A rare festival appearance from the Suzanne Vega Fanclub at today's screening of Fritz Lang's 1926 classic. Suze has always been a fan of sci-fi movies, and Metropolis is where all the cliches of the genre were first invented. The beautifully detailed shots of a crowded city, teeming with skyscrapers and vehicles. The hideous and terrifying machinery that dwarfs its human operators. The use of a futuristic backdrop to point up what's basically a simple morality tale. Even the first appearance of what Bill and Ted would subsequently refer to as "evil robot usses." (Hey, you try spelling the plural of "us" with a hangover like this.)
People are still stealing ideas from Metropolis some 75 years after it was made: which makes it surprising just how shabbily it's been treated in the past. The film flopped badly when it first came out, and the producers took the usual action of hacking huge lumps out of it to see if that made it any better. Since then, the movie's suffered all manner of indignities: re-edits, colourisation, Giorgio Moroder soundtracks. At least a quarter of the original release version has been lost forever.
What the restorers have done for this release (which should be appearing on DVD some time in 2002) is to try and get as close as they can to that original 1926 release version. They've pulled together bits of film from a large array of sources, including some rarely-seen shots from an American edit. Where the required footage no longer exists, they've used new title cards to fill in the missing bits of plot. (These titles point up the sad fate of a character referred to only as The Slim One, whose entire performance in the movie was cut out in that first re-edit and has never been seen again - he now only exists in references in the new titles.)
A spectacular digital restoration job has been done on this new footage, not only do the images look stunning, they're surprisingly consistent in quality given the number of different sources they come from. The legendary big effects shots are really enhanced by this. As for the film as a whole, the first half suffers a bit from draggy 1920s style pacing - occasionally you think blasphemously that the re-editors may have had a point - but the hell-for-leather climax more than compensates for it.
One extra you won't get if you wait for the 2002 DVD release: the live accompaniment by Neil Brand on the piano that we got at this screening. I've seen silent shorts performed this way at the National Film Theatre before, but Brand's two-and-a-half hour performance - entirely improvised, and always perfectly in sync with the film - was in another league entirely. Bravo, sir.
The first subtitled films I ever saw at the cinema were directed by Akira Kurosawa: a double bill of Throne Of Blood and Seven Samurai. Were these the movies that kick-started my love of Asian cinema, still going strong some 20 years later? Difficult to say. But I certainly owe a huge debt to Kurosawa for changing the way I look at movies. There's going to be a two-month retrospective of the man's work at the NFT early next year: I'd clear my diary for it, except I haven't got a 2002 diary yet.
Kurosawa should be appearing on TV around the same time as the NFT season. It's a documentary about the man's life and work, made for the BBC2 Arena slot. It begins with his childhood in a samurai family: a formative experience appears to have been a visit with his brother to the aftermath of the 1923 Tokyo earthquake (some jaw-dropping archive footage emphasises the horror he must have felt). From there, we skip over his early years in a proletariat artists' collective - not the way for the son of a samurai to behave, obviously - to his 1950 international breakthrough with Rashomon and his subsequent success.
Adam Low directs all this in the Arena house style, and all the cliches are present and correct. We get the man's own words read by a famous actor (Paul Scofield reading from Kurosawa's autobiography). We get one actual interview from the archives that's drawn on repeatedly (from when Kurosawa last talked to the Beeb in 1988). We get sequences of people watching the films while commenting on them (some nice contributions from Clint Eastwood and James Coburn on the Western adaptations of his samurai stories). We get original participants from the movies revisiting the old locations and talking about their memories (the surviving crew members from Rashomon returning to that forest). And we get some arty bits of photography to cover the transitions (Tokyo cityscapes and shots of water are the recurring motifs here).
But behind all the BBC2 stylistic tics, there's a thoughtful and informative analysis of what made Kurosawa one of the greats. It's beautifully shot on high-definition video (looking great even when blown up to cinema size), and it makes you want to see all the movies again. Which can only be a good thing.
6.50pm: Nanni Moretti Guardian Interview
You know I'm always honest with you. That hangover I mentioned earlier on? It's caused by a marathon booze session I had with the Film Unlimited posse immediately after this interview. I'm trying to write this stuff with a bitch of a headache, and I'm meant to be seeing Monsters, Inc. in precisely one hour from now. Can I put off writing about the Moretti interview until tomorrow? I'll definitely do it then, promise. Come back in 24 hours.
CUT TO: Metropolis-style 'missing plot' title card. "SPANK is seen staggering blearily through three of Sunday's LFF events. THE SLIM ONE observes his movements from a distance and giggles quietly. Eventually SPANK goes to bed and has some weird dreams about Mulholland Drive. We watch as he awakes the following morning."
Okay, I'm better now.
This should have been the Martin Sheen Guardian Interview: but just like Peter Fonda and his reported 'flu condition' [dead link] (i.e. he was scared that if he flu here, the plane would explode), Sheen has decided not to grace us with his presence after all. So at the last minute, Nanni Moretti - director of The Son's Room, playing here later this evening - has been drafted in to replace him.
Moretti's had a long and successful career in Italy as a writer, actor and director, but so far only two of his films have made it over to the UK: Dear Diary in 1994, and Aprile in 1998. These were both semi-autobiographical affairs, featuring Moretti himself as the main character pottering around Rome on his Vespa and trying to make sense of his life and work. I've always been curious to find out how close the real Moretti is to the character in his films.
It turns out that he's an equally funny and likeable guy. Sadly he's got to rely on an interpreter this evening, which puts a bit of a crimp in his comic timing (though the large Italian population in the audience laps him up). He talks entertainingly about his early films, where he built up an alter ego character called Michele. Later on, he chose to play himself instead: or rather an interpretation of his own character, with some exaggerations and made-up bits added for humorous effect. (Shockingly, he reveals that all that stuff in Dear Diary about Flashdance changing his life is a lie.)
With The Son's Room, Moretti is back playing a fictional character again. He says it was initially driven by his desire to play the role of a psychoanalyst: later on, he had the inspiration to give the character an emotional crisis in his own life to deal with. Moretti's aim was to get the audience to share in the emotion of the film. rather than bludgeon them with imposed sentimentality: I'll be interested to see if he pulls it off.
Moretti opens the Q&A with the glum comment "it's never a good idea to let the audience speak..." Nevertheless, there are some good questions from the audience, though Moretti does evade some of the trickier ones. "Are there any countries in the world where you aren't funny?" is a good example of one of these. Though as if to demonstrate Moretti's international comic appeal, his best gag of the night is visual: asked about the cinema in Rome he co-owns and whether he still takes a direct interest in it, he replies by taking out his mobile and calling the cinema to check on the day's box office takings.
And immediately after the interview, we all went to a bar in Soho and drank it dry. Which is, I think, where we came in.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Cineaste - It was with just a little trepidation that I bought my ticket for this film. After yesterday afternoon’s insipid Saturday, and not knowing enough about this film that I was wondering if the title referred to the main highlight at a gay nightclub, I had more than a few doubts. Happily they were all quickly dispelled. The director Fabian Bielinsky introduced the film, saying that the best way to enjoy it was to know nothing about it beforehand. And so it proved.
The title in fact refers to a very valuable artefact, which needs to be “traded” for several people to become very rich. Or that’s the theory. There are issues here about trust and duplicity, and there’s always the chance that someone may be left out in the cold. Two criminals meet (by chance?) and decide to engage in a 24-hour crime spree. Along the way another, more senior experienced con-man, “commissions” them for a real, big-time assignment. There are twists and turns, plenty of originality, and a genuinely high level of interest throughout. The sister of one of the con-men is unwittingly involved, plus a king.
There were perhaps one or two slightly too far-fetched coincidences, but since this is just an escapist fantasy story about accomplices, trust and duplicity, that’s hardy a big criticism. The film jollied along at a brisk pace and was extremely enjoyable. Considering that this was the director’s debut film, this was a hugely commendable effort. Star rating: four.
As A Man
The Cineaste - I must confess to having quite a soft spot for the Ritzy. Granted – Brixton, riots, drugs, police shoot-outs, and shady characters prowling the streets with attitude may be just around the corner, but these all pale into insignificance when the true cine-fan considers the enterprising programmes run. The locally-produced Rage, The Eastsidaz, and a recent [end of October] mini festival of rap films all reflect a hugely innovative approach by the complex’s management. Sure, they may not be everybody’s first choice subject matter, but then it’s a shame if these films are only shown locally to sarf Londoners. On a more general note it’s a huge credit to the cinema’s management that the RLFF organisers have chosen a cinema less than ten years old – and one not in danger of doing a Railtrack – as one of the festival’s venues.
The film’s director Alain Gomis was in attendance and said a few words before the film. Only a few, but one particular point he made (the criticism was implied) was that the English title to this film was nothing like the French original, this “mis-translation” being a particular feature (he went on to say) that seemed to afflict a lot of foreign language films in this year’s festival. As it is “l’Afrance” is difficult to translate direct, being used to describe African immigrants in France, the word being an amalgam of “La France”, and “l’Afrique”. Still with me? Then I’ll begin.
El Hadj is the chap this film looks at, a 26-year-old Senegalese who has lived in Paris now for six years. An engaging, mild-mannered, honest character, he’s growing increasingly disillusioned with life in France (without the film ever making it expressly obvious, racial discrimination was something he was increasingly subject to). El Hadj is a mature student, and has a number of friends in a loose lit community of immigrants, most of them Senegalese. He attends a wedding of one of these, and meets a (white) local lass. They become friends, and then lovers, and she encourages him in his struggles. Suddenly his problems take a quantum leap in size when he realises that his visa is a few days out-of-date, and we see him at the immigration office experiencing severe difficulties in trying to renew it. All this time he grows increasingly attracted to the idea of returning to Senegal. However, he’s thrown into indecision and dilemma by his friends who explain that in Senegal, after six years’ absence, he would be treated like a foreigner and would feel very unsettled.
Gomis pulls these issues together in a very competent manner and paints a creditable picture of the kind of situation el Hadj finds himself in. The issues are shrewdly put forward in an understated way, thereby giving maximum force to them. Gomis took the floor again afterwards and, through an interpreter, gave some lucid thoughts and interpretations behind the making of this mature and thought-provoking film. Star rating: four.
The Cineaste - A disappointingly small crowd turned up for this film, introduced by one of its actresses, Sabine Bail. In refreshing contrast to the typical director’s introduction (“here’s the film, enjoy it”), she was only too happy to speak about this bit of the film and that bit, to the extent that after a while you got the impression that the LFF lass who introduced her was thinking “yes yes, all right Sabine, thank you, let’s get on with watching the film now.”
Max (played by the director Zeka Laplaine) runs a tailor’s business with his assistant Paco. It’s approaching Christmas and his wife (Helene) is looking forward to the whole family (with kids) getting away for a sunny break. However Max’s business is in difficulties, and he decides he really can’t afford the time or money on a family holiday. Unfortunately he chooses a dinner party at some friends as the occasion to tell Helene this, and not surprisingly she’s unhappy and moves out to her father’s flat. The film then progresses with Max making half-hearted efforts to retain his marriage. He visits his friend Michel, who amusingly just happens to be Helen’s gynaecologist, and tries out a witch-doctor.
The problem with the film is that it’s all rather predictable and doesn’t offer anything new. As we see more of Max we come to realise that he’s a very arrogant, abrasive and uncaring person (with a mistress in tow as well), to the extent that rather than having any sympathy for him I ended up wondering why his wife had stuck with him for ten years. When Sabine Bail introduced the film she said that there was the extra issue here in that Max was black (Helene is white), but quite frankly his colour was never an issue and he could just as well have been played by an actor of any colour. It was formulaic and all rather ordinary stuff. Shot in black and white, there were on the plus side some good location shots around Paris, in particular some atmospheric night scenes along the Champs Elysees.
Sabine Bail duly held court afterwards with admirable patience and enthusiasm, regrettably to a pitifully small crowd who hadn’t already departed. Star rating: two.
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