Tuesday, 27 February 2007

los olvidados (dir. bunuel)

Sitting in the NFT, watching a fifties film about Mexican City street kids, the last thing you anticipate is a shot of the South Bank, filmed from just outside.

It's just one of the touches Bunuel throws in to deconstruct what might otherwise have been a regulation docu-drama, the forerunner of so many. The opening shots show Paris, New York and London, before arriving at Mexico City, as the film maker declares a global perspective to this local tale. To watch it in this destabilised era of gun crime is to witness a point made: until the underlying causes of poverty are tackled, the things we are about to witness will continue.

Bunuel furthers his perspectivisation with surreal additions. A child rises up out of his own dream to observe on his future. Hens and cocks feature rather more than you'd expect. According to the notes, his plan to feature a full orchestra on an abandoned construction site were shelved, but these touches all help to give Los Olvidados something that lifts it out of the ordinary, in spite of the fact it is so rooted in the ordinary.

The old man in Amores Perros crossed my mind. His cinematic ancestor might be the blind folk singer, carting his drum across the wasteland, as cruel as he is kind as he is desperate. Like everyone else in the film. Urban living in Mexico City is probably no easier now than it was then.

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

notes on a scandal (dir richard eyre)

For some reason which doubtless is more obvious than it feels at this moment, it's hard to write about British films. The level of expectation is perhaps higher than one might expect for a Tunisian or a Hungarian opus. The need for the cinema to some way represent at least a fraction of the culture it shares with you. Or attempt to. There is an inclination to become extremely critical (what else should a critic be?); indigenous cinema faces a in-built handicap.

If part of the beauty of cinema-watching is the sense of anonymity it conveys on the watcher, that seems compromised when you watch a film set in your country, above all your city. You look at it with half an eye open to spot somewhere you know (Was that the Shepherdess Cafe near Amnesty where I once had a lasagna for lunch?); the images seem to belong to you more than they ordinarily would. You become, perhaps, a part of the film, and that's not what cinema, the least Brechtian of mediums, seems to be about.

There were bits of London I thought I recognised in Notes On A Scandal. Luckily I'm more South than North, so they were fewer and further between. I've taught in schools in North London, and the depicted environment seemed authentic. This attention to detail was reassuring. Perhaps wisely, the film resisted any impulse to explore the real social ramifications of it's narrative, in spite of the apparent class consciousness. One of the few notes that rung hollow was when the boy-lover's family barged into the affluent household, a sudden welter of stereotypical Oirishness, fists flying.

By and large this is a film that plays to its strengths, foremost amongst which is Dench's unselfish performance. It takes art to find drama in the humdrum, the small passions which flare in every soul, the apparently undramatic. Dench does it with her eyes and her aura, depicting someone who believes, as so many do, that the world is not on our side, that we have been handicapped for no ostensible reason, that intelligence is a burden rather than a blessing.

The film is also smart enough to over-ride the problematics of its plot (Is the teacher-pupil relationship as convincing as it should be?) It is the story not of a love affair but of a co-joined downfall, the one who has everything brought low just as readily as the one who has nothing. Hubris is not class-conscious, it can come to us all.

I've never, I confess, seen a Chabrol movie. Always wanted to. However, I felt as though this might be what watching one would have been like. If I'd been born French and writing in the sixties.