Reviewed today: Asshole, Bernadette: Notes On A Political Journey, Crulic: The Path To Beyond, Shin-Heike Monogatari, Twenty Cigarettes.
We've still got another two weeks to go before the end of the LFF, but I've already got my plans sorted for the first day after the Festival. And, inevitably, they involve another film. Ra.One, which opens worldwide the day before the Closing Gala, is the big Indian holiday movie for Diwali this year. There are certain things that make it unusual - it's a 3D CGI-infested epic with the largest budget of any Indian film ever - but an audience will go into Ra.One knowing that it'll have a handsome star in the lead, a mixture of low comedy and high melodrama in its plotting, and a break for a song every twenty minutes or so. You know exactly what you're getting with Bollywood.
But there's a lot more to Indian cinema than its nakedly commercial end - that's just all we get to see over here, except in festivals like this one. And it's safe to say that if you wanted to come up with an Indian film that was the polar opposite of Bollywood, you'd end up with something like Asshole. It's the story of a kid in Kolkata (played by Anubrata Basu), known to everyone as Gandu (which is the Bengali slang for 'asshole'). His life is a mess: he's living in a slum with his mother, surviving only on her ever-thinning patience and the money he regularly steals from her lover. His days are spent wandering the streets, hanging out in an internet cafe, or working on rhymes for his non-existent rap career. When he literally bumps into a rickshaw driver in the street, his life begins to show some vague signs of plotting. Not many, but they're there.
Writer/director/editor/photographer/designer/younameit Kaushik Mukherjee (who abbreviates his name to 'Q' so that there's more room for all his credits) isn't particularly interested in giving us a story: this is more like a slap in the face to the rest of Indian cinema and polite Indian society, and as such feels like the Kolkata equivalent of the Singapore film from eight years ago, 15. Gandu is shown doing everything he can that would shock a traditional Bollywood audience - swearing, taking drugs, not tidying up his bedroom. And it all comes to a head in a rather spectacular bit of hardcore sex. (Hard to imagine that just over a dozen or so years ago, a festival film with this much cock in it - say, Lars von Trier's The Idiots - would have been shown under strict club conditions to reduce the risk of prosecution.)
But as The Belated Birthday Girl noticed (and I missed this, so all credit to her), for all of its attempts to be transgressive, Asshole still has the structure of a Bollywood film, using Gandu's rap numbers every so often to break up the plot. They're more ADF than AR Rahman, but they're used for exactly the same reason. And to be honest, they're probably the bits of the film that work best - punchily edited, and in-your-face to a thrilling degree. Outside of the musical interludes, Q throws the odd effective curveball into the visuals and the plot. The frequent use of split-screen pays off with a brilliantly conceived shot at the high point of the sex scene. And there's a bizarre sequence where Q suddenly appears inside his own film, threatening to send it into an unexpected new direction.
Sadly, that appearance ultimately comes to nothing. And far too much of Asshole feels the same way - its few genuinely provocative moments work well, but they're surrounded by far too much aimless noodling. It comes as no surprise to learn that Q's background is in music video, and I suspect that he's slowly working his way towards being able to sustain the pace for a full-length feature. There's enough promise there to suggest he could still do that, eventually.
3.15pm: Shin-Heike Monogatari [trailer]
No need to tell you here how much we love Japanese cinema around these parts. But I have to admit that I have a couple of blind spots when it comes to the country's master directors, and Kenji Mizoguchi is one of them. He made close on one hundred films in his lifetime, some of them regarded as the finest to ever come out of Japan. But up until today, I'd never seen a single one. A recent article on Mostly Film had just emphasised that gap in my knowledge: so this screening of a restoration of one of Mizoguchi's rare colour productions had to be done, really.
Made in 1955, Shin-Heike Monogatari (aka New Tales Of The Taira Clan, or various other combinations of those six words) sets up its historical period in a lengthy set of opening captions. We're in the twelfth century, and the country is in chaos as two separate imperial courts are struggling for overall control. Bands of lawless monks are taking advantage of this uncertainty to cause unrest: they have palanquins reportedly filled with the souls of all the previous dead emperors, and frequently take them out onto the streets to strike fear into the superstitious. ("Holy palanquins!" cries a villager upon seeing them: the Batman catchphrase that never took off.)
Society is in a precarious position: it looks like just one small spark could set the whole thing off. Enter the Taira clan, returning from battle to report back to the emperor (well, one of them). We quickly see that there's a generation gap developing within the clan. Father Torodai (Narutoshi Hayashi) is fiercely loyal to the emperor, even when his desire for official recognition of his martial skill is being ignored. Meanwhile, his son Kiyomori (Raizô Ichikawa) is becoming more frustrated with the way his clan is being exploited and abused - particularly when he discovers a curious fact about his own past.
Initially, it's hard to tell where Shin-Heike Monogatari is going: it takes a long while to set up its story. For ages, it looks like a traditional costume drama, the sort of top-knotted equivalent of Downton Abbey that you still get on Japanese telly to this day. It's built around the sorts of conflicts that are fought in a very Japanese style, using differing levels of politeness rather than violence, and it has to be admitted (with a small degree of shame) that this can be a bit frustrating for the Western viewer.
But if you're prepared to trust Mizoguchi, it all comes together splendidly by the end. As it becomes apparent that the son will have to take over from the father to resolve this conflict, we get to see how Kiyomori's thinking differs from Torodai's. And we realise we're not just watching a transfer of power between generations - we're watching the birth of the modern age. The last scene makes this even more explicit, and must have been fairly powerful stuff back in the fifties. Those final couple of reels completely justify the love and attention devoted to this film in its restoration, even though the translation job in the subtitles feels a little sketchy at times. (A few more uses of the definite article wouldn't go amiss.)
6.30pm: Twenty Cigarettes [interview]
This is all Suzanne Vega Fanclub's fault, as you may be aware. He took me to my first James Benning film back in 2002, and I've been following the director's work on an almost annual basis ever since. (Until Suze mentioned it in his comment the other day, I hadn't realised just how closely Benning's appearances at the LFF are tied to Sandra Hebron's period as its artistic director. Wonder if he'll be in the 2012 programme?)
Suze may be unable to join us this year, but I'm happy to be there at the unveiling of the new James Benning. (Meanwhile, The BBG is at the box office asking for a ticket for 'anything apart from the new James Benning'. See below.) And it's interesting to see how his style has evolved over the last decade. The California Trilogy showed the sort of constraints he liked to work under: a series of fixed-camera shots, each one lasting exactly two and a half minutes, depicting California through a series of contrasting landscapes. I quickly saw that Benning's forcing you to really look at these shots, inviting you to get deep into the detail rather than just glance and mentally move on.
Subsequent films took a similarly mathematical approach, with the ten-minute depictions of Ten Skies possibly being my favourite. But in recent years, rather than apply arbitrary guidelines on shot length, Benning chose to let the events on screen influence his decision on when to cut. So we had RR, in which each scene starts with a train entering the frame and ends when the train has disappeared from view. And now we have Twenty Cigarettes - a rare example of Benning training his camera on people rather than landscapes and architecture - where each individual shot lasts as long as it takes for one person to smoke a fag on camera.
It's enjoyable enough as a series of video portraits, but it didn't get me into the same psychedelic headspace that, say, Ten Skies did. This is possibly because the shots themselves aren't so abstract that they inspire you to form wild, imaginary connections between them. Here, the connections are obvious: they're all people, they're all smoking. As a result, there isn't really the same cumulative effect that Benning's landscape films generate. Those actually get more interesting as they progress: this kind of does the opposite.
Still, he's assembled an interesting-looking cast, and you can't help but impose your own narratives on the individual shots, even though you can't impose one on the film as a whole. Speaking as a non-smoker, it's fascinating to see how little pleasure the smokers seem to be getting from their activity. I'm guessing it's deliberate that Benning starts off with his most uncomfortable-looking subject - Sompot Chidgasornpongse is massively self-conscious, nervously glancing at the camera all the time, and grimaces as if it's his first cigarette. An old guy - ooh, it's Thom Andersen, director of Los Angeles Plays Himself, I've been in the same room as him - takes his time over his ciggy, with long gaps between puffs. By comparison, two shots later, a much younger man sucks his down like a two-dollar whore and chucks it away while it's only half-done.
These micro-narratives are the main reason for watching Twenty Cigarettes - the judgments we make from our first glimpse at these people, the stories we try to draw from the background of the shot, the clues we pick up from the noises we can hear on the soundtrack. (One smoker actually carries on a conversation with his offscreen dog through his session, which might count as the landmark 'Garbo Talks!' moment of Benning's career as a filmmaker.) But there's very little reason for this to exist as a single feature: it'd work quite happily as twenty separate short films. Keep an eye on YouTube just in case.
8.45pm: Crulic: The Path To Beyond [official site]
Is it a documentary? Is it a fiction film? Is it an animation? Director Anca Damian says in her introduction that her film couldn't work unless it had elements of all three in it. It's based on the true story of Claudiu Crulic, a young Romanian who emigrates to Poland in the noughties. The Polish authorities arrest him for a crime he didn't commit - in fact, he was out of the country at the time. But the Poles are ignoring the available evidence, and the Romanians are reluctant to help an emigre. Can Crulic prove his innocence? We know the answer to that from the opening scene, because Crulic is narrating the film from "my nice new one-bedroom flat" - the coffin being used to transport his body back to Romania.
The decision to tell Crulic's story in animation is a brave one, but entirely justified: his plight was caused by a lack of documentary evidence, so Damian constructs his life out of the few documents he left behind. His early life is told through animated versions of his old photos - which makes it all the more heartbreaking when Crulic introduces the last picture ever taken of him, and the film switches to hand-drawn animation from that point on. We hear his story as he writes it in his journal, his writing rapidly deteriorating along with his physical health. And we see the legal documents that could possibly have saved his life, as narrator Jamie Sives calmly relates the catalogue of bungles which stopped them from having any effect.
We've got a couple of animation programmes to come in this festival, and regular readers will know that it's not unusual to use the medium to tell a real-life story. But it's rare to see it done at this length. Damian uses a mixture of 2D, 3D, hand-drawn and computer-animated styles, but it never feels like variation for variation's sake - each style is chosen to evoke a precise reaction as required by the story. You could argue that even though this is a short feature (coming in at under 75 minutes), it loses its momentum fatally towards the end - much like Crulic did himself, but that doesn't make for a satisfying ending to a film. But it's a story that needs to be told, and Damian's done a good job of getting it out to a wider audience.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Bernadette: Notes On A Political Journey [music]
The Belated Birthday Girl - Lelia Doolan's film on the life of Bernadette Devlin McAliskey is built around interviews conducted with her subject between 2002 and 2011, interspersed with (and using as a background) archive footage. Apart from the occasional intertitle to give a few scene-setting facts, there is no commentary here: this is Bernadette's story, these are her notes. We hear about her family, her mother's influence particularly strong, and about how while a student that she became involved in the civil rights movement. She never remembers getting her egalitarian views, but she did remember becoming aware that not everyone shared them.
In 1969 she was elected to Parliament in a by-election, still a student and aged just 21, the youngest woman ever to enter the UK Parliament, and the archive footage from the time shows just how much of a shock to the system she must have been. She took her seat and made a powerful maiden speech, but it wasn't long before she was out on the barricades in the Bogside, where her remarkable instinct for organising was apparent. She was well known for her public speaking. In the film she tells how on many occasions she would have people tell her that they thought she was a wonderful speaker - but that they disagreed with every word she said. Bernadette couldn't understand this - it was just treating her as entertainment.
The interviews take us through Internment and the Bloody Sunday massacre, at which Bernadette was present as a speaker, through the H-Block protests and the unsuccessful attempt on her life, through the Good Friday Agreement and up to the present day, when Bernadette is working on a more local scale, but still working for social justice. She has always been a Republican and a Socialist, and it is clear from the interviews and the archive footage assembled in this film that she has lived by and still lives by her strong principles.