Reviewed today: Double Tide, The Match King, Meek's Cutoff, The Peddler, Womb.
2.00pm: Double Tide [MoMA listing]
We're six days into LFF 2010, and it amuses me that if you take into account my review, Suze's review and the discussions in comments, the most-talked about film so far is Ruhr - the one with the least amount of stuff happening in it. Well, don't worry, that'll change today. Mainly because Ruhr is no longer the film with the least amount of stuff happening in it.
Here's what happens in Double Tide. On a midsummer morning in 2008, Jen Casad goes out onto a foggy beach in Maine as the sun comes up, and we watch her pick clams for a 50 minute static unbroken take. Later that same day, she goes out as the sun goes down, and does it all again for another 50.
Director Sharon Lockhart is obviously working in the same territory as James Benning, then. But it's always struck me that Benning isn't really interested in people: he likes landscapes, architecture and rhythm a lot more. That's not to say that the landscape isn't an important part of what we see here. In the first half, we watch the mist gradually fade to reveal the vegetation in the background (for the first 40 minutes or so, it's so heavy you'd swear the film was black and white): in the second half, we get to see the sky erupting into sunset colours, and the slow receding of the tide that gives the film its title.
But the figure of Jen Casad at work, however far back she is in the shot, makes for a continuous point of interest: and she provides the dominant elements of the soundtrack, be they the schlop of clams being pulled out, or the occasional vocal noise. At several points she stands still for a few seconds, and it causes real curiosity in the viewer - is she tired, or just looking at something? (Astonishingly, in most cases it might just be an edit point - each half of the movie is five separate reels of film seamlessly joined together.)
There were a few walkouts during Double Tide, and I really don't understand why - anyone who read the synopsis in the LFF programme knew exactly what to expect. And I'd suggest that the synopsis makes it sound like more of an art movie than it actually is (although it does also exist in installation form, with both halves being projected simultaneously at opposite ends of a room). It doesn't have the intellectual challenge of a Benning, there's no subtext on the environment or industrialisation: it's just a gentle visual meditation that'll be perfectly familiar to anyone who's ever sat down in the open air and watched people working in the distance.
When this Festival is over, the first film I've booked to see after it is Big Tits Zombie (honestly). But that shouldn't stop me from making room in my life for a film that's its diametric opposite, especially at a seven quid matinee. (It might be a different story if they were charging the full £13, though.)
4.15pm: The Peddler [official blog]
Full disclosure: I missed the opening five minutes or so of The Peddler. Put it down to a combination of a temporary closure on the Bakerloo Line, and the streets around the Royal Festival Hall being sealed off to allow Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren and Warren Ellis to get to the European premiere of Red. It's possible that there may have been something in those opening five minutes that reveals Daniel Burmeister to be a swindler and a conman, which would make the 80 minutes that I actually did see a very different proposition. But as far as I can make out, he's entirely genuine, and this film by Eduardo de la Serna, Lucas Marcheggiano and Adriana Yurcovich is a celebration of his unusual job.
Here's what his job involves. Burmeister travels from one village to another in Argentina, setting up shop for a couple of months each time. Armed only with a video camera, he wanders round the streets and persuades the people of the village to take part in a film he's making. Once the film's done, he shows it to the village for an admission fee, sells them any video copies they may want as a souvenir, and moves on to the next town.
Initially, you're wary of his motives - especially after seeing him boast about how he blags room and board in the places he visits, or asking if anyone in the village knows how to use a video camera. But in the latter case, it turns out he needs an assistant cameraman because he's acting in the film too. He always does: he has a couple of standard scripts he uses everywhere he goes, which generally involve firemen, priests and anything else you can find lying around in a village.
So what's in it for him? The Peddler shows that during his time in a village, Burmeister helps to build a real sense of community, as he pulls everyone together to help in his crazy scheme. The film he's making may not even be the main attraction for him. You could be cynical and suggest that he's exploiting the unsophisticated nature of the villagers, people who are reluctant to act in wedding or funeral scenes out of a superstitious fear of ending up married or buried. But the joy of the audience at the premiere of Let's Kill Uncle is justification in its own right.
The film's a delight because Burmeister is such a massively charismatic character. He's persuasive: he has to be to get an entire village to play along, as he has done already several dozen times. But he's also a massively practical man - as one interviewee says, he encounters 1001 problems on a film shoot, but finds 1001 solutions to them. Whenever anything unexpected happens, he finds a way round it almost immediately, and doesn't bother worrying about the consequences till later. He's a role model to filmmakers everywhere.
9.00pm: Womb [official site]
Remember how we started off the Festival coverage this year with a review of the animated short Love Mouse? The story of a three-way relationship between a mouse, a piece of cheese that he can't stop eating, and the cow whose best friend made the cheese? Well, you'll be relieved to hear that this is no longer the most disturbing relationship depicted in this year's Festival. Or maybe you won't.
Rebecca (Eva Green) has returned to her childhood sweetheart Thomas (Matt Smith) after 12 years away. It looks like they're going to have a beautiful life together, but Thomas' death in a road accident tears that plan apart. Rebecca reacts to this tragedy in exactly the way you'd expect: she has Thomas cloned, gives birth to the clone herself, and waits a couple of decades for him to attain maturity. You're feeling nostalgic for the cheese already, I can tell.
Womb has a hell of a lot going for it. It's an interesting central concept, beautifully shot in a bleak coastal town off the North Sea. Its cast looks sensational on paper: Green is a proper movie-star-looking movie star, and Smith was hired just before he became one of the most famous people on British telly. (There are some curious echoes of the Doctor in a couple of scenes here.) But the film has one enormous problem that was emphasised by the post-screening Q&A with Hungarian writer/director Benedek Fliegauf: English is not his first language. And by God, it shows.
You can appreciate why he wanted to work with a cast this good: but that cast is made to speak some appallingly clunky dialogue. The ideas and the plot are fascinating, but an English ear is continually pulled out of the movie by the frequent realisation that people just wouldn't talk like that. Meanwhile, the way those lines are acted doesn't help. There are gigantic, impossible emotions at work throughout this story, and there's obviously a risk that the acting could go way over the top to match them. But Fliegauf has gone completely in the opposite direction: with the notable exception of Lesley Manville (who plays, let's say, Thomas' original mother), everyone plays their part as a total emotional blank, barely reacting to anything at all. The result is so numb as to become utterly frustrating.
It's a shame that Womb is such a missed opportunity, as the look of the film and the ideas behind it are so good. But the problems with the acting - not to mention a clumsy bit of foreshadowing which wrecks a fair bit of the suspense early on - are impossible to ignore, no matter how much you try.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Meek's Cutoff [clip]
The Belated Birthday Girl - Meek's Cutoff follows three families as they cross the desert plains of Oregon, their wagon train separated from the main line: in an attempt to take a short cut, they have hired Stephen Meek, a wild man with wilder tales, to guide them, but now seem lost and are doubting Meek's knowledge, motives or both. Equal credit should probably go to the cinematographer and the location manager for the wonderfully bleak and unrelenting look of the film, and this along with the beautifully paced script serves to evoke the plight of the families and ratchet the tension just the right degree.
Focussing in on the daily work of lighting fires, making food and fetching water when they can, mostly women's work, rather than any heroics of the crossing, the film seems to give more of a female perspective than most Westerns, and the women are at least equally important as the men. There are fine performances all round, giving low-key nuanced characterisations. The basic tale of the pioneering push West in the search of future wealth, which in so many Westerns would be the main drive of the film, here acts more as a backdrop to a story focussing on personal dynamics and raising questions of trust and faith.
Such stark vistas, so beautifully shot, deserve to be seen on a big screen. I am, however, confused to discover that at previous festivals, it has been screened in 4:3, and that may be the intended ratio and the one it will be released in, but the LFF screenings have been in widescreen. Reviewers who have seen it in 4:3 have commented that this gives almost a claustrophobia and is a deliberate confounding of expectations. I would be curious to see it in 4:3, if that is the director's intent, particularly as the power of much of the visual imagery seemed to me to be strongly reinforced by the long trek across the wide screen: I can certainly see that having those scenes linger on shots cut short would add a different tone, but I am confused as to why the LFF would be given a widescreen print if the intention should have been to show it 4:3 (apparently no instruction was attached with the print). In any case, as a powerful tale of human hopes and fears, I have no doubt it will still impress, whatever the shape of the screen.
The Match King [clip]
The Belated Birthday Girl - I've become a bit of a fan of the pre-Code films shown at the LFF. Today's example was introduced not only by Clyde Jeavons, but also by someone from the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation, who gave a very entertaining and informative talk, about both the facility's work with transferring its vast stock of nitrate film onto 35mm modern film stock, and also the background of the pre-Code talkies and of the Warner Brothers' output in particular. In amusing contrast to our Kwai introduction, he gave a mocking explanation of this "film" material and the machines called "projectors", saying that in a few years time, he fully expected to be having to give the explanation for real.
The Match King was one of Warners' "ripped from today's headlines" movies, inspired by the life of the real-life "Match King", Ivar Kreuger, who cornered the world market in matches, and by his suicide merely months earlier in March 1932, when the hens came home to roost. The tale of fictional entrepeneur Paul Kroll, scheming his way from street cleaner to head of a vast industrial empire, with his various and nefarious dealings, financial and romantic, The Match King is a hugely enjoyable movie, economically coming in at under 80 minutes running time. A couple of plot embellishments to make sure audiences knew how really evil Kroll was felt unnecessary, and some of the exposition may seem a little direct to modern audiences. But the description of how his empire was founded on non-existent money, a pack of cards ready to tumble the minute he stopped, felt as timely now as it must have been in 1932, and all in all, this witty film is most worthy of preservation and good fun to watch.