the Republicans and their “crooked president”, the films she likes, her Catholic faith, her experience with dating servicemen during World War II (many of whom died), plus the odd song here and there.

Partly, there’s a sense of ‘behind the scenes’ – we see an expanded sequence of Edie going to the beach; a small house fire which the Maysles intervene in helping stop, and a scene in which the Maysles ask her if she likes the title of the film – which I doubt would ever have made it even into early cuts of the original film. Scenes which before were glimpses are now given another perspective. A montage of Edie’s dresses almost feels a response to the fashion community’s embrace of her eccentric wardrobe by Todd Oldham and John Bartlett.

More than anything else, it’s a lesson in how essential the editing process is – and how much it can diverge depending upon what material is included. Whilst not essential viewing, The Beales of Grey Gardens is a must watch for fans of Grey Gardens who want a more sophisticated rendition of its outtakes.