Reviewed today: Ammonite, Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and The Legendary Tapes, Nomadland, Screen Talk: David Byrne.
12.00pm: Nomadland [official site]
Greetings from London, where as of this morning we're on Covid Level 2 lockdown, and nobody really knows exactly what that means. People from multiple households can't socialise together? Well, I guess I can live with that for now: one alarming discovery I've made during the pandemic is that I'm not quite as sociable as I thought I was. What about going to the cinema, though? They're all still open, but the recommendation is that you should save public transport for essential journeys. So is it essential to travel to two different cinemas on the first day of Level 2 to see two of the hottest contenders for the next Oscars, whenever that is? For the purposes of reporting, I'm going to tentatively say yes and see where that gets us.
In terms of safety in cinemas, it would seem to be hard to beat the Prince Charles, which has ditched 75% of its seating for social distancing purposes. It's also invested in a new fresh air ventilation system which is so determined to freeze coronaviruses to death, it makes watching the opening wintertime sequences of Nomadland there seem like some sort of Secret Cinema immersive shit. Chloé Zhao's film stars Frances McDormand as Fern, a woman who's been hit hard by the death of her husband and the closure of the former industrial town where they used to live. She packs all her belongings into a camper van and lives on the road: hopping from one temp job to another, parking overnight wherever anyone will let her sleep, and meeting other like-minded people along the way. "I'm not homeless," she says early on, "I'm houseless."
Nomadland may be just the sort of film we need right now: one which acknowledges the dire state we're in, but shows a community working together to help each other. The people Fern meets along the way - a combination of actors and real-life modern-day nomads - tell their stories of the many reasons why they've chosen this lifestyle, rather than the lifestyle choosing them. It's a story where the conflicts are small, and the emphasis is on how people get over them.
At the heart of it all is another extraordinary performance by Frances McDormand, portraying a character with countless layers that we only penetrate little by little. Initially we see her charm, and her willingness to help others: over time we notice the twitchy nervous energy that gets her through the day: only towards the end do we get a proper look at the stubbornness that's kept her on the road all this time. Zhao gives her a solid yet flexible framework to hold this performance in, and the result should be picking up awards next year like there's no tomorrow.
3.15pm: Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and The Legendary Tapes [trailer]
Yeah, this is more like a traditional London Film Festival day: four events, each one in a different location from the previous one, and with the added thrill of tube lines shutting down without warning so as to increase your chances of missing the next event. Thankfully, despite an unexpected fire alarm at Charing Cross, our next event in this case is being watched at home, so we can start it at any time we like. Though it's frustrating that the first thing we see on screen is the Arena logo, suggesting that this film will shortly be viewable for free on telly anyway, so we needn't have worried. Bah.
Delia Derbyshire is one of those people everyone should know about by now: a pioneer of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, her most famous achievement was converting Ron Grainer's vague ideas for the Doctor Who theme tune into the timeless electronic rumble that every other Who composer has tried to recreate, but never equalled. Like most Radiophonic Workshop pieces in their sixties heyday, it was largely cobbled together from multiple sources with the aid of razor blades and sticky tape, and Caroline Catz's documentary about her life tries to work with a similar aesthetic. We get dramatised scenes from Derbyshire's life (with Catz playing Derbyshire herself), recordings of old interviews with her, new interviews with her friends and collaborators, archive clips showing her work in situ, and the sight of Cosey Fanni Tutti sifting through Derbyshire's old tapes and rearranging them into a new score for the film.
All of these ideas are great except for one. Derbyshire herself comes across delightfully in interviews, her jolly-hockey-sticks demeanour and infectious giggle belying the tales of moderately bad behaviour we hear from others. Her story's a fascinating one, though with sadly predictable beats to it as her gender repeatedly denies her work, or recognition for the work she eventually gets. And I think that she'd approve of Cosey Fanni Tutti's cavalier approach to the score, using Derbyshire's own compositions as raw material to be attacked with the digital equivalent of razor blades.
If only they could have done all this without the acting. Occasionally, you watch a documentary on something like the History Channel, and they feel the need to illustrate a point with a quick dramatic reconstruction. The script will be clunky and the acting will be terrible, but you give it the benefit of the doubt because it's not meant to be drama, just a cheap and cheerful way of getting the information across. Now imagine a film where around 50% of it is done like that: well, that's Delia. Your heart sinks every time we cut back to the Radiophonic Workshop set, to watch Catz and her cast attempting to act out something that could have been better conveyed with a couple of lines of voiceover narration and a nice photo. Eventually, you mentally switch off whenever those scenes appear. It's a shame, because all the other elements are there for an interesting film about an interesting woman.
7.30pm: Ammonite [official site]
Now that the LFF's nearly over, here's a useful tip for you if we ever have to do it like this again. Ammonite is technically the closing film in this year's festival, and as such demand for tickets was incredibly high, with screenings rapidly selling out in all the London cinemas where it was showing. Except for one: there was no problem seeing the film at Cine Lumiere, because nobody ever thinks to book at the weird foreign place out in South Ken. So that was helpful.
As for the film, it's a story about (if not necessarily from) the life of paleontologist Mary Anning, who coincidentally featured in our previous film - a stained glass window of her is displayed in a hall celebrating some of Delia Derbyshire's forgotten female heroes. As played by Kate Winslet, she's suffering the fate of many of those heroes, with credit for her pioneering fossil discoveries being taken by assorted rotten men in big hats. The arrival into her Lyme Regis shop of another one of those men turns out to have a major impact on her life: he's brought his sickly wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) along with him, and leaves her with Anning to help with her recovery.
It's probably overly reductive to suggest that Portrait Of A Lady On Fire has set a very high bar for this sort of thing this year: it's probably even more reductive to refer to it as This Sort Of Thing. Nevertheless, it amuses me to think that all the serious and high-minded reviews that will be written about Ammonite will fail to use the joke that this is a film about one of Britain's leading paleontologists getting her rocks off. I'm happy to tell you that you won't see that sort of reticence here.
Francis Lee - and for northern men of a certain age, that's an incredibly jarring name for a director - has made a film with lots of beautiful detail, aided by his two stars. Winslet's grumpiness is a joy to watch, and Ronan's fragility is put to excellent use. But it's hard to avoid the conclusion that most of this film's just a life support system for its sex scenes, rather than them coming organically out of the growing relationship between the two women - one which appears to have been extrapolated entirely from the words 'she never married' in Anning's obituary. You can't shake off the awareness that these scenes have been put together from an entirely male point of view, and it can't really be excused by Lee's previous film being about, to misquote South Park, a bunch of gay shepherds eating pudding. It's a pity that, to similarly misquote The Sopranos, cunnilingus and paleontology brought us to this.
10.45pm Screen Talk: David Byrne [full interview]
We're back home again for a late-night event, one that we've organised because the festival hasn't put any in its own schedule this year. It seems fitting to watch this interview (originally streamed live on Thursday night) in this timeslot, as in the early days of lockdown one of the nightly rituals at Château Belated-Monkey was listening to David Byrne's audiobook Bicycle Diaries in 20-30 minute chunks. His voice makes for the aural equivalent of bedtime cocoa, and that's how we treat him here.
Terri White from Empire magazine hosts this interview, and has a simple structure in place - she's going to talk to Byrne specifically about three of the feature films he's been involved in during his long career. The first one is, inevitably, David Byrne's American Utopia, which is showing in the LFF this year - expect a review here soon, of course. It started off life as an album in 2018, where the initial problem Byrne encountered was trying to convince people that the title wasn't ironic, more of an aspirational idea - suggesting "there's a lot of work to do, but things are not impossible." When he took it on tour, he decided to build on a visual idea that came out of his earlier gigs with St Vincent which were based around a brass ensemble: they were completely untethered and could go anywhere they liked on the stage, and he wanted to see if you could do that with an entire 11 piece band. It means that the audience spends its time looking at people, not at other stuff on the stage.
Some time after that he got the offer to reconfigure the show for a Broadway audience (who generally want to stay in their comfy seats rather than get up and dance): and then there came the decision to film that show, with Spike Lee directing. Inevitably, the elephant in the room is that everyone will be comparing it to the second film under discussion, Jonathan Demme's 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, widely thought of as one of the finest in the genre. Byrne knows comparisons with the earlier film are inevitable, but feels you can't let those hold you back from doing something new. For Byrne, Demme's biggest achievement is making you feel empathy for all the people in his films -"empathy's not the biggest tool in my toolbox," says Byrne with a chuckle - and Demme applied that principle to all the members of the band, helping you get to know them all as characters.
One other innovation Demme brought in was to invite the band to consult with him during the editing. This meant that Byrne got to see more of the filmmaking process, and it gave him the inspiration to direct one of his own. So the third and final film covered in this discussion is True Stories, which he made in 1986. He wanted to find out if he could make a film that told a story in a different way, with music integrated into it. By then Talking Heads had had a few hits, which made him lucky enough to have access to money and an audience he wouldn't have had before ("and didn't have later, if I'm honest"). He took advice from several of the people he'd collaborated with in the past - from Robert Wilson he swiped the idea of collecting images as a way of finding inspiration, while Jonathan Demme told him he could get away with a plotless film as long as there were enough pointers to a big event happening at the end.
The result went down well in the UK and Europe, "and Texans loved it," but the rest of America assumed he was taking the piss. Perhaps for this reason, Byrne hasn't made another feature film since - though he's directed a couple of documentaries, and curiously doesn't mention a solo concert film called Between The Teeth which he brought to this very festival in 1993. He may try again, he says, "but I have other things I can do as well." Well, we'll get back to that tomorrow, I suppose.