Reviewed today: The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Brand Upon The Brain!, The Cool School, Does Your Soul Have A Cold?, Everybody's Business & The Woman's Portion, La Zona.
1.30pm: Everybody's Business & The Woman's Portion
Here's a suggestion if there's anyone reading this from the Festival staff. Thanks to Clyde Jeavons and his excellent curatorship of the Festival's Treasures From The Archive section, you've got a number of screenings of silent films, which will be accompanied by one of your resident pianists, as this one was. How about this: when you play the LFF trailer at the start of the programme, why not turn the sound down and get the pianist to play the themes from 2001, The Sting, The One With The Pizza Hut Reference and so on along with it? They'd get a guaranteed standing ovation from the audience at the end. Trust me on this one.
Anyhoo, this is the first of the archive programmes we're catching this year, and it consists of First World War era films supplied by the good people at the Imperial War Museum, who run one of the oldest film archives ever. The programme consists of two shorts and two featurettes, most of which fall under the heading of war propaganda, though as we'll see the last one is slightly problematic. All of them have interesting things to say about social attitudes of the time, and to discuss them properly I'll need to go into more detail than usual about the plot. So if you don't want to have the endings of these ninety-year-old movies spoiled, you may want to skip to the next section.
The two opening shorts (silent but accompanied by live piano) possibly work better than the featurettes because of their brevity. The Secret is a two-minuter covering one method for getting around the restrictions of food rationing, and impossible to describe any further without throwing in a smutty reference to 'big dumplings'. Meanwhile, The U-Tube - and you can imagine the giggles they had in the LFF office when they programmed that one - is a cartoon concerning the Kaiser's plan to drill a secret tunnel from Berlin to Birmingham, and the amusing chaos that emerges when the crew's Iron Crosses mess up the digger's compass.
The first of the two main films, Everybody's Business, is the weakest of the ones in the programme, simply because it's pure propaganda with no real attempt at entertainment (beyond the casting of several big star names of the period). Its sole purpose is to persuade the upper classes that preserving national food supplies is not just the responsibility of the plebs. So we see a rural landowner having a dream about Britain winning the war, and being inspired by that to tell his family and servants to stop wasting food. (Nothing about him giving up anything, you understand.) It's fun looking at the various stereotypes at play throughout the film, particularly the ghastly way in which the lower orders downstairs drop all their aitches and gees in their intertitles.
But the last film in the programme, The Woman's Problem, is the most fascinating of the four: mainly because it's impossible to work out why it was made. David Walsh from the Imperial War Museum suspects that this film was never screened during wartime, because of its rather contentious plot. To summarise, it goes like this: a woman receives a telegram telling her that her husband, currently out battling the Hun (it would appear from all four of these films that that's the official term), has been killed in action. She takes a grief-stricken nap, and awakes to find her husband in the room with her: it transpires that he's faked his own death so he can desert his post. She then takes another nap and wakes up again to find her husband in the room with her: he assures her she's just been dreaming, and the death notice she received is a cunning ruse to fool the Germans into thinking they're winning.
Here's the funny thing: the suspicion is that the film was suppressed because it suggests that the British Army was faking the death of soldiers for propaganda purposes. But I'd like to imagine that with our increased knowledge of the nature of the subconscious and our experience of the last few David Lynch movies, what's actually happened is that the husband really has deserted, and his tormented wife is currently in a dream state where she imagines the more socially acceptable explanation for his reported death. Is that so wrong? Don't answer that.
3.30pm: The Cool School
Last year's LFF was a magnificent one for documentaries, which makes it surprising that it's taken four days to catch my first one of the year. A very good one, though, from director Morgan Neville, whose Muddy Waters documentary closed my Festival back in 2002.
The Cool School looks at the Los Angeles art scene in the fifties and sixties. As far as American art goes, New York has always been the centre of attention, and the West Coast was generally ignored apart from a couple of contemporary artists in San Francisco. That all changed with the arrival of entrepreneur Walter Hopps, who took it upon himself to create a Los Angeles arts scene from scratch. He worked out the five key elements he needed - artists, galleries, an audience of collectors, museums for archiving, and decent critics - and systematically created each of them one at a time. His main influence was in the creation of the Ferus gallery, which attracted a hard core of Abstract Expressionist artists from which he could build his scene, later aided (and abetted) by partner Irving Blum. Interestingly, none of their work showed any interest in the other creative industry associated with LA: that came later, when East Coast artists like Andy Warhol came on board parading their obsessions with stardom and Hollywood.
Neville tells this story using some terrific footage from the past, and recent interviews with all the key players still alive. Hopps, Blum and their major artists provide first-hand testimony: Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell give their perspective as art fans: and the former art critic of New York's Village Voice whines and moans about the West Coast artists so much that you just end up totally on their side. The footage is sparkily edited, and held together with cool jazz and a Jeff Bridges narration ("the perfect West Coast voice," says Neville, and you can't argue with that). If you have even the slightest interest in modern art, this is a tremendously entertaining watch.
9.00pm: Does Your Soul Have A Cold?
As I mentioned yesterday, when we do the initial booking for LFF tickets, we've normally got a limited amount of information to go on: specifically, one paragraph of information in the programme, and a few credits. And it's interesting how those single paragraphs can sometimes be open to multiple interpretations. Take the description for Does Your Soul Have A Cold?, a documentary by Mike Mills looking at the experiences of five depressives living in Tokyo. The programme note makes much of the fact that depression wasn't really known about in Japan until the beginning of the 21st century. The Belated Birthday Girl therefore assumed that this would be a film about American medical science proclaiming its superiority over the backward Japanese. Whereas I thought it was looking into something more sinister: that the Japanese didn't even think about depression until American drug companies sold the idea to them, shortly before selling them the means to cure it.
In fact, the film falls somewhere between the two stools. Primarily, it simply talks to its five subjects and their families about their experiences. They're a fairly wide-ranging bunch, ranging from traditional office workers to Ken, who spends more time performing in S&M clubs than is possibly healthy for him. Ken's definitely the wild card of the bunch: walking around Tokyo in Hard Gay-style micro-shorts "because trousers make my legs sweat", getting tied up and hung from the ceiling for kicks, and happily confessing to camera that as a child he frequently masturbated to his own feelings of shame. (You know, if someone had described that idea to me as a Catholic teenager, I never would have left the house all day.)
Mills is too polite a filmmaker to just yell "PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER!" at his interviewees, but he does plant a few doubts in their minds. Time and again their parents explain how they never knew anyone with depression when they were that age, and how good it is that they have their children to explain this new Japanese word utsu to them. But where did the children get their information? From GlaxoSmithKline TV adverts (the film's title is a copy line from a famous one), and from the website utsu.jp, also owned by GSK. This latter fact appears to be news to most of the interviewees.
Most of the five have additional issues aside from depression - a drink problem, or a touch of OCD - but as with many of the topics in this film, there are a lot of chickens, a lot of eggs, and a lot of confusion about which came first. It's almost a relief at the end to find that at least one of them has started to think about whether a dependence on antidepressants is actually worse than depression. Mills films all of this sympathetically, refusing to turn it into a freakshow, and managing to avoid virtually every cliche of a Westerner shooting in Japan (apart from that overhead shot of the Shibuya pedestrian crossing that everyone seems to use).
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (official site)
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - Crikey what do you have to do to get a hot chocolate at the London Film Festival these says. First Starbucks in Leicester Square remains closed down, then the Haagen Dazs place wasn't open till noon (which was the start time of the film), and then the machine in the Odeon West End was broken. [It was still broken at 3.30pm the same afternoon - Spank] I should have gone to the NFT, then again nope as there is no kiosk there either.
Well that's my rant for the day then, well no it isn't actually. Because what is going on with movies and narratives these days. Of the six films I have seen so far, four of them (not including the space doc, but including this one) have a voiceover. Is it that we are now considered so dumb, that we need some sort of commentary to periodically let us know what's happening. Perhaps the characters should do what they used to do in The Muppets and start staring at the ceiling, with a baffled 'where's that voice coming from' expression.
Anyway this really has to be the dumbest idea for a movie title ever, which by itself takes a fair measure of tension out of the proceedings, before the film has barely started. So off the top of my head I have come up with five similar ones (join in and come up with your own):
1) A Man For All Seasons Beheaded by Henry Eighth.
2) Apollo 13 Makes It Home Safely.
3) Titanic Hits an Iceberg and Sinks.
4) Shakespeare in Love but Doesn't Get the Girl.
5) The Battle of Britain Won by the RAF.
So after all that this is a downbeat Western, with Brad Pitt playing the notorious younger member of the James Brothers. As such it plays as an allegory on the nature of celebrity, and the dangers of obsession with celebrity, as the old West starts to collide with a post Civil War America. Pitt's portrayal of James shows the cold reality behind that celebrity myth, as Jesse is a paranoid, psychotic killer who you definitely wouldn't want to run with (kind of like the Joe Pesci character in Goodfellas). However I don't personally think this movie does anything new with the genre in the way a film like Unforgiven was able to, and as such was a little too melancholy for my tastes to be totally absorbing.
This screening incidentally was signed (in English) for the hard of hearing, as part of the Festival's undoubted remit to be more inclusive. However given all the standard pre/post film audience chatter, I couldn't really see the point.
The Belated Birthday Girl - The title of the film refers to a walled residential estate, where the wealthy inhabitants can live in their own security, away and protected from the poverty, violence and corruption outside. Until one day a fierce storm breaches La Zona's defences, and three youths from the outside decide to take their opportunity and go inside to steal. Inevitably, things do not turn out well, and we end up with one of them on the run from a manhunt inside La Zona.
Although filmed using a real walled estate in Mexico City, the specifics of the location are not fundamental to the story (and in fact, as the producer pointed out at the Q&A afterwards, at no point is explicit reference made to the fact that this is even Mexico), which could have been set anywhere where these kinds of communities have grown up, across Latin and South America, the US, or even Europe - or even read as a metaphor for the more macro-division of the privileged first world and the rest of the planet. What it explores is the effect on all concerned of this rift between a fearful, privileged minority, and a desperate, disadvantaged mass in close proximity. On all sides the reasons for their actions are presented, and for the residents of La Zona, the sacrifices to their privacy and individuality as the cost of their security are also portrayed.
Although there are some details which feel thrown in hurriedly to make the plot progress in the right direction (one throw-away comment in particular about the central police officer felt quite out of the blue and only there to make the next actions seem explicable), on the whole this thriller was entertaining, and the performances (including a minor role for Y Tu Mama Tambien's Maribel Verdú, as part of the Spanish contingent introduced to get some Spanish cash into the production once Sony Columbia had dropped it like a hot brick) perfectly fine.
The film has yet to be released in Mexico, but apparently the reaction from Mexican reviewers who have seen it as festivals has been aggressive, angry that only such a negative view of Mexico, with no positive aspects, is portrayed. In fact, the director, Uruguayan-born Rodrigo Plá, is apparently moving back to Uruguay after years of living in Mexico, the inference being as a result of this hostility. Interestingly, La Zona started out as a dystopian science fiction, but the reality was not so far from the story, so it was recast as a more realistic film. Rodrigo Plá's next planned film, the story of a woman who can no longer support her aging father and leaves him to wait for her in a square, also sounds worth looking out for.
Brand Upon The Brain! (official site)
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - Oh my god, this was truly bonkers (but in a good way doncha know).
So how to start, well ............ Okay ugly matriarch and her family live upon a lighthouse, which also doubles up as an orphanage. Mom however has discovered a way to regain her youth by virtue of a serum, extracted by her mad scientist husband from the brains of said orphans. Meanwhile eldest child Sis is having a lesbian love affair with boy detective Chance, all watched by youngest child Guy, who apparently is none other than the director himself, Guy Maddin. He actually tells all of this in flashback, on his way to paint the old lighthouse. Now I may not be the brightest spark in the toolbox, but I am prepared to go out on a limb here, and say that this probably isn't a true story.
I don't know if they still use 35mm film as opposed to digital these days. If so this is shot in something like ASA 400 Black and White, uprated to about ASA 6400. Any other lighting required is provided by what I would guess to be one small candle. Also this is best described as a silent movie, save for Mom's ahead of its time version of the mobile phone. Which leads me into my one small criticism, namely they should have gone the whole way with that, and skipped the narration.
So basically a film that has to be seen to be believed. If it had been on TV I would have switched it off after two minutes, which is a lesson to me not to do such things, as this was a highly original and amusing piece if you stick with it. Actually if any film deserved to be the Surprise Film at this year's London Film Festival, this would surely be it.
Incidentally looking through IMDB, I see that Guy Maddin's other directorial efforts include Twilight Of The Ice Nymphs, Sissy Boy Slap Party and My Dad Is 100 Years Old (I think you get the idea).