Monthly Archives: May 2009

Blue Eyelids, Mexico 2007

Victor and Marina on a muted picnic date.

Victor and Marina on a muted picnic date.

Nick thought this was one of the worst films he’d ever seen. I’m not sure. I did find some passages excruciating, but then the story involves two socially inept people attempting to create a relationship and their awkwardness is effectively represented. My main difficulty with the film is that I’m not sure exactly what kind of film it is meant to be  – it contains social comedy, romance and drama and has some kind of relationship with melodrama as well as a sense of surrealism and possibly mystery. There is no reason why a classification should be easy to make but here there is an uncomfortable mixture that needs a highly skilled director to keep everything in check. Ernesto Contreras is a first time feature director (of his brother’s script) and I wonder if this is the problem?

The two protagonists are Marina, a 30-something sales assistant in a store selling uniforms for catering staff and Victor, a man of a similar age working as an office assistant in a large insurance company. Their meeting and subsequent conventional dates – a picnic, cinema trip, dancing etc. could have formed the basis for an uneventful courtship drama, but one given an emotional charge by their desperation and the opportunities for a kind of grim comedy. However, the story is framed by another narrative, that of Marina’s elderly employer, a woman who was herself saved from a desperate marriage by her ‘magical’ discovery of sewing skills and an entrepreneurial spirit. The ‘inciting incident’ in the narrative is the employer’s decision to offer a prize draw for all her employees with a two-week beach holiday for two as the prize. Marina wins the draw (made by a pet caged bird) and has to find a partner for the holiday.

As I struggled to read the film, I was troubled by two concerns. The first was the overall filming style. It did look as if director, cinematographer and editor had a specific approach in mind that involved fairly muted colours for the interiors, a play with shallow fields of focus and occasional pull backs to long shots. But quite a lot of the time, this didn’t work. In the picnic scene I waited for some significance to the long shots of traffic, but apart from showing what a poor choice of picnic spot it was, I couldn’t see any reason for the shot selection. In other restaurant scene, I have to agree with Nick that camerawork and editing were simply poorly executed.

My other problem is perhaps tied up with my own perceptions of Mexican cinema – my expectations have been heightened by films that are generally melodramas, political satires or horror/thrillers. The device of bookending the narrative with the employer’s story (heavily dependent on the caged-bird metaphor) meant that I was looking for the slightly surreal/mystery element that you might find in one of Saki’s short stories or in one of Buñuel’s Mexican films. Probably it isn’t there, but I’m still not sure.

Blue Eyelids (Marina wears make-up for the climactic date) won a couple of festival awards and several reviewers have praised the film highly. I’m not sorry I watched it, but I suspect that it wouldn’t stand too much close scrutiny in a second viewing.

¡Hola! India?

Galeriasdiana

A Cinépolis multiplex in Acapulco (public domain image from Wikipedia)

The big news in the global exhibition market this week is the announcement that the largest cinema chain in Latin America, Cinépolis of Mexico, is to open up to 500 cinema screens in India. The initial launch is of 110 screens in multiplexes of 10 screens or more in eight Indian cities (Indian multiplexes are mostly less than ten screens).

Cinépolis is the fifth largest cinema chain in the world but has previously not moved beyond Central and South America. If the launch is carried through it will introduce a major overseas player into the Indian market and will potentially challenge the ways in which Indian distribution and exhibition has operated (the Indian cinema sector has recently experienced a stand-off between Bollywood producers and multiplexes with new product not reaching many screens).

The Mexican company was founded in 1947 and has recently been seen as an innovator. It has both upmarket (‘VIP’) and low-cost cinema brands that could be introduced alongside its standard multiplexes. Mexico is one of the international territories that has recently seen an increase in admissions to over 170 million per year. This is dwarfed by the 3 billion Indian admissions annually, but it still places Mexico in the Top 5 cinema markets.

Nouvelle Vague Directors: Jacques Demy

Jacques Demy and Jeanne Moreau on location for Baie des anges © Raymond CAUCHETIER / 1993 CINE TAMARIS

Jacques Demy and Jeanne Moreau on location on the Riviera for Baie des anges © Raymond CAUCHETIER / 1993 CINE TAMARIS

Jacques Demy (1931-1990) is the New Wave director who, like Louis Malle, is difficult to categorise. Some link him to the ‘Left Bank Group’, but this is primarily because he married Agnès Varda in 1962. Otherwise he had little in common with the politics of Alain Resnais or Chris Marker. In some ways he was closer to Truffaut and he certainly knew all the Cahiers gang, presumably via Varda or from his film school contacts. There were several distinctive aspects of Demy’s cinema which made it ‘personal’ and ‘different’.

Demy was fascinated by American Cinema – but by musicals rather than B films noirs. Nearly all of his films present a romance drawing in some way on the musicals of the 1940s and 1950s. He was also a fan of various aspects of classical French Cinema and French popular music culture. Demy was a native of the West Coast of France in the region around Nantes and this coastline provided the backdrop for his best known films, Lola (1961), Les parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) and Les demoiselles de Rochefort in 1967. These films draw on various Hollywood sources – On the Town (1949), the Stanley Donen film about sailors on leave in New York is an obvious influence on Lola. The stars of Demy’s New Wave films are the women (and the music of Michel Legrand). In his first four films these are Anouk Aimée, Jean Moreau, Catherine Deneuve and Deneuve again with her sister Françoise Dorléac. By 1967 he had a full star cast – Danielle Darrieux, Michel Piccoli, George Chakiris and Gene Kelly. Demy moved to the US to make Model Shop in 1969 and after this his career foundered. The early quartet of films have survived however and are well worth watching, both for their own specific qualities and because they represent a different side to the New Wave.

Demy’s second film was La baie des anges (Bay of Angels 1963). Jeanne Moreau as a platinum blonde is a bourgeois wife with a gambling habit. The film starts with a typical New Wave tracking shot by Jean Rabier (who had been an assistant to Henri Decaë on Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’énchafaud (1958) before shooting several films for Chabrol and then for Varda and Demy). The camera appears to be mounted on a car or truck which is driven at speed along the deserted promenades of the Riviera. It reminded me of Jean Vigo’s ‘city symphony’ film A propos de Nice (1929) photographed by Boris Kaufman. The action then switches to Paris where a young man in a boring accountancy job is persuaded to visit a casino by a colleague. When he wins a considerable amount on the roulette table, Jean (Claude Mann) decides to change his holiday plans and instead of visiting relatives in the country he finds a hotel in Cannes and starts to visit the casino. Here he meets Jackie (Moreau) who he had briefly seen earlier being thrown out of a Parisian casino.

The main part of the film is a melodrama about sex and money. Jean and Jeanne have a tempestuous and whirlwind affair driven by the thrill of gambling with its intense highs and lows and moments of exhilaration and despair. There is passion and indeed violence in the relationship and the narrative has an ‘open’ ending that is quite abrupt. What this points to is the curious mixture of ‘fantasy romance’ and cold realism that seems to infuse the films I’ve watched.

I enjoyed Baie des anges. At times I thought to myself, “there isn’t much plot”, but at the same time I realised that I was engrossed by the rich texture of the images and the way in which the narrative unfolded. Moreau is a star actor, but I wasn’t completely convinced by Claude Mann. Sometimes he appeared perfect for the role and sometimes out of his depth. Jeanne Moreau’s hair was my main concern. I presume that it was meant to signify ‘artifice’/’brittleness’. I certainly didn’t like it, but it worked in the sense that it somehow enhanced Moreau’s extraordinary ability to look soft and alluring one moment and hard and frankly terrifying at others.

I’m hoping to watch more from Demy soon. In the meantime, there is a clip from Baie des Anges on an earlier posting here

Senses of Cinema article and links.

Bonnie and Clyde 2: Genre and New Wave

Ever since Nick posted a short piece on Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and its links to the French New Wave, we’ve been inundated with visitors searching for ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ – and some days 20-25% of hits on the blog have been associated with the title.

BonnieClyde

Was this a 'wired photo'? (from Wikipedia, public domain).

Recently I heard a short item on the radio about a new book on the couple: Go down together: the true, untold story of Bonnie and Clyde by Jeff Guinn. The book further debunks the myth of what were essentially a pair of inept criminals who would not have received any attention without the power of narrative in news reporting. In other words, there was little in what they did, but a great deal in how it was reported. Two of Guinn’s points seem remarkably topical. One was that this was the period (early 1930s) when the wired news photo was becoming the first medium to allow visual communication quickly over national and international networks. In some ways, the parallel today has been the the rapid take-up of mobile phone images as part of ‘citizen journalism’ around the time of 9/11. Guinn uses the example of Bonnie Parker photographed smoking a cigar as an iconic image.

Guinn’s other point in the radio interview was the antipathy of most ordinary people towards a banking system in 1930s America which was collapsing and abandoning savers – sounds familiar? In this context, the two criminals took on the role of folk heroes.

All of this makes me think about the ingredients of the Bonnie and Clyde story and the power of a generic narrative. I was about to suggest that the French New Wave connection is possibly overemphasised in the explanation for the success of the 1967 film. But when I think about it, Jean-Luc Godard was spot on with his line that all you need to make a movie is “a girl and a gun”, something that he proved several times over in films ostensibly about a young couple on the run (but often, of course, about a lot more).

As far as Hollywood is concerned the generic line of boy/girl on the run includes:

They Live by Night (Nicholas Ray, 1948)

Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950)

Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)

A French DVD cover for one of the most underrated films of the late, great Robert Altman (with terrific use of 1930s radio broadcasts)

A French DVD cover for one of the most underrated films of the late, great Robert Altman (with terrific use of 1930s radio broadcasts)

Thieves Like Us (Robert Altman, 1974 – from the same novel as They Live by Night)

Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994)

and no doubt several more titles, some of which will overlap with other repertoires (e.g. True Romance (Tony Scott, 1993) and The Getaway, Sam Peckinpah, 1972) and some, like Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991), that transform it completely.

Anyone want to suggest other titles and indicate how they utilise the various genre repertoires?

Microwave in London: Shifty (UK 2008)

shifty2

Daniel Mays and Riz Ahmed on the poster for Shifty

In the last few years, the production budgets of UK films have been falling. The median figure of £2-3 million from a few years ago has become £1-2 million and many films are now being made for less. The expansion is in films which in industry parlance are ‘micro-budget’ and ‘no budget’. Two recent UK Film Council reports provide excellent research material on this trend. Shifty, written and directed by Eran Creevy was produced under the aegis of London Film’s ‘Microwave’ scheme. The Regional Screen Agency for London devised the scheme in order to widen participation and access for young London-based filmmakers. It offers support to make a film which must have only 18 days shooting and a budget of less than £100,000. So far, London Films has greenlit seven productions and currently has a fourth bidding period in which to find three more projects by June 26, 2009.

Shifty is the second Microwave film to get a release. It opened ‘wide’ on 51 prints on April 24 through independent distributor Metrodome, taking £61,000. After three weeks it was down to 12 prints after taking over £131,00. That might not sound much, but for a very small film it is an encouraging return and Metrodome must hope that they will more than double that revenue from the subsequent DVD release.

But is a ‘micro-budget’ film worth watching? Yes, is the short answer. ‘Shifty’ is the nickname of a young British Asian who we meet early in the film when he opens the door in his outer London suburb to his old schoolfriend Chris come back down from Manchester for a party. Chris soon discovers that Shifty has become the local drugs dealer. We discover that Chris left under a cloud of some sort . Over the next 24 hours we expect to see Shifty extricate himself from possible disaster in his dealing circle and Chris come to terms with why he left and what his friendship with Shifty still means to him.

So, rule one for low budget filmmaking in this context is to have a ‘tight’ script. In this film, the action is condensed into 24 hours and there are only around a dozen speaking parts and one primary location with a couple of brief motorway sequences. These restrictions keep down costs and impose some discipline on the filmmakers. In fact it’s sometimes argued that the real creativity in filmmaking comes from the ability to take simple ingredients and use them effectively.

Shifty succeeds, I think, for a number of reasons. First, the acting talent on show is high-class even if the budget is low. The two leads are amongst the best of young British talent. Riz Ahmed was in Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross’ Road to Guantanamo. He also has a music career. Daniel Mays has been around for a while on TV and in high profile films such as Vera Drake, Atonement and Red Riding. Jason Flemyng who plays Shifty’s immediate ‘superior’ in the drug pipeline has been in many UK and Hollywood films including The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Second, the script and the camerawork are not over-ambitious. I’ve nothing against hand-held camerawork and witty dialogue, but striving hard to achieve an ‘effect’ in a well known genre when you have limited experience is taking a big gamble. As it is, the film is about the right length, so the narrative is sustained in its grip on the audience and provides an interesting twist (OK if you are one of those genre die-hards who always has to guess the ending, you’ll probably see this one coming, but for most of us, it will work).

Eran Creevy is a first time writer/director who has been working on film crews around London for the last five years. His DoP Ed Wild has been shooting films for around ten years and between them they have used the limited location opportunities well. Clearing streets and bringing in extras or, conversely, taking a guerilla crew out into crowded locations sets up production problems requiring money and expertise in the production team. Here , the scenes were seemingly shot early in the morning on deserted streets (and motorways). The result is a suburb with little life beyond the central action. This isn’t social realism. But it does represent what is to my taste the soulless suburban sprawl of much of  South East England. The film is located in a fictitious community, actually filmed in Harlow, Creevy’s home town. It isn’t the ‘inner city’, rather ‘crack in the suburbs’. There are one or two interesting compositions (such as the one linking a young mother using a pregnancy test with her two small children playing across the corridor) but mainly the action carries the narrative rather than the mise en scène.

Music is something else that costs, but films like this offer opportunities to composers and performers. The partnership responsible for this film are Harry Escott and Molly Nyman (daughter of Michael) who already have an impressive list of credits linking again to Michael Winterbottom and Brad Pitt. I confess that in the first part of the film, I was irritated by the music, but later on it seemed to work. I guess I’m not the target audience, however. On a first viewing, I thought that was a scene that didn’t work in terms of editing, but a second viewing suggests that I was wrong. On the whole, the editing is tight and the script works very well. It needs to because on low budget productions like this there isn’t time to go back and reshoot scenes if the editing won’t work.

At times the film did remind me of the hours I once spent watching student films (often shot on estates like this). But this is a superior first film that deserves exposure and I hope to use it in my teaching. My companions at the screening certainly viewed it as solid entertainment.

Resources

Film Education have some useful material for students and teachers. Interestingly the Metrodome person being interviewed on the site refers to the film as belonging to the ‘urban genre’ (like Adulthood/Kidulthood and Bullet Boy). I take it that this is a term borrowed from the black music genre (what used to be soul, r & b etc.?), also known as ‘urban’.

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‘Can Do’ Cannes 2009?

Ken Loach and Eric Cantona working on 'Looking for Eric'

Ken Loach and Eric Cantona working on 'Looking for Eric'


International art cinema is in crisis according to several sources. With less money to risk on distribution deals, US distributors will make conservative choices and the number of international pick-ups will fall. The major studios have already started looking at their commitments and last year Warner Brothers closed their specialty divisions.

I’m not sure whether in the long run this is what will happen, but it’s interesting that Cannes this year is fielding the biggest line-up of A List arthouse auteurs for some time. I’m more excited about what might be coming our way than I have been for several years. In particular I’m looking out for the following films in the official competition:

Looking for Eric – Ken Loach

Fish Tank – Andrea Arnold

Map of the Sounds of Tokyo – Isabel Poixet

Une prophète – Jacques Audiard 

Thirst – Park Chan-Wook

I’m not going to suggest that one of these five will win or that the films of the other major directors such as Jane Campion, Pedro Almodóvar, Ang Lee etc. won’t be just as enjoyable. I can say that I’m not going to rush to see the work of Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier or Quentin Tarantino, although I’m sure that this trio will command most of the press attention. It’s just a matter of taste, so I’ll be interested to see what a stir they make, even if I don’t particularly want to watch them.

My choice of five is easy to explain. I’ll always support Ken and his latest film, again written by Paul Laverty and this time with football ‘action philosopher’ legend, Eric Cantona, despite its Man U connections sounds just like vintage Loach. Red Road, Andrea Arnold’s first feature was a real event in UK Cinema and I’ve been looking out for the follow-up. I can’t find out much about the film except that it doesn’t seem to be the adaptation of a novel that I was expecting. It does, however, sound like a film about working class women in South London and the disruption caused by the arrival of Europe’s young actor of the moment, Michael Fassbender. Isabel Poixet’s Tokyo-set thriller sounds intriguing since she quotes various Japanese novelists as inspirations in the press pack and I’m a sucker for aspects of Japanese literary fiction.

Jacques Audiard

Jacques Audiard

If I’m honest, the film that really has me salivating is the Jacques Audiard polar, Une prophète. Based on an idea by Abdel Raouf Dafri, it is about a young Arab who joins a Corsican criminal gang in prison and then starts his own rival organisation. Audiard’s previous four films were all excellent and it is ironic that in the year when we are celebrating 50 years since the New Wave, Audiard is one of the leading French auteurs. His father was one of the great screen writers of la tradition de qualité in France in the 1950s – the the tradition so despised by Truffaut et al. It’s also interesting that the French crime film seems to be back again.

Finally, Thirst re-unites Park Chan-wook and Song Kang-ho, two of the central figures in Korean Cinema, in a film which brings together that genre combination de jour, the vampire romance, with a plot line that involves a virus in the blood and a trip to Africa. The film is a Korean/US co-production and this should ensure that it gets a proper release in Europe and North America. It’s already a big hit in South Korea.

I just hope that these films fulfil their promise and get a decent release worldwide. I’m interested in both popular and arthouse films from around the world and if Cannes 2009 can raise the profile of great filmmakers with significant films it will indeed be a ‘can do’ festival.

Genova (UK 2008)

Will Holland as the older daughter, Kelly, in Genova

Will Holland as the older daughter, Kelly, in Genova

Having thought that I’d missed Genova, I managed to catch it in France where it is titled Un été Italian. I seem to have spent a long time extolling the virtues of Michael Winterbottom and defending him in the face of indifference or hostility. As a result, I was a little worried about seeing this feature which has hung around since last Summer before getting a release. It hasn’t helped that the only Winterbottom films that have been deemed commercially successful tend to be those that for me are his least interesting, such as A Cock and Bull Story (UK 2005). It’s a relief then that Genova is a big return to form for Winterbottom fans – and of course another commercial disaster.

For most reviewers, Winterbottom’s main distinguishing feature as a director is that he constantly moves from one genre to another and can’t be pinned down. The implication is that this is a problem, rather than an indication that Winterbottom is an auteur filmmaker who makes films for his own reasons. If he does draw on genre repertoires, it isn’t usually in order to frame a story in genre terms. For mainstream audiences this presents a real problem in that the films do not offer conventional structures – or rather they do not fulfil the expectations that generic story structures set up. This is certainly true of Genova, which perhaps has less ‘plot’ than any other Winterbottom film and instead offers the most intense and emotional representation of a brief period in the lives of the central characters.

If Genova draws on any generic repertoire, it is the current cycle of psychological horror/ghost stories, but its clearest referent is not a modern Japanese or Spanish film but Nic Roeg’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story Don’t Look Now (UK 1973). In that classic film Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland are a couple who are deeply in love, but grief-stricken over the death of one of their children. When they visit Venice they are disturbed by a sense of foreboding in fleeting sightings of a mysterious figure. In Genova, a university lecturer (Colin Firth) loses his wife in a car crash which his two daughters survive. He decides to take the girls to the Northern Italian city of Genoa/Genova for the Summer to help with the grieving process. The comparison between the two films is valid but not helpful towards an understanding of what Genova is actually about. Don’t Look Now is a genuine melodrama/thriller with conscious attempts to draw in an audience through the strength of the bond between the parents and the sheer terror that threatens them in the potentially supernatural mise en scène of the dark canals. Genova is much more circumspect about what constitutes a ‘ghost’ and is in many ways a supremely realist film. In fact, it made me think about another film concerning grief on a trip through Italy – Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (Italy 1953).

I’ve called Winterbottom an auteur, but I’m sure he would also credit the authorial contributions of his collaborators. The other ways to approach Genova are via its writer Laurence Coriat and its familiar crew members, especially Marcel Zyskind as cinematographer. Laurence Coriat wrote my favourite Michael Winterbottom film, Wonderland (UK 1999). She is also working with Winterbottom on a long-term project featuring Wonderland‘s John Simm and Shirley Henderson and on a film with Marc Evans, a long-time friend of Winterbottom and Andrew Eaton and the Revolution Films set-up. Coriat is almost an ‘in-house’ writer and with the usual suspects on set, it would seem that Genova must have had a sense of coherence as a project. Having said that, Winterbottom’s shooting strategy and Eaton’s approach to squeezing every drop out of the tightest of budgets must always make shooting a film like this extremely demanding.

The production set-up recalls Code 46 (2003) which also featured a North American star (Tim Robbins) plunged into the world of low-budget ‘guerilla filmmaking’ on the streets of Shanghai. Robbins was not too impressed by the rigours of the shooting method but Catherine Keener in Genova seems more receptive in interviews. Code 46 is a lot more plot driven, but both films tend to have narrative ‘gaps’ that audiences are expected to fill and endings which are very open. I like this and it doesn’t cause me problems.

Colin Firth now lives in Italy so presumably he found himself on solid ground. Catherine Keener plays a friend, an old classmate from Harvard, who works in Genoa. She helps widower Joe and his two girls travel to the city and arranges a temporary post for him at the university. Keener is a well-known in American Independent Cinema. The two girls are played by Willa Holland and Perla Haney-Jardine (who I later discovered I’d seen in the US remake of Dark Water). I think that Firth is meant to be a Brit, though I didn’t really reflect on this as globe-trotting academics are pretty common these days. The low budget production includes a winter driving scene in Sweden and some UK work as well as a Chicago street scene and the main shoot in Italy. The only production issues for me were the casting of Kerry Shale (nice man, but aren’t there any other American actors in the UK – his presence makes me think of plays on Radio 4) and the use of Ryanair as the airline flying into Genoa (from the US?). The real benefit of course is the freedom to shoot in the Zyskind style.

What this means in terms of the emotional feel of the film is the disorientation brought on by hand-held ‘Scope camerawork with sometimes jarring cutting. Everything is filmed in available light, so we linger in darkened rooms or move between dark and light with all the problems of re-adjusting. This makes the film quite uncomfortable to watch, but matches the numbness and lack of focus felt by the characters. The architecture of Genoa also plays a part as characters (i.e. the girls) have to follow a route through narrow alleyways. Zyskind tilts the camera up to show us the bright sky struggling to reach down into the narrow alleys as the girls wonder where they are. This effect matches that of Christie in Sutherland in the similarly dark alleys and canals of Venice. The effect also carries over into a sequence in the woods close to the beach where another search takes place.

In a sense, Genova is an ‘anti-melodrama’. The characters get angry, but mostly their emotions are pushed down. So much in fact that I’ve seen complaints that the Firth character is a ‘bad father’ who seems indifferent to his wife’s death and unconcerned about what is happening to his children. I think he’s shown as behaving in the way many English men would. He suppresses emotion. In a melodrama, this would then ‘return’ to be expressed as an emotional release in some way, but here Winterbottom constructs a narrative with cold realism and the result for me was devastating. I’ve never really rated Firth before (I’m afraid I’ve generally ignored him) but here I thought he was excellent. Two crucial scenes with Catherine Keener struck me as the most psychologically ‘real’ I’ve seen for a long time. Here’s a movie I’d recommend to anyone prepared to question their own emotional responses to film narratives.