Reviewed today: Monos, Mystify: Michael Hutchence, Shooting The Mafia, Sid And Judy.
12.45pm: Mystify: Michael Hutchence [official site]
Its a three documentary day today! Just for me, though. The Belated Birthday Girl is starting her Saturday elsewhere (see below), and doesn't really understand the appeal of a documentary about a dead 80s pop star I was never really that keen on. To be honest, part of the interest for me is the director (and it won't be the first time you hear that today). Richard Lowenstein had a close connection with Michael Hutchence throughout his life, not only directing several INXS videos but also putting Hutchence in the lead role of his 1986 film Dogs In Space. It's a flawed movie, but it showed that Lowenstein had technical ability to burn, and it always struck me as odd that he's only made a couple more fiction films in the thirty-odd years since. As a result, I was curious to see what one of his documentaries looked like, which is why I'm here. Along with most of the Australian population of London, if the accents in the audience are anything to go by.
Mystify takes an approximately chronological run through Hutchence's life, with the odd bit of detail held back for dramatic effect, notably some of the upheavals he encountered in his childhood. From his early teens it was obvious that he was a born performer. It's the eyes that did it, as several people note here: Hutchence looked at you like you were the only person in the world that mattered to him right now, and it's a skill he was cunningly able to pull off down the lens of a camera. It certainly helped him with the ladies, too, and the main fenceposts used to mark the passage of time here involve three of his exes: Michele Bennett (who was with him during the period where INXS suddenly achieved world stardom, with all the upheaval that entails), Kylie Minogue (telling extraordinary stories of a long distance relationship maintained via faxes), and Helena Christensen (who turns out to have a pivotal role in this film).
That technical skill I admired in Lowenstein's early career is still in evidence here from the way he handles his archive material. Despite being primarily funded by television (both ABC and BBC have a stake in it), the film's presented in an ultra-wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio, wider than any of the images being shown. Lowenstein fills the frame in a variety of inventive ways - layering images on top of each other, presenting them in split-screen, or zooming in to emphasise the grain. The use of audio is similarly inventive: all the new interviews are presented as voice only, so that we're never distracted by what these people look like now, and kept firmly in the time period we're discussing. Lowenstein aims to immerse you in Hutchence's life, and he succeeds in doing just that.
The biggest surprise in Mystify - and one that I nearly had spoiled by a Guardian article I started reading literally on the way to the cinema - is dropped by Helena Christensen in her interview, where she talks about an incident that took place five years before Hutchence's death, which possibly had a major impact in everything that happened to him after that. In retrospect, you can see he was a different person in those last five years - the confidence and eye contact of his early interviews has vanished almost completely. At the same time, you start to appreciate that in the UK in particular, our view of his final years was completely shaped by the tabloids, who were gunning for Paula Yates after she split up with Bob Geldof and used her new boyfriend as their target. The story of his last few hours is told here through logs of telephone calls of increasing desperation, and is heartbreaking - Lowenstein doesn't mention the one detail about his death that we think we all know, and points out in the Q&A afterwards that there's no evidence for it anyway. It's a passionate defence of a man's life made by a close friend and artistic collaborator: some might argue that a bit more detachment's required, but they'd be wrong.
3.30pm: Shooting The Mafia [trailer]
We're here for the director again: this time it's Kim Longinotto, who The BBG's admired for several years now, as she's a big fan of the director's portraits of fascinating women. And here's another one for her gallery - Sicilian photographer Letizia Battaglia, best known for her Weegee-style shots of Mafia atrocities. You can see the appeal instantly - a woman in her eighties, still visible at political rallies with her brightly dyed hair, whose personal archive contains hundreds of shocking black and white photos of bullet-riddled mobsters. Who wouldn't want to hear that story?
In her early years, Battaglia doesn't see herself as anything special: it wasn't until she hit a mid-life crisis in her forties that she decided to take a job at the local paper. It was one of those operations where everyone does a little bit of everything, and after a while she discovered she was more comfortable with a camera than a typewriter. When she became a full-time photographer, her plan was to take interesting pictures of local life, maybe concentrating on some of the more poverty-stricken areas. Within a few days of starting the job, she was photographing her first murder scene.
Like Michael Hutchence - now there's a comparison you're not going to see elsewhere - Battaglia's life story is structured around her former lovers. The difference here is that she's still alive, leading to a few charming scenes where she reunites with them and they trade memories of old times. But slowly, the focus moves away from her life, roughly coinciding with her decision to move out of photojournalism and into more direct political action. The second half of the film is her perspective on the history of the Mafia in Sicily, and the growing concerns of the everyday people caught in the crossfire. Thanks to her distinctive hairdos, we can spot Battaglia in the archive footage of council meetings and public demonstrations, as the war between the mob and the diminishing number of uncorrupt lawmakers escalates to terrifying levels.
Longinotto is delightfully worried about the balance of her film - is there too much of Battaglia or the Mafia history, is the mixture of symbolic archive footage and newsreel going to confuse people? She shouldn't worry: she's given a unique woman a portrait of her life that's just as unique as she is, and the inventive work of editor Ollie Huddleston is dedicated to keeping the narrative constantly flowing. We should all hope that in our eighties, we'll be approaching life with the same philiosophy that Battaglia does now: "anyone who disapproves of me can fuck off."
8.45pm: Sid And Judy [official site]
We toast the previous film with a nice Sicilian white at L'Autre, London's number one Polish-Mexican restaurant. (All other Polish-Mexican restaurants are number two, or lower.) Just around the corner from it is the Curzon Mayfair cinema, which is in a bit of a muddle when we arrive. You see, in screen one they're showing Sid And Judy, a documentary about the final years of Judy Garland, told from the perspective of her third husband Sidney Luft. But in screen two they're showing Judy, the just-released fictional film about some of the final years of Judy Garland. You can see the problem. Hilariously, the Curzon's box office board has had to crudely cover up the And Judy bit of the LFF screening's title, to stop non-LFF punters wandering into it by mistake.
Still, it's a Saturday night at the London Film Festival, so it must be time for a music documentary. And this one's been made by someone who's presented several other such documentaries here in the past - Stephen Kijak, director of Scott Walker: 30 Century Man and We Are X. Those are two very different films about two very different styles of music: and in both cases the main protagonists were still alive at the time of filming, which isn't the case here.
Like Michael Hutchence - now there's a comparison etc etc etc - Kijak's approach here is to keep us firmly locked into the time period of the story by presenting his new interviews in audio only form. But he also uses the words of Sid and Judy themselves. In the case of Garland, he's managed to get access to a series of personal recordings she made, possibly as notes towards an autobiography: they're frank, chatty, and show the offbeat sense of humour that occasionally peeks through in her performances. The bulk of the spoken material here comes from Luft, though, who's represented here by chunks of his own autobiography read by Jon Hamm (with Jennifer Jason Leigh chipping in for any direct quotes from Garland).
The heavy reliance on Luft's autobiography does have one unfortunate consequence: at times, the film feels more like an illustrated audio book than anything else. That's not so big a drawback, though, as the story is so engaging. Luft meets Garland at the end of the forties, just as she's dropped by her studio for being permanently hopped up on goofballs (despite that being the only way she could maintain her prolific workrate during the fifteen years of her contract). Luft becomes her husband and her manager, and throughout the fifties helps orchestrate a series of big comebacks in multiple media: stage, cinema and television.
To be fair, for an illustrated audio book it's really well illustrated. Kijak has a battery of visual devices to cover scenes not captured on film, from subtly manipulated photographs to drawn animation. But inevitably, the real magic's in the carefully assembled archive sequences of Garland at work. We get to see it all - fascinating b-roll footage showing her losing it on a film set, and full-throttle performance clips from her mysteriously undervalued tv show. Don't feel guilty if you spend the morning after seeing this film cooking breakfast to an accompaniment of Judy Live At Carnegie: I know we did.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Monos [official site]
The Belated Birthday Girl - The Monos of the film's title are a group of 8 young adolescent soldiers, tasked with guarding their American woman hostage, high up in the Colombian mountains. They behave much as you might expect a group of kids of their age to in the absence of adult supervision, getting drunk and exploring love and sex, only adding in guns and militarism to the heady mix. The film doesn't go into any detail about what side they are on or how they got to be there, and as inevitable tragic consequences of the situation lead to changes in the Monos and the dynamic in the group, and events in the civil war make it necessary for them to move location, we move into Lord of the Flies territory.
Although the performances of the young actors - some professional, some acting for the first time - were terrific, what really lifted Monos for me was the stunning cinematography and the incredible soundscape, taking the film into almost experimental, abstract territory at times, and heightening the intensity and emotions. Director Alejandro Landes said at an interesting Q&A after the screening that the film was commenting on the way that modern warfare has changed, with no easy front-lines, fracturing groups, and no clear sides, and that it wasn't specific to Colombia or even South America. Although the situation and action is very much drawn from realities in wars of this sort, Monos is not so much interested in exploring the phenomenon of child soldiers as it is on looking at human nature and behaviours, and it does so with a thrilling intensity, while never ignoring the tragedy of the young lives caught up in it all.