Spank's LFF Diary, Thursday 19/10/2006
Spank's LFF Diary, Saturday 21/10/2006

Spank's LFF Diary, Friday 20/10/2006

Reviewed today: Black Gold, The Boss Of It All, Fimfarum 2.

The Boss Of It All 6.00pm: The Boss Of It All

There are things which make The Belated Birthday Girl emit actual physical waves of hatred. I first noticed it a few years ago when I saw The Polyphonic Spree with her: I was bobbing about in my seat having a great time, but even without looking at her I could feel her utter loathing for their work. Over time, I've found that the cinema of Lars von Trier has a similar effect: I remember seeing the trailer for Dogville with her a few years ago, and its final shot of a smirking Lars generated a reaction that actually made all the exit lights in the cinema blow out. And if we're looking for a third thing to add to the list (because lists of three items are funnier), we could possible settle on the idea of farce. Whenever we watch, say, Curb Your Enthusiasm, her main complaint is always "if all this is caused by people misunderstanding each other, why can't they just say something and sort it out?"

When The BBG found out that the new Lars von Trier film was showing at this year's LFF, she happily went about finding something else to see in that timeslot. Good thing too: because, although it wasn't immediately apparent from the programme synopsis, The Boss Of It All is actually a proper old-fashioned farce, with all the plot contrivances that she hates. If she had gone to see this, and von Trier had decided at one point to jolly things along with some Polyphonic Spree on the soundtrack, the resulting manga-style blast wave could probably have taken out most of Central London.

I'm kind of ambivalent about von Trier: on the one hand I know he's produced some breathtaking moments of pure cinema, but on the other he made what I still consider to be the worst film of the nineties. I can see how his urge to provoke audiences can irritate people like The BBG, but it always strikes me as the provocation of a man with an impish sense of humour, rather than the po-faced adolescent shocks of a Bruno Dumont. Annoyingly, I missed part of the opening scene of the film because, for the first time in LFF history, the screening started five minutes early. When I told The BBG this, she said "oh, that's probably one of Lars' little jokes too..."

Suze described the setup yesterday, which is handy because most of that setup seems to have taken place in the opening few minutes that I missed. Ravn (Peter Gantzler) is the ineffectual boss of a small IT company, who's used the made-up figure of a faraway 'boss of it all' to justify any decision that's unpopular with the workforce. When he decides to sell up, he needs someone to act as the boss at the contract signing, and hires the actor Kristoffer (Jens Albinus) to take on the role. Inevitably, Kristoffer ends up having to play the boss for several days, dealing not only with the contract negotiations but also with the workers who'll be affected by the sale. He can't tell anyone about the deception because of a huge set of non-disclosure agreements that Ravn has made him sign: which I think is funny because it shows that von Trier has considered The BBG's objections to farce and found a way round them, though I'd imagine that would just annoy her even more.

The surprising thing about The Boss Of It All is how traditional a comedy it is, playing with all the power relationships within office life to hilarious effect. (And, in the process, reminding me how my New Moderately Responsible Job In The Computer Industry doesn't involve any of the office politics that my old one did, and how utterly fabulous that is.) Comparisons will inevitably be made with The Office, particularly as von Trier's comedy is also one of embarrassment. But as The Five Obstructions showed, when von Trier throws people into embarrassing situations, he makes sure they have at least a fighting chance of getting out of them: and the comedy arises from their efforts to succeed, rather than from their failure. (There's a thesis to be written comparing von Trier's treatment of his comic heroes with his treatment of, say, all women: but not here.)

There are only two examples of the traditional von Trier wind-up on display in The Boss Of It All. One is the series of po-mo appearances he makes himself during the film, assuring us that it's just a piece of fluff we don't need to take seriously: the other is his use of the Automavision filming process, in which the camera positions are (so he says) chosen at random and edited together with no consideration for continuity. The latter has an interesting effect on the comedy: whereas, say, Gaspar Noe's use of the 'gun-shot zoom' in I Stand Alone left the viewer in a permanent state of panic throughout the film,  here the repeated jumpcuts produce an effect of mild confusion that somehow points up the jokes even more. And there are a lot of jokes: underneath the random camera angles hides a splendid comedy with engaging characters, narrative surprises, and a happy ending. Well, maybe. This is von Trier, after all.

Fimfarum 2 8.45pm: Fimfarum 2

We have Fimfarumed before, as you may remember: Jan Werich's Fimfarum played at the LFF in 2003, and this is a sequel. Both films have the same format - a series of animated shorts by assorted directors, based on the quirky folk tales written and read by the late Werich back in the seventies. Werich's stories are as dark as the best of the old tales, and then just that little bit darker: death, madness, mutilation and devil worship are all recurring themes, along with the sort of black and white morality that ensures badness is punished to the fullest degree. Just the sort of thing the kids would love, of course. Sadly, neither of the Fimfarum films shows any sign of getting released in the UK: presumably distributors realise that Werich's homely Czech narration is a large part of the appeal, and would be the first thing to go in a child-friendly English dub.

Still, that means all the more fun to be had by us grownups. The four shorts in this collection (by directors  Jan Balej, Vlasta Pospíšilová, Aurel Klimt and Břetislav Pojar) have an overall consistency in style, but each one has its own unique design quirks. As in the first film, 2D animation occasionally breaks up the use of 3D models - in the first film it was reserved for dream sequences, but here it's mainly used for large-scale sequences where models would be too expensive. In one or two cases, there's a splendid compromise reached when photos of the 3D models are animated over hand-drawn backgrounds.

The first film, The Sea, Uncle, Why Is It Salty?, kind of shoots its wad in the title - once you know that the story involves the devil, a magic grinder that can grind out anything your heart desires, and a pair of good and bad brothers, you could probably take a stab at writing the story for yourself. But as with all of these tales, the journey is the point, rather than the destination. Three Sisters And One Ring has the sisters of the title heaping humiliations upon their husbands for a bet, and contains some of the most gloriously wanton cruelty I've ever seen in what's theoretically a children's film. ("No, you were supposed to pull out the other tooth...") The Hunchbacks Of Damascus is the darkest of the stories, because its intricately constructed pileup of treachery and murder isn't leavened by the mischevious tone of the previous episode. The final tale is the old favourite of Tom Thumb, which is played relatively straight and for slightly too long: the familiarity of the story makes it drag a little compared with the surprises of the previous three. But as is the case throughout, the visual style and elegance of Werich's storytelling carries it through.

Notes From Spank's Pals

Black Gold

The Belated Birthday Girl - Marc and Nick Francis's documentary about the coffee industry is a frustrating film, which seems merely content to show the problem of the poverty of the coffee producers, and the vast disparity between the money they receive for their crops and the price we in the West pay for a cup, only hinting at the causes, unwilling to dig deeper and join the dots.  Whether this is due to caution in the face of powerful and potentially litigious corporations who they don't want overly to offend, or whether it is just because they feel all they need to do is show people the truth, and it will be understood, I cannot really say (although statements on the official web-site would imply they would themselves say it was the latter). 

We are told that there are 4 major companies - Kraft, Nestle, Procter & Gamble and Sara Lee - who account for most of the global coffee trade.  We are shown the trading floor in New York, and how it sets the world maket price, and told about the use of coffee futures to hedge the risks.  We follow Tadesse Meskela, who is trying to reduce the chain of middlemen (totalling 6 links between producer and consumer, we are told), in order to get more of the money we spend on a cup of coffee into the hands of the desperately poor Ethiopian coffee producers his co-operative union represents.  We are shown warehouses with sacks of coffee going unsold because the price is too low to make it worth selling.  And we are shown the collapse of the WTO talks in rancour because of the refusal to focus on the issues of fair trade which developing countries want addressed.

But we aren't given any detailed explanation of how the price hikes up from the pittance the producers receive to the sum we end-consumers spend, and when asked for a breakdown in the Q&A afterwards, the filmmakers had no idea, didn't seem to have even considered this - to me - fundamental question.  The mention of the big 4 companies could be to suggest some sort of cartel, but no accusation was made, nor any evidence brought to suggest any such accusation could be made.  As though the facts of the poverty of the producers and the affluence of the consumers were enough in itself to throw up manifest truths.

Black Gold was well made, obviously well intentioned, definitely highlighted a real problem, and maybe will make people (including me) look a little more at the source of the commodities we buy, look for fair trade and more direct connection back to the producers.  It was informative, often heart-breaking, at other times very funny, and is definitely worth seeing.  But somehow it seemed to me that it just could have been more, with a broader remit, more detailed research, and perhaps a little more courage.

Suzanne Vega Fanclub - "Chinatown (New York), that's the place to come for the good Big Macs." Whoops I'm on the wrong film, so let's start again.

Black Gold is a well meaning and rather simplistic exploration of the global Coffee industry in general (with Coffee as the second highest dollar traded commodity), and the Ethiopian Coffee industry in particular. The main gist being there is something wrong with a world where Coffee is sold for $2.90 a cup in the West, but where the producers only get around $0.12 (or as it said in the review in my free LFF copy of The Times, sold for £2 a cup here, out of which the producer gets 2p). So as that great economist Bill Hicks once said: "let's look at those numbers again, they are a little hard to understand at first".
Well having just come through the door, and made myself a cup of Nescafe instant out of a jar costing £1.99, from which I can probably get another 30 cups, I must admit I am having trouble with the figures. No, no I hear you say, they mean Starbucks, what's the matter with you? Well yea okay, I do believe there is something wrong with a world where Western Coffee drinkers can be ripped off in this fashion, but what are the producers advocating, higher or lower prices at Starbucks? Which one will help the Ethiopian coffee producers more? Yet even then I am still having trouble with the numbers, because I don't know about you, but when I go into Starbucks, I am paying my £2 or £3 for somewhere to sit down and kill a bit of time. I mean don't tell me you're paying up because you like that foamy swill they call Coffee? See what I mean by simplistic, well maybe not.
Anyway Black Gold follows Tadesse, a man dedicated to getting a fair price to the coffee producers in Ethiopia, as he meets various people involved in the different stages of the industry. Most importantly we find that it is a rigged market with only a single local buyer setting the price for producers (sure but that's no different than for UK dairy farmers, all of whom are being forced out of that industry by the single loss making price set by UK supermarkets). You see the real point here, which the film skits over (but came out much better in the post film Q&A) is that this is all down to the evils of globalisation. Thus a global financial rationality to produce everything at the cheapest price possible, inevitably creates single commodity economies. Well that's probably alright if your commodity is Oil, however if your commodity is Coffee (where there is worldwide overcapacity in the industry), then at a macro and micro level you are always going to be at the mercy of the commodity exchanges and markets.
So who is to blame then, Starbucks? Yea they'll do, no hang on a minute Tadesse just said in The Times they are now paying the Ethiopian producers above Fair Trade Coffee prices. Well it must be you and me then. Perhaps, I mean after all if we see Fair Trade Coffee on the shelf at Tesco's, and the equivalent a quid or more cheaper, be honest which one do you put in your trolley? Thankfully some of the Ethiopian farmers have started to wise up, and instead of producing more Coffee for an ever decreasing price, they have now started to produce the illegal stimulant Chat instead (I hope that is sold for a Fair Trade price in Shepherds Bush).
For myself if I blame anyone it is Michael Moore; going round giving people the idea that anyone can make money out of a documentary and then get it on the big screen (I mean two brothers from Brighton making a documentary on the Ethiopian Coffee industry, come on). At least Morgan Spurlock balanced his documentary by implying that we all know McDonalds is shit, but enjoy eating it anyway. Black Gold on the other hand looks for corporate scapegoats because it makes us as individuals feel better about ourselves, whereas the real villains of globalisation are consumers just like you and me.


Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)