Reviewed today: Enter The Void, Oil City Confidential.
1.15pm: Enter The Void (official site)
I’ve been seeing films at the Vue West End ever since its 1990s refurbishment into a nine-screen multiplex, but it was only today that I noticed a major design flaw in screen 7. And it’s all thanks to French director Gaspar Noe. He’s notorious for a number of reasons, and one of them is his hyper-aggressive use of sound. Seul Contre Tous (which I saw at LFF 1998 under the title I Stand Alone) used sudden zooms accompanied by over-amplified gunshots to systematically shred the nerves of the viewer. Irreversible went for the more subtle approach of playing what South Park once called The Brown Noise thoughout its first half. If 'subtle' is the right word for making your audience involuntarily shit themselves, of course.
Noe’s latest film is seen entirely from the viewpoint of its leading character, and so uses surround sound to envelop you in that character’s world. But here’s what I noticed today – thanks to the way the side wall speakers are hung in Vue screen 7, if you’re sat at the end of a row, you’re positioned behind those speakers and therefore outside the surround sound field. Noe was throwing noises in every direction around the room for the best part of three hours, and it was all just going in my left ear. Still, to be honest, that’s the least of this film’s problems.
Enter The Void tells the story of a brother and sister, dope dealer Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) and loose Linda (Paz de la Huerta). Orphaned at an early age, they’ve been looking after each other in Tokyo, holding fast to a blood pact they made to always stay together. It looks like the blood pact might be in trouble when Oscar is shot dead by police. But it isn’t. Up until this point, the film has been shot subjectively through Oscar’s eyes (almost literally so, including irritating blinks every few seconds). After that, we experience events through his disembodied consciousness: flying over Tokyo and looking down on its inhabitants like a metaphysical Grand Theft Auto, or reliving his past life from a perspective one foot behind his head like a metaphysical Grand Theft Auto III.
The biggest of Enter The Void’s problems is that it refuses to credit its audience with any intelligence. So about twenty minutes in, a character gives a speech that sounds suspiciously like a description of how the next two and a half hours will pan out. That’s precisely what it is, so there are no real surprises in store: and because the story’s so driven by fate or whatever you want to call it, you don’t really care about anyone in it. The only vaguely interesting character is Oscar’s mate Victor (Olly Alexander), possibly the only person in the film who actually does something.
Technically, I admit, it’s gobsmacking, especially in the digital copy that the LFF’s showing. Oscar’s viewpoint is a seamless mix of hand-held camera, elaborate crane work and CGI simulation, apparently swapping between all three in a single shot. But it’s hard to relate to it at any level other than as pure technique. Given that Noe’s work to date has been all about doing whatever it takes to affect the viewer at a primal level, it’s surprising just how unmoved I felt by Enter The Void. It doesn’t even work as psychedelia: any few minutes of a James Benning film of moving clouds has a more mind-expanding effect.
9.00pm: Oil City Confidential (official site)
When I arrived at BFI Southbank for my first visit this Festival, there was a party going on. It was announced today that the BFI has finally secured Government funding for its long-planned National Film Centre, so Greg Dyke was in the foyer guzzling champagne at the official press launch. (I complained to The Belated Birthday Girl later that Dyke’s nowhere to be seen during Opening Galas and the like, but appears as soon as there’s money on the table – though as she pointed out, that’s really his job.)
Director Julien Temple picked up on the announcement in his introduction to Oil City Confidential, and described it as a rare occasion to give Gordon Brown credit for something – a genuine attempt at developing film culture in the UK. And there’s no denying that Oil City is a very, very British film. Part of a loose trilogy that takes in Temple's movies about the Sex Pistols and Joe Strummer, this documentary covers the career of Canvey Island R&B legends Dr Feelgood. They’re a band that survived a complete change of personnel years before the Sugababes made it fashionable, but this film focuses on the classic 1970s lineup that recorded their first few albums: vocalist Lee Brilleaux, guitarist Wilko Johnson, bassist John B Sparkes and drummer The Big Figure.
Temple’s approach is to make this as much the story of Canvey Island as it is of the band – in fact, we don’t actually get to see Dr Feelgood in action until about halfway through. Part of what made the band so special was their upbringing in the shadow of the Essex oil refineries. Living on a peninsula/island (there’s some debate as to which it is) marks you down as an outsider, separated from the big city of London even though it’s only a short drive down the road. Wilko goes even further, calling Canvey the ‘Thames Delta’, and insisting it gave the band an emotional connection with the American bluesmen who were their strongest influence.
Johnson is pretty much the star of the film: all the surviving members are interviewed, but it’s Wilko who takes us on a guided tour of the key locations in Canvey Island where the band made friends and played their earliest gigs together. From then on, it’s the old story: the hard touring of the early days, the national and international success, the personality clashes between Brilleaux and Johnson that would eventually lead to a split. Thirty years on, three-quarters of the band are able to look back on their arguments with a sense of regret, but also pride at what they achieved: Brilleaux, of course, can only be represented by archive interview footage. (In one of the great rock ‘n’ roll tragedies, Brilleaux’s 1994 demise was massively underreported at the time, because he had the bad luck to die on the same day as Kurt Cobain.)
Temple tells the story in his usual hyperactive style, with more comedy cutaways than an episode of Scrubs. Unfortunately, there’s very little archive footage of Dr Feelgood for him to play with – close scrutiny reveals that almost every shot of the band in performance comes from no more than a couple of gigs and some TV performances. But the editing helps distract you from that, coupled with the welcome decision to put the music skull-crackingly high in the sound mix. Add some surprisingly beautiful photography showing what Canvey Island looks like today, and you’ve got a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen. So it was nice to hear from Temple afterwards that he’s looking into a limited cinema release along the lines of a series of one-night stands across the country, rather like Arctic Monkeys did with their live movie. It's definitely worth seeing if it comes to your town.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Oil City Confidential
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - Back in the Mid (pre-Punk) Seventies, serious rock music had ever so slightly become a load of old overblown pretentious tosh. Genesis, ELO, ELP, Led Zep, Peter Frampton, The Stones, Queen, Mike Oldfield etc etc (should I go on?). Thus music had become something you listened to (whilst congratulating yourself on your intelligent taste), but certainly not something you rock and rolled and moved to. In fact during that period it was almost as if 'Rock went to College'.
Okay that all might be a little cliched, but from this punter's memory of the Seventies, there were only three groups during the desert of 1975/76 that stood apart from all that pretentious bollocks, and had the power to really rock the joint. One was Status Quo, one was Thin Lizzy, and the other was Dr Feelgood. However as Julien Temple's film isn't about the first two of these, let us from this point on concentrate on Canvey Island's finest. Canvey Island being the starting point of this documentary as a succession of people who were there tell, in Essex Wide Boy speak, how it all began.
Now I have a confession to make here. Namely I considered myself part of the in-crowd at school. However out of all the in-crowd in my class, I was one of the few who didn't go to see Dr Feelgood live. This being partly because I was still getting my kicks (literally in some instances) on the football terraces, and partly because my Mum wouldn't let me go into London at night. Anyway no matter as even without my support, during the years of 75/76 Dr Feelgood were the hippest band in all of the music press (Wilko Johnson even being name checked in the ITV all girl band drama Rock Follies - remember that?).
By 1977 however, when two years too late I finally bought their seminal live album Stupidity, the group were virtually all washed up, the cut off point being when Wilko Johnson left the band. So what wrong for the Feelgoods? The obvious answer being the rise of Punk Rock. However that is perhaps too simplistic, especially whilst the Feelgoods retained the power to blow any of those young Turks off the stage.
What this film reveals was the tension in a band where three of the line up were level headed but overindulgent boozers, as opposed to one creative and slightly psychotic drug user (so guess which one left). Yet even then that wasn't the full reason behind the group burning so brightly and then completely out. For me the problem was that the group never wrote enough of their own material to leave all those rhythm and blues standards behind (something the Punk Rockers had no such inhibitions about, and which made The Feelgoods sound as relevant as yesterday's papers). This lack of original material being hardly surprising given their phenomenal gig work load (the Feelgoods being first and foremost a live band). Anyway post-Wilko the group continued on regardless with a never ending set of line up changes (including a certain Hamster), but their moment had long gone.
For their fifteen minutes of fame however Dr Feelgood were as good as it gets, and their raw dangerous edge and power is brought out here from the clips on screen. Wilko Johnson proves to be quite a comedian as he tells his tale, whilst Sparks and The Big Figure are now just amiable old geezers. Lee Brilleaux is restricted to one old interview clip, but his wife serves to give another interesting perspective.
For Julien Temple's part he pretty much uses the same format as he did in the excellent Joe Strummer documentary The Future Is Unwritten. However unlike that film he does create an unneccessary annoyance by massively intercutting an endless round of old B&W film clips to mug alongside one joke or another. That quibble aside he seems to have created an original style of rockumentary and for those people who remember this group and the Seventies, this will be a film you will want to see more than once.