1.30pm: Richard Linklater Screen Talk
This is Richard Linklater's second ever appearance at the London Film Festival, and I'm rather chuffed to be able to boast that I was there at his first one: fifteen years ago, when he came over with his breakthrough movie Slacker. Now he's back again with Fast Food Nation: unfortunately, there's no discussion of the mass hysteria observed by Suze at last night's screening, and in fact very little discussion of his latest film at all. Linklater's career has had such a broad sweep that even in the ninety minutes of this interview (conducted, according to the programme notes, by The Sandra Hebron) only selected highlights are covered in any real detail.
Slacker is, of course, one of those highlights: an audience member suggests it's become a template for a particular approach to no-budget filmmaking. Prior to that, Linklater had developed an interest in film as a means of escape from his moderately responsible job in the Texas oil industry, and had made a number of shorts on Super-8 to teach himself the basics of the craft. ("I didn't go to film school... I didn't want people to tell me what was wrong with my films, I already knew that.") Slacker, however, was the first time he'd had to communicate his ideas to other people, like a cast and crew. He realised that in the end, directing was just like acting: you pretended to be in charge of these people, and hoped they believed you. Having friends in the cast rather than professional actors also made things easier, as he could get away with outrageous demands like scenes consisting of five minute long unbroken takes.
Slacker got bundled in with the whole Generation X/Nirvana/twentysomething vibe of the early nineties, and made enough steady money to attract the attention of Paramount, for whom he made Dazed And Confused. ("Studio production and an independent release - it's like the worst of both worlds...") After these two movies, people thought they had Linklater pegged: a director who made plotless, storyless films about aimless young people. He quickly shook off the 'spokesperson of a generation tag' ("I don't think filmmakers think about that sort of thing the way that writers do") and settled down to just tell stories, using whatever means seemed appropriate at the time.
The discussion takes in several of those stories; Waking Life, whose use of animation layered over live action gave Linklater the sort of look that suggests the wooziness of the dream state: Tape, a stage play turned DV movie suggested to the director by his good friend Ethan Hawke: and the diptych of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, which shows how he gets his best results from working closely with his actors. ("Some people think we improvised those movies on the spot. Try putting a camera on the two most interesting people you know and making a film out of it. Best of luck.")
The Sunday afternoon interview slot can sometimes feel like hangover corner, and Linklater does take a minute or two to get going (even with the compensation of the clocks going back the previous night). But once he gets going, he's entertainingly rambly: some of the answers may go on a little longer than is necessary, but he's always thoughtful and amusing with them. Now, if we're looking for other directors with massively diverse back catalogues for future Screen Talks, how about getting in Takashi Miike next year?
3.30pm: Sketches Of Frank Gehry
Director Sydney Pollack and architect Frank Gehry have been friends for several years now: so when the former makes a documentary about the latter, it's obviously not going to be especially critical. Sketches opens with a fascinating insight into Gehry's design process: after a rough tiny sketch of the building's form, he sits down with an assistant and they literally put a rough model together with cardboard and Sellotape, tearing bits off and sticking bits on until he gets a look he likes. Once that's agreed on, there's a continuous back-and-forth process, switching between physical and computer modelling to generate the wild curving forms that Gehry is notorious for.
For the most part, the film mainly consists of old friends Pollack and Gehry having a relaxed chat about their respective artforms. Pollack works in the massively commercial environment that is Hollywood, and struggles to find a small space within that environment where he can produce something that's artistically fulfilling. Gehry is having similar problems making huge artistic statements in public places, with the added complication that people have to be able to live and work inside them.
These entertaining chats are intercut with various talking heads: fellow architects, artists, critics, even Gehry's shrink. (The funniest material comes from artist Julian Schnabel, who does his interview in shades and a bathrobe and appears to be channelling The Dude from The Big Lebowski.) All of these are fans, with the exception of critic Hal Foster, who appears to be taking an anti-Gehry line purely because he thinks somebody has to. If there's a flaw with Sketches, it's in the lack of critical voices, particularly when you hear about Gehry's egoless approach to accepting criticism.
Still, as a study of the process by which an idea in someone's head turns into a physical building, it's done with the care and attention you'd expect from Pollack's feature film work. When he and Gehry discuss the importance of light falling on the finished structure, or how to make the new buildings fit in with the surrounding architecture, Pollack always ensures we have clear examples on screen to show what they mean. Pollack's aim was to make a film about architecture that the layman could enjoy: he's pulled it off.
8.30pm: Surprise Film: The Prestige
As in previous years, the Film Unlimited posse gather together in a secret location before the Surprise Film to guess at what it's going to be, and get drunk. FilmFan's Friend Who Is Never Wrong (who is always wrong) suggests Flushed Away, so we rule that out almost immediately. Good films on our list of possibles include Running With Scissors, Fur (which would have kept Suze happy), Flags Of Our Fathers and, yes, The Prestige. Bad films on our list include Jackass Number Two and Tenacious D In The Pick Of Destiny: in fact, was that DasBoot who shouted out during the pre-film audience guessing session "anything but Tenacious D"? Anyway, there's a palpable sigh of relief from the audience when the title comes on screen, and we discover that last year's Mrs Henderson Presents was just an ugly blip. (Meanwhile, across London, fifty other cinemas were showing a variety of alternative surprise films, but that seems to have been a bit less successful.)
The Prestige brings together Batman Begins director Christopher Nolan, his Batman Christian Bale, and (just for a bit of variety) Hugh 'Wolverine' Jackman in a story set in the late 1800s. Robert Angier (Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Bale) are two stage magicians, both of whom started their careers as assistants to another one. When one particular trick ends in tragedy, it's the start of an escalating feud between the two men, one that rapidly goes beyond the bounds of both decency and logic. Not only are they trying to outdo each other with their illusions, they're also out to cause each other actual physical harm.
This is Nolan (working from an original novel by Christopher Priest) returning to the territory of gameplaying and deception that he made his own with Memento. This film has an similarly intricate plot structure - part of the story unfolds through both men reading each other's diaries. And, as you'd expect from a film about illusionists and illusion, there are several surprises to be had, which is why I'll say no more about the story. Yes, you could argue that it gets very silly at times: there's at least one plot device that goes well beyond 'whimsical fantasy' and heads straight into the territory of 'utter bollocks'. But it's nicely acted, with the two leads getting solid support from Michael Caine, Scarlet Johannson and David Bowie (although it's unnerving to discover that Iman has been feeding Bowie some pies, and he now looks like Ricky Gervais). Leave all thoughts of believability at the door, open yourself up to the puzzles of the story, and you'll have a night out that's infinitely more fun than staring at Bob Hoskins' cock.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Cineaste - What a pleasant experience. This morning I was mildly cursing the BFI’s Venues Policy, fearing the worst and expecting to have to trudge out and slum it in some inaccessible, antediluvian little hell-hole of some out-of-the-way cinema - but No! I couldn’t have been more impressed on my first visit to the Tricycle cinema. A plush coffee bar, comfortable furniture, an airy modern auditorium – a terrific place. Well done to those responsible.
Gafla tells the story of one man who made a fortune – and then lost it (through fair means or foul?) – trading on Mumbai’s stock exchange. For those for whom Indian films follow a standard formula (rather predictable romantic story, plenty of song-and-dance routines), this was quite a departure from the norm. Although a romantic plot was inevitably linked in, the main plot was the phenomenal rise to success of the protagonist Subhod Mehta, and then the cunning plans of his competitors to bring him down. So we see him starting out, persuading one of the big stock-broking firms to offer him a humble job, how he learns the business, and then his ambitious plans to branch out on his own.
The film had its moments but somehow something seemed missing. The plot didn’t really flow in a logical manner – it jumped around at times, without following a logical thread. When the old-guard long-standing brokers realised that here was someone who was a serious threat to their business, they didn’t show enough reactive passion – anger, annoyance, indignation - at this young upstart treading on their territory. When you think of major financial centres, Mumbai isn’t really up there with e.g. London, New York or Tokyo, so the film needed some strong impact to make it convincing – which it didn’t have. Compared to other films covering this topic (Wall Street, Rogue Trader), the scenes on the stock exchange floor were far too subdued. Maybe it was a throwback to a more genteel style of film-making that Hollywood excesses have largely rendered extinct. On the credit side there were some good shots of the city, showing the hustle and bustle of an up-and-coming economy, and the romantic subplot was sympathetically handled as well.
For a debut film it was a reasonable effort and not without some commendable scenarios, but overall the whole somehow felt a little unconvincing and flat.
Buenos Aires 1977
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - Based on a true story, this is an account of the sort of thing that was happening in Argentina after the military coup in 1976. Thus any number of young men could find themselves being lifted off the streets by shady government security types, and then brutally tortured. With the immediate shock of that having passed, the four with whom this story is specifically concerned with are then moved to another torture house (somewhat resembling the Bates Motel), where the beatings are to be administered over a more leisurely time period.
Now I have yet to find a horror movie that I have ever really found to be scary. A film like this however is both very horrific and very scary, for the simple reason that it is of course true. What is also scary is that this sort of thing can't just easily be confined to Argentina, Pinochet's Chile, or even Nazi Germany (in other words history). Because the reality is that this goes on in our present day. We have all seen the pictures of Abu Graib and can imagine what goes on at Guantanamo Bay. Even worse however is that this is shown in a week where there is an ongoing legal case of alleged abuse by British soldiers against Iraqi prisoners, which involve beatings and eye gougings.
The film of course shows that the point of torture is not to extract information, but rather to intimidate, dominate and punish. Whether the victims know anything or not is purely incidental, when the ultimate objective is to terrorise those whose turn may come next.
How all this works as a film however I am not sure. We are told at the start that all the men survived and were able to testify against the military dictators when they were brought to trial in 1985. So some small recompense there. However the military generals are not carrying out the torture. This is done by low grade thugs, who clearly relish what they do. It would be nice to know what happened to them (more than likely nothing, as such people never have names). Which of course makes such unrelenting brutality very difficult to watch, when there is no real pay off. Nonetheless this is a film that one needs to watch, not just to remind one of the excesses of the Argentinian Junta, but rather what goes on in Iraq (as well as other places) in our present day.
The Cineaste - What an extraordinary film. Not necessarily a good one (and in fact I don’t think it is a good one) but it had some weird, wild and wacky moments to make you take notice.
“Five women in their early thirties meet for the first time in 14 years when they return to their small home town…..” When I read this review my first reaction was oh no, we’ll get some yucky emoting sisterhoodness of Hollywood proportions. But then I noticed the director’s Austrian, and thought it should be a mature, responsible and balanced approach. Well we didn’t get the yucky emoting, but what we did get was a bizarre, almost surreal series of events and situations that I just can’t fathom.
The five women meet at the funeral of one of their favourite teachers. And that’s about the only straightforward bit of the film. After that, it seems to fly off at tangents, rambling incoherently, with no obvious destination it’s heading for. The group of women seemed like an excuse to throw together some striking situations. So we get some tentative arguments (after a while it dawned on me that the lack of communication between all five women meant that they weren’t exactly the best of pals), a mix-up with a wedding party (the connection between the two parties I never did fathom), some exuberant bar scenes, a moody teenage daughter, all-night drinking, plenty of accompanying rock music, and some surreal twists to the plot at the end. Now if this makes it sound like a cracking good film, let me dispel that impression, it certainly wasn’t. There were long phases of nothing, the sparse dialogue never really flowed properly, there was no thread to most of these different scenarios, and most frustratingly of all was the (lack of) characterisation of the main characters. We find out very little detail about their backgrounds (the lack of communication didn’t help), and so the women themselves just came over as unconvincing. I started wondering what was it all leading to.
I can’t make my mind up whether it was a dreary nothingness or a slowly-fizzling pot-boiler. And the ending was wholly unsatisfactory, which I suppose was entirely in keeping with rest of the film.
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - One thing that has bugged me ever since I have been coming to these Surprise Films is that moment after the pre film teasing from Ms Hebron (no not the boots this time) when the title of the film comes up. Thus there is an immediate inhalation/exhalation, post orgasmic sigh/acknowledgement from the whole audience along the lines of: "Oh yes, of course, that's the one, I thought it would be that, excellent". This year however it got even more ludicrous when everyone burst into spontaneous applause. Yea well fuck off you lying bastards that's all I can say, because don't tell me anyone had been looking forward to seeing this.
So what is it that defines something as a British film these days? Is it who puts up the finance, where it was made, who is in it, who wrote it, who directed it? Well I don't care, because one way or another this is a British film, and thus like last year with that godawful Mrs Henderson rubbish, this slot is again being used to promote one.
Now this rival Victorian magicians, smoke and mirrors caper, isn't as bad as last year's effort. On the other hand it isn't all that good either. The twists in the plot are so heavily signposted that you would have to be a blind man not to see them coming. Not only that but the acting (with the exception of Michael Caine who can sleep walk a part like this) is some of the most wooden I have seen for a long time. A particular disappointment being Scarlett Johannson, who gives the impression of being an actress who has sold out on the promise she showed in Lost In Translation, in order to be this year's Miss Push Up Cleavage Girl.
Of course if I had known the cast list in advance I wouldn't have bothered. Because If I have one golden cinematic rule, it is that whenever you see the words Christian and Bale attached to a movie, and which doesn't include the words AMERICAN and PSYCHO, run like the wind in the opposite direction.
So yea bit of a disappointment really. Now if only it had been Casino Royale!