Tuesday, 29 July 2008

donkey punch (d. blackburn, w. blackburn & bloom)

A few thoughts concerning this film as film. Firstly, the narrative is essentially a class allegory. Nasty posh boys pick up Northern lasses, mix gently and await combustion. This had a reassuringly dated feel, like something out of the fifties, or perhaps 'Thatcher's Britain'. Which is not to say that class is not still an issue that warrants attention, but the straightforwardness of the class equation seemed old-fashioned and unreflective of the UK's new complexities. Secondly, the placing of seven attractive young things in an enclosed space where they can do what they like, including drugs, felt like an Endemol wet dream. Big Brother with the gloves off, hidden cameras documenting their every move. In fact if the piece had sustained a sense of reality TV/Cinema more effectively it could have been powerful. As it is the narrative demands of cinema meant that credulity was fairly quickly stretched past breaking point, and once that moment was crossed, the suspense flagged, the film became an issue of joining the dots which would permit Nichola Burley to be the last woman standing. For all its attempts to shock with its references to violent sex, Donkey Punch is ultimately a safe, old fashioned kind of movie, which would only really upset the kind of people who wouldn't go near it in the first place.

Having said all of which, I recognise that I am not the target audience. Though it's unclear who the target cinema audience might be. Perhaps the 16-23 year old age group, some of whom would be excluded by the fact that the film has an 18 certificate, others by the fact that they're more likely to watch the new Batman movie. In a way, it's irrelevant, as the film will hope to make its money back from DVD sales.

The reason this is important, and the main reason the film is significant, is not so much because of the film itself, (a reasonably effective piece of genre film-making, which had it been full of young US stars and not loaded with the pretensions to seriousness of its class subtext, might have done better at the box office than it will), but the collective weight of influence which lead to this particular film being made. Important though Blackburn and Bloom are in this process, they are ultimately the beneficiaries of the funding bodies which chose to back the film. The production credits include the great and good of current British film-making, including players from Film 4 and the Film Council. It's not easy getting a first film made in this country, and whilst a million pounds might be peanuts in the land of the Dark Knight, it would be a reasonable budget in most countries, and for many of the films reviewed on these pages.

Consequently Donkey Punch is a reflection of the kind of cinema that those who are guarding the flame of British cinema want to see made. It sums up the petard we are hoisted on in this country. Our industry wants to make edgy creative cinema, (in line with our musical traditions), but it also wants a guarantee it's going to get its money back. Consequently it seeks to minimise risk, cross Ts and dot Is. This is evident in the script of Donkey Punch, which is so much more anodyne than the film's premise (just to make sure that people 'get it') but also in the film's formulaic resolution.

As a consequence it falls between two stools. It seems unlikely that Donkey Punch will make a killing at the box office. It will gradually recoup its revenue through DVD sales and shrewd accountancy. It also seems unlikely that Donkey Punch will come to be seen as any kind of a milestone in the development of British cinema. Maybe that will come. The one thing to emerge from the process is that Warp, the main producing house, appear to have funding resources and the ability to turn films round quickly. Donkey Punch is part of a learning curve, (we don't make enough films in this country for any production with a budget of a million or over not to be) and that might help to encourage the film's backers to realise that playing it safe rarely made anyone a fortune in the arts.

Monday, 28 July 2008

last evenings on earth [bolaño]

I had not been able to read a book since I read the last book. Too many reasons why, none of them as bad as they might once have been. Besides which, reading is a habit, and once something displaces that habit, the hardest part is getting it back.

Bolaño's collection of short stories had lain on a corner of my swampy desk since May. I had begun to read Sensini, the opening story, several times, only to abandon it. Knowing that I would be flying into Gerona, and then visiting Barcelona, both of which are places that feature in that story, I summoned up some reading strength and opened the book on the plane.

It's hot at this time of year in Barcelona. So hot I was thinking on the first day, before the others arrived, that I really couldn't see the point in visiting cities anymore. Certainly not at this time of year. I walked, exhausted, battered by modern plane travel and a week's insomnia, down the Ramblas, then along the port, trying to find somewhere to stop. I stumbled past an African market and the restaurant where once I ate lobster with H. Our trips to Barcelona never seemed to work as well as they should have done. I say 'trips' but there were only two. The second H was ill. I remember her lying on the bench in Parc Guel, as I walked on up, watching the old folk on their Sunday constitutional. We didn't realise it then but the reason our trips to Barcelona didn't go as well as they should was because we were actually participants in an unwritten Bolaño story (he was dead so didn't have time to write it), loaded with his tropes of Latin American exile; unstable poets and their unstable relationships; the action rarely in the here and now, usually just around the corner. As it was then, for us, though we only intimated it at the time, we didn't actually know it. (How could we as neither of us had even heard of the writer then, let alone read him.)

Anyway, I wasn't thinking all this. I wasn't thinking much of anything, except, it's hot, and I'm not sure I want to visit cities anymore. Then I found a bit of shade, just a step, on a wide bit of space, behind the restaurant complex where I ate lobster and so on, and there were people walking past and cycling past and all I could think of doing was opening and then reading the Bolaño. It was a story about an American woman who ended up getting to know the narrator in Gerona. I didn't like the story all that much - I don't like Bolaño's stories, they ramble and they go nowhere, and just when you think they're getting somewhere they stop, and it's a trick and he knows it and we know it and it's really detective fiction (to which he alludes) decorated by obscure poets, post-modern non-referentialism; a train of thought wrapped round his little finger. And of course it's not true because I do like Bolaño, but whether I like him or not didn't seem to be the issue, the issue was that the only thing I wanted to do at that moment in that city at that point in the thing which is my life was sit there and read his story, his rambling, pointless stories.

Which is what I did. Then, when I finished it, I got up and I mooched on to the next stop, and wrote a note about 'poeticism' which was, of course, conditioned by the reading I had just done and the circumstances I found myself in.

The last story I had to read, or one of them, was Days of 1978. I read it in the queue for the Ryanair flight last night on the way out of Gerona airport. It's a bit of a treck from Gerona to Barcelona but I was glad I did it, if only to look out at the hills and the land where some of these stories are set. I got to the airport, it was evening, and stood for an hour in the queue. As I got to the front, the party in front of me, a stag party, suddenly quadrupled in size, as those who'd been drinking in the bar came to join the ones who'd been standing in line. It's the sort of thing which, after you've been queuing for an hour already, on too little sleep, can really get to you. Luckily I'd been reading the short story as I waited. It's about a Chilean exile from '73 who's tried to commit suicide, whom the narrator doesn't like. But they all meet at a party and the narrator, displacing the action as always, finds himself recounting the narrative of a Russian film, which makes the would-be suicidee weep, but not the narrator, of course, because Bolaño's narrators are like detectives, they recount, they observe, and if they weep they will only do it on their own. Anyway, part of Bolaño's power is that sometimes, everything just clicks, and a line releases all the displaced emotion, (it might be something you least expect, like the son crossing his father's path on the way down to the ocean in Last Evenings, or Leprince's rejection, or whichever moment you happen to stumble over), and I have a feeling that the moment when the would-be-Chilean suicidee starts to cry after hearing the narrator's description of the film, might have been such a moment, had I not been standing in the queue for an hour at Gerona airport. All that sadness locked up in that image, all the bits and pieces of life and the life we lead that go into the making of that fictional moment... I am grateful to the stag party of three hundred who queue-jumped me at Gerona airport. I am sure that under different circumstances it, his rambling story, would have had me weeping like a newborn.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

gone baby gone (d. ben affleck, w. affleck & aaron stockard)

The film opens, more or less, and closes, more or less, with shots of locals on the streets of Boston. When Affleck's film feels at its strongest is when he captures the look and the feel of that nowhere land in the United States where people are far from beautiful and the streets offer little to inspire. The grimier the better, and in the opening 45 minutes or so, the dialogue matches the tone in its ambition to pin down the skankiness of the slouching States.

Affleck's direction in the opening hour is surprisingly supple, and he knows how to get the most out of his outrageously talented brother, whose performance was the only reason I allowed my arm to be twisted of a Saturday night to go and see the film. I've already mentioned the talents of Casey - he has a screen presence which should end up putting most of his competitors in the shade. Oddly you can always spot a great actor by their ability to slur or mumble their lines and still make them sound like they possess all the meaning in the world. (Not necessarily great for the screenwriter but in the end we don't go to the cinema to listen to words but to look at faces, as Barthes observed.)

Sadly, after a while, the plot takes over, a plot that becomes increasingly tortuous and ultimately melodramatic. Any film which casts Morgan Freeman nowadays has to deal with the fact that the minute he appears he exudes a kind of benighted, Mandela-esque dignity which will occupy the film's moral epicentre. Although Gone Baby Gone chooses to subvert this it doesn't get away from the fact that his presence means we know we have slipped sideways from badlands Boston to the world of 'moral consequences' (ie Hollywood). Once the dramatic effects of this change of scene kick in the film is on a slow ride towards mediocrity, having promised rather more.

Monday, 7 July 2008

blue tower (w&d smite bhide)

Blue Tower is another film which suggests that the most interesting movie-making coming out of the UK is taking place in the obscure margins of the independent sector, where the demands of genre and accountancy hold less sway.

Blue Tower is a low budget film which has taken three years to get from production to completion. It's a quirky film, set in Southall, a predominantly Asian corner of London. The lead character, the febrile Mohan, is a second generation Asian played with edgy unease by Abhin Galeya. However, whilst this may be a British film steeped in Asian Britain, capturing aspects of that culture, this is not its raison d'etre. At its heart Blue Tower is an acute character study of a man whose apparently stable life is slowly falling to pieces, as his marriage, his car, his inheritance and his social world all gradually disintegrate.

Mohan's last remaining relative is his aunt, Kamla. Inidira Joshi captures the bedridden widow in all her vanity, luxuriating in the power contained in the money hoarded in shoe boxes in her cupboard. She's sent a white NHS nurse, Judy, who Mohan falls for, beginning an affair which seems like further evidence of his alienation. Mohan realises how far his life has slipped from its predicted course when the Red Tower, a reassuring sight from his local skyline, is replaced by a vast, threatening blue gasworks tower. The towers look like something out of a De Chirico painting, each possessing a looming inanimate force, the planets of Mohan's fragile solar system.

Bhide's narrative is peppered with twists and turns which ensure that Mohan's eventual fate, whilst always heading in the direction one would have expected the gods to have ordained, is never clear-cut. The unpredictable lurks around the corner both for him and the audience. At the same time the film offers a succinct portrayal of the world Mohan seems to be striving to escape, the Balti house loafers and the vainglorious family patriarch who is his father-in-law (who lives in the ironically named 'White House'). Bhide has an easy flair with set piece scenes, the Indian party and the excursion to the Southall horse market standing out in particular.

Blue Tower is far from perfect. There may be one or two narrative twists too many, and there's some of the inevitable whimsicality of a first time director. However, the film brings out a succession of impressive performances, and the relationships, no matter how heightened their circumstances, are always convincing. Above and beyond this, there is something inordinately refreshing in watching a film that's trying to do something different; that's not giving the audience what they expect. Its an Asian film that's prepared to offer a critical take of Asian family life; it's a film set in a clearly defined community which is all about the lead character's deeply individualistic journey.

Through it's carefully constructed account of Mohan's trials and tribulations, Blue Tower helps to re-examine the notion of the marginal in our society, moving beyond recently established understandings of that term. Mohan seems to no more identify with his 'Indian-ness' than his 'English-ness'. He's as lost as a Camus anti-hero, desperately hoping that someone (in this case a cunning but not obviously intelligent white NHS nurse) will help him find a way out of the labyrinth. As it describes Mohan's fate, the film opens up a vista for the issues that will confront a globalised culture when it moves beyond the second, third or fourth generation, and a 'national identity' will have become even more of a fragmentary concept.

Although it explores these notions in the most entertaining of fashions, the film's willingness to play with narrative and genre expectations could well mean that Blue Tower proves to be a hard sell for its producers. But, unless these films are made (and as mentioned above it seems like the only place they're liable to be made in this country right now will be in the low-budget sector) how is an audience ever supposed to find out whether or not it might have an appetite for something off the beaten track? Blue Tower's idiosyncrasy may not intially appear be a commercial asset, but it's what marks it out as a film with a distinctive cinematic verve which will resonate long after the candy floss has been forgotten.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

couscous (w&d. abdel kechiche)

Length is a curious thing in films. I confess that one of the joys of films, as opposed to theatre, is that by and large they come in at under two hours. This figure seems somewhat arbitrary - whilst the epics of Gance or Griffiths might not fit too easily into the rhythms of modern life, there's no reason a film shouldn't be two and half hours long, even longer. But in practice, the balancing act of narrative development and audience engagement seems harder and harder to maintain the longer a movie stretches past the 120 minute mark, and it's rare to see a film that absorbs its audience so effectively that the extra time seems well spent, rather than an act of directorial indulgence.

Couscous makes it clear early on that it's a film of long scenes, long takes, length in general. The first half hour felt like it consisted of little more than half a dozen scenes, with a lengthy Sunday lunch taking up a good twenty minutes. The lunch takes place in the large household of a second generation French-Algerian family. The father of the family, Slimane, is not present, as he's separated from his wife, even though she prepares a large bowl of couscous for him which his sons take round. As in almost all the scenes in Couscous, the camera is encouraged by the director to linger, dwelling on the details of food, eating, conversation, (much of which gave the impression of being improvised), in a social realist manner. In this way Kechiche succeeds in getting his audience into the world of his characters, as they try to get by in the Mediterranean town they inhabit. The film has a languid pace, generating shrewd and often amusing observational moments, however it is clear from the first half that plot is not Kechiche's central concern.

Then, almost haphazardly, Couscous introduces its key storyline. Slimane uses his redundancy pay from the shipyard to buy a boat, and sets out on a Quixotic venture to turn it into a restaurant. The introduction of plot seems to work against the film's style, as it encourages the audience to believe the film is actually going somewhere. Struggling against bureaucratic opposition to his project, Slimane decides to hold a free launch night, which does not run smoothly. By the time the night begins, the film is already two hours into its running time. Unwilling to abandon his observational style, Kechiche films the launch in what feels like real time, thereby showing up the difference between film time and real time. A belly dance which lasts about five minutes probably doesn't feel too long in real time; in film time it threatens to become interminable. In the end it felt as though, even if Kechiche's film continued all night, there would still not be enough time for it to reach some kind of resolution, and sure enough, the ending comes with more than just one loose string flapping in the Mistral breeze.

Couscous successfully captures the feel of life for an immigrant family in Southern France. Cinema's ability to take the viewer into another world is one of the things that makes the medium such a remarkable artform. However, cinema is not like staring out of a train window in a foreign land for a couple of hours. It's also about the telling of stories, and the economy of storytelling. And as soon as the storyteller starts stretching their story beyond that vague two hour mark, there's a danger that the audience will start to wonder whether the reason for the protraction has more to do with the storyteller's fascination with their own process in the telling of the story, than the story itself.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

killer of sheep (w&d charles burnett)

Once upon a time I found myself researching the Jonestown massacre, which took place in Guyana in 1978. Most of the victims of the mass suicide were disenfranchised black Californians, who'd fled the poverty of the USA in the hope of creating a new society in the jungle. Killer of Sheep, made in 1977 and filmed on the LA back streets, (a part of the city which the movie cameras never normally reach), gives a sharp insight into the world that the doomed pioneers left behind.

Burnett's movie, a neglected classic, is a small slice of life drama. The film has a documentary feel, interwoven with a gentle narrative about Stan's (played with an effortless nobility by Henry G Sanders) efforts to keep his family life together. Burnett was influenced by neo-realist cinema, and the early scenes of young kids playing in vacant lots are reminiscent of Los Olvidados. The film is full of shrewd, localised observation, as kids play, squabble and cry, and men find ways to preserve or lose their dignity in the face of their poverty. There are dozens of moments which illustrate what can be achieved by doing nothing more complicated than pointing a camera in the right direction at the right time, moments which engender both humour and pathos. However, in spite of its apparent simplicity, Killer of Sheep's potency comes from the director's touching narrative, illustrating the way that Stan's marriage is affected by his circumstances, notably the dehumanising job of work in an abattoir. The scenes between him and his wife are resonant with both the struggle and rewards of love, as both work to keep the flame of their marriage alive in spite of their poverty.

Any film seeking to get under the skin of a world has to show both the rough and the smooth. Killer of Sheep pulls this off. It's possible to see how one of the characters at the grimmest margin of this world could have chosen to chuck it all in to join Jim Jones' peculiar Utopia. However, it's also clear why most wouldn't even have considered it. No matter how impoverished the world it describes, it's full of life and humour. The streets themselves become a kind of walking theatre, where you never know if a child will suddenly fly across your head leaping from building to building, or run out in front of you wearing a dog-mask. Burnett pins the world down, his camera immortalising the rhythms of the streets and speech he seems to know like the back of his hand.

If you wander round the backstreets of downtown LA today, you soon find yourself much further from the Hollywood Hills than simple geography would have you believe. Burnett's LA looks a lot like one imagines Haiti to be. In a way, it seems as though Burnett's grainy camera, lighting and sound, are the only way to truly represent this world. The minute the full force of cinematic technology is unleashed, even the grimiest corners acquire a hint of glamour. The down-to-earthness of Burnett's cinematography reveals the way in which Hollywood's technological dominance constantly helps to mythologise the American Dream. Usually, even their ugly has a beautiful, distorted feel. Killer of Sheep, is rarely ugly (though the abattoir scenes are unforgiving), but somehow it succeeds in presenting Los Angeles as ordinary, something which ironically begins to lend the city a charm that is never normally captured on film.