Reviewed today: Allensworth, Cobweb, The Goldman Case, Short Film Competition H-Z.
11.00am: Short Film Competition H-Z [see the films here]
On Tuesday we started our LFF day at home, watching five of the ten shorts in this year’s Short Film Competition on the BFI Player. Here are the remaining five. I still don’t have any idea how the public vote is meant to work, though.
I also still don’t have any idea how the shortlist for this competition is assembled, because as in previous years narrative shorts seem to be curiously underrepresented. Still, we have two today. Cora Bissett’s The Singer [official site] is the more traditionally crowdpleasing of the two, in which busker Jack Stewart meets deaf punter Jamie Rea and the two of them learn about the different ways music affects people, without getting overly sentimental or patronising about it. Michael Jobling’s The Walk [director's site] is a lot more impressionistic, just following one man on a more-stressful-than usual walk back from the job centre: but it’s lifted above the ordinary by a fine performance from Adeel Akhtar and some seriously in-your-face sound design.
As was the case on Tuesday, using pure alphabetical order to choose which films we see still brings up accidental links – in this case, two films about minority cultures and the way their artefacts are treated by Western museums. The sata taas collective’s Wells Of Despair [clip] looks at aspects of Siberian culture that have been taken away from the natives and locked behind glass for people to gawp at, but does it in a disjointed way without any real attempt to apply narrative or structure. Nafis Fathollahzadeh’s Khabur [official site], meanwhile, is incredibly structured: it starts by using a magnifying glass to pore over photos of a 1911 German archeological dig in Syria, then delves into the history of that dig, and wraps it up by looking at how the relationship between the Middle East and Germany is faring one hundred years later. It also gets bonus points for being narrated from the point of view of the ransacked objects themselves.
But if we’re going to pick a highlight from this bunch of five, for me it’s Anna Engelhardt and Mark Cinkevich’s Onset [official site]. It's one of those films where the soundtrack and visuals work more or less independently of each other, but somehow combine to give you a third thing. The voiceover describes three of the most recent occasions where Russia has invaded another country - Ukraine, Syria and Belarus - and describes them in terms of demonic possession, using old texts on the subject to back up that theory. Meanwhile, the visuals are of facilities in those countries that have been abandoned as a result of the invasion, such as airport terminals and military bases. The twist here is that these environments have been entirely generated in CG - realistic enough to give you the chills from seeing them deserted, while artificial enough to be simultaneously unsettling in a different way. It's hard to explain why the result is such compulsive viewing, but it is: although I still think that The Archive: Queer Nigerians might be the best of the ten overall.
3.00pm: The Goldman Case [trailer]
Who doesn’t love a good courtroom drama? Particularly one based around what the French were calling ‘the trial of the century’ back when it happened in 1975 (sorry, I don’t know if they’ve had any better ones since). The facts are these: in 1970, Pierre Goldman (Arieh Worthalter) was sentenced to life imprisonment for a series of armed robberies. A radical intellectual type, he published a book while in prison protesting his innocence, which led to a retrial in 1975. The retrial focussed on one specific robbery: the one which ended in the murder of two pharmacists. Goldman has what he considers to be a rock-solid defence – he didn’t do it – and can’t understand why his lawyers don’t feel the same way.
I did some jury service last year, and let me tell you, the French do things completely differently from us based on this evidence. Prosecution and defence lawyers interrupting each other, the defendant interrupting them both, a jury that asks Goldman questions whenever they feel like it, and a public gallery of leftists on one side and police on the other who break into fights occasionally. I’d genuinely like to know how much of this is movie courtroom behaviour, and how much of it is what actually happened at the time.
Or, you know, we could just sit back and enjoy it as a fabulously entertaining movie. Director Cedric Kahn keeps things as claustrophobic as possible – we rarely venture outside the courtroom set, and the 4:3 framing keeps everything squished together. It’s all about maintaining the hothouse atmosphere of the courtroom, with Goldman throwing in the odd bombshell from the dock when things threaten to get a bit too quiet – mainly as he starts picking at the racial undertones of why he’s been fingered for this crime. Fifty years on from the trial, it's a little worrying how relevant a lot of this story remains, which is presumably why Khan's chosen to retell it now.
6.30pm: Allensworth [trailer]
What’s that sound? It’s a small portion of a cinema audience making noises like they’re being physically assaulted by images that don’t move very much, and I am absolutely here for it.
I’ve been missing James Benning. He was a regular fixture at the LFF during the Sandra Hebron years, and he had a couple of fans around these parts (hi Suze). When Clare Stewart took over, he dropped off the programme for several years, but he appears to be coming back into favour again. Benning actually had a film here last year, which I unfortunately failed to catch through a combination of failing eyesight and stupidity. I made damn sure we were there for this year’s, partly so I could experience the fun of sharing a room with people finding out precisely too late how his films work.
Allensworth was the first African-American founded town in California. (The film itself doesn't tell you that.) One century after its creation, it’s been totally deserted. Benning depicts this desertion in a series of five minute static shots of the buildings left behind. He’s constantly teasing us with hints of life somewhere nearby, notably cars and trains passing in the distance: but time and again we fail to see any evidence of people, either past or present. It’s the extended shot length that convinces us that Allensworth is a ghost town, and that’s why this is a movie rather than, say, a calendar.
I say 'calendar' because the first shot is preceded by a caption reading 'January', and the second by a caption reading 'February'. Seasoned Benning watchers will nod knowingly at this point and settle in for a carefully defined structure: others will possibly wait until the caption reading 'March' before muttering 'Jesus Christ' and walking out. Actually, Benning’s ahead of all of us, and he deviates from the expected structure on a couple of occasions: in particular, this is the first film of his that has a Spotify playlist. (Well, it has one now.)
It’s been a while since I last saw one of his films, so it takes a while to remind yourself that a Benning joint requires you to completely re-evaluate the way you look at a shot. But before too long, you’ll be scouring each one for the tiniest detail, and sometimes feeling that five minutes may not be enough. It’s good to have him back at the LFF: next year, put him on at the IMAX, you cowards.
8.45pm: Cobweb [trailer]
In his introduction, director Kim Jee-Woon talks about the problems of getting a film like Cobweb made: investors tend to assume that if you make a movie about the movie industry, you’re automatically going to cram it with in-jokes that will exclude a large section of the potential audience. But I’m sure he’s aware that this is precisely the sort of theme that film festival audiences will absolutely lap up. And if he isn’t aware of that, he should have a word with his fellow countryman Hong Sang-soo, who's been making a career out of that for the last two decades.
Song Kang-ho – as I found myself explaining to the bar staff at the RFH, ‘that guy who’s in all the Korean films’ – plays Kim, a director who was a big thing when he was the protege of a now deceased master, but has descended into hack work since then. His latest film Cobweb has just wrapped, but he’s not entirely happy with it. In his dreams, he comes up with a whole new ending that he’s convinced will elevate it to the level of masterpiece. All he needs to do is persuade his entire cast and crew to come back for two days of reshoots… and persuade his studio bosses to pay for them… and get the government censor to approve his script changes, because this is Korea in the 1970s and things are a bit strict.
It’s tricky – there’s an obvious problem with Cobweb, and I don’t see how you can fix it. Kim Jee-Woon's best known film over here is probably The Good, The Bad, The Weird, a comedy Western that I remember getting wildly out of control by the end. By comparison, this film's a lot more focussed: it's a tightly-constructed farce, where the problems faced by Director Kim (the fictional one, not the real one) slowly build and build, and then start interacting with each other. It all comes together in a terrific climax where all the little accumulating details pay off in rapid succession. It'd be the perfect place for the film to end: but it doesn't, because we have an extended epilogue to follow. It's an epilogue that we've been pretty much expecting, but it drains a lot of the joy out of the climax that came before it. I'm not sure how you could restructure the film to make all those elements work together: maybe I'll wait to see if an answer comes to me in a dream.