Decisions, decisions. Today could start with Kon Ichikawa's most intense and depressing war film, in which a Japanese soldier is separated from his unit and has to resort to cannibalism to survive. Or it could start with a documentary about a summer holiday resort on the Black Sea. What to do? Well, thanks to the NFT's Ichikawa season in London, I can literally get that sort of thing at home, so the first film of the day is Broadway, Black Sea by acclaimed Russian documentary maker Vitalij Manskij. Manskij takes his camera out to the seaside town of Broadway, and simply documents the tourists and traders over a single summer. The tourists do all the usual stuff, messing around in the sea and sand, singing karaoke, getting very very drunk: while the traders try to take advantage of them as much as possible, offering photo-opportunities with monkeys and camels, or the chance to win a bottle of French cognac on a test your strength machine.
It's immediately obvious that Manskij is a very accomplished filmmaker: this film is beautifully shot, sometimes to the point of distracting you from what's happening on screen. From the glorious opening image of a camel being driven in a car to the resort to some breathtaking overhead tracking shots of people lying on the beach, he's got an eye for an arresting or unusual image. Sometimes the shots are so wonderfully composed you start wondering how many incidents have been set up specially: particularly a chaotic scene in which Manskij runs with the camera towards a drowning swimmer who's just been pulled from the sea. Offering to help, he drops his camera onto the ground, and manages to get it to land at precisely the right angle to keep both the swimmer and his rescuers in shot. Is it expert camera placement, dumb luck, or something more sinister? At the end we're told that two swimmers nearly drowned that summer, so maybe the camera angle for the first one didn't work and they had to try it again...
The other slightly worrying thing about Broadway, Black Sea is its somewhat voyeuristic nature. Manskij never looks down on his subjects or patronises them, but has no scruples whatsoever about following them wherever they go, even watching a woman giving birth in the Black Sea. There's a long sequence early in the film where his camera prowls around people's tents and pokes into their cooking pots, with everyone just looking blankly at him. Later on, he watches a group of young boys spying on nude bathers, and then muddies the morality somewhat by including long lens shots of the nude bathers themselves.
But if you make the assumption that nobody here is being particularly exploited, then this is a terrifically entertaining documentary. And I'm not just saying that because in the end, its central character turns out to be Philemon the monkey, a cheerful little scamp who French kisses passing tourists while his owner takes their picture. Granted, his owner's drunken mood swings are somewhat disturbing to watch: "I love you, Philemon, you're my little breadwinner... [Philemon knocks over a pint of beer] You fucking little twat. I'll send you to the shotgun range." But Philemon survives all this abuse to become the star of the show, and his attempts to repeatedly have sex with the owner's dog are worth the admission price alone.
After what I think is an inspired solution to a rushed pub lunch in the boozer next to the Assembly - order a bowl of chips, scoop them into a copy of the Guardian Guide and run out the door still eating them - it's time for us to catch Jerry Springer - The Opera, which has become a major hit this year purely on word of mouth (and, I suppose, because of the title). A collaboration between musician Richard Thomas and comic Stewart Lee, Springer has been in development as a work in progress for the last eighteen months or so, with a number of concert performances at the Battersea Arts Centre. This Edinburgh run is the first attempt at a staged version of the completed work.
The first act does exactly what it says on the tin: a typical Springer show, with assorted trailer trash freaks fighting on stage and a chorus of baying audience members. And it's all sung (apart from Springer's lines). Surprisingly, this isn't just a set of loosely linked comic songs, but a single through-composed work which gleefully switches styles every few seconds but still somehow remains coherent. An unexpected turn of events leads to a surreal second act that takes it all to a whole new level, in the process drawing on that rich vein of blasphemy that's always been a major part of Stewart Lee's work with Richard Herring.
The programme notes seem to indicate that this run is the first stage in an attempt to get Springer put on in London's West End. It could just work: musically, this is as good as, if not better than, most musicals out there at the moment. Composer Richard Thomas and his cast of opera singers take the music deadly seriously, which makes the filth and brutality of Lee and Thomas' lyrics stand out even more. It's when the two traditions clash head-on that this piece is at its best, like the section where a single utterance of the phrase "fuck you" is dragged out over three minutes of singing. And if you don't come out humming the song This Is My Jerry Springer Moment ("cover me in chocolate and throw me to the lesbians") then there's something wrong with you. I'll see you at the London run.
One of Spank's Pals who should be here this year is Sylvia, but she had to drop out because of a serious operation. [Insert picture of Spank's Pals holding up a sign reading 'Get Well Soon' written in glitter and crayon.] She spent a week or two at the Whittington Hospital in North London, and is currently recovering successfully. Coincidentally, the same can be said of the star of Andre Vincent Is Unwell, who underwent surgery there for a tumour on the kidney last April. Vincent - plump, bearded, like a funny version of Phil Jupitus - was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, and was fascinated by the reactions he got when he told people the news. Even his fellow comedians were nervously shying away from him, apart from one glorious, unnamed exception: "Hey, Vinny! I hear you've got cancer. Can I have your DVDs?"
Since his diagnosis, Vincent has been talking about his cancer in his stand-up act, and has been amused by people's reluctance to accept cancer as a subject for comedy. This show, wholly dedicated to the subject, is obviously his way of convincing that it's all right to laugh, really. And you will, as he talks about his diagnosis and treatment with honesty and a fair degree of black wit, always looking on the bright side of every downturn. He's particuarly pleased by the discovery during tests of his increased sperm count: "so I may have cancer, but I've also got spunk you could grout tiles with." He shows you video footage of the operation to remove his kidney, compares operation scars with a fellow sufferer in the audience, talks frankly about the post-op test results he recently got but daren't open till after the show's run has finished, and muses over what you could do if you knew the exact moment when you were going to die. "David Cassidy stopped touring for twenty years because a fan died in his audience. So I'm going to an S Club Juniors gig." Bill Bailey was in the audience for this performance, and if it's good enough for him, it's good enough for you.
Last Saturday night, during the brief meetup with 7sarah's Coven Of Bitches, I was buttonholed by FilmFan (currently here in his capacity as a reviewer for Crackhead Film Monthly). He was ranting about the prospect of Mike Leigh's All Or Nothing, starring Timothy Spall. "It's going to be terrible," he insisted. "Have you seen those posters? You just know it's going to be full of...Spallness." As it turns out, All Or Nothing is indeed full of Spallness: and that has to be a good thing, because the film has very little else going for it.
All Or Nothing is about three families living on a London estate, and in particular a couple played by Spall and Lesley Manville. Spall drives a minicab for a living, but is gradually becoming more and more detached from his family as they struggle to get by. Their daughter has a job in a nursing home, while their fat layabout son is either slumped on the sofa or starting fights outside. The film documents their on-off relationships with their neighbours, and the way their lives are changed by a single incident.
You wouldn't believe how much effort it took to come up with a single paragraph's worth of plot back there. Because this is basically Leigh on auto-pilot, doing his usual we-was-poor-but-we-was-still-unhappy fake working-class schtick without any new insight or imagination. It even steals devices from his earlier films: when Spall played the photographer in Secrets And Lies, the numerous short scenes of him dealing with the public in his job are echoed in the various anonymous people he picks up in his cab here.
Timothy Spall's luminous acting is really the only reason to watch this. There's some nice support from Leigh regulars Lesley Manville and Ruth Sheen, the latter curiously given the only funny lines in the entire film. Unfortunately, most of the screen time is given over to their teenage kids: and these are the bastardest children you could ever hope to meet. Not since Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory have you witnessed a bunch of brats you wanted to see suffer so much. And even then Leigh doesn't give the audience what they want: having set up three or four sub-plots involving the kids in the first half of the film, he literally forgets to do anything with all bar one of them in the second half. Go along to feel the Spallness if you must, but don't expect to feel anything else.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Belated Birthday Girl - Nice to see Broadway, Black Sea, a documentary which neither had a narrator's voice nor had the subjects turned into soap-stars. A straight - if somewhat voyeuristic - observation of a summer season at the Black Sea resort of Broadway, this film was beautifully shot, interesting and entertaining. The resort and its attractions, which included a test-your-strength device punters had to punch at 3 roubles a punch (or I'm sure at one point I heard 3 punches for 10 roubles - I wonder how many were caught by that one) and an ad-hoc peep-show made up of soft-porn pictures taken from magazines, definitely had the feel of belonging to another era, and the people there knew it too. Some stunning camerawork and striking images, and all life is there, from birth to (nearly) death. All in all, a very good piece of documentary film-making.
The Belated Birthday Girl - "I am Jesus - son of Man - son of Mary - son of God - DO NOT FUCK WITH ME." How could I possibly not love a show with lines like that? Jerry Springer - The Opera is a terrific show, definitely my highlight of this Edinburgh so far. In two acts, the first being pretty much a skit on an episode of The Jerry Springer Show, the second taking a different turn - I won't say too much, as I wouldn't want to spoil it, but that line I quoted comes from the second act. The music is of a very high quality, reminiscent at times of classical opera, others of modern musicals, and performed by proper operatic singers: and this is what makes it so very good indeed. The sight and sound of an operatic chorus singing "chick with a dick" or "crack whore" is fabulous, and some of the arias are quite touching, until they turn around and bite you with a cracking comedy punchline. The first act does work better than the second, but the second act certainly has its moments, and the show is entertaining and irreverent (to say the least) from first to last. There are hints of possible West End runs - I'd happily see it again.
Nick - Every Festival you hope to see a truly outstanding show, and Tina C's Twin Towers Tribute is it. If you were expecting a tasteless and tacky show, Tina C wrong foots her audience by establishing a highly personable rapport before we get Kleenex For The World, one of only a couple of numbers from her tribute album 9/11 24/7. The country genre has not teetered on the edge of comic possibilities much more effectively since Otis Lee Crenshaw, but this is more kd lang in style, with Tina C moving between piano and guitar with equal assurance. But what marks out Tina C as a truly great comic character is her (his) fabulous appearance. The posters do not lie: she (he) has incredibly attractive legs up to her armpits and tells the audience not to look at her (his) butt as she (he) is a serious country artist! The strongest recommendation I can make is an earlier album, Don't Love Me Too Much, which was selling like hot cakes after the show. Apparently her (his) tribute album 9/11 24/7 was not available for contractual reasons. Or did she (he) only have the two songs and it was a spectacularly successful publicity stunt? Who knows, who cares? The show was brilliant.
The Belated Birthday Girl - Taking his recent diagnosis with cancer of the kidney as the basis of his show, Andre Vincent proved to be a very entertaining stand-up. His tales of the reactions of family, friends and finally audiences were interesting as well as very funny (he was rejected from some revue on the grounds that it was a "family show" and talk of cancer wasn't deemed suitable), and his film of his operation to remove his cancerous kidney fascinating, though perhaps not for the squeamish. As one reviewer he quoted appropriately said, one to look out for next year, if he's not dead by then.
The Belated Birthday Girl - All Or Nothing is another dismal, unappealing film from Mike Leigh about dismal, unappealing characters. I've never really been all that convinced about Mike Leigh films, but I liked Secrets And Lies, and people were saying this was like that, so I thought I'd give it a go. The only thing this had in common with Secrets And Lies was the presence of Timothy Spall, who was by far the best thing in this. Most of the rest of the cast were doing that standard over-acting Mike Leigh "real people" thing which I find intensely annoying. And as for the yawn of a story line - well, all I can say is wow, nobody's had a teenage pregnancy story-line before, have they? Oh, and I wish that they'd let the fat fuck of a bratty son die. But you can't have everything. Or, in this case, anything.
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