Reviewed today: Dawson City: Frozen Time, LFF Connects: Behind The Magic Of ILM, Ten Years.
3.30pm: Dawson City: Frozen Time [official site]
Here's a quick timeline for you. At 6.25 this morning, I landed at Heathrow, having spent over seven hours on a flight back from Dubai with not enough sleep involved. By 9am I was back home again, and crashing out in bed for a couple of hours. By 11am I was awake again and joining The Belated Birthday Girl for my second breakfast of the day, while editing and posting up her splendid review of her first day's films. And by 3.30pm I was in the ICA, about to start three back-to-back LFF events to kick off my festival. I was convinced jetlag would make an absolute mess of what was to follow: surprisingly, with one minor exception, it didn't.
Dawson City: Frozen Time is partly the story of a glorious film archive: a collection of several hundred rare silent films, discovered by chance in a Yukon mining town in the 1970s. Mostly, however, it's the story of the many rises and falls of the city of Dawson over the years. In the mid 1890s, the discovery of gold brought a sudden huge influx of people to the city: by the late 1890s, it was already in decline, as the place had been stripped of any gold that was there.
Several businesses had been established in the city during the boom years, and their prime focus now was to 'mine the miners'. Entertainment was a lucrative business in the city, with the DAAA sports hall acting as both an ice hockey rink and a cinema. Because Dawson was so far off the beaten track, it tended to get films a couple of years after everyone else in the US and Canada, and distributors couldn't be bothered paying to have them returned after they'd been shown. So gradually, the city began to accrue a large collection of movies, original nitrate prints made using one of the most flammable materials on the planet. When the talkies came in, an awkward question arose: what do we do with all this old stuff?
Director Bill Morrison takes this at a leisurely, almost novelistic pace, with large amounts of fascinating background detail: over two hours, he introduces dozens of local characters and tells their stories. (A few of them went on to wider fame in the movie business, with both the Grauman and Pantages theatre chains being started by Dawson residents.) Combine that with a hypnotic, repetitive score by Alex Somers of Sigur Ros, and you can see why The BBG was concerned that this would be the film that would send me into a post-long-haul-flight coma. But it didn't. It turned out that Dawson's slow pace was an almost perfect match for my slightly drifty mood, and the strong narrative thread kept my attention throughout the whole two hours.
This is before we get to the biggest strength of the movie: the way that Morrison assembles the story of the city out of wholly unconnected clips from its film archive. With every clip attributed on screen as it appears, they become the perfect visual accompaniment to the history of Dawson. Some of the high spots of the film are ingenious montages. A suspenseful sequence leading up to the revelation of Dawson's most notorious murder: a list of a couple of dozen of the best movies in the city's archive, each one represented by a single perfectly chosen shot: and an astonishing finale in which we see characters apparently interacting with the water damage the films accumulated over the years. The reason why they accumulated so little damage is the punchine to Morrison's story, a combination of circumstances so ridiculous you'd be tempted to write it off as fiction. Instead, it makes for yet another terrific documentary to open my festival for this year.
6.30pm: LFF Connects: Behind The Magic Of ILM [official site]
Movie special effects have changed a hell of a lot in my lifetime. Also, film festival presentations about movie special effects have changed a hell of a lot in my lifetime. Twenty years ago, I was in Edinburgh watching a talk by Euan Macdonald, explaining the process of creating the CGI on Dragonheart to an audience that was completely unfamilar with the technology. "So you make a model first, is that right?" "No, no, it's a model inside a computer..."
These days, we've all got a roughish idea of what goes into movie effects work - I emphasise roughish - so Nancy Tartaglione's onstage interview with three of the guys from Industrial Light & Magic spends less time looking at the technical fine points of the process, and more concentrating how that process has evolved during the 40 years of ILM's history. The main attraction here is Dennis Muren, who's been there since the very beginning, having worked on the original Star Wars. "I'm from the industrial age," he boasts, as he describes the communication issues they had back in 1976 when George Lucas was filming live action at Elstree while Muren was filming effects back in California. At the time, he says the aim wasn't to try and get the perfect shot, just to get it done so they could stay on schedule.
He makes for a great contrast with the two younger men on the panel, David Vickery and Kevin Jenkins, both part of the London facility that ILM opened a couple of years ago to cope with the huge number of effects-driven films being made in the UK. Their solutions to the age-old problem of communicating ideas with a director are very much post-industrial, to steal Muren's term. Vickery describes the use of virtual reality to give the director the chance to wander around a virtual set: Jenkins discusses how 3D printing lets him quickly knock together tangible prototypes that several people can examine at the same time. (Hey, after twenty years it turns out that they do start with a model after all.)
There are one or two specific case studies, notably using Lupita Nyong'o's (ooh, those apostrophes look wrong) performance as Maz in The Force Awakens as an illustration of where motion capture technology has got to, where there's now the possibility of the actor being able to watch a roughly-rendered version of the final character in real time and adjust their acting accordingly. But mostly, it's a general discussion of the way effects are heading, given the massive increase in the number of movies using them and the massive decrease in the time allocated to produce them.
Muren's aware that a lot of CGI looks very blah these days: "the shows all end up looking the same, because the toolsets people are using are all the same." It's a discussion that extends into the audience Q&A, where one person makes an interesting point about the lack of personality in modern effects. A few decades ago, a certain type of film buff would look forward to seeing a film with Rick Baker's makeup, or John Dykstra's flying effects, or Albert Whitlock's matte paintings: nowadays, with effects being handled by teams of several hundred technicians, you can't really put a name to a shot any more. Muren acknowledges this, but suggests it has some sneaky advantages: "sometimes ILM gets the credit for a practical effect someone else has done..." It's an enjoyable 90 minutes, even if at the end you have to fight through the crowds of people passing copies of Cinefex magazine to Muren for his autograph.
9.00pm: 10 Years [official Facebook]
That thing about special effects becoming more generic and lacking in the sort of personality they used to have? You could say that about cinema buildings nowadays, I guess. As more and more of the old-fashioned picture palaces are replaced with faceless multiplexes, it's hard to think of individual cinemas that people have affection for. In central London, the Prince Charles is still hanging on in there as one of the only cinemas in town with a personality of its own. You could almost feel the waves of affection when it was announced that this year they'd be an LFF venue for the first time. Which makes it all the more awkward that this particular screening starts so badly: it takes them three attempts to frame the film properly so that the English subtitles are visible, including two restarts after five minutes each. Thankfully, the film's so good that nobody's really bothered by that at the end.
Hong Kong cinema, if we're honest, is going through one of its blander phases right now. In London, we have the Odeon Panton Street doing the nearby Chinatown community proud with regular runs of the latest Hong Kong releases, and you can often spot The BBG and me there as the only Caucasian faces in the crowd. But all too often, the movies we watch there are a faint shadow of the sort of fun that HK cinema used to provide as standard. (Call Of Heroes is probably the best recent release I can think of.) Where Hong Kong cinema starts to get interesting, I think, is when it starts rebelling against its masters on the Chinese mainland. It was the case with the cheeky comedy Vulgaria a couple of years ago: it's also the case with the more serious minded Ten Years.
Ten Years is a portmanteau film, a format only Asian filmmakers seem to want to keep going these days: five short films by five different directors, each one taking a speculative view of what Hong Kong will be like ten years in the future. In brief, nobody seems particularly optimistic. The first film Extras - slightly hamstrung by the two false starts it got at this screening - is particularly on-the-nose on this score, positing a future conspiracy in which the government fakes a terrorist atrocity in order to force through some especially restrictive legislation. You keep waiting for some sort of twist, but there isn't one: the atrocity happens, the legislation goes through, the end. It's followed up by Season Of The End, the weakest of the five shorts, in which a couple wanders around a decaying building analysing specimens. It's presumably working on some symbolic level I wasn't picking up, and marked the brief period during which my jetlag started getting the better of me.
Two of the three remaining shorts take existing issues in Hong Kong society and stretch them just that little bit more for the purposes of black comedy. Dialects is the story of a taxi driver struggling with the changeover from Cantonese to Puthongua as Hong Kong's prime language, handled with a lightly comic touch and featuring the most amusing pronunciation of David Beckham's name you're likely to hear. The final film, Local Egg, takes a similar approach, as a shopkeeper is hassled by the Youth Guards (including his own son) for taking a little too much pride in his produce being 'local'. These two lighter stories bookend the longest, darkest, angriest piece, Self-Immolator, the centrepiece of Ten Years and the section most guaranteed to piss off the Mainland. Presented in the form of a news report, it tells the story of a pro-democracy activist's death by hunger strike, and the tragedy of the second death it inspired. It's the one short in the five that refuses to take a dispassionate approach to the current troubles in Hong Kong, and is obviously fuelled by genuine anger at where they are now.
The reaction to Ten Years in Hong Kong has been fascinating. It's struck a chord with the territory's residents, starting out by showing in a single screen and expanding to the point where it was outgrossing The Force Awakens and winning Best Film at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Meanwhile, the local film industry - which has been in the pocket of the Mainland for some years now - has been complaining about how a small independent movie has beaten their expensive productions, with the boss of distributors Media Asia whining "If I told you a wonton noodles shop is the best restaurant in Hong Kong, would you accept that?" Um, well, yes, obviously: have you ever been to Hong Kong, you wanker? At a time when HK's films are descending into CGI-infested mush, Ten Years is a blast of pure energy that stands out simply by being about something.