It's a happy coincidence that I bump into FilmFan while I'm buying my ticket for Offscreen, given that he's the acknowledged inventor of the word Spallness. Spallness is his adjective for the particular quality associated with films that have a fat slobbish leading character, one with a streak of either sentimentality or unpleasantness even wider than they are. Up until now, I suspect FilmFan would tell you that Spallness is generally exclusive to the films of Timothy Spall. But now, actor Nicolas Bro is putting in a serious bid to introduce that quality to Danish cinema. I mean, just look at that photo over there.
In a Blair Witch-style setup - and it's been several years since we last had one of those, so we'll let them off this time - Offscreen has been assembled by director Christoffer Boe from footage left behind after Nicolas Bro's mysterious disappearance. Bro has decided to carry a video camera around with him for a year, obsessively recording everything that happens to him, with a vague plan to make a film about love. Unfortunately, he's chosen to do this around the time that his girlfriend Lena Maria Christensen is losing interest in him. The additional strain of being followed around by a camera pushes their relationship to breaking point: a cycle of events that will repeat itself in other areas of Bro's life as the year goes on.
This is all made up, of course, and you could take issue with how quickly Bro picks up the basics of cinematic craft: changing the angle of his single camera every few seconds to give Christoffer Boe some visual interest to work with in the cutting room. (Think about this too much, of course, and you could end up as mental as Bro becomes.) What's more of a concern is the pacing of Bro's disintegration: initially, you think that the character loses his marbles far too quickly. However, that underestimates the talents of the lead actor, who has whole reservoirs of Bad Craziness he hasn't even begun to tap at that point. It's not all brooding intensity: there's a hilarious midsection where Bro attempts to remake the movie of his life with an alternative actress, Trine Dyrholm. But once that fails, his final descent into hell is too rapid and too deep to remain credible.
Nevertheless, as an experiment in first-person filmmaking that has some interesting things to say about the way people behave on both sides of the camera, Offscreen is definitely worth watching: if nothing else, for Nicolas Bro's full-throttle, unrestrained performance. But be warned, the Spallness is strong in this one.
4.15pm: Distant Voices, Still Lives
"You always remember where you were the first time you saw this film," says the LFF's Helen de Witt in her introduction. Putting aside my terror at the Treasures From The Archive section now including films that I saw on their initial release, she has a point. It was autumn 1988, and I was in Bristol on business for the week: the options for the evening were to either vegetate in the hotel, or go out to a movie. Thankfully, Bristol has a rather splendid collection of arthouse cinemas, and I saw Terence Davies' movie at the Watershed. Unfortunately, my abiding memory of the screening is that it was chock full of students who'd just arrived in town for the beginning of term, and were exploiting the Watershed's student discount to the full. And I clearly remember one girl turning to her mate at the end of the film and asking, "so do working class people sing all the time, then?"
This is what happens when you abolish student grants.
Suze regularly rants here about the presentation of working class life in the LFF, and the way that the audience is invariably made up of middle class tourists looking for the proverbial cheap holiday in other people's misery. And he's certainly got a point, one which could frequently be aimed at the filmmakers themselves too. But Davies' films about his childhood in fifties Liverpool have the ring of utter truth about them, even if you grew up in a totally different era. My parents came from roughly the same generation as Davies, so some of my own childhood memories feel like hand-me-downs of the things depicted here: and yes, they include the way people used to burst into song at parties and pubs. (Although one of the saddest things to note is that the last line heard in the movie is someone at a party saying "oh, let's put a record on": the end of an era.)
These are effectively two short films that share the same cast. Distant Voices is based around the Davies family's preparations for the wedding of daughter Eileen (Angela Walsh). Her siblings Tony (Dean Williams) and Maisie (Lorraine Ashbourne) take this as the opportunity to think back to their childhood: and a key factor of their memories is the atrocious treatment of their mother (Freda Dowie) at the hands of their late father (Pete Postlethwaite). Still Lives takes place a few years later, and is a more conventional depiction of the family's lives as Maisie's first child is baptised.
It's years since I last watched Distant Voices, Still Lives, and it looks like I've been suffering some sort of repressed memory syndrome concerning the film: I remembered all the heart-warming, sentimental episodes, but had completely forgotten what an utter bastard Pete Postlethwaite is. Having said that, the father is certainly more than just a cartoon monster: he's given several scenes of tenderness and affection towards his family. It's typical of the generosity Davies shows towards all his characters, even when it's a character based on his real-life abusive father.
The other thing this restored print reminds us is what an extraordinary visual stylist Davies is. You can't sum him up as 'the guy who does this', because this covers such a wide range of effects. The way the narrative leaps freely though time in the first half, the same way that memory does, even within a single shot: the Love Is A Many Splendoured Thing sequence, where an astonishing image suddenly appears out of nowhere and isn't explained for several minutes: the long track along Davies' street that introduces a flashback to a family Christmas, a sequence that still tears me up to this day.
This restoration is in preparation for a full-blown Terence Davies retrospective at the NFT in February 2007, which will also include a cleaned-up version of The Trilogy, his collection of three bleak shorts exploring his sexuality. If you're lucky, the retrospective will give you the chance to see Davies on stage: as the Q&A after this screening demonstrates, he's an engaging and hilarious presence. I'll share with you his lovely anecdote about the great Ealing director Alexander Mackendrick, who saw a rough cut of one of the Trilogy films. "It's a gay film, isn't it?" he was asked, to which Mackendrick replied "Not at the moment..."
9.00pm: The Bridge
In 2004, 24 people jumped to their deaths from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Director Eric Steel set up a camera crew by the bridge and filmed 23 of them. Where possible, he talked to the relatives and friends of the deceased, trying to find out about what drove them to it. He also interviewed tourists who suddenly became eyewitnesses, people who managed to prevent some of the suicides from happening, and one extraordinary man who survived the jump.
In cold print, this looks like a very very bad idea. Trust me, it isn't. This is an extraordinarily sensitive study of mental illness, and how it affects not only the victims, but those close to them. You try to find some sort of connection between all these people, but the only one they have is the manner of their death. The interviewees have an extraordinary range of reactions: some of them were almost resigned to what would happen by the time their loved ones took that walk along the bridge, some of them are still pondering the 'if only' moments that could have stopped it happening, others refuse to believe it was suicide at all. It's surprising just how detached some of the interviewees are when they describe the events of the day: the survivor is an astonishing case in point, but there's also a photographer who found himself torn between getting an interesting shot of a girl falling to her death, and stopping it from happening.
Which is, of course, the key moral dilemma at the heart of The Bridge, because the people who made it found themselves in that same situation 23 times. Although it's never made clear in the film itself, the crew was in constant radio contact with the bridge authorities, and always notified them whenever anyone was visible through their telephoto lenses who looked like a potential jumper. There are at least six suicides that didn't happen as a result of the crew's actions. Which leaves the question of whether we should see the ones that they couldn't stop, and in the end I'd have to say yes: because the film is surprisingly free of the over-the-top emotional outbursts you might expect, you need to be reminded once in a while of the horrors that are actually being calmly talked about.
The explicit message at the heart of The Bridge is that, possibly, all of these deaths could have been prevented with better care for the victims of mental illness. The implicit message is that, given that the Golden Gate Bridge has been the site of more suicides than any other location on the planet, something could be done about making it more difficult for people to jump from it: though apparently, the bridge authorities think that would be uneconomic. It's probably best to treat it as a harsh but unsensational lesson on how we should all be looking after each other more.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Born And Bred
The Cineaste - This was a wonderful slow-burning pot-boiler of a film, with the tension mounting up gradually throughout the film which kept me wondering what was going to happen.
Director Pablo Trapero looks at the dramatic consequences of a car crash on a very happy and comfortable family, Santi’s [the husband’s] situation becoming diametrically changed. From being a successful, contented, city sophisticate, he ends up working in an extremely remote, isolated, small community. He’s lost contact with his wife and daughter, but can he get back in contact with them? Does he want to?
Trapero’s film is a wonderful study of the routine, repetitiveness and lack of variety in such a rural location. The only jobs seem to be hunting for game and selling it on, or working in the airport where flights seem to be cancelled more often than they run. Here any event assumes news of epic proportions – the impending fatherhood of one of Santi’s new friends, the death of the wife of one of the regulars in the bar. Boredom is kept at arm’s length – just about – by drink and camaraderie in the settlement’s only bar. The photography of the bleak landscape is breathtaking. There’s some clever use of classical guitar music – sparsely, since most of the time there’s no accompaniment.
Overall the film holds attention well and keeps the interest level up. The denouement was perhaps a little weak and/or contrived, but there were enough pluses about this film to make it a very creditable effort.
The Journals Of Knud Rasmussen
The Belated Birthday Girl - In the early part of the 20th Century, the Inuit peoples first began to encounter white people, and Christianity, and this was to have a profound effect on their way of life. Knud Rasmaussen was a Danish anthropologist who travelled at this pivotal time, documenting Inuit beliefs, practices and songs, and this film relates and dramatises stories and events from his journals: focussing on Avva, the last great Inuit shaman, and his daughter Apak, who narrates much of the film, and whose personal story, unfolding over the course of the film, crystallises the dilemmas facing her people.
The filmmakers' greatest resources here are the faces of the Inuit cast, and the camera spends much of the time in tight close-up, in the almost sepia fire-light inside the igloos. The film is strongest when retelling the stories of the Inuit, tales of helper spirits and shamanistic rituals and taboos, weakest when dramatising the events driving the narrative forward. For me the dialogue was too stagey and deliberate, the emotions too internal: these were traumatic events which would change these lives forever, and I rarely felt that. But there were many arresting visuals, and overall it was a fascinating look at events and a culture with which I am completely unfamiliar, and as such definitely worth seeing.
The U.S. Versus John Lennon
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - I was thinking recently what were the most influential (on me) books that I have ever read in my life. Well it comes down to two: the first was The Complete Book of Running by Jim Fixx which I read in the early Eighties. The effect was to transform me from a chain smoking and trainee drinking slob, into an athlete. The other was The John Lennon Story (by god knows who, I am sure there have been plenty of versions) which I read in the early to mid Seventies, which kind of opened a consciousness beyond being an aspirational football hooligan. Subsequently from reading that book I purchased every Beatles album, four of Lennon's solo albums, and (bless) the triple Wings Over America. Not to mention gobbling up every bit of Beatles memorabilia I could lay my hands on. Once Punk happened about 18 months later I never listened to or looked at any of it again for about five years (such is the tribalism of young peoples' musical tastes). My point being however, me and John Lennon go back a long way.
Anyway The U.S. vs John Lennon is not the John Lennon story, but instead covers the period post Beatles split in 1970 to mid 70s, when Lennon was resident in New York City. This being a period when Lennon did his incredible solo work, and also when he adopted every radical cause and stance he could lay his spectacles on. Now the gist of this movie is that Lennon was such a major thorn in the side of the American Government at the time, that a whole series of gangsters ranging from President Nixon to J Edgar Hoover spent every waking minute trying to find a way to deport him or worse, lest he spoil the whole Vietnam jamboree (plus assorted other things they liked to do, such as imprison people for smoking joints or being Black). Well alright then man, far out, that's really heavy shit and that.
I do wonder really how much actual talent it takes to direct a simple cut and paste job like this. After all there is nothing here (of Lennon anyway) that isn't in the vastly superior documentary Imagine. Alright we have assorted talking heads ranging from Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, Tariq Ali etc. But you know, I just wouldn't imagine it is all that difficult to get an interview with these guys nowadays, what with them telling us all how much they and it mattered way back then.
So let's move onto Lennon. One thing (not mentioned here, but I know from other material) - Brian Epstein continually emphasised to The Beatles that they must never ever comment on, or respond to, questions on Vietnam. To do so would be career suicide in America for them. However once Lennon was free of the restraints of both, he could be as anti-war, and pro left wing radical causes, as much as he felt like. As such he used the still Beatles obsessed media to gain publicity with a variety of (now) bizarre stunts, while those perpetrators of 'The (so called) Revolution' used him to get publicity for themselves.
My problem however is, I just don't buy into the importance accorded to Lennon's stunts, friends and political views by the American government that this documentary suggests. Sure the FBI had a file on him, but also on tens of thousands of other draft dodgers, radicals and students of the day. As for the attempt to deport him, well one of the old gangsters G. Gordon Liddy does make sense when he implies that if you are a guest of another country (who are then at war), and spend all your time slagging that country's government off (such as accusing them of murder), don't be surprised if they explore what avenues might be open to kicking you out (ask Abu Hamza).
So frankly I don't think there is much here, and that in the bigger scheme of things Lennon was considered no more than a disrespectful song and dance man by the US government. Thirty years back this might have been seen as cutting edge stuff. Now, however, it is just a lazy and over-inflated version of history for both ageing hippies and the VH1 generation.