Tuesday, 31 May 2016

evolution (w&d. lucile hadzihalilovic; w. alante kavaite, geoff cox)

I came out of a meeting and went into Evolution. I should have come out of nightmare and gone in to see it. There’s something other worldly about Evolution, not just in its supposed “mermaid horror” premise, but also in its pacing, sparse storytelling and medical porn scenes. I’d enjoyed Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s previous picture, Innocence, which had a similarly opaque, hallucinogenic quality. The world seen through a lens, darkly. This is auteur moviemaking: you come out of Evolution feeling like you’re stepping out of someone’s mind. Which is dangerous because you need to be in the right viewing space to appreciate it’s whimsical glory. I’m not sure if it’s because I went in with the wrong frame of mind, but I came out feeling a bit nonplussed. The concept of psycho-mermaids seemed more attractive in theory than in practice. Maybe that’s as it should be; maybe it was just that the repeated explicit operation sequences and injections meant that this notoriously squeamish viewer found himself coming in and out of the film from behind his fingers more often than was good for the narrative flow. It seems like a shame we have had to wait so long for Hadzihalilovic’s second feature to arrive; there’s a mesmeric quality to her filmmaking, even if I came out with the feeling that sometimes she might be stuck in her own shadow.  

Sunday, 22 May 2016

ophelia’s zimmer (d. katie mitchell)

I’m going to assume that you, the reader, are unlikely to see this show. It had a four day run in London and finished tonight. If you’re in Berlin I guess you might. The show’s in German. It was surtitled, although it didn’t really need to be. 

Zimmer means room in german. The whole play takes place in the hypothetical bedroom of Ophelia. It’s an unremarkable space: a bed, a chair, a cupboard, a side table. The re-imagining of a Shakespeare play from another character’s point of view is not radical. Stoppard did it famously with Hamlet. In Montevideo, Percovich recently did it with the same character as Mitchell chooses here. Ophelia is fertile territory for this kind of project. She’s one of most underwritten characters in literary history. Her tragic denouement is somewhat thrown away by the original author.

The play is split into five sequences, each one announced by a projected sign which denotes the five stages of drowning. Each of these scenes, or sequences, is composed of a myriad of tiny, fractured scene-lets. They are denoted by a sound cue, always the same, and a change of lights. This is the play’s punctuation. 

We are, assuredly, in the territory of deconstruction. Deconstruction of Hamlet, deconstruction of drowning. And deconstruction of the process of creating a work of theatre.

There is very little dialogue. Which is not to say there is none. There are three registers of dialogue. Firstly, a voiceover from a woman, perhaps Ophelia’s mother, perhaps just the voice in her head, instructing her how to behave. How to make herself small and fit in the cracks. Secondly, there is the voice of Hamlet, on tapes which he supplies, as letters, to Ophelia. Hamlet’s voice is playful, lewd, tender, manic, crazy. Ophelia fasts forwards and rewinds these tapes. (They are not the only Beckettian aspect of the play). At one point the tape has Hamlet’s voice say: To be or… Ophelia abruptly fast forwards. That moment got the biggest laugh of the night. The final register is the dialogue of Ophelia herself and four other characters who appear, including, explosively, Hamlet. Mostly she is spoken to by a maid. But the maid’s lines are as repetitive as her actions. She brings flowers, presumably sent by Hamlet. Ophelia and her exchange a few words about the flowers. She tells her she has to go and see a play, or that Hamlet is downstairs and wants to see her. The maid’s role is essentially that of messenger, a mechanism which helps the offstage action to be communicated.

This is a technical theatre where the lighting and the sound have just as much weight as the writing and the acting. It’s highly cinematic. In fact, the way the stage is set up, in part in order to permit the water to enter at the end, means that those in the stalls would have seen a different play to the one I saw in the circle. There’s a raised black section which cuts off the view from the stalls, suggesting the widescreen of cinema. Added to this is another mechanism taken from film. Three of the actors perform foley in a booth in the corner. They create the sound of the outside world. Feet on stairs, doors opening and shutting, keys in locks, feet running. The diagetic world is visibly deconstructed before our eyes.

Once again, this process of deconstruction. As a director of a play, you are aware of every moment, every beat. Moments which apparently have little importance are all part of the mechanics of the machine you are creating. Mitchell reveals this process to the audience. There is no seamlessness. It is all seams. (She has Ophelia doing crochet at times.) The play, like Ophelia’s descent towards suicide (the madness of suicide) is an accumulation of moments. Normally a director tries to hide this process. So that the audience lose themselves in the ‘story’. Mitchell does the opposite here. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s just as hypnotic as a conventionally-told narrative. Once you adjust to the sparse, staccato, rhythm of the piece, you become sucked into the story. A move from one side of the stage to the other has meaning. (Here again, the echo of Beckett, especially late Beckett.) The action is transparent and part of an elaborately constructed journey. A journey towards both madness and the end of the play.

Maybe for some, this becomes tedious. It might be seen as a purist’s theatre. Maybe in Germany it’s ten-a-penny, old hat. For me, it felt like a vision of the theatre freed from the tyranny of the word. I’ve never seen a show that did away as magisterially with the need for a playwright as this one (with all due respect to Alice Birch, credited in the program for “text” ) or, perhaps, which succeeded in showing how rich a non-writer-lead theatre could become. Which doesn’t mean to say that language is not important. Much of Birch’s ‘text’ has a poeticism which contrasts wittily or movingly with the austereness of the room and the staging. Whilst riffing off the untouchable original. A jazz score, if you like. But the point here, in this deconstructed theatre, is that the actions of the actors, the lighting designer, the composer, the set designer, have as much weight as the language. 

I enjoy the transitory nature of theatre. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. When Ophelia’s Zimmer finished, with a wrong-footing flair, (she doesn’t drown), I didn’t want to leave the theatre. I wanted to linger in the play’s strange, hypnotic space. This space which had deconstructed everything and then put it back together again. A kind of clinical madness. Or a clinical kind of madness. Which might be another way of describing the process of staging a play. 

So I cycled back across Hyde Park, Serpentine winking seductively, at me, at Ophelia, at Shakespeare’s ghost, and because I didn’t want to let the play go just yet, I put the bread on to cook and sat down to write these words. 

Friday, 20 May 2016

the seventh fire (w&d jack pettibone riccobono, w shane slattery-quintanilla, andrew ford)

The Seventh Fire recounts the story of two indigenous North American Indians living in a small town in Minnesota. Neither the older Rob Brown or the younger Kevin are role models. Rob has spent his life in and out of prison. He’s a drug and alcohol addict. The film follows the days he spends before he’s about to start his fifth stint in prison, desperate to enjoy his last days of liberty. Kevin is younger. He’s 18. He has more hope. But he’s already dealing meth and getting addicted at the same time. He deals to the young white youths (who could probably step out of a Linklater movie). His girlfriend ditches him. His life is going to pieces and he ends up in a correctional facility. Rob’s last night of freedom descends into a bacchanal, which is filmed in the raw just as potently as Toro Negro, (Carlos Armella, Pedro González-Rubio), another film which depicts with a terrible candour the ongoing struggle of the native American indians to adapt, half a millennia later, to the imported culture which was imposed upon them. 

This culture is artfully kept at the margins of the film. Kevin makes enquiries about an organisation called La Plazita Institute which incorporates Native American traditions into the rehabilitation of young offenders. It looks at one point as though this is going to turn into a life-affirming positive narrative and the film is all the stronger for not going down that route. Similarly, Rob is a wannabe poet, (one of his poems is featured in the film), who when he’s off the drugs in prison reconnects with his Ojibwe roots. But The Seventh Fire isn’t addressing the exceptional, upbeat stories. Both Rob and Kevin’s cases are all the more poignant because, in spite of the fact we like them, we want them to prevail, they don’t. Life for them is about hard times, bad choices and prison. Only in the very final sequence does the movie suggest, somewhat cryptically, the possibility of another outcome to Rob’s story.

The Seventh Fire is a film which is greater than the sum of its parts. Not a lot happens. There’s no great moment of catharsis or epiphany. This is about how people live day-to-day live within a society where their very presence is like a guilty secret that shouldn’t be told. This is the anti-Utopia, the stolen land, belonging to souls who live in internal exile. 

Monday, 16 May 2016

victoria (w&d sebastian schipper; w olivia neergaard-holm; eike frederik schulz)

I feel mildly guilty for not enjoying Victoria as much as one is supposed to. I say this because in some ways Victoria is the holy grail; a foreign language art-thriller, possessed of a dose of technical genius which is matched by some lovely acting and a penumbra of dramatic tension. In fact, from this viewer’s POV, the last phrase is the problem. Because, yes, in the first hour, that dramatic tension feels all-enveloping, colouring everything. The young, friendless Spanish woman, all alone in Berlin, hooking up in the middle of the night with a bunch of pissed, raw Berliners: something has to give sooner or later. The tension of the build-up to this “something” is indeed, pervasive. Every second feels pregnant with the dread that is to come. Time slows down and the relentless camera’s refusal to cut means we, like Victoria, are trapped by the onrushing force of destiny; these quiet moments can’t last forever, very soon, within the next hour, the levee is going to break. My problem with the film came when that break occurred. Suddenly we find ourselves in a well made Gangster B-movie. Swarthy hoods with guns and bleached-blond criminal uber-men. Shoot-outs and urban terror. The film’s credibility bubble burst for me somewhere along the way and so did the dramatic tension; all those carefully assembled minutes, so skilfully stitched together, seemed to be frittered away. Who is Victoria? What’s her real problem? I realise these are banal questions but in a film so resolutely and titularly dedicated to its protagonist, they feel relevant and I don’t feel as though I ever found the answers, no matter how artfully Laia Costa portrayed her. Her acting and that of the Brandon-esque Frederick Lau as Sonne are lovely examples of unmannered naturalism, and their love story almost began to convince as a kind of harder-edged Berlin Before Sunrise, but in the end the tragic stakes didn’t quite seem to have been earned. Perhaps my sense of anti-climax could be explained by declaring that at the end of the day, having done the hard work, I felt as though the script let its characters off too lightly, they could have suffered more. I realise that dying a violent death is considered by some to be a cruel way to go, but in this case it just goes to show that in cinema, or fiction, there are all kinds of violent deaths, some more excoriating than others. On the plus side, this is only a film that disappoints because it sets its bar so high; the talent and flair of its originators is not in doubt. (The camera work of Sturla Brandth Graven being the real star of the show.)

Friday, 13 May 2016

the sky trembles and the earth Is afraid and the two eyes are not brothers (w&d ben rivers)

Ben Rivers’ long titled film possesses the ascetic, ironic beauty of Two Years at Sea, married to the more philosophical reflections of Slow Action. The first half of the film follows the filming of a movie being made by a young Frenchman in Morocco, in the Atlas mountains and the desert. Rivers’ film is a documentary, following the real crew, making a real film. Rivers’ camera is a mildly subversive presence, observing the niceties of the European and North African worlds meeting; the difficulties of filming under taxing conditions. The film director mooches around looking suitably moody. It’s entertaining, but it feels slightly inconsequential. Then, at the midway point, the director gets into his 4x4, drives to a remote desert hotel, gets kidnapped and is used as a dancing tin-can gimp by a group of Moroccan bandits. 

The switch in tone is completely unexpected and hypnotising. The man who is supposedly making entertainment for the European masses instead becomes a source of entertainment for the third world minority. The second half of Rivers’ film is apparently adapted from a Paul Bowles story, but it would be wrong to see it as being a separate entity from the first half. The moment of ultimate horror, for the director, after all that he has unwittingly suffered, is the sight of a blank TV screen. It may not be the most subtle of messages, but it would appear that Rivers is questioning the whole nature of our idea of what entertainment is or should be. He does so with a deadpan humour which hints at the more profound disunities of the modern world. When the tables are turned, and only then perhaps, will we begin to understand the vacuity of that which we presently consider entertaining. 

Which is not to say that this is a worthy or dour film. It seems unlikely that Rivers is ever going to belong to the mainstream. Which again raises questions about what the function of cinema is or should be. Is it to observe, to reflect the world, or is it to tell stories, stories which might be mundane? In some of the scenes from the film the director is making, we see moments of real engagement from the Moroccan actors, which suggest a whole narrative whose content we never learn. (We also don’t know if these moments belong to the Frenchman’s film itself or are observations stolen by Rivers.) These flashes contain a humanity encapsulated in the angry shake of a head or a captured smile. We are outside the story, looking in. Later, we are inside the story, as we empathise with the director’s fate. Rivers, it seems, wants us to be both Brechtian observers and committed servants of his narrative. On the whole it’s the second side of the coin which determines how we watch film in this day and age. The early cinema, which caused amazement by doing nothing more than reflecting the world as it was, has lost its sway. We need the screen to dance; the director’s fate is a parody of our restricted expectations. The film’s earlier, observational take, has no place in the modern cinema; instead we look to rediscover the Wizard’s of Oz’s tin man in every film we choose to watch. If it doesn’t have pathos, if it doesn’t dance a jig, it doesn’t exist. 

Sunday, 8 May 2016

son of saul (d. lászló nemes, w. nemes & clara royer)

It struck me about five minutes into Son of Saul that László Nemes, the director, probably knows the work of the previous entrant on the blog, fellow Hungarian Imre Kertész. The scars of the Holocaust on the Eastern European psyche still run deep. How is it still possible to make a film about the Holocaust that feels urgent, pressing, of the now? And why is it necessary? 

Son of Saul is brilliantly made, possesses a peculiar beauty, yet still succeeds in conveying shock. The shock is twofold. On the one hand there are the prosaic details of the process. The death, the barbarity, the bodies, the showers, the machine, the complicity. All these things are known, have been visited time and again. By framing his story through the prism of its ‘hero’s’ journey over the course of three days, maintaining a narrow focus, we observe all these things at the periphery of our vision. Every now and again the background leaps out at the viewer. A body dragged across the floor; a bloodstain being scrubbed. Sound and image are employed to make this terrible world come to life, every shot meticulously constructed to portray the heaving mechanism of the concentration camp, a machine of constant movement and barely-controlled chaos. 

The second shock has more in common with the wry observations of Kertész: that within the confines of this hell, a man can retain his values and his humanity, as shown by Saul Auslander’s desire to provide a fit burial for the child he believes (or chooses to believe) is his son. The simple, ludicrous, mission renders everything else secondary. It’s a classic piece of storytelling which is delivered via a masterly use of the cinematic format. 

If the film reminded me of any other, it’s perhaps Mungiu’s Five Weeks. The ability to convey a story with a claustrophobic focus, the bigger picture always present but kept in the background. Like the novel, cinema allows the storyteller to lead you through a world from the point of view of the narrative’s chosen protagonist. Why is it necessary? The urgency of the filmmaking stye succeeds in making Saul’s story feel like something that could be happening today. Nemes bridges the historical gap, creating empathy through shared experience. We don’t look on Saul as a historical figure, but as a contemporary. Cinema revokes history, and a modern audience is compelled to think: that this should never be permitted to happen again. The reasons why it might be necessary to remember this all over again right now, in the second decade of the 21st century, are, sadly, far too evident.