Category Archives: Features

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.

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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

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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.

Economic Measures #2 | A Native American in The New World (2005)

[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

If you’re looking for an ostensibly simple dialogue exchange that also happens to be laced with a quietly devastating symbolism, you might struggle to find one more moving than the one which takes place between Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) towards the end of Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005). The former lovers are briefly reunited when the Native American accompanies her husband, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), on a trip to England. Small talk and heavy silences culminate thusly:

Pocahontas: “Did you find your Indies, John? You shall…”

Smith: “I may have sailed past them.”

Soon after, the film enters its concluding passage, a montage cut to the prelude from Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Rolfe addresses his young son in voice-over, telling him and us that Pocahontas, the boy’s mother, took ill and died shortly before the return voyage to their Jamestown settlement across the Atlantic. Though Rolfe’s narration confirms her death, Pocahontas lives on in the subsequent sequence, in which she is seen playing with her son and dancing joyously in the grounds of their Gravesend estate.

Just as the music is beginning to swell, we are presented with an apparently incongruous image of a Native American. Played by Matthew Yeung and referred to in the end credits as a shaman, this otherwise anonymous character sits on a chair, as if posing on the throne of a European monarch, and directly eyes the camera. In the next shot, he exits the manor by bolting through a doorway and into the courtyard beyond. Confronting us one moment, he retreats in the next. Was he intruding? Is he chased? At any rate, one gesture appears to be contradicted by the other. Running through the door in a seemingly wounded fashion, Yeung’s physical vitality nevertheless plays out in contrast to that other, more celebrated doorway-silhouette, that of John Wayne at the end of The Searchers (1956).

It’s an odd moment. On first inspection it serves no narrative function. Yeung has before now appeared only briefly, on the periphery of the frame as Pocahontas alights a ship and steps for the first time onto English soil. Breaking the fourth wall, his gaze destroys in an instant what has until now been accepted as a seamlessly worked hermetic fiction. Later in the same sequence, we see an image of Pocahontas’ (imagined) grave in a present-day setting. Stitched into an otherwise conventional historical drama, both moments appear as violent ruptures. They force us out of the diegesis and contradict all notions of a harmonious narrative. Indeed, Yeung’s Native American resembles a history museum exhibit, static and lifeless – only in the next image to appear alive again, rejecting and rebelling against his own fate. The period setting is demystified.

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In The New World, history records, tells and observes at the same time as it perceives, distorts and contradicts. As such, it bears during its most powerful passages the markings of an essay film, confident in nothing if not its own self-questioning. As with the violent battles that took place earlier in the film, for instance, Malick treats an otherwise finite act such as Pocahontas’ death as multifarious. It unfolds in a staggered and self-contradicting way. Edited as something that is about to happen, as something that is happening, and as something that seems already to have happened, the everyday is given urgency – and the historical is rendered immediate, even contestable. Yeung’s bounding leap through the doorway of Pocahontas’ manor seems in this way to be an active refusal of some sort – even if it is merely a refusal to be enclosed by Malick’s film.

The past and the present, the perceived and the actual, the old and the new, the historical and the mythic, the natural and the imposed – all of these and more are seen not as opposites, but as co-dependent. Because of this, The New World is able to complicate its own rueful riffs on the trajectory taken by western civilisation upon the discovery of and expansion across the Americas. In this version of the John Smith-Pocahontas fable, the romantic ideal is problematised by scientific endeavour and imperial expansion – currents and phenomena that coincided with the formation of capitalism itself. This is the essence of the heartbreak that pervades that would-be reunion between Pocahontas and Smith. When the latter remarks that he may have sailed past the Indies he had been tasked to find, he seems to be acknowledging something else entirely – a missed opportunity for moral and emotional purity.

Such notions are of course romantic in themselves. The deeper devastation, the one that makes this the powerful anti-romance film that it is, is that Pocahontas doesn’t so much reject Smith as accept that history itself would have always denied them a happiness ever after. Put another way, abstractions such as moral and emotional purity are incompatible with historical particulars. Indeed, Smith left Pocahontas in the first place because he was sent on an expedition as part of wider economic imperatives – the same imperatives, to be precise, by which Pocahontas’ peoples were to be annihilated. And somewhere amidst this terrible realisation, an anonymous Native American retreats, rejects, turns his back in disgust. Capitalism annihilates these gestures too.

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

Economic Measures #1 | Robert De Niro in Heat (1995)

[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

As he drives to LAX to catch a one-way ticket to finer climes, professional thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) makes one last call to his fence and friend Nate (Jon Voight). All is as scheduled. The plane is in the air, Neil is on time, there are to be no hiccups. Nate tells Neil that he is home free. “Home free,” Neil repeats to girlfriend Eady (Amy Brenneman), who sits next to him in the car, all smiles and optimism. But something else Nate said continues to nag. An elusive traitor has been tracked down, checked in under a different name at a nearby hotel. Neil told Nate he no longer cares about said traitor, but from the moment he ends the conversation it’s clear that he does.

What follows is one of the many indelible moments in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995). McCauley enters a tunnel, whose lightning-white lights engulf the car. Illuminated in a sublime sheen of sustained mercury flash, Eady and McCauley share a momentary, wordless paradise. We see them in profile, against a sea blue that is not, sadly for them, a blue sea. Though Elliot Goldenthal’s becalming string score seems to prolong the moment, the light subsides as quickly as it had begun. Returning to reality, McCauley begins to mull. He enters that zone, of having to weigh up his options and make a split-second decision. The dilemma, we know, is whether or not to go after his betrayer – to continue on course for the airport or to make the detour and settle a score.

De Niro’s face straightens, intensifies. Just as his character’s driving becomes an involuntary mechanism, the actor channels energy and focus through his eyes and facial muscles. Stiffening up causes him to blink more than usual. Eady looks across at him. Feeling her gaze, McCauley adjusts his fingers that grip the steering wheel – to relax, to loosen up, to battle a nervous energy he’d rather not have. And De Niro twists his face. Is he about to cry or about to laugh? It’s difficult to say, but it recalls a similar register seen in The Deer Hunter (1978), when his character Michael Vronsky is forced to play Russian Roulette at gunpoint.

In that instance, an unimaginably distressing situation becomes so silly, so absurd (it’s a game after all) that tears and laughter become the dual face of anger, terror and everything in between. The dual face, because the two emotions co-habit the same instant rather than preclude one another. Indeed, that’s the absurdity of it. But in Heat, McCauley’s profession denies emotion. Throughout, he repeats the code he and fellow thieves must live by, that if you feel the heat at any moment, you have to make the decision to walk away in thirty seconds flat. “That’s the discipline,” he boasts to Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), the cop who’s hot on his tail.

Discipline indeed: just as sentiment begins to take over him, McCauley seems to fight against it. De Niro contorts his mouth, licks, stretches and pouts away whatever complex simmers beneath. His knuckles re-tighten and his eyes lock once again into a zone of decisive action. In these small, combined gestures, we’re witnessing McCauley’s future bliss fall away from him. True to his word, he takes thirty seconds of narrative-time to make his decision, knowing fine well that he’ll live or die by it. And there’s something terribly accepting about his choice. Prohibiting emotion, he resigns himself to a fate more fitting than the quiet getaway he has temporarily allowed himself to humour – a resignation that might be, of course, just as romantic.

It’s less do-or-die than do-and-die. Because as McCauley told Hanna over coffee earlier in the film, “I do what I do best: take scores.” That a future with Eady is less easy to imagine than his next heist reveals the extent to which McCauley’s arc was doomed all along.

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

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Shun Li and the Poet director Andrea Segre | interview

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[Editor’s note: An abridged version of this interview originally appeared on the Grolsch Film Works website. This is the full transcript.]

Shun Li and the Poet, in UK cinemas now, is the beautifully observed story of the titular Chinese immigrant (Xhao Tao) who finds herself unexpectedly transferred from a textiles factory on the outskirts of Rome to Chiogga, a small Venetian fishing village. Lonely and concerned only with attaining the documents to secure the safe import of her 8-year-old son, she strikes up a tentative friendship with Bepi (Rade Sherbediga), a friendly fisherman of Slavic origin.

I thoroughly enjoyed this tender and poetic film, so it was a delight to sit down with its director, the charming – and wondrously bearded – Andrea Segre, for a chat.

[PPH in bold]: It’s obvious you come at the story from a humanistic perspective. How did your previous work on social issue documentaries and ethnographic studies influence you?

[Segre in regular]: When people ask me why I have an interest in this story as a filmmaker, the answer is that the direction is the opposite. I reached the cinema – became a filmmaker – starting from the interests I had in this story. I didn’t study cinema. I studied sociology and started to have an interest in these topics, these lives. I didn’t know that I wanted to be a director. I became a director through just speaking about this stuff. The reason I had an interest in the story is that it’s related to my experience. I grew up in a country that wasn’t an immigration country. In my class at school in Italy, we were all Italians, in the village. Nowadays in the village in my daughter’s class, there are children from all around the world. This change in Italy happened in my life; I grew up in the 15-20 years of this change. For me to research the story of this change was very important. I wanted to know what caused the tension in the society; not only the Italian one but others too. To be able somehow to use the normal difficulties you have in intercultural relations in a positive way is one of the most important challenges we have to build a better place, a better world.

How did you research the Chinese story in particular?

I researched it for this film only, I didn’t research especially about China before. Before this film I researched specifically Eastern countries, the Balkan areas, Albania, Moldova, the former Yugoslavia, Ukraine. In 2005 I moved more to the south side of the Mediterranean, to Tunisia, Libya, then to Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana. The research was connected to my sociology research. My thesis was about the social communication of NGOs working in post-civil war Yugoslavia. After that I was working as an academic researcher and an NGO activist/militant. I was working on the policies of securitarian countries against so-called illegal immigrants. All of this ran parallel to my filmmaking interests. I was in the middle of this context of social activism, academic research and the filmmaking profession.

The distribution of my documentaries always has a social and political goal. My documentaries have been used to increase knowledge about the injustices produced by this wave of securitarian politics that the European Union has built in the last ten years. It’s something that makes me interested because one major challenge of the future is if we are going to be able to keep our humanity while we insist on the necessity of controlling our space. We have decided that somehow we have to control people’s movements. But to control someone who is moving because he needs to move, that you have to beat him, put him in prison, deport him? That you have to use violence against a human being who didn’t do anything criminal against you? It’s the human challenge. The human subject of these stories that really interests me. I want my films to be used politically to stop injustices, but what is inside my interests as artist, as a storyteller, is the human tension that everyone can feel. You have to ask yourself if it’s just or not to stop a human being in this way.

Shun Li and the Poet hd (9)

Political cinema can sometimes beat the audience over the head with its points. But your film is very subtle in this respect. It’s about the community, the characters and their relationships…

Thank you. Everything started six or seven years when I went to the osteria [fisherman’s bar] that we used in the real film. I knew this osteria because it’s in my mother’s village. It’s like a living room for a fisherman – part of your house! The bar woman plays a very important role in the fishermen’s lives. They speak with, communicate in an intimate way, confide, drink a couple of glasses of wine. She’s the only woman so you speak with her in a way that you don’t speak with the clients. Suddenly she’s Chinese! It’s a difficult change. You don’t have the instrument in your daily life to have an intercultural relationship with her. I’m a fisherman… what is this intercultural relationship!? They started to have a problem, a real one.

Some use this problem to create a public fear. To use it in a xenophobic, demagogic way. That is what the politicians try to do because it is very easy. They say, “your life is going very bad because she is Chinese”. That’s easy and politicians have done that for a long time. But a part of this demagogic side of the problem is that for them it is a [genuine] difficulty, and I thought that was also really important to respect. I didn’t want a stereotypical portrait of them as racists. Yes, there are members of them who are violent and use this fear who don’t have the tools to deal with these difficulties so they react with arrogance. But I try be with them in the film, not to fight against them. In the osteria I involved some of them in the story, they are non-professional actors. They are real Chioggia fisherman. I wanted to build a portrait of this community which was going through an identity crisis. They were born in a poor fisherman’s village and Italy has changed in the last 40 years. We were a poor country made by fishermen, farmers and so on. In the last 20-25 years – even though the recent crisis is changing this again – we became richer and also the identity of the people changed. They know that their world is going to die. In this microcosm I had the opportunity to build a metaphor for what is happening to our country.

The music in the film is powerful. Can you tell me more about it?

Most of the music has been played by the composer Francois Couterrier, but everything started from the piano music you hear when Shun Li first arrives in Chioggia. That is a piano played by an Australian pianist. He tried to build melodies using a destroyed piano. He was trying reveal melodies from an instrument that was no longer producing melodies. I loved this combination of harmony and disharmony and I asked Francois to work in this way. We preferred piano and accordion. We didn’t work on a Chinese atmosphere specifically but maybe we put some in there somehow! What we tried to do was build a harmony between the voice of Shun Li and the music because she is speaking about poetry and it was important to feel that her voice and the music were going well together.

Zhao Tao is wonderful in the lead role. Can you talk about her casting and performance?

I wanted to have her since I saw Still Life, the Jia Zhangke film which won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2006. I really loved the mixture of simplicity and profundity that she has. You believe that she’s a real Chinese woman working in a bar but you feel that she has something else. However, she doesn’t show that she has something else. She finds a way to make you feel what she’s feeling. That is something very difficult and wonderful to do in acting. Another thing that was important for me was that she became an actress with her husband Jia Zhangke and so I knew that she was used to working on the border between documentary and fiction – Zhangke is a master of that. I sent her the script, I asked her if she wanted to play it. She was looking for a project to play outside of China. She’d only ever been to Italy once (for the Venice festival) and for her it was great for her to a play an emigrating Chinese woman for the first time she acted out of Italy.

With Rade [Sherbediga] when I asked him to play Bepi, he said, “How did you know I was an actor as well as a fisherman?!” I didn’t know!

Though it’s being released now, the film was made in 2011. What have you been up to since?

Well, the life of the film has been incredible. But after Shun Li and the Poet, I made a documentary called Closed Sea. It’s the story of the pushing back policy of the Italian police against the immigrants coming from Libya. After that I made another documentary about music in Greece that’s also about the economic crisis. That’s called Indebito. And I made a feature which will hopefully screen later this year in Venice, called The First Snow. It’s a story based in a small valley in the mountains of Northern Italy, about a son who has lost a father, and a father who doesn’t know how to be a father to be his daughter. This son is Italian and the father is African. I’m always trying not to make political cinema, but to make a cinema that doesn’t stress its political content to the audience, rather it makes the audience think about it.

 Shun Li and the Poet is released on 21 June at Renoir and Curzon Home Cinema.

Interview | Ben Lewin, director of The Sessions

Ben Lewin

Focusing upon a brief period of sexual awakening in the life of real-life polio-afflicted Californian journalist and poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), Ben Lewin’s The Sessions is an amiable and largely enjoyable comedy drama set in the 1980s. As a survivor of boyhood polio himself, the film’s subject is very close to Lewin’s heart. We sat down with the man recently to discuss his inspiration for the film, getting the right tone, and the experience of working with such a talented cast.

PPH (in bold): What in particular drew you to the story of Mark O’Brien?

Ben Lewin (in regular): To put it very simply, it was the emotional impact on me when I quite accidentally read his article on seeing a sex surrogate [played in the film by Helen Hunt]. I didn’t expect to be reading that, even less for it to reach me in the way that it did. A few minutes later, I took the article out to my wife and said to her, “I think this is our next movie.”

How did you approach adapting the work and what he had written?

I think I tried as much as possible to use his article as a blueprint for the whole thing. And I may have moved away from it at times; you know, I wrote various drafts, but always kept coming back to it to find what it was that had turned me on. When you write, you sometimes lose your way or meander off on a tangent. I think it was a combination of what he had written plus the insight I had got from his girlfriend, who was with him in the years before he died, Susan Fernbach. And the really rich account that I got from from Sheryl Cohen Greene [Hunt’s character] of her side of the story .

How did you approach the tone of the film?

The process of writing goes everywhere for me, it goes dark and light and everything in between. Finding the tone is, in fact, the process. I simply reached a point where I thought that it represented Mark O’Brien’s really unusual view of life and the influence of his poetry on his way of thinking. And I think that I never worried too much about the tone, I never worried particularly about trying to be funny. Sometimes it’s quite a surprise to me, particularly when I heard an audience, and there’s a moment when he says [to Sheryl], “Your money is on the desk over there” and people laughed. And I never intended that to be a funny line, but I think people identified with his awkwardness. And that’s where the humour comes from, so I don’t think that it’s full of funny punchlines and so on. I think the situation itself is what generates the humour.

What are some of your cinematic influences?

I certainly never looked at other films about disabled people – they were not a guideline. In a way, one of the films I kept thinking about was Risky Business. I thought that also had a real verve to it, plus a touch of authenticity. Otherwise I’m not sure that I used any other film as a model. I guess my heroes are Bruno Weill and Billy Wilder and probably people that have been long forgotten by most others! But film is just another way of storytelling, and I would say that I’m as much influenced by storytelling in written literature as I am in film culture.

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in The Sessions

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in The Sessions

Initially, the title was The Surrogate – what was the reason for the title change?

It wasn’t an exciting reason at all, it was the fact that there was a film out called Surrogates which Disney had made with Bruce Willis that was completely different. And both Fox and Disney, being members of the MPAA, they didn’t want to have any confusion between the two films. I was in the end, very happy with the choice of the title The Sessions.

Did you come across across any issues with the MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America]? The film’s surprisingly sexually explicit…

Well, we were concerned. I think that we never thought we would get a PG-13, even though Bill Macy is very vocal on this subject. He thinks that it’s a crime that films full of violence are given a PG-13 and films that touch on sexuality are immediately in the R rating. But we were gratified that the MPAA liked the film and didn’t ask us for any cuts.

That must have been a relief…

It was a relief, because there were a couple moments which are on the edge, and all of a sudden they want you to edit it and you’re in danger of getting an NC-17 [the rating that carries the stigma of box office death]. In the end we were happy with the attitude that they took and they saw the film the way it was intended.

What was it like to work with your two leads?

It was like sitting back and watching the best theatre in the world. I’d like to think that my particular gift is casting! [Laughs] I know that if you do that correctly, you never have to look over your shoulder. I really think they did all of the heavy lifting. We spent a lot of time together before the shoot talking through the script and particular scenes and when it came to the actual shooting, I really tried to let them use the spontaneity of the moment as much as possible, and as much as possible, stay out of the way.

Was William H. Macy your first choice [for the role of the Catholic priest?]

You know, he wasn’t my first choice, because I was actually thinking because this was Berkeley, California at a particular time, I wanted something completely different. I was thinking of a black or Latino priest. Then all of a sudden the suggestion of Bill Macy came up, and it took me all of a millisecond for me to agree to that! But often the best choices come out of left field and you don’t know they’re coming.

What’s next for you?

Well, I know that I’m going to buy new shoes for the children! [Laughs] I’m kicking the tyres of a bunch of projects and writing a couple, but I haven’t committed to one in particular just as yet.

The Sessions is out in cinemas from Friday, released by 20th Century Fox.