Sally Potter in Conversation @ BIFF

Age doesn't wither

Age doesn’t wither

Sally Potter was the recipient of the Bradford International Film Festival Fellowship, awarded after ‘Sally Potter in Conversation’ with Rona Murray. Potter’s certainly a worthy holder of the award and proved engaging in conversation. We know that women struggle in the resolutely sexist film industry and Potter, because she works on the fringes of the mainstream, must surely find it even harder than most of her sex to get her films made. The fact that she’s built up a substantial body of work, all screened during the festival, is a testament to her determination, as well as that of her producers.

Potter and producer Christopher Sheppard, who was also in attendance, set up Adventure Pictures in 1988 and the conversation was illustrated by extracts, provided by the company. I’m sure that even those, in the sizeable audience, that were unfamiliar with Potter’s work would have gained much from her observations. Particularly interesting were the ‘behind the scenes’ footage of the screen tests, including Quentin Crisp for Orlando, and examples of the 2000 girls who, via Facebook, submitted their own tests for Ginger and Rosa; though none were cast.

The conversation offered an insight into Potter’s way of working, which very much concerns getting close to actors to build mutual trust. Potter has managed to work with an impressive array of talent, given the non-commercial bent of her cinema; she says that she’s only failed to get ‘on’ with one (who remains nameless). In the Q & A, that followed the conversation, she was asked about the formal experimentation of her films; she replied that was rooted in her London Film Maker’s Co-op background. The fact that everyone, including Julie Christie, was paid £25 a day on her first feature, The Goldiggers (1983), suggests her political orientation, as does her feminism. Though, she noted somewhat ruefully, that didn’t mean some on the set didn’t work much longer hours than others. I was surprised to learn that Goldiggers was the first British feature directed by a woman since World War II; and shocked to hear that Barry Norman, on the BBC Film Night programme, likened Potter to Dr Johnson’s quip about a dog on hind legs. Yes, the industry is still sexist but not as bad as it was 30 years ago.

When asked if being able to draw on recognised ‘talent’ made it easier to get funding for her films I was surprised to hear that it was only a ‘marginal’ advantage. Then again, it’s true that the influence of Hollywood stars are in decline, with the rise of special effects ‘spectaculars’ dominating what’s bankable.

Mention was made of Potter’s new book, Naked Cinema: Working with Actors, which is described as the book she would have liked to have read when she started making films. That in itself is enough reason to read it.

As to the awarding of the award: it was a little anti-climactic, it was more thrust upon her; though Potter’s short acceptance speech was entirely gracious,

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In the Line of Duty, series 2 (UK, 2014)

Beyond reasonable doubt?

Beyond reasonable doubt?

It concerns me, as it should, that I can’t remember whether I’ve seen the first season of Jed Mecurio’s ‘corrupt cop’ series. That’s why I blog; lest I forget. I didn’t blog about it so I probably didn’t see it but I should have done. Series two was extremely good, up until the final episode. They, reportedly, had to add a scene to the finished final episode to make it clear what had happened; I’m still vague. And the documentary style, ‘what happened to them afterwards captions’ added to the impression that the episode was rushed; which it was.

Enough cavilling, it was an excellent contribution to the genre and is a worthy successor to Between the Lines (1992-4) in focusing on the cops that watch the cops. The cast is peerless, with special emphasis on Keeley Hawes who looks as bad as she feels. She was dramatically convincing; actors are too often shot for glamour even in desperate circumstances. I saw a cinema trailer for Channel 4’s forthcoming period drama New Worlds and I’m unconvinced already as the protagonists all possessed modern ‘glamour’.

Between the Lines lost the plot in series three, but there are plenty of dangling ends of dramatic tension hanging around in In the Line of Duty to suggest that it will be a success.

Only Lovers Left Alive (UK-Germany-France-Cyprus-USA, 2013)

Staying alive

Staying alive

This film has that rare beast: a good trailer. I’m not a Jim Jarmusch fan, though I admire anyone with an independent sensibility, so I may not have gone if they trailer hadn’t looked as good. And it was the look that mattered, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston give off a wonderful other-worldly ambience which, as vampires, they should. Although it is a vampire movie, it only draws on the basic tropes of the genre and Jarmusch meditates upon modernity.

Although ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ is the motto of a fogey, at a time when politicians squabble over taking credit for an energy company’s freezing of prices, it might be the only one that makes sense. In the UK, PM Cameron, and his opposite number Miliband, seemed not to notice that the energy company was not sacrificing profits in the freeze, but jobs and wind farms. Hiddleston’s Adam moans about zombies (humans) and he’s right to do so. There is an ‘end game’ to life at the beginning of the 21st century as climate change-induced calamities start to pile up with no sign that there’s a will, in politicians or the public, to seriously address the issue. There’s a fin de siecle feel to the film’s narrative too: even blood isn’t what it used to be.

Adam, a drone musician, with a dash of Krautrock, is holed up in decaying Detroit; a post-industrial landscape that epitomises decay and decadence. There can be fewer real surreal sights as the Michigan theatre that’s now a car park. His lover, Swinton’s Eve, lives in the far more vibrant Tangiers, getting her hits from supplier Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). And this is the weakest aspect of the film; the canard that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s plays is repeated as fact and this, along with the name dropping of characters from history (Byron, Mary Wolstencroft et al), alters the tone of the film, suggesting that we aren’t meant to be taking it seriously. Except, it’s clear we are.

Mia Wasikowska does a terrific turn as the errant sister, suggesting that her talent will take her far. But the star of the film is production designer Marco Bittner Rosser, Bina Daigeler’s costumes and Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography.

Orlando (UK-Russia-Italy-France-Netherlands, 1992)

Gender bent

Gender bent

Sally Potter’s celebrated 1992 is on at the BIFF next week, as is Ms Potter herself. 20 years after its first release, albeit on a poor DVD copy, the film seemed to me to somewhat dated; though why I’m struggling to fathom. Maybe it was Tilda Swinton’s/Orlando’s constant breaking of the ‘fourth wall’, a Brechtian device to ensure we are thinking about what we’re watching, was a contributory factor. If I’m sounding critical, I don’t mean to be, as the film is excellent in its feminist outlook, performances and set design.

Orlando skips through the centuries, from 1600 until now, and across genders, engaging us in Elizabeth’s court (a superbly cast Quentin Crisp above), a colonial adventure in ‘Arabia’, and – as a woman – being the butt of patronising men of literature.

The narrative might sound SF, but it’s time traveling protagonist is an obvious didactic device rather than a narrative one. By 1992, the ‘now’, Orlando has become a dynamic, and independent, mother; though still patronised (by her publisher). Maybe this is where I feel the film has dated; now (2014) feminism is as needed as much as it was in the 1980s. If we read the film’s conclusion as a triumph for Orlando, then the last 20 years can only have been a disappointment.

As usual, Tilda Swinton, is a powerful presence and Potter stretches her £2m budget brilliantly. There are some great ‘frozen Thames’ scenes, shot in Uzbekistan. Billy Zane is well cast as the paper thin character hunk who must ‘adventure’ elsewhere.

Orlando is the film that put Potter on the (near) mainstream map and allowed her to attract ‘talent’ (such as Depp) for her later films. It’s a period piece, with added time travel, and a piece from when feminism had made great strides. I think now we have gone backwards.

Wake in Fright (Aus, 1971)

Watch in fright

Watch in fright

This is a literally rediscovered film; the editor, Anthony Buckley, tracked down a useable negative which led to this terrific restored digital print. And it was certainly well worth rediscovering. As a teacher, under Education Secretary Gove’s ridiculous rule, I often feel victimised however protagonist John Grant is forced to teach in the outback or pay his $1000 bond back. My predicament pales in comparison. Canadian director, Ted Kotcheff, summarises the Outback with the opening 360-degree pan so we can see he is, literally, in the middle of nowhere. As Sight & Sound put it, such overwhelming spaces entrap more than liberate. On his way to Sydney, for a holiday, Grant gets caught up in a gambling game, in the hope of clearing his debt, which is the prelude to a nightmarish weekend.

Wake in Fright flopped commercially on its original release, probably because the mirror it holds up to the machismo of the ‘loveable’ Aussie ‘larrikin’ is not flattering. As one character says of Bond: ‘Would he rather talk to a woman than drink beer?’ The character, by the way, is played by that stalwart of the Australian film industry, Jack Thompson, in his first film. Directors of the subsequent Australian ‘new wave’, however, hailed the film’s influence. If you’re interested in Australian cinema, check out the new edition of Senses of Cinema. We follow Bond on his journey where he’s confronted by his bourgeois sensibilities, similar to the narrative of Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) but far more harrowing. Central to this is a kangaroo hunt that is shot as it actually happened (independently of the film it has to be said). A note at the film’s end says that the scene was included after consultation with animal welfare groups; kangaroos are now an endangered species.

The brilliant Donald Pleasance lends his malign presences as the Doc, the man who Grant might become. Pleasance’s eyes look demonic without even trying. Another Aussie icon, Chips Rafferty in his final film, plays the local cop who takes Grant under his wing when he first arrives in the ‘city’ (really a town). It’s a classic western scene, a stranger in town entering a bar but the ‘sheriff’ plies our protagonist with beer rather than warning him to behave. It’s such moments that play against expectation, later it’s the sexual tension between Grant and the daughter of another deranged character, that make the film as unsettling as it is.

It’s one of the few films to have played Cannes twice; on its release and, in 2009. If you’re after a nightmare ride or want to catch a missing movie of Australian cinema, here’s your chance.

The Bay (US, 2012)

Genuinely chilling

Genuinely chilling

Although 1998’s The Blair Witch project pioneered the ‘found footage’ movie, it’s only recently that the form has thrived as the ubiquity of mobile phones and CCTV have made it easier to justify the existence of the footage. This Barry Levinson directed eco-horror is probably the best that I’ve seen, including Clovefield and REC. The monster is pollution-caused mutations in Chesapeake Bay, which the internet tells me does have ‘dead zones’. It’s July 4th, the all-American celebration, and a seaside town, similar to that in Jaws, doesn’t know what’s about to hit them.

The horror is helped by the ‘found footage’ form but is mostly generated by the… well, I won’t spoil. The source of the monsters, environmental disaster, reminds us of the creature-features on the 1950s where atomic radiation was the source of, for example, giant ants in Them! (1954). Even though such mutations didn’t come about, the force of the films’, to warn against atomic power, still remained. And so it will with eco-disaster movies, as we continue to fail to react, in a meaningful way, to our impact on the environment. We continue in the ‘age of stupid‘.

Bastards (Les salauds, France-Germany, 2013)

Tortured, and torturing, men

Tortured, and torturing, men

It’s 40 years since Chinatown reinvigorated film noir with more explicit representations of violence and cynicism. Claire Denis’ contribution to neo noir, based in part on William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, foregrounds male complicity with the darkness of the genre. If, in classic noir, the femme was the ‘mame to blame’, here men are – in the main – scumbags of the highest order. This is even mostly true of our protagonist, moodily played by Vincent Lindon who, at least, seems to be motivated by goodness.

I found the plot typically noirish, it had me peering into the dark to fathom what was going on; my viewing partner, however, had no such problem. But then maybe her gender, female, meant it made sense to her. I’ll try not to ‘spoil’ but my first reaction was the the depraved coda was unnecessary as we already knew what had happened. In retrospect I think Denis was right to include it; it was more, I think, I just didn’t want to see it at the time having been mired in the darkness of Bastards for 100-odd minutes. Now, it makes sense to have done so.

Denis’ films are always worth seeing and can be one of the view directors that can be considered an auteur; a point made by Roy Stafford in his introduction to the film. Roy was launching his excellent The Global Film Book which I can recommend to anyone interested in cinema.

For cineastes

For cineastes