You've probably noticed that as far as my reviews go, we're running a bit of a skeleton service here at the moment compared with last year. (Although Spank's Pals are compensating for that splendidly, as you'll see below.) That's basically down to the fact that I've had to keep my moderately responsible job in the computer industry going for this week, otherwise I'd have no holiday left to take at Christmas. As of tomorrow I'm taking a fortnight off, so I'll be up to the usual standard of three or more movies a day for the rest of the fest. However, for tonight, it was evening performances only. The early evening slot was taken up with a pre-emptive viewing of the newly-opened The Sixth Sense, to reduce the risk of someone blabbing the Big Surprise to me before the end of the festival. (And is it just me, or does the Big Surprise become a Completely Bloody Obvious Not Surprise At All about half an hour into the film?)
Humanity, as you might expect, was a complete contrast. It was a tossup between this one and David Lynch's The Straight Story for this evening. Now, much as I love Lynch, at least you know for a fact that Straight will hit cinemas in the near future. Humanity, on the other hand, caused such an evil stink when it picked up the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes that there are serious doubts as to whether it'll ever be seen in this country again after the festival. So I couldn't really turn down The Most Hated Film Ever To Win At Cannes, could I?
Bruno Dumont's film follows the investigation of a young girl's rape and murder: pretty standard stuff so far. Our first indication that things may go awry is when we see the investigating officer Pharon de Winter (Emmanuel Shotté) running across a field to his police car only to fall flat on his face. Together with his chief (Ghislain Ghesquière) they proceed to make a complete Eli Wallachs of the investigation. Leads remain unfollowed, suspects are ignored, interviews consist of endless silences followed by a quick "okay, you can go now". In between all this, we see de Winter's private life, which is limited to his mum (who he lives with) and his neighbours Domino and Joseph (Séverine Caneele and Philippe Tullier). We watch him going to the beach, riding his bike and tending his allotment, all in hugely tedious detail.
Dumont's approach initially feels like a parody of the classic European art movie. All closeups are held for at least two minutes longer than necessary. If someone enters a wide shot from one side of the frame, the shot will not cut until they exit from the other side, no matter how long it takes. And the actors (with the exception of his lead) are all non-professionals, which is sort of acceptable until you see how bad his few English speakers are. The anal attention to detail brings to mind Edgar Reitz' Heimat, a sixteen hour epic that concentrates on a family and town to such a degree that by the end you feel you're living in the place. Dumont achieves that effect in a mere 145 minutes, and I'm still not sure whether that's a good thing or not.
Despite the cripplingly slow pace (leading to quite a few nodding heads and surreptitiously checked watches in the auditorium, though surprisingly few walkouts), Humanity can't just be dismissed as another piece of Euroartwank. The sheer physicality of the landscape comes across beautifully thanks to Yves Cape's widescreen photography. The character of de Winter evolves from a buffoon with two pieces of schtick - walking like a duck and looking haunted for minutes at a time - into something much deeper, as he reveals a genuine ability to comfort people in times of distress. And the slow, repetitive scenes do occasionally build into the odd sequence of surprising power. However, it doesn't happen often enough to justify all the guff around those odd sequences. Humanity is without a doubt unlike anything else I've ever seen, but please God don't make me see it again.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Ken - Many of the films showing at the London Film Festival have a short before them, and normally I don't bother to review these 'freebies' anymore than I would review the tubs of Haagen Daas that have been handed out free at some screenings. Short film makers and ice cream-aholics shocked by this lack of respect may respond via Spank's letters page. This short however was 30 minutes long and has the distinction of being the only foreign language film I'll be seeing at this year's festival. Being in a foreign language (I'm not sure which one, but it was made in Burkina Faso if that helps anyone) and already liberally sprinkled with French subtitles, the film has to be watched wearing a set of very uncomfortable headphones. A translator very deadpanly tell you what's being said. There are a lot of periods when no one speaks in the film but you can't risk taking the damn headphones off in case someone's says something and you miss what it was. The film's that old tale of an African boy who becomes fascinated by movie making by seeing a film in his village. He makes a camera out a cereal packet (who knew they could get Blue Peter in Burkina Faso?) plus a cardboard projector. He projects a drawing of a horse onto a sheet and magically the horse comes to life. This sort of thing must happen a lot in his village as the other villagers didn't seem to pay much attention. It wasn't mentioned in the film but I assume the boy went on to grow up and make a short film that was exhibited at the London Film Festival.
Old Lag - Murdoch gets everyone by the balls in the end. What, sponsoring (flagship: pay for cable, get product & challenge Channel 4) intelligent and enjoyable films! Great fun, acutely observed & enjoyable pastiche of loathsome English characters disappearing up their backsides, because of their liberalism, which is really a frustrated attempt to carve up the estate of a dead woman of strength. Her put upon son takes the English escape route of eccentricity to defeat them all, lavished with the love interest in the tale, that classic of male fantasy: the naive, caring and brilliantly detached woman.
The Life and Times of Sara Baartman
Ken - South African documentary investigating the life of 'the Hottentot Venus'. She was a young woman who in or around 1810 was taken from slavery in Cape Town to be exhibited in a freak show in London. The slave trade had already been abolished in Britain (although not in the rest of the Empire) so this provoked a court case. In court she denied that she was a slave and said that she was being paid half the proceeds of her shows - presumably she had been threatened such that she was too scared to say anything else. The scandal killed the show in Britain but she was taken to Europe. Slavery was still legal in Paris and she was sold to an animal trainer. It seems her tribe was reknowned throughout Europe even before her arrival for their very large backsides and unusual sexual organs. A South Africa official who is interviewed on the film makes a complete fool of himself trying to explain this whilst trying not to say any words that would be out of place at a vicar's tea party. Eventually he is forced to say the word 'buttocks'. Apparently the 19th century so-called scientists put so much store by the unusualness of this tribe's sexual organs that they thought they might even be a different species from humans. No explanation was given in the film about what was unusual about their sexual organs - that payoff had to wait for the director's (Zola Maseko) comments after the film. Sara died in Paris in January 1816 - of what we will never know because although an autopsy was performed no one looked for the cause of death. Her genitals were removed and put in a bottle. Her skeleton is still in a Paris museum. There is a campaign to have it returned to South Africa for burial. What the director revealed after the film (and I fail to understand why it wasn't mentioned in the film - unless the target audience was the vicar's teaparty) was that the men of this tribe had only one testicle and the women had very elongated labias. This had nothing to do with any genetic abnormality however. The boys were given a very severe form of circumcision which involved removing a testacle and the girls labias were deliberately stretched. Also revealed was the possibility that Sara had unwittingly started the 19th century fashion for women to have bustles on their dresses. The film has already been shown on South African TV twice. There are no plans for a UK showing yet but it would suit Channel 4 if they are interested - although I recommend editing to include the points above.
The Small Time Thief
Old Lag - Only the French can get away with this. Had I not dashed out at the end to down a double vodka, I would have followed the credits and found out who had sponsored this anti-Anglo Saxon onslaught. Its sheer depressing moralistic ending thwarted the best and all of Hollywood's gangsta themes. If you were not spending phone calls reading this web site, you might understand the desire to escape a low wage night time job for cash & excitement! This is the eternal American theme, of rags to riches, applied even to the crime industry, in such vehicles as Goodfellas. I have seen petty youth criminals going in the reverse direction, attempting a sensible life, but still fascinated by the potential of gang loyalty, cash and excitement. Virginie Wagon & Erick Zonca, as only the French could, take a character best described as the spotty nerd reading the body building ads in the back of everything from Mad mag of the 70's to Loaded of the nineties, to attempt this macho, criminal dream. His ineffectual, passive and slightly bright involvement with a criminal gang display the squalor of the gang and his failure to fight and be hardened up by them. Vividly displayed by the gang boss despairing of his acceptance of the humiliating gang tasks to the point of fucking him in the mouth. A failed attempt by him to obtain criminal masculinity results in a slashed throat and a happy return to the shit job of a nighttime bread roll baker. Ugh sweat!
The Straight Story
Ken - We had a spare ticket for this showing that we were unable to dispose of. Probably because a film about a man riding a mower doesn't sound terribly interesting. But it's by David Lynch for God's sake, and is consequently brilliant without a foot wrong anywhere. The film is a road movie of one man's epic lone journey across America to be reunited with his brother and the people he meets along the way. It's based on the true story of one Alvin Straight (hence the title) who really did make a similar journey. Of note are some clever camera ploys. One early on in the picture shows the mower and trailer going along a very long road. The camera pans up to the sky and looks at the clouds for what seems an age. The classic cinematic way of showing the passage of time. The camera pans back down. You expect the action to have jumped ahead, but no. The mower has barely moved along that long road, it was a real time shot. After the screening, on stage to take the applause were the Director, the Producer, the Director of Photography, the Cameraman and others - in fact I think the whole crew were there apart from the Key Grip, make-up and the 2nd assistant gopher. The film's star Richard Farnsworth also made an appearance. He's actually older than the 73 year old he plays and walks with a cane - it won't have been too much of a stretch to his acting abilities to play someone who walks with two canes, then. I really can't fault this movie, so just go see it. I can't wait for the sequel The Straight Story II - The Journey Home.
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