1.45pm: Craig Armstrong Masterclass
The Belated Birthday Girl and I seem to be spending a lot of time lately watching soundtrack composers rabbiting on about their work. In Edinburgh we met up with David Holmes, the dance DJ who's now got a nice little sideline creating funky scores for Ocean's 11 and the like. Recently at the NFT we saw Michael Nyman, who obviously comes from a more classically trained tradition. Now we have Craig Armstrong, who's somewhere between the two: a student of the Royal Academy of Music, who moved into doing orchestral arrangements for artists like Massive Attack and Madonna, and from there drifted back into composition for films. He's at the festival on the back of his recent work on The Quiet American and The Magdalene Sisters. I'm a fan: he's made it onto a couple of my Pick Of The Year compilation CDs, and once we get the cover photography problems sorted out on Here's A Picture Of Me Bum I'm reasonably certain he'll be on this year's too.
After a rare introduction by Adrian Wootton - his new executive role at the LFF means we don't see him around as much, thus reducing the "without further ado" count of the festival dramatically - we get Armstrong on stage with a couple of mates, as he's apparently nervous about talking to a crowd. Remarkably self-effacing (but not to the point of having nothing to say, thankfully), he even has trouble with the event being called a Masterclass - "I'm not a master, I'm just trying to perfect what I do". One of his mates turns out to be Philip Noyce, director of The Quiet American, and he's a splendidly no-bullshit host to the proceedings, not afraid to push things along if he feels they're dragging. Sat between the two of them is David Donaldson, Armstrong's regular collaborator, who programmes the electronic and rhythm beds that Armstrong's orchestral pieces typically sit on top of. He doesn't get to speak very much, though: and given the way that both Armstrong and Noyce grope him when they're trying to emphasise a point, you start thinking of him less as a musician and more as the studio rentboy.
The last-minute addition of Noyce to the proceedings turns out to be a masterstroke. Concentrating exclusively on The Quiet American (apparently Armstrong hasn't seen the final cut of The Magdalene Sisters yet), first Noyce explains what he wanted for particular scenes: then Armstrong describes his approach towards realising the music: and finally we get to see the actual scene in question. It's a beautifully effective way of showing how the relationship between a director and composer develops - Armstrong is a firm believer that that relationship is a key factor in making the score work. We get general notes about his ideas for the score as a whole (using a Vietnamese vocal element to represent a character in the film who otherwise doesn't have a voice) and specific references to key scenes (Noyce frankly admits that in one particular scene, he more or less asked Armstrong to use the music to make up for problems with the way the scene was played).
Armstrong warms up as the event progresses, and has lots of good advice for any budding composers in the audience. I particularly liked his suggestion that when you first get a film, you should try to bash out a first draft score within three days, giving the director as much music as possible. Some of it will inevitably be rubbish, but it gives both director and composer a feel for whether they should carry on or call it quits. Some interesting questions from the audience lead into discussions on the overlap between music and sound design in modern films, and how movie music is one of the last few artforms left where an artist is allowed to be unashamedly romantic. I've never understood why the Masterclasses are the cheapest live events in the LFF programme: when they work as well as this (and generally, they do), they're terrific value for money.
4.00pm: Smoking Room
Cheap comparisons are the primary currency of a film festival programme. Sandra Hebron and her team have put together a selection of a couple of hundred films, and most of us will have only heard of a handful of them, if that. So when they're trying to sell them to an audience, there's a tendency to grab easy reference points for comparison. The danger is, sometimes films can come off worse for the comparison.
Smoking Room is a case in point, as over the last couple of weeks it's been almost universally described as "a Spanish version of The Office" - given that Ricky Gervais' TV show has just finished its second series on BBC2 to wide acclaim, it's an inevitable comparison to make. Even the LFF employee I've come to know as Depressed Irish Guy refers to it in his introduction, to the bemusement of writer/directors J.D. Walovits and Roger Gual who've never heard of it. And of course, audiences are thus primed for a fast-paced cringefest with a few nob gags thrown in. Which, of course, we don't get.
By comparison, the guys in this office - and they're virtually all guys - are more middle-aged, middle-management no-marks than the mixed collection of drones we get in the TV show. We watch them as they do pretty much anything they can to avoid work: swapping alien conspiracy theories, bitching about blacks in positions of power, complaining that the American parent company doesn't understand the needs of Spanish employees. Ramirez (Eduard Fernández) is particularly enraged by the Americans imposing a smoking ban on the office, and starts up a petition to have a smoking room opened. But it quickly becomes apparent that he's got no idea how office politics works.
This is probably closer to David Mamet's tales of Guys Doin' The Fuckin' Thing than anything else: although it's difficult to be certain, thanks to some crappy subtitling. To a non-Spanish speaker like me, there seems to be a lot of repetition and emphasis on rhythm in the dialogue, rather like Mamet's. Unfortunately the English subtitles can't keep up, and only seem to translate one line in every three, which is somewhat frustrating. The in-your-face visual style - all wobbly video and extreme close-ups - takes a while to get used to as well. But it's possible to warm to this film eventually, as the style settles down, the power struggles become more apparent and the grim humour starts to come through.
6.00pm: Bowling For Columbine
In the post-screening Q&A, one audience member asked Michael Moore how he planned to follow up on the gun control issue now that he'd made a film about it. Which seems to be missing the point somewhat. Granted, Moore's documentary starts out as an analysis of American gun culture: interviewing owners of guns, pointing out the ease with which they can be bought, and culminating in a chilling sequence of CCTV footage of the Columbine massacre in 1999. But it's during an interview with Marilyn Manson - America's bogeyman of choice in the post-Columbine months - that Moore's wider agenda starts to come to the fore, as he looks at the climate of fear in the US that ultimately leads to this sort of thing happening. Watch American news coverage for any length of time and you'll become convinced that huge black men will pounce on you as soon as you walk out the door. (Even though statistically, they won't.) This level of fear makes people susceptible to buy and vote for anything they think will protect them, but nobody considers the ultimate cost of this.
Anyone who's seen Michael Moore's TV shows will be familiar with his approach, and the same criticisms can be applied here. The targets are obvious: the focus becomes incredibly sprawling, taking in US foreign policy, racism, 9/11 and the NRA: the sentimentality is shamelessly manipulative: the approach is totally one-sided. There's never really a sense of him doing anything other than preaching to the converted. But speaking as one of the converted, in the end, so what? Moore is to all intents and purposes on the side of the angels, and he's putting across a series of political points in the most direct way he can, while at the same time trying to keep us entertained. And he does it superbly.
As in his TV work, Moore's approach is primarily prank-based. Noting the more relaxed atmosphere in Canada, he walks into a number of Canadian houses unannounced to show just how many of them leave their doors unlocked. He tries to pitch an anti-corporate crime show to the producer of Cops. ("If you could get the company boss to take his shirt off and throw his mobile at the camera, it might just work.") And he brings two Columbine survivors to the headquarters of K-Mart to try and persuade them to stop selling ammunition in their stores: a sequence that completely steamrollers over any concerns you may have about Moore's methods. I don't have the qualms about the climactic Charlton Heston interview that Suze does below: Heston has been chosen as a spokesman for the gun lobby primarily for his media experience, and if he's prepared to come out with the shit he does here knowing he's on camera, then that's a target that deserves to be hit no matter how soft it looks. Bowling For Columbine is apparently about to become the highest grossing documentary film of all time, so there may be a lot more of us converted out there than you first thought. See it.
9.00pm: Miss Sadie Thompson
Clyde Jeavons boasts in his introduction that although many 3-D films of the 1950s specialised in throwing objects out of the screen, Miss Sadie Thompson refrains from doing that. Tsk. Bloody film historians, always spoiling everyone else's fun.
Jeavons is head of the British Film Institute's archive department, and you can tell from his introductions how much he enjoys putting together the restoration section of the LFF programme. He's particularly informative about the technical aspects of this film's production, and the way in which complex arrangements of mirrors were used to make the 3-D photography in Miss Sadie Thompson sharper than anything else previously seen. Unfortunately, by the time it was released in 1953 the 3-D fad was dying out: it played for just one week in 3-D, and has only ever been seen in a 2-D version since then. Until now!
Based on a W Somerset Maugham story, the film's about the havoc caused when Sadie (Rita Hayworth) lands on a Pacific island primarily inhabited by a troop of horny Marines. (As one character puts it, "the situation has landed, and has taken the Marines in hand.") Local bigwig Davidson (Jose Ferrer) takes offence and tries to have this loose woman deported. This being 1953, the only on-screen evidence of her looseness is her willingness to drink pineapple juice in a bar on a Sunday. And, of course, that she's played by Rita Hayworth, who does her usual shouty broad thing with typical aplomb. Aside from Ferrer, the rest of the cast overacts manfully to try and keep up, notably a young Charles Bronson making his second appearance in a 3-D film after House Of Wax.
As for the 3-D: yes, it lives up to the hype. We don't get things flying out of the screen, true, but the tropical locations get a terrific sense of depth and realism from the process. And Rita gets a couple of terrific 3-D moments all to herself: a fabulous dance number where she's almost within groping distance of the audience, and an astonishing close-up towards the end. All this plus a song about monkeys: a good ending to my first weekend of this festival.
Notes From Spank's Pals
L'Homme Du Train
The Cineaste - Commendably, the producers of this film declined to provide an English translation of its title, enabling us to enjoy the full flavour of its meaning, in French, without risk of distortion. Because if we had had a translation, bearing in mind the gross inaccuracies that proliferated at last year’s LFF, we’d probably have got something like “Woman suffers post-traumatic stress disorder whilst shopping at the supermarket.”
This film is a quirky and thoroughly engaging little number about two very different men. It starts with one of them, clearly up to no good, arriving in a small unspecified town. By chance he meets the other, a retired schoolmaster. They cautiously befriend each other, intrigued by and attracted to the life(style) of the other. One of them, Milan, is planning to rob a bank with a fellow bunch of crooks. He’s a bit disorganised, and is quite admiring of the orderly lifestyle of his new friend. The casting was intriguing - I’ve never seen Johnny Hallyday in a film before; and Jean Rochefort is wonderful as the elderly, rather lugubrious, ever so slightly eccentric retired schoolmaster. He’s been to lunch in the same restaurant for the last thirty years. On one occasion, he gets irritated by a noisy customer, and, rather daringly, goes to confront him. The noisy youngster turns out be one of his former pupils and a great admirer of him.
The film is very easy to follow, but certainly not straightforward. Not straightforward because every so often twists and turns in the story crop up which are most unexpected. About half way through it transpires that Rochefort’s character has a much younger and glamorous mistress (well that probably was expected, it’s a French film, after all). The scenes, the situations, the humour, were all well done. Towards the end the pace quickened, and the tension heightened, and then right at the end we had some rather striking and surreal shots of the men as they find themselves in some demanding situations. Overall an entertaining and thought-provoking film.
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - So what do people who work in offices do all day? Well obviously anything but work, if this small scale Spanish movie is representative. Here we have a virtually all male environment, of middle age time servers, carrying out anything but the non jobs they are paid to do. One of the group is concerned with interviewing skirt, another about his promotion, others about organising a football match, whilst the boss appears to be putting together an internal fraud. Of course all of this activity allows them to avoid focussing on the powerless state of their lives. Namely their company has been taken over by a faceless American corporation, who send one way directives at them, thus fuelling the paranoia of the office rumour mill. Deciding to make something of a small stand is Ramirez, who starts a petition for a smoking room, for those who are allergic to fresh air. Sensing that this is a bigger issue than he first thought he refuses to back down, even when pressure is brought to bear. However his other five signatories soon fall away once the idea of repercussions makes its way into their small brains, resorting to duffing up Ramirez to get the petition back.
Smoking Room examines issues of the non essential nature of most office work, and how it functions because it is probably cheaper than pushing people onto benefits. In essence office workers who reside at places that exist on rumours, backstabbing, and politics, may recognise many elements in this film. Other than that, there is not too much to get excited about here. The directors admitted afterwards that a lot of the fast dialogue would have been lost in the subtitles, and thus one may have been able to get more out of it if one spoke Spanish.
The Cineaste - Hell’s teeth!!! How to describe this film? This was a splendidly engaging romp, with plenty of really humorous moments, very enjoyable. Even more commendably, there was a coherent plot and storyline running through this film, but they were almost irrelevant compared to the scenes, the humour, the general feelgood factor of the whole atmosphere which made this film such a delight.
The basic storyline consists of boy and girl get married, but soon he’s called up for conscription, then he runs away from the army, joins a travelling singing group, gets into trouble, barely stays on the right side of the law, but manages to get back on his feet and goes looking for his loyal wife. But that’s almost incidental to the tongue-in-cheek humour, the scenes, the overall upbeat mood and humour of the film. Pan (the new husband) joins the singing troupe after winning a singing competition. This competition, held repeatedly over several nights, is MC’ed by a bloke who wears, on every single night, the same Juventus football shirt. The gay manager of the troupe is a hilarious caricature, complete with outrageously coiffed hair and naff shades, and also bore an unsettling resemblance to Ronnie Corbett. On another occasion Pan and a friend, destitute and begging on the streets of Bangkok, somehow manage to gatecrash a posh, charity fund-raising dinner for the homeless. This event has, of all things, a fancy dress competition for the person dressed most like a homeless down-and-out. I won’t spoil the fun by revealing the outcome, but suffice to say there were plenty more laughs.
There were plenty of nods to other things cinematographical: Tears of the Black Tiger, Almodovar, Godard, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and no doubt a whole host of other things I was too unobservant to notice. And as for the relevance of the title, this only became apparent right at the very end, in those extra takes they add on after the credits have already started rolling. For me a good measure of how enjoyable (not necessarily how great) a film is, is how quickly it seems to pass by. This film, listed at 115 minutes running time, seemed to leap by in less than 60. A truly wonderful, exuberant film.
Bowling For Columbine
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - Michael Moore, the baggy scourge of corporate America, turns his attention to the lethal issue of gun control (or lack of) in the US. Centrepiece of the documentary is the 1999 massacre at a Columbine high school which left 12 kids (and the two ex student perpertrators) dead. Yet this is so much more than an examination of a single incident. Instead it asks questions such as: what other country would give you a free gun for opening a bank account? Or why is it every time there is a killing, Charlton Heston and his National Rifle Association (NRA) turn up about a week later to hold a pro gun rally? Other issues covered are: how come Canada has as many guns per population as the US, but their firearm murder rate is comparable to somewhere like the UK? In essence the real story here is that America is almost unique in its propensity for violence, not only on an individual level, but also on a institutionalised military industrial complex one. As one former friend of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh says: "the pen is mightier than the sword, but it's handy to keep a sword around just in case."
Moore is undoubtably an excellent documentary maker, having the ability to simplify an issue, and present issues of serious concern in a palatable and humorous way. Certainly I thoroughly enjoyed watching this movie, however the over simplification of much of the issues does not leave me entirely convinced. Certainly one could almost come away from this thinking that it is members of the NRA who are responsible for gun crime in America, whereas the reality is that the NRA are merely a paranoid symptom of crime in general. To be honest, if I lived in some of these American states, I would want a gun under my bed, and be trained in how to use it. Also as for pointing to an incident like Columbine, one would have to retort with the word Dunblane (especially if we are working on a body count basis), to show that psychos and massacres do exist outside America. Nevertheless the general point no guns, no gun crime, holds good. Or as one Canadian woman put it: "in America in any dispute, the first option is always to go for the gun".
The film almost finishes on a particularly brilliant note as Moore and two teenage survivors of Columbine, decide to return the bullets still lodged inside them to the retailer K-Mart who supplied them. Thus duly shamed, K-Mart make the incredible concession of withdrawing all ammunition from their stores within 90 days. However after that victory, Moore does rather spoil this by finishing with a rather ill conceived interview with Charlton Heston. Certainly the mumbling Heston was a soft target, when a more coherent NRA spokesman may have given a greater balance to the whole gun lobby issue. Nevertheless if you can keep an open mind here, this is a film I would highly recommend.
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