2.00pm: Vic Armstrong Masterclass
Yesterday's late night screening of The Rules Of Attraction was followed by a somewhat nightmarish journey home on an incredibly overcrowded night bus, described by one Simpsons-quoting passenger as "like Speed 2 but on a bus instead of a boat." Still, we shouldn't have been worried: the London double-decker bus is renowned world-wide as being one of the most stable vehicles on the road. Which posed a problem for stunt co-ordinator Vic Armstrong back in 1981, when he had to make one do a 180 degree skid in the middle of Piccadilly Circus, as part of the climactic carnage of An American Werewolf In London. Vic rehearsed the crash sequence for weeks on a private racetrack, arranged for some sneaky engineering to make the bus just unstable enough for the stunt to work, and managed to shoot a twenty-car pile-up in the middle of one of London's busiest interchanges while keeping traffic disruption to a minimum. Armstrong showed the finished sequence to his son, who was suitably awestruck: "Wow, dad! I never knew you could drive a bus..."
It's Masterclass time again at the LFF, and after last week's discussion with composer Craig Armstrong we now have stunt guru Vic Armstrong (no relation, I think...). We don't get the on-stage demonstrations I was hoping for ("come on, Adrian, kick me in the balls"), but we do get an entertaining and informative discussion of Armstrong's career, with plenty of clips to illustrate. To break into the stunt world, you need to have one solid area of expertise to start, and Armstrong's was horseriding: his first big break was riding in Arabesque in 1964 for twenty quid a day. All his subsequent skills have been picked up on the job, but always with rigorous preparation and rehearsal beforehand. Armstrong talks us through some of the most famous films he's worked on - the Indiana Jones series, Superman and so on - and illustrates just how much hard work is involved in setting the stunts up. He's always careful to mention all of the key personnel he's worked with by name - particularly his wife Wendy, who he met when she was the stunt double for Lois Lane (and he was the stunt double for Superman, which is kinda romantic).
At various stages in his career, he's looked at the next guy up the chain of command and realised that he could do that: so over forty years he's moved from being a stuntman, to a stunt co-ordinator, to an action unit director, to a second unit director shooting pickups for the likes of Martin Scorsese. (The move into direction came from him seeing how sometimes brilliantly executed stunts looked lousy on screen, and analysing why that was.) The next stop is to become a full-on feature director in his own right, and he's hoping to do that soon.
The audience Q&A session is equally enjoyable, and it's the point when you realise just how many hardcore James Bond fans are in the audience: Vic has worked on the stunts for many of the films in the series, including the latest Die Another Day, and people are keen to talk about them. There's some useful discussion on whether CGI will diminish or destroy the stuntman's role: Armstrong thinks that won't happen, as the computers will still need stuntmen to provide the raw action they can enhance or duplicate. A perfect example of this is the money shot from The Four Feathers, which I mentioned the other day: a breaktaking overhead view of the British army being attacked from all sides. Armstrong had a team of 200 cavalry and 1500 footsoldiers for this sequence: he choreographed them attacking from twenty different approaches, and then digitally matted all those approaches together into a single shot. A painstaking technician as well as a thoroughly nice bloke, which seems to be par for the course for these Masterclasses.
A capacity audience, and people queuing around the block for returned tickets: this isn't what you'd expect for a film about Armenian genocide. But given that the director is Atom Egoyan, it's a little more complicated than that. Director Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour) is making a film about the 1915 massacre of the Armenians by the Turks, an event that's the subject of much controversy and even denial: Hitler's justification for his own Holocaust was "nobody remembers the Armenians." Saroyan discovers art historian Ani (Arsinee Khanjian), who specialises in the work of the Armenian painter Gorky. Ani subsequently ends up being hired as a consultant on the film, while Saroyan tries to find a way to shoehorn the life of Gorky into his story. In between clips from the finished film depicting the atrocities, we also follow the people making the film, and various others tangentially related to it. Ani's son Raffi (David Alpay), who travels to Ararat to obtain contemporary footage of the area: customs officer David (Christopher Plummer), who interrogates Raffi on his return: David's son Philip (Brent Carver), whose homosexuality has become the source of family conflict: Philip's partner Ali (Elias Koteas), a part-Turkish actor with a key role on the film...
Egoyan's earlier films were fascinating intellectual puzzles, but frequently no more than that: his later ones have concentrated more on character, but have lost some complexity in the process. Ararat is obviously a very personal project for a director of Armenian descent, and he's managed to combine the best of both approaches to produce what may be his best film yet. It uses a typically complex narrative structure, jumping freely between present-day Canada, brutal recreations of the events of 1915 from Saroyan's film, scenes from Gorky's later life, and documentary footage. But we get to know and understand Egoyan's characters as he subtly reveals the connections between them, which wasn't always the case in his earlier work. As he draws the narrative threads together, the film reveals its key themes to be art, artifice, memory and guilt. Excellently performed by a great ensemble cast, Ararat is shaping up to be one of my favourite films this festival.
8.00pm: Halloween Presents: Full Length 20
London's Institute of Contemporary Arts has a fine tradition of mashing together music and film into strange combinations. One of my favourite gigs of recent years took place there, and featured Alessandro Alessandroni: a seventy-year-old man who composed the scores of many obscure spaghetti westerns, and was lead whistler on Ennio Morricone's most famous works. The first half of the gig featured Alessandroni playing his classics on solo guitar, which was all well and good. Then after the interval things started to get freaky. By the end, we were getting cut-ups of spaghetti western scenes playing on a video screen: two DJs performing serious damage on their theme tunes with turntables, samplers and drum machines: and Alessandroni gleefully improvising over the top on electric guitar, all at the same time.
More recently, the ICA has held a monthly event called Full Length, in which musicians improvise a new soundtrack over a feature film of their choice. The twentieth of these events is a celebratory co-production with the LFF: not to be confused with RLF, an electronic musician who opens tonight's proceedings with a half-hour remix of his favourite Godzilla moments. The visuals are mostly drawn from Godzilla Vs The Smog Monster, and the monster fights and scenes of destruction are probably wacky enough to work with any musical accompaniment you provide. RLF's subsonic rumbles and trebly whooshes complement the battles nicely, but the best part is when he turns the anti-Hedorah go-go party into a full-throttle rave. He also adds the odd mournful phrase on a trombone, which has a stuffed monkey on the end of it, which is never a bad thing.
Providing music for random clips is all well and good, particularly foreign clips with subtitles like the Godzilla ones here. But the main event here this evening is a full-length narrative movie - the Coen Brothers classic The Big Lebowski. I was curious to see how Pilote's Macintosh-driven soundtrack would work in that context: would he obliterate the dialogue completely with his new music, or give us a chance to hear the jokes? It quickly becomes apparent from watching the man at work that he's a big fan of the film: during the funniest scenes he drops the music completely and just sits back to laugh along with the rest of us. For the rest of the time he mixes in the film's original sound carefully, keeping enough of it audible for you to follow the story if you haven't seen it before. (And if you haven't seen it before, what's your problem? You some kind of nihilist or something?)
Pilote's musical approach is more tuneful than RLF's, with more straightforward 4/4 rhythms: the comparative straightness of the music plays off nicely against Joel Coen's wacky visuals. There are a couple of scenes here where the music even surpasses the original soundtrack - a skittery flamenco rhythm to introduce the character of Jesus, and a beautiful Eno-esque looping sequence over the final scenes. On the whole, a rather successful experiment, and I'll certainly try to catch another Full Length event soon.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - Oi now look, if I go to see a film about lesbians, I expect them to look like the ones you get in porn movies; whereas in this piece of old Argie bargy, they just looked like, you know, Dykes! In fact when teletubbie underwear salesgirl Marcia first appeared on screen, I had made my mind up at that point, that I was going to hate this movie. In the event despite doing my best to dislike all the characters, at about midway through the film something clicked, and I suddenly thought: 'hey this is quite good'.
The film begins with Marcia on her way to/from work in Buenos Aires when she is accosted by both Mao and Lenin: no not the two communist icons on a cultural exchange trip, but two dykes of the short hair and sneer variety. Mao it turns out is something of a chubby chaser, who getting straight to the point wants to have Marcia's pet cat for lunch (mercifully said cat never ends up on camera during the film). Anyway Marcia doesn't know what she wants, so her mind ends up being made up for her at the point of Lenin's knife. This seems to be an abduction however of a purely voluntary nature, allowing Marcia to keep all her options open. The trio end up at the home of Lenin's boozy nan, and this is where the film moves from being a road movie, to one revolving around the characters in Lenin's nan's guesthouse.
Now while I don't think this can quite match the sexual tension of an episode of Xena Warrior Princess, the characters are played well, and as I said the movie does grow on you. Quite a lot was made out in the Q&A afterwards about it being an Argentinian film, and should it have reflected the current crisis in Argentina. So answering for the director I would say WHY? That country is always in a bloody crisis, and anyway the film was a chick flick in the purest sense, and in effect could have been set anywhere.
The Belated Birthday Girl - In this year's festival I've seen a few films which are about much more than what they ostensibly are about: Bowling for Columbine wasn't really a film about gun control, Wanted wasn't really about the deaths of the eight Sioux, and now Ararat, which wasn't really about the Armenian genocide. Of course, all of these films were about those things, but they all explored much bigger themes. In the case of Ararat, the film explores the whole nature of the storytelling process, the importance or otherwise of factual correctness to the question of truth, the role of the witness - as well as getting the story of the Armenian genocide some wider airing. It uses techniques of layering of present day, the reconstruction of events for a film within the film and the blurring of these with the reconstruction of events for us, all very effectively. It is also well-shot - especially in the reconstructions of the Turkish attacks on the Armenian enclave - well-acted, original and entertaining. If I have one small criticism it is that there is a little too much pedagogy when retelling the events of the genocide, but given that this is an event not widely known & discussed, that is probably forgivable. It was a shame we had to rush off and so missed the Q&A with Egoyan. A thought provoking film, highly recommended.
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - As I ended up being seated three rows from the front, directly in front of the microphone, my first thought was: 'please let it be Sandra Hebron who introduces this film'. Unfortunately the BFI Babe was obviously otherwise engaged, so we ended up with some fat geezer instead.
Anyway Monday Morning begins in rural France, with Vincent beginning another day at the plant where he welds long steel rod type thingies. However the main function of the plant and its managers, appears to be to stop all their employees smoking. Thus the working day begins with the bitter ritual of stamping out one's stubs on the way in. Returning home at night to his fairly impressive farm type house, Vincent can hardly get anyone to acknowlege his presence; least of all his boys who are preoccupied with their various engineering projects. Thus the following day, Vincent decides not to stub his fag out at the factory gates, but instead to disappear off to Venice to look up his father.
The entire cast of the movie all seem to be living in their own world, near oblivious to everything else around them. Throughout the film I kept thinking wouldn't it be lovely if life was actually like this, namely a dreamy languid place, where everyone did their own thing, and nothing anyone
did mattered one way or the other. To describe this film one cannot help but fall back onto cliches like: quirky, amusing, gentle comedy. The film is of course so much more than that, but perhaps the best word I can think of is Visual. Anyway look out for this one, you will enjoy it.
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