Sweet Girls (2015), dir. Jean-Paul Cardinaux & Xavier Ruiz

sweet.jpg

Screening at the Norwich Radical Film Festival

The dreaded curse of the film festival is when two films are shown at the same time. Two duelling voices fought within my mind. Do I watch Timothy Bottoms’ directorial debut, Welcome to the Men’s Group (2016), about how fragile masculinity is? Or do I watch a film with young female protagonists living on a council estate?

So anyway. I made my decision. I was the only person who made that decision, left to a projector scene in a church hall amongst a couple of event volunteers.

This film feels like the fever dream of a 15 year old just getting into radical politics, coming up with ridiculous, idealistic yet deeply flawed politics and just going with it because YOLO. Our protagonists follow in the footsteps of Che Guevara (although they resist wearing his face on a t-shirt), and apparently solve the housing crisis in the process. Where politicians and urban planners and austerity is unable to tread, two teenage girls solve the crisis in one housing estate that represents a wider issue.

It’s a lesbian love story, where their entire revolution could have been avoided had they not been too shy to express their feelings. So let’s explore how difficult it is to give a queer romance a voice amongst the pressures of heteronormativity through some throwaway scenes and making out, without making it the focus, yet simultaneously integral to the story.

Our protagonists are self-centred dicks, only caring about themselves and only ever thinking in the short term. So like most 16 year olds. Except here, being a self-centred dick includes tearing the elderly apart from their families, suffocating them to death, inducing grief, as if they’re not actual people.

“Old people shouldn’t be allowed to vote! They’re ruining the next generation! Old people are racist! Old people are sexist! Old people are homophobic! They voted for the Tories and caused Brexit! They’ll be dead soon!”

There’s a place to explore the deep divisions between the elderly and the young, not only within a spectrum between left wing and right wing politics, but also in places of relatability, even if in small ways). But this film doesn’t really find a good way to do that.

The film never questions how fucked up their methods are. Instead, it heralds them. Students now have a cheap flat of their own, and don’t have to live with their parents. The revolution succeeds. A new social space is instituted for young people (aka clubbing and sex), who simultaneously subvert stereotypes by pretending to be drug-addicted lowlifes. The elderly find themselves in a sheltered community where, despite the fear of a terrorist attack, become more of a community than ever before.

This film is stupid. But it’s also kind of cool at the same time.

Advertisements

Sembene! (2015), dir. Samba Gadjigo

sembene

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.

The Dead Poet: Seven Tales of Miklos Radnoti (2016), dir. Daphne Samaras et al.

Screening at the Norwich Radical Film Festival

Placed outside of its Hungarian context, this film is somewhat difficult to get into. To call it a film is a stretch at all; it’s an anthology of shorts. It has no framing narrative between wildly different segments: historical, present day, animated, documentary, with only a couple of lines of exposition to give any sense of who Miklos Radnoti was as a poet and as a person. Should it show more or should it tell more? One wonders that this might be better suited as a rolling video in a museum exhibition than at a film festival.

Some segments fare worse than others: the second segment feels so far removed from the poet himself that it comes across as an everyman, joyful contemporary romance without any sense of personality, that might as well be a commercial.

“Don’t miss the train! Your lover’s frustration perfectly summarises our product’s mission statement!”

The stop motion animation sequence, The Willow is cute, but it again lacks any personality to define the couple as characters. It reminds me of Pixar’s Lava (2015), yet that short communicated more of a narrative about an actual human being, whilst also being much more cute.

The animated folklore genesis story has some great animation, but is horribly overdubbed in Hungarian over its original narration, and by trying to summarise his literary work, it adds nothing to his life story.

The section in what home means was so unbearable that I wanted to leave the cinema; the worst aspects of a viral Buzzfeed video summarised in one place.

But there are some genius works of art here. In the opening segment, we see his childhood life in a series of photographic tableaus, completely desaturated. Like Barry Lyndon (1975), it refuses to pretend the past should be shot as if it were the present, instead opting for the rigidness of the art of the time: which, in turn, somehow creates a false illusion of authenticity.

The fourth section sticks out as my favourite, framing Radnoti’s conflict between following Judaism or Christianity through allegory. Hanukkah; parties with Christmas trees; a sweater affixed with a large Star of David; a girl who opens asking him to name 10 concentration camps, forcing him to acknowledge his heritage, as he wakes up hungover the next morning to find her number written on his arm, as if it were tattooed on his arm – foreshadowing his eventual fate in the death camps.

The final sequence is the film at its most daring, and ends the film on a conflicting and upsetting note. We are told of his experience in the camps through a series of abstract images, shot through in red neon and an ancient VHS transfer. It feels truly terrifying. In one respect, it brings to mind the Academy aspect ratio of Son of Saul (2015), yet its lo-fi look can yet only bring to mind the more problematic exploitation films of the 70s and 80s, like SS Experiment Love Camp (1976) and The Night Porter (1974), which presented female victims as sexual objects to be exploited. Despite this, its briefness helps to make it one of the stand-outs of the film.

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

daughter

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.

Johnny Got His Gun (1971), dir. Dalton Trumbo

johnny

Screening at the Norwich Radical Film Festival, with a Q&A with Timothy Bottoms

Dalton Trumbo’s name is a notorious one, surviving the Hollywood blacklist through false identities, and acting as screenwriter on classics like Roman Holiday (1953) and Spartacus (1960). Perhaps now, he’s notorious for being played by Bryan Cranston in Trumbo (2015). But Johnny Got His Gun is not a notorious name. It clings onto dear life, a true independent film, reduced down to a handful of copies, surviving through Metallica music videos.

Other independent producers from this period like BBS have had their work remastered by Criterion, but the digital print screened today was far from perfect. Scratches, desaturated colours, the hiss of a projector – perhaps I’m far too used to a film being clean. Standing alongside The Go-Between (1971) at Cannes, it feels as though one has survived in audiences’ minds for longer.

The late 1960s saw the genre of the war epic collapse. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), trying to depict Pearl Harbor in the image of The Longest Day (1962), may not have bombed, but only just made back its budget. Trumbo found his screenplay rejected by every studio, the effects of the blacklist still hurting. The wave of the early 1970s rejection of Hollywood as it was had begun. Trumbo did it himself. As Bottoms explained during the Q&A, the war had touched everyone. His grandad was a veteran; so was his uncle; so was his dad. He avoided the draft for Vietnam, instead preferring to be an actor. One viewer suggested it was Trumbo’s anti-Vietnam film.

Johnny Got His Gun was one of Trumbo’s last films. Somehow, I’m glad I didn’t ask Bottoms why he never directed another film.

“Because he was on the brink of death!”

Paradoxically, it also represents a younger Trumbo, adapted from Trumbo’s own novel he published in 1938, an introspection on a war gone past on the brink of WWII. Trumbo and Bottoms grew to know each other quite well over the film’s production: an elder, industry veteran and a young, 18 year old actor, fresh off theater roles. Other actors auditioned for the role, including Peter Fonda. But Trumbo was immediately taken with Bottoms, reflecting a sense of transition between teenagehood and adulthood, without being either.

As a breakout role, it’s a brave one. His face remains concealed for much of the film’s duration, and he never fulfils traditional character roles that would make a star. Bottoms split his time between this film and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971), filming the latter in Texas throughout the week and flying out every Sunday to shoot this film.

To say anything negative about this film feels difficult, because it has been such a good time, and I’ve reunited with old, super-queer friends, took a selfie with Timothy Bottoms and uttered the words “fuck the gender binary” in earshot of him. I’ve drunk glasses of free wine and eaten super-fancy canapés.

bottoms_b.jpg

But ultimately, this feels like a film of ideas rather than something specifically designed to be a film in its initial inception. Its anarchic, freewheeling stream of conscious is atemporal. Joe clings onto memories, trying to work out what year or month it actually is, or when the last Christmas was. (Soon enough, that he hasn’t died of influenza). Joe doesn’t know what time it is. In a book, neither does the reader – pages pass by without a sense of how much time has passed, entranced within another world. We dip into another memory when we have the time to read another chapter. But in film, the viewer knows how much time will pass, and can check their watch. Books can achieve a much cleaner way of drifting between flashback and present.

We listen to Joe’s stream of consciousness narration, largely improvised during filming, drowning out all other sounds in the room. Yet it often becomes a case of stating the obvious. “There’s someone in the room! What is he doing to me?” Through the long takes, there is no separation between Joe’s world and the people looking after him in the hospital. Trumbo fails to find a visual style which can balance this internal world with the external world. Again, this is easier to pull off within literary convention. Joe’s narration invalidates the need to see the people operating on him from a vantage point where we can see what they’re doing clearly. Seeing the people operating on him invalidates the need to hear his narration.

It is these sequences which are the most gripping, and probably helped establish the film’s cult status. With its monochrome bandages, I can’t help but think of Suture (1993). With its introspection on the workings of the mind, I can’t help but think of Inside Out (2015). It even has a sense of Cronenbergian body horror. The first shot immediately grips the viewer, as we see three surgeons’ faces stare us down, with no discernible individualistic features.

It is truly unsettling to see the state of Joe. The film’s title is a misnomer. Johnny hasn’t got his gun; we never even see Joe use it. He’s an emaciated wreck. Without arms, without legs, blinded, reduced to an unheard voice and a body moving under a sheet. When we see his shirt unbuttoned, this effect is somewhat reduced, as we see there is still life and humanity within him. His life is a true nightmare. Deaf and blind, he lives within a sensory world of touch, smell and sensing vibrations through the floorboards. Besides limited communication, all he can do is turn inside of himself.

It’s this introspection which I find the most difficult part of the film to manage. I sense traces of the surreal touches of Easy RiderMedium Cool and Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). When it’s at its most metaphorical and bizarre, it feels at its best. It creates the sense of a jumbled mind, deteriorating as time moves on just as a physical film or a digital file does, shifting between memory and past without a clear linear structure. It shifts from clinical monochrome to historical epic full colour, creating a clear distinction – between fantasy and present day reality. Where we shift into the mind, we see amphitheatres and unicorns and junkyards and our protagonist as a sideshow freak in the middle of the desert, somehow in two places at once, to an invisible paying audience (ourselves) who interacts with the circus. Within the Christmas party, the boss repeats his words over and over, a complete caricature. It’s a world of the dream and the surreal, yet still with a tangible connection to reality.

Jesus (played, somehow, by Donald Sutherland) rides the train of death, as fellow soldiers feel resigned to their inevitable demise within the war. Later, we see him working as a carpenter, as Joe philosophises alongside him, whilst soldiers behind him push along a cross – ready for the graves of soldiers, and his own shooting range. The film’s honest exploration of spirituality feels welcome – something also seen somewhat in Easy Rider – and would probably be absent were the film made today. Ultimately he concludes there is no God who could allow his suffering to happen – but we never see him begin as a committed atheist; instead, we interact with his process of becoming comfortable with death, and reflecting on the religion he was taught as a child.

Yet other sequences, like where we see his young romance on the day before he leaves for war, as his girlfriend begs him to stay, feel unwarranted. The film does a good job at depicting home life, although the scenes with his father where he goes fishing and they talk about the meaning of “democracy” struggle to feel natural either. They’re good flashbacks in a book – but here, comedic romance where two parties are unsure what the other wants and whether to overstep boundaries, feels like it’s out of place. There is no soundtrack to distract us, and these scenes drag on and I sigh in my seat, as though I should not offend Timothy Bottoms, and I begin to question my own existential dread once more.

In the closing scenes, the film’s crucial element is found. Johnny Got His Gun becomes a shockingly timely euthanasia debate within the topic of disability, that more than probably stands far above Me Before You (2016). Should his desire to die be respected, when there is no chance of him regaining any agency outside of his mind, or should he be made to live on?

Another irony: his life is respected without question, with multiple people looking after him, only for one soldier. Soldiers can be killed in war, and their hallowed soul is given an unceremonious burial, with half-arsed hymns because it’s tradition, buried with a bit of soil thrown over as enemy fire still blasts overhead.

The soldier who narrowly avoided death is afforded, in some ways, the worse state.

Faust (1926), dir. F.W. Murnau

faust

Screening at The Old Rep Theatre, with a new live score composed by Matt Eaton and Gareth Jones, as part of the Flatpack Film Festival in Birmingham

Seeing a a new score performed against a nearly century old film is an indescribably wonderful experience, animating the carnival sensation of life in the town and the elemental forces of the storm, giving the film a new life. It’s a little modern compared to other scores – but it works incredibly well. I could almost feel the music go through me – hopefully I’ll have a similar positive experience when I see John Carpenter play live later in the year.

Faust is a far cry from Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1592), repeated over and over through A-Level English Lit classes. Because Marlowe didn’t have Mephisto mixing cocktails with a woman who would very much like to fuck him. Honestly, I think I prefer Murnau’s rendition of the myth.

Rather than the younger man of Marlowe’s play, ageing for decades before Mephistopheles finally pulls him down to Hell, here Faust is an old man, tempted by Mephisto to reclaim his youth (and by extension a romance with Gretchen.) Marlowe damned Faustus with inevitable eternal damnation, yet Murnau redeems Faust.

Faust never has a sense of the truly irredeemable: Mephisto tricks him, rather than tempting him outright. All Faust wants to do is bring life back to the town he loves in the face of death. He becomes a ‘miracle maker’ in the same vein as Jesus, but is then rejected by society like Frankenstein was when they find he cannot face the cross (because Faust is definitely a vampire.) Gretchen is also ostracised by society, left to freeze to death with her baby, before a group of knights condemn her as a “baby murderer” and burn her to death. Because these are definitely Christian values. Faust seeks power through the wrong means, not entitled to godly powers as a mortal, but he is admirable. He does not want the wenches or the orgies or the crown that Mephisto tempts him with: all he wants is a normal life of good.

The visuals are the other important aspect of this film. Visually stunning, we are entranced within the heavenly battle between an angel and Mephisto; between good and evil. Humanity is reduced to mere ants, able to be wiped out through one storm through the power of Mephisto. The planets become tiny globes. Murnau animates words, coming to life in emphasis. The universal concept, love, stands out, moving towards the screen. Over the mountains, the superimposed Gretchen screams out, to be heard by Faust. Faust and Mephisto float in the air over trees and rivers over to the palaces in Italy – an image that every adaptation of A Christmas Carol (1843) must have taken influence from.

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

heartofadog

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.