6.30pm: Scott Walker: 30 Century Man
A rare appearance by Spank's Pal Seapea at the LFF festivities today: but she's a longtime fan of Scott Walker, so there was no way that she wouldn't be here. A quick straw poll by director Stephen Kijak suggests that there's only one person in the entire NFT1 audience who isn't already a lover of Walker's music (and it's quite possible they were lying). One fan in front of us has even brought along his vinyl copy of Scott 3, presumably hoping that the man himself might make an appearance tonight. Which seems massively unlikely, given his reputation as a recluse. Mind you, it would seem equally unlikely that he would give a long revealing interview on camera, and yet such an interview is the centrepiece of Kijak's excellent documentary.
Walker's career spans over four decades, and 30 Century Man takes a measured approach to its various stages. The boy band days of the sixties, when Scott was already somewhat aloof compared with the rest of the band, and had more musically ambitious plans. The four classic solo albums, and the way fans mysteriously rejected him some time between the third and the fourth. The brief reformation of the Walker Brothers, and the Nite Flights album that heralded a new experimental phase in Scott's writing. And the present day, where Scott releases an album roughly once every eleven years, and it takes about ten years for the fans to catch up with what he's doing.
Inevitably, the documentary consists of a lot of talking head footage. Primarily it's of Scott Walker himself, who's a charming and perfectly normal guy, and actually looking a lot more comfortable than the space cadet he appears to be in sixties interviews. Many of the contemporary musicians who've been influenced by him also have things to say, from Lulu to Richard Hawley. Additionally, there are also interesting technical interjections from his recent collaborators: from arranger Brian Gascoigne (who explains how Walker's current music explores the queasy space between harmony and discord) and co-producer Peter Walsh (who describes the way Walker tries to keep the melody of his songs secret from the other musicians).
Where the documentary breaks new ground is in its use of listening heads to augment the talking heads. As I mentioned when discussing Love Story last week, it's sometimes easy for a film like this to forget that the music is paramount. Love Story foregrounded the music by using it as a continuous background: 30 Century Man has all of its interviewees actually listening to Walker tracks on camera, so we can see their reactions. Simon Raymonde of the Cocteau Twins nearly tears up on screen: Lulu displays a fascinating mixture of confusion and delight at a track from 1995's Tilt. Best of all, we watch percussionist Alasdair Malloy trying to simultaneously drink tea and listen to his work on latest album The Drift - specifically Clara, a song that required Malloy to punch a side of ham repeatedly.
If that last sentence comes as a surprise, then you've obviously not been listening to the wildly experimental detours that Walker has been going down over the last two decades. To help you with this, we get large portions of Walker's more recent tunes, accompanied by beautiful abstract animations courtesy of designers Tomato: frequently the lyrics are included as part of the visuals. (A line from new song Cossacks Are, "you could easily picture this in the current top ten," looms mockingly during one particular sequence.) All of these things come together to result in a brilliantly detailed depiction of the development of Walker's music. It's a long way from the pop crooning of the Sixties to the abstract chord structures and operatic recitative of his present day work: Kijak's achievement is to make that journey seem like the most logical thing in the world. 30 Century Man is getting a theatrical release in February 2007, as part of Kijak's plan to open the film out to more than just the Walker fans. If it turns up at your local cinema, it's a chance well worth taking.
9.15pm: This Is England
Glorious chaos at the Odeon West End tonight: a world premiere screening that has the director, producer and a dozen or so of the cast in attendance. It takes them all about five noisy minutes to find their way back from the stage to their seats so that the film can start, and they're all yelling to each other in the dark and cheering the director's credit. But as soon as the opening credits have finished, the whole room goes silent in expectation. It's already become apparent that Shane Meadows has managed to build a tight ensemble cast of youngsters for his latest work.
This Is England is England in the summer of 1983, and twelve-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) isn't looking forward to the holidays very much. His dad died in the Falklands war, and his mum buys him the sort of clothes that regularly get him picked on at school. It looks like he'll be spending the summer on his own: but a benevolent skinhead gang led by Woody (Joe Gilgun) takes pity on him, and they let him hang out with them. The summer becomes a idyll of smashing up derelict buildings, going to grown-up parties and snogging girls who look like Boy George. But the idyll can't last: when Combo (Stephen Graham) rejoins the gang after some time in prison, the dynamic of the group changes, and not for the better.
Something I hadn't realised until this film: Shane Meadows is superb at writing utter bastards. Until now, based on the evidence of A Room For Romeo Brass and Dead Man's Shoes, I'd assumed that his baddies were so strong because they were played by The Great Paddy Considine. But Combo is as magnetically horrible a character as the ones Considine played. Part of that is obviously down to Stephen Graham's no-holds-barred performance, but it's also down to the layers of complexity that Meadows gives him. He's almost impossible to pin down, veering between sentimentality and violence with virtually no warning: and he beautifully nails the classic contradiction at the heart of any right-wing skinhead - hating black people, but totally dependent on them for music and drugs.
The cast is excellent throughout - Thomas Turgoose in particular captures that twelve-year-old mixture of frustration and boredom so perfectly you're convinced it can't be acting - and Meadows gives them plenty of hilarious jokes and hair-raisingly dramatic moments to show them at their best. And as always, he has a killer touch with a soundtrack: the final moments, played out to a Clayhill cover of someone else's song, are an utterly beautiful piece of cinematic non-verbal storytelling. It's possibly Meadows' best film to date: it's almost certainly the best film at LFF 2006 so far.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Cineaste - Paul has moved from Paris to the countryside with his girlfriend. Only they soon separate, and Paul, depressed and moody, moves back to Paris, into the flat shared by his brother Jonathan and their grumpy dad. The film had a clever scene early on when Jonathan, who talks the film’s voiceover, speaks directly to camera to explain the set-up.
The main ”plot” then revolved around Jonathan trying to shake Paul out of his melancholy lethargy, trying to persuade him to come out socialising and to take an interest in other girls. Paul, who still feels miserable and unsociable, just wants to vegetate at home, and they argue. Paul, a serial womaniser, goes out socialising on his own.
Oh what a tedious bore it all was. The film completely failed to spark to life for me. The characters are largely unsympathetic, self-obsessed and selfish (and the two brothers both infantile as well). The dialogue meanders meaninglessly, with plenty of comment about nothing relevant – maybe director Christophe Honore was attempting something a la Godard, but if he was he’s failed miserably. The characters argue, bicker and sulk about nothing important, and very soon the film was a dreary, tiresome, monotonous bore. On the plus side there were some great shots along the Seine.
In his programme notes Jonathan Romney says that this was a big hit at Cannes this year, so I must be missing something. I’m totally happy to acknowledge a great film even if I don’t like it, but this certainly wasn’t a great film, and neither did it entertain, excite, challenge or amuse me. It was a long and laborious 92 minutes.
The Belated Birthday Girl - This highly entertaining film, set in the Mumbai stock market and inspired by the real life boom and bust scams, follows Subodh Mehta in his rise from young man with no money and big ideas, as he builds and loses reputation and fortunes. Although his entry onto the trading floor feels somewhat implausible, his "new kid on the block" status gives the script a useful method to introduce us, the audience, to the methods and processes of market manipulation and "bull" and "bear" runs. Subodh is ambitious and keen, believing both for himself and for small investors that the stock market could provide future wealth and prosperity, and he pursues enthusiastically his chimera of an ever ascending market, while other, older, bigger players make an keep their fortunes by engineering crashes.
The framing device of a journalistic article about Subodh and the scam allows the film to explain and comment on events, without too much artificiality, while the focus on individuals and relations brings added humanity to a story which raises questions about the ethics of those operating in the stock market, even those with "pure motives". We are also shown the real human cost of being a victim of such crashes, both to the big players exposed for their involvement, and the small investors losing everything they have. The performances and the shooting of the film are equally assured. Vinod Sharawat gives a fine performance as Vinod, and there are some nice shots of modern Mumbai.
The film ends on the standard stock market caveat that "investments are subject to market risks. Read the offer document carefully", and, to a great extent, that is the main message of the film. But that the message is delivered in such an entertaining package, rather than a simple piece of consumer advice, is Gafla's main achievement.
The Cineaste - This was a crafty noirish thriller set in Vienna. Sebastian and Alex are carefree 20-somethings with time on the hands and money to spend. To amuse themselves they spend their time roaming around the city, looking for innocent members of the public to play practical jokes on. Meanwhile, in a different part of the city, Pia is a teacher looking for romance, and through an internet dating site she makes contact with Sebastian, and meets him for a date. Meanwhile the plot is completed by a vulgar tramp, who rails against society, scrounges money for drink and often spends the night drunk on a park bench.
Now unfortunately for me the two young men sometimes came across as rather juvenile, and it was impossible to avoid making comparisons with the two dislikeable brothers I’d just seen in Dans Paris, so it was difficult for me to warm to their characters.
One evening (plenty of the film was shot in darkness), Sebastian and Alex play a practical joke which goes one step too far. Afterwards they find it hilariously funny, and so they can’t keep quiet about it. And by an unfortunate coincidence (for them), Pia gets to know about it, which is when things start to get very uneasy for the two lads.
This was clever and entertaining stuff. The plot progressed well, the dialogue was sharp, there were some humorous moments. There were plenty of scenic shots of Vienna by night, quite often under snow. The tramp’s character is rather intriguing (annoyingly I’ve forgotten his name) although I don’t think wholly believable – he’s an obviously educated man who’s fallen on hard times, he writes poetry and tries his best to sell it on the streets.
The plot unravelled well, and unpredictably. A commendable film, but I just can’t bring myself to make an unreserved endorsement of it because of those two young men.
The Belated Birthday Girl - Sebastian is a jerk. Independently wealthy, with no apparent need to work for a living, and no desire to do anything useful, he passes his time arranging dates via Internet chat rooms, so that he can sneak photos of women's knickers under the table with his mobile phone, or playing pranks with the help of his student roommate, Alex, while passing the time "slumming" in low-rent bars and arcades. Kallmann is a bum. He's the kind of drunk who you'd cross the street or change train carriages to avoid: unkempt, unwashed, constantly mumbling to himself (possibly schizophrenic), trying to sell his poems on the streets of Vienna, loudly abusing passers by, even on occasion mugging tourists to get money for booze. When Kallmann gets completely legless and falls unconscious on a bench by the train station, Sebastian and Alex find him there and Sebastian decides it will be a fun prank to move him to another bench outside another train station - across the Czech border.
Pia is one of Sebastian's Internet dates. A school-teacher who talks nineteen to the dozen, something about her sparked Sebastian's interest more than usually. But when she finds out about the prank with Kallmann, she decides to set off to get him back.
The director Michael Glawogger made last LFF's Grierson-winning documentary Workingman's Death, and although I liked rather than loved that film, I was curious to see what Glawogger did with a fiction feature. As it turns out, Slumming is a terrific film, filled with layered, nuanced characters, wonderfully played, with a particularly fine and sympathetic performance from Paulus Manker as Kallmann, showing the complexity of this character as he makes decisions for his future. All the central characters have their journeys, both literal and metaphorical, to make, but there are no easy resolutions and much is left open. The script is excellent: touching, filled with humanity and warmth, but in no way sentimental, and often very funny. The look of the film is also great, with some terrific shots and images, and all these elements combine to make Slumming one of the highlights of this year's festival for me.