Tag Archives: cinema

Recurring Nightmares #3 | The Awful Tooth

Recurring Nightmares is a column concerned with teasing out those little connections that haunt our cinematic memories. 

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By Jonathan Bygraves

In a rare passage of levity some two-thirds into George A. Romero’s otherwise downbeat social-realist vampire tale Martin (1978), the eponymous young protagonist finally ‘reveals’ his secret to his suspicious granduncle Tateh. Martin emerges from the shadows of night in full bloodsucker garb – the cloak, the pallid face – and at last bares those gleaming fangs, immediately sending Tateh reaching for his rosary. But the old man is being made a fool of: Martin dismissively spits to the ground what turns out to be a novelty oral prop, derisively quipping, “it’s just a costume”.

Such a play on familiar iconography illustrates Romero’s revisionist intent to re-purpose the vampiric for the everyday. It also serves to highlight how teeth are such a familiar signifier of malignant forces in fiction. These are defining attributes not just for vampires but werewolves, cannibals and sundry other extra-human or animal-like monsters. Teeth are so inextricably linked to fearsomeness that monstrous antagonists often take their names from their dental characteristics: Chatterer in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987), Saw Tooth in Wrong Turn (2003) and providing the title, at least, of a certain killer shark movie franchise. Teeth also feature prominently as a symbol of the Other in fairy tales: consider that Little Red Riding Hood’s final – and most telling – observation of the Big Bad Wolf before she is ingested is an oral one.

Teeth have proved a handy signifier in terms of human characters too: think of Richard Kiel’s metal-mouthed henchman Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), whose steeled dentition reflects his apparent physical invulnerability, or Austin Powers’ overbite, as much a visual pun on perceived poor orthodontic standards east of the Atlantic as a goofy character quirk. Brad Pitt went as far as having his Hollywood smile surgically altered for Fight Club (1999), insistent that chipped incisors were a key indicator of Tyler Durden’s psychological make-up. Indeed, the very term ‘Hollywood smile’ implies that perfect pearly-whites as a physical ideal is a notion fostered by the cinema itself.

It has not always been thus: deliberate tooth blackening was a fashionable practice among high-ranking aristocrats in Japan up until the Meiji period, and in Victorian England decaying teeth were a sign of affluence, representing the ability to purchase sugar and confectioneries. Today, however, dental decay is more likely an indicator of slovenliness or poverty. In cinematic terms, so too does it become a signifier of ‘otherness’: as Carol Clover notes in Men Women and Chainsaws, bad teeth play a prominent role in the rape-revenge cycle of films of the 1970s initiated by John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), a film whose antagonists’ famously malformed mouths are such abiding pop culture icons that fancy dress shops are likely still to carry copycat hillbilly teeth as part of their stock range. Indeed, within the film itself, bad teeth (or indeed the absence of) are such a defining characteristic that Ed Gentry (Jon Voight) is unable to identify his assailant after discovering he may have popped his dentures in.

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Deliverance uses dental deficiency as a signifier of the divide between the men from the city and those from the country. This a motif rooted as much in class division as much as  geographical or moral, and is used similarly in Wes Craven’s own backwoods horror The Hills Have Eyes (1977). In its economical opening minutes, the film sets up a similar dynamic, introducing the viewer to the wholesome Carter clan and the ragged, near-feral Ruby (Janus Blythe), thickly laying on the contrasts between the all-American family and their cannibalistic counterparts. Once again, this is emphasised by dental disparity: the Carters’ gleaming, perfectly-aligned gnashers against Ruby’s decay-ridden mouth and, later on, her brother Mars’ (Lance Gordon) fang-like front teeth.

While Craven’s film is using the same signifier, there is a further sub-dynamic within: while Mars is more straightforwardly villainous, Ruby is presented as an abused victim of her patriarchal family, and ultimately afforded a redemptive arc. In this case bad teeth are more purely an expression of economic difference than moral squalor. Craven’s previous film The Last House on the Left (1974) had also featured a character with bad teeth who emerges as more wronged than wrong-doer: Junior (Marc Sheffler), son of Krug Stillo (David A. Hess), is also victim of his domineering patriarch – who has hooked him on heroin as a means of control – and though still an accessory to the crimes of his cohorts, is presented as a considerably more sympathetic character.

Whereas The Hills Have Eyes uses animal imagery as a means to align its cannibal family with untamed wilderness, The Last House on the Left uses it to illustrate the power dynamic between father and son: when Junior playfully imitates the sound of a frog, it metaphorically underlines his status relative to Krug as an unthreatening pet: domesticated, servile, less than human. When Krug later imagines his teeth being knocked out by one of his victim’s vengeful parents, the dental symbolism implies not just excruciating pain but a fear of the loss of power and identity. As such, teeth falling out is not just a common anxiety dream, but a body horror trope in the likes of  The Fly (1986), District 9 (2009) and even Moon (2009), representing a transformation into something ‘Other’.

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As a re-telling of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) (in which, like The Hills Have Eyes, there is direct class parallel between the antagonists and a wild, near-feral sister figure) there is a traceable link from The Last House on the Left back to pastoral folklore, and further. Bergman’s film was itself based on a 13th Century Swedish ballad, and also prompts a Biblical resonance. The Virgin Spring‘s dialectic is not merely class-based but religious too, in the form of a conflict between the Nordic and the Christian. In addressing the question of the morality of vengeance, the revenge film’s dental imagery covertly calls to mind Leviticus‘ doctrine of “a tooth for a tooth”.

Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous Feminine offers another deeper psychological underpinning of odontophobia, namely the myth of the vagina dentata and male castration anxiety. Creed cites the famous poster for Jaws (1975) as a metaphorical illustration of this (woman on the water’s surface, giant teeth hidden below), and it is presented very literally in The Last House on the Left when Krug’s penis is bitten off during the act of fellatio. In Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth (2009), the myth is ultimately repurposed as a possible symbol of female empowerment.

Teeth, then, continue to be a potent symbol of unconscious anxieties as well as a shorthand for manifold attributes: fearsomeness, animal-like qualities, the culturally alien, the morally suspect. One might note the perfectly aligned orthodontistry of the eponymous protagonists in Eli Craig’s Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010), which, for all of its hillbilly horror revisionism, can’t quite bring itself to give its would-be romantic leads this one physical attribute that the cultural stereotype calls for. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then – on film at least – bad teeth might still be considered to be said soul’s hazardously-splintered front door frame.

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

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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.

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.

PPH end of year round-up part 2 | Dogs, disappointments and discoveries

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With my year-end Top 10 done and dusted, it’s time to engage in some good old-fashioned negativity, and reveal my least favourite films of the year. Before I continue, I should say that while there were probably plenty worse films out there (in terms of technical quality etc, not to mention all the stinkers I mercifully avoided) this is a completely personal take. What follows is an account of the films that particularly irritated, bored or offended me (or in some frightful cases, all three). Who let the dogs out?!

Cabin In The Woods (dir., Drew Goddard)

In stark contrast to screenwriter Whedon’s sprightly Avengers Assemble, this clever-clever novelty was slathered in a suffocating sheen of smugness; it was almost as though the film kept pausing itself to explain to us – the poor audience – how awesomely intelligent it was. But it fell at every hurdle: not scary enough to work as a horror, not funny enough to work as a comedy, and not smart enough to provoke thought. The film that fell between all these stools was, in its own repellent way, the real stool.

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Damsels in Distress (dir., Whit Stillman)

When critics wrote effusively of Whit Stillman’s “light, frothy” campus comedy, I wondered if they’d watched the same film as me. On the contrary, I saw an airless, smug, joke-free mess with precisely as much respect for its characters as its audience: zero. One of the most painful experiences I’ve ever had in a cinema – I couldn’t wait for it to end.

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The Darkest Hour (dir., Chris Gorak)

Had the filmmakers been honest, they’d have called it The Darkest 89 Minutes. This desultory sci-fi shambles about hungry electrical monsters (I know, I know) was a thrill-free ordeal.

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The Dictator (dir., Larry Charles)

Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest was an ugly, flat, mean-spirited shambles full of lame jokes, pathetic toilet humour and hapless, dated attempts at satire. Another bad sign was the reliance on the celebrity cameo for chuckles; a conceit which underlines the nagging feeling that Baron Cohen – now a major league Hollywood player – is part of the smug, self-congratulatory gang he purports to lambast.

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How I Spent My Summer Vacation (dir., Adrian Grunberg)

“Mad” Mel Gibson’s comeback as an action star was a noxious, derivative blast of casual racism (when will we live in a world where filmmakers will refrain from shooting Mexico through sulphurous filters?), gratuitous, nasty violence and beyond-retrograde sexual politics: ‘spicy’, brutalized Latina maidens were so 1985, guys.

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The Imposter (dir., Bart Layton)

Was there a more appropriately titled film released this year? Sure, Bart Layton’s film had a great story to work with (it’s explored brilliantly in this New Yorker article), but the director completely failed to trust said material, smothering it with pointlessly slick formal jiggerypokery. Worse still, I got the strong feeling that the filmmakers didn’t really give a toss about any of the characters they were dealing with. Contrast the humane way in which the New Yorker article treats the people involved with the cold calculation of the film. A real missed opportunity.

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Irvine Welsh’s Ecstasy (dir., Rob Heydon)

This ridiculous low-budget Canadian adaptation of an Irvine Welsh short story fused the production values of Hollyoaks with the clarity of insight and intellectual rigour of Hollyoaks. A spectacularly misconceived fiasco bereft of a single redeeming feature.

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A Man’s Story (dir., Varon Bonicos) | full review

Varon Bonicos’ deeply boring and hagiographic effort was less of a documentary than an extended electronic press kit. Its biggest crime was to make its fascinating subject (fashion designer Ozwald Boateng, who became the youngest, and first black man to open a shop on Savile Row) seem like a total dullard.

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Red Tails (dir., Anthony Hemingway)

When watching this cheese-sodden, horrendously inept would-be epic about the heroic Tuskegee Airmen, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. There’s a tough dilemma at the heart of the act of responding to the George Lucas-produced Red Tails: should we be simply happy that this important story is being highlighted for a mass audience, or dismayed that it’s been handled so badly? There’s room for both emotions, but it’s little short of a tragedy – and an indictment of Hollywood’s racial mores – that a film this poor had to fight so hard to get made.

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The Sweeney (dir., Nick Love)

I maintain that, despite the critical opprobrium he’s always received, there’s a decent filmmaker lurking somewhere within the bowels of Nick Love. His debut Goodbye Charlie Bright was a truly decent effort, and the first half of The Business showed a hitherto undiscovered lightness of touch. Sadly, his witless, crass, pointless remake of the 70’s TV cop standard reminded us of the reasons for his current standing. Further minus points for wasting some great London locations.

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Dishonourable mentions go to: Christopher Nolan’s bombastic, self-regarding and stupid The Dark Knight Rises thank God that trilogy is over; Oliver Stone’s laughable Savages (only a man with the hubris of Stone would try and get away with one of those pretend endings in this day and age); Cameron Crowe’s nauseating We Bought a Zoo the moment where the director’s giddy optimism crossed the divide from heartwarming into terrifying; rubbish Canadian comedy Starbuck, which wasted a great premise with slack, cartoonish execution; and Michael, a shallow and repugnant Austrian film which played like a bankrupt man’s Michael Haneke remaking Misery after reading about Josef Fritzl. I found its ending (I won’t spoil) particularly unpalatable.

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A quick round-up of disappointments

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Perhaps 2012 found me in a particularly crotchety mood, but I was largely unimpressed with a vast swathe of the year’s biggest critical darlings. The two films I’d most been looking forward to – Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (feature) – both ended up being my least favourite films to date from their respective directors. I found the former to be a disjointed (no pun intended, Marion) and manipulative – if well-acted and occasionally powerful – affair, replete with weirdly dated sexual politics and hilariously fetishized notions of masculinity.

Anderson’s film, meanwhile, looked and sounded great, but after a superb opening, simply disappeared in a feeble puff of ineffectuality. I was compelled enough to watch it twice (not least so I could further bask in Joaquin Phoenix’s unhinged performance), but was even more bored and confounded the second time round. I think Anderson is a visceral and propulsive filmmaker rather than a cerebral one, and The Master betrayed signs of its creator either lacking ideas or simply failing to communicate them adequately. However, it deserved serious credit for refusing to spoonfeed its audience, and for being such a genuine oddity in the oft-restrictive context of mainstream American cinema. It also inspired some truly outstanding writing, not to mention some lively pub discussion.

Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild was another critical favourite which, despite its undeniable energy and originality, left me cold. I found it hokey, shallow and not a little patronizing. Another film to depend heavily on young actors – Wes Anderson’s ever-so-precious Moonrise Kingdom (full review) – felt like a serious case of diminishing returns even though it looked gorgeous. Early stills and teasers of Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly had me hot under the collar, but the end result – a hectoring, gratuitous and self-satisfied mess –  poured ice down my trousers.

There was plenty of praise for Miguel Gomes’ Tabu, but I found this broken-backed film hard work, and seemed to be alone in preferring the austere first half to the colonial-era second. However, in the interests of full disclosure, I watched it on a laptop on a timecode-inscribed DVD screener – hardly optimal conditions for a film which many described as one of the year’s most visually lush. If it’s playing on a big screen near me any time soon, I’ll make sure I give it another go.

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Discoveries

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I managed to keep a complete record of everything I watched on every format this year, so I thought I’d whack together a couple of (alphabetical) Top 10s of some great stuff I saw for the first time:

Cinema

2001: A Space Odyssey | dir., Stanley Kubrick, 1968 | BFI Southbank

Faces | dir., John Cassavetes, 1968 | BFI Southbank

Hyenes | dir., Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1992 | IFI Dublin

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie | dir., John Cassavetes, 1976 | Prince Charles Cinema

Ordet | dir. Carl Theodore Dreyer, 1955 | BFI Southbank

Ornette Coleman: Made in America | dir., Shirley Clarke, 1985 | IFC Center, New York

The Passion of Anna | dir., Ingmar Bergman, 1969 | BFI Southbank

The Purple Rose of Cairo | dir., Woody Allen, 1985| Arsenal, Berlin

The Spook Who Sat By The Door | dir., Ivan Dixon, 1973 | BFI Southbank

Yeelen | dir., Souleymane Cissé, 1987 | IFI Dublin

 Home viewing

32 Short Films About Glenn Gould | dir., Francois Girard, 1993

All That Jazz | dir., Bob Fosse, 1979

The Bad and the Beautiful | dir., Vincente Minnelli, 1952

Blue Collar | dir., Paul Schrader, 1980

Chameleon Street | dir., Wendell B. Harris, Jr., 1989

The Hit | dir., Stephen Frears, 1984

Safe | dir., Todd Haynes, 1995

Sisters | dir., Brian de Palma, 1973

Spider | dir., David Cronenberg, 2002

Wonderland | dir., Michael Winterbottom, 1999

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Thanks for reading. Tune in tomorrow for the final part of PPH’s end-of-year round-up.

Baraka | review

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Director Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magidson specialise in shooting non-verbal epics – Baraka (1992 – now being re-released in cinemas) and its successor Samsara (2012) are ambitiously global, visually lush 65mm documentaries that utilise film language only. There’s no spoken dialogue, no titles or subtitles; just moving images with minimal diegetic sound edited with an ambient instrumental score. It’s an uniquely immersive cinematic experience; you just sit back and let the vast hi-res images and surround sound wash over you to transport you all over the world.

Their films grant you extraordinary access to things you’d be lucky to see at some point in your lifetime, if at all, in just an hour and half. It’s like experiencing science and anthropology in situ instead of in museums or surrounded by other tourists – there are no placards or guides to explain what or why (or even where), and you’re left to serenely mull it over on your own.

‘Baraka’ is an ancient Sufi word that means blessing or the essence of life. (Yes, this is the origin of Obama’s first name.) While Samsara (Sankrit for ‘continuous flow’) places more of an accent on urban society’s connectedness, Baraka focuses more on Earth’s origins and spirituality. We start the journey by visiting our evolutionary ancestors, monkeys, bathing in a hot spring. From them, we move on to a wide range of peoples’ ancient ritual practices, from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim Quarters of Jerusalem’s Old City to indigenous peoples such as the aborigines and the Masai.

The camera gives us unfettered access to these people and places, and in that way watching this is nothing like the experience of a tourist. There’s no arduous journey, no panic about feeling foreign and being unable to communicate, no struggle to take things in without being bothered by other tourists or locals hawking wares. On top of that other-worldliness, we get gorgeous time-lapse sequences that enable us to see beyond our limitations. In this way, the film presents a God’s eye view of the world, transcending time and space. We flit around the world, guided by themes instead of regions; this intentional juxtaposition of diverse peoples and places through editing and sound bridges draws attention to their similarities rather than differences.

In addition to allowing us access to remote locations, Baraka also gives us awe-inspiring glimpses of natural phenomena, taking us to the mouth of a live volcano, showing us a sea of clouds cascading over mountains like ethereal water. You may not know where the film has taken you, but that’s part of Fricke’s and Magidson’s design; names and geography are secondary to something’s substance. The film’s not all pretty and peaceful though – the dark underbelly of civilisation is prominently displayed as well. We see the effects of globalisation and over-population: poverty, sweatshop factory working conditions, burning oil fields, ghostly remnants at mass-killing sites. In the end, you do feel like you’ve gone through a guided mediation on the essence of life.

Throughout the film, you’re overwhelmed by the immensity and richness of the images. Fricke and Magidson took 30 thoughtful, pain-staking months to shoot this, including 14 months on location, and invested in 65mm film stock and their own specially-developed rigging, fully committed to their vision. The duo has only done these two feature-length films, and you can’t tell that two decades passed between their releases. They take the long view, which film rarely does; the images they have captured have a timeless quality, resonant regardless of whatever contemporary issues we’re facing.

Baraka so bold in its vision, blazing a path for gems like the BBC’s Planet Earth series, ahead of its time when you think that it was made before Google or YouTube existed. When it was first released, free-association narratives were much more rare; but now, we regularly watch a succession of short, tangentially related videos online. In 1992, you’d have to check encyclopaedias or libraries to know more about what’s in the film, but now, we can just take out our smartphones once leaving the cinema to do research. While it’s tempting to get quick answers and plug back into our information-overloaded existences after watching the film, I’d advise you to wait a while. When you leave the theatre, you ought to feel an afterglow from floating around the world without language barriers… so just take some time to enjoy it.

Baraka is on limited release now. Contributor Cathy Landicho can be followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.

The PPH interview | David Somerset of BFI African Odysseys

African Odysseys is an ongoing monthly programme of films and events which takes place at London’s BFI Southbank, and focuses on cinema by and about the people of Africa and the African diaspora. Permanent Plastic Helmet recently caught up with African Odysseys programmer David Somerset to find out more about this successful strand.

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PPH (in bold): Let’s start with the here and now. The next event in the African Odysseys strand is Ivan Dixon’s controversial 1973 film The Spook Who Sat By The Door (on Saturday May 26 – tickets here). Can you tell me a bit more about that?

David Somerset (in regular): Yeah, basically it’s a real cult item. It was the first film of Ivan Dixon, who was a rising star in the black American film world, and it’s been limited to bootleggers or the occasional short run DVD release. To the best of my knowledge it’s never been screened theatrically in the UK, so we’re massively excited to have it here. It’s about a black American ex-CIA operative who returns to Chicago and uses his skills to prepare his brothers for revolution. It was hugely controversial at the time – this is early 1970s America we’re talking about – so the FBI deemed it cause for concern and all but one of the existing prints were seized and destroyed. It’s a great film, really exciting.

Going back a bit, when did African Odysseys start at the BFI? 

African Odysseys started in 2007 at the BFI as a programme of educational screenings that reach out to wider audiences. I had just taken up the post and was a huge film fan. I knew of a Cuban classic film from Tomas Guiterrez-Alea, called The Last Supper about a plantation in 18th century Cuba. We showed this title to a sell out audience during the last RISE anti-racist festival in London. Speaking to collaborators such as Tony Warner from Black History Walks I said, “Why dont we get a bunch of cultural groups and individuals together and devise a programme?”. That’s the simplest explaination of what happened.

What was your inspiration/drive for the programme, and why do you consider it to be important? 

I believe in genuinely collaborative programming and not programming that is simply driven by economic imperatives – that’s why I like working in a cultural institution. I believe cultural institutions should not only think about wider audiences but also work in conjunction with them. These are both things that such institutions rarely do in a meaningful way but at the BFI I have been able to pursue this on an educational level. I also love to do this because I am constantly educated about new films, films that I have never heard about, films such as The Spook Who Sat By The Door that have been deliberately written out of history as a result of both political represssion and ignorance; an ‘educated’ elite who simply cannot look beyond the limited horizons of their education, who have never learned to think for themselves, ‘outside the tent’.

What other groups/organizations are involved in African Odysseys? 

A whole range of cultural and community organisations and individuals. Lobby groups, archives, film festivals directors, cultural activists – I couldnt begin to name them for fear of leaving some out. I dont hear from some contributors for a while and then they get in touch and say that they have a film and will we take a look at it. But there is also a core of people who attend all meetings. Some are politically driven and committed to the need to promote exposure in the face of a media and wider society that refuses to deal with representation unless its on a banal and inert level.

Where did your own interest in African diasporic cinema stem from? 

Well, I have always loved cinema per se. Diversity and creativity are inseperable and I am into genuinely creative cinema. Diaspora cinema is a difficult concept. Do we mean national cinema? Or cinema that deals with diaspora experience? Or just cinema that includes diverse, disapora casting? Its a broad category. Working with wider audiences I always look for resonant work that raises pertinent issues within a particular community, for which there is a wider discussion to be had. I am also attentive to the universal experience and if we are concerned about human rights, for example, it should be a concern for everyone and not just a particular region or background. So the ideal is to mix up audiences, share experience, recognise common ground as well as specific experience and there’s no better medium to do this than cinema.

Do you think that African cinema currently gets the respect and exposure it deserves? If not, why not?  

I think we have to begin from a standpoint that recognises the limitations to any cinema exhibition. Unless we are fortunate enough to travel to film festivals, the public get to see a minute drop in the ocean of the work that is produced on an international level. There are festivals in London and the UK and if one goes to these niche platforms, its possible to get an insight into what is being produced in Africa. And what is being produced is not getting sufficient exposure, certainly not at multiplex cinemas but also at the smaller rep chains that have become increasingly streamlined in their programming. But I hold broadcasters to account, too. In the 80s, I’m sure that an appetite for African cinema sprang from a rich output on BBC2 and Channel 4 where you could discover not only drama that represented a diversity of UK experience but also scheduled great African cinema from people such as Regina Nacro, Sembene, Cisse, Mambety – great film makers. Nigeria is doing some exciting stuff now and moving away from the admittedly popular (but local and low-budget) to the international, and doing it despite wider ignorance and with an attitude of “if you dont know about us, too bad ’cause we’re coming anyway”.

How much of the programme deals specifically with Africa? 

In January we screened a doco by a new director about witchcraft in Northern Ghana. Last year’s Mahamat-Saleh Haroun season at the BFI was tremendous, especially A Screaming Man which overwhelmed audiences. We also welcomed Gaston Kabore and Wend Kuuni which was a joy. I’d always like to see more. In July as part of African Odysseys we are screening a film about Algeria, Outside the Law. In August we have a doc about African religion in a double bill with a newly discovered record of the late, great Fela Kuti and his trip to NY in 1986. In November we are hoping to put together some new Nigerian films. At heart I believe people will take a chance if given the opportunity! Sometimes the industry is ignorant to its own economic criteria and miss commercial films that would actually make a good profit for them.

Have there been any particularly controversial screenings so far? 

Have there been any that aren’t? I am amazed at the discussions that come out of screenings and the different views that come from speakers and audience. The remarkable Raoul Peck’s film Moloch Tropical took aim at a sacred cow and outraged a good section of the audience. But a strongly divided audience makes for tremendous discussion. This was certainly the case with the shock documentaries Addio Zio Tom and Africa Addio. The discussions were second to none. When we all think the same way there’s no debate.

African Odysseys continues at the BFI Southbank with The Spook Who Sat By The Door on Saturday 26 May. Book tickets here, and view the forthcoming programme here

Roxy Music at the pictures

More than what, Bryan?

For those of you who view Bryan Ferry as unimpeachably slick and cool, check out this zero-budget atrocity of a promo video for Roxy Music’s 1982 single ‘More Than This’.

Things get off to a supremely awkward start as a salmon shirt-clad, hand-on-hips Ferry lurks beneath a shining cross sporting a posture that sits somewhere between ‘camp’ and ‘ashamed’.  As the light of Christ floods the screen, the camera creeps closer and closer to the singer, who looks as though he’d rather be anywhere else.

At 00:48 Ferry sings, “No way of turning”, and stalks off camera. Suddenly we are in a cinema and Ferry promptly TURNS AROUND to watch the screen. Often, characters going to the cinema is a fascinating trope (think Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver). But not here. Ferry just sits there with his back to us, presumably watching the discarded rushes of the ‘More Than This’ shoot.

After some lumpen sashaying in front of a cheaply rendered, brothel-tastic inferno (is the drummer on fire?) Ferry settles down in his comfy seat, TURNS AROUND again, and that’s it. For a minute and a half.

Great song, though.

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