1.00pm: Hustle And Flow
DJay (Terrence Howard) is a nice pimp, as pimps go. He looks after his three hoes in their own house, gives them a fair share of the loot, and doesn't smack them around. Unless, of course, they screw up their backing vocals: but I'm getting ahead of myself here. Because a number of events conspire to make him question his role in life. The local junkie sells DJay an old Casio keyboard in exchange for dope. Seeing local rapper Skinny Black (Ludacris) on TV reminds him how he himself used to dabble in music back in the day. Shortly after that he has a chance encounter with former schoolmate Key (Anthony Anderson), who's working as a sound recordist. A short cheesy moment of revelation from God later, DJay has decided he wants to get into the rap game, and Key is the man to help him.
Speaking as an old skool eighties wanna-B-boy, I've got to admit that the whole pimps 'n' hoes subculture of hip-hop doesn't really interest me at all. (I've always loved Tom Bussmann's observation that a hoe is just the feminine equivalent of a rake.) The main problem with Craig Brewer's film is that although it's a solidly made example of the classic rags to riches music picture, it has a fairly uninspiring stereotype at its centre. DJay has taken the idea 'write what you know' to heart, so all his songs are either complaining about how his bitches don't give him no respect, or how they give him respect now he's smacked them upside the head. And every time the story gets a little closer to dragging you in - because even though it's an ancient plot, it's done with enough skill to keep you watching - DJay does something else to alienate the viewer.
In fact, the only way Hustle And Flow can be taken seriously is as an ironic remake of the blaxploitation genre for the 21st century. There are lots of little clues to suggest that's part of the agenda, from the freeze-frame opening title with unnecessarily huge copyright line, to the presence of Isaac Hayes in a cameo as a club owner. (Sadly, it's now impossible to listen to Hayes acting without mentally seeing South Park's Chef on screen.) Blaxploitation was probably the last time you could get away with having a pimp as your hero, and DJay seems very much a throwback to that, but with less interesting clothes. Terrence Howard isn't quite good enough to keep our sympathy throughout the spiralling cliches of the plot, but the supporting performances of Anthony Anderson and DJ Qualls (the skinny white Mark E Smith lookalike from Road Trip) provide some useful moments of levity, particularly in the scenes where the three of them work up tracks from nothing. It's by no means a disaster, but there isn't any real reason for this film to exist in the 21st century.
3.30pm: The Wayward Cloud
Taiwan is in the middle of a hellish drought. Water is scarce, and people are doing all they can to conserve it: possibly none more so than Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-Chyi), who steals water from the local museum and keeps dozens of bottles of it in her fridge. Luckily, at the same time the price of watermelon has fallen through the floor, so she tends to use watermelon juice for drinking and save the water for washing. Meanwhile, her old acquaintance Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) also uses watermelons and water heavily in his role as a porn movie actor. So when the two of them meet up after some time apart, at least they've got something in common.
Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang is notorious for making films where nothing much happens at all. But in fact, it's probably more useful to see his films as an ongoing series, where the same few characters reappear and their relationships develop slowly over a number of years. So Shaing-chyi and Hsiao-Kang's original friendship dates back to Tsai's earlier film What Time Is It There?: while the latter's introduction to the porn business came during a subsequent short film, The Skywalk Is Gone. I found What Time Is It There? a bit dull when I saw it back in 2001, but I suspect part of Tsai's long-term appeal comes from building up relationships with his characters, and getting used to his laid-back rhythms.
Actually, there are three key elements that The Wayward Cloud has in greater abundance than Tsai's earlier films: jokes, songs, and shagging. The jokes are very much of the deadpan variety, mainly resulting from seeing certain visual motifs repeat themselves in unusual combinations throughout the film. That also applies to the Dennis Potter-style musical numbers, which are elaborately-staged fantasy sequences featuring the main cast members and re-using those visual motifs in even more unexpected ways. (One song features a chorus of people carrying watermelon-patterned umbrellas: another features Hsiao-Kang dressed as a penis with a glans-shaped hat.)
The shagging, though, is a bit more problematic. Obviously, part of the film is going to be dedicated to watching Hsiao-Kang at work on his movies, and initially those scenes have some wit, notably an early one where a woman holds - yes! - half a watermelon between her legs while he literally fingers it to a pulp. But the sex gets into darker and darker territory as the film goes on. For once, this is a Tsai Ming-Liang that reaches an unmistakable climax rather than just petering out: but your mileage may vary as to whether you find that climax satisfying, or indeed watchable. I'd still be curious to see where the relationship goes from there in the next film, though.
6.30pm: Ten Skies
People may say Tsai Ming-Liang's films are slow, but compared to James Benning he's like John Woo or something. Benning was last over in London in 2002 with his California Trilogy, which was reviewed by both Suze and myself at the time. Benning's approach in these films was typically rigid - find a location in California, lock down a camera in front of it, hold a shot for exactly two and a half minutes, repeat until some sort of portrait of man's relationship to his environment emerges. Suze looked at these films from the viewpoint of a still photographer, while I was interested to see how they held up as cinema: both of us were pleasantly surprised by the results. Benning announced in a post-screening Q&A that his follow-up film would apply a similarly forensic approach to the thirteen Great Lakes, and I wondered out loud at the time what Suze would make of that.
So now it's 2005, and 13 Lakes is in this year's LFF. Sadly, neither Suze nor I can make either of the slots when it's on: and he can't get to Ten Skies either, a self-explanatory companion piece also showing this year. So I felt I had to attend this screening out of a sense of duty, though I wasn't looking forward to it. A film that consists of thirteen static ten minute shots of the Great Lakes? Well, there's got to be some visual interest in there because of the presence of water. It moves, it flows, fish - as WC Fields wittily said once - fuck in it. You can imagine how 130 minutes of staring at lakes could work. Ten static ten minute shots of the sky, though, would appear to be a different matter.
Benning saved the day with his introduction to the film, in which he described taking art students up a mountain before sunrise one day, and making them sit there for four hours observing the changes in light and sound as dawn breaks. "The important thing for an artist is learning how to pay attention." So Ten Skies will only work if the viewer's committed to giving it that attention, which for me meant trying to find some sort of narrative in each ten minute shot. Two vapour trails slowly fade in one sky as the glow of the sun seeps in from the bottom of the frame. In another shot, a clear blue sky is overwhelmed by murky grey-black clouds, but patches of blue keep bursting forth briefly before vanishing again. That's the level of narrative I'm talking about here - at one point we watch huge gusts of steam from an industrial plant flooding one half of the screen, and it's like the movie's equivalent of a car chase.
But part of the fascination of Ten Skies is observing your own personal reactions to what you're seeing. There was an astonishing sequence about a third of the way through when I suddenly started doing the old childhood thing of seeing faces and shapes in the clouds, and couldn't stop myself from doing it. So for me, the third sky consists of a drifting procession of giant monkey heads, while the fourth is notable for the sudden appearance in the foreground of a sheep standing on its hind legs smoking a joint. It's that abstract, open-to-interpretation element that makes films like this fascinating, the one that makes the eighth sky look to me like a morphing series of black and white Turner landscapes, and something else entirely to everyone else. If that sort of thing appeals to you, there's a season of Benning's work just starting at the Whitechapel Gallery in London: give them a call.
9.00pm: The Proposition
It's the Australian Outback in the late 19th century, and the Burns Gang is in trouble. Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mikey (Richard Wilson) have both been captured by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone): but Stanley's really gunning for their psycho brother Arthur (Danny Huston). So Stanley makes Charlie a proposition: if Charlie hunts down and kills Arthur within the next ten days, then Mikey won't be hanged for his crimes.
Old Lag got very grumpy when the W word was used without justification to describe Ride With The Devil a few years back - but as the cast and crew of this film have frequently used it themselves when talking about it, I've got no qualms about calling The Proposition an Australian Western. It's splendidly written by Nick Cave: I was worried that his script would be as floridly overwritten as his novel And The Ass Saw The Angel, but he's held back on the purple prose here, only really going overboard when characters like the locquacious bounty hunter Jellon Lamb (John Hurt) appear. Cave creates a whole series of memorable characters, and given that this is his first screenplay it bodes well for his future.
The closest reference point is probably Deadwood. In the same way that the TV show focusses on the violence, obscenity and filth that previous depictions of the Old West glossed over, this film does the same to the murkier areas of Australia's past. If mud is the key visual motif for the grittiness of Deadwood, the equivalent in The Proposition is flies - they're everywhere. But director John Hillcoat gets the balance right between awe at the wide open landscapes, and shock at the terrible things men do to survive in them. Excellently acted by all concerned, it's an undeniably harsh but kind of brilliant piece of work.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Sisters In Law
The Belated Birthday Girl - Documentary films have been an increasingly important feature of the LFF over recent years, so much so that they have now introduced a prize for them. One contender for that prize, and surely a strong one, is Sisters In Law, which focuses on a court in Cameroon dealing with cases of family law and abuse. At the heart of the film are two women - the State Counsel and the Court President - and the focus is on four cases which come before them, with women or children as victims. Co-directors Kim Longinotto and Florence Ayisi gave thanks before the screening to the authorities in Cameroon who gave them access to actual court proceedings, and thanks to this access we get to see first-hand the strength, wit and conviction of the women working at the court, and their effect on real lives: and it is this which gives the film its force.
Although some of the details of the cases may be culturally specific, the themes of spousal abuse, rape and cruelty to children are sadly universal. However, the strength shown by the women who insist on their rights, and the hard-fought victories won, are incredibly uplifting. There is a truly positive sense of progress being made, for the women and children directly involved in the cases, and also for the women in the wider community who take strength from seeing that things can change.
Despite the grim nature of the crimes involved, the film is also full of humour and sparkle, and is a pleasure to watch.
The Belated Birthday Girl - In a situation all too familiar to many, there is a culture of over-working at the business where François works. He has to work until 10pm, even on his son's birthday (and we definitely get the impression this is not an unusual situation), and is told he can't take his holiday when he had planned it, but won't complain. His colleague Simon is not so happy at being treated this way, and doesn't mind who knows it. One day, a truly shocking event makes François want some answers, and sets off a chain of events involving a police investigation, a man on the run, and an investigative journalist on the trail of a story. Fabienne Godet's film uses the conventions of a thriller to raise issues about exploitative modern work culture, includes good performances all round, and is always watchable.
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