1.30pm: Looking For Leonard
Suitably primed by Suze to look out for the insult to Suzanne Vega a quarter of the way through this movie, we all made sure that we laughed appropriately. After all, the directors were present, and we wouldn't want to put them off trying that sort of thing in their future films.
Looking For Leonard's an American indie movie in all but location (Montreal, looking attractively fuzzy in Super 16). It's the story of Jo (Kim Huffman, lookingly pleasingly Catherine Keener-ish), who's hooked up with two doltish small-time crooks Ted (Ben Ratner) and Johnny (Darcy Belsher). Her relationship with Ted is a mess, her life as a whole isn't much better, and her only consolation is the copy of Leonard Cohen's novel Beautiful Losers she carries around everywhere. But when Czech emigre Luka (Joel Bissonnette) appears on the scene unexpectedly, and Johnny departs even more unexpectedly, she sees the opportunity to turn things around.
The static camerawork, the quirky characters, the way that at least half of the film consists of smart-mouthed people smoking and talking - co-writer/directors Matt Bissonnette and Steven Clark are the first to admit that Hal Hartley's work is a major influence on this film, though they claimed in the Q&A "we were actually aiming for The Matrix." To be honest, there isn't that much to distinguish it from all the other low-budget smoking and talking movies out there, but there's quite a bit to like. The late Justin Pierce from Kids contributes a scene-stealing cameo as Luka's friend Chevy, who gets to perform the Author's Message rant about the state of Hollywood cinema that indie films are required by law to contain. ("You can't just go around saying everything is shit all the time." "Well, no. But you gotta try.") The moments of violence are interestingly handled, with freeze-frames just before they happen as if the movie can't quite bring itself to show them to you. And there are some nicely quotable lines in there, notably Luka's explaining to Jo why she's a good person really: "Only good people worry about whether they're bad. Bad people know they're good."
Those of you who were here yesterday will have seen the Suzanne Vega Fanclub cast his photographer's eye over El Valley Centro and Los, the first two films in James Benning's trilogy. I decided to join him for Sogobi, the third one. Whereas the first two films looked at the Californian rural and urban landscapes, this one goes out to document the wilderness. The technique is the same as before: thirty-five shots, two and a half minutes each in duration, with a static camera unblinkingly staring at the chosen locations. Suze will be reviewing this further down the page as a series of individual shots, which is a perfectly valid thing to do given his hobby: I'm more interested in how this hangs together as a movie.
From Suze's reviews of the first two films, it seems a key theme in those is the way man interacts with nature: over the two and a half minute shots, seeing people moving in and out of the fixed frame. And it looks to me like the key theme of Sogobi is the contrast once you move out into the Californian wilderness. For the first few shots, there's no evidence of human life on screen at all: you end up struggling to listen for anything you can find on the soundtrack, like a distant plane or the rumble of off-screen traffic. A shot like the lovely one of a tree in the mist justifies Benning's making this a movie rather than a slide show. A still photo tells you that at some moment in time this was a pretty view: a shot held for two and a half minutes makes its beauty feel timeless, like it could stay this way forever.
As the film progresses, people start encroaching on the landscape more and more, though you'll never actually see any of them. A fire helicopter picks up water from a lake and roars off. An army convoy charges across the desert. A huge freight train starts driving across the frame, and still hasn't finished driving past 150 seconds later. You don't get any explicit narrative, so you're forced to make your own connections between the juxtaposition of individual shots (the shock of cutting from a roaring river to a silent desert, where the play of sunlight is the only movement in the frame), and the progression as you go through the film. It's fascinating to watch, and at no point do you ever find yourself wondering when the next shot will kick in. (And as Benning said in his Q&A, the shots themselves are memorable enough that when he gives short text descriptions of each one in order over the closing credits, you find yourself watching the movie in your head all over again.)
I'm now curious to see the other two films, as I'm sure the presence of people must make them appreciably different from Sogobi. Benning, meanwhile, plans to go even more minimalist for his next project: a sequence of seven and a half minute shots of the water in each of the thirteen Great Lakes. Yes, just the water. Let's see what Suze makes of that one.
6.30pm: Me And My Camera
A grim warning for those of us who've been known to drag out the camcorder now and again. Max (Zinedine Zoualem) has been a home movie buff ever since he got a camera from his movie-mad uncle on his sixth birthday. Being French, he quickly starts using it to film girls, although getting them to hang around afterwards turns out to be a life-long problem. Me And My Camera is the story of his life, as told entirely though the film and video footage he's shot over the years. It shows how Max has used his camera in a number of business ventures - documentarist for hire, video dating, messaging service - and how they've all been about as successful as his love life. But then one day he meets Lucie (Julie Gayet), who he feels sure won't be so worried about his obsessive filming habit. Because she's blind...
Me And My Camera starts out like a fluffy feelgood romp - daffy French pop music on the soundtrack, and opening titles so bright and garish it's like having your retinas massaged with a cheese grater. But it takes an interestingly dark turn as it progresses - firstly looking at the way Max detaches himself from the rest of the world by observing it all through his camera, and secondly by playing on the voyeuristic nature of his obsession with Lucie. Talking about voyeurism to a room full of people watching a cinema screen is always an interesting thing to do, and the film cleverly plays with the parallels between Max and ourselves without ever forcing them.
But the laughs are still there, along with a bravura display of storytelling. The challenge facing director Christophe Loizillon is to tell a story where the lead character is behind the camera for much of it: and he pulls it off, with some visually inventive sequences. Max's acquisition of his second movie camera is a pricelessly funny scene: while the sequence of blind Lucie filming a love letter to Max, not knowing what she's pointing the camera at most of the time, is touching and disturbing all at once. Jonathan Romney said in his introduction that this is the sort of film that makes highbrow critics write epic treatises about Man's relationship with the Image. I suppose you could do that, but it'd be much easier to just enjoy the bloody thing.
9.00pm: City Of God
As mentioned already, Latin American cinema is hot this year: and the buzz about Brazil's City Of God has been the hottest of all this festival. The film's broken box office records in its home country, and has been picked up by Miramax for worldwide distribution. Based on true events, it's set in a district of Rio de Janiero that's a hotbed of drug dealing and violence. Young Rocket (Alexander Rodrigues) - for the most part a neutral observer - watches as his friends and family all become part of a huge gang war, with the town boss Lil' Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora) at its centre.
Comparisons have been made with Goodfellas for this film, mainly because of the crime theme, the heavy voiceover narration and the use of freeze frames to introduce characters (justified by Rocket's interest in photography in the second half). That's all well and good, except I recall that Goodfellas had the decency to slow down and let you catch your breath every so often. City Of God starts like a rocket - all fast-moving camera and rapid-fire editing - and director Fernando Meirelles keeps it at that pace for a full two and a quarter hours. A large cast of non-professionals play this in a wholly believable fashion, even when the story veers dangerously close to melodrama. The violence is shocking and brutal, and all the more so when you consider the age of most of the kids involved. I'm actually struggling to come up with individual things to talk about here, because this film is all of a piece - a relentless 135 minutes that'll leave you shaken, but in no doubt that you've seen something astounding. An early festival highlight.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Every Stewardess Goes To Heaven
The Belated Birthday Girl - This charming film from Argentina is as far in feel from yesterday's El Bonaerense as you're likely to get. A sweet comic romance about an air stewardess who finds she is pregnant and an opthalmologist flying south to scatter the ashes of his dead wife, it makes stunning use of its Tierra del Fuego location and has some delightful performances. There are some nice little gags involving the minor characters too. This is the sort of film that makes you leave the cinema with a smile, and although it is never in doubt how it will end, there are some touching and funny moments along the way.
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - Now despite what the critic in this week's Time Out says, as far as I am concerned this is easily the strongest of the James Benning trilogy. On a technical level, the composition is far more imaginative, eliminating much of the empty foreground, empty sky, waste of film that dominated much of El Valley Centro. The colours are stronger, and the background sound appears less contrived than the previous two. Also the film seemed to have a far more coherent and readily understood theme than Los. What we are actually looking at is the Californian wilderness and the variety of climatic and ecosystems that go to make that up. Thus we have deserts, valleys, forests, snowstorms, sandstorms, flora, fauna, trees, streams, rocks; in short an ecocentric heaven. However other shots also reveal the footprint of man. So we also have: cattle compounds, freight trains, helicopters, quarries, the shadow of an oil drill, dams (bringing up that old water issue again) etc.
The conventional wisdom here (which Benning slightly reiterated afterwards) being to cite this as further evidence of man's encroachment into the last vestiges of the planet's wilderness. I don't necessarily go with that view, and tend to see the whole piece as evidence of how unconquerable some places on the planet actually are. In essence I see here man making a limited accommodation with the wilderness; which believers in the 'Gaia hypothesis' might suggest will be the 10% surcharge of the unpayable bill he may one day be presented with.
As you may have realised I have taken a very photographic view of the whole trilogy. One interesting shot had a tree covered in sleet, snow, and fog. As hard as one looked no movement could be visibly detected. Yet (even without sound) this was imperceptibly not a still life. Benning speaking afterwards mentioned this particular shot, and said that the difference between his work and photography was to add the elements of time and duration. Looking purely on that level, that makes Sogobi easily the best film of the whole trilogy.
The Three Marias
The Belated Birthday Girl - The Three Marias of the title are three sisters whose brothers and father are brutally murdered at the start of the film, and who are instructed by their mother to seek out three men as assassins to exact revenge. Each sets off to get her assassin and bring back the head of one of the killers, but things don't go exactly as the mother planned, and we get a few revelations along the way. From the opening scenes, the whole film is done at a pitch of high melodrama, from the dramatic scenery, to the music, to every facet of the story, but done also with humour.
The Magdalene Sisters
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - This is easily the biggest load of earnest old cobblers I have ever had the misfortune to sit through. Yet hey, let's take it seriously for a moment. The Magdalene Sisters tells the true story (because any film that attacks the Catholic Church automatically has to be) of Irish girls put into an orphanage for talking to boys, or having the odd non wedlocked child. Well hang on a minute, let's tell the real story here. These girls were being given free food and accommodation, a job for life, a permanent childminder for life, personal one to one religious instruction, and a new hairstyle every time they returned from an unauthorised trip out of the compound. Not only that, but so
that they didn't become ignorant of the ways of the world, the priest would sacrifice his body towards their lustful desires. Alright the Sister in charge may have slapped them around a bit, but let's be honest here, it takes two to have a successful S&M relationship.
So in case you haven't guessed by now, this film was about as subtle as a brick in the face. What the director Peter Mullan obviously
doesn't realise is that if you want to manipulate people's emotions, there have to be some shades of grey in your characters. For instance one of the most evil characters I have ever seen on film was Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List; purely because along with his evil acts, he was such a cultured and attractive man. Of course all the luvvies in the audience lapped it up, and I began to realise what the free paper hankies in the goodie bag had been provided for. However at the end of the film there turned out to be a magnificent PAYBACK.
At the Q&A session up jumped this seventy year old woman, and shouted out that she was a real life Magdalene Sister (cue applause). At which point (screw the question idea) she went on to give a ten minute speech, as graphic as you can think of, describing every type of sexual abuse she used to enjoy (sorry I meant suffer). Basically she wouldn't let up, leaving the cast, director, and snooty hostess squirming on stage, as she fired rectums, menstruals, and orals at them in all their gory details. Of course this began to get a bit much for some of the luvvies who had previously applauded her, and were now trying to shout her down. Yet to give her due (obviously that Magdalene training stood her in good stead) she wouldn't sit down. Instead warming to her theme, she went on to say how much she hated the Irish, the Catholic Church (naturally), and how the Catholics were like the Mafia (Duh!). Finally her seventy years caught up with her and she had to pause for breath, leaving the much relieved patsies on stage quickly seeking someone else to ask them a question. Yet she wasn't finished then, and one question later she was back, wanting to know from Mullan why there wasn't more graphic abuse in the film (obviously the lady knows what she likes). At which point Mullan made some cryptic reply about bricks in houses which gave him, the shellshocked cast and hostess the chance to flee the stage.
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