1.00pm: Anthony Dod Mantle Masterclass
The big fuss is for Holly Hunter's Guardian Interview next door in NFT1, but in the smaller NFT2 there's also a full house for Anthony Dod Mantle, who was director of photography on the key early Dogme features such as Festen and Mifune. He also worked the camera on two films in this year's LFF: Dogville (which you know about already) and It's All About Love (which you'll be hearing about soon). The last time I went to a cinematographer's masterclass, it was by the great Christopher Doyle back in 1996, and his advice fed directly into the way I shot my holiday videos for years afterwards. I know it sounds pretentious, but it's true: he concentrated mainly on the multitude of decisions you have to take once you're on the studio floor with your camera, keeping yourself open to all options at all times.
Dod Mantle seems to have a similarly flexible approach, but his talk (illustrated with several clips) is more about the large amount of preparation and planning you need to do before the shooting stage, so all those options are available to you on the day - getting yourself into a situation where you can afford to lose control a little bit. An Oxford lad who "moved to Denmark for a weekend and stayed there for eighteen years," he spent his first few years after film school working on several Danish films, including one by Thomas Vinterberg. When Vinterberg and three other directors came up with the idea of the Dogme 95 manifesto, he chose Dod Mantle to shoot the first film made under these rules, Festen. Dod Mantle didn't have an issue with the limitations of available light and hand-held camera imposed on him: "every film has rules anyway, either artistic or financial".
He used the opportunity to react against the uniform look that virtually all films have, whereby once you've seen the first couple of minutes you know the visual strategy that's going to be used throughout. ("Cinematography is probably the most conservative and reactionary trade in art.") With this in mind, he used the limitations of a cheap digital camera to Festen's advantage: as the family depicted in the film disintegrated, so did the quality of the image, with the camera visibly straining to pick up images using the decreasing light towards the end of the day. The stylisation of his images went even further in a later Dogme film he shot, Harmony Korine's julien donkey-boy. I raved about it back in 1999, and still would, but it's shocking to see a clip out of context and realise how any single shot bears no relation to the next one in terms of colour balance or grain. And yet, somehow, the whole thing still flows narratively.
Obviously the main focus of the talk was on his two new films. After the wild style of his early work, it looks more conventional, but there's still a lot of improvisation on the set, as well as a fair amount of technical jiggery-pokery. He talks about the conventional, yet artificial-looking use of film on It's All About Love, and the astonishing amount of manipulation required on some of Dogville's images (because they couldn't raise the camera high enough to get the "God's eye-view" of the set, those shots are actually pictures from twelve different cameras digitally stitched together). He talks about the joy of being the person on the set who gets closest to the actors, and how he got into arguments with director Lars von Trier, who wanted to operate the camera so he could grab that privilege for himself ("he wanted to be alone on the stage with the best actors in the world - the ultimate ego"). Dod Mantle's career hasn't been going that long, and he sees himself in the future as a ninety-year-old in a wheelchair, "having someone else running round the floor while I just work on the lights". I'll look forward to that.
4.00pm: Twentynine Palms
It's never closing time at the Second Chance Saloon over at Spank Towers: even if a director messes up terminally, I'm usually prepared to watch one more film of theirs to see if they can redeem themselves. Bruno Dumont's Humanity played in the 1999 LFF bearing hopeless reports from Cannes, all of which turned out to be completely justified. And yet four years on from that I'm here to see his next film, despite the advance press on it being even worse. Why? Well, even though Humanity had all the elements of Bad Art Cinema in abundance, there was the odd startling moment in between the longeurs. I wanted to see if this film had any more of those moments.
Katia (Yekatarina Golubeva) and David (David Wissak) are location scouting in the deserts of California. For a period of several days, we watch them as they drive around, look at mountains, hang around motel rooms, eat and fuck. (The latter means that we get to see and hear some of the most hilariously overacted orgasms in cinema history.) This cycle repeats itself several times until about ten minutes from the end, when something different happens to give the film a climax. And as anyone with a basic knowledge of recent transgressive French cinema can tell you, it's not even an original climax.
Everything that was good and bad about Humanity is just repeated in Twentynine Palms. As in the earlier film, Dumont's feel for landscape comes through in every exterior frame: there are some beautiful shots of the deserts and mountains on display. It's a shame he has to keep putting his idiot characters in the way of them, in a series of excruciatingly over-extended scenes. Katia is mysterious, only speaks French and has violent mood swings: David is American, permanently pissed off and doesn't understand her. There's no obvious reason why they would be a couple in the first place, and the film gives you no incentive to try and work out why. With their snotty paranoid attitudes and epically dull conversations, I've got to admit that by the end I was cheering on the guy with the baseball bat.
If I was forced to find one more positive thing to say about Twentynine Palms, I'd have to return to Georges Lechaptois' photography. He captures the Californian sunlight with brilliant intensity: so much so, in fact, that a bored guy next to me gave up watching the film and started reading his LFF programme instead, using the screen as a light. Memo to Bruno Dumont: the Second Chance Saloon is always open, but the Third Chance Bar And Grill never even got planning permission.
7.00pm: This Film Is Dangerous
I'm sure Dumont would like to think that his twatty little provocations could be considered as 'dangerous' cinema. This programme shows him up for the chancer he is: after all, he's never made a film that could SPONTANEOUSLY BURST INTO FLAMES AT ANY MOMENT. Such were the perils of nitrate film in the first half of the twentieth century, which is why nowadays we use non-flammable alternatives. What with the fire risk, and the tendency for it to decay at the drop of a hat, nitrate has been the bane of the lives of film historians and archivists: huge amounts of early cinema have been lost forever, and more of it could still vanish without sensitive handling.
The British Film Institute has always been good at supporting experts in all manner of arcane film-related subjects. Hence this event hosted by Roger Smither of the Imperial War Museum's Film & Video Archive, who's spent the last ten years pulling together a symposium called This Film Is Dangerous. Looking at all aspects of the use, dangers and preservation of nitrate film, it's now spawned a book, and the first part of the event is a PowerPoint presentation summarising and plugging that book. There are some lovely illustrations of the joys and terrors of nitrate, including some glorious photos of cameramen and editors happily smoking a fag while handling one of the most flammable materials in the world.
The film part of this event starts off with a couple of films illustrating how dangerous a material nitrate is: the main one is the amusingly dull Admiralty information short This Film Is Dangerous!, made in 1948, in which assorted tars demonstrate the ineffectiveness of various fire extinguishing techniques. But the main event is a screening of a restored version of The Love Test, directed by Michael Powell in 1935. It's one of the 'quota-quickies' he worked on early in his career: short B-pictures made in Britain in no time for less money, to ensure that at least 40% of the films showing in our cinemas were our own product. We didn't get to see a nitrate copy for obvious safety reasons, but the film's theme makes it relevant to the evening: it's a romantic comedy set in a chemical lab working on the problem of fireproofing celluloid. When Mary (Judy Gunn) is put in charge of the lab, the male scientists take exception at being told what to do by a smelly girl. They conspire to get her fired by setting up a distracting love affair with fellow boffin John (Louis Hayward).
The quota-quickies were Powell's apprenticeship in the movie industry, before his glory days working with Emeric Pressburger. Obviously, it's tempting to look for signs of his future genius in this quickly knocked-off flick, and there are indeed some distinctive visual flourishes, most notably in a couple of smartly-edited montages. But what really helps is Selwyn Jepson's entertaining script, which is a lot better than a B-movie deserves. The gratuitous sexism of the scientists gives the film a few more laughs than it probably had in 1935, but some clever twists ensure that a suitably feminist conclusion is reached while still allowing the leads to snog in the final shot. And there's a lovely supporting performance from Googie Withers as an outrageously flirty secretary.
11.00pm: Battle Royale II: Requiem
Overheard in the row behind: "If this place got blown up now, Forbidden Planet'd lose all of its business..."
A lot's happened in the two years since Battle Royale played at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and subsequently went on to do socko biz around the world. (Except for America, where a certain squeamishness about the idea of schoolchildren killing each other means it still hasn't been released there.) Commercial pressure dictated that director Kinji Fukasaku should make a sequel, even though he was over seventy by now and had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Showing admirable cojones, he publicly announced his intention to work on Battle Royale II even if it killed him. Which it did, in February of this year: the film was completed by his son Kenta, and the two of them share the credit for direction.
Three years on from the first film, and its surviving teens have started up a terrorist movement called Wild Seven, which has declared war on all adults. Hence an opening sequence in which an entire city's skyscrapers are levelled by bombs, including a pair of towers conspicuously placed centre stage. (Obviously they're not expecting this film to get an American release either.) To combat this terrorism, the government rejigs the rules of the Battle Royale game, sending a new class of 42 children out to Wild Seven's island base. The object of the game is now to kill the terrorists, or die in the attempt.
Battle Royale II is a sequel in the true Hollywood sense of the word, with all the bad things that entails. The plot (at least in the first half) is simply a pumped-up Xerox of the first movie, with more volume and less focus. The violence was the main talking point in the first one, so now there's more of it with extra CGI gore. Takeshi Kitano's teacher was a popular figure in the first film, but he got killed off, so he's replaced by Japanese DTV legend Riki Takeuchi (whose hilarious hamming is probably the best thing in this movie). The main complaint about Battle Royale was the impossibility of identifying with 42 anonymous teenagers, so the sequel quickly kills off a third of them in an early Saving Private Ryan-style massacre to make the numbers more manageable. ("Your deaths weren't individual enough," sneers Riki entertainingly.)
But the film itself dies horribly at the halfway mark, when the few surviving players finally meet up with Wild Seven. Suddenly everything grinds to a halt, and the best part of an hour is spent on unwanted backstory flashbacks, while everyone tries to work out where to go from here. The film doesn't get going again until there's a spectacular jolt as its political message is explicitly spelt out, and the real enemy is identified: trust me, Americans, you're not going to see BRII in your country for years. Eventually the shooting starts again, but the damage has been done.
Battle Royale worked because of the simple, exploitative purity of its central idea: I'm incredibly proud of my "Hollyoaks with a body count" summary, and still stand by it. By comparison, Battle Royale II is more like late period Brookside: it takes that idea and stretches it in too many directions at once, and ultimately that's why it's a failure.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Lesley - A psychiatrist, Cora, is treating a severely withdrawn woman in Liege. Just as she feels she is making progress in the case, the patient is repatiated to Iceland, and a island off the mainland which is her home. Concerned that her advance in the case will be wasted, Cora flies off to the bleak winter village, where her patient has been reclaimed by her husband. The woman does not acknowledge Cora, and when finding out why Cora has come, the husband makes it clear that he intends to look after his wife at home and not send her off to Rekjavik for proper psychiatric treatment. Cora tries an ill-considered attempt to 'rescue' her, which is fortunately thwarted by a sympathetic doctor who has given her haven on the island. The acting is superb, but beyond this the evocation of a Scandinavian community in winter, dark, desolate, closed in on itself, yet sympathetically drawn, is magnificent. A film I definitely recommend, but you'll need thawing out afterwards. So I went and caught the second showing of I'm Not Scared for a bit of Italian sun - saw both Spank and the BBG in the audience.
The Forest (Le Silence de la Foret)
The Cineaste - There appears to be an arboreal theme to this year's LFF, with seemingly any number of films about forests. Certainly in this one the forest plays a key role in the plot.
Gonaba is a national of an unnamed central African country. We see him returning to his homeland after he's completed his education in France. Yet he dislikes seeing the corruption in a government which has almost total control, and in particular the exploitation of pygmies. He decides to help them by going into the forest to live with them and teach them how to educate themselves. He abandons the trappings of an educated position and a romance with a glamorous bar-owner, and sets off to win the trust of a settlement of pygmies.
The director Didier Ouenangare has handled all this very well. The pace of the film is relaxed, but always interesting, and he brings out the difficulties Gonaba has understanding the pygmies very well. The photography is very attractive, with beautiful sun-drenched scenery. As Gonaba gradually wins the pygmies' trust, I couldn't help wondering what the denouement would be. It was finely open-ended, provoking an enthusiastic discussion in the Q & A afterwards, a situation Ouenangare said he found impossible to close any other way.
Overall it was quite a beautiful easy-paced film, and Ouenangare is a film-maker of considerable talent.
Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew
The Belated Birthday Girl - Personally, I hadn't heard of Jimmy Scott before going through the LFF programme this year to make my selections. Something about the film appealed, so I thought I'd give it a go. And I am glad I did. The film opens with footage of Jimmy Scott on a concert tour of Japan: a tiny 75 year old man with an almost womanly voice. We are then told his life story, starting off with what seemed an almost clichéd tale of a child in a black family of 10 children, close to his mother, father almost never there. Then at the age of 12 Jimmy stopped growing. Turns out he had a hormonal deficiency, and the doctors could only offer experimental treatments, so, as his mother didn't want him to be a guinea-pig, nothing more was done about it. So Jimmy never went through puberty, and is left with his extraordinary voice. The story of Jimmy's life from then on is a fascinating and often heart-breaking one, with personal tragedy, failure to get professional acknowldgement, and almost criminal treatment at the hands of one unscrupulous record producer (now dead from cancer - at the Q and A afterwards, let's just say no-one seemed too sad about it). After many years of obscurity when he hardly performed, Jimmy Scott, now pushing 80, is back out there, as the Japan footage testified, and his records are getting back on the shelves - and he's finally getting some of the money for them, as well as the recognition he deserves. During the film we heard some of his early recordings, and though undoubtedly his voice now is not what it was, and it's tragic that he didn't get the success and recognition at the time, this film has made me aware of this most unusual singer, and it would be good if it gets him known more widely. It's not only his strange voice, but his phrasing and timing were quite different for his time, and have inluenced other Jazz singers. But even if you're not a fan of his kind of Jazz, this is a very human story with much to recommend it.
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