Spank's LFF Diary, Friday 10/10/2014
Spank's LFF Diary, Sunday 12/10/2014

Spank's LFF Diary, Saturday 11/10/2014

Reviewed today: Captivated, Electric Boogaloo, The Great Invisible, The Possibilities Are Endless.

Electric Boogaloo1.00pm: Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story Of Cannon Films [official Facebook]

Maybe feature-length documentaries are more prevalent than they used to be a decade or two ago, or maybe this is a festival which has come to specialise in the genre. However you choose to explain it, today is one of those occasional days when The Belated Birthday Girl and I are seeing nothing but documentaries at the LFF. (See also: October 20th, 2011.) We're each catching different films in the first slot of the day, as The BBG has chosen to support a work on the other side of town with a strong ecological message. I bet my one has more ninjas in it, though.

Electric Boogaloo looks, from a distance, like the third film in a very specialised trilogy. Mark Hartley's first documentary Not Quite Hollywood played at LFF 2008, taking a hilarious look at the history of Australia's exploitation cinema. He did the same thing for the Philippines in 2010 with Machete Maidens Unleashed!, which I haven't seen yet, and have felt a little uncomfortable about since I heard about the queasy relationship between Hartley's film and the recent Terracotta award winner The Search For Weng Weng. Broadly speaking, they ended up being two rival productions of the same story battling against each other - a tale whose format reappears a couple of times in Hartley's third documentary, which this time focusses on a single studio rather than an entire country's output.

If you were the sort of movie geek who read credits closely in the 1980s, then you eventually learned to associate the names of producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus with films that frequently didn't quite work, and sometimes failed in a spectacular fashion. Their company Cannon Films went through some extraordinary ups and downs throughout the decade, and Hartley documents them all with a barrage of clips and interviews. Golan and Globus were regarded with cautious affection in the industry, mainly because they worked so well as a team: Golan was the creative one of the pair, Globus the financial wizard. They insisted that their abiding love of movies was what set them apart from other studios, but screenwriter Stephen Tolkin has a caveat to that - sure, they loved movies, but not so much that they were prepared to spend any time or money on making them good.

For a decade, Golan and Globus were notorious for selling films purely on the basis of a poster or a back-of-a-fag-packet cast list, using the money raised to actually start making the film. Sometimes they got lucky, and hit a chord with the general public, creating international hits like Lemon Popsicle or Breakin'. Sometimes their desperation to work with big names paid off: Franco Zeffirelli insists to this day that they were the best producers he ever worked with, when the three collaborated on a production of Otello. But more often than not, you got films like Ninja III: The Domination, which smashed incompatible genres together in the vain hope of creating something watchable.

It's a business model that worked for a while, but it was ultimately doomed to failure. Golan and Globus kept indulging their delusions that eventually they would make an Oscar-winner, and started to pump too much money into films that had the potential to be huge at the box office, without really understanding that you needed talent as well. The final years of Cannon turn into something of a tragedy, as the two men are ultimately driven apart, and each spend the first year of their separation battling to release the world's first Lambada film before the other one.

Electric Boogaloo is driven by a huge number of interviews with people who've worked with Cannon over the years. It's nice to be able finally to put faces to names that you've seen on the backs of video boxes over the years: directors like Albert Pyun, Sam Firstenberg and Boaz Davidson. Unfortunately, the interviews end up swinging the film perilously close to anti-Semitism, as everyone has their own anecdote about their dealings with Golan, and they all want to do the voice. They're an entertaining set of stories, but Boogaloo doesn't feel like it's really telling us anything we didn't already know, unlike the Australian and Filipino docs. Even the clips are just a few seconds long, obviously there for scene-setting rather than introducing us to a film - we already know what Over The Top looks like, we're more interested in how the hell anyone thought a Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling movie was a good idea. Still, as a celebration of a type of filmmaking that doesn't really exist any more, Boogaloo makes for an enjoyable watch.

Captivated3.30pm: Captivated: The Trials Of Pamela Smart [official site]

I started off this festival by reflecting on how things have changed over the last twenty-five years (you've all read this by now, haven't you?). Here's a good example of that. In the early nineties, both the London and Edinburgh festivals had the irritating habit of showcasing films made by the BBC, letting people pay hard cash for tickets, and then revealing at the screening that that the film was already scheduled to appear on telly just a week or two later. That sort of thing doesn't really happen any more: when the Beeb make films now, they'll usually try to squeeze a theatrical release out of them first. But I had a sudden flash of nostalgia last week when I watched Sky Atlantic and saw a trailer for Captivated, which you can now see on TV this coming Wednesday (assuming you've got access to the channel, of course). Still, it's interesting to see that Sky have actually put some money into the film, and it's not just been picked up as part of their existing first-look deal with its producers at HBO.

Director Jeremiah Zagar was last here at the LFF in 2005 with a short film called Coney Island, 1945, and I'm just going to throw that information out there and let you join any dots that you feel might need to be joined. Here, he's telling the story of a murder case that rocked America in the early nineties. When Gregg Smart was killed in New Hampshire in 1990, the subsequent investigation revealed a tawdry story: his wife Pamela had been having an affair with the 15-year-old Billy Flynn, and it was Flynn and three of his teenage friends who ultimately broke into Smart's house and did the deed. The trial of the boys was something of a formality: the big question was whether Pamela had inspired them to commit the murder or not.

Pamela's trial was a landmark in American law for three reasons, none of which acted in her favour. Firstly, the sensational nature of the crime resulted in several TV specials being broadcast well before the start of the trial, with no apparent consideration of how their speculation would come to be accepted as the official story by a jury. (An extraordinary late twist in the film reveals the impact of a TV movie dramatisation of the trial, broadcast just a few months later.) Secondly, Pamela's trial was the first to be broadcast live on television. Thirdly, the only piece of incriminating evidence available was an audio recording of Pamela talking to a colleague, possibly about her involvement in the crime, although the sound quality is so atrocious that you can't be sure. You'd assume that counts as 'reasonable doubt' in terms of whether it would be enough to convict Pamela - but that would be a bad assumption.

One of the interviewees in Captivated is a reality TV producer, brought in here as an expert witness to point out how Pamela's story was shaped by the television coverage. These days, we're used to a gameshow contestant's life being turned around by a tricksy edit: we may even like to think we're media-savvy enough to spot when it's happening. Pamela may possibly have been the first person on television to have been condemned by editing decisions. It means that Captivated isn't just the story of a miscarriage of justice: it's also about how we expect our news stories to fit into familiar narrative frameworks, and how we get confused or angry when they don't. As Zagar points out in his terrific Q&A afterwards, the courtroom drama is a well-worn story format, but Pamela's real crime was that her story fitted the oldest format of all - the woman who tempted an ususpecting man into breaking the rules.

It's true, I may have gone into Captivated slightly miffed at how I'd paid sixteen quid to see a film that I could see for free just a few days later. But I came out of it with a head full of ideas about the justice system, the way we process our lives as stories, and the dangers of letting other people do that processing for us. If you can get Sky Atlantic, watch this on Wednesday: it quietly and unsensationally shows how Heisenberg isn't just a character off Breaking Bad, it's a theory on how observation has a devastating impact on the observed, and it applies to courtrooms as much as particles.

The Possibilities Are Endless9.00pm: The Possibilities Are Endless [official site]

For three and a half hours, Captivated was my favourite film of the LFF so far. Then this happened.

Before I get into it, though, I should mention a discussion I was having with The Belated Birthday Girl beforehand (in the National Theatre's lovely new bar The Understudy, in fact). As an inevitable consequence of Clare Stewart taking over the festival, there's been a gradual change in the programming staff, with new faces taking over from some of the old favourites. It's something you particularly think about on LFF Saturday nights, a slot that Michael 'Low Fat Morrissey' Hayden made his own with a splendid run of music documentaries.

Hayden has moved on to become head of programming at the Irish Film Institute, and Stuart Brown is now the man looking after what we have to call the Sonic strand of music-related films. His introduction to The Possibilities Are Endless goes as follows: "I'm not going to say much about this, because it's just the best fuckin' film in the festival." Your old job's in a solid pair of hands, Michael. And I think he might be right about the film, too.

In 2005, Edwyn Collins - formerly of the band Orange Juice, more recently doing all right as a solo artist - had a massive stroke that left him in hospital for six months. I was aware of that, and that over the years his health had gradually improved to the point where he can perform music again. Edward Lovelace and James Hall's film tells the story of how he got from there to here: or, more accurately, shows you what it felt like to Collins, in a highly impressionistic fashion.

As his wife Grace - a huge, fundamental part of this story - says in the Q&A afterwards, strokes are fairly common these days, and familiar to many people though direct or indirect experience. For my own part, my mum had a couple of them in her lifetime: and for someone who's heard from a stroke victim what it's like, the opening sequence of this film is terrifying. From a chirpy clip from the Conan O'Brien show showing Collins in his prime, we smash cut to a black screen, followed by a series of sudden flashes, random words, and a sense of drowning. My mum always said that her strokes made her feel disconnected from everything, and here that disconnection is depicted through Collins trying to re-establish his sense of the world around him.

It's not until partway through the film that we actually get to see Collins himself on screen, and get a more external view of how his illness has affected him. At one point, he's trying to talk to Grace and the filmmakers about a length of time, and keeps referring to "65 days in a year". He's obviously trying to say "365 days in a year", but can't get the first part of the number out of his mouth. We in the audience understand that (or at least it seemed obvious to me), but the people he's talking to on screen don't. It's a perfect illustration of the frustration of aphasia, where you know exactly what you want to say but can't get your point across. It's indicative of the film as a whole - it doesn't tell you what things feel like to Collins, it tries to make you feel them.

Over time, his confidence increases, and eventually he has to work on the biggest challenge - becoming a musician again. The incredibly touching climax of the film covers his first couple of public appearances, although at this screening they end up being overshadowed by Collins himself coming on stage to talk a bit about the documentary and sing a few songs. His appearance here confirms a couple of things that the film has already led you to suspect. Firstly, the stroke has tweaked his personality a little, removing some of his social inhibitions as if giving him permission to be cheekier than than you'd expect. (His main comment to the directors regarding the film is "it's rather arty".) Secondly, it's obvious that it takes him a huge amount of effort to sing these days: but we're not simply awestruck because he's making the effort, rather we're awestruck because his voice is now pretty much as good as it ever was.

His short set at this performance results in a standing ovation, and deservedly so - it's the perfect ending to a couple of hours that takes you through every emotion possible and leaves you on a high. If you're feeling jealous about not being able to see the film with Collins accompanying it, don't be: he's doing a short tour around the UK with the movie before its official release, so you can recreate this experience for yourselves, and I insist that you should. 

Notes From Spank's Pals

The Great Invisible [official site]

The Belated Birthday Girl - Margaret Brown's documentary on the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill of 2010, which killed 11 oil rig workers and devastated the Gulf of Mexico, largely takes the approach of allowing us to observe, with relatively few captions to give explanation or comment. It focusses on the people affected by the disaster - be they survivors of the explosion, family members of those killed, or local oyster workers whose livelihood has been decimated - but also allows us to see those whose livelihoods depend on oil, and to hear the voices of those in the business, showing some of the reasons why the world in general and the United States in particular are so dependent on cheap oil. The causes behind the accident - cutting corners on safety to increase profits, but also a certain culture on the rig - are also shown, and we see the distance between the promises BP made and the reality affecting the local communities. One of the strengths of the film is the wide ranging material shown, so that while it is clearly a film advocating a change in attitudes to the use of oil, and increases in controls and safety regulations in the industry, it is not ignoring other voices or the complexity of the issues.

The film itself, while very well-made, does not break any new ground in documentary filmmaking, and it may not show many facts that are not already in the public domain about the disaster. But a lot of the material is illuminating, some very moving, and the way it brings it all together in one place and reminds people of an event which seems so soon to have slipped from public consciousness with so little long-lasting impact (no new safety regulations have been brought in since the tragedy) is surely worthwhile. And as is now pretty much the norm with this sort of issue documentary, there is a campaigning website where people can find out more and get moved to action, and that seems almost as much the point of this sort of film as the film itself.


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