Monday, 12 September 2011

Alice (1988)

Dir. Jan Svankmajer
Czechoslovakia-Switzerland-West Germany-UK

Note: At least with the UK DVD release, the original language version of the film is available, so don’t be put off if the English dub shown in this clip is off-putting.

What Is It?
A pretty faithful adaptation of the Lewis Carroll story Alice in Wonderland viewed through the eyes of surrealist animator Jan Svankmajer, who made his feature film debut after a few decades of acclaimed shorts.

Alice is almost a continuation from Jabberwocky (1971), which combined another Lewis Carroll work of the same name with Svankmajer’s perception of childhood, existing in the same universe as each other. Immediately from the start of the film, it is less a children’s film and more of a surrealist fantasy art film, where Wonderland is interpreted through corridors of a home and its habitants are stop motion creations made from bone, fur, thread etc. It also separates itself from many children’s films in that its child protagonist is not an idolised version of a child, innocent and yet aware of their surroundings, doing what they can to be kind to others. The Alice in this is a more accurate portrait of a young child, very naive and learning about the fantasy environment very slowly, more slowly than the viewer. Also in one scene, at least for myself, where she is trapped in the White Rabbit’s house made of toy bricks, she shows a selfish spitefulness without any malice where she does not follow the requests of others for the sake of it, a rarity in child characters in mainstream cinema.

For those who have not encountered Svankmajer’s work – and you really should, as they are not just for animation fans, but for any film viewer - his work is distinctive in that the man-made aspect of his animation (and even the positioning of real people as actors) and their textures are upfront and as much part of the films as everything else in them. His stop-motion, and surrealistic flourishes, are usually created using everyday objects both man-made (paper, tools and utensils etc.) and natural objects that are manipulated by human beings (stones, taxidermy animals and bones); he has worked with paper animation and puppetry as well amongst other things, but the emphasis on the materials, and their textures and appearances, is still apparent. (Both these styles appear in Alice as well, and are completely inseparable from everything else). Every scene feels like it has by crafted by someone’s own hands, with the flaws of manipulating and moulding everything into place as much part of generating the atmosphere of his work, be it a short or feature film work.

In the context of other adaptations of Carroll’s story, Svankmajer’s style looks far more ‘creepy’ and ‘unsettling’ compared to something like Disney's, an aspect which is purposely emphasised by having such images as loaves of bread suddenly spurting nails from inside them or the White Rabbit continually losing sawdust from the gaping tear in his chest. However the style is able to go from this to charming and humorous as well, the later a definite part of many of the director’s other work even if its black humour. For its source material it is perfect, adding to the adult sense of whimsy which appears in the original story (which, as well as being a surreal fantasy, satirised attitudes of the British culture of that period, as seen when Alice is put on trial by the King and Queen of Hearts). As an interpretation of childhood, it is just as good, enforced by the use of old style toys that look Victorian at times in appearances. A universal nature in Jan Svankmajer’s work can be seen in the fact that these everyday items are ones that viewers probably possessed or know of greatly – owned by themselves or relatives, found in their attics, or even found on car boot sales and in antique stores – regardless of their country of origin. Svankmajer is also an imaginative filmmaker who, as a practicing Surrealist who works in other mediums as well as cinema, has a keen eye for inspired contrasts and juxtapositions. How fitting is it that the portals to Wonderland and between each part are desk’s drawers, part of a piece of furniture stories like this would be planned and written upon?

Sadly Svankmajer’s other feature work after Alice have been hard to find in the United Kingdom, but having seen Conspirators of Pleasure (1996) and Little Otik (2000) he has affectively taken all of his obsessions from his short work and combined them into longer form narratives that show the craft of a talented veteran filmmaker. Also worthy of praise, especially with Alice, is Welsh film producer Keith Griffiths who helped this film, and other Svankmajer works, to be made. I ask of you the reader to look at his IMDB page, which I will provide in this post, and look at his producer credits. Even though I have disliked or hated some of the films he has produced, Griffiths has contributed to cinema in general immensely, helping such filmmakers aside from Svankmajer like Chris Petit, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and the Quay Brothers (who are huge admirers of Svankmajer and made a short work in tribute to him) to make interesting and unique works. Having Alice and Conspirators of Pleasure in one’s producer credits is worth applauding, but Griffiths’ is even more incredible than this.

Alice is not my favourite Svankmajer feature (that would be Conspirators of Pleasure) let alone out of all of his filmography, but it is a great achievement, a fantastical and surreal work which matches its subject material like a hand to a glove. The film was finally released on UK DVD this year thanks to the British Film Institution, part of a sudden surge of interest in Alice in Wonderland in cinema that started in 2010. Hopefully his other feature films will be made available, but this by itself was worth the wait for me.

Keith Griffiths’ IMDB Page -

Monday, 8 August 2011

Passage of Interest #1

I have recently started on a library copy of the later director Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting In Time, and while I have only gotten half way through it, it has provided me with passages on cinema which I will take to heart, going as far as using it during an argument between two other people on a forum. The following quote is one of many intelligent ones, originally from Chapter IV, but it is pertinent for me when it comes to what cinema’s purpose is. Even if a film is merely designed for the lowest common denominator, I feel this belief of Tarkovsky’s still applies and is why we as film viewers hold certain films highly or other negatively:-

‘Search as a process (and there is no other way of looking at it) has the same bearing on the complete work as wandering through the forest with a basket in search of mushrooms has to a basket of mushrooms when you have found them. Only the later – the fill basket – is a work of art: the contents are real and unconditional, whereas wandering through the forest remains the personal affair of someone who enjoys walking and fresh air.’
(Sculpting In Time, Pg. 98, The Bodley Head Ltd,1986)

This message, while obvious, will do some good for me as a thinker, especially when it comes to why certain ‘experimental’ films are far more successful for me than others, an area of discussion this quote comes from in the book. I can now use this an elaborate metaphor to help me consider the merits of a work.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

I Would Rather Write About Something Else Than Drive Angry (2011) But...

Dir: Patrick Lussier

I was going to write about the Nicolas Cage film Drive Angry (2011), since it was recently released on DVD in the UK, as a full review but it is not worth it. I feel I should post as much as possible, but the lack of interest even in a negative way for the film makes it difficult to continue discussing it unless I post it in this way instead.

It all went wrong the moment - when the film starts and a CGI car slams through the gates of an inflamed, CGI necropolis of Hell -  the voiceover starts using the phrase ‘bad ass motherfucker’ in a serious way that is also supposed to sound ‘cool’ to the viewer’s ears. My heart sank and nothing in the film for the whole 100 minutes was able to raise it. The use of the phrase caught me onto the issue with the film immediately – it tries so hard to be exploitative, with its swearing, nudity and luridness, but it felt like a cynical attempt to amplify these aspects with no sincerity to it. There have been many other films including those made merely for money – from Takashi Miike to Neveldine/Taylor – which for any flaws they have had the virtue of sincerity to their sleaze and transgressions. It felt legitimate and fitting for their stories (or lack thereof). Sincerity in the copious gore and adult content in a film improves its qualities; it feels not only rawer, but can be used to craft said exploitation into an artistic power as well. Sincere mature films tend to also be legitimately insane and bizarre, which Drive Angry attempts to be as well and fails to, which is why one-off films like Ichi the Killer (2001) and Crank: High Voltage (2009) have their audiences while the likes of Drive Angry may not. (It’s fitting for this thought of mine that it is a Nicolas Cage film too; no matter how ridiculous his acting or hair piece is, it cannot compare to his performances in David Lynch’s Wild At Heart (1990), or even something like Con Air (1997), where there is a sincerity to his weird pronunciations or visual appearance, whether the director pushes him in that direction or, unlike Drive Angry, he is doing it unintentionally and not trying to hard too mug for the camera). Drive Angry slips into an admirable but failed group of films spearheaded by Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (2007) and Robert Rodriquez’s Planet Terror (2007) [I haven’t seen the original Grindhouse (2007) yet] which attempted to replicate the exploitation films of the 1970s and 80s but felt for me over priced in terms of budget and hollow. (Some may argue that the Kill Bill films may be the first films to do this, which may be true, but the amount of filmic influences on them from different time periods and styles causes this to be questionable too. I also loved the first one). Since Grindhouse, despite its failure at the American box office, there has been at least a more pronounced amount of films like Drive Angry which attempt to celebrate their influences by acting like them. The problem with Drive Angry sadly is that it is trying to be a ‘sincere’ in its exploitation synthetically, trying to play up a sleaziness than just going forward in its plot as a sleazy film. Even though they were sold on sex and violence, these aspects were not at the forefront of the many older films I’ve seen but merely an additional decoration to them to sell cinema tickets. The Jack Hill film The Big Bird Cage (1972) for example is concern with giving the viewer nudity and attractive women firing machine guns, but it is not consumed in trying to make it look edgy to the viewer and is more wrapped up in its women in prison plot in the jungle. Drive Angry on the other hand spends all its time trying to make itself look legitimate as an exploitation film, all the while compromising itself. There is also a sense that, for all its grandeurs of sinking into the gutter, it suffers from a political correctness streak that causes it to sit on the fence and become cinematically inept as a result. The best (worst?) example of this is with the main female actress Amber Heard. Not only is she completely sexless for a female character, both in a film with no issues in having other actresses do full nude scenes and in terms of being a female character with no sense of charismatic beauty to her, looking like a plastic doll in baggy clothing on screen, but the film’s attempts to make her a strong character is actually far more offensive than to have had the actress parade naked on screen like the others. Political correctness is a truly dangerous concept because, instead of tackling the real issues of gender and race in humanity’s psyche, it sidesteps them and compromises in a way that is mechanical, and artistically and intellectually bankrupt. Exploitation films and transgressive cinema can only start to succeed if it either enters the sewers of the human mind or/and is subversive; if the writers of this film really wanted to have a strong female lead, they needed to write a real human being within a genre film than have Heard swearing like a sailor and punching other women. I could go on about the other actors and aspects of the film but to honest I feel that all of my problems have been expresses in what I have already typed, encroached by my complete disinterest in the film.

This sense of compromise exists throughout the film and makes it difficult to sympathise with films like this. If this is the best of these sorts of films Hollywood can up with, then we should stick with the one-off directors or the journey men and women - the later going into (economically) commercial cinema and ending up with a cult film or two in their filmographies - to provide interesting exploitation cinema instead of forcing them into creation. Whenever there are attempts to artificially create certain aspects of film within the medium of cinema, it usually fails, and it does even more so with something as ‘vague’ as the cult or exploitation film which is effected by the environment and time it was made in, and the multiple factors surrounding its creation and its viewing. Something like Drive Angry is just a dull and sanitised attempt at these sorts of films which failed miserably in the first minute of its runtime.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Essential Killing (2010)

Dir. Jerzy Skolimowski

[Note – There will be one or two slight spoilers in this review, but not sufficient enough to give away major parts of the film. This warning is just to let you, the reader, know this before you continue in case you want to see this film completely cold without any knowledge on it at all instead]

Plot Synopsis
A political prisoner Mohammad (Vincent Gallo) escapes custody and finds himself within the snowbound environment of an unknown country. While avoiding the American soldiers who captured him, he is grounded down into a being purely intent on survival.

Background Information
While director Jerzy Skolimowski returned to making films with Four Nights with Anna (2008) - after 17 years of pursuing a career in painting (as well as acting in other films) - 2011 for the United Kingdom feels like the year that he has had a resurgence, with both the theatrical release of this film and the rediscovery (and the first DVD release of after years of praise) of his British production Deep End (1970). As a film viewer who has almost his entire filmography – except this film and The Shout (1978) – ahead of me to watch for the first time, I hope that this leads to an accessibility of his work.

The film effectively strips down the action film convention – the film is effectively an art house action film, something which delights me as action tropes can be profound if used right – of the escape scene to its barebones. Not only is the film’s length slight to most, although it felt long enough for me to feel complete, but the concern of Skolimowski is simply the desire of survival in such a situation. While it originated from a part of real life politics, that American soldiers were using an airstrip near his Polish home to transport Middle Eastern prisoners, Skolimowski purposely wanted to avoid making a political film. In the sole interview on the UK DVD, he suggested that Gallo’s character could either be a good man or a bad one, but the ambiguity of the character (and everyone else in the film) is writ large.

The result is a film where survival as a concept is the only subject. Many films involving escapes, more significantly the longer ones where characters are in a natural environment for a long duration, do not really take into account the potential issues people may face in such a predicament, but merely simplify it into avoiding the group of people (or person) after the character. Here, you have Gallo sticking his hand into an ant hill and licking the insects off his hand for sustenance, one of many images that I have rarely seen in other films. The issues of how one survives in this predicament are the most important aspect in the director’s film. The result is refreshing, enforced by Gallo’s performance. Never uttering anything throughout the film except noises, he does an admirable job as the individual followed throughout the whole film. That as an actor he put himself through a physically stressful shoot to make the film is admirable too.  His performance also enforces another aspect of why Essential Killing is as good as I think it is in that that the barrier between the ‘civilised’ human environments and the physically messy and primal natural wilderness is squashed; while he is still a human being, one who carries a handgun with him throughout and uses anything to assist his survive, Gallo on screen acts out an individual who has been forced to act out his animalistic side, where the primary emotions are pain, hungry and the desire to flee from danger. Gallo shows this succinctly in his performance, probably the result of the physical strain of the shoot, such as spending takes on camera walking in the snow bare footed or having to scramble through the woodland.

The portrayal of the environment and what the film looks like also breaks this barrier between the two sides. The film does look beautiful, its snowbound landscapes striking in appearance, but it is still wilderness, of dirt mixed with snow. Everything in the film feels this way – the violence is messier and physical objects and liquids have a murkier texture and appearance to them (not just blood but also including breast milk at one point). Even when a heavy metal track is being played in a vehicle Gallo tries to escape in, it is not a ‘clean’ sounding metal track but a mass of chaotic noises. Within the serene environments, a haphazard nature to every within it is shown that feels more realistic but also adds artistically to the issue of survival within the narrative.

Final Thoughts
Essential Killing is a highlight for me for 2011, a year which promises to be one of the best but I have been slow to catch up with in terms of new releases. Even if I had seen a lot more films though, this one would still be near the top and a near-perfect film bar one or two small issues. Since its premiere at last year’s Venice Film Festival, a small but growing amount of critical praise surrounded the film has lead me to become more and more excited about seeing it, and now having viewed it, it didn’t disappoint at all. As I’ve already said at the beginning of the review, I hope from this year onwards there will be a push for Jerzy Skolimowski’s work to be more available in Britain, as I wait in anticipation to see Deep End at least by the end of December. It’s also a bookmark in both the current trend of ‘art house’ cinema meeting genre and of the more pronounced trend of 2011 in director’s subverting and playing with said genre conventions, both in mainstream blockbusters and underground works (my top and bottom list is bursting with these sorts of films already despite being small). This one lives up to the ‘essential’ of its title.

Monday, 18 July 2011

They Were 11 (1986)

Dirs. Satoshi Dezaki and Tsuneo Tominaga

Plot Outline
In the near-distant future, a group of young students from across the galaxy are prepared to take the final test that will grant them access into a prestigious academy and also a life as the most respected individuals on their planets. Their task is to man a dilapidated and abandoned space station for 53 days by themselves; if a crisis takes place they can call for emergency help but the test is failed. When they get onto the station however things quickly go amiss. Not only does the station carry a sinister past but they discover that, instead of the pre-requisite ten people per station, there are eleven individuals, causing paranoia and suspicion.

Background Information of Interest
This anime is an adaptation of a famous work by Moto Hagio, an exceptionally important female author in Japanese manga (comics books), especially in creating works for young girls. I have not yet read any of her work – or any of her female contemporaries who were just as significant in developing manga for girls as well – but it does raise questions, especially in an age where there is still some segregation of entertainment by gender, that this animated films exists which is set in a genre (sci-fi) which is usually viewed as a male genre but yet clearly has universal appeal to anyone. (The original manga from what I have gathered was published in a magazine that catered to young girls). As will be talked about later on in this review, there are social issues analysed within the narrative, including that of gender relations, which adds to the significance of this.

Also of interest is that one of the co-directors, Satoshi Dezaki, is the brother of the later Osamu Dezaki, a very well regarded animation director. I have not heard a great deal talked about Satoshi Dezaki, or his co-director Tsuneo Tominaga, but both do deserve credit for this film.

The subtextual references to social issues within the film are one of the best aspects of the animation, the most significant of which is gender. One of the biggest cruxes of the narrative is that [Spoiler Warning] the female character of Frol is actually a genderless hermaphrodite whose species has their gender decided for when they are adults. What is also significant is that in her/his world, the female population are treated as the weaker gender by the male one and that Frol is trying to get into the academy so (s)he can become a man. [Spoiler Warning Ended] Japan has a long history of social issue with gender and the treatment of women, but the fact the original manga is from the Seventies also means that it comes at the point where debates on sexuality and gender, and the rise in feminism, had reached a peak globally. The issues with this in the story are still pertinent for me despite the perceived belief that gender relationships have improved. The work also touches upon another issue that is significant for everyone in the endurance one has to face in education and in trying to reach lifelong goals like the best career and social stature. Japan has a very challenging educational system where its young boys and girls have to push themselves to go to the best schools, but it can be sympathised with by anyone, especially for a British citizen like me where private and public schools are a significant aspect still. There are still intelligent and thoughtful anime being made now, and there is certainly works from the 1980s that are exceptionally stupid and crass - not in the entertainingly stupid and guilty way but just bad - but there is a concern with the current anime industry from the fans themselves that it is pandering to low brow tastes, whether it is self-referential to the point it alienates people who don’t get the references or pushes gratuitous T’n’A with additional shots of girls’ underwear (and bear in mind, I think this problem is also existent in Western entrainment and has been just as bad). I have not seen enough Japanese animation yet to be able to make an accurate comment on this issue, but I have found that a lot of the older works I’ve viewed, even the terrible ones, have felt much more thoughtful in tone, attempting to give the viewer a story designed to make them sit back and ponder on it even it has failed miserably. They Were 11 is an example of this which is successful.

It is also an all-round entertaining sci-fi anime, with great animation and an engaging story. What makes it better is that, while its plot has no issues in going into melodrama, it thankfully avoids having to up the action stakes to an unnecessary tone to interest the viewer. Most of the film is characters standing around talking, aside from one or two scenes, and it is still immensely enjoyable.

It isn’t perfect though, particularly in the fact that with eleven characters, it feels as if the cast is too large. Even if everyone has their moments, I did feel that too many of them were one-note and just there to pad out the cast. Even with the most important characters, the film in the middle does slip into an episode which is just exposition of them explaining who they are and their back stories which disrupts the flow of the narrative.

Also, even though the film does touch upon issues about gender which are interesting, you can take issue with the portrayal of Frol. While an interesting and important character, Frol is nonetheless both the physically and mentally weakest character of them all and the fact that (s)he is the only ‘feminine’ character in the cast will raise justifiable gripes with some, especially with how her/his narrative arc plays out and affects everyone else’s. I will say however that, not only do you need to realise that the original source material is forty or so years old and of its time, but that it does not detract from how interesting Frol is as a character and how her/his personal issues provide the most interesting sociological subtext of the whole film. In fact Frol is far more interesting than anyone else in the film, which is considerably great since there is plenty of interest in almost everyone else including the main male character (that I’ve barely mentioned him shows where my interests lie and how I view the film as having no central character).

Highlight(s) of the Film
During the final half, where the plot becomes more serious, there is still a moment of light relief where a food fight suddenly takes place, both adding to the humour of the film while also continuing the character arcs. Unless you find the Japanese pop song that is played during the montage of flying food a little sickly sweet, it’s a moment which a lot of people will enjoy.

Also it has to be emphasised again that the social issues in the film are one of the best aspects. For the most part it is a fun science fiction animation, but that you can obviously read them in the work is certainly applaudable.

Final Comments
It is not the best animation out of Japan, but it deserves some recognition. Some anime fans from what I have heard from anime fans themselves have a terrible habit of only being interested in the ‘new’ works with complete disinterest in past examples, something which is baffling for a fan of cinema like me where the appreciation and recognition of film’s history is an important part of the interest. Thankfully there enough people who know of this work and appreciate it, which is how I came to know of its existence, and I want to do the same by writing this review. After seeing this adaptation, I want to explore the manga or at least Moto Hagio’s other work, which is probably the best recommendation of this adaptation’s quality. If you are interested in animation, science fiction or a good story, this is recommended if you can find it.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Citizen Ruth (1996)

Dir. Alexander Payne

The following review will be slightly shorter than the others as I will admit that, having anticipated watching this film for a few years, I was disappointed with it, but I will write what I thought about it still. The film follows Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern), a poor drug addict who faces either aborting the foetus she is pregnant with or facing jail for harm against it. This event leads to her being caught up between a political battle between two different groups – pro-life advocators who want her to keep ‘baby Tanya’ as it is called and a pro-choice group who want her to abort it – wanting to use her to push their message against the other.

The character of Ruth is the film’s strongest aspect. Despite her dubious actions – sniffing solvents despite the harm it might do to her and the unborn child, punching kids etc. – she is an innocent, one who has nothing of her own and no one, not even her family, who cares for her. The only reason she may have started on solvents from what you see is out of boredom; the only thing she truly cares about is a cassette on learning how to own your own property she finds at one point, enwrapped by it and given something to strive for. The shots from her own eyes, such as her foot in the bathtub from different angles depending on which eye she has closed, are the most striking shots of the film, especially for one which is visually lacking and could have been much better, and also give some depth to the film. These shots emphasise the naive worldview of the character, someone who is caught between two feuding groups with a political motive. Strangely this premise has a similarity to the well known A Fistful of Dollars/Yojimbo plotline, and with that in mind Laura Dern is the perfect protagonist, showing that she is an underrated actress through this performance.

Sadly the rest of the film, both tackling the abortion issue and how individuals are caught up between combating political groups, does not go deep enough into its premise to reveal anything profound, even if it was  something minor the viewer already thought about. It feels as if, with the exception of Ruth’s portrayal, Alexander Payne did not go far enough with his portrayals of both the pro-life and pro-choice groups in the film as he could have done. Brief moments – such as the pro-life leader’s (Kurtwood Smith) tendency to place leaflets for his group around the DIY store he works at much to his boss’ disdain – suggest a film where we could see the issues from both sides’ perspectives as well at criticising them for their actions. The film is also not as funny as it should have been, with most of its humour coming from the shallow stereotypes, which are not given enough of a personality each to be as interesting as Ruth, or bad hair on the male characters. I will admit that a bad toupee could make me laugh, especially on Burt Reynolds’ head, but it cannot sustain an entire film.

In the end, it is an average film but one which misses a significant opportunity to tackle these issues with depth. It feels that, despite the director’s attempts to make the film more realistic, he is still making the film ‘safe’ as a commercial product without realising it. Within the last year or so, my viewing of cinema, especially around the globe, which tackles these issues in much more thoughtful or controversial ways, has compromised a lot of traditional narrative drama for me, especially from the United States. I might have enjoyed this film even more when I was younger but as it stands it really is not that intelligent or risk taking as it should be outside the fact that it has Laura Dern snorting patio sealant at some point. It is worth seeing for Dern but aside for that it is something I would never rewatch again unless a very long passage of time has taken place between viewings.

Note – Thank you to the Lost Picture Show podcast, who covered this film in a very early episode, for bringing up to Yojimbo comparison. You the reader can find a link to their site on the left sidebar of this page.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Duffer (1971)

Dirs. Joseph Despins and William Demaresq
United Kingdom

[Note - As far as I know, this film is only available in the United Kingdom in a dual format set, with another film by the directors, on both DVD and Blu-Ray. If any of the readers are outside the UK and are interested in buying this film after reading the review, I recommend finding it as the best price you can, especially since releases from the British Film Institute tend to be more expensive in their own country.]

When the British Film Institute – which already has its own vast DVD label alongside its involvement in British cinema and film archival work, an institute in London with cinema screens etc., an academic film magazine called Sight & Sound and a history of funding films for directors like Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman – started a sub DVD label called Flipside a few years back, they may have contributed one of the best events within DVD’s history. I have only started watching more of the label’s releases this year, and not every film is going to be great, but it feels like more of an important contribution to the technology than DTS surround sound and Blu-Ray. (I will admit I watched the film I am reviewing here on Blu-Ray, but I would gladly watch a normal DVD version any day). It means something more as a film fan to me because the BFI have purposely, probably helped by their reputation and importance in the United Kingdom, created a DVD label with releases that are obscure and potentially unknown treasures; with a few expectations, most of their releases are obscure, films so unknown that it reminds yourself of choosing random films in a DVD rental stores and going into them with no perceived notions of what they will be like. Imagine that idea expect on a bigger scale, with the BFI having access to an entire archive of British cinema, from the Peter Watkins’ film Privilege (1967) to British ‘mondo’ films and small budget dramas around sixty to seventy minutes long. There is a danger with this logic that, unless you are interested in this area or have read something like Sight & Sound which offer reviews of these films, only the most niche of audiences will buy the releases, but on the other hand the label’s concentration on (as of yet) British cinema between the late 1960s and 1970s may have a wide audience, especially those who are curious about their country’s celluloid heritage. The period, especially the seventies, has only just been explored in greater detail outside of certain canonical works and genre cinema (although this label has no issues with dipping its fingers into British exploitation work such as the ‘mondo’ films), with the potential of rising up forgotten gems. I will openly admit that I have very little knowledge of this area, but I also know that the 1970s, after the end of American-British co-productions in the 60s or so, is one that has been dismissed as a low point for my country’s cinema, something which this current re-evaluation of this period may change. This sub-label of the BFI’s will help with this for younger viewers like me greatly, especially if it brings to us more one-offs like Duffer (1971) through their catalogue.

Filmed in stark black and white, Duffer is a very unconventional drama about a young man nicknamed ‘Duffer’ (Kit Gleave) stuck between his older, violent make lover Louis-Jack (co-director William Demaresq as James Roberts) and an older female prostitute called ‘Your Gracie’ (Erna May). Almost all of the film is from the main character’s perspective. This film is abstractly placed together; aside from occasional sounds within the scenes (digetic sound), the rest of the ‘dialogue’, sound and music is placed over the images in postproduction.  Abstract electronic sounds and Duffer’s internal thoughts make of up most of the soundtrack, portraying a version of London which is unreal and dreamlike in mood to a point, while other characters’ voices are represented in stylised ways – ‘Your Gracie’s’ voice is overly feminine, even at times like a mother’s in tone, while the only other male characters who ‘speak’ are abrasive and given violent tones to their voices, from harsh growling of their dialogue to a cruel nasal voice the character Louis-Jack has in one scene later on. The film has no connections in its style to any other British films I have seen so far as a viewer; attempting to label its mood is difficult, as adjectives like ‘nightmarish’ feel out of place - the film is at times ‘unreal’ and ‘dreamlike’, as I have said, but the visuals and images still have the realism of the urban areas of London the film was filmed in as well, creating an potent mix of the two sides – and its style is far more of its own creation than to call it something like ‘Lynchian’ or the many other terms these types of films are described with. It is a rare film, created and directed by two Canadians, which has no connections to previous films I have seen yet and no legacy of influences to later cinema, placing it by its own.

There is a major moral issue with the film though that it can be interpreted as being very homophobic. It is important to state that just because a character is a negative one does not mean they necessarily portray an entire group of people, either by their ethnicity or sexuality, but this film will raise issues depending on how you interpret it. The depiction of the male lover Louis-Jack is completely negative, regardless of the fact that Duffer talks about his kind natured side and desires not to hurt him at times throughout. (How Duffer talks about him can almost sound like a battered lover who continues to go back to their abuser). In the first half of this film, the issue would not exist were it not for the fact that ‘Your Gracie’ is portrayed as a comforting, protective force to the main character through a stereotypical femininity – food, soft quilts and clothing, a white cat in one shot, and even Duffer going as far as comparing her to his mother. Were it not for this, and her portrayal can still be interpreted as being more complex than I have stated,  the actions of Louis-Jack are not necessarily defined by his masculinity. He is just borderline insane or psychologically unstable; it is fitting that he is the one to mention insanity of the mind, which could also be used to describe the whole film both literally and in the fact that Duffer’s view of the world may not as cohesive as we see. Even when he starts drooling worms onto Duffer’s prone body to film it, it does not have to be interpreted as homosexual love as a sordid act – it feels more like a general depiction of a rotten and ill sexual relationship between two people regardless of their genders. It is from the forced sodomy scene onwards however where the viewer will be forced to ask themselves whether the film is homophobic or if what it shown on screen is much more complicated than what you see. The plot from here goes into Louis-Jack becoming obsessed with having a child, leading to a (male) pregnancy. The film is still admirable, but if you watch it, you will have to ponder what the filmmakers’ intentions were with it as you will have to provide your own answers to what the film’s portrayals signify.

To defend the film further though, its sexuality is clearly more complex before you were to interpret it. There is an ambiguity to the relationships, and the male pregnancy that takes places completely subverts gender; even if Louis-Jack has a complete hatred for women, his obsession with the creation of children, even to the point of using pregnancy tests on Duffer from old wives’ tales, means that he is obsessed with them at the same time. What could be a very homophobic depiction could be a very complex interpretation of masculinity and femininity, particularly with the issues of only one gender being able to conceive children within them. There is also the possibility that events within the film are not truly real. The plot itself undermines the reality Duffer portrays to us, but also the technical and artistic decisions of the film enforce it too. The postproduction synching of the sound adds to the ambiguity, as the dialogue of the characters is not only exaggerated in tone but also to what is shown on screen in terms of the emotions being registered by the actors. At times what is heard is far more heightened and/or violent sounding than what the interactions between the actors on screen show. The whole film may be inside Duffer’s head. There is also a possibility that Louis-Jack and ‘Your Gracie’ are not people but creations of Duffer’s mind; I was reminded of the terms ‘anima’ and ‘animus’, which suggest that an individual has both a feminine and masculine side to their subconscious, when the film gets to its ending. This could be the case for the main character, but with both sides actively against each other in terms of his sexuality, thus complicating the ideas and issues of the film.

Duffer is a fascinating discovery in terms of British cinema, an entity onto itself dug out by the BFI. It is not perfect; not only is there the contention of its depiction of sexuality, but for a film that is only seventy or so minutes long its final quarter is flabby compared to the rest of it. Nonetheless, this is a film worth seeing, and the BFI deserves praise for releasing it through their Flipside label. This is what the DVD format was designed for, to be able to blindly delve into films like this and find curiosities and gems, and Duffer was a great example of this for me.

Link to the BFI Store page for this film - Duffer (1971)

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Blissfully Yours (2002)

Dir: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

If there was one director’s filmography which, if you were to view as one single narrative, a single world created by the filmmaker, would intercut together and produce the most cohesive results, it would be that of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. In one area of Thailand, a hunter searches the jungles for a ghost tiger that may consume both his flesh and soul (Tropical Malady (2004)), while in the village of Nabua, in the north-eastern region of the country, six years later, a man named Uncle Boonmee is about to end his life, seeing his past lives while the forest area is populated by red eyed, wandering ghost monkeys. His use of duality and the disruption of conventions in cinema would allow his non-fiction work to co-exist with his fiction work as well; A Letter To Uncle Boonmee (2009), a short about Weerasethakul’s views on making Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) could exist in the same world as the fictional film itself. The spiritual landscape to almost all the films I’ve seen is a huge part of them but what is also significant to Weerasethakul is that the grounded, ‘real’ world itself is as much part of the supernatural and the fictional, a factor that would make it possible for his films to co-exist as one single entity (bear in mind too that A Letter To Uncle Boonmee and Uncle Boonmee... are both part of a multi-media project of the director’s called Primitive, which from what I been able to see and read of its materials is the same thing as I have talked about, blurring the real and fictitious in its attempt to portray the Nabua region). Blissfully Yours (2002) is both his most realistic film from what I have seen – give or take the need to rewatch Syndromes and A Century (2006) – and yet its presentation of ordinary human interaction is just as evocative as the ghost tigers and monkeys, presented in a way unexpected in film. Weerasethakul is able to place the fantastical into an ordinary world of his creation, and viser-versa, he makes scenes of minimal dialogue and small moments of interaction heightened like the supernatural moments.

Anyone reading this review will already have read the word ‘minimalistic’ and it needs to be emphasised for anyone who has not seen one of the director’s films that it is very different even to other ‘art’ films, with a much slower pace for its character study. It is minimalistic even compared to his other films. It may be described as the archetypal film about ‘nothing’, and yet not only is this an extremely dismissive phrase but completely misses the point of films like this – it is a film about ‘something’, the sexual and emotional relationships between two sets of characters. One is a young woman, Roong (Kanokporn Tongaram), and a Burmese immigrant with a severe skin condition called Min (Min Oo), who spend a deeply intimate rendezvous together picnicking in the rainforest, while the other is of an older woman Orn (Jenjira Jansuda) whose activities away from the other two end up connecting back to them. The film itself can be described as being split into two parts as well; up until Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, this narrative trait was common in the director’s work, until he decided to split the narratives strands of his work even further with Uncle Boonmee.... Here though, the split is not as drastic as in his later films – Tropical Malady could be seen as two short films which yet interlink in terms of the actors used and how they represent and contrast each other – and can be seen as the set-up for the film and the film itself. In fact, it is presented as an extensive pre-credit sequence that is almost forty or so minutes long and the film itself, a wonderful manipulation of the structure of films by Weerasethakul, which leads to the credits being played in the middle of the film as the young couple drives to the rainforest of the second half. It caused me to laugh in delight when this took place, but it makes far more sense for the director to have done this, than follow the convention of having them at the start, in the context of the film.

The first half, set in an urban town, is the set-up of the character relationships, the relationship between the young couple, the skin condition that the man Min has which is a minor aspect but is prominent in the story, that he is an illegal immigrant from Burma (given the film a political layer) and the fact that the older woman Orn is considering having another child. (It is subtly expressed that her first child died, a small piece of her background which Weerasethakul does not reference again in the film and yet has importance for her character, a great example of how he is as good with crafting his characters as well as the fantastical aspects of his work). The ‘pre-credit sequence’ also sets up the style of the film – unbroken sequences of characters talking or silent, and a vivid sense of the environment even if it is in cramped hospital rooms and government offices – that will make up the whole film, such as the prolonged moments in the hospital where Min has his skin condition checked by a female doctor. Everything in this part (as well as those in the second half) is engaging, with the small interactions between the actors on screen being as significant and important as a plot twist in a more mainstream films; what one has to concentrate on are the emotions and feelings felt between the characters, which is of much more importance than a narrative which is driven by events and act structures. The pre-credit sequence does not connect with the title of the film and its themes though. Set in a normal urban environment, the characters in the pre-credit sequence are not only having to face the everyday grievances most people have (doctor’s appointment, working shifts in low paying manual jobs), but are also surrounded by environments which, despite having some beauty to them if you view them from a different perspective, are daub and lifeless if you were to live in them for most your life. Weerasethakul, having grown up with parents who were both doctors, has admitted he likes the atmosphere inside hospitals, but it is clear that the depiction of the one in this film is aesthetically tedious on purpose, lacking any real sense of life or passion to it, the same as almost all the urban environments except for where the countryside has partially invaded it.

It is only when the characters get to the countryside when you are truly watching a film called ‘Blissfully Yours’. It is clearly set a real part of the Thai rainforests, but it is also a fantasy environment, heightened both visually and aurally, where one is able to escape everyday work and life and you are able to become more intimate and sexually active. The themes of intimacy and sex become centre stage as the three main characters spend their time away from their stressful urban environment.  It is absolutely striking how the rainforest environment looks on screen, incredibly colourful and exceptionally dense for a jungle depicted in a film. In a Jean-Luc Godard short called Lettre à Freddy Buache (1982), Godard comments about the tensions in filming the greens and the blues of a Swiss town called Lausanne, which he was originally supposed to make a film about to celebrate its 500th anniversary, suggesting that between the green trees and the blue sky the grey urban environment of manmade buildings would have been sandwiched between them and affected the quality of the film. This conundrum came to mind with Weerasethakul’s film as it literally plays out this issue, contrasting the grey urban environments with a rainforest of the deepest green foliage and the bluest skies you could see in contemporary cinema, distancing the tepid grey town environment with a passionate country one. The soundscape is just as important as the landscape as well; diegetic sound, that which is within the film’s ‘world’ itself instead of being played over scenes, especially in natural and countryside environments with a significant wildlife population, is an underrated and neglected artform in cinema, one which I feel is just as responsible in making certain contemporary films like those of Weerasethakul’s as affecting for viewers like me and for many film critics. The sounds of real life birds and insects add to the realism of the environment yet, paradoxically, it adds to its fantastical nature, creating a place far removed from the real urban world and adding to the unexpected atmosphere of the environment; one particular sound for me exemplifies this, what surely (must be?) a sound of an insect unique to Thailand and yet sounds like a circular saw, as if there is a sawing mill somewhere under the vast tree canopies. The fact that most of the interactions between the characters are silent, or with Orn by herself, means that the soundscape of the rainforest is prominent and significant, bringing a sense of depth and wonder to the place. Since sound is an artistic decision as well as a technical one, both the director and his film crew, especially Lee Chatametikool and Teekadet Vucharadhanin who, according to IMDB, were in charge of sound design, deserve applause for their decision to emphasis it and how it was constructed.

Within this second environment the characters interact – the young couple spend their time together having a picnic, finding an idyllic spot to sit and contemplate, while the older woman searches for her own intimate moment within distance to them. Very little, in terms of ‘multiplex’ cinema where there are momentous events from the world blowing up to characters simply arguing, happens but what is felt by the characters in each scene replaces it and is significant. This is taken even further by the fact that Min’s subconscious is shown to the viewer, both through monologues and also having drawings and writings by the character mark the screen itself, placed over what is seen at various times. It adds to the character events but also continues Weerasethakul’s breaking with conventions; it brings a charm to the film seeing Min’s drawings of women and men, with their sexuality very defined, on top of the real sexual and emotional interactions between the characters. Also of significance is, as mentioned continually, the role of sexuality. There is wariness in what I should say because the film is both very sexually explicit but also the sex only makes up a small fraction of the film. It is necessary for the film, shown in a naturalistic way which fits the film’s pace but also feels necessary for its ideas. The sex scene between Orn and a man she meets, one which stands out from many others – with some sadness because of its rarity – because of the older ages of the two actors involved, adds to the issues the character has and also is depicted in a way that is prolonged, to the point that it feels the two are actually having intimate sex on screen, thus emphasising what we know about Orn that was set up in the pre-credit sequence. The other sexual interactions are less potent in their context of the film’s slight narrative but add to the sensual relationships. They also vary in explicitness, with one shot behind the actors so that the mind imagines the sexual activity far more evocatively  than if one was to see it, and the other, the sight of a penis slowly becoming erect as it is being stroked, being showed in full detail. The later is at the centre of my issues with discussing the sexual content of the film, as it is probably the main driving force behind the issues of film classification and censorship that have taken place with this film. I have no idea how it was edited, but the fact that the sex scenes were edited out of the film in the director’s native country is disappointing. My biggest issue however is the 18 certificate - the highest rating outside of R18, the rating for pornography - this film has in the United Kingdom. On one hand I understand that the British Board of Film Classification, who rates films in my country for cinema and DVD release, have rated films as more adult for their sexual content consistently, but in this case it raises questions. The film has no violence, no swear words from what I can remember, and very little else objectionable, and yet because it has some sex scenes and a scene of an erect penis this film has an 18 certificate. Even the fact that, because it was being stroked by a hand, the scene is of real sexual activity being recorded on film doesn’t convince me. It is a complaint that has probably been made by many before me, in some way or another, but is the sight of an erect penis really more unsuitable for younger audiences than a gun being fired at someone?  I realise there may be a sub-par Freudian aspect to the comparison, which was intentional on my part, but the issue of sex and violence in film needs a much longer and separate article for me to even consider tackling it. Certainly in this case, the matter of fact nature of the moment, and the other sex scenes, seems far less offensive than a character getting a bullet in the head with a splash of CGI gore coming out of behind them.

The combination of these sexual scenes and the interactions seen in the second half open up the characters to the viewer but also emphasises another of the main themes of the film. As mentioned the rainforest is an escape for the characters, one which has to potential to be liberating, but by the end this is undermined, shown to be just a minor break from the difficulties of their everyday urban lives. The red ants in the rainforest become a metaphor for this, intervening in the young couple’s enjoyment by invading their picnic. It is very obvious – and for good reason, as whether it’s here in Britain or in this depiction of Thailand ants can be a nuisance when eating outdoors – but works perfectly for showing that the perfection and joy the couple feel will be short-lived. As for Orn, her personal issues about children play subtextually with what happens to her in the film. It is a very simple narrative behind the minimalist structure of the film, one which is masterfully crafted by Weerasethakul. Even though it is an earlier film by him, it feels rigorously straightforward, presented in the heightened visual and aural design in a way which increases its effect on the viewer and furthers the emphasis on the sensual, to the point that the film is sensual for said viewer as well. By the end of the film there is complete silence from the characters and yet the emotional connections between them can still be clearly seen; there are much more narratively complex and dialogue heavy films which fail to make the emotions tangible for the viewer, something which this film succeeds in far greatly. In terms of the director’s later films, it fits both with the natural and supernatural sides of his work as, discussed in the first paragraph or so of this essay, he conveys the normal world in a way through sensuality that is just as unearthly. (One example of this is when Orn finds a surgical mask in the forest and wears it; there is no explanation to why it is there or why she should wear it, and yet it both real and surreal at the same time, as it is not hard to believe that one could find such unexpected items dumped in the countryside and that you may be interested in picking them up). It also shows one of the many different angles Weerasethakul would take in depicting sexuality, especially with Tropical Malady as its two parts can be seen as two different interpretations of passion and love between men.

Blissfully Yours has the potential to top Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives as Weerasethakul’s most succinct and best film for me. It is an achievement; it is a small film in both of its themes and its budget, but it gives its characters and ‘slight’ narrative more significance than in most narratively complex works. Weerasethakul deserves his praise for both this and his later work as he is able to combine a thorough emotional connection to his work with a fantastic use of visuals and sound, turning areas of his native Thailand into hyper-sensual and hyper-aural environments, all of which is also used to add to the narratives and ideas within them. He stands up as a far better director than fellow filmmakers who have gained considerable praise since the last decade in that he is very much an ‘arthouse’ director, who makes very minimal, abstractly structured and slow paced works, and yet still emphasises the engagement the viewer can have to cinema by placing the viewer into his cinematic world, a combination of a real Thailand and a heightened version of it, far deeper than other directors have. It also deserves praise in that the idea shown in the film - of being able to briefly escape the dead ends of ordinary life, only to see that you will eventually have to return to it - is one of the best portrayals of this than in many other films I’ve seen. It is with this film, and his exceptional track record as a director, that I place Apichatpong Weerasethakul amongst the small list of directors, even if they made mistakes at times, I hold up as the best and most interesting from what I’ve seen of their work, both alive and deceased, the rising talents, the underrated or the canonised. That Weerasethakul is active and, riding the wave of success of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, getting even more recognition as a filmmaker gives me great hope that he continues making great films. There may be the danger that, at this critical point of his career, he may slip up in his work - I also need to re-evaluate Syndromes and A Century, which I felt cold to when I watched it for the first time as my first film of his - but hopefully he will be able to add more to the world that he has created, to add to the ghost monkeys and the character drama he made with Blissfully Yours. It would be interesting to see his return to this early film, of a small scale drama and to its sexual frankness, from an older perspective and possibly from new angles, which would be wonderful to see. I do not expect to see a sequel to this, although the idea of such a film happening considering the coda to this one, and the fact that he has never continued on from his older work yet, would be fascinating, just to see where he would take the characters of Roong, Min and Orn next when they face having to return back to everyday life. It is the perfect place to start such a continuation and the perfect place to end this review.