Monday, May 28, 2012

Top 10: 28/05/2012

Irreversible: don't care if the backwards folding narrative had already been done the mounting sense of tragedy overcomes me with this one, through the hellish violence and threat of the main body of the film all the way up to its sublime and poignant finale/beginning.

Seconds: a bizarre and ultimately heart rending story of the impossibility of a second chance. Also, an eerie mask of star Rock Hudson's own life as a closeted gay hearthrob in Hollywood.

Being John Malkovich: the premise in the trailer alone made me laugh uncontrollably. The feature delivered on every promise.

Donnie Darko: is he a time traveller or just a schiz? Don't bother with the recut version as it tries to force the answer to that question.

Eraserhead: Unchallangeable.

The Fall: possibly Tarsem Singh's one and only shot at greatness is borrowed from another film but inolves such a startling evocation of a child's imagination that that aspect alone on repeated viewings even overtakes the jaw droppingly gorgeous visuals. A masterpiece. One is more than most people get out their careers.

Ringu: you can find the conventionality of this tale but to do so you need to lift layer after layer of innovation and careful craftsmanship. The film that saved the horror genre somewhat ironically by showing the dangers of copying without reading.

Casablanca: I don't care that Robert McKee calls this the best film ever made, I still like it. It was shown on tv in Brisbane in the early 80s and I remember hearing a people whistling As Time Goes By around the CBD the next day.

Blackbeard the Pirate: Robert Newton as the original arrrr, matey pirate king delivers the kind of blustering force of chaos who is both daunting and hilarious (intentionally). I saw it once while tucking into a still quite meaty cold leg of lamb I'd pinched from the fridge. A bite into that (oversalted) washed down with some fine Jamaican cola was like watching inside the screen. I need to get a copy of this.

Tale of Two Sisters: when South Korean horror films transcend their own genre as is their wont, they deliver treasure, like this wicked stepmother story that goes from continually unsettling (with only one conventional Asian horror scare) to outright crazy in the finale. Also manages to be sumptuously beautiful.

HRAFF Review

Mohamed Nasheed Q&A at festival finale.
Well that was my first Human Rights Arts and Film Festival and I've learned something. I love documentaries. I know, you're meant to love them the way you're meant to love going out and seeing live music when it can be one of the most humdrum nights out imaginable. But I've just seen four documentaries that have to varying degrees delighted me because they were good at being documentaries, not just films about things that interest me.

What do I mean by that?

Well, here's a contrast to start with. There were two doccos at the 2005 MIFF on the same subject street that left me hot and cold respectively: Punk: Attitude and Kill Yr Idols. The first was a powerhouse of jammed archive footage and great talking heads. The second was a wishy washy germ of an idea that festered rather than grew. I disagreed with a major premise of the first (the annoying crap of punk starting in America and getting exported to the UK: don't care about the timeline, find me the influence of Marquee Moon on Never Mind the Bollocks) but it was made to a perfect fit for its audiences and formed a good welcome to anyone on the outer. Kill Yr Idols, on the other hand, began as a celebration of New York's No wave scene of the late 70s and early 80s and provided a lot of information I only vaguely knew before. Then it went on to ridicule the current crop of New York bands as pale imitations. One the one hand it was very pleasant for me to see these new rockists take a hit: the new breed are happy to accept the mantle of the No Wave tradition but their "new" music sounds like old Top 40. On the other hand I was frustrated that it went from fawning on the old guard to a kind of daddy-pleasing ridicule of the new. I, too, laughed at Karen O. coming across as having approximately 2.5 brain cells but the better angles of my grinder bade me take that with a pinch of the sharp stuff. Kill Yr Idols can't make its case because it's too busy working out how to declare its great fat hammy fist. Punk: Attitude annoys me with its too many stretches and special pleas for me to regard it as a history but as a celebration it's tops. It's also a better documentary, however much I might bicker with its premises.

I only saw four of the eighteen full length documentaries on show at HRAFF but I picked four good 'uns. You can read my reviews below but the upshot is that I got something out of every one and was touched by some expert filmmaking that went from the glassy video-looking low means to the full force of major budgeted beef. The irrelevance of conventional production values stretches, for me, to fiction cinema and there my sole criterion for good vs bad cinema applies as it does with doccos: is there truth in it?

By truth I don't mean things that I hold absolute but moments on screen where all the other stuff, the earnestness, the comedy, the drama and the noise wash away and the central nerves of a film are visible. This happens a lot and most comfortably with fiction as we are happily surprised to find an individual's conviction laid bare. We probably rejoice in it less in a docco because the idea that documentaries should just report is so ingrained in us. But a documentary is just as potentially wonderful when it's an essay, an argument, rather than a slide show of events, people and places.

Planet of Snail delighted with its approach=equals subject poetics. An African Election satisfied with its meaty no nonsense hard journalism. Beer is Cheaper than Therapy and The Island President wore their hearts on their sleeves but didn't forget the facts 'n' figures. I saw all of this in one week and it felt nourishing. Which leads me to my main thought on the festival overall.

Not all the films presented were documentaries but the festival, angenda-ed by nature, has the opportunity to be this city's unofficial festival of the documentary. Unofficially, of course: if they were to try and sell it as a week of doccos they'd have an even tougher fight for attention in this festival-oversupplied city. But as the time of year when the doccos come out, from the beautiful to the challengingly ugly, the politicising and the soberly informative, that's what would drag me back. I don't suggest they lose the title that defines them but maybe just a little push towards donning a curatorial mantle, the convergence of purposes could be clarified to a bright and shining ticket sales chart. I'd bloody go.


The Maldives, 2000 islands and 3000 years of human history, are being swallowed by the sea. The language-defyingly beautiful archipeligo is the resort of the elite among the haves, the holiday destination of the .01 %, the choice vacation for the drivers of the forces that push the ocean levels up in the court of King Caractacus and the Islands, like the tourists, are just passing by.

From thirty years of political stability (ie repressive dictatorship) came the bloodless coup of Mohamed Nasheed who reversed the oppression (that victimised him among many others) and began a campaign of climate change awareness, calling for political unity in a land which wasn't going to be a land much longer if political disunity was allowed to run wild. It's not just that the Maldives are more easily seen as the victims of climate change because they are islands, it's that, as low set islands, they are potentially the first country in the world to drown en masse. The Maldives sport the world's lowest highest point at 2.4 metres. You could cartwheel over that. Quite literally, it's sink or swim time. Well, there is another way...

Nasheed has been campaigning for reductions in carbon emissions since before his presidency. The Island President is his story but it is also the story of his drive to Copenhagen 2009 to gatecrash the big backslap with a personal plea to the devastators, or a well aimed ging stone in the eye of Goliath. If he can't get a commitment for the big emitters to calm it down to 350 ppm (parts per million) there might be no reversal of the damage possible (even if there isn't a stabilisation from compliance). In other words, first we take the Maldives and then Manhattan (where a lot of its tourists come from, island to island).

This film that makes a plea for unity is itself made from it; Nasheed's struggle is indistinguishable from The Maldives' and by extension the world's. If the spectrum of what a documentary can be goes from plain reportage to propaganda, it must be said that The Island President is firmly in the latter half. But this, too, presents a document, an argument for itself. As such it becomes something closer to primary historical source where a more even handed approach would weaken the signal. It's only dangerous if you expect your culture to do your thinking for you. If you apply the critical filter to this that you must to your own life events then you should find it invigorating.

Invigorating it is because Nasheed himself compels attention. He's a gift to a documentarian: good looking, driven, unignorably intelligent with an understated cheeky archness to his humour that somehow continually surprises. We have no trouble at all travelling with him from his repression as a political prisoner to tireless underdog to president to the humbler of giants because he gives us so much centre screen. Even his fellow players come in like injections of nutritious information on Nasheed's life and career, political history and climate science. And then there are the Maldives themselves. Phew!

Phew! Aerial shots of these islands set in the stippled jade sea move at a glacial pace but never seem long enough. Closer shots of that gem coloured water slinking up along the porches and roads like the most beautiful seamonster on earth and the great white explosions of the tide against rocks only just behind kids playing cricket bring this home ... home. In the first of his many funny assertions, Nasheed describes the Maldives as a cross between paradise and paradise. That's what's at stake. This beauty that almost makes you feel like a voyeur to gaze at is about to vanish forever. The ache of this, the sheer bloody ache of it is what makes this resolutely old fashioned documentary so strong. When you start to enjoy the manipulation you are experiencing, at least until it's over, you are in the presence of cinema. No, CINEMA.

If you see this film, don't forget your critical faculties (I don't mean the sad bullshit of climate skepticism, I mean the criticism that adds perspective). If you do, you'll be googling and wiki-ing until you know more. Documentary mission accomplished.

Sunday, May 27, 2012


Ghana, 2008. It's election time again? So what? Well, what was an ancient empire subjugated by Europe in the grab for Africa, decolonised late in 1957 and subjugated to political bloodshed and anger for decades until the coup of Jerry Rawlings left it under a dictatorship that suspended the constitution and outlawed political parties. Once party politics were allowed again in the 1990s, Rawlings ruled it for his two permitted terms and then stood back to enjoy the power without responsibility of a political grey eminence. His old party The National Democratic Congress has never left the field and remains one of the two major parties in the country. The other is The National Patriotic Party. Early on in the piece we are told that there is effectively no political difference between these parties. If either wins you get the same.

Now if you started wondering what your Facebook timeline looked like while reading the above join the club. I have some interest in politics but the process of it tends to make my eyes water. The team behind An African Election know this about me and most of the rest of you. But they can't just make a movie highlighting the dramatic aspects and squeezing it into quasi-fiction because they must also serve their subject matter and provide a pithy report on its events. The way this is done is quite conventional but its conventional documentary making with added concentrate.

First, by a few necessary black and white title cards we learn the salient facts of the case as it progesses (you don't even need to know where Ghana is to watch this film). Second, the key figures of the election, including the "retired" Jerry Rawlings are shown up close and more personally than you'd always want. Third, the commentary comes from media representatives in to-camera interviews which come in easily digestible portions. Last, the most affected group in the country are almost always on screen, the Ghanian people are so claustrophobically present in this film you might think the streets of Accra and everywhere else in the country are so full of animated bodies that there is no possibility of traffic. One warm spot in the film involves Rawlings in his car trying to explain a point of local and international politics and growing so excited about it that it takes him minutes to realise that his car has been stopped by a crowd of his adoring public who ogle him through the windows with huge smiles.

I'm not going to relate the progress of the election as told by this film as it does such a good job of drawing its audiences into its moment and offering a sample of the weight of the events as they unfold but I will say that never have I known a film about a political occasion to leave me with such an organic appreciation of what it was showing me. As far as political campaign documentaries go I'd happily put it up there with The War Room,   the extraordinary film of Bill Clinton's '92 campaign. This one, however, takes us further than the powerbrokers who are, after all, still at the mercy of the crowds around the ballot boxes.

The ballot boxes here are the humble but hot centre of the film. They are surrounded by standover men and gangs that need police in riot gear and even, in one case the presence of a tank to keep things nice. The sound of discharging weapons is a shock initially but soon becomes part of the overall cacophony. They might take their dictatorships seriously in the east coast nations of Africa but when they are given it they will meet the democratic process with a vicegrip. If you are like me and dread the queues at the polling places on election day you should see this film. I needed to.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


Young-Chan spends a lot of his spare time thinking about the universe. He imagines distant suns and remote lightless voids as well as glittering star fields. He often refers to himself as an astronaut. He talks of his life on another planet and that he is still learning to live on this one. This is understandable as, being completely blind and almost totally deaf, he probably should feel like a stranger in a strange land.

Young-Chan is tall and slender with delicate features and precise movements. Walking outside with his wife is like a picture imagined by Allejandro Jodorowsky. Soon-Ho is not much taller than a metre. She has to stand on a stool to do the dishes. When Young-Chan stands beside her at the sink he still towers over her. But when they walk outside together, guiding each other through air that glitters with snowflakes,  it's neither funny nor confronting: you're just too busy being fascinated.

On the surface of it this is a film about coping with disability. A little, and only a little, deeper into it reveals an absorbing exploration of the human mind and its hunger for discovery. Young-Chin is a patient thinker and forms his thoughts with the care of a calligrapher, letter by letter, word by word, as he builds his description of the planet where he has landed.

Planet of Snail invites us into Young-Chan's investigations and allows us a pretty workable idea of what it's like to be him. Because of her height, Soon-Ho can't replace the failed circular fluro light in the bedroom. She has to guide Young-Chan through each movement, desrcibing what he must do next to install and secure the bulb, communicating through tactile signing where she seems to play his fingers like typewriter keys. Between the two of them the job is done and the light which means nothing to him is restored. The sequence is extraordinary not because it's a gruelling step by step climb through failure but because its purpose is to show the harmony struck between this pair of people who had considered themselves irredeemably lonely before meeting each other.

Keeping the focus on both Young-Chan's constant discovery and the essential weave of experience he and Soon-Ho must maintain results in a constantly rewarding film that, though it includes it, never becomes a plea to its audience's sympathy. Young-Chan surprises us early on with his voice. He was neither blind nor deaf from birth and has developed an eloquence equal to his physical elegance. The narration he shares with Soon-Ho swings between an authentic poetry and hard pragmatism that act as effective counterweights and prevent a progress-murdering slump either way.

On that last point, if you want disabled people on screen to be seen for themselves rather than through counterproductive pity, show them arguing. A social visit includes an amiable spat between Young-Chan and his similarly deaf-blind childhood friend. This is waged in spoken taunts and rejoinders which neither can hear but everybody else can. There is a necessary pause each time between the message and its delivery, each one knowing that the point scored has met with applause, just not how much.

Touch is the more powerful of Young-Chan's two languages as it is the one that he has mastered more than anyone hearing and sighted ever does. When reaching into the rain through the window of his flat he even closes his eyes, perhaps in memory of what that once meant to him. Same when he literally hugs a knotty old tree. It's almost worship. When Soon-Ho wants to join in he jokes that it would be like a threesome. He's smiling but it's clear what he means. And then, finally, he floats in the sea, loosely tethered to safety by a rope to shore we understand why we have been listening to the dull rush of underwater sounds throughout the film and also that here, more than in any other moment, he resumes the role of astronaut.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Late night small town. A train howls and chugs across the screen as a series of titles inform us that this town, attached to a major U.S. military base has a roll call of social malaise and tragedy that fiction would blush to attempt. Shootings, suicides, depression .... everybody in? Post Traumatic Stress Disorder lives here. And then we see that for the past few minutes while we've been reading, that we've been staring at a stressful situation: a car idles at the railcrossing as the train keeps going past, effectively endless.

This is a documentary about a particularly cruel consequence of military service in war zones. Apart from a few snippets of video and snapshots the scene is entirely in Killeen, Texas, the town attached to Fort Hood an army base set up during the second world war. The fort and town have been a strange concatenation of military and civilian life ever since. Almost every shot of a local business includes an unmissable notice of support for the soldiers. The effect of this is odd, more like a town of collaborators professing loyalty to an occupying force than somewhere that's had over half a century to get used to the idea that most of it is made up of soldiers. It's eerie.

That eeriness never quite leaves the proceedings here as we hear the testimony of a number of soldiers who, whether active or retired from service, are still in this place like ghosts wandering in an earthly limbo. The accounts are not from their deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan but their experiences back home, or rather, in Killeen. We are confronted with a series of often marrow-freezing accounts of how these men have coped with life beyond the unimaginable stress of their short careers. One NCO owns that he has just come out of a mental hospital where he was surrounded by other ex-soldiers on suicide watch. He says he was the only one there who didn't want to kill himself but others, anyone he found who looked happy. He recalls this with an unblinking plainness that is both a tribute to his training and an accusation of it. And there's the rub...

It's not an elephant in the room because its presence neither surprises nor upsets but the central nerve winding through this film is masculinity. Not the military idea of masculinity but MASCULINITY pure and simple. It is there in the first sequence following the opening titles wherein a group of young men are showing off their big lowrider cars and souped-up utes which constantly growl like the spirit of manhood made animal. Many of them have their bonnets open which stand at rigid slants like a parade of hard ons. One young soldier in his civvies talks of his imminent deployment to Afghanistan with an infectious joy. It's easy to forget he's about to go to a situation that might squeeze out his staring living ghost within months. Another thread throughout depicts teenage soldiers at a tattoo parlour giggling about their choices of design. All of these are violent and challenging and the youths sumbit to the needle often squeezing a rubber hotdog shaped prop to cope with the pain that is stretching their acne-tightened faces into costant winces.

But don't get me or this film wrong. It is ultimately about one strand of masculinity pursued to its very end point but at no time does it invite us to judge these men with their haunted eyes and burden of life-sucking shock. It is as futile to blame the military or masculinity itself as it is to imagine the world without warfare or the readiness for it. It is, however, important to acknowledge its effects and to know that its victims include those who return from it victorious and rewarded. What might be wrong is the rigidity of the machine to cope with changing circumstances and allow its units (at one stage identified officially as "products" by one ex-soldier) the same care after their damage as was given in the preparation for it. The final sequence of the film offers some promise as a group of ex soldiers stage a protest about the continued deployment of exhausted men. The scene of newly animated sufferers of PTSD running through the morning traffic with the energy of schoolkids, handing out fliers to uniformed men in cars on their way to duty.

A few more shots of the town and then some more of those low riders and for once, to me, the sight of a classic American gas guzzler modified to lift and fall and even allow a single wheel to rise from the ground like a quizzical eyebrow does not strike me as ridiculous. The out of uniform soldier at the wheel is delighting his kids with the antics. A boy in the back seat, his mouth wide open with joy, takes in the thrill of being in all that hardware doing all that cool stuff.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

HRAFF picks

To whom it may concern...

I've made my picks for the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival screenings. All screenings at ACMI

Beer is Cheaper Than Therapy: tonight 6.30 pm

Planet of Snail: Wednesday 9.00 pm

An African Election: Saturday 3.00 pm

The Island President: Sunday 6.30 pm

Let come who will, my friends, my friends.


Check the interview I did with one of the festival's programmers.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Top 10: 12/05/2012

Eraserhead: this is what it looks like when someone is so determined to get the images in their head on to the screen that they'll spend four years in virtual poverty to get it right.

The Haunting: everything that director Robert Wise learned from mentors Orson Welles and Val Lewton is up there on the screen and coming through the speakers. As with all good horror tales, there is identifiable human tragedy at the heart of this one.

Onibaba: a mix of folktale and cinema verite horror with extraordinary atmosphere. A winner everytime I screen it.

Harold and Maude: This is how you do quirky: keep the grim reaper palpable in every scene in a story about celebrating life and you can't go wrong. I know; Wes Anderson tries this kind of thing and does go  wrong (every single time) but H&M is helmed by a master who seemed to have some feeling for his subject. One of the best. Ever.

Network: a satire about truth, justice and the American way of crushing everything into a marketable commodity. Peter Finch's oscar was the first posthumous one. With a cast like this and the kind of writing that is neither naturalistic nor unbelievable in its constant wit and bottomless vocab.

Spirit of the Beehive: an evocation of childhood that remembers how serious children can be and how maddening and insane the grownup world can look.

Come and See: follow farmboy Florya as he goes to war and transforms from a rosy cheeked teenager into the haggard hundred year old he is at the end of it (timeline, about three months in the film). Final sequence of him shooting a picture of Hitler will get under your skin and stay there. My favourite war movie.

Kairo/Pulse: one of a kind apocalypse tale where ghosts invade the lonely through the internet. Sounds naff but it's constantly eerie and increasingly unsettling. Some of the most terrifying cinematic ghosts I've seen. The sense that the order that was is unravelling, never to return is a genuine mounting dread.

Bringing Up Baby: Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Howard Hawks and a leopard. One of the funniest screwball comedies ever. Cary Grant has lost his bone and opens the door in a neglige on a maiden aunt who demands to know why he's dressed like that: "Because I went gay all of a sudden!"  he yells, leaping into the air. The year is 1938.

Videodrome: Cronenberg's essay on media manipulation has the complex and appealing performance of james Woods running through it like blood cells.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Review: THE WOMAN IN BLACK: High gloss low imagination

Three cherubic Edwardian girls are playing with their pre-plastic dolls in a sunlit rumpus room. Suddenly all at once they look up, stand and walk to three windows in slow motion and leap out. Loud maternal scream off screen. Titles.

Arthur Kipps, a widower, feels little for the son whose birth killed his wife and has sunk so low into the slough of grief for her that his law firm gives him one last chance to redeem himself. Except, he has to spend a week in a ... HAUNTED HOUSE! Carrying a batch of legal papers off to the remote north country wasteland he sees a ghost who does bad things, gets to the bottom of it and .... well, if you see it you won't need spoilers.

This is the latest adaptation of Susan Hill's The Woman in Black, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Rickman. From the original novel there has been a 1980s television adaptation (which I have seen) by Nigel Kneale, celebrated by its cult as the definitive version and a very very successful stage play by Stephen Mallatrat (which I haven't seen).

Because I am very fond of the Kneale version and knew this one was coming out I decided to contaminate my affection and read the novel. The Woman in Black is a kind of pacier M.R. James story with passages of real terror. Like all durable horror stories it anchors the weirdness and dread in a human story that is easily identified with.

Kneale's changes in the trek from page to screen served to keep it trim, solid and manageable. Some things couldn't be easily or cheaply filmed at the time. Other things needed compaction for the sake of brevity. The changes Kneale made, however, in each case keep the central theme intact and enhance its relation to the horror of the story.

James Watkins' changes don't do this. While the basic motivation for the ghost remains, its means of destruction is turned from a chilling elegance into the kind of signposting threat that lets us all in on the progress of the narrative from beginning to end, whereby even the big shock ending seems tailored to an audience that expects it and might even expect a refund if it weren't there. And this is the problem with the new Woman in Black, it's not just made to be popular (it should be) it is made to fit form.

The musical score is the tinkly concerto for musical box and orchestra that has been standard fare since about 1962. When it isn't doing that it's busy telling us that we're looking at a big expansive landscape with huge sweeping strings or, in moments of fright, delivering a big BAAAAAAM!!!!!!!!! to let us know that if the images don't get us the volume level will.

On that, Watkins does something I find creepy here and it has nothing to do with haunted houses. There is a sequence late in the first act that involves Arthur dozing off in the haunted house while something very bad is happening. Through an effective mix of vague background motion and some very clear movement seen in a mirror, he builds a real tension. This is the sole moment of the film that has this quality. The rest is a series of sudden shocks and some setups that would be written off as goofy if they weren't so slick.

My point here is that Watkins is showing us that not only does he understand how to set up and use suspense and is a dab hand at it, he is choosing not to use it, he is choosing to please his investors and honour the perceived pact between the multiplex customer and the ticket price, he is saying: I know better --  see this? -- but you are going to get what they say you want, now shut up and prepare for the next scare. It really feels that calculated.

My discomfort with this film stems from this offscreen chill. Watkins and Co. have so resolutely chosen a packaged conventionality over an exploration of the reasons that this story works so well with readers and theatre audiences that its essential ideas are either reduced to such starkness that the audience has no trouble controlling them (and lessening any lasting scares from them) or abandoned altogether, presumably from fear of their being difficult. This goes beyond the point of playing spot the cliche and then beyond the point of simply being popular entertainment and charges straight on to the point where the purchase of a ticket to a horror movie virtually guarantees a minimum because the promise of a real transportation is just not good business.

James Watkins most significant feature film before this was Eden Lake. It's one of a softly defined trend of pedaphobic horror tales in which adults are terrorised by children who are calling the shots. It's a respectable effort but quite tellingly falls short of its own potential through a preference for showing brutality enacted over suggesting that its source might be disturbingly natural. Still, I was hoping that Watkins might bring something of the appealing rough look and feel of Eden Lake to The Woman in Black. No such luck. He produced a perfect and perfectly flavourless feast by following the recipe to the letter and timed it to the second.

It's not garbage but it's not good either. Like J-horror never happened.

Monday, May 14, 2012

TOP 10: 14/05/12

 Eraserhead: still the best

 Two or Three Things I Know About Her: Godard's mid point essay about contemporary life as prostitution. Works just as well now and is the first example I give of a fiction film that does not require narrative.

 The Sacrifice: Tarkovsky's sign-off. Saw it with group who complained about its slowness but I stopped listening as it continued to sink in.

The Thing from Another World: Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks 50s paranoia piece still holds enough real atmosphere and tension to work beyond any of its kitsch value. Great Hawksian overlapping dialogue.

 Life of Brian: not all satire is funny but this is, constantly.

 The Exorcist:  game-changing genre film that remains source material.

 Apocalypse Now: trip movie meet war movie :)+)

 Harvey: I tend to think that this is the kind of comedy that a gentler Diane Arbus would have made (the normal one would have made Santa Sangre)


The In Laws: Peter Falk and Alan Arkin at their best. "A ZEEE?!!!!"

 Little Murders: Alan Arkin's directorial debut has all the lightless laughter that Jules Feiffer wrote into it

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

TOP 10 for 09/05/12

Dark Water

I like reading other people's top ten lists but never think to make my own. I harbour a profound fear that I'll disagree with it as soon as I post it. This is why I'm dating this series of posts. These will be my top ten movies on the date I draw it up. No pondering. Straight up listfilling. Feel free to add your own to this and each subsequent list. Might be interesting to see how a few of us change it.

Eraserhead - my favourite film from the first time I saw in in the early 80s to now. It has never been toppled.

Apocalypse Now - don't care about the politics or the fidelity to war history, this one seizes me and doesn't let go until it's done with me.

The Fall - this might end up being Tarsem's only great film but for this instance his extraordinary eye for colour and form was superbly backed by a good idea (a self-confessed steal from another film) and a pair of outstanding performances. Haven't known anyone left disappointed by this film.

Citizen Kane - I couldn't care less if anyone's sick of seeing this in top ten lists. It will probably always be in mine. Great strength of story, dialogue, performances and sheer cinematic virtuosity. I can watch it anytime.

The Exorcist - Because it works. Every time.

Martyrs - because I was scared of it and then had to watch it again to really see it. I think it's a masterpiece.

The Producers - it should be internationally illegal not to like this film.

Dark Water - the apex of a sub genre that changed the genre, J horror. Remembers that at the heart of any scarefest there must be real tragedy.

Picnic at Hanging Rock - subtle and spooky with very little actually happening, how to make a lot out of unknowing

Suspiria - works like a nightmare by refusing to hand control over to its audience. The only time it lags is when it does that very thing, during the "information session" between Udo Kier and Jessica Harper

So there you have it. What are yours for this week?

Saturday, May 5, 2012


The Human Rights Arts and Film Festival is upon us again. I spoke to my friend Tyson Namow who is one of the programmers of the film section of the festival about a few of the issues that occured to me after seeing the teaser program published on the website in March.

On that, I've been asked to point out that this interview was conducted in March, weeks before the full program was published. For the sake of clarity, the festival program does NOT include the documentary To Hell and Back again (I don't believe either of us suggested that it would but I'm happy to comply with this request).

P = Me (Peter Jetnikoff)

T = He (Tyson Namow)

P:  Could you tell us about your background such as it’s relevant to your being involved in the festival? What is your role?

T:I’m completing a PhD in cinema studies at Latrobe University.  I’ve also been teaching in the areas of cinema and media for a number of years at institutions including RMIT and the University of South Australia. And I also coordinate a film course for the Melbourne Free University. So it made sense to me to do some feature film programming for the Festival, given my vocational interests and my cultural interests. I’m also just keen to support volunteer-based organisations and up and coming festivals and events.

I was initially hired so I could give a fairly strong critical historical and aesthetic perspective on cinema. I wasn't coming from a particular human rights background or any particular political background to do the programming. So I think that’s actually good in terms of rounding off the programming team. Because you’re sometimes going to get people who come from more of an activist background or people who have done human rights work before, who may not have been much involved in cinema.

P:  Is that the case in the group of people who do the selection? Do they come from diverse backgrounds, not necessarily film-related? It is, of course an arts festival, not just a film festival.

T:  That’s right. That’s right. Yeah, there is a variety of backgrounds, some are from the festival administration side of things, some are film makers, some are film academics, such as myself, and then others will be coming from more human rights contexts to do with law, NGOs, things like that.

P:  Ok. I recently saw the documentary To Hell and Back Again, about an American soldier wounded in Afghanistan, and was moved by the portrayal of the man despite my opposition to the war. The film made impressive use of the approach of fiction cinema. With documentaries moving away from the always dubious notion of pure record, does a problem arise from choosing a film on its merits as cinema over those of it as a political statement?

T:  Yeah this is actually a really good question and it’s something I want to address at a conference that’s coming up at the end of the year in Canberra. Because it is very difficult, what some are talking about now, there’s this movement called docu-fictions which are not really mockumentaries or docu-dramas, they’re kind of something in between. They employ fictional techniques, unashamedly, to the point of wanting you to receive a documentary as a fiction film. Some filmmakers are taking it that far. It does raise some questions about how we approach the question of representing political issues, social justice issues, and what  the role of HRAFF is in educating the public and to what extent we are about 'issue' films.

On one hand, we’re raising public awareness about particular events and injustices occurring in the world. On the other hand, I think there is also a push to  be more of a pure cinema festival interested in questions about what it means to document the world, what is happening to the documentary genre, what are the ethics of filmmaking practice, and those sorts of things. I think both of these things are happening for HRAFF but HRAFF hasn’t quite worked out how to deal with them.

P:  Ok.

T:  To some extent I think there’s an ongoing tension and struggle regarding what is the primary aim and focus of the festival. I, personally, want to push legitimate questions about how things are represented, how cinema does or doesn’t do a good job in terms of bringing up issues of what’s happening around the world and I think there’s space for that and the film you referred to is clearly as much about representation itself and about a cultural understanding of war and a whole range of things.

So I’ve certainly been advocating a place for that. I also understand the criticism from some of the other programmers, or some of the other people within the festival, who have concerns that this might detract from our core, social issue raising agenda.  Does an interest in aesthetics and theory for its own sake threaten to obscure some really core emotional elements to a particular political idea?  I don't think it has to but I also certainly believe that we should be first and foremost about politicising the audience through film. It’s a difficult one so I think probably the answer is that, yes, it is a problem and that there is a tension there.

P:  With To Hell and Back Again because it does have those fictive elements in it it’s kind of spoonful of sugar isn’t it? Helps the medicine go down. If this is the case, if this kind of cinema is on the rise, a documentary that makes it easy to watch a documentary by behaving like a fiction film, is its legitimacy compromised? If that’s what a documentary is going to become -- however briefly if it’s a fad or if, like the Blair Witch Project effect, it’s going to really take over documentary filmmaking, what are you left with?

T: (laughs) Yeah, well of course in the history of documentary many would argue that documentaries would always have hybrid elements right back to Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North where there’s clearly stylisation, scripted moments and so on. Maybe what’s happening now is a cluster of films which aren’t fitting into a kind of mockumentary or docudrama format but doing something else. I mean they are more or less documentaries but they’re entering a very interesting and maybe paradoxical space with their use of fictional techniques and hyper-stylisation. Basically there’s the idea that reality is always going to contain elements of fiction.

But clearly at the same time they are not saying that documentary doesn’t do something special.  Because they still talk about themselves as documentary films and the filmmakers still like this idea that there is still something authentic happening in terms of their film’s relationship to the subject. There’s still something that documentary does which fiction can’t.

Anyway I think it’s quite a paradoxical space. I think that’s one of the concerns that people are going to have to deal with. I think this is what caused some concern and disquiet among some of the fellow programmers: they felt that they were going into such an ambiguous space when watching these films. I think it’s the reception of it: the whole thing of “how am I meant to read this?” and “I’m not given clear signposts or enough signposts to feel comfortable about where the filmmaker is coming from” and “how am I meant to understand this act of war or this act of injustice?”

I think it’s going to be very interesting to see how spectators negotiate that sort of space. That’s very pertinent to how we program in the future . Maybe we really need to think about going, ok, maybe partly it’s about educating audiences, presenting the films in ways that help them through that, to give them context to what they’re about to see. But also, I think, maybe in a liberal society people who enter a theatre need to take some risks and need to think for themselves.

P:  It strikes me that it’s a problem that’s not going to go away and one never to be resolved. Either way, given that HRAFF has a particular focus that distinguishes it from universalist festivals like MIFF or alternative ones like MUFF, or the various ethnically-based ones. There is a likely perception of a string of human rights related films being a propaganda-fest. There’s a danger, it strikes me, that potential audiences might simply think they’re in for a lot of militant politics. Seems like quite a fight from the word go.

T: I think you’re right, I think that “human rights” is such a loaded term and that’s part of the problem. For me, personally,  I was never really sure it was the best title to have but you’ve got to work with what you got. Primarily, it’s a political film festival, it’s the politics of art and culture, and human rights is a big part of that. So yeah, I think you’re right, it’s a very loaded term. There’s plenty on the left who critique human rights as a discourse. And there are others in the community who are going to think it’s just going to be the latest “propaganda films” or an OXFAM educational film or something like that. So I think it’s really important that we convey the fact that that’s not what it’s about at all. And having people from my background  in there is precisely to get these much more compelling films that wouldn’t neatly fall under some sort of propagandist or educational umbrella. The film you mentioned earlier, To Hell and Back Again, is far removed from what probably a lot of people would associate with a human rights festival. And I think that becomes interesting when you do raise these questions about aesthetics and spectatorship which opens up a human rights festival to a whole range of agendas and issues which go well beyond how it can be tainted in terms of some of the things you’ve mentioned.

P:  Then your problem is to get back to grass roots and get people along who’ll get into the things to begin with. There might well be an elastic perception of human rights as a concept . But you must, of course, start somewhere.

T: Yes (laughs)

P:  Reading the descriptions of the films described in the teaser in early March, I was immediately intrigued but then concerned. It's become almost futile to describe something as worthy without irony. Can this act as a barrier to HRAFF's potential audience when the target audience must include those beyond the converted?

T:  Yeah, that’s a very good question. I think it’s an ongoing thing about how you promote films. One thing is purely technical, how do you plug into social media, how do you plug into Y-Gen, and as you suggest, how do you plug into what is now second or third level irony (laughs)

P:  Where does it stop?

T:  Irony’s been round for a while (laughs). I think you’re deadly right, though. There is a hipster/twee/irony audience out there, the Wes Anderson or Miranda July kind of audience, and so you have to think about how to tap into that. It is hard though because there has to be a certain earnestness with what we do, there has to be a certain lack of play in the human rights context which may not necessarily fit the 'irony' audience. I think that’s where having those films like Hell and Back Again can come into play because you can say this is about something serious but it is also about other levels of meaning that as a spectator  you can engage with. It is about aesthetics as well. It is about questions of representation in documentary, so you can open up the human rights festival in ways that may reach those wider audiences too.

I should point out that there’s going to be light hearted stuff in there as well, more popular stuff working in different ways with different strands of audiences. Not everything is heavy. Some of the programmers will go more for the darker stuff and others lighter to create a balance.
One of the films is a kind of postmodern, soap opera from South America, called Prime Time Soap,  which is set in Brazil in the late 1970s during the last years of the authoritarian regime, but which is told in a kind of kitschy way. So there are different strands in there already.

P:  Ok,  there are a few countries or areas whose film industries seem particularly rich with politics, particularly South Korea which brings out a lot of genre films  horror films and social fables and political thriller which refer to its own years of military dictatorship (eg. Memories of Murder or  The President’s Last Bang)  and also Iran with its almost exclusively serious and confrontational films about various social ills (most recently A Separation). There’s almost no humour in the latter but they’re compelling. Compelling for two reasons: the window into another culture and insights into problems that we share. A Separation has much to do with the judicial process which is eye opening.  It’s very confrontational but they are also talking about the issues at ground level. Those films still only get marginal release but the flag is flying for Iranian cinema. To a lesser extent South Korea which more popcorn enjoyable films like the host which itself has a lot to say about the American influence on the economy and culture (it’s where the monster comes from). And really quite a lot of Korean films about revenge and “natural justice”. Interesting films because there’s nothing Western about them.

You mentioned that there is a balance struck between heavy and light. Would films like The Mother or Memories of Murder have a place, as they do examine political and social issues but are also popcorn popular in their country of origin, have a place in the festival?

T:  Yeah, definitely. There’s the cinema that is emerging from the Arab spring. The only reason we haven’t been able to program any of that is really just logistics. ACMII stole our thunder and screened some of the things we wanted, films like Microphone. We do try to tap into those areas and there are a lot of films coming out of that region.

But there is a balance, The opening film  is Under African Skies, which is about Paul Simon's Graceland record. It is directed by Joe Berlinger, who did the Metallica film, Some Kind of Monster, and also Crude. Under African Skies is pretty light and populist. It’s mostly about the recording of the album and its reception. It does tap into some of the surrounding issues about apartheid and the cultural embargos that were in force at the time. So there are those elements but it’s as much a music doco as anything else. So, those sorts of films can come through. The populist element plays a role. The entertainment value plays a role.

P:  That, I think, is important to get across. I haven’t found that message coming through so strongly but then again I haven’t seen the full program.

Let’s talk selection. What’s the approach and do the other festivals in the calendar in any way rivals for material?

T:  They can. There is a hierarchy. One of our prime questions is: has it screened nationally somewhere? We try to get the national premiere but are happy to offer the Melbourne premiere. There’s also context. If it’s sufficiently worthy and different we might well screen it along with one of the other festivals, such as one of the ethically based festivals or the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, say. We also have to deal with how the film has been distributed. That can make a difference. The producers and teams behind the films may have an international strategy and say, “well we’d like to screen it with you but we’d rather go with MIFF”.

P:  The thing that might damage your claim the most would be that, the perception that you are on the lower end of the pecking order if only because you’re new on the block.

T:  It’s true, at this stage, we are quite low.

P:  I don’t think it would necessarily work against you but for the possibility that your program might lack the variety that the others revel in.

My concern is that after all the boss hens are sated, is there a festival that does justice to the concept or has there been the perception “if only we’d have got that we could have had a coup” which might have raised the profile?

T:  Yeah I think that there are certain films that could help that but I really don’t know that those films on their own are going to do that because it’s as much about how we promote ourselves and how we screen the films. Part of what we have to do is use the pull factor, something special that we can do for them, something that even MIFF can’t do. So our task is finding that special thing, a special context that we can give the film, a way that we present it and a certain audience that we get for a screening and a certain attention that we can give it which you might not get in the MIFF context . Our task is not just to get those bigger films.  I should add too that the bigger festivals also can offer a lot of new work from auteurs which are a big draw.

P:  Are we talking the unapproachable cinegod like Godard or some more amenable auteurs who might, if you paid their way come and represent their work here.

T:  It is some of that, getting the bigger names. It’s also some of the newer filmmakers. I think we really need to plug in more effectively (and this is part of teaching audiences):  this is a new auteur, this is a new exciting filmmaker. And whether or not we can get them in person, we can at least let people know that there is a kind of urgency in being there to see their work. You pointed it out before: out of all the social media and cultural sources out there, why would someone go out on a  Thursday or Friday night to a HRAFF film when they can do so many other things or when MIFF is only one or two months away? I think there’s a need to create that sense of urgency that this is an established filmmaker and it’s not just some kid out of college who’s politically engaged and has shot something cheaply that looks like a student film. Because we’re really not looking for that we’re looking for high quality products. So, I think it’s definitely something we need to work more toward, really promoting new wave filmmakers and new wave films as well. This is what ACMII and MIFF do, they’ve obviously got more money and exposure than us . But I think there are ways we can also tap into that and potentially show what they don’t show, more subversive things, perhaps. That also ties into what we’re doing to tap into different regions of the world , different cultural expressions and maybe sometimes even more problematic areas around human rights and political issues . We should never be about promoting a single idea. And I think HRAFF doesn’t do that. It is willing to show films that challenge ideas about human rights and even shock some people about what a human rights festival might do. I don’t think we do enough of that yet. There’s still a bit of a safety and populism. That’s part of the discussions you have as a film programmer.

There was one film Phnom Penh Lullaby that I and a fellow programmer thought was an incredible film but very problematic and ambiguous. Other festival programmers really struggled with it as a film and whether or not it was exploitative.

I think we really need to think more clearly and confidently about the value of having some of those films in and these new wave filmmakers and what is current in terms of thinking about cinema like the docufiction thing. How do we deal with that? Everything that’s happening on Youtube. Web series. All those things. How are people receiving and understanding things and how can we work with that environment Maybe even politically challenge that environment in a clever way . How are things being represented? How are people experiencing film? How are they getting their knowledge of the world and how can we get films that deal with that ?

P:  It’s not just locating the filmmakers and the films and trying to identify them with what’s happening throughout the world, keeping a finger on the pulse, but it’s important as a crossover to think of the legitimacy of having high quality films. But YT and FB have changed the game of what  a showcase of the moving image might be, from the Avatars down to the smaller indies. There is also YT used to everything from jokes to guerrilla cinema, a link with Soviet era samizdat; anything forbidden that is allowed to flow.

Is there a possibility with something happening with these more immediate media outlets on the guerrilla level (as well as oddities like Kony 2012) Can the website be further engaged to point to this kind of activity. Might that not be an enriching thing?

T:  I think so and using panel discussions for those sorts of things and the arts side of the human rights festival you could have installations that deal with that. While I’m not so familiar with the greater arts context of the festival I can see the need to embrace the new media and also just the online interactive documentaries they talk about these days . I think there’s definitely ways we need to plug into that but I also think that what’s important and I think you would agree with me here that is creating this kind of cinema space unto itself and that doesn’t mean naively harking back to some golden age but i think it is important to preserve some kind of viewing experience in the context of everything else that’s going on and I think that’s why these festivals are so important and the microcinema s that you’ve been involved with and myself as well. You know to keep that unique and distinct experience alive as well in relation to all these other sorts of things going on. So I think there’s a double role there, if I can put it like that.

Me again. The Human Rights Arts and Film Festival is runs from the 15th to the 27th of May in Melbourne and then travels to other cities. I'll be going and reviewing. Details HERE

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Catchup review: GIALLO: reputation and reality

A cab careens through Rome, taking a young woman somewhere she didn't ask to go. Later, Linda, visiting Rome, waits for her sister to knock on her hotel room door. A filthy basement holds a number of women strapped to tables. Gotcha, it's a crime thriller.

Linda goes to the police to report her sister missing and is led to the young but gruff Inspector Avolfi, chewing pizza in a basement  wallpapered with grizzly crimescene photos. He's pursuing a serial killer who's ... abducting young women .... So they're on the case, working in tandem as only happens in movies like this where civilians are given temporary dispensation to act as police officers. Meanwhile we see the killer in shadow, tanking up on nitrous oxide and speaking in a funny voice to his victims. The game's afoot.

I might come across as dismissive there but really, most serial killer thrillers are cut from this cloth. They only distinguish themselves by exemplary service in departments other than generic plotting. The subgenre pretty much exhausted itself after a decade (the 90s) of mounting silliness as each new entry tried to outdo the ookykookyspookyness of the perp. That, combined with the mounting sense of numbing deja vu that its jaded public was experiencing.

So, how does a 2009 serial killer film stack up? Meh. However ...

First, some context:

Giallo means yellow. It's also a genre of Italian crime thrillers notable for their strong atmosphere, baroque visuals and plotting and eye-popping violence. The connection between the genre name and the colour is variously claimed to be the pulpy paper of the source novels, the generic colour of their spines or that yellow is the colour of fear. Let that be debatable. Starting in the 1960s the genre assumed its own identity and grew ever more convoluted and bloody as the years raced, borne on the shoulders of a number of auterist maestri. One such maestro is Dario Argento.

Argento took the style of pioneer Mario Bava and stretched it to breaking point with masterpieces of the genre like his debut The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red, Suspiria etc. And then from the mid-80s on his mojo seemed to drain from him and every subsequent outing proved more feeble than the last. An exception is The Stendhal Syndrome with its intriguing take on the role of women in gialli. But mostly it was highly stylish nice tries like Sleepless or the crushing disappointment for every fanatic who had waited decades for the final of the Three Mothers Trilogy, Mother of Tears.

Now Argento has made a film simply called Giallo. It's a crime thriller where the title refers not only to that but to a characteristic of the killer at its centre. Does what it says on the tin.

Some more context:

More than half the audience I saw this with in a micro cinema did not know any of this. The screening was introduced with a mix of affection and dismissiveness by a friend of mine who admires Argento's works. His spiel wasn't the problem? What problem?

Starting with a few titters here and there at this or that perfectly generic dialogue and the killer's werid squeaky voice the greater part of the audience began to laugh at almost everything that was said. Almost none of it deserved it. They responded to the wrenching violence in some scenes appropriately but, curiously, there wasn't a squawk of nervous laughter. And then, when the flow of the narrative resumed they seemed to wait until every line was finished and then burst into unbelievable laughter. This wasn't, in other words, the laughter that masks a scream, it was a kind of automatic derision.

They hadn't listened to any of my friend's more scholarly comments on the filmmaker but they heard every syllable of his downtalk. And that's how they received the film, as a kind of Ed Wood derision magnet. When I used the word automatic about their laughter I meant it. The sounds were those of merriment but there really was nothing so funny that it warranted such deafening hilarity. The film is not one of Argento's best but it's not that bad either, it stacks up perfectly well against anything that Harrison Ford or Ashley Judd might appear in, any old Hollywood crime thriller. Same with the dialogue. Standard. I got the definite feeling that they wouldn't laugh at something like What Lies Beneath or The Fugitive.

As the film progressed I began to brace myself against this noise toward the end of each line and then winced when the simian shrieks were again loosed into the air. Important observation: the dialogue does contain some intentionally funny moments. Almost none of these were noticed. The sole sound of laughter was this weird Pavlovian din making every few minutes feel like feeding time at the chimp enclosure. And the more it progressed the more unthinking and fake it sounded. Every now and then one of the tabloid tv current affairs shows features a story on the laughing cure, a kind of encounter group that meets to relieve its stress through laughter. Great idea except when you turn a camera on to it all the laughter sounds like asthmatic wheezing. Well, that's how this sounded. Not a note of genuine joy in any of it. Just pure response to a perceived direction of laugh.

Ok, I have no problem with anyone laughing at something they think is ridiculous. There are a lot of false steps in the cosmos of cinema and any time something on a screen tries to scare you by saying BOO! you are going to laugh. I'm guilty of the kind of derision I've just described, or I was. Younger, I'd happily join in with the rest of the company of friends or flatmates. It was something we were sharing and, even as a big sulky cinephile undergraduate, I was happy enough to render the film to its tv screen sized smallness, even as I was appreciating its great grave movieness. But that's not what this was. This was wilful flatlining ignorance that was far more ragingly clumsy and try-hard than the film it was aimed at.


However much I loathe this kind of ostentatious 'phistication I'll have to admit that they were only reacting as they might given a slight but definite signal to find fault. Why, after all, should they care that this was the work of a director who at the height of his powers was a master of the form? They were sitting in front of a movie they had been told was under par. What would it matter to them that it's not a classic giallo, or isn't very Suspiria-y or Profondo Rosso-y?

Giallo is the tightest and most effective movie Dario Argento has made for decades. That's not saying much but it's still true. I can't say the same of Roman Polanski's Ghost Writer or Martin Scorsese's The Aviator. Great filmmakers are seldom great for their entire careers. Big deal. But Giallo does work, it's a little cheesy but it brings its own without needing to resort to a lot of arch self-reflexive bullshit or self-conscious irony. It's a straight-up genre film that wouldn't raise a slight titter if any of those shrieking sophicates stumbled on it while channel hopping.

On the other hand if the screening introduction had been serious and respectful and included a coloured but digestible filmographical sketch, they might well have sat through it quietly and seen a moderately effective thriller and wondered why it was worth leaving the house for on a chilly Autumn night. To them the name of Argento would be synonymous with undeserving mediocrity. And with what they'd been given, they wouldn't be wrong.