Reviewed today: Being Evel, The Idol, Invention, Right Now Wrong Then.
As we're entering screen 5 of the Vue West End, we encounter a man in the lobby who I suspect to be the manager of the cinema, attempting to describe Evel Knievel to the front-of-house staff. I'm of an age where the hand gestures he's using to represent a man on a motorbike jumping over a row of double decker buses are instantly recognisable. The twentysomethings he's trying to explain this to are looking at him like he's some sort of basket case.
It's presumably a generational thing, and Daniel Junge's documentary about Knievel is ruthlessly aimed at pushing the nostalgia buttons for people of my age range. Before seeing the film, if you'd asked me about my abiding memory of Evel Knievel, I'd have talked for a bewildering length of time about Evil Kneebone, a teddy bear that someone from my class brought into school, which used to perform stunts that largely involved jumping from third storey windows directly onto the heads of unsuspecting passers-by. But seeing Being Evel triggered another, more buried memory for me. At one point, an interviewee talks about how kids his age used to lie down in the road while another one jumped over them on a bike, and I suddenly remembered that used to happen down our street. Every lad with a pushbike thought he was Evel Knievel in the seventies. (Meanwhile, girls like The BBG have memories of the Evel Knievel action figure, which it turns out was one of the man's most profitable investments.)
Knievel was huge in his day, but is largely forgotten now, and Being Evel investigates both parts of that. There's an interesting suggestion that 1970s America was the perfect time for him to be performing: in an age of cynicism when even the President was an acknowledged liar, Knievel was looked up to as some sort of avatar of truth. If he told you he was going to do something, then dammit, he'd do it, even if it ended up killing him. Meanwhile, even though his name may be unfamiliar to youngsters nowadays, he was effectively the forefather of the present-day multi-million dollar extreme sports industry. (And there's a further line that can be drawn from there to the genre of Extreme Sports Gone Bad, which is why Johnny Knoxville has a producer credit on this film, as well as a busted urethra from a Knievelesque bike stunt he did on Jackass. "Broke my dick. Thanks, Evel.")
Apart from a pre-credits flashforward to one of Knievel's most notorious accidents, Junge tells the story in a strictly chronological fashion, and doesn't attempt to cover up the darker side of his subject's personality. We hear about his criminal childhood, his adultery, and the disagreement with his biographer which actually put him in jail for a bit following the use of a baseball bat. But the thing that really comes across is his flair for showmanship: he relished his high-profile failures - and in at least one case, actually staged a failure deliberately - because he knew they would up the ante for his next stunt. His son Robbie went on to break every single record his dad set, but on lightweight bikes specially designed for the job: he knows as well as anyone that nobody will ever have the impact of Evel again. If it's time to get his name back in the public conversation again, this film is a great way to do that.
6.30pm: Invention [official site]
You don't scare me, Experimenta section: I saw a five and a quarter hour movie last weekend, and I used to do at least one James Benning film a year. I can take anything you throw at me. But while we're on the subject, why doesn't Benning's work appear at the LFF any more? He seems to be still making movies, but there hasn't been one shown at the festival since Twenty Cigarettes in 2011, the year before Clare Stewart took over the... Hmmm. That may be another one I have to add to the list, alongside the animation programmes and the archive section.
Anyway, in terms of contemplative long-take art features, we may not have James Benning, but we just might have a worthy successor in Mark Lewis. Until now, Lewis has made short films specifically for installations in art galleries: his first feature, Invention, takes a dozen or so of these films and assembles them into a single piece. His specific aim here is to look at the relationship between cinema and cities – in his engaging talk after the screening, he puts forward the idea that cinemas are cities, constrained in single rooms. His modus operandi is to take a space – an outdoor location, a piece of architecture, or a room in an art gallery – and have his camera roam around it in a single unbroken take.
Lewis has filmed in his home city of Toronto, as well as Paris and Sao Paulo (both of which have commissioned work from him), so we get some real contrasts from scene to scene. He uses the latest camera technology to get some astonishing effects, at one point hovering around the skyscrapers of Toronto before passing through a glass window and into an office. He gives us a literal bird's eye view of the Louvre, swooping around between the exhibits and the slightly confused viewers. But it's Sao Paulo that provides the most visually stunning sequences here – a perspective-mangling upside-down view of a gallery staircase, an epic crane shot up and over a busy pedestrian walkway, or an eerie drive through the deserted streets at 4am.
All of this looks ravishing, and works beautifully even when divorced from its initial installation context. Of course, people who want their cinema to have a narrative will almost certainly get bored or frustrated when they see this, and they'll probably shit themselves when they discover the one detail I haven't mentioned yet. When these films were shown in galleries, they didn't have any sound, as is usually the case with installation film. Lewis' most ballsy move is to stick with that approach for the feature assembly – so apart from a wee soundscape to mark the beginning and end of the film, there is literally total silence for about eighty minutes. It's not something you get to experience in a cinema often, and it's fascinating to observe the effect it has on you. You spend the first twenty minutes simply getting your head around the idea – and if there's a risk of you nodding off, it's in those early stages. After that point, you become hyper-aware of every tiny sound in the room, whether it's you shuffling slightly in your seat, or the greedy sod two rows behind you who takes fifteen minutes to eat a bag of crisps.
In the end, though, you just come to accept it as part of the whole one-off experience. And Lewis himself has a lovely take on the concept in his Q&A, suggesting that it's just nice to have a break from sound once in a while: “if you've eaten in a restaurant recently, you'll know what I'm talking about.” Lewis is an utterly charming bloke on stage, quietly self-deprecating and witty when talking about his work: if he makes another feature after this one, I'd like to hear him talk about that one too.
8.50pm: Right Now, Wrong Then [official Facebook]
The Belated Birthday Girl keeps asking me when I'm going to give up on Hong Sang-soo's films. She has a point: go back through my previous reviews of his work, and you'll see I'm frequently on the verge of jacking them in because they're all more or less interchangeable. (For example, Nobody's Daughter Haewon from LFF 2013.) And then Hong will do something in a movie I wasn't expecting, and I'll give him the benefit of the doubt for another year or two. (For example, Our Sunhi from, um, LFF 2013.) It's a dilemma, and no mistake. Perhaps one way to quantify my ambivalence about Hong Sang-soo's films is to plot a chart graphing how far into each movie we get before we hit the stereotypical scene that typifies a Hong story – a film director making inappropriate advances to a younger woman while smashed on soju.
In the case of Right Here, Wrong Now, it's around 25 minutes. The film director is Ham Chunsu (Jung Jae-young), visiting a small Korean town to screen his new movie and give an accompanying talk. He's got a day to kill before his appearance, and while wandering around a Chinese temple he meets local artist Yoon Heejung (Kim Min-hee). They talk about their work, they get drunk together, and there are embarrassing consequences. All you need for this to be a completely typical Hong film is some sort of structural quirk in the storytelling, and this is the point where it happens, in a way that makes this my second film today where a casual viewer might think there's a fault with the projection.
It's still enjoyable enough to watch, though. It may be lacking in big comedy moments, and the way in which Hong chooses to mess up the narrative isn't quite as exciting as some of his previous experiments in form. But it's got all the charm and wit you'd expect, and passes the time entertainingly enough. As for his next film... well, we'll see.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Idol [clip]
The Belated Birthday Girl - This “Inspired By True Events” movie tells the story of Mohammad Assaf, a refugee living in Gaza who went on to win Arab Idol. One of the problems with knowing that from the outset is that the end is never in doubt, and so there’s never any real tension in the scenes of the competition itself once he makes it to the final. But before we get close to that, the film takes us through his early life as a child singing in Gaza with a band pulled together with his sister and a couple of mates: how they overcame little obstacles like not actually having any musical instruments, and went on to play at weddings.
Probably the main interest for me in the film, as someone who never watches any of these sorts of talent shows, was seeing a film shot in a part of the world we normally only see in news stories of a less uplifting kind, and the scenes in Gaza are the ones which made the most impact. The childhood section of the film is greatly lifted by Mohammad's spunky tomboy sister Nour, and no doubt it is her presence which has prompted comparisons to Wadjda. Meanwhile, the band the two of them made with their friends Ashraf and Omar probably gave rise to the comparisons with We Are The Best!. To the outside viewer, The Idol doesn’t have the rebellious streak of either of those two films, and it is slicker and feels far more mainstream. However, the tension between the strict religion of ruling Hamas, represented by one of the four in later life, and the more secular side of Palestinian life, may mean it is more rebellious than it at first seems.
The later part of the film of necessity concentrates solely on Mohammad, as it moves towards his big break to escape from Gaza to get to the auditions for Arab Idol. Although we never really get a sense of why it’s so urgent for Mohammed specifically to escape Gaza, we see enough of what life in Gaza means to understand why anyone might want an escape. In the earlier childhood part of the film, it was Nour who gave the drive to be better and “rule the world” with their music, and the character of Mohammad never really gives you the same feeling of a burning desire, so Nour’s necessary absence from the later part of the film does leave something of a void. But it is Mohammad’s story, and while it does feel a little propagandising about the Palestinian plight, if the real-life story has managed even in a small way to bring people in Gaza together over something more positive, maybe this film can be part of carrying that forward and showing something other than occupation and war to the outside world.