Monthly Archives: March 2010

Shutter Island (US 2010)

The opening of Shutter Island – an allusion to Taxi Driver?

I’m surprised that Shutter Island has done so well at the box office. There were only a handful of people in my local 400 seat cinema for a teatime showing – but it’s already taken $200 million globally. Perhaps I’m under-estimating the general cinema audience? I was prepared for something that might be problematic when I read a couple of blogs that suggested that you need to see the film at least twice before it is possible to write sensibly about it. I think that is probably correct – so I’m just going to make some general comments and hope that others join in and enlighten me for future viewings. I’m not sure I want to see the film again just yet.

If you don’t already know the set-up, it’s 1954 and Federal Marshal Leonardo Dicaprio is charged with investigating the disappearance of a female inmate from the secure unit for the criminally insane on isolated Shutter Island.

In a way, the ‘meta film’, the discourse around it, seems to be similar in structure to the film itself in that it’s hard to distinguish real analysis from all the games critics and commentators are playing in discussing what does or does not happen. On the one hand, the movie buffs are all playing spot the reference and on the other the fans of popular cinema are divided as to whether the film is brilliant or tosh. One critical decision is straightforward. It’s a beautifully mounted film, with terrific design, lighting, camerawork and editing and a bevy of talented players under the control of Hollywood’s current most skilled practitioner. It’s gripping for 2 and a quarter hours and it leaves you with lots of questions.

I’d like to play the references game first. I ‘felt’ rather than observed Sam Fuller and Michael Powell. I’ve since seen a review which refers to a Fuller-Powell-Ray mash-up (on the Auteurs blog). Yes, could be, but the Ray which came to my mind (and I have no real idea why) was On Dangerous Ground – possibly because I was thinking about how much Robert Ryan would have added to the film. Scorsese is reported as mentioning Val Lewton, Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past) and Dr Caligari. There is also a line of dialogue that points directly to Frankenheimer’s Manchurian Candidate. And, of course, the film is awash with Hitchcock, especially Spellbound and Vertigo. It really is a pleasure just to admire the beauty of the sets and the settings – the interior of the lighthouse, the cigarette still smouldering on the cliff-top edge. In the image below, we see Ruffalo and DiCaprio on the ship in the first sequence. I’m not sure that I’ve got the right image, but there is a strong sense here that we are being offered one of Hitchcock’s back projection scenes which in films like Marnie are weird because they aren’t necessary with modern production techniques. It’s almost as if Marty was inviting us into his dream about 1940s/50s cinema.

Is this 'real' or a contrived 1950s back projection shot?

But it’s also Hitchcock that sets me wondering about the weakness of the film and that’s my problem with Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s not that he’s a bad actor and in fact he performs very well. It’s more that he just isn’t a Hitchcockian leading man. He’s not suave enough to be Cary Grant, liberal enough to be Henry Fonda or bewildered enough to be James Stewart. He’s not handsome enough and/or not mean enough. The other possibility is to be less ‘starry’ and more bland (which can also become mean). I’m thinking here of Ralph Meeker as Mickey Spillane in Kiss Me Deadly or any of Fuller’s leading men.

Fuller’s Shock Corridor:

Robert Ryan in Crossfire:

. . . and On Dangerous Ground:

Ralph Meeker in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly:

Vertigo and Spellbound (with a bit more Dali):

Stairs, slats, light, shadows – trapped above the pit (see Kiss Me Deadly and Vertigo).

John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate – the Korean brain-washing sequence:

Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past – the sublime Robert Mitchum:

and finally Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffman:

So, all you have to do is to imbibe these wonderful scenes and then watch Shutter’s Island, blocking out DiCaprio and imagining Robert Ryan or Ralph Meeker instead.

If all Marty has done is to remind us of the power of cinema in its true nightmare period, he’s done something.

I need to see the film again before I can tackle the music.

Production notes and hi-res stills

Ten Canoes (Australia 2006)

During the goose egg hunt, the men camp in the trees for safety.

(These notes were written for an introduced screening in 2007)

In one of the most remote parts of Australia, the Arnhem Land Peninsula in the Northern Territories, there are several small aboriginal communities that were able to resist the incursion of European culture until relatively recently. In the 1930s, when a remarkable social anthropologist, Donald Thomson, visited the Yolngu people, he found a way of life seemingly unchanged for several millennia. He shot several thousand feet of nitrate film that was subsequently lost in a fire, but also some 4,000 still images on glass negatives which have survived to provide a unique record of daily life in the region.

David Gulpilil, perhaps the most high profile aboriginal figure in the Australian film industry, is himself from the Yolngu people. His career began in the 1970s with films like Nic Roeg’s Walkabout (UK/Australia 1971) and Peter Weir’s The Last Wave (1976). More recently he appeared in Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) and The Tracker (2002). On this last film he met the Dutch-Australian director Rolf de Heer and invited him to visit Arnhem Land and to make a film there. Gulpilil and de Heer, in discussion with many of the local people eventually decided on the unique structure of Ten Canoes. The title comes from one of Thomson’s photographs, showing a hunting party taking their canoes across the Arfura swamp in search of the eggs of the magpie goose.

Telling stories

Ten Canoes presents three versions of a story, each ‘nested’ within another. David Gulpilil is the off-screen voice (in English) introducing the landscape from an aerial view and then taking us back to a time when the Yolngu hunted for goose eggs as part of an annual cycle of food gathering. This story is shown in black and white and the look of it derives from Thomson’s photographs. The time period is not given, but it could be any time during the three hundred years or so leading up to the 1930s.

As the men (no women on hunting parties) go about the dangerous and uncomfortable task of finding eggs and fending off crocodiles and mosquitoes, one of the older men begins to tell a story to his younger brother. The older brother, who has three wives, is worried that his sibling is getting too interested in the youngest of the wives. The story he tells is a cautionary tale about what desiring another man’s wife in a close-knit community can lead to.

The ‘story within a story’ is set within the same community many years previously, in a ‘mythical time’. Of course, it looks exactly like the world of the other two stories, but like the opening shots of the film, it is shown in colour. We get to hear all of this story and its consequences.

Life in the Yolngu community in mythical time is on one level simple, but on another sophisticated in terms of ritual, justice, honour etc. The story involves conflict with another community and two deaths – and, of course, a lesson for the younger brother. It’s important to note that the Yolngu were not at the time of the stories struggling hunter gatherers at the margins of subsistence. The land supported sufficient flora and fauna to allow the Yolngu to eat well, to build shelter and to have the ‘spare time’ to create rituals and develop societal structures.

The Yolngu world is presented as patriarchal. The older men live with one or more wives in the central community – adolescent males must live separately in a boys’ community. Full initiation into the adult world is controlled and organised.

Filmmaking, culture and the European gaze

How should we engage with a film like this? One concern must be a question about how much the film crew misrepresents or distorts/disrupts the lives of the people in the community and misrepresents their story. To a certain extent, this is a consequence of all media production. Yolngu culture can only appear on screen in a mediated form. However, there are several mitigating features in the approach adopted here.

First, it is worth stressing that the fictional world presented on screen is just that – a recreated fiction. The contemporary Yolngu live in a world that uses SUVs, internet banking and satellite television. When the idea of the film was first discussed, the goose egg hunt had lapsed as an annual event and it was the circulation of photographs from the Thomson Archive that stimulated interest. The idea to develop the story around the ‘Ten Canoes’ photograph came from within the community.

When it came to actually shooting the film, the small crew led by de Heer (the ‘Balanda’ as white men are termed) lived within the community for the duration of the shoot, much like the ‘participant observers’ of social anthropology. All of the characters in the story are played by Yolngu people, many of whom are, or have been, artists or live performers, but none previously film actors. Casting and scripting was not straightforward. Individuals wanted to play the characters who were recognisable in the photographs as their ancestors and tradition forbade people from representing characters from the ‘wrong’ family group. As a consequence some roles had only one possible player. The script (everything is spoken in one of the Yolngu languages) was difficult to formalise since some players spoke different local languages and the lines had to be translated and re-translated to create some form of continuity. One of the community, Peter Djigirr acted as co-director as well as actor and translator.

In the completed film it is clear that all these difficulties were overcome and ‘ownership’ of the narrative appears to rest with the Yolngu themselves – certainly they express themselves as more than satisfied with the outcome. In fact the process of filmmaking became a vibrant exercise in oral history and re-discovery of a way of life. There was sufficient knowledge amongst the older Yolngu to make it possible to build the canoes shown in the photographs and the work on memory and culture has subsequently spawned a whole series of cultural productions, including exhibitions, books and training programmes. The film also exists in three different versions with the narration available in English and the local language and the subtitles removed for local screening.

The unique structure of the film derives from the compromise between the demands of American/European film narratives and the sensibilities of the Yolngu. The local people were attracted to the idea of reconstructing the goose egg hunt, but this was essentially non-dramatic. For the Yolngu it would be wrong to insert dramatic conflict into the reconstruction – but it was allowable in the ‘mythical time’ and this was how the film developed.

If the film had remained as an interesting cultural project enjoyed by the Yolngu, it would have been a worthwhile project in itself. But a feature film is a potentially universal cultural artefact. How would other audiences, especially non-indigenous Australian audiences react? In her blog, the Australian academic Liz Conor, a former editor of the Australian media education magazine, Metro, offers a perceptive observation. She describes an Australian audience anticipating something that will take them into the mythical time (the ‘dreaming’, as Australian writing has it) – a time when ‘original Australia’ was not sullied by capitalism and industrialism.They are, as she puts it, “Western Moderns appraising the difference of the ‘Native’”. What will happen?

With utmost respect the non-indigenous patrons take in the opening scene. Naked perfectly fit men, with all the gravitas of millennia of tradition, stride out in single file to hunt. Very intently we watch as the trailing man calls them to halt. This is surely serious but unfathomable ‘business’ of some sort. “I refuse to walk at the back” he declares. Has some law been violated? Is this a challenge to customary command? Has the hunt lost its way, or an ancestor made a sign? “Somebody is farting” he says, and audible relief staggers down the aisles.

Conor’s short entry is well worth reading in full. She argues that Ten Canoes allows us to think about a particular kind of society that survived for thousands of years and to do so without suffering the curse of the colonialist’s imagination and treating aboriginal communities as either ‘noble savages’ or ‘primitive’ and ‘simple’ people. Part of the success of the film is in the leisurely pacing and refusal to overdramatise the conflicts. This is a different, not inferior, mode of story telling and we may have to ‘work’ to appreciate it – working hard to resist the urge to look for conventional narrative pleasures, enjoying what else is on offer and thinking about aboriginal culture in new ways.

One last thought. Ten Canoes has been generally well-received, but it still represents a mediated view of another culture, a useful starting point, but not a definitive representation.

There is plenty of background material on Ten Canoes in the press kit downloadable from:

Here’s the trailer:

BIFF 15: Phantom of the Opera (US 1925)

Lon Chaney as the Phantom

My last festival film was shown in the Victoria Hall, Saltaire (a world heritage site for the mill and model industrial village built by Titus Salt in the 1850s). Victoria Hall now houses a Wurlitzer Organ removed from the Gaumont Cinema, Oldham. Concerts are held regularly by the Cinema Organ Society and this was an opportunity for organist Donald MacKenzie to perform his score for Phantom of the Opera.

The Wurlitzer

There isn’t too much to say about the film itself. I know there are several versions. Whichever was used, it had the 1929 prologue (without the voiceover) and it included both the tinted sequences and the 2-color Technicolor. Donald in his introduction explained that the British Board of Film Censors at first refused a certificate and the film did not open in London (at the Dominion, Tottenham Court Road) until 1930 by which time sound had been added in Hollywood. It was the colour sequence that really took my attention. This and the scenes in the Opera House were impressive. I was less interested in the underground lair of the Phantom. Lon Chaney famously suffered great pain and discomfort in wearing the make-up which created the Phantom’s appearance.

The film was projected digitally from the edge of the balcony across the large hall to a relatively small screen at the back of the stage. (The Wurlitzer is properly installed and ascended for an introduction before descending as the film began.) The Wurlitzer sound was very impressive and it made the screening a real occasion. I’ll certainly be interested in seeing more films in this location with an organ score. There isn’t a projection box as such, so I guess that digital projection is the best bet, but it’s a pity that the screen isn’t larger.

BIFF 14: Whip It (US 2009)

Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis) and Bliss (Ellen Page) – fierce rivals.

I chose this screening to see a) if Ellen Page would confirm her stardom and b) whether Drew Barrymore could turn her successful producing experience into an effective directorial role. The answers are yes and possibly, but not quite yet.

Whip It (the title comes from a move in roller derby) tells the tale of Bliss (Page), an oddly-named 17 year-old in the small Texas town of Bodeen who is looking for excitement and something that will take her away from her mother’s obsession with local beauty pageants. When Bliss comes across a flyer for a women’s roller derby league in Austin she decides to visit with her friend Pash. Undaunted by the violence and aggression associated with the sport, and lying about her age, Bliss decides to try out for the team. Does she succeed? What will she tell her mom? Will she meet a boy? Is this a teen pic?

Well, yes it is a teen pic and many of the conventions of the youth picture are indeed gleefully explored. But though the plot follows a similar trajectory to Bend it Like Beckham it also has several proper indie elements and as well as Ellen Page’s own back catalogue it draws on Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson in Ghost World and on both sides of Drew Barrymore’s more extensive back catalogue (e.g. Donnie Darko and Charlie’s Angels).

Bliss with Oliver (Landon Pigg)

Ellen Page is definitely a star. She is in nearly every scene and when she shares the frame I find myself more often than not watching her at the expense of the other actors. There are some echoes of Juno in Bliss, but this young woman is less brashly confident, less smart-mouthed, while at the same time just as assertive. In some ways, the family set-up is similar to Juno‘s with a sensible father who sides with his older daughter (there is a younger daughter as well – as in Juno) and a mother with an obsessive hobby (beauty pageant as against dogs). The main difference is that Bliss is a year older than Juno with a more interesting best friend and, through her involvement with the roller derby team, a wider range of young(ish) women to learn from. This is the strength of the film and I’ve seen several commentators remarking that Whip It offers a real alternative to young women who might otherwise be wrapped up in the fantasies of mainstream teen pictures. Pash works with Bliss at the Oink fast food (pork) diner, but she is going to get into Columbia or Johns Hopkins. The women on the roller derby team have a good time together and in some respects represent ideas about ‘third wave feminism‘. They also drink, frolic in the hot tub and have food fights. The team is coached by a man, but he is not the ‘dominant controller’ (a great performance by Andrew Wilson). Bliss has a romance in the film, but she remains in control. And crucially, the relationship between Bliss and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden, also terrific) is developed towards the end of the film. This was also there in Juno, but in more of a pat, smart way. For Page, also, I think that it is important that she literally throws herself into a role that requires her to skate and get barged off the track. I’ve seen comments that her skating is not convincing, but for non-experts (i.e. most of us) I think it’s OK. It’s always good to be thought of ‘trouper’ who can muck in as an actor, rather than just as someone who can deliver smart quips.

Ellen Page as 'Babe Ruthless' on the track.

Perhaps the comparison with Juno is also important in trying to decide about Drew Barrymore’s producer-director role. However much I liked Juno – and I’ve now seen the film several times – there is still the feeling that it is a clever film, smartly scripted and tightly directed, that just possibly is too good to be true. By comparison Whip It is, at the same time, more ‘open’ and more ‘safe’/conventional. It seems somehow ‘baggier’. I think it could lose a few minutes from its 112 and the ending could be tightened a little. On the other hand, it’s nice not to have a clever ending. On the way out of the screening, a colleague said that they had enjoyed the film, thought it was great for teenage girls but wanted it to be a bit edgier – and I think that’s right. Barrymore brings to the film a very strong commitment to ‘girls having fun together’, some great casting (Juliette Lewis especially, but Eve is not given enough to do) and good direction of her actors. She is also a good sport, playing the character who gets hit most often in the team. The script is by Shauna Cross from her own novel about the roller derby business. The more I research the film, the more it seems that there is a more interesting story lurking somewhere in the background. Perhaps it’s just another Juno coincidence that Cross, like Diablo Cody, has written about her experiences in an entertainment industry activity that attracts both criticism and fan support.

The official website has links to some roller derby material – although I found it more interesting to explore the topic on Wikipedia. It does, however, play some of the music and this is another strength of the film. In fact, the music was the cause of my main complaint about the festival screening since the Cineworld projectionist cut off the end of the credits, meaning that I not only missed the song listing, but also another clip – the end credit sequence is worth staying for, I understand. Whip It is released in the UK on April 7 and this is one strange North American sport that is worth catching up on. Drew Barrymore might not be quite there as a director but she’s very close and I look forward to her next one.

Here she is promoting the film:

And here’s Ellen Page and Alia Shawkat (Pash)

BIFF 12: Valhalla Rising (Denmark/UK 2009)

Mads Mikkelson is 'One Eye' – a captive used for combat.

I was rather surprised by this film partly because a typo in the festival programme suggested that it ran for 142 mins – implying some kind of epic. In fact it’s only 90 minutes. Although I knew about director Nicholas Winding Refn, I hadn’t seen any of his previous films, so I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of the film.

There isn’t much plot. Mads Mikkelson is the central character, introduced as little more than a caged animal pushed into combat by his masters on the windswept mountains of Sutherland in the Northern Highlands of Scotland some time around the year 1000 AD. When he escapes he kills his captors in a ferocious assault, but spares the young boy who has been feeding him. Eventually they meet a group of Christian Vikings who claim to be on their way to ‘win back’ Jerusalem. ‘One Eye’ – as the boy names the central character for obvious reasons – decides that the two of them will join the crusade. However, after an age drifting through the fog, the longboat arrives in an estuary of a ‘new land’ – where One Eye will find Valhalla – or Hell.

The film is minimal and elemental. One Eye never speaks and the others mutter relatively few lines of dialogue (in contemporary Scots). The obvious comparisons in the final third of the film are Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God and Terence Malick’s The New World. Some commentators mention Tarkovsky and at times I thought of Apocalypse Now. Refn’s budget was much lower than for these classic films. Everything was filmed in the Scottish Highlands and Islands (Skye, I think) and this is the latest of several Danish-Scottish official co-productions (including the work of Lone Scherfig). The only other star name that I recognised was Gary Lewis. There is an electronic, ‘industrial metal’ score by Peter Peter and Peter Kyed.

I’m not sure what I think of the film. Certainly, it makes you ponder what it would have been like to be the first European on shore in a new land when your ‘civilisation’ had done little to prepare you for what was to come. The film is quite ‘realist’ in its attempt to represent the realities of brutality – brains bashed out by boulders and axes, beheadings and disembowelment – and the simplicity of early Christianity. As long as you don’t expect Kirk Douglas or the rippling muscles of 300, you might find this a sobering experience.

Distributed by Vertigo in the UK, the film is set for release in April/May in the UK. It’s already out in France and some other European territories. Vertigo don’t seem to be promoting a HD trailer. Their website points you to YouTube:

BIFF 11: Le fantôme d’Henri Langlois (France 2004)

Henri Langlois

Bradford International Film Festival programmer Tom Vincent introduced this documentary by saying that he’d been inspired by seeing the film and that he believed that Henri Langlois, legendary founder of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris in the 1930s, was an important figure in establishing the importance of exhibition practice in film culture. I agree totally and all film programmers should be required to read about Langlois or watch this documentary.

If this is history that you don’t know, the Wikipedia page on Henri Langlois gives the basic background. Anyone with pretensions to be a cinéphile will know that it was the screenings of films (three or four screenings a night) in the tiny auditorium of the cinémathèque that allowed the young Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer et al to acquire the background that would enable them to become first critics and later the directors of la nouvelle vague in the 1950s. But there was much more to Langlois than only being an exhibitor – even though that was crucial. He more or less invented the notion of a properly curated film archive, rescuing films from the trashcan, keeping them out of the hands of Nazi occupiers (and potential censors) in 1940 and eventually opening a novel kind of film museum.

The documentary, written and directed by Jacques Richard (who seems to have made two earlier films about Langlois and the film museum) is primarily a procession of talking heads with occasional film clips and newsreel reports. Interviews with Langlois himself (clearly at different times, given his changing hair length and increasing bulk) are intercut with statements by a host of French directors, critics and archivists. One of the pleasures of the film is to spot all the names that you might just have read about in the French Cinema of the 1950s and 1960s, seeing which ones are still alive and which exist only in archive footage etc. The most engaging personality turns out to be Chabrol. The old rogue is interviewed outside a café but it’s worth straining to hear above the traffic noise as he gives his memories.

There are roughly three parts in the documentary (which runs for 128 mins). The first covers the 1930s through to the 1950s as Langlois developed the cinémathèque, the second focuses on the increasing problems associated with the clash between Langlois the maverick curator and the bureaucracies of state funding, culminating in the famous 1968 protests when Langlois was removed by the Culture Minister. The final section covers the creation of the film museum and the last days when Langlois finally got the recognition he deserved, including an honorary Oscar (which he seems to have appreciated far more than some of us cynics might have expected). This section includes hilarious archive footage in which Langlois attempts to pin a medal on Alfred Hitchcock – several times to accommodate the photographers. This reminds me of the only Langlois anecdote that I remember from the time. Hitchcock’s three films made for Paramount between 1954 and 1958 (Rear Window, The Trouble With Harry and Vertigo) for some reason could not be shown in the UK as the rights had expired and not been renewed. So for the whole of the 1970s (when Hitchcock was a major focus for film studies) there was no legal way to see the films. During this period the NFT in London programmed a Hitchcock retrospective without the trio – only for Langlois to turn up with a copy of Vertigo in a large hold-all. The NFT refused to show the film. I’ve no idea if this is true. Can anyone corroborate? Anyway, it’s a good story and it fits with the Langlois in this documentary.

The film is available on a Region 1 DVD from Kino and there is rumoured to be a longer version of the film somewhere.