The Other Side of the Wind (Iran-France-US, 2018)

What to make of it?

An Orson Welles film over 40 years in the making (he’s been dead for over 30 of them), The Other Side of the Wind is an extraordinary gasp of a great filmmaker from beyond the grave. Of course it’s unclear how much of the film is Welles’, though he’d edited 42 minutes, it fell to Bob Murawski to put it together with the help of many and, crucially, Netflix’s investment. Netflix is a villain (it’s difficult to see Roma in cinemas in the UK and no doubt in most places) but a hero in the case of Welles’ final breath.

I watched the film knowing little about its content and it’s both easy to watch, the visuals and editing are often outstanding, and difficult to follow. I shall have to see it again having now ‘done the reading’. John Huston, in brilliant form, is playing a Welles-like character (though significantly Welles distances himself by not playing the role) of a director returning to Los Angeles, after making movies in Europe, and is trying to get funding to finish his film. What could be a postmodern conceit is elevated by the artistry; there’s no doubting that, even though stylistically the film is very different from his other work, the director is a genius. So we should take it as a Welles film and applaud those who brought it to the screen.

Despite not playing the lead, the film is clearly autobiographical: Susan Strasberg plays a Pauline Kael type of critic allowing Huston’s Jake Hannaford to take verbal pot shots at her (Welles and Kael feuded) and there are some appearances by filmmakers, such as Dennis Hopper and Henry Jaglom, as themselves thus mixing up the real and unreal. Added to the mix is the film Hannaford is making, a parody of later Antonioni, featuring Welles’ partner (and co-screenwriter) Oja Kodar as a Native American and usually undressed. This is mixed with documentary-like footage of the party hosted by Hannaford to raise money. Peter Bogdanovich plays an up-and-coming director (as he was after The Last Picture Show, 1971) who previously hero-worshiped the director (again an autobiographical element). Some of the film is in black and white, and the aspect ratios vary, to indicate the different sources of the footage.

As I’ve said, I need to see the film again but the first viewing had enough breathtaking moments to satisfy. For example, a swirl of red dust blows across the screen to reveal Kodar’s ‘The Actress’ and Wellesian ‘cut on movement’ is evident throughout creating dynamic transitions.

As an epitaph it’s a remarkably different film from the expressionism that preceded it and so a testament to Welles’ creative vitality. It was worth the wait. (Netflix)

Inuyashiki (Japan, 2018) – LIFF4

A bad day at the office

Sato Shinsuke’s adaptation of Oku Hiroya’s manga utilises modern CGI to render the ‘impossible’ but the visuals rarely engross. The ‘underdog bites back’ is a well trodden narrative but there can be fewer lower canines that Kinashi Noritake’s titular salaryman who his family hates and for whom unemployment looms. There’s some pleasure in seeing ‘old dads as superheroes’ but it is a film of missed opportunities.

An unknown, presumably extraterrestrial, encounter transforms Inuyashiki into a sort of Tetsuo (a trilogy directed by Tsukamoto Shin’ya) with the iron bits built in; however there’s no body horror. Alienated teen, Shishigami Hiro (Satô Takeru), experiences the same transformation but decides to use his powers for evil whilst Inuyashiki frequents hospital corridors saving the terminally ill. A perfect set up to consider ‘evil’ and ‘good’ I thought but this is dispensed with in the pyrotechnics that follow an overlong set up. It’s not that the film isn’t enjoyable, but the potential of the narrative was unrealised.

Satô is brilliant as the cold-eyed killer but Kinashi is a little one-note as the turning worm. In fact, he doesn’t turn very much, he remains meek throughout and his reconciliation with his daughter was (to my western eyes) mawkish.

There’s a slightly ridiculous coda that’s intended to set up a sequel (apparently there are two in the works) and hopefully they offer something for the mind and not just the eye.

Peterloo (UK, 2018)

Words not actions

Mike Leigh was quite right to say that the Peterloo massacre should be taught in schools and he should be credited with bringing it to the screen; however it would have been better with a different writer and director. Leigh allows the film to be carried, up to the massacre, by speeches made by reformers. In the way of middle class Victorians, who never used one word if they could squeeze in ten, there’s a lot of rhetoric. This does give a sense of authenticity, Leigh made his name with ‘realist’ portrayals of the working class, but it also induces extreme torpor in the spectator.

Worse, Leigh’s weakness for caricature, which always marred his representations of the working class for me, leads to distracting characters such as Tim McInnerny’s Prince Regent. Caricature is used for humorous satire and whilst I don’t doubt that the Prince was a buffoon his words are sufficient to damn him; his presentation as a preening peacock is distracting and Ian Mercer’s Dr. Joseph Healey is straight out of the Leigh’s catalogue of the ridiculous grotesque. Worse, to ensure we understand the Salford Yeomanry were drunk before they commenced to slaughter the demonstrators, we are shown them toasting by flinging their beer into the air three times. Apart from the fact that I doubt Northerners would waste their ale in such a way, it has the impact of a sledgehammer entirely unnecessary for the narrative point. Sure, melodrama is about exaggeration and excess but this was plain stupid.

In addition, just as the slaughter is about to commence, Maxine Peake’s character complains she can’t hear the speaker. Fair enough, but the way it is shot evokes Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (UK, 1979) (‘blessed are the cheesemakers’); to introduce farce at this moment was farcical.

There’s more: Leigh cannot direct an action sequence, a large failing at the climax. His constant use of long lens, which foreshortens the perspective and fails to give a convincing sense of space, and placing his camera in ways that seemed to be chosen as the most convenient position (rather than an expressive position) serve only to sow confusion in the audience. It’s not giving a sense of the characters’ confusion and then panic so the horrendous slaughter fails to emotionally engage, a shocking failing when portraying a disgraceful moment in British history.

Dick Pope’s cinematography and Suzie Davies’ production design are good; as are most of the performers. But the result is a massive wasted opportunity to educate in an engaging way a shameful event. Of course the ruling classes don’t slaughter the poor with weapons any more but repress, with sometimes fatal consequences, through institutional means such as Universal Credit. We’re left with a film that will ensure no one makes one about the Peterloo massacre for many years to come and it would have been better if Mike Leigh had never made it.

Goldstone (Australia, 2016)

The dead eyes of the heartless soul consider Aaron Pedersen’s detective

Goldstone is a stand alone sequel to Mystery Road (Australia, 2013) which was spun off into a TV serial this year. Written, directed and photographed by Ivan Sen, Goldstone is a gripping thriller making me keen to see his other work. Aaron Pedersen plays an indigenous detective, Jay, investigating a missing Chinese girl in the Outback. This particular place, as the place’s name suggests, is an expanding gold mine. Goldstone, however, is not somewhere most would like to visit as most of the buildings are prefabs and the local mayor, chillingly played by Jacki Weaver (above), keeps a corrupt grip to ensure the land is thoroughly exploited.

Outback is a place well beyond urban areas where Aboriginals can feel at home except where their land is being exploited by capitalism. Sen’s direction ensures that the land itself is almost a character. High (presumably) drone shots show the arid wasteland as a place of beauty and a spiritual old man (David Gulpilil) takes Jay on a river trip to a place that’s both beautiful and uncanny.

The film is strictly generic and there’re few surprises in how the narrative unfolds, particularly in Jay’s relationship with the young and only cop in town. However, it is brilliantly executed and thoroughly modern as exploitation of the land and sex trafficking are key issues of the narrative and of our age; not just in Australia.

Pedersen’s superb as the alcoholic and traumatised maverick. When talking to ‘white folk’ he averts his eyes as if ‘knowing his place’ but, of course, he is our protagonist hero who does the right thing. As this excellent review puts it, the film draws on the Western and Jay is a version Eastwood’s Man with No Name character. Although we have the satisfaction of an action finale, it’s the conversations Jay has during his investigation that are most fascinating particularly with Weaver’s monstrous mayor. Her dead eyes convey her heartless soul whilst she smilingly distributes apple pies; it’s a brilliant performance. David Wenham is good too, wearing shorts and pulled up socks, as the mine manager who needs the mayor to bring out his full corruption.

Can’t wait to see Sen’s other work.

The Hate U Give (US, 2018)

An apartheid state of mind

Hollywood and overt politics (‘overt’ because it’s directly engaging with the political) are unlikely bedfellows hence film buffs tend to celebrate anything subversive to come out of that commercial – hence conservative – institution because it ‘gives it to the man!’. This adaptation of a YA novel, written by Angie Thomas and adapted by Audrey Wells, is entirely political as it portrays racial discrimination in America in a gripping and highly intelligent fashion.

Amandla Stenberg plays Starr Carter (referencing Beyoncé who she name-checks?) a teenager from the ghetto whose protective parents enrol her in a suburban, ‘white school’. At the start of the film her dad is giving her ‘the talk’ but it’s not about sex, it’s about what to do if the police pull you over when you are in a car. Immediately the different world people of colour have to live in is made clear and the film filters Starr’s coming of age through the #BlackLivesMatter zeitgeist of America.

It can be difficult to make political statements when working in mainstream institutions (the film was distributed by Fox 2000) but the film’s brilliance is it manages to effectively convey the political message through the conventions of the ‘teen pic. So, for example, Starr’s ‘girlfriend’ problems, from her white friends at school, manifest themselves as incomprehension of what it is like to a person of colour. Starr realises that she isn’t seen as black because she is like her middle class peers at school; she hides her ‘ghetto persona’ as a survival mechanism. Her relationship with her boyfriend (a miscast KJ Apa who looks too old) is also subtly done as he’s sent to the margins at the climax; there’s no danger, in this film, of having ‘white saviours of black folk’.

The film reminded me of the great Boyz n the Hood (1991) which also dealt with ghetto life and had a keynote speech, delivered by Laurence Fishburn, where he explained that drugs in the ghettos were not an accident but a form of repression. The Hate U Give has at least three such speeches but they never feel like they are being delivered via a soapbox, they are fully integrated into the narrative and are crucial lessons for both POC and whites.

In a chilling scene Starr runs through a scenario, with her black cop uncle, about the different ways a white man in a suit would be treated compared to a person of colour if pulled over. The uncle’s response reveals the racist core of America (and any society tainted by racism – it was revealed last week that, in the UK, not one person on the 240-strong parole board is ‘minority ethnic’). With the bellicose Trump in charge that isn’t going to change soon but, after last week’s mid-term elections, there is a sense that the ‘times are a changin” – let’s hope so.

The Reports on Sarah and Saleem (Palestine, 2018) – LIFF10

What’s the difference?

In the bizarre world we live in where, for example, a President (on average) lies eight times a day, we can be forgiven for losing our grip on reality especially when once trusted news organisations (the BBC in the UK) seem incapable of navigating through the bullshit. One of the symptoms of the west’s drift toward fascism is the concocted controversy about criticisms of Israel’s appalling treatment of Palestinians. Equating criticism of Israel with anti-semitism is pure propaganda and is one of the reasons why news coverage of the conflict in Israel/Palestine is relentlessly one-sided. Earlier this week the Guardian website had to amend the headline ‘Israel officer killed during Gaza raid in which seven Palestinians died’; it’s the sort of reporting that dehumanises the dispossessed and is commonplace. Hence films like this become even more important because we have the opportunity to hear a Palestinian voice; in this case writer Rami Musa Alayan and his brother, the director, Muayad Alayan.

Using genre as a vehicle for making a political point (in a sense it’s impossible to make a non-political film in Israel/Palestine) is a good way of engaging a wider audience and, although slightly overlong, The Records of Sarah and Saleem is a gripping thriller of the Kafkaesque existence of people (particularly Palestinians) in the region today.

Sarah, an Israeli, is having an extra-marital affair with Saleem (Palestinian) which gets complicated when they visit Bethlehem, a Palestinian town just south of Jerusalem. Although nobody knows them there, the consequences of the visit drive the narrative.

One of the pleasures of the film is to see a ‘woman in a hijab’ as having narrative agency. Bisan (Maisa Abd Elhadi) is Saleem’s pregnant wife who is constantly told to let other people handle things when everything goes shit-shaped. She refuses to do so and the film switches tone slightly in its latter part and seems to be suggesting that a way forward in the intractable Israel-Palestine problem is through women.

As well as being part of the Leeds International Film Festival, it was the first screening in the Leeds Palestinian Festival which runs into December. The chilling shots of the ‘Apartheid’ wall and incessant checkpoints, as well as the casual treatment, by Israelis, of Palestinians as an Other, give an insight into the wretched world created by the Balfour Declaration over 100 years ago. And, it’s a riveting thriller.

The Ear (Ucho, Czechoslovakia, 1970) – LIFF9

What price freedom?

Like A Squandered Sunday, The Ear wasn’t released until the after end of the Cold War, in 1989, as its portrayal of Czechoslovakian political life, in the ‘Normalisation’ post-’68 period, is damningly satirical. When those in power can’t stand criticism you know you’re in trouble (see Trump). This is another of the Time Frames strand at the Leeds International Film Festival, The Ear narrates the squabbles of a government minister and his wife in the aftermath of an official reception at Prague Castle, which is shown in flashback.

The Ear’s writer, last films as he died of cancer in 1971. Procházka had done well to survive as a filmmaker for so long because he constantly pushed against official censorship. Director Karel Kachyňa continued to have a fruitful career (despite having made several films with the ‘frowned upon’ Procházka). Peter Hames, in The Czechoslovak New Wave, suggests that Kachyňa successfully portrayed Procházka as the ‘ideas man’ whilst he was merely a metteur en scene (he ‘just’ shot the script). Whether this was a betrayal I don’t know; it was just as likely to have been a pragmatic position to take against repression. Whatever the case, Kachyňa’s direction is perfect in its portrayal of Ludvik’s (the minister) growing conviction his days are numbered. 

He and his wife return from the party to find things aren’t as they should be at home. Doors are locked; then unlocked. Things have been moved and there are men in the garden (it is the middle of the night). Ludvik thinks back to the evening, using ‘subjective’ shots (we are Ludvik), trying to find clues that may signify his fall from favour. His wife, Anna, is both pissed (drunk) and pissed off because Ludvik has forgotten their wedding anniversary again. Radoslav Brzobohatý and Jirina Bohdalová are superb as the warring couple and their collapsing marriage mirrors the political paranoia of the time. The political is personal as Ludvik had only married her for convenience and all his actions as a government minister – and by extension true of all government ministers – are about self-survival.

The titular ‘ear’ are bugs the secret police have placed to listen for sedition. The couple even have to have sex in the kitchen to get some privacy. In the absurdist tradition of Czechoslovakian cinema, there are a number of batty scenes, including a toilet that won’t flush and an invasion by goons who want some booze.

The Ear is another example of the brilliant ‘new waves’ of eastern Europe during the ’50s and ’60s.

 

School’s Out (L’heure de la sortie, France, 2018) – LIFF8

The kids aren’t alright

Sébastien Marnier’s second film as a director (he also co-wrote) is pleasing in that it deals with the key political, indeed existential, issue of our time: ecological destruction. It’s couched as a thriller where Laurent Laffitte’s Pierre takes over, as a substitute teacher in a private school, a class of gifted children. Their previous teacher jumped out of the class’ second floor window during a test. The slow burn development of what’s going on in the six of the kids’ creepy minds is satisfying but the denouement can’t hold the burden of what precedes it.

The kids could be out of The Damned or Village of the Damned such is their apparent disassociation from the social world; unsurprisingly the other children in the school see them as elitist (which is a bit rich considering they all are privileged). Pierre endeavours to understand them (suitably he’s completing a thesis on Kafka reflecting the absurdity of the situation he finds himself in) and rails against the Principal who (a malaise in France as well as the UK apparently) is only concerned with results. However, it is always difficult to convince a teacher (ex in my case) of the veracity of school life and I cannot believe that violent attack on Pierre would have been shrugged off in such a perfunctory fashion (unless that’s France for you).

There are plenty of beautiful, portentous, shots of the sky and I kept expecting aliens to arrive but, as the horrifying ‘found footage’ of animal cruelty and desecration of the Earth shows, the real threat are humans who are depriving our children of a future. Zombie Zombie’s music heavy-handedly emphasises the point, however the film needed a bigger climax though the final scene is quite haunting.

Chris the Swiss (Switzerland, 2018) – LIFF7

A child trying to understand

The horrors of the civil war in former Yugoslavia should not be forgotten and debut director (who also scripted) Anja Kofmel investigates the time and place through a personal journey. Her cousin, Christian Würtenberg, was a fearless journalist who was killed when Kofmel was eight years old. Twenty years later she, and the film crew, try to find out how he died.

Of course there’s no doubting the heartfelt nature of the documentary, it supplements actuality footage and interviews with animation, the visual style of which is apparently derived from a nightmare she had as a child about Chris’ death. However, although we do find out details about Chris’ demise, the detective work feels perfunctory and doesn’t reveal much about the war (except Opus Dei seem to have been involved with the Pope’s blessing). Although Kofmel wrote the script in the first person, and she appears on camera, the English voiceover is spoken by New Zealander Megan Gay in a middle class English accent (at first I’d assumed Kofmel to be English because of this). The credits also list a ‘German narrator’. I’m not sure of the point of doing this but it distanced me from the narrative, which, given its personal nature, was a disadvantage.

It was difficult to gauge the reliability of the interviewees and, although the conclusion is convincing, the reasons behind Chris’ death necessarily remain speculative. The animation, an expressionist monochrome, looks good but features evil-like skittering black things that are too close to Hollywood and they undermine the realism of the documentary. The weak script renders commonplace the extraordinary events; maybe the film suffers overall because of Kofmel’s inexperience as a filmmaker. Certainly it is worth seeing, if only to remember the terrible time, but this personal journal does little to enlighten.

25 Watts (Uruguay, 2001) – LIFF6

Stereotypical teen lads everywhere and Uruguay

I like to watch films having as little idea about them as possible, something that is pretty easy to do at a film festival where I’ve heard of hardly any of them. I chose this on the basis it is Uruguayan; I’ve never seen a film from that country. At first I thought it was from the 1970s, the black and white mise en scene suggested as such but then I noticed the Walkman (or equivalent), Kurt Cobain poster and DVDs. Whether the film has a retro look I have no idea as my knowledge of Uruguay is as limited as its film industry which produces very few films a year.

The subject matter and look of the film recall Clerks (US, 1994) with the slackers doing little during the day (it’s part of the Time Frames thread) but hanging around, trying to get a girl, watching porn, drinking and ‘doing’ drugs. However co-directors, Juan Pablo Rebella, Pablo Stoll, bring a playful visual style that engages throughout. In one virtuoso shot an extreme close-up of a glass of water has a character behind it and, as he gets blown off in his attempt at a chat up, the soundtrack adds bubbles as if he’s drowning. Another shot is from beneath a bed as a (soon to be ex) girlfriend gets dressed having engaged in breakup sex.

There are lovely cameos of eccentric characters; particularly the ex Royal guard who describes the boredom of standing up all day without talking. He’s clearly lost his grip on reality as a result.

Of course such a film will tell me little of the social and political context of Uruguay at the time but it wasn’t intending to.