1.45pm: BaadAsssss Cinema
UNPLEASANT WHITE WOMAN IN BAR: "I better warn you, I got a black belt in karate."
FOXY BROWN: "Well, I got my black belt in BAR STOOLS!" [thwack]
If you buy the new DVD of Jackie Brown, one of the special features available is a collection of a couple of dozen trailers for old movies featuring its star, Pam Grier. It's like a potted history of the American exploitation movie, from women in prison to foxy black avengers and beyond. I enjoy watching trailers at the best of times, but trailers for films that are aiming for the lowest common denominator are more fun than anything else. So I ended up suitably primed by this for Baadasssss Cinema, a look at the blaxploitation cinema of the early seventies. Isaac Julien's documentary (made for the American cable channel IFC) uses interviews with key players and critics along with copious clips, to give you an overview of the genre in a tight one-hour-less-commercial-break format.
Critic Elvis Mitchell identifies a key element of blaxploitation's success early on: in the early seventies, Hollywood cinema was heading into more downbeat and paranoid areas. Blaxploitation flicks had proper heroes, not anti-heroes, and they always won at the end of the day. The fact that these heroes were black was even more revolutionary, of course: director Melvin Van Peebles talks hilariously about the astonishment of a black audience when they realised that the hero of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song was going to make it to the end of the movie alive and victorious. He also describes how he came up with the stereotype of the black stud that prevailed all the way through these films: "I wanted to find something for the hero to do that everyone could identify with. Well, everyone likes poontang, so..."
Sweetback was the first film in the movement: Shaft brought it into the commercial forefront: and Superfly was the start of its downfall, as the NAACP objected to the hero being a drug dealer. Interesting to see that it was primarily the reaction of a section of the black community that caused blaxploitation's downfall, rather than the white studios. But as the filmmakers interviewed repeatedly point out, 'blaxploitation' itself was a perjorative term invented by the genre's enemies. As far as they could see, nobody was being exploited: black filmmakers were getting steady and profitable work, black audiences were getting to watch stories about themselves they'd never seen before.
Exploitation cinema god Larry Cohen talks frankly about the bad movies being made towards the tail end of the cycle - "there are bad movies everywhere, sure, but these guys seemed to be abusing the privilege." It was Cohen - a white liberal director who'd been given the job of Black Caesar because a studio boss insisted "you sure can direct those black actors" - who played a key role in the revival of blaxploitation in the mid nineties, reuniting all the stars for his Original Gangsters. After twenty years of being ignored, the original films were able to be talked about again and celebrated, and as a happy bonus most of their stars had their careers revitalised. Inevitably, Quentin Tarantino gets some screen time here to talk about the influence of blaxploitation on Jackie Brown, but thankfully he manages to avoid the blacker-than-thou approach he sometimes takes talking about these films. Baadasssss Cinema is a thoughtful study of the issues raised by blaxploitation films, but with enough clips to make it ludicrously entertaining. Hopefully Film Four or someone like that will pick it up for the UK - after all, Isaac Julien's a Brit, which is why this film appears incongruously in the British Cinema section of the festival.
4.00pm: Auto Focus
I never really got to see Hogan's Heroes - they were a bit sniffy in Granadaland about the American imports they showed in the seventies. Lead actor Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) built his reputation as "a likeable guy" during six years on the show, a reputation that was to take some serious knocks towards the end of his life. If you had to pin his downfall on one particular moment, it'd be the day in the late sixties when he met audio-visual whiz John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe) on the set of Hogan, as the latter was installing a hi-fi with "eight watts of pumping power". John can lay his hands on a new piece of electronic equipment called a Video Tape Recorder. Bob is a photography buff with a permanent hard-on. You can see where it's going from here.
Director Paul Schrader seems to have been in the wilderness for years, the glories of his Scorsese collaborations far behind him. This biopic isn't going to help that situation. The key problem with the film is Greg Kinnear's performance as Crane: given the challenge of playing a household name with a host of grubby secrets, he portrays the man as a complete cipher. His permanent grin never seems to suggest anything beyond hey, I'm a likeable churchgoing guy but I'll have sex with anything: go figure. Dafoe fares a lot better, playing Carpenter in his sleazy Bobby Peruvian register, but he's got nobody in his scenes to bounce off. The sequences of sexual degradation that Crane obsessively puts on video want to be shocking, but are obviously cut to the "only two pelvic thrusts in a single shot" rule to keep within an American R rating. (Note to British readers: I'm not making that up.) Crane's final decline is all depicted with random attacks of messed-up colour processing, shaky camera and Angelo Badalamenti subsonics: Kinnear, in the end, simply isn't good enough to do it by, y'know, just acting. A wasted opportunity.
6.30pm: Michael Moore Guardian Interview
Michael Moore's all over London like a bad suit right now (a metaphor I guess he'd understand). As The Cineaste notes below, he's been spotted a few times this weekend just chatting to people in the street following festival screenings of Bowling For Columbine. He's performing a one-man show in the Camden Roundhouse for the next month or so. And he's here at the NFT tonight, being interviewed on stage by Andrew Collins. Thankfully, Collins resists the temptation to reminisce about TV Nation inna I Love 1994 stylee: in fact, he does a terrific job in the interview, avoiding the normal chronological approach to take a more freewheeling run around the issues raised by Columbine.
Moore insists from the start that he's not just some lone voice in the wilderness wailing about America's problems: he believes he's in the mainstream of middle America, and that this film and his book Stupid White Men have become so popular because they resonate with millions of people who don't have a voice in the media. He expands on the main theme of the film, how Americans have a shared mental illness driven by fear: gun control isn't the be-all and end-all of everything, but it does seem wrong to give mentally ill people free access to guns. He dismisses the suggestion that the recent attacks by a sniper in Washington will change attitudes. "Forty people are killed by guns in America everyday. The Washington sniper only shot ten. Why is that news? Because it's geographically interesting? Because it made it easier for journalists to cover?" There is a silver lining to this case, though: "it's so rare for a stepfather and stepson to be able to bond..."
He talks a little about his filmmaking process: he doesn't use a set script, wanting the audience to be as surprised as him when he discovers he's wrong about something. "I'm right. I believe in what I think. When I'm wrong, I change my mind. And then I'm right again." He talks about his next project, Fahrenheit 911 ("it's the funny September 11th film"). And for the Brits, he throws in local references from Guy Fawkes ("the seventeenth century equivalent of the shoe bomber, and you have a whole fortnight devoted to him") to Tony Blair ("Blair is even more responsible for this war than Bush because he knows better... we all got fooled in '97"). Best of all, he touches on the issue raised by Suze yesterday: "People have complained about the Charlton Heston interview because they said I was taking advantage of his senility. And around the time the film came out, he announced he'd got the symptoms of Altzheimer's. But a few weeks later he was out campaigning for the Republicans for the Senate election. He's not senile. He's a lying bastard." Hope that clears that up.
9.00pm: Animation Panorama
It has been pointed out to me that Depressed Irish Guy's accent may actually be more north of England. Well, fuggit, I've established the catchphrase, it's too late to stop now. So it's Depressed Irish Guy who gets on stage to introduce four of the eight directors of this year's collection of animated shorts from around the world. In fact, it's only the four British directors who've been able to attend. Of the British shorts, Gaelle Denis' Fish Never Sleep is probably the best, a tale of insomnia in Tokyo primarily shot in black, white and red. The rest are all much of a muchness: Romance In The Air sweetly depicts a group of chairlift riders fantasising about each other as they pass, Adagio is an abstract piece with splashes of paint flowing over a live-action landscape, and Secret Love is a nicely-rotoscoped re-enactment of a folk song.
The rest of the world this year appears to just consist of America, Canada and Holland. Paul Fierlinger's Still Life With Animated Dogs has a certain charm as its narrator describes his relationship with the various dogs in his life. It's slightly weakened by its length in comparison to the other films here (close on half an hour) and some ugly sponsorship logos over the top and tail. Rosto's (The Rise And Fall Of The Legendary) Anglobilly Feverson (pictured here) is a deranged piece of Dutch fantasy, with a unique look like a moving version of a Dave McKean Sandman cover: live action, live drawing and CGI all mesh to eyeball-shredding effect, though the story itself isn't up to much. As ever, it's up to the funny films to get the biggest audience reaction, and both of these are from Canada. Christopher Hinton's Flux is a beautifully cyclical tale of family life, keeping your attention throughout despite (or because of?) the animation and drawing being scruffily abstracted almost to the point of incomprehensibility. And John Weldon's The Hungry Squid is another fine piece of mixed media silliness, telling the story of a little girl and her attempts to stop animals eating her homework. I always feel guilty about recommending funny animated shorts above the more artistic ones, but hell, they work.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Belated Birthday Girl - Love Liza is the story of a man whose wife has killed herself, and how he reacts. "Copes" would be the wrong word, as we see him withdraw, break down at work, and then retreat into his own form of escape. All the while, he carries with him the unopened letter left him by Liza before her suicide.
This could all have made for a very depressing film, but instead Gordy Hoffman's script and Todd Louiso's direction gives us a funny and moving piece. We are made to empathise with Wilson's pain and confusion, without ever either pitying him or wanting him just to pull himself together. And this is due, no doubt, in large part also to Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance. As he is on screen in nearly every scene, the strength of his performance is very important in making this film work, and I found him totally believable, even when his actions seem extraordinary. And in the end I felt that this was just something Wilson had to go through, to come to an accommodation with his grief. He is backed up by fine performances from the supporting cast, particularly Kathy Bates as Liza's mother. There were some wonderful tragi-comic moments, as well as straightforwardly comic moments, and the film was threaded with humour, without losing the depth of grief and pain felt by Wilson. The film doesn't provide answers and explanations, and that is part of its strength. Perhaps the ending is a little too neat and symbolic, but overall this was an impressive first feature from Todd Louiso and an impressive performance from Hoffman, and certainly worth seeing.
The Cineaste - I turned up for this film about five minutes before it was due to start, only to find an enormous queue stretching half way round Leicester Square. There would be a slight delay, due to the previous film starting late. So rather than plod to the end of the queue, I simply milled around just outside the cinema. Then the previous film ended, and loads of people came out, and a small group gathered very close to me. One of them was a big fat scruffy geezer, and people were taking photos of him, and getting him to sign their programme, and he was quite the centre of attention. What was the previous film? Bowling for Columbine - heck! It was Michael Moore! Was that a gun he had in his pocket?
Love Liza, a US indie, is a thoughtful study of a man after his wife has committed suicide, for reasons unexplained. Philip Seymour Hoffman (as Wilson Joel) gives a wonderfully towering performance as the bereaved husband. The mood is very downbeat - no over-the-top Hollywood histrionics here. Wilson is a straightforward, simple character, and as we see him immediately after his wife’s suicide, he’s struck numb, unable to know what to do. He hardly shows any reaction - he’s just unable to release his emotions. His mother-in-law tries to console him, but he’s a withdrawn character and he isn’t very communicative. His work colleagues are supportive, but they also are hardly able to get through to him. Then he gradually finds an escape for his feelings - not the stereotypical drink or drugs, but something more original, but equally effective.
The mood of the film was well-played, many takes being long, with very little or even no sound. This created good atmosphere, hinting at suspense. The film was intriguing in the sense that the plot didn’t develop along conventional lines, nor the dialogue either. The ending was just a tiny bit melodramatic, but that is a minor criticism, and I thought that this was a fine film to promote US indie cinema. And afterwards, as I walked along Leicester Square to the tube, there having tea at one of the pavement cafes was Michael Moore.
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