Reviewed today: Burning Down The House: The Story Of CBGB, The Ferrari Dino Girl, Men On The Bridge, Visitors.
2.00pm: The Ferrari Dino Girl (trailer)
I’ve explained already that our Xmas 2007 holiday in Copenhagen sparked off a small interest in Danish cinema, and led to me watching Headhunter on Sunday night while going “been there… been there…” every few minutes. The same applies to our Xmas 2008 holiday in Prague, as well. Though I have to admit it feels a little tacky playing the “been there…” card during the footage at the climax of The Ferrari Dino Girl.
Director Jan Němec is best known as one of the leading lights of the Czech New Wave in the 1960s. One twelve-minute sequence of film that he shot ensures that his name will go down in history – because he was in Prague on August 21st 1968, the day that the Russian tanks rolled in. He grabbed a cameraman and shot whatever he could, convinced that the Russians would try to convince the world that they entered the city peacefully. Many people took their cameras out on the streets that day, but Němec was the first one to get his footage shown in the West.
Forty years on, his short feature The Ferrari Dino Girl explains how he did it. The short answer? He snuck out of Czechoslovakia pretending to be Italian, with the aid of former girlfriend Jana and her Italian fiancé Enrico. Němec’s technique on this film is equally ingenious: most of it consists of footage of modern-day Prague, shot at high and low angles so you can’t actually tell what year it is. (Which makes location spotting a little tricky in parts, although I did recognize the Prague Radio building next to the very nice restaurant where we had Christmas dinner.) He has actors portraying himself (Karel Roden), Jana (Tammy Sundquist) and Enrico (Jan Budar), but doesn’t give them any dialogue, preferring to tell the story in his own voiceover.
It sounds like a right old mishmash (hence, presumably, its inclusion in the Experimenta section of the Festival), but somehow it all works. Němec has a fascinating story to tell, and his method of telling gives the film a unique style without ever detracting from what he has to say. In a particularly brave move, the film opens with a purely verbal description of how he shot the Prague ’68 footage: we don’t get to see any of it until the climax, when it’s shown in a single unedited sequence. Initially it jars a little with the smart editing of the rest of the film, but it quickly asserts its own power as a raw historical document.
I told you earlier in the week that virtually all the documentaries I was seeing at this year’s LFF were music ones. I don’t know if that’s still the case, because I really couldn’t say if this is a documentary itself, or a drama film, or some sort of peculiar hybrid of the two. But that uncertainty makes it a fascinating thing to watch. And Němec’s voiceover gives you a sharp insight into the director’s own personality, whether he’s arguing with Claude Chabrol about the invasion (Němec thought it was a rape, Chabrol thought Prague was asking for it) or musing about future film projects. I'd certainly pay to see his proposed Roman Abramovich biopic: as he says, shouldn’t someone make a film about how, four decades after the invasion, the current national hero of the Czech Republic is working for Russians?
7.00pm: Burning Down The House: The Story Of CBGB (official site)
I’ve wasted about half an hour this morning looking on the web for an old record. (“You’ve barely started writing!” said The Belated Birthday Girl a few minutes ago. Shit, she noticed.) That record was New Wave, a compilation released by Vertigo Records in the summer of 1977. As punk rock was peaking in the UK, they’d put together an album mixing up the best of the current British bands with the American post-punk outfits that were just starting to emerge. That was where I first got to hear Talking Heads, Richard Hell, The Flamin’ Groovies and Patti Smith (I remember Piss Factory blowing my tiny little teenage mind when I heard it). And around the same time, word was going round of a club in New York where all these people were playing: CBGB.
As you may be aware, CBGB is no more: and Mandy Stein’s documentary is simultaneously a history of the club and the story of its final years. In 1973, Hilly Kristal opened the venue as a place for country, bluegrass and blues (hence the name). But it never really had any success with roots music, partly because of its hellish location in the Bowery. That location, though, made it the ideal place for the foundation of a new rock scene a couple of years later: and Kristal was a big enough fan of music to stand aside and give it room to grow.
For three decades, CBGB was a world-class showcase for new American rock. The punks in the 1970s, the grunge scene in the 1990s, and – less well documented – the young hardcore movement that kept the venue going during those years in between. As if to cock a snook at the pitiful amount of live footage that Oil City Confidential had to play with the other night, Burning Down The House is packed with archive material, showing all the key bands in action on the tiny CBGB stage. That footage is in a variety of formats, from scuzzy B&W video to HD, but it exists, and gives you a genuine feeling for what an exciting time and place it was.
But intercut with those archive performances and interviews with musicians, we get the peculiar story of CBGB’s demise. The club lived next door to a homeless shelter, the Bowery Residents Committee, and was paying rent to them. A legal battle broke out when it emerged that CBGB was behind on its payments, because they’d never been told about a rent increase that resulted in them being in arrears. As accusations flew in both directions, it became less about the money and more about a personal feud between Hilly Kristal and BRC boss Muzzy Rosenblatt. Rosenblatt didn’t want the rent: he just wanted to evict Kristal.
All manner of possible solutions were put forward – fundraising gigs, a possible move to Vegas – but they all came to nothing. And from the perspective of an outsider like me, this is where the film’s narrative becomes a little uncertain. Steven van Zandt claims during one of those fundraisers that “there’s only one person in the whole of New York that doesn’t want CBGB to stay open,” and you have to ask: was that really the case? Is it genuinely possible that Muzzy Rosenblatt could close down CBGB single-handedly against the opposition of the punters, the Mayor, even his own employees? Rosenblatt doesn’t appear in the film at all, so we never get to hear his side of the case, which is either testament to his own dickishness or something more sinister. I genuinely don’t know which, and the film doesn’t give you enough information to decide.
Those qualms aside, as a document of a musical movement it can’t be beat. The music footage is tremendously atmospheric, even the early stuff that looks like it was shot on CCTV cameras. Stein’s film of the final week of concerts actually manages to bring a lump to your throat, particularly when Patti Smith reads out a list of musicians who played the venue but are no longer with us. Towards the end, the film moves away from personally demonising Muzzy Rosenblatt and identifies the real villain: the ongoing gentrification of New York that’s preventing dives like CBGB from staying alive. Though to be fair, when you think about London’s equivalent rock clubs, it’s a miracle that CBGB managed to survive that long. Anyone here been to the Roxy lately?
We’re approaching the midpoint of LFF 2009, and things are going to get a little fragmented for the next day or so. For some reason, my schedule has a small clump of short film programmes over the next 24 hours, before reverting back to features for the rest of the fest. Regulars might like to skim the programme and take a guess at which ones I’m going to be seeing on Thursday: but in the meantime, we have Visitors, somewhere in the grey area between a portmanteau film and three distinct shorts. It comes from the Jeonju Film Festival in Korea, which each year commissions three directors to make short films that they can sell to other festivals as a package. This year, they have filmmakers from Korea, Japan and the Philippines telling stories with the simple linking theme of someone paying a visit to someone else.
Lost In The Mountains is the first and best of the three. Made by Hong Sang-Soo, there are some interesting parallels with his other LFF contribution Like You Know It All: both films have a protagonist who gets less sympathetic as they get more drunk. In this case, it’s a female student who’s gone to visit her best friend, only to find herself in the middle of a messy love quadrangle involving another student and their professor. Hong navigates their awkward couplings with a light touch, and even manages to get in a couple of his usual repeated motifs, which is impressive for a short that’s only half an hour long.
Naomi Kawase’s Koma is a little more rambling, but quite touching with it. A Japanese director working for hire for a Korean festival, she’s gone with a story involving a Korean man travelling to Japan to collect some of his late grandfather’s belongings. During his visit, he makes a tentative connection with a girl. There’s really not much more to the story than that, but it’s handled with a delicacy that just about keeps it all together.
Lav Diaz’s Filipino entry, Butterflies Have No Memories, is easily the weakest of the three, even though it has the most strongly defined narrative. It’s set in a failed gold mining town, where the inhabitants are struggling to survive. Into this environment comes a Canadian woman, who spent her childhood there as part of the Western mining community, in the years before they pulled out and effectively destroyed the town. As she roams round chatting to old school friends and taking pictures, she’s completely oblivious to the resentment she’s stirring up.
The tension arising from her return is enough to make this final short watchable, even though Diaz does everything possible to make it unwatchable. He shoots it in murky black and white, with fixed cameras locked in one position for the entire duration of each scene: he allows background sound to almost overwhelm the dialogue, notably in one scene where a cockerel appears to be perched directly on top of the boom mike: and he tops it all off with an inconclusive and sudden ending that just might be the worst possible way to finish off a trilogy of stories. It has to be significant that you still keep following the story despite all of these annoyances: but overall, I’d have to agree with The BBG’s opinion that when you present three shorts back to back, showing them in decreasing order of quality is probably a bad idea.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Men On The Bridge (official site)
The Belated Birthday Girl - Originally planned as a documentary, Men on the Bridge is inspired by the real lives of its three central characters. Murat, a traffic cop who spends his spare time chatting to girls on the internet, but misses his mum and his home village in Eastern Turkey; Umut, a driver of a shared taxi, who can barely afford living in his cramped flat with his wife who wants something better; and teenager Fikret, who hangs out with his friends, smoking and listening to Turkish rap on their mobiles, hoping to get enough money together to go somewhere to meet girls and lose their virginity, and makes what little money he has illegally selling flowers on the bridge. What links these three is the Bosphorous Bridge where they each spend their working hours.
The cast is mostly non-professionals, with the main characters playing themselves, although because of regulations, Murat and other police characters are played by actors. As a slice of life in modern day Istanbul, Men on the Bridge gives a real sense of the daily lives of its central characters. There are some moments of low-key humour, such as when Murat arranges dates with women from the internet char rooms, or when Fikret tries his hand at something other than selling flowers, but mostly the film gives a sense of lives going nowhere, like the barely moving traffic on the Bosphorous Bridge.
The decision to dramatise rather than make a documentary perhaps gave writer-director Asli Özge the opportunity to explore more themes, through the relationships and conversations the three men have with family, colleagues and friends. But the narrative is not strong, not all of the supporting performances are completely convincing, and I’m not sure that a straight documentary might not have worked better for me.