Reviewed today: Las Acacias, Chicken With Plums, Dreams Of A Life, International Animation Panorama Programme 2, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, Undercurrent.
"I've been telling people that I'm playing a woman who was lying dead in her flat for three years before anyone found her. And they all say 'Oh, right. You're doing a lot of lying down, then?'" (Zawe Ashton)
Sometimes I think that Carol Morley might be stalking me. In 2000, she made an acclaimed documentary called The Alcohol Years, in which she investigated a lost period of her life when she was mainly drunk and staggering around Manchester in the 80s. I was there as a student at the time, and spent most of the film wondering if our paths had ever crossed. (Mind you, it appears that around then she was hanging out with the likes of Vini Reilly from The Durutti Column, so I suspect the answer was no.)
Morley's new film is centered around another location I've spent some time in over the years: the somewhat less trendy Wood Green Shopping City. I'm mainly there for its Cineworld cinema, plus the very occasional bit of shopping. But it's also a residential area. And in 2006, it made headlines because of the strange case of Joyce Vincent.
Morley has spent the last few years investigating Vincent's story, and tells it using a combination of interviews and dramatised inserts (the latter featuring Zawe Ashton, of current Fresh Meat fame). She's managed to track down over a dozen people who knew her at various times in her life: schoolfriends, work colleagues, flatmates, lovers. By all accounts, she was well-liked by everyone. So how does a woman in her late thirties drop off the map like Vincent did? Sure, it's become a cliche to say that Londoners are isolated, and never talk to their neighbours. But how can someone with all these contacts die alone in her flat in 2003, and not be discovered until 2006, in such an advanced state of decomposition that her cause of death will never be known?
Without giving too much away, the film doesn't come up with any definitive answers: it can't. But it can gradually reveal the circumstances of Vincent's life. It can show that she was effectively a chameleon, who fitted in so well into social gatherings that nobody really noticed that she hadn't any real friends of her own - she tended to inherit those of whoever she was living with at the time. And they'd all come to accept that Vincent was a nomad who'd up sticks and change houses, jobs and lovers whenever she felt like it: long disappearances were part of the deal when you hung out with her. Ultimately, we're all defined by the people who surround us. If we end up in a situation where there's nobody surrounding us, what does that make us?
The final years of Vincent's life are shrouded in uncertainty: there may have been abusive relationships, there may have been problems with her family. By limiting her on-camera investigations only to people who were willing to tell their side of the story, Morley's portrait of Vincent is skewed towards the positive, and that seems fitting for someone with such a tragic end to their life. But there's always an undercurrent of melancholy, as the interviewees are forced to come to terms with how they could possibly have saved her. And the viewer is forced to consider their own relationships with their family and friends, and whether they could ever end up in that situation themselves. Dreams Of A Life is a powerfully emotional film that may leave you desperate to hold onto someone immediately after you've seen it. I know I did.
By comparison with Sunday's first programme of animation, the second one is a bit more experimental, a bit less eager to please. Not that that's a bad thing, of course. But I've generally found that when the animation programmes are mixed up a bit more, the more serious shorts tend to get overlooked at the expense of the lighter, funnier ones. Maybe this sort of tonal apartheid is the way to go in future?
Having said that, it'd be wrong to suggest that there's no fun to be had in this programme. Probably the funnest film of the eight shown here is Juan Pablo Zaramella's Luminaris [animator's site], which sets up a charmingly surreal premise and follows it through to a delightful conclusion, with smart use of pixellated animation. I particularly like the way that it takes one of the banes of the outdoor animator's life - the changing position of the sun from frame to frame - and turns it into a design strategy. Slightly darker and ruder fun is to be had with Spike Jonze and Simon Cahn's To Die By Your Side [entire film]: an old gag (book covers coming to life and interacting) executed with fuzzyfelt charm and some cheekiness, the latter particularly evident in the closing credits.
There's also traditional hand-drawn comedy with Neil Boyle's The Last Belle [official site], which tells the tale of a bad first date. However, in a similar story to the first programme, it's hampered by its overlength: at twenty minutes, it feels out of place amongst the punchier shorts included here. It's inspiring to hear Boyle quickly outline the history of the film's production, self-financed and slowly pieced together over ten years or so. But you can't help feeling that if he'd taken some of the flatter sections out of his storyboard, it wouldn't have taken him as long. There are some nicely designed visual gags in there, but a bit of ruthlessness could have turned it from a twenty-minute okay short to a ten-minute great one.
Putting those three aside, the rest of the programme is where we get into more serious territory. Fiona Geilinger's Wallpaper [animator's site] is a curious little hybrid, hovering on the border between animation, video art and dance - it's nice to look at, though, and gets its vision across in a tight four minutes. Daniel Ojari's Slow Derek [official site] has a smart idea at its core, as its lead character discovers over breakfast how fast the earth is revolving, and finds it hard to stay upright with this new knowledge. It's a very clever piece of visual storytelling, which belies its status as a student film. Fellow RCA graduate Yoonah Nam has an even better film with Henrick [animator's site], which transforms itself over five minutes from a simple tale of stalking to an existential nightmare. Simply told in a stark black and white style, its musings on how we define ourselves have unexpected echoes for anyone who saw Dreams Of A Life earlier today.
If there's a film in this programme that has to be marked down as a failure, it's Koji Yamamura's Muybridge's Strings [official site]. Trying to rate the films in my head a few minutes after the screening, I found that this was the one I simply couldn't remember at all, which has to be a bad sign. You can see how its basic subject has appeal for an animator - the experiments of Eadweard Muybridge in capturing motion on film ultimately lead us to the technology that makes animation work. But Yamamura tries to throw too much on top of this basic premise. The strings which trigger Muybridge's multiple cameras echo the strings of a piano in the house of a Japanese family: the watch that reminds him of his wife's infidelity travels across the globe and across time: at one point there's even a visual parallel drawn between his experiments in animal movement and Noah's Ark. There's just too much symbolism clamoring for your attention here, and you end up not paying attention to any of it at all.
The undoubted highlight of this collection is Barry Purves' Tchaikovsky: An Elegy [official site]. One of my favourite animations ever is Purves' Next, in which Shakespeare himself performs highlights from all of his plays in the space of four minutes. His new film does the same for Tchaikovsky, using a Scope-shaped picture frame in the middle of the screen as a stage where the composer revisits the key moments of his life. Like Purves' earlier piece, it combines flawless puppet animation with a witty repurposing of its subject's greatest hits, and an intelligent use of simple theatrical effects in a medium that typically sees itself as being above that sort of thing. If nothing else, it makes better use of the Dying Swan than Natalie Portman ever did.
6.00pm: Chicken With Plums [official site]
And in case the reference five paragraphs back had you wondering: yes, that Spike Jonze. What with his involvement in To Die By Your Side, and Wes Anderson's vulpine adventures of a couple of years ago, it would appear that live-action directors dabbling in animation has become a trendy thing. But it cuts both ways. Animator Brad Bird (of The Incredibles fame) will soon be unveiling his live-action debut, nothing less than the latest Mission Impossible sequel. Meanwhile, the duo behind LFF 2007 hit Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud - have their own non-animated debut on show, once again adapted from one of Satrapi's graphic novels.
Nasser Ali (Mathieu Amalric) is an acclaimed violinist, living in Tehran in the late fifties. But a couple of recent events have given him cause to doubt his ability. With nothing else to live for apart from his music, he decides that the easiest thing to do would be to just die, much to the irritation of his wife Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros) and his family. A quick suicide might have been better for everyone, but Nasser Ali prefers to merely lie in bed and wait for the angel of death to come calling. This gives him plenty of time to reflect on his past, as well as his family's future.
Satrapi and Paronnaud attack this material with such speed, verve and Frenchness that it's impossible to avoid the comparison - Chicken With Plums is like Amelie, but with death. (You can use that on the posters if you like.) The directors mix up styles with the sort of abandon you'd expect from people who've previously used drawings to get their ideas across. There are CGI Middle Eastern landscapes modelled with just the right degree of fairytale unrealism, American sequences filmed like a bad sitcom, Gilliamesque stylisation for Nasser Ali's conversations with Death, and even a brief animated interlude to keep the Persepolis fans happy.
It sounds like a hellish mixture, but somehow it all holds together. Amalric's performance in the lead has to be the key reason for this: he could so easily lose our sympathy as he basically gives up on life, but as we delve further into his past we start to feel for the grumpy old bloke. We're told upfront that his death is imminent, so the gags and surrealism always have a darker undercurrent to them, no matter how light a movie it appears to be on its glittery surface: it's the tension between those two emotional extremes that makes it work so well.
Hmm. Maybe I'll try to see fewer films about death tomorrow, if it's all the same to you.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Las Acacias [trailer]
The Cineaste - Caramba hombre, another road trip!! I’m not especially a huge fan of this genre but this is my second at this year’s LFF already.
This was a very straightforward film about a lorry-driver giving a ride to a young mother with her young baby daughter. An LFF chappie introduced the film (sorry I can’t remember his name, Scottish by nationality), who said that this was a little gem; that although it was economical on dialogue and required patience to get into it, it was imbued with warmth and humanity. Amen to that.
Set in South America, Ruben is a taciturn truck driver. He delivers large cargoes of timber on long journeys from Paraguay across the border all the way to Buenos Aires. An arrangement’s been made, by virtue of a friendship with his boss, who’s persuaded him to take young Jacinta on one of these trips (her family know his boss). When she turns up as arranged at the truckers compound near the Argentinean border he seems rather put out that she’s got a young baby in tow as well. Not an ominous start.
From these unpromising beginnings the film then proceeds at leisurely pace as the two gradually feel more comfortable with each other and start to bond (not romantically). It happens ever so slowly, there’s never a huge amount of dialogue, and there are long scenes where very little happens. It’s that sort of a film. There is indeed warmth and humanity breaking out towards the end, and great credit to German de Silva and Hebe Duarte for wonderful performances.
It’s interesting seeing a film of such leisurely pace and little action (I remember seeing another Argentinean film about 8 or 9 years ago about a woodcutter – he cut trees in the woods, and that was it). You just couldn’t imagine this sort of film being made Britain – it would be ridiculed mercilessly before even getting off the ground. So although it wasn’t perhaps a film I’d rush out to see again in a hurry, a memorable little composition nonetheless.
Undercurrent [official site]
The Belated Birthday Girl - The film opens at sea on a fishing boat, with the dead body of a crew member being brought back to shore. We then spend some time ashore with the remaining crew members as they bury their colleague, Jon Geir, and prepare for the next trip out to sea. In this short time, we get to see something of the home lives of each, and the crew acquires a surprising replacement for Jon Geir in the form of the Captain's niece, Drifa, who is determined to sign on to be at sea for a time, in spite of the 16 hour shifts and having no real experience. We then follow the crew as they set out again, with the weather forecast not good, expectations of a decent haul low, and the events of their last tour hanging over them.
Undercurrent (Brim in Icelandic) is the latest film from Icelandic film and theatre company Vesturport, whose Country Wedding I enjoyed very much at 2008's LFF. Like the earlier film, this is very much an ensemble piece, with a group of people thrust together with no escape: in Country Wedding, the setting is a couple of buses; here, it is the far more confining setting of a small fishing boat at sea. But Undercurrent is a much darker film, and aside from a few character moments, there is very little to lighten the tone, and some sort of tragedy always feels inevitable. The atmosphere is tense and claustrophobic, aided by a moody soundtrack by Icelandic duo Slowblow, and there is interesting interweaving of flashbacks to the earlier tour and the circumstances of Jon Geir's death, which blurs the boundaries between reality and imagination. The performances are universally strong, and there is some subtle writing which hints at motivations, with the adage "show, don't tell" being followed at times to good effect. But some of the characterisation never moves far beyond cyphers: maybe just a little more room to flesh out a couple of the characters would have been no bad thing, and at a trim 95 minutes, the film could probably handle being just a bit longer to help achieve this.
I would still be keen to see more of Vesturport's output, both on film and on stage, but Undercurrent remains only the second best Icelandic film I've seen at this year's LFF.
Once Upon A Time In Anatolia [official site]
The Cineaste - Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who’s been making huge waves in recent years, endearingly said a few words before the film: “Well I hope you’re nicely prepared for a good sleep….. rather a boring film… over two-and-a-half hours long.” That sort of mild dry humour bubbled up in the film from time to time, and all the more enjoyable it was for it.
A rather raggle-taggle group of men go looking, in the dead of night, for a buried body. These men are all partial to the investigation – the police, the prosecution, doctor, members of the army, and two of the suspects. The way their progress, or lack thereof, unfurls is the very essence of this film. Because Ceylan uses it to reveal all manner of topics – the minutiae and banalities of small town life, petty rivalries between neighbouring villages, any topic of discussion an opportunity to have an intensely detailed debate. It was all done very cleverly, interspersed with some humour by way of heated debates about totally inconsequential matters – discussing the relative merits of buffalo or skimmed yoghurt, how to correctly spot the symptoms of prostate problems etc.
The thing that really hit home for me was how everyone knew where they slotted into their place in the great hierarchy of this society. The police officer was a great example – he’s appropriately deferential to the doctor and the prosecutor, but has no hesitation in being overbearing and autocratic to his subordinates. With the search not making any progress, in the middle of the night the prosecutor (unsurprisingly in charge of operations), decides they’ll have a break. The army sergeant conscientiously works out which is the nearest village, after which they all invite themselves round to its mayor for a large meal (I think a clock now said about 4.20 am). The mayor, rather than being miffed at this disruption, is hilariously obsequious to the prosecutor – “oh Mr Prosecutor what a delight it is for us you’re visiting, it is indeed a great honour for you to choose us to visit”.
The film progressed in this fashion with this search, then jumped to the next day to deal with the consequences. That’s where I felt it rather wobbled and veered a bit off track. What about the ending to the film? (A topic that’s already cropped up in this year’s LFF.) A long film, it could have ended about 20 minutes before it did (not because of the long running time, but because it started delving into other issues); or, bizarrely, I thought it could have continued for another 15 minutes or so, to properly look at these other issues.
Anyway, all in all a hugely impressive effort. Enjoyable at an elemental level, with a rich tapestry of themes to appreciate as well.