Reviewed today: LFF Connects: Laurie Anderson, Our Man In Havana, Yakuza Apocalypse.
We're over a week into the LFF now, but today marks the first day I've seen festival boss Clare Stewart at an event. To be fair, The BBG caught her this time last week at the Geena Davis talk, so I guess her main focus at the moment is on the high-profile talent appearances. Still, while we're on the subject of those, I suppose I should raise my usual complaint about the way they're organised. At the time that booking opened this year, only four live interviews had been announced, including just one in this new LFF Connects strand discussing the links between cinema and other art forms. The rest appeared in dribs and drabs over the next few weeks. I do appreciate that artist availability makes pinning dates down difficult, but it's difficult for those of us who book lots of festival events when these one-offs enter the programme late. As it stands, the only reason we had a slot free for this was because the film we wanted had already sold out.
All carping aside, the chance to hear Laurie Anderson talk about her new film Heart Of A Dog, as well as her previous work, seemed irresistible: and when it was revealed late in the day that the interview would be conducted by Brian Eno, that made it a perfect ticket. Anderson and Eno are long-term friends as well as collaborators (with Eno producing Anderson's 1994 album Bright Red), and their backgrounds are very similar – they're both avant-garde artists, working in a variety of media, but still carrying the baggage of their unexpected pop hits.
Actually, it's billed as a conversation rather than an interview, and that's just about right here: it's a two way discussion, as much Eno as it is Anderson, with very few actual questions being asked. Eno's the one who comes up with the snappy aphorisms, summing up his thoughts on big ideas in a sentence or two: Anderson is the one who bounces back with a neat punchline to cap the idea. Their opening exchange demonstrates this perfectly: Eno complains that in the press release announcing the event, he's been described as “dance music icon Brian Eno... I don't think anyone's ever danced to anything I've ever made.” “I have!” replies Anderson.
It's a delightfully informal natter that covers a lot of ground. Eno's never made a film, but has worked on a few soundtracks, insisting that synchronising the music to the images isn't necessary as the viewer will force a pattern onto the two regardless. (Hey, Brian, maybe you should have a look at this.) Anderson talks about how her own movie came about, a commission from Arte on her philosophy of life that grew into something bigger, structured around an ever-growing series of questions that become more and more linked without ever getting answered. They both rave about how we're now in a time where artists can work on movies or music entirely on their own, without a team of collaborators – the way your ideas develop is very different if you don't have to explain them to anyone else during the creative process.
Towards the end, the conversation settles down on a couple of areas for longer than a minute or two. Eno talks about his experience of being the only atheist in a New York gospel choir – he likes the way the music allows you to surrender to a bigger feeling, and resents the way that religion has grabbed ownership of that feeling and not allowed anyone else to have it. Anderson talks about her dislike of people who use art for propaganda purposes (she doesn't like art that explicitly tells you what to feel or think), but shows another way of approaching political issues in her recent new work Habeas Corpus.
It's all topped off with a very civilised audience Q&A, in which we learn that one of Anderson's current favourite artists is the filmmaker Guy Maddin, and Eno's current favourite book is “anarchic anthropologist” David Graeber's The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (a title that literally makes Anderson gasp with delight). The Q&A is made even better by Eno setting a couple of perfect ground rules at the start: firstly, that we can only ask a question that at least one other person would like to know the answer to: secondly, that the questions should be short because nobody's paid to hear us blathering. Can we get those printed up for all future LFF talks, please?
3.30pm: Our Man In Havana [trailer]
Three things to be noted about this screening.
1: How delightful it is to see former archive curator Clyde Jeavons in the audience, just turning up like a regular punter to watch a film he likes. You've been missed, sir.
2: It's reassuring, following my concerns at yesterday's A Man For All Seasons, that the person who introduced this film – can't remember her name, but that's a direct consequence of not having the same person introduce all the archive screenings like Clyde used to – anyway, she gave Grover Crisp and his team full credit for another lovely restoration, and sent apologies for him not being able to attend this year. Maybe next time?
3: Who was that ARSEHOLE who brought out an iPad to film the movie directly off the screen, and had to be shouted at TWICE by audience members before they put it away? It was a surprise this year to see a full-page statement of the BFI's anti-piracy policy posted outside every screening room, but obviously it's still not going far enough. I'd like to suggest that any audience member who sees someone with a phone or tablet on during a screening is automatically given full authority to grab the device and smash it into tiny tiny pieces before its idiot user's confused face. That might do it.
Anyway: the film. The BBG mentioned over lunch (which we had here) that she'd read Graham Greene's original novel of Our Man In Havana, and something suddenly struck me – as far as I know, I've never actually read a single one of Greene's books, but I'm massively familiar with his cinema adaptations and original screenplays. Like The Third Man, for example, whose director Carol Reed was reunited with Greene a decade later for this 1959 production. Set in Cuba just before the revolution, it's the story of Wormold (Alec Guinness), an English vacuum cleaner salesman trying to single-handedly raise his daughter there while keeping her out of the hands of the local chief of police. He's approached by Noel Coward, the most obvious secret service agent in the world, who recruits him to gather secrets for the British government for a substantial fee. Wormold needs the money, so he throws himself into the job with enthusiasm rather than ability, creating a roster of imaginary agents and faking drawings of enemy installations. Unfortunately, he does it too well: pretty soon he's been sent additional staff to assist him, as his data is getting him increased attention from back home. Not to mention increased attention from elsewhere, which is even more dangerous.
It's the handling of tone that is most impressive here, with Greene and Reed performing an astonishing balancing act between them. The air of resigned cynicism with the way the world works is familiar from The Third Man, but here it's allowed to escalate into black farce: as the situation gets more and more tangled, it gets funnier and funnier right up to the point where the laughs suddenly stop with a jolt. Guinness' glorious portrayal of a man trying to keep several balls in the air simultaneously is a joy, and is backed up with solid support from everyone else in the cast, right down to John le Mesurier's tiny one-shot masterclass of physical comedy as he tries to prevent the failure of an assassination attempt. Oswald Morris' black and white scope photography – a rare combination that's always delightful on the rare occasions it's used - looks just lovely in this restoration, with Crisp and co doing their usual sensitive job. But in the end, it's the writing that's the bedrock on which this terrific piece of cinema is firmly anchored.
9.00pm: Yakuza Apocalypse [official site]
The BBG asked me over dinner (which we had here): what was the last great Takashi Miike movie that we saw? I think there's a case to be made for last year's As The Gods Command, though with caveats based on the conditions in which it was viewed. If we assume that it was just the sheer incomprehensibility that endeared Gods to me, then the most recent unqualified Miike classic I can think of would be 13 Assassins, which was five years ago. The majority of his films since then have been overlong, baggy affairs with too few ideas for their running time. Yakuza Apocalypse isn't quite as bad as that, but even at a mere 115 minutes there's still some flab in there.
It's a yakuza story, though you probably guessed that. Kamiura is a nice yakuza, though: he has to be, with the ever-charming Lily Franky playing him. He only ever attacks his own kind (which brings to mind Arthur Mullard's magnificent response when someone said the same thing to him about the Krays - “what, you mean humans?”). He's always on the side of the 'civilians' in disputes. Everybody loves him, and up-and-coming yakuza Kagayama (Hayato Ichihara) loves him most of all. So when Kamiura is inevitably killed, it's only natural that his final act is to pass his responsibilities on to Kagayama. What's maybe less than natural is that he passes them on by Kamiura's severed head biting Kagayama's neck and drinking his blood. Oh, sorry, did I not mention that Kamiura was a GODDAMN YAKUZA VAMPIRE? Well, he was, and now Kagayama is too. Pretty soon, he won't be the only one.
With a constantly escalating sense of ridiculousness from start to finish, there's a lot to like about Yakuza Apocalypse. At its core, there are two brilliant ideas. The first one is a detailed exploration of what it would be like if being a yakuza could be transmitted virally: or more accurately, if the behavioural traits we associate with yakuza in the movies were transmitted virally, which is much funnier. The second is the huge buildup given to the terrifying 'modern monster' which will either destroy the yakuza vampire menace, or destroy the entire world: it would have to be one hell of a creature to live up to the hype, and Miike manages to deliver.
Between those two ideas, there's enough silliness to carry the film most of the way, but not all of it. In fact, it carries over a couple of potential problems from last year's Miike film, As The Gods Command. For one thing, there are a lot of Japanese cultural references that may not travel well outside their home country – for example, the infected child who rips his hair off to reveal a perfectly-coiffed yakuza-style perm directly underneath. But like that earlier film, there's a bigger problem with the way the plot disintegrates in its final stages. We end up with a series of repetitive fight scenes standing in for an actual climax, culminating in an abrupt anti-climax that's a dead ringer for the one at the end of Gods. If you can get past these problems, there's plenty of the deranged fun we've associated with Miike for about fifteen years now: but he really needs someone on his crew to tell him when to cut.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Belated Birthday Girl - If you were going to guess which of Kore-Eda and Miike would have a movie adapted from a manga and which would have an original story at this year’s LFF, you’d probably guess the wrong way around. Even hearing the title and high level plot concept of Miike’s Yakuza Apocalypse, you might assume it was an adaptation from a manga (I know I did). But the story goes that when a gap opened up in Miike’s schedule, his producer and AD came to him with an idea for a film about a Yakuza being bitten by a vampire.
Yakuza Apocalypse mashes up not only various genres but also various styles of filmmaking, with call-backs to several films in the Miike back catalogue. It is quite deranged, and one of the pleasures in it is the number of times it gets more so, just when you thought it was probably as deranged as it was going to get. Miike works here with a fine cast, playing it straight, which not only makes the yakuza genre parts work, but also helps crank up the absurdist humour. As usual, Miike’s skill as a director stands out – compare and contrast with Nakata’s Ghost Theater – and the film is great to look at, too.
Although I wouldn’t rank this with the very best Miike films I’ve seen, it was highly entertaining and a fun way to spend a couple of hours.