Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Triumph of Goliath: David Shrugged

Melbourne arthouse is dead. Born of wonder and raised against odds it thrived for decades in this city until the mid 2000s when its organs failed one by one and was left in the gutter to wheeze its last. The art of cinema is now held entirely in the mainstream plexes which tower o'er the cine landscape like Easter Island heads. And down on the level of pure competition - one/zero, presence/absence, win/loss - the right thing has happened.

It angers and saddens me but, try as I might, I cannot argue with it. For starters, however much I might revile the impersonal trough that is the supersize popcorn movies of the cinematic Goliath that is the mainstream, I can't blame it for killing off the little David with his feeble stone-loaded ging. The arthouse cinema took so little of the mainstream's audience that the giant never noticed the piffling stings of the stones even when they got near tender bits. No, the arthouse was allowed to die alone by its own flock. People just stopped going. Goliath won and David shrugged. Why?

It's not as though the content was so very different. For every Irreversible playing in a fleapit held together by love of form there was a crowd pleasing Ringu or goofy Boxing Helena. An autopsy of the most bloat budgeted rubbish made to pay for a Hollywood A-lister's home extension will reveal that art runs through its veins. The difference is not an easy one like civilisation vs brutality, taste vs entertainment or quality vs garbage.

The range alone of cultures and traditions that the arthouses used to supply left an effortless impression of freedom of expression that the mainstream would find suicidal. This diversity of approach, the continuing lesson that cinema is a blank canvas rather than a set of standards is the legacy of arthouses that leaves behind snobbery they might have engendered.

This article offers a range of reasons which I can't argue with. EXCEPT it sneaks in the phrase poor-quality films. Where does that come from? Here's another from the Age, also from the time of the Lumiere closure. One smug proprietor looking down his nose at the low end seating and heating. Really? That's why people who supported it for so long have now abandoned it, a fear of cold buttocks? In exchange for a cultural experience that might well be intellectually, politically, socially or even just aesthetically liberating the price of rugging up against fashion is too high? Really? Rea-fucking-lly?

Well it gets worse. Now that the small cinemas have gone the diversity has been forgotten and a new generation of filmgoers has emerged that neither knows nor cares about cinema beyond its function within the service economy. All we have left of cinema's extended possibilities flickers in the next room like a cupcake candle; individuals with modems and credit cards and a select fewer benefiting from the meagre light.

And that's it. A scattered few. An ageing scattered few.

So is it that? Cinephiles just getting old and ricketty and whose health cannot stand the torments of the fleapit shall nurture all their passion for alternative cinema in safety deposit boxes that are doomed to inaccessible dementia? Will none among their progeny or younger kin stand and demand a few stories from the barricades of when they fought the big one before Michael Bay bombed Pearl Harbour anew and did more damage to it than the Imperial Japanese Air Force ever did? All gone now?

I don't accept that. Alternative cinema has lost its community but the makings of that community or a new one are still out there. Attendances at Shadows are flexible and favour the warmer parts of the year (whaddaya gonna do?) but the people who come remain interested in these tales from under the hood and takes from off the wall. Showing the mighty Harold and Maude to a small number of mainly younger folk last year resulted in a new entry to a few more top ten film lists. No one had a problem with the wonkiness of the production values of It Happened Here as the audacity of its concept towered above that little pile of nuts and bolts. Ok, so Noriko's Dinner Table bored when it didn't baffle but the same director's Suicide Circle delighted. The spirit really is willing (even if the goosebump riddled flesh is weak).

Maybe all that's needed is a shift in the paradigm. Maybe we just need to drop the choc tops and remember Brecht's line about rapidly setting up his theatre. You don't have to give up the mainstream. I didn't. There's no need to. But there's everything to gain by accepting the diversity that shines through the difficulties of alternative cinema.

I am one of the ageing cinephiles  I mentioned above but I'm not a sentimental one. I dinnae care a mere zot if the film I'm seeing is the result of light through celluloid or was born in a hive of ones and zeros. (I'm similarly unromantic about vinyl LPs which experience I'm happy to be rid of). Similarly I find concepts like perfect film or classic cinema to be unhelpful and near meaningless standards. A film is a film. How do you react to it? Don't know? Well, go and find out. Shadows isn't the only one. Go forage among the what's on schedules and see what's buzzing under the radar and start doing some of your own buzzing. Go on!

The late lamented Lumiere

Monday, October 17, 2011

SHADOWS Spring Part 2 : Popular Control

Downloadable flier

Late Spring and thoughts turn naturally to population. Ok, they might more naturally turn to anti-histamines but I've been thinking about the movement of thought in populations, of Arab springs and beseiged coalition governments, of occupied Wall Streets, of mass fever and mass cures. We're down to a briefer than usual four for the last full season part of this year so my choice had to be a tougher one. The four had to fit the theme more or less directly, they had to be very different from each other for variety's sake, and they had to be ... enjoyable. A late change necessitated the substitution of two titles just when I was ready to click Publish. I think it's a stronger selection for all that, though. From unclassifiable dystopias from the psychedelic era through samurai warriors, Eastern bloc oppression, to the whimsy of a comic genuis, I think we've got the right mix. So, come in out of the pollinated breeze and enjoy these tales o' popular control.

Friday November 4th 8pm
(Peter Watkins, UK 1967)

Stephen Shorter is popstar number one in the land of popstars, late 60s Britain. He's as clean as Cliff and as mean as Mick. The film begins with his latest stage setup which involves him singing from a cage, wearing cuffs and then getting beaten by cops. The girls go crazy!

So why waste all that influence just to sell little bits of plastic? A relatively benign tv commercial to help out British apple farmers works as expected. Next stop, get the kids off the streets and back into the churches and ballot booths to vote for their local Conservative.

So is this a what-if? It's more a left hook at the consumerism at the heart of rock music. The crowd might have been singing All You Need is Love at the nuclear disarmament rallies in London at the time but the counter culture also was sinking into politics-annihilating mysticism. Writer/director Peter Watkins isn't saying "watch out or they'll turn you into a tory" he's saying, "why are you wasting this opportunity for revolution?" (See also the hugely misunderstood One Plus One/Sympathy for the Devil by Jean Luc Godard.)

Watkins, a documentarian who frequently crossed the border into fiction, knew the power of mixing verity with fable. His imagined nuclear strike The War Game was banned in its time and can still reduce its audiences to silence. He removed the sentiment from a tall moment in British history in Culloden by reporting on it as a contemporary tv crew might have. For Privilege he used a real popstar, Paul Jones from contemporary mega hitmakers Manfred Mann who proves a natural choice. Shorter's Yoko before her time arrives in the form of supermodel Jean Shrimpton.

While the living parallel of flower power herding has long gone, Peter Watkins' fable of a Pied Piper with syndicated management still shows that he understood that rock music's primary force was mercenary rather than cultural. But for all the grimness of his usual fare (historical warfare reported as current news, the real effects of a nuclear strike on Britain) Privilege finds him more satirical, playful even.

This film has so many antecedents to the culture of its near future. Shorter is somewhere between Scott Walker and the Bowie of the Thin White Duke. The police brutality stage show could be from A Clockwork Orange. The stadium extravaganza was extensively dipped into for The Wall. But Watkins isn't trying to be a prophet here, he's just performing his customary incision on the culture he sees around him.

Oh ... and find me a better version of Jerusalem than the George Bean Group plays in this film.

Friday November 11th 8pm   
(Akira Kurosawa, Japan 1961)
An aimless, down at heel samurai wanders into a town held between the forces of two rival gangs. At first, he finds some amusement and profit from playing them against each other but then it gets personal and he has to use all his wits to stay alive and stop the town from destroying itself.

Derived from American noir and westerns, Yojimbo sees the maestro Kurosawa once again in steady and serious pursuit of ideas that dwelt at the centre of his world: pacifism vs military self protection; the cold war's rampaging division; the frailty of human loyalty. There is even the surprise nod at the arms race which kicks the assumption that this is a medieval story right into the modern world. Tough violence rubs shoulders with philosophical dialogue and I'm sure I saw a kitchen sink in there somewhere. If Mifune had been justly celebrated as an actor in Japan this role took him to the world.

Friday November 18th 8pm
(Emir Kusturica Yugoslavia, 1985)

When his father goes off on yet another business trip and doesn't come back, Malik starts walking in his sleep. He doesn't know that the business this time is an indefinite sentence at a labour camp. It's Yugoslavia 1948 and Tito has just split with Stalin. Malik doesn't have all the details but he has every reason in the world to act out his anxiety.

Emir Kusturica had not yet begun to allow his whimsy to overcrowd his canvases when he made this film. The range of fears and joys from the everyday life of these villagers emerges organically from a strong cast and assured, purposeful writing and direction. This is why When Father was Away on Business turns out to be so warm and so unflinching. This is not the lead weight cinema that a Bela Tarr or Ellem Klimov can threaten us with but a lively and deeply examined look at a life whose every day routines, irks, gifts and joys might be under constant surveillance but still can demand a celebration.

Winner of the Palme D'or at Cannes in 1985. Come and see why.

Friday December 2nd  8pm 
(Jacques Tati, France, 1967)
Jacques Tati gives his creation M. Hulot a single task: make contact with a particular person. Easy enough except that the baffling laboratory maze of the modern world separates the two parties. The old-world Hulot determinedly sets about his errand but is continually defeated by architecture and technology designed to render life easy.

Tati's own performance of the loping, constantly bemused Hulot provides a kind of Euro-Keaton against the sanitised space age modernity. There's more than a little digging at the American influence in all of this (always a welcome sport, ah they can take a heckle). Tati shot the film in French and English but really most of this film exists without dialogue. That's not to say it's silent. The sound mix in a JT film is usually so rich and purposed that it not only stands in for dialogue but just about qualifies for the musique concrete Hall of Fame. The fact that this cinecomedian in the tradition of the great silent directors (who yet pioneered well beyond their available scope) could be a visible and audible influence on David Lynch might give you an idea of depth and craft served up for your delectation. Come and enjoy. It's hard not to.