Author Archives: Ashley Clark

About Ashley Clark

Freelance writer, pop culture enthusiast and arts administrator. Founded Permanent Plastic Helmet in January 2010. Contact me on pplastichelmet@gmail.com

Economic Measures #5 | Toni Servillo in The Great Beauty (2013)

Economic Measures is a regular column celebrating those facial and bodily gestures in film that say a lot with a little.

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By Michael Pattison

Paulo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, in cinemas now, is a mysterious beast of thematic ambition, formal precision and tonal complexity. Seeing it twice recently, I wondered if it might be the first film since There Will Be Blood (2007) or The Master (2012) to feel of a different period altogether. Whether that period’s in the past or in the future is difficult to say. To be sure, the Italian maverick’s latest – a flawed masterpiece that boasts the conviction of its own capacity to fail – seems to be unfathomably old-fashioned at the same time as being unfashionably ahead of its time.

Even as it drifts off in its third act, its energy zapped by a curious dream sequence (or is it?) involving big-titted dames paying exorbitant amounts for their latest botox injections, the film reeks of purpose and energy and old-school arthouse class. In discussing its multitude of problems, I’ve fallen in love with it: it satisfies my present need for excitement, for a youthful spirit, for a more lyrical and instinctive appreciation of things, for doing something when everything else about a situation (notably budget and common sense) seem to deny it. To quote a member of a message board I used to moderate, “I’d rather see an interesting failure than a dull success.”

Similar to that curious and temporary inability as an adolescent to recall a crush’s face, I was aware going into my second viewing of The Great Beauty that it has a prologue, and yet had forgotten exactly how it felt, what it looked like and what happened in it. As became immediately clear again, it’s a dizzying yet logical succession of wonderfully choreographed pans and tracks, their movement and sweep lending intrigue to a three-fold incident in which a female choir, a group of tourists and an amateur photographer are drawn together when the latter falls down dead.

I still don’t know its significance (“the tourists are the best thing about Rome”?), but the Hitchcock-like scream that concludes this sequence, ushering in a rooftop party scene to the tune of ‘Far L’Amore’ by Bob Sinclar and Raffaela Carrà, brought an immediate and sustained bout of shivers. The subsequent sequence, a superlatively edited and infectiously energetic passage in which Felliniesque grotesques drink and dance the night away, provides us with the most hedonistically pleasurable few moments in film this year.

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Down to it, then. Toni Servillo, already one of my favourite working actors, anchors this film with airs that are as elusive as his face is memorable. The man is 54, and without looking older than his years, he exudes an experience and even weariness that transcend them. Such experience comes to haunt the narrative just as much as it brings that opening party to life. In a key scene in which he berates a female writer for pretensions of superiority, Servillo’s protagonist betrays his own weaknesses: lazy, fond of one too many drinks, perhaps even beyond repair, and – tragically – aware of such vices. At several points, this host with the most has his otherwise assured façade shattered by the presence of an aloof neighbour to whom he aspires like a pathetic protégé.

Is there anyone who nails silencio e sentimento with such effortless charm, gravitas and vulnerability as Servillo? Who else can command the screen by doing so little as lying inert in a hammock? During both viewings of his latest collaboration with Sorrentino, I have longed for those scenes in which he gave Gomorrah (2008) much-needed purpose, and have also lamented the lack of theatrical distribution for It Was the Son (2012), in which he complemented the film’s caricature qualities by channelling the higher melodrama of a Pietro Germi film.

Like all the best film entrances (Welles’ in Kane, Kinski’s in Aguirre, the Marx Brothers’ in Duck Soup), Servillo’s in The Great Beauty is delayed. The party scene announces itself and introduces several characters in delirious succession, as if the camera is circling the vicinity looking to recruit a protagonist who can command it. Exhilaratingly – mirroring the structure of the Sinclar and Carrà dance mix that churns beneath – the scene seems to end at several points, or at least ventures into a quieter part of the shindig to eavesdrop on more private moments. Just when you think the scene has ended, it goes back to the heart of the party. Like some hideous homage to Kathy Selden, a woman shoots up from a giant cake and shouts “Happy Birthday, Jep!”

Cut to Servillo, for the first time, who shimmies 180 degrees to break the fourth wall, cigarette in mouth and a smile etched upon his wondrously craggy face. He is Jep Gamdardella. The gesture is aided by everything else that Sorrentino throws at us, of course, but Servillo, in this simple, declarative introduction, shows us that the film is his from here on out. That it’ll be his even when other characters threaten to steal it from him, when its tone shifts from exuberant to melancholic and back again, even when its director intrudes upon proceedings by viewing them from an upside-down angle. When the scene concludes with a collective dance-off between the genders, note Servillo’s ability to be in sync with a crowd and stand out from it in the same moment. And the involuntary movement merely of his fingers while dancing says more than Mastroianni ever did.

Contributor Michael Pattison can be followed on Twitter @m_pattison and runs the blog idFilm.net.

BFI London Film Festival 2013 | PPH Picks

By Ashley Clark

The 57th annual BFI London Film Festival takes place in a host of venues across London from 9-20 October. Tickets are on sale for the public on Friday 20 September. Since a fair few people have asked me individually for recommendations, I thought I’d put together a somewhat doc-heavy Top 10 of Tips! from stuff that I’ve already seen, and would strongly vouch for. I’ve left out the Galas and bigger films (many of which have already sold out; though don’t forget the standby queues) and focused on the smaller, less star-studded films. If I’ve written about the film somewhere already, I’ve included a link. The full programme, by the way, is here. Here we go, then.

At Berkeley (Dir. Frederick Wiseman)

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A mammoth documentary about the inner workings of the California university. Essential viewing if you have any interest in the educational system or public policy. Further reading: Venice 2013: truth, lies and admin – American documentaries on the Lido – Sight & Sound

*    *    *

Computer Chess (Dir. Andrew Bujalski)

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A fresh and original drama-comedy about a bunch of nerdy computer programmers in the 1980s which begins as an hilarious docudrama but morphs into a haunting philosophical study. Further reading: Review for Grolsch Film Works

*    *    *

Cutie and the Boxer (Dir. Zachary Heinzerling)

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A funny, moving and beautifully constructed documentary about the eponymous ageing Japanese artist couple, living in a cramped Brooklyn flat. Further reading: The digital deluge: Tribeca 2013 – Sight & Sound

*    *    *

Let The Fire Burn (Dir. Jason Osder)

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The best (and most shattering) documentary I’ve seen all year. A staggering found-footage collage detailing the awful incident in 1985 when the Mayor of Philadelphia sanctioned the bombing of the HQ of radical black activist group MOVE. Further reading: The digital deluge: Tribeca 2013 – Sight & Sound

*    *    *

Locke (Dir. Steven Knight)

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Tom Hardy goes full-on Welsh in a gripping and surprisingly moving high-concept thriller of the quotidian life, set entirely inside the eponymous builder’s car. Locke only has a hands-free kit to sort his problems out. Further reading: Venice Film Festival 2013: The Police Officer’s WifeLocke, & The Sacrament – Slant

*    *    *

Mother of George (Dir. Andrew Dosunmu)

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Dosunmu’s beautiful follow-up to Restless City is a moving story of the desperate lengths one woman goes to conceive. A great portrait of New York’s Nigerian community.

*    *    *

The Rooftops (Es-Stouh) (Dir. Merzak Allouache)

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A cleverly structured day-in-the-life drama set in a number of working class Algiers districts. It’s tough, funny and moving, and thankfully avoids the lame Paul Haggis-style impulse to tie all the strands together in a superficial way. Further reading: Venice 2013 Critic’s Notebook: A Means of Escape — African Cinema on the Lido – Filmmaker Magazine

*    *    *

Portrait of Jason (Dir. Shirley Clarke)

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Jaw-dropping 1967 performance piece/documentary focused on the eponymous Jason: male prostitute/raconteur/hustler/crooner. Showing in its newly restored version. Further reading: Review for Permanent Plastic Helmet

*    *    *

Teenage (dir. Matt Wolf)

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Breezy, fascinating and beautifully structured collage doc (from the director of Arthur Russell doc Wild Combination) about the beginnings of the ‘teenager’ as first an idea, then a reality. Great soundtrack by Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox. Further reading: Review for Grolsch Film Works

*    *    *

Why Don’t You Play In Hell? (Dir. Sion Sono)

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A berserk and hugely enjoyable love letter to the movies delivered in cult Japanese director Sono’s inimitable overcranked, Grand Guignol style. Insanely violent, with lots of shouting. Bring earplugs. Further reading: Venice Film Festival 2013: GerontophiliaTracks, & Why Don’t You Play in Hell? – Slant

Venice Film Festival 2013 | all my coverage in one place

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by Ashley Clark

From 28 August to 6 September, I was present at the 70th Venice International Film Festival. I had a great time, it didn’t rain much, I ate a bit too much pizza, and I murdered lots of mosquitoes with one of these. I also saw lots of films and wrote about them. Since a few of you have asked me for recommendations on what I saw, I thought I’d bring together all of my coverage in one place. Enjoy:

Sight & Sound Magazine

Venice 2013: truth, lies and admin – American documentaries on the Lido [At Berkeley, The Unknown Known and The Armstrong Lie]

Filmmaker Magazine

Venice 2013 Critic’s Notebook: Gravity and Sorcerer, a strange alchemy

Venice 2013 Critic’s Notebook: Palo Alto, Parkland and Joe – To Live and Die in the USA

Venice 2013: 6 Lessons from At Berkeley director Frederick Wiseman

Venice 2013 Critic’s Notebook: A Means of Escape – African Cinema on the Lido [White Shadow, Traitors, Salvation Army and The Rooftops]

Slant Magazine

Venice Film Festival 2013: Gerontophilia, Tracks, & Why Don’t You Play in Hell? 

Venice Film Festival 2013: The Police Officer’s Wife, Locke The Sacrament

Grolsch Film Works

Gravity – review ✮✮✮✮

Joe – review ✮✮✮✮

Night Moves – review ✮✮✮✮

The Zero Theorem – review ✮✮

Tom At The Farm – review ✮✮✮✮

Under The Skin – review ✮✮✮✮

under-the-skin

Recurring Nightmares #2 – You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave

[Editor’s note: Recurring Nightmares is a new, regular column concerned with teasing out those little connections that haunt our cinematic memories.]

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By Jonathan Bygraves

“It’s just a room”, Mike Enslin (John Cusack) sarcastically reports into his dictaphone upon first inspecting the eponymous hotel suite in Mikael Håfström’s 1408 (2007), before dryly adding, “I’ve been here before”. The sense of weary familiarity in that latter line of dialogue, not contained in Stephen King’s original short story, might on its surface appear to be merely a gag on the decorative sameness of the typical hotel room, but it also comes as a sly intertextual reminder to the viewer that they too, in a sense, have been here before.

The precedent which the line most readily recalls is naturally 1408‘s illustrious forebear, Stanley Kubrick’s own King adaptation The Shining (1980), but it nods to a longer lineage of cinematic horror hotels which stretches as far back in time as the medium itself. Indeed, strip away 1408‘s CGI pyrotechnics and Bad Dad backstory and its basic function is near-identical to that of Georges Méliès’ trick film L’auberge ensorcelée (1897), arguably the earliest example of the sub-genre made over a century earlier: simply place a man in an apparently ordinary – if quietly sinister – lodging room, and let the spooky goings-on ratchet up in intensity.

That such a set-up has survived the century of cinema intact speaks not only of its abiding utility as a genre device but also of a fundamentally unsettling quality that hotel rooms can possess. Though in many respects rooted in the age-old Old Dark House exoticism of Gothic literature, the horror hotel differs in that it serves to situate the viewer in a hinterland between the quotidian and the Other. Hotel rooms, in seeking to replicate the comforts of home for a myriad of different occupants, very often represent an impersonal, inexact facsimile of domesticity, which is used in the horror film to create a feeling of dissonance – halfway between the familiar and the strange – tapping directly into what Freud termed Das Unheimliche (the uncanny).

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The possibilities for mise en scene, however, vary considerably within the sub-genre, perhaps best delineated into two distinct sub-classifications: the ornate and the abject. In the former, best exemplified by the baroque grandeur of the ‘Timokan’ hotel in Ingmar Bergman’s Tystnaden (1963) or the luxuriance of the lobby of Ostend’s Thermae Palace in Harry Kümel’s Les lèvres rouges (1971), the uncanny is rendered as a function of opulence: soaring archways, sweeping staircases and, in particular, the maze-like corridors in both Bergman’s film and The Shining. These labyrinthine passageways implicitly hark back to cinema’s greatest exploration of the uncanny, Alain Resnais’ L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) (itself reciprocally related to genre cinema via its Hitchcock ‘cameo’), which Kümel’s film more explicitly pays homage to in the presence of Delphine Seyrig as its wanton countess.

By contrast, the sons of Psycho (1960) render Otherness through their locations’ symbolic abjection from society. Remember that Hitchcock’s film begins in a hotel, but one ensconced in the urban familiarity of Phoenix, before journeying with Marion to the remote isolation of the Bates Motel, symbolically representing a move from the civilised to a more primeval wilderness. In this respect it prefigures the Backwoods Horror cycle initiated by John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and was already enough of a cliché to be effectively satirised by the time of Hooper’s own horror hotel entry Eaten Alive (1977) and Kevin Connor’s cartoonish Motel Hell (1980), before subsequently resurfacing in recent years in Nimrod Antal’s Vacancy (2007) and the franchise spawned by Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005).

This latter strain plays into another key signifier of the hotel: that of transience. In Stephen King’s introduction to his 1408 story, he asks rhetorically, “How many people have slept in that bed before you? How many of them were sick?”. If Old Dark Houses are haunted by ghosts of centuries past, a prior guest in a hotel room may have euphemistically ‘checked out’ as recently as the time it takes housekeeping to have cleared up the mess. Longer stays, on the other hand, seem to imply a character’s psychological descent: see Agnes White’s prolonged stay in her dilapidated motel room in William Friedkin’s Bug (2006), Barton’s escalating sense of unreality in the Hotel Earle in Barton Fink (1991), or even Phil Connors in Groundhog Day (1993), whose indeterminately long one-day stay in his Punxsutawney B&B hints towards the same sense of claustrophobic unreality resulting from an over-extended hotel sojourn.

Barton Fink hotel

The characters for whom hotels are seldom places of transience are the staff, who from John Llewellyn Moxley’s The City of the Dead (1960) to Vacancy typically wear a thin mask of obsequiousness to veil their sinister hidden motives, a trope overturned for comedic effect in Miike Takashi’s Katakuri-ke no kōfuku (2001) in which its cheerful inn owners are helpless to prevent their guests dying via as series of increasingly bizarre incidents. By contrast, the about-turn in spectatorial identification in Psycho, signalled by the protracted sequence of Norman Bates dutifully cleaning the Bates’ cabin after Marion Crane’s famously interrupted ablutions, allowed for a more sympathetic eye for its initially two-dimensionally creepy owner-manager. The implication here is that the impersonal domesticity of the hotel affects its workforce as much as its guests, a theme explored more fully in Jessica Hausner’s Hotel (2004), in which banality inspires its own form of Lynchian nightmare.

If the viewer, then, is sympathetic with Norman Bates, then Psycho disturbs precisely because it makes the us complicit in his extra-curricular voyeurism. His lecherous peering through his crudely-fashioned peephole at his undressing guest mirrors that first shot of the film, which cranes in through the Phoenix hotel window to witness to Marion and Sam’s initial illicit tryst, emphasising the prurient allure of the hotel room and its connotation with adultery and secretiveness. So too, more fancifully, is there a certain mimesis with the experience of cinema-going itself: travelling to a place of comfort and refuge, homely but not-home, alone but in the close proximity of strangers. As the semi-success of Mike Enslin’s pulp paperback exposés in 1408 and the evident demand for the underground snuff movies in Vacancy serve to illustrate, the horror hotel is unlikely to lose its hold on the popular imagination any time soon.

Contributor Jonathan Bygraves can be followed on Twitter @iambags and runs the blog Serene Velocity.

Economic Measures #4 | Emer McCourt and Robert Carlyle in Riff-Raff (1991)

[Editor’s note: Economic Measures is a regular column celebrating those facial and bodily gestures in film that say a lot with a little.]

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By Michael Pattison

An hour into Ken Loach’s Riff-Raff (1990), itinerant worker Stevie (Robert Carlyle) returns from his day’s graft to find girlfriend Susie (Emer McCourt) has prepared for him a small birthday celebration. Entering the living room of the flat in which they squat, Stevie sees Susie standing in wait, party hat on, with a small candle-lit cake in one hand and a bottle of rosé in the other. Immediately overcome with emotion, he turns away and walks out of the room. Susie follows him: “I’m sorry, I never meant to upset you. What is it?” Stevie replies, without looking at her: “Nobody’s ever done that before.”

Stevie doesn’t look at her because he’s too embarrassed by joy – even by the small things in life that offer it. Stevie cowers from such emotion, unsure of how to communicate it, let alone respond to it. His slight frame remains in the hallway, and he looks down at his feet. Though he can neither muster the courage to return his girlfriend’s searching gaze nor find the words to match the moment, he yearns for Susie’s physical presence, and pulls her to him for a hug. For him, this is a new experience, and its inherent warmth simultaneously unsettles and reassures him.

Not much has been given to us in terms of Stevie’s backstory. We know that he has recently been released from prison and that he has travelled to London from his native Glasgow in search of work, and that he is presently employed as a casual labourer on a construction site. Like all of the film’s performances, Carlyle’s isn’t expressionistic or actorly. Filmed by Loach and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd in medium and long shots, he is framed within surroundings by which he is forever conditioned and in which he may interact with others to form an instinctive solidarity against the ugly implications of said surroundings. Here, with heartbreaking economy, Carlyle demonstrates what it means to be the object of someone’s unconditional love at a time when you’re financially broke.

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Here is a person whose brave face amidst daily toil is one that has been hardened by betrayal and mistrust. Abandoned, imprisoned, unemployed and unloved, Stevie seems humbled and humiliated by Susie’s generosity. Indeed, in a world where success and happiness are both measured in abstract terms—and in which the prevalent presumption is that men provide and women receive—the alienation experienced by someone like Stevie is both social and domestic. It takes great courage not to fold under such multifarious pressures. Stevie knows in this very same instant that an act of kindness from someone who loves him is a beautiful thing to be cherished. A similar scene occurs in Loach’s Raining Stones (1993), when the jobseeking Tommy (Ricky Tomlinson) reluctantly accepts some cash handed to him from his shop-assistant daughter, only to break down after she leaves the room.

Susie, excellently played by McCourt, is also a human in need. In the shot that follows the one in the hallway, note the way she crouches beside Carlyle to allow him enough space to regain his composure, and the tact she demonstrates in looking away from him so that he can wipe the tears from his eyes without feeling too intruded upon. An artistic woman who wishes to be a singer, Susie is creative enough to challenge the poverty in which she and her boyfriend live. Stevie’s birthday card is handmade, and the present Susie has him unwrap is a single pair of flashy polka dot boxer shorts. It’s both a personal and light-hearted gesture.

As Carlyle opens his gift, his hands tremble with adrenaline – is it going to be something so thoughtfully sincere that he’ll break down once more? Anticipating the joke, McCourt’s eyes barely leave him, and her own nerves – how will he react? – cause her to laugh half a second before he does. To witness the pleasure she has brought to his world is itself a pleasure for Susie. To us, such modest attempts at happiness, in the face of an ongoing marginalisation, are small but revolutionary acts. Implying both togetherness and compassion at a time when neither is particularly valued by the official political order, such acts need indeed to be cherished.

Contributor Michael Pattison can be followed on Twitter @m_pattison and runs the blog idFilm.net.

Old, but still funny: the Denzel Washington venn diagram

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Denzel Washington is a great actor, but he’s been in a whole bunch of truly forgettable films. His latest, 2 Guns, might well turn out to be a cracker, but from the comically lazy title and poster combo alone, I’m not holding out too much hope. That said, in the film, Denzel is seen to be sporting facial hair, a hat and glasses; significant in that it reveals the need for the Denzel Washington Venn Diagram to be updated sharpish. Malcolm X has got company!

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[Source: maxim.com]

Economic Measures #3 | Neda Amiri in One. Two. One (2011)

[Editor’s note: Economic Measures is a new, regular column celebrating those facial and bodily gestures in film that say a lot with a little.]

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By Michael Pattison

The twelfth and antepenultimate scene in Mania Akbari’s One. Two. One (2011) takes place in a telecabin carriage ascending Mount Tochal, just outside Tehran. It begins with Ava (Neda Amiri) recounting to a date (Payam Dehkordi) an amusing incident that occurred days previously. Telling it, she stutters, looks away from her date and talks more quickly and assertively, with fewer breaths, as if to regain control of both the anecdote and herself. All of this happens in an instant. Ava punctuates the end of her anecdote by rolling her eyes, acknowledging its silliness, to settle back from its melodrama and to return the watchful gaze of her date.

After she has finished her story, Ava’s date informs her that she has some lipstick on her teeth. She wipes it off. “Is it gone?” she asks. “Yep,” he replies. She purses her lips and smiles, suspending that fleeting moment in which a woman realises she is the object of a man’s gentle scrutiny, and looks away with something resembling a coy laugh. The hand on which she has propped her head moves in a gesture that is at once unconscious and self-conscious, a defence mechanism against the unflinching attention she is receiving.

Ava’s fingers come across her neck to form a kind of shield. Her chin rests on the back of her hand. A finger dares to twitch – or is it a self-caress? Feeling less open to would-be advances, she moves her entire head back to face the man sitting in intimate proximity across from her, to confront him, test him, return his intensity by eyeing him direct. In what is perhaps an instinctive need to regain poise and power, she spots a stray hair on his bald head, and returns a favour by lifting it and blowing it from her own hand.

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All of this unfolds within a fixed frame and in the space of half of minute. It’s gently, harmoniously, relatably erotic. It captures that nervous energy of a first or second date so well. Here are two people whose interest in one another might primarily be physical but whose connection has a palpable electricity that goes beyond lust – that excitement one feels at the onset of a new companionship. Such excitement is twofold. It is not merely about finding someone new, but also about challenging and renewing oneself – and, here, one’s sense of self, for Ava has, we know, recently recovered from an acid attack by her jealous husband.

In these moments, Amiri embodies the extraordinary courage and trust a woman must sustain in a society whose primary criterion of judgement is aesthetic beauty. When she licks and sucks the lipstick from her teeth, she averts the spotlight in embarrassed acknowledgement that she is being looked at, admired, desired, analysed – in a word, “othered”. She doesn’t dislike it, but experience has taught her caution. She must give little away, must not reciprocate too much. This is flirting, that process by which otherwise innocent gestures become charged with possibilities, in which that fine line between ambiguity and clarity seems both to widen and to disappear. Flirting creates a veil of innocence to retreat behind at the same time as it creates an expanse of new terrain to chart.

Neda Amiri might problematise One. Two. One’s apparent argument against the value placed by society upon physical beauty by being arguably the most beautiful actress alive. This is not her fault. As demonstrated in this and other scenes, however, her skill as a performer transcends the formal limitations of Akbari’s film and occasionally elevates its more mannered and irritating aspects to the stuff of brilliance. Self-conscious, exposed, explorative, fearless, Amiri demands and commands respect simply by embracing that terrifying concept of making a mistake or losing control. It’s no wonder her date is enraptured.

One. Two. One has just been released on DVD in the UK by Second Run. A season of Mania Akbari’s films runs at the BFI Southbank until 28 July. Contributor Michael Pattison can be followed on Twitter @m_pattison and runs the blog idFilm.net.

Atom Egoyan | interview (+ cautionary tale about phone interviews)

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I recently interviewed the Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan (pictured above) via telephone—a ‘phoner’, as it’s known in the industry. I’d somehow managed to avoid phoners up to this point in my journalistic career, having luckily always been able to conduct interviews either in person, over Skype, or (always a last resort) email. When this one rolled around, I must confess, I was woefully underprepared. I just hadn’t considered how much of an arseache it was going to be.

A colleague suggested I go to the one room in my house where the T-Mobile signal is pretty solid, put Atom on speakerphone, set up Garageband on my Mac, and then record. It worked a treat until the signal crapped out not once but twice, leaving me sweating bullets over whether I was a) going to get anything decent, and b) making a dreadful, pathetic impression on a director whose work I greatly respect.

By this point literally soaked in perspiration (this took place in the early stages of London’s summer heatwave), I improvised. I grabbed my dictaphone, ran into the kitchen, and reconnected with Atom (via the London PR) on the house phone. I placed the dictaphone in-between my ear and the ear-end of the receiver, pressed record, and strained to hear the softly-spoken director’s replies. I looked, probably, like a cross between this and this. It wasn’t pretty.

Worse was to come when I played back the audio to find that, even though I had held the dictaphone to the right end (I wasn’t quite that incompetent), Egoyan was all but inaudible. I, on the other hand, wasn’t, and promptly jumped out of my skin whenever I heard my own voice barking out questions at comically disproportionate volume. It was all a little redolent of the firecracker scene from Boogie Nights, with my own stupidly deafening voice standing in for Chinese Cosmo’s bangers.

Luckily, I needn’t have worried too much. I’d captured some really decent stuff during the first part of the interview. What I missed, as I recall, was Egoyan speaking about the way in which he treats his Armenian heritage in his films; responding kindly to my fairly banal suggestion that his debut Next of Kin is quite like Bart Layton’s The Imposter; and confirming that David Cronenberg is a) nice bloke and b) the ‘Godfather’ of the Canadian film community.

As for ‘phoners’, I hope it’s a while before I have to do another one, but I’ve since found there are options, and I’ll prepare more thoroughly next time (I’ll still keep my fingers crossed for Skype, though). Folks, don’t be silly like I was, don’t let this happen to you.

The expression I imagine Egoyan was wearing after we got cut off for the second time

The expression I imagine Egoyan was wearing after we got cut off for the second time

*     *     *

Anyway, what follows is a repurposing of the interview, which originally appeared on the Grolsch Film Works website.

53-year-old Atom Egoyan is one of Canada’s most respected and critically acclaimed directors. His atmospheric and character-driven films, including multi-stranded strip club-set drama Exotica (1994), heartbreaking novel adaptation The Sweet Hereafter (1997), and haunting thriller Felecia’s Journey (1999), are known for their searching intelligence and formal control. Egoyan made the move into Hollywood with 2009’s Chloe, and now has a fictional film about the West Memphis Three (entitled The Devil’s Knot) in the pipeline.

Now, thanks to Artificial Eye, UK viewers have a chance to go right back to the start with Egoyan, as his first two films arrive, fully remastered, on DVD. His debut, Next of Kin (1984), stars Patrick Tierney as a depressed young man who abandons his own family to pose as the long lost son of another. Chilling and drily amusing in almost equal measure, it’s eerily reminiscent of the story which formed the basis of Bart Layton’s recent documentary The Imposter. In follow-up black comedy Family Viewing (1988), another sallow, disaffected young man again takes centre stage, as 16-year-old Van (Aidan Tierney) attempts to come to terms with his dysfunctional family in a series of increasingly unorthodox ways. Seemingly a huge influence on the likes of American Beauty and fellow Canadian Sarah Polley’s recent Stories We TellFamily Viewing is distinguished by its formal experimentation, switching between deliberately flat, sitcom-style shooting on video for the domestic drudgery of Van’s homelife, and lush film for its more thriller-like elements.

Both films hold up incredibly well, and offer slyly seductive meditations on identity and the role which technology plays in family life. To mark their release, we sat down with Egoyan to chew over his early filmmaking days, and get his opinions on the big changes in the industry since he started out.

On audience reactions to his early films…

“What happened with Next of Kin was that that film worked almost too well with an audience. The technique that I was using was handheld camera. It [the camera’s POV] was meant to feel like the real son that the family had lost was watching this all; it was supposed to have an eerie, distancing effect and it had quite the opposite! People reacted quite warmly to it, and felt there was an immediacy. So even though people were taking pleasure in that, it was quite shocking. That’s what led me in Family Viewing to have a strong formal approach where there could be no question of what the intention was; maybe it went too far!”

On re-watching his early films…

“Recently I’ve watched them again for the remasters and it’s been interesting to go back. I’m surprised about how prepared I was to talk about personal issues as I was wrestling with them in my own life. That’s been a surprise. They were big issues for me, these questions of identity: how do you fight this pressure of assimilation [the Egyptian-born Egoyan is of Armenian heritage], and how do you construct yourself as a new person in a place. Those were really urgent. I’m very proud of Family Viewing.”

On tradition…

“I think I was very aware of the tradition I was working against; these films coming from Canada, the docudrama coming from the National Film Board and all these extraordinary films that were made here in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s which made heavy use of hand-held camera. Influenced by John Grierson and this idea that he brought, we were all raised by these films which I actually thought were very different from the films I wanted to make, so it was horrifying to see Next of Kin fall into that very trap! Perhaps ‘trap’ is the wrong word, but it was interpreted as being an homage to the tradition that I was was passionately trying to react against. That was surprising. What these early films taught me was that when you have strong characters and a strong narrative, people will just want to lose themselves in that. They’re not positioning themselves outside of the film, they want to be inside the film as quickly as possible. That’s why I think a film like Family Viewing, at that time especially, with the video textures it was using, was clearly a way of creating a distance – an alienation effect – so that you had to stand outside the film, and really commit to enter into it.”

On technology…

“I started to make films at a time when the characters would have access to the technology that I was using. All this recording and transmitting felt very revolutionary at the time. I was looking at the advent of these technologies on people’s lives in a domestic setting. It’s interesting when you look at Family Viewing. I had to justify these awkward family videos by making the father [chillingly played by David Hemblen] work for the company that made them. We had access before anyone else did. Shooting in 1986 that was the only way that family might have had colour videos of their early life. Even then it didn’t really make sense! But these were huge social revolutions which we’ve seen develop in ways which had been unimaginable. We now shoot these films on professional quality, and there’s downloading, and Vimeo and YouTube. At the time there was a strong divide between the people who made these images and the people who were watching them.”

On changing audiences… 

“I think that people aren’t watching films as a continuous and immutable process. The films that I love, and my whole formulation as a filmmaker was based on the fact that I had to go to the cinema, and I was in that space where there is fixed time. Whether I left that cinema or not the film would continue to unspool. That’s such a quaint image now, people can watch films wherever they want on any device they want. They can reformat it, they can play with it; it’s such a malleable form now. I’ve seen people recreate, reconstruct, make trailers for my films on YouTube – they take a song from the film, they recut it, they’ll take deleted scenes and they’ll cut them into the film. It’s an open forum. That’s changed things. You’re just dealing with a different attention span. People are quick to say we have short attention spans and that things are more superficial now. But I don’t agree with that. I just think people have evolved. And that there’s a different way of receiving visual material. Clearly the other thing that’s changed is that in these early films there was a clear division between the video world and the film world, and you can see where those separations are made within the film itself. That’s just not the case anymore with digital.”

‘Next of Kin’ and ‘Family Viewing’ are being re-released in the UK through Artificial Eye. Head to their website for more info. 

Recurring Nightmares #1 | Taxis to the Dark Side

[Editor’s note: Recurring Nightmares is a new, regular column concerned with teasing out those little connections that haunt our cinematic memories.]

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By Jonathan Bygraves

Bram Stoker’s vivid description of Jonathan Harker’s journey into the dark heart of the Carpathians, detailed in the opening chapter of his novel Dracula, remains one of the most richly evocative passages in literature, brimming with omens of portent and menace: those rugged landscapes engulfed in forbidding shadows, the visceral howls of dogs and wolves, the faint flames flickering against night’s encroaching darkness, all cumulatively symbolising the naïf’s Orpheus-like descent into an unknown otherness.

This powerful blend of imagery has found a natural home in cinematic representation, from the novel’s first adaptation, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), to countless successive re-imaginings in the ninety years hence. Yet the symbolic potency of Harker’s maudit voyage is such that it has been repurposed by other, non-Dracula films since: think of the progress of the eponymous protagonists in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982) or the escalating sinisterness in the opening train journey undertaken by meek accountant William Blake into the savagery of the Old West in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) – major works from auteurs who significantly, in the former’s remake of Murnau’s film and the latter’s recent Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), have addressed vampiric mythology more directly elsewhere in their filmographies.

The Count’s horse-drawn calèche – which becomes Aguirre’s raft, Fitzcarraldo’s steamer and Blake’s train carriage – is transformed into that familiar icon of New York City transit, the yellow taxicab, in two further films, Stanley Kubrick’s baroque final film Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Martin Scorsese’s nightmarish comedy After Hours (1985) which, despite their manifold differences in tone and style, both feature subtle transpositions of the near-mythical voyage of Stoker’s imagination to present-day, urban spheres.

Both films’ protagonists begin in the realms of normalcy. In After Hours, a jaded Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) returns from his mundane word processing job to his Upper East Side apartment, where the mise-en-scène emphasises his dull conformity: bright lamps, right angles, white walls bedecked only with comely framed art prints; in short, a world of domestic uniformity. The other side of Central Park, Eyes Wide Shut‘s Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) lives amidst an even greater degree of homeliness: his spacious, colourfully-decorated family abode reeks of intellectual refinement, taste, and order from every corner.

Both men, however, are dissatisfied with their lot, and promises of sexual adventure will lure them from their comfort zones into the realms of the mysterious: Hackett’s late night meet-cute with the kooky Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) prompts him to catch a ride down to bohemian SoHo. So too Harford, partially prompted by his wife Alice’s (Nicole Kidman) revelation of a lascivious sexual fantasy, is encouraged to venture forth into the unknown. Initially he heads downtown to a costume shop in SoHo’s neighbouring Greenwich Village, and then finally to an imposing mansion in a remote area of Long Island.

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Both men’s taxi rides are marked by an aesthetic shift from reality to fantasy, from the everyday to the irrational. As Hackett’s cab speeds away, external shots occur in sped-up Keystone Cops-style fast motion: a visual gag about New York drivers, certainly, but so too a reference to the distinctive undercranked shots of Count Orlok’s carriage in Murnau’s Nosferatu. Inside the taxi, meanwhile, Hackett is comically tossed about like a teddy bear on the spin cycle as loud flamenco music, replacing the austere classical cues associated with his home and work life, reverberates cacophonously around him.

Harford’s cab journeys, by contrast, are sombre in tone as he imagines his wife’s mental infidelity; cutaways whose blue hues seem to nod directly the tinting of Nosferatu‘s night-time scenes. Yet while differing from After Hours pacing, once again they begin to represent a move into the realm of the ‘other’: as the vehicle glides out of the city limits, a sequence of dissolves moves him from the mundane familiarity of highway signs and bright Christmas decorations to a haunting montage of the car’s stately progress along a forbidding, deserted wooded road, its headlamp beams straining against the enveloping darkness.

Neither journey might be considered, in physical terms, comparable to a nineteenth-century trek across the Carpathians, but in symbolic terms they carry similar resonances. Eyes Wide Shut, with its descent from the everyday into mask-clad baroque decadence, more straightforwardly mirrors Harker’s arrival into the feudal opulence of the Count’s surroundings. The SoHo of After Hours is also exotic and otherworldly, though perhaps only to Hackett himself, whose previous world of order stands in direct contrast to the gloom and divaricated lines of Marcy’s haphazardly unkempt loft apartment. Often codified as a ‘yuppie horror’ film, After Hours serves to illustrate how Hackett, as a banal, upwardly-mobile bourgeois, lives a life cloistered away from the majority of society and that if he perceives the residents of SoHo as ‘other’ from him, it is really he who represents the true ‘otherness’.

Harker’s initial journey in Stoker’s novel consists of travel first by train, then calèche, and finally in the Count’s own personal carriage a progression from modernity, industry and capital to the ancient and feudal. In Scorsese’s and Kubrick’s modern-day repurposings, there are naturally no such distinctions: their taxi rides are purely capitalistic transactions, as evidenced by the prominent role that money plays in both. In After Hours, Hackett’s sole $20 bill flies out of the window; by contrast, Harford smoothly tears a $100 note in half, on the promise that if the driver waits for him to return, the bill is his as a more than generous gratuity.

Suspension of disbelief in cinema has long made generous allowances for riders in taxis to disembark without recourse to gesture towards the matter of actually having to pay the driver before rushing off to save the world / rescue the girl / get the medicine to the dying child, so the fact that both films here foreground the necessity of the exchange of money is significant. For Harford, ostentatiously tearing a high-value bill symbolises his own financial dominance, (over-)confidence and a final gesture of the control in life which he will subsequently lose in Somerton. So too does Hackett’s own prior power gently fade, as he forlornly watches his solitary banknote gently pirouette through the air to rest on some anonymous, unlocatable patch of asphalt. Forced to leave his worldly goods behind him, Hackett, like Harford and Harker, must alight into the darkness.

Contributor Jonathan Bygraves can be followed on Twitter @iambags and runs the blog Serene Velocity.

Support Scalarama!

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I wanted to draw your attention to the upcoming Scalarama film season/festival, which will take place in September. The guys behind it have written a detailed manifesto about its aims, and they need to raise some funds (via Kickstarter) to make it a reality. Here’s just a snippet:

More than a festival, Scalarama is an inclusive film season, a movement for movie lovers and a celebration of cinema in all its forms.

We invite you to join a community of enthusiasts from across the UK; a range of film organisations, programmers, curators, collectives, academics, journalists and film fans – all will come together for one month to share their belief that watching a film as part of an audience is something important, valuable and worth championing. Scalarama is not just about film, it’s about the experience, and the people and the passion behind the projector.

Scalarama is open to all, whether you submit an event as part of our Open Programme, select to show one of the specially chosen titles from our Core Programme or take part in national Home Cinema Day on Sunday 29th September (see below for more details). Now in our third edition and with hundreds of events expected to take place across the country, we are on the verge of making a real impact on how people think and talk about cinema. With your support, we can make this year’s season the widest and most inclusive film event yet.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? For the full skinny (including video), and details on how to donate, visit the Scalarama Kickstarter page.

All being well, Permanent Plastic Helmet hopes to present an event at this year’s festival.