Saturday, 25 August 2012

searching for sugarman (w&d malik bendjelloul)

The latest in this Summer's offering of documentaries. There must be a reason why London cinemas are showing so many quality docs and so little quality dramas. Perhaps it's a failure of nerve on the part of the more adventurous distributors, or perhaps the world has run out of decent dramas. I suspect its the former. On the positive side, a lot of remarkable documentaries are getting extended outings. A friend went to see Nostalgia For The Light this week and said there was a good audience. What does it mean when our indigenous films can barely last a week in the cinemas but subtitled documentaries about subjects the drama commissioners would likely run a mile from have long, healthy outings? I'm not sure but it's indicative of something a little off-key about this British Summer with its excessive festivities and erratic climate.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, there's Malik Bendjelloul's remarkable film. A lot of films get called inspirational, but I'm not sure how many really are. It's a peculiarly moving tale about a dignified man who never got the breaks and then one day his karma turned and they came running. The greatest testimony to Rodriguez' decency comes from the words and attitudes of his daughters and colleagues. I remember back in the Vauxhall days coming across Shuggie Otis, I'm not sure how. A voice that had laid dormant for thirty years then somehow re-emerged, and the tale of Rodriguez is similar, albeit happier. For reasons you need to see the film to find out. The director constructs his tale with skill: if a drama had some of these twists you'd find them hard to credit. Underpinning the narrative is the notion that good will triumph in the end (with the word "good" used in its broadest sense); that there is another value set at work, running parallel with the one anyone inhabits, for better or for worse. I'd defy anyone not to come out of Searching for Sugarman feeling just a teeny bit uplifted and believing that maybe there's some kind of logic to it all after all.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

never sorry (d. alison klayman)

Amidst the spate of documentaries I have seen this Summer in London, Klayman's docu-portrait of the dissident artist Ai Weiwei is far from being the most challenging exploration of the genre,  but it may well end up being seen as the most significant. This is because the film offers a relatively unimpeded view of the man who is at the epicentre of China's ongoing revolution, which is in all likelihood the most significant political event of our generation. If by that one means, the thing that will have most influence in shaping the world we live in.

In the midst of China's revolution is a battle for what might termed 'democratic' values: freedom of speech, human rights etc. The bearlike Weiwei is at the centre of this battle and has personally gained and suffered from his actions. Although there is 'behind-the-scenes' footage of the artist with his family, this is by and large a portrait of the artist as agent-provocateur and public figure. Weiwei is someone who sees Twitter as the most important contemporary means of communication. At every given turn he confronts the state, making a nuisance of himself, challenging them to try and take him down. Which they seek to do, towards the end of the film. Something which sets the stage of Never Sorry 2, because in some ways it feels as though the full significance of his stand will only be revealed over the course of time. 

We don't get to know that much about Weiwei as an artist or as a man, but then these are no longer the most important aspects of his persona. There is an anecdotal sequence which talks about Weiwei's time in New York, where he lived for about a decade, including the time of Tiannamen. It's fascinating to speculate to what extent artists such as Koons and Warhol impacted on Weiwei's evolving understanding of the concept of 'the artist'. Like Hirst, Weiwei no longer makes his own work. Other people do it for him, in what might be seen as a parody of the Chinese system or an embrace of Warholian neo-capitalism. However, the glimpses we see of his NY time and his present working practices only serve to highlight all that the film doesn't get round to saying or leaves out. 

What we do get (with much of this footage culled from Weiwei's own films) is a vibrant insight into a society which, no matter how pervasive it's influence, is still one we know little about in 'the West'. Weiwei is revealed to be a lightning conductor, as are perhaps all the great artists, one whose art, life and politics are melded into a single, bearded whole. 

Friday, 10 August 2012

red april (santiago roncagliolo)

In the Andes, passing through on a bus, you'll see, every now and again, gatherings, colourful, particular, taking place in a carpark on a cold dusty plain or a field set back from a twisting road. You'll catch a glimpse of something you know you don't belong to and you would never belong to even if you lived in this place for hundreds of years. Which is pretty much the experience of the descendants of the Spanish as they co-exist with the descendants of the indigenous peoples they colonised, once upon a time. A people which continues to live alongside them, speaking a different language, wearing different clothes and, presumably, thinking different kinds of thoughts. The highlands of the Andes are as segregated as anywhere else in the world and still the retain the feel, perhaps, of an uneasy truce; an accommodation with history as much as an acceptance of it.

This world has been captured effectively in the films of Claudia Llosa: Madeinusa and La Teta Asustada. In Madeinusa, a stranger arrives in town and finds himself caught up in ancient traditions which overwhelm him. Red April’s hero, Felix Chacaltana finds himself similarly consumed in Roncagliolo’s literary take on the same theme. He is a prosecutor in the Andean town of Ayacucho, charged with solving a series of murders in a place where the guerilla campaign of Sendero Luminoso has never quite been extinguished. The book comes into its own when it starts to trace the ways in which the native cultural heritage has continued to thrive, even if this is under the guise of an adopted Catholicism. The indigenous attitudes towards death, explained by the priest, open the door to a completely different way of thinking which runs parallel to the Christianity adopted by the native population, part of the colonization process. This offers a fresh twist on the serial killer trope, as well as providing an insight into a culture which frequently seems closed and mysterious.

There is a debate to be had about whether the author is adopting an approach towards the native characters he employs which Said might have described as Orientalism. To a certain extent the book’s narrative twist confronts this. It is one of the problems literature continues to face in the twenty first century as writers attempt to come to terms with the crimes and misdemeanours committed by colonialism. How to create a space in the narrative for the “unspoken” perspective; and whether in so doing you effectively take advantage of that perspective as much as the colonisers did before you. Roncagliolo’s highly successful book seems conscious of these inherent contradictions, just as Llosa’s films are, but at times it felt as though it might have taken the reader further in its journey into the mindset of the other. 

Thursday, 2 August 2012

two years at sea (d ben rivers)

The act of experiencing cinema is an act of watching. It’s a passive action. Receptive. It’s so passive that at times it’s as though there’s no input from the viewer at all. In this it is similar to the action of enjoying art. In this day and age there are ways of experiencing art that involve going down slides or talking to strangers, but the predominant impulse in art is to look, to see, to watch, to receive.

Ben Rivers is well aware of this. Firstly, his film in an observational one. His camera observes a character, Jake, a man with a verdant beard and an energetic if solitary disposition. In some ways the film is like a nature documentary, studying the hermit in his environment. The camera is a spy of which Jake is presumably aware. The beauty and eccentricity of Jake’s surroundings are in themselves intriguing, but perhaps insufficient to warrant a 90 minute film. Instead it is something the director does with this material that makes it magical. What he does is he compels his audience to watch. We observe not just the ‘action’ of the film, but also the ‘process’ of the film, as the filmstock itself flickers and distorts, engrains and degrains. These frames are all unique (as of course every frame there has ever been is unique) but the filmmaker draws our attention to their uniqueness. The fuzz of the footage means each second has its own texture.

There are two sequences in particular that are so striking, from this point of view, (demanding from another), that, a little like the latest twist in a Bond film, the reviewer doesn’t want to speak about them, for fear of spoiling their potency. These are moments when the viewer is drawn into the image, almost as though staring at a Rembrandt. The only other sequence I’ve seen do this as effectively is the opening of Reygadas’ Silent Light. In these moments the passive nature of watching is revealed to be a myth: the film only comes alive because we make the active effort to participate. Without our eyes a film is nothing (except sound). This is as close to 3D as film can get (forget the specs). Blink and it’s gone. Which is always the case, but normally we take it for granted. Here, that indulgence is denied us, but what we gain more than compensates, as the viewer becomes the sentient actor in the face of a passive screen.

There’s nothing remotely commercial about Two Years at Sea and I came to it with a mild sense of dread. There’s no shortage of poorly made “art” films out there which sink under the weight of their own pretension. But Rivers’ film is one of the most disciplined, charming and beautiful pieces of cinema I’ve ever witnessed, taking the viewer to the heart of what it means to be a viewer, whilst maintaining an irreverence and an understated use of mystery. The questions that remain unanswered are as potent as the ones that are answered, ensuring that the unstated “narrative” ticks along beneath the wordless surface. It will barely make a ripple in the cinematic consciousness, but in another world, one of Borges’ parallel universes, it will be revered, a true blockbuster, a game-changer which will make superstars out of the quiet genius’ who created this work.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

the red desert (w&d antonioni, w guerra)

A film washed in a desaturated glow of genius. Almost impossible to say with any degree of certainty what this is about. Mental illness/ environmentalism/ marriage. Riddled with moments of brilliance. At its heart a performance which leapfrogs the extraordinary. Monica Vitti, given license  to be peculiar, febrile, feminine. A figure on the verge of a nervous breakdown. A landscape that glows with a meaning which is never revealed. Through a pall of fog. Industrial. Maritime. Psychological. Psychosexual. Make out. The film's longest sequence ... a strange dockside shack which the characters end up literally deconstructing. Ripping its red planks to pieces. Was this the desert? Who knows. Not even the author. Amoral bourgeoisie or outliers for the swinging sixties. The postwar hedonists we have all become. Scope for interpretation vast. Excessive. Text over-ripe with signifiers. Desolate industrial wasteland. The boy that couldn't walk. A woman seeking to determine what shade of paint to put on the walls of a shop with nothing in it. 

No-one created atmosphere in the movies like Antonioni. Walking into his various scenes is like walking into different rooms. Never knowing what to expect. Is it a good party? Is it a bad party? You can never be sure. His movies are balancing acts, constantly on the verge of teetering into the ridiculous, constantly resisting. I have nothing intelligent to say about this movie. It is sublime, but fails to fit into any normal cinematic discourse. It exists in a language of images. If words were still pictograms I might have stood a chance. Of making sense. Of making sense of it.