“Being natural is merely a pose, and the most irritating one I know” – Oscar Wilde
The notion of camp has been an integral, if much misunderstood, part of British cultural life for more than a century, from the humour of the music halls, through the innuendo of Round the Horne and the Carry On series, to the dressing-up-box excess of ‘70s glam rock and the ‘80s New Romantic scene. Jes Benstock’s 2011 documentary The British Guide to Showing Off, released on DVD this week, profiles a man who perhaps more than any other figure exemplifies this country’s love of camp. Encompassing all of the contradictions that this suggests Benstock weaves together its disparate elements in regal style.
Artist, sculptor and performer Andrew Logan first staged the Alternative Miss World competition in 1972 and the film follows his preparations for the twelfth event, staged in 2009, while looking back on the competition’s history and the eccentric menagerie of people who have been involved along the way.
The Alternative Miss World is a pageant of the outsider, featuring an array of contestants (including several members of Logan’s family) dolled up in a series of extravagantly outrageous outfits, from drag queens to theatrical performers and grotesques. As in the non-alternative version, the lovelies must model a range of costumes – day wear, evening wear and swim wear – though in Logan’s version, shallow beauty is replaced by creativity, self-expression and a celebration of the different. The result is a very British creation, yet clearly reminiscent of Studio 54, Warhol and the spectrum of New York oddities that moved in his creative orbit and appeared in his work.
The cast of characters who have been involved in the contest over the years, many of whom appear in the film, is a virtual who’s who of British pop and even high culture; David Hockney (who judged the first contest), David Bowie (who failed to gain entry to the second), Zandra Rhodes (who designs all of co-host Logan’s outfits), Derek Jarman, Sir Norman Rosenthal, Brian Eno, Ruby Wax, Nick Rhodes and Julian Clary have all been part of it, either as judges, guests, co-hosts or even contestants. The spirit of creative otherness and freedom that Logan has engendered brings to mind Jean Cocteau’s declaration that “I am a lie that always speaks the truth”; beneath the makeup and costume lies a fundamental truth about British culture, to the extent that the contest has reflected and influenced the look and attitude of almost every major pop musical movement of the past thirty five years, from glam to punk to the Blitz Kids, taking in Rocky Horror along the way.
The film mirrors Logan’s sense of playfulness, including Python-esque animation, collages of photographic images and some wonderful footage of the contest down the years, as well as revealing interviews with former contestants and some intriguing talking heads. Despite some problems including budgetary concerns (incredibly, Logan’s team manage to entice major companies including Swatch to sponsor the event) and a desperate hunt for venues, Logan comes across as perennially cheerful, open and likeable. Far from being a specifically ‘gay’ event, the Alternative Miss World challenges perceptions of sexuality and encourages us all to embrace the myriad layers of our personalities. As Logan himself says, “this whole thing is about realism”.
In an age in which ‘alternative’ has come to mean the creative cul-de-sac of Coldplay, while the depressing factory line of X-Factor defines performance, Andrew Logan and his pageant are a key reminder of our culture’s camp heritage, individualism and tradition of reacting against the norm. The British Guide to Showing Off is nothing less than a journey through the alternative history of Britain.
The British Guide To Showing Off is available on DVD now, released by Verve Pictures.
For Permanent Plastic Helmet‘s final post of a busy 2011, here’s some bits and pieces that didn’t really fit into the last two parts of our end-of-year round-up.
SEARCH ENGINE HORRORS
Because it’s always good to know what people are really looking for when they stumble across your site. Here, thanks to WordPress analytics, is a carefully curated list of some of the most ludicrous, disturbing and utterly inexplicable search terms that people popped into Google, only to be confronted with PPH. Most of them have left me stumped, though I suppose much of the blame can be laid at the door of this post, which referenced Keith Chegwin’s mercifully short-lived TV show Naked Jungle. Enjoy (bad language alert):
gay bear, fucking movie, vanessa feltz nude, vanessa feltz naked, gay bear porn, keith chegwin nude, unsimulated incest, gay bear porn stars, naked ancient in jungle hollywood movies, mexican teen girl naked, beaver yesterday, is neil buchanan from art attack dead, fuck daddy, naked blackburn, daddy fuck, teddy duncan naked, buff guys with jheri curls, black male piano jerry curl music, vintage jock locker room pictures, gay bear films, plastic fucking, freddie mercury images vacuum, beaver mean4, naked celebrities, fucking movies, vanessa feltz black, fight oversights in naked.
THE MONOSYLLABIC TWEET I RECEIVED FROM SPIKE LEE THAT I STILL THOUGHT WAS PRETTY COOL
THANK YOU ROLL-CALL
A massive thank-you to everybody who contributed to PPH this year and helped it grow into a site with lots of interesting, varied content. Here’s a list of those who’ve written for PPH this year (hyperlinked to their own blog/website if they have one. Make sure you check them out):
Permanent Plastic Helmet has already done its Top 10 of 2011. You can (and should!) read it HERE. The following is a list of some other film-related things from 2011 that have been on my chest. I’ve decided to get them off it.
THE ONE FILM I WISH I HADN’T SEEN – Snowtown
Unlike my dear Granddad, I don’t believe that films should only serve the purpose of providing pure escapism. However, I would have preferred more from Snowtown than the feeling of stomach sickness that it left me with when I emerged blinking from a mid-morning press screening at the LFF. Justin Kurzel’s dramatisation of Australia’s notorious barrel murders was a tawdry – if technically accomplished, well acted and fiercely, atmospherically oppressive – fiesta of animal abuse, male rape, paedophilia, torture, and dodgy haircuts. I guess I can see what people got out of it, but I’ll be honest: it seemed more like depiction than interrogation or illumination to me, and – yep – I wish I hadn’t seen it.
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THE FILM THAT I DESPISED AND SEEM TO BE IN THE VAST MINORITY IN DESPISING – Melancholia
After an astounding opening sequence, Lars Von Trier’s latest turned into a thunderingly dull slab of navel-gazing with a first half that played out like a student version of a David Lynch movie, and a second in which you could you go for a curry and a reiki session and not miss anything. Stunning visuals and some good acting (especially from Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg) just couldn’t make up for the crashing boredom. Ever divisive, Von Trier left me way on the other side of the line with this one. I found Ballast to be a much more powerful and rich study of depression and its effects.
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THE HIDDEN SUCCESS STORY OF THE YEAR – The Story of Lovers Rock
Menelik Shabazz’ excellent, important slice of black British cultural history The Story of Lovers Rock had a troubled conception, being stuck in development and rights hell for a few years. However, thanks to tireless work from Shabazz himself and a loyal team of supporters, the documentary has weathered the tough times (Shabazz, for example, went to the Birmingham VUE only to find that not only were the posters for the film not up, the film itself hadn’t even been delivered!) and in January 2012 it’ll enter its fifth month in UK cinemas. To date, it’s enjoyed a string of sold-out, vibrant Q+As in cinemas across the country, and has rolled out into prestigious venues like The Tricycle and Riverside Studios. Despite very limited, lukewarm press coverage (a piece in Time Out gave the film a mildly positive review, yet signed off with the dismissive “for fans only” line), it’s taken a very respectable £50,000+ at the UK Box office. It seems that the people wanted this film, and they got it. Its continued success represents a victory for black British independent cinema and the power of the consumer. [interview with Menelik Shabazz]
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THE PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR – Ben Mendelsohn in Animal Kingdom
Honourable mentions go to Uggie the dog from The Artist, Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life, Michael Shannon in Take Shelter,and everyone in A Separation (there’s loads more but there’s also loads more end-of-year-lists that’ll do this sort of thing in more detail. And the Oscars, I guess). However, the turn that’s lingered longest in my mind is Ben Mendehlson as the seedy, villainous and utterly psychopathic uncle Pope from Aussie crime drama Animal Kingdom (which I saw way back in January). I can’t remember having such a visceral reaction to a fictional character since the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters gave me sleepless nights years ago.
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THE RETURNING BLOG COMMENTER OF THE YEAR – “Truthteller”
Last year, I published a short piece praising Errol Morris’ tricky, entertaining documentary Tabloid(which tells the confounding tale of former Miss Wyoming Joyce McKinney). Imagine my surprise when I returned to my computer to discover an 801-word screed by somebody named ‘Truthteller’ in the comments section. Well, I did another post this year to announce the film’s UK release date, and lo and behold ‘Truthteller’ came back with another rant. This time “they” branded me “a heartless, gossiping moron”. “They” were at least a third right. I would suggest my assailant was Joyce McKinney herself, but if I did that I’d be in all sorts of legal hot water. It was Joyce. IT WAS JOYCE!
For upping their game to match their compelling USP (to wit: UK distribution for social issue films and documentaries) with a consistently intriguing and often brilliant slate. In 2011 alone Dogwoof pictures provided us with PPH’s film of the year Dreams Of A Life, Steve James’ astonishing The Interrupters, Errol Morris’ Tabloid, the paean to newspaper journalismPage One: Inside The New York Times, Mark Cousins’ The First Movie, and chess doc Bobby Fischer Against The World, to name but a few. Bravo.
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THE MOST TEMPTING CHRISTMAS PRESENT TO BUY FOR SOMEONE YOU HATE
Sadly the price – coming in at well over the £0.01 to £1.00 bracket that I’m prepared to spend on joke presents – proved prohibitive. Note also the steadfastly tripartite approach to titling. Triads, yardies and onion bhajees! Well I never.
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THE TV OF THE YEAR – The Story Of Film/Black Mirror -’15 Million Merits’
Across 15 spellbinding weeks, writer and broadcaster Mark Cousins’ passionate, jet-setting documentary The Story of Film was an absolute joy to watch. I loved his emphasis on world cinema, his fiercely personal take on things and his slightly mental metaphors (“The bauble!” “The gorilla!”). I learned a lot, enjoyed every minute and now, as a result, have a viewing list as long as my arm.
The biggest surprise of the year TV-wise was the second instalment of Charlie Brooker’s techno-dystopian trilogy Black Mirror, entitled ‘15 Million Merits’, co-written with his wife and ex-Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq. It depicted a terrifyingly realised (and horribly imaginable) near-future in which humanity now consists of bored subordinates participating in a never-ending videogame to accumulate points. And what can you do with those points? Enter an X-Factor-style reality music show, or watch porn. It was beautifully shot and designed, deeply disturbing, and rising star Daniel Kaluuya was brilliant as the stoic yet vulnerable hero.
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THE MOST VIEWED ARTICLE ON PERMANENT PLASTIC HELMET IN 2011
Earlier this year I discovered that the erstwhile host of kids’ TV show Art Attack had a side career as the guitarist in a metal band called Marseille. Despite it having literally nothing to do with the site’s film-specific remit I decided to post about it anyway, and it’s racked up thousands of hits. Although most people have found their way to the article by enquiring via search engine (Q. ‘is+Neil+Buchanan+dead+?’ A. I hope not), I’m amazed at the levels of interest it’s generated. Perhaps I should knock the film thing on the head and dedicate the blog instead to the whereabouts of 90s TV entertainers. Whither Jonathan Morris?
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THE BEST YOUTUBE VID THAT WE POSTED THIS YEAR
It had to be Guillaume Gendron‘s discovery of Joe Pesci’s short-lived career in gangsta rap, which had me laughing like a drain for days every time I thought about it. “A lovely day for a drive-by” indeed. Enjoy:
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THE MOST HILARIOUS NON-FILM RELATED ARTS REVIEW OF THE YEAR – The Daily Express on ‘Let England Shake’ by PJ Harvey
You’ll find the “review” underneath the player. Enough said:
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THE “WHAT WE’RE MOST EXCITED ABOUT FOR 2012” AWARD(S)
Michael Fassbender winning the Best Actor Oscar for his amazing performance in Shame.
The return to our screens of Spike Lee with his new film Red Hook Summer (which you can find out a bit more about over at Cinemart).
Amour, the latest effort from Michael Haneke, which sounds absolutely spellbinding.
The big one: Paul Thomas Anderson (for my money, the best, brightest director currently working in American cinema today) returns with The Master, a Scientology-inspired epic starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix.
Another wish would be full UK distribution for William Friedkin’s latest Killer Joe, and Michael Rapaport’s excellent documentary Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest which was released in the States in August. Here’s the trailer:
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Thank you for reading. There’s one more post to come in our look back at 2011, and it will be packed to the gills with bad language. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Just like that, the BFI London Film Festival is over for another year. It’s been a staggeringly enjoyable few weeks of film watching, note-taking, tiredness, putting Twitter handles to faces and socializing with some lovely, lovely people. Here, as promised, is a final round-up of LFF stuff: the good, the bad, the sad and the awkward.
PERMANENT PLASTIC HELMET’S FILMS OF THE FESTIVAL
My favourite film of this year’s LFF was Steve’s McQueen’s powerful sex addiction drama, which features an astonishing performance in the lead role from Michael Fassbender, who is emerging as one the very best actors of his generation. It’s not perfect (the final third veers perilously close toward moral melodrama) but it is exceptional, vital, haunting filmmaking, and New York has never looked like this before. [Read full review here].
2. DREAMS OF A LIFE
A good measure of how passionate you feel about a film is how you react when someone else criticizes it. So when a fellow writer sneeringly dismissed Carol Morley’s devastating documentary Dreams of a Life as “The Arborfor ITV viewers” and I flew into a Basil Fawlty-esque rage, it was pretty clear just how much the film had burrowed under my skin. In combining interviews, reconstruction footage and the director’s own research, Dreams of a Life is a dizzying attempt to piece together the sad story of 38 year-old Joyce Vincent, a North London resident who lay dead in her flat for three years without anybody coming to check on her. It’s about a million things (community, memories, loneliness, love, music, race, London), it’s brilliantly put together, and it will bounce around your head for days, if not weeks. Sad, staggering and totally unmissable.
3. THE ARTIST
The audience favourite of the festival was Michel Hazanavicius’ wondrously uplifiting homage to the silent era, starring Jean Dujardin as a devilishly charismatic silent star left behind by the talkies. Although it flags a bit towards the end, it’s technically brilliant, incredibly funny (can dogs be nominated for Oscars?) and totally in love with the cinema.
I had a clear top three, but there were lots of other excellent films I saw that I was unable to organize into a coherent top five or top ten. They included…
TAKE SHELTER – A slow-burn drama featuring Michael Shannon’s blistering portrayal of a family man on the edge. [Read full review here]
THE KID WITH A BIKE – The Dardennes Brothers’ affecting, naturalistic tale of a troubled boy coming to terms with abandonment by his feckless father. [Read full review here]
MISS BALA – More Gomorrah than Goodfellas, a bleak, punishing, deeply ironic Mexican drama about the evils of the drug trade. [Read full review here].
THE DESCENDANTS – George Clooney shines in a moving, yet satisfyingly dark Hawaiian-set tale of hard life lessons from the reliably excellent yet lesser-spotted Alexander Payne.
SUPERHEROES – Michael Barnett’s consistently amusing, moving and surprising documentary about the ever-growing community of have-a-go caped crusaders that are taking, rather foolhardily, to the streets of America to enforce their own brand of justice. [Read full review here]
MOST OVERRATED FILM
I was debating whether or not to include this category, because a) the concept of ‘overrating’ something is essentially meaningless, and b) it just feels a bit like more needless negativity thrown in for good measure. However, when I heard that WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN had beaten the far superior Shame and The Artist to the prize of LFF Best Film, my mind was made up. We Need To Talk About Kevin is a weirdly middlebrow horror film, which overdoes the symbolism to a ludicrous degree, and offers practically no further insight into its characters than Eva: not very nice, Kevin: bit of a nutter, The husband: a bit of a twat. Not terrible, then, but certainly not a ‘best film’. A bizarre choice. [Read full review here]
DISAPPOINTMENT & TURKEY ROLLED INTO ONE OF THE FESTIVAL
After the 360 opening night boondoggle, I was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’d been exposed to the very worst that the LFF had to offer. At 10.06pm on Sunday 23rd October, however, as I stumbled out of the VUE cinema, confused and furious, it became apparent that I was wrong.
What was it that had discombobulated me so? Well, in a nutshell, a Surprise Film that had somehow managed to trump the previous years’ one-two punch of Capitalism: A Love Story and Brighton Rock for sheer disappointment. As surprises go, Whit Stillman’s appalling DAMSELS IN DISTRESS was less a turn up for the books, more like finding a cockroach in your soup.
It felt as though Stillman had begun writing it in the early 90s after watching Heathers, slipped into a coma while Clueless, Mean Girls and even, for Christ’s sake, Juno redefined self-reflexive, ironic teen-girl sass, and then farted this out in a half-sentient state after hoovering up the Wikipedia definition of ‘Mumblecore’.
It’s ostensibly a tale of four airheaded college girls at a privileged establishment, but the basics – coherent structure, narrative, characters you can invest in – are entirely absent, and countless scenes sputter to an unsatisfactory conclusion before they’ve really begun. If it deserves any credit, it’s for a singularity of aesthetic style, with the pastel colours and costumes and cloying TV-movie vaseline glow complemented by the relentless muzak on the soundtrack. (A plus point also for bringing The Wire’s tragic Dukie back to our screens in a small role).
Furthermore, it’s not just unfunny, it’s actively offensive, making light of such delightful topics as anal rape and suicide without providing any context for doing so. It’s also rare to find a film that has as much contempt for its own characters as it does its audience; none of the characters seem to learn anything, improve or even develop. Unclear whether it’s supposed to be a parody of college films or simply of its own staggering awfulness, Damsels in Distress is would-be modish, pretentious, vapid garbage that’s destined to become the favourite film of people you’d jump in front of the 159 bus to avoid.
Despite my hatred of the film, however, the distribution company have been kind enough to provide me with its official trailer. Here it is:
DOWNER OF THE FESTIVAL
I’ve written about it here already, but it’s worth repeating that watching certain films first thing in the morning takes a bit of getting used to. The winner of the IT TOTALLY RUINED MY ENTIRE FUCKING DAY™ award this year was Justin Kurzel’s true-life Aussie crime drama SNOWTOWN. Its veritable cornucopia of paedophilia, incestuous rape, animal abuse and graphic scenes of torture were, quite frankly, a bit much for a 10 a.m. start. [Read full review here]
MOST AWKWARD MOMENT
As anyone who has ever been to the BFI will know, there’s a certain contingent of the audience who likes to laugh a little too hard and a little too loud at the most innocuous things, just to prove that they really got it. However, the daddy of all inappropriate laughs came during a screening of EARLY ONE MORNING in NFT1, a downbeat French drama concerning a depressed, humiliated banker who goes on the rampage. The film is barely two minutes old when said psychotic banker played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin (a hangdog genetic splice between Billy Bob Thornton and Iain Duncan Smith) storms into his office and guns down two colleagues in cold blood. You could have a heard a pin drop in the audience. Well, you could have, had it not been for the absolute bellend who let rip a monster guffaw at the first gunshot, probably imagining that by doing so he was striking a blow against capitalism, rather than embarrassing himself and shattering the spell of an incredibly powerful scene. Arse.
FILMS THAT I REALLY WANTED TO SEE BUT SADLY MISSED FOR WHATEVER REASON
Harry Belafonte in activism documentary SING YOUR SONG, Sean Penn Robert Smith-ing it up in THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, low-budget love Brit story WEEKEND by Andrew Haigh, Werner Herzog’s death row doc INTO THE ABYSS and Dexter Fletcher’s directorial debut WILD BILL. Hopefully the chance will come around soon for me to see all of these.
I couldn’t be arsed didn’t have time to review everything I saw, so I’ve also given everything I did see a handy score, using the rating system of favourite culture website The A.V. Club:
The Black Power MixtapeB
Martha Marcy May MarleneB
Dreams Of A LifeA
The Kid With A BikeB+
We Have A PopeC+
Hara-Kiri: Death Of A SamuraiB
I’m Carolyn ParkerB
Early One MorningB
The Ides Of MarchB-
We Need To Talk About KevinC+
Damsels In DistressF
A Dangerous MethodB
And… that’s all folks. I hope you’ve enjoyed the PPH @ LFF coverage. I certainly have, and I’m already looking forward to next year’s festival which will be the first under new Artistic Director Claire Stewart, who replaces the outgoing Sandra Hebron. Thanks for the memories Sandra!
Opinions about the Oscars are like arseholes. Everybody (OK, nearly everybody) has got one. So I’ll keep this nice and brief, and then you are free to carry on with your business.
Firstly, Best Picture. I haven’t seen Winter’s Bone or The Kids Are All Right yet, but that doesn’t matter because neither have a prayer of winning the big prize. It looks like being a straight fight between The King’s Speech and The Social Network. That’s fine with me, because of the rest of the field, only Toy Story 3 really deserves to be up there and sadly, being an animated feature doesn’t appear to carry much water when the big prizes are being handed out.
I’d give it (and I think they will give it) to The King’s Speech, which is sweeping, moving and lots of other adjectives ending in -ing. To simply brand it feelgood entertainment would be to do it a disservice. I thought the composition was thrilling (I loved the way that speech therapist Lionel Logue’s gaudily shambolic office/house was used to frame the relationship between the two men), and also found an unexpected touch of the surreal embodied in the use of a number of off-kilter low-angle shots and bizarrely intimate close-ups redolent of a true British classic: Terry Gilliam’s dystopian Brazil.
In terms of the acting categories, Natalie Portman is nailed on to win Best Actress for her turn in Darren Aronofsky’s manic farce Black Swan, although Michelle Williams is a nice outside bet for Blue Valentine. If Colin Firth doesn’t win the Best Actor award for his nuanced portrayal of the repressed Bertie in The King’s Speech, I will eat my hat (which would, admittedly, taste a bit nicer if James Franco were to get some love for his bravura one-man, three-limb show in 127 Hours).
Geoffrey Rush, magnificent in The King's Speech
I’m already preparing to eat one hat (an unloved beanie dating from about 1996 that has 100% SERIOUS emblazoned across it, FYI) in resignation due to the fact that the magnificent Geoffrey Rush (as the aforementioned Logue) will lose out to Christian Bale (The Fighter) in the Best SupportingActor category. Bale’s a fine actor, but here he chomps his way through the scenery in a conspicuously mannered fashion, taking all of his cues from a superior performance by Samuel L Jackson as an addled crackhead in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever. It’s already bad enough that he’s stolen all the limelight from his co-star Mark Wahlberg who centres the film (solid, entertaining fare, by the way) with a steely, resourceful turn, and was summarily ignored by the panel.
As I have previously written about, one of the most ludicrous decisions from the panel was to shortlist True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld in the Best Supporting Actress category, despite the fact that she’s in almost every scene and the film is totally framed around her. So the least they can do is give her the award to make up for it, especially in the light of Melissa Leo’s (The Fighter) decision to pimp herself out in a barking mad self-promotional push. Helena Bonham-Carter does fine in The King’s Speech, but up against the titanic Firth and Rush, she isn’t really given that much to do.
I anticipate dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-boring-movie Inception will take home a slew of technical awards, but I would tip The Social Network for Best Editing. It can’t be an easy task to harness Aaron Sorkin’s snappy 1940s-paced dialogue or the ruthlessly cross-cut momentum of the narrative, but editors Angus Walsh and Kirk Baxter have helped to produce a coherent film about THE ZEITGEST which doesn’t betray its thematic roots in the field of the terminally short-attention-spanned.
In other awards, I would love Banksy to get the Best Documentary nod for Exit Through The Gift Shop, and I would literally go crackers (although I don’t really know what that means) if Dogtooth triumphs in the Best Picture in a Foreign Language category.