Monthly Archives: March 2011

Cave Of Forgotten Dreams: Werner Herzog drops into the abyss of time

The Chauvet cave system in the south of France was first explored in 1994 and was found to contain the earliest, and arguably most accomplished, prehistoric rock art ever discovered. This was a major find – the famous cave paintings at Lascaux are around 13,000 years old whereas some of those at Chauvet have been in existence for at least 30,000 years, making them the oldest surviving evidence of human culture by a margin of thousands of years. In addition, the caves are littered with unique geological formations and priceless remains of long-extinct animal species. The French government immediately took all the necessary steps to protect and preserve the site, which is highly vulnerable to the effects of human investigation. Even the breath of visitors is potentially dangerous as it would encourage mould to form and could disperse the fragments of charcoal from where the cave artists did their work, and treading on the soft floors could destroy evidence of animal tracks. A few narrow metal walkways have been lowered into position, but it’s still not possible to get within three metres or so from any of the artwork.

Until recently, only a handful of archaeologists, anthropologists and scientists have been allowed access to the caves. A couple of years ago, however, the French ministry of culture did grant permission for a small film crew to enter in order for a visual record of the cave system to be captured. Happily (for me at least), the film-maker granted this honour was the legendary maverick Werner Herzog, who is no stranger to operating in extreme environments and recording unique and often perilous human experience. The decision was also made to film the caves in 3D, on the face of it a bizarre choice for a documentary, particularly one made by a director as famously dismissive of the gimmickry of modern culture as this one. Cave Of Forgotten Dreams is the result of the somewhat restricted shooting time and conditions that Herzog had to operate under.

Given the cramped conditions, the fact that the film crew was limited to four people and the total lack of natural light down there, the sequences of this film shot in the caves look extraordinary. The chambers are sprawling, irregularly shaped and packed with visual wonders: protruding stalagmites as smooth as porcelain, delicate rippled curtains of rock, skeletons of animals that haven’t existed for millennia. The cave art is amazingly accomplished and elegant, often reminiscent of the work of early twentieth century artists exploring the possibility of depicting motion. Animals are typically rendered via clear, uncomplicated single strokes, with detail being reserved for the heads. They seem unfeasibly accurate once you start to think about the conditions they were drawn in, but dating of the silicate that has built up on them has established that they really do pre-date all other known human art. The walls of the chambers rarely present a flat surface, but the artists have used this to their advantage by wrapping depictions around protrusions of rock, and it’s here that the decision to film in 3D really pays off: Herzog lets his cameras pan gently across the rock formations and often holds for several seconds on particular images, and the technique really does finally deliver on its promise of putting you in a virtual reality. The director narrates the film in his idiosyncratically dry, yet hypnotic, monotone and uses choral and chamber music to heighten the mood, but never in a crass fashion, and sometimes he just lets the cameras slowly move in silence.

Herzog intercuts the cave sequences with interviews with the scientists working on the site and experts in the field of prehistoric art, and while the use of 3D here becomes distracting and irrelevant these conversations do allow his deadpan sense of humour to assert itself. You get the feeling he’s sometimes chosen his interview subjects for their arresting physical appearance or behavioural tics as much as their knowledge and expertise, and relishes opportunities to play up their personal quirks – he’s delighted when he discovers that one young scientists used to work in a circus, and he’s happy to include a somewhat gratuitous clip of a master perfumer sniffing a rockface in the hope of detecting air currents from an undiscovered cavern. You wouldn’t have got this if the film had been made by the BBC or National Geographic.

We were lucky enough to go to a screening of the film at the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge that was followed by a brief Q and A session with Herzog himself, and the great man was on form. He declared himself unconvinced by the value of 3D, at least not until film-makers had worked out how to edit it correctly, and talked about his sadness that the three discovers of the caves had become embroiled in a legal case concerning their claim over intellectual property rights which meant that they didn’t feel able to appear in the film. He also delivered a typically blackly funny anecdote about his archaeologist grandfather’s descent into senility which featured the classic Herzogian phrase “deep in the darkness of insanity”. A true one-off, and long may he continue.

Paul: close encounters of the nerdy kind

Paul, written by and starring durable double-act Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, is a likeable but terribly lame sci-fi comedy about two English nerds who stumble across a fugitive alien in between attending comic book conventions and visiting sites of rumoured extra-terrestrial contact such as Area 51. Pegg and Frost have an easy rapport, and the early scenes showing their geekish delight at being in the states and coming across cult authors and artefacts are breezy and enjoyable – it’s when they meet the improbably named Paul that the film’s problems really set in. The alien is characterised at a wise-cracking smart-ass with a heart of gold who’s ever ready to let rip with profanity-laden personal comments, and this robs the film completely of any sense of wonder as it develops into an unremarkable chase-and-hide structure, with generic Men In Black style agents pursuing the Englishmen and their guest across terrains familiar (and more interestingly shot) from movies like Thelma And Louise and Duel. The film’s worst sin is that it’s just not that funny, although Pegg and Frost deserve praise for dodging a lot of the more obvious hillbilly gags and working a critique of fundamentalist Christian attitudes into a mainstream American entertainment. I think I laughed twice, and one of those was at the audacity of using an iconic quote from Aliens at a crucial point in the climactic confrontation between the heroes and Sigourney Weaver’s evil big boss. Paul is probably perfectly fine for a Saturday night with mates and beers, but you can’t help wishing that it aimed a bit higher, given the pedigree of the writers.

Submarine: you were all yellow

Richard Ayoade’s (you may know him better as Moss from The IT Crowd) directorial debut Submarine is a minor marvel: a postmodern comedy liberally peppered with self-awareness, irony and references to other films that still manages to be charming, funny and unexpectedly touching in places. I’m getting increasingly impatient with stuff that’s self-consciously quirky and offbeat (for example, I’ve stopped watching the films of Wes Anderson, to which Submarine seems particularly stylistically indebted), but sometimes things just click – Gregory’s Girl is probably my yardstick for unconventional teen romances, and it’s to Ayoade’s credit that his film doesn’t look at all shabby by comparison.

It’s a small-scale story told from the point of view of Oliver, a bookish and solitary 15 year old living in a run-down but still reasonably scenic Welsh town, with one of the two main plot threads being his mission to secure a girlfriend and lose his outsider status and the other being his concern over the reappearance of his mother’s former lover. Both of these strands may sound a bit formulaic, but they play out in ways that are surprising, frequently laugh-out-loud funny and occasionally slightly unsettling. A lot of the stock characters and scenarios you’d expect are present and correct (the school bully, the wry teacher, the repressed mother and insecure father) but all come up feeling fresh due to thoughtful scripting and excellent performances that keep the situations credible, despite the overabundance of freeze-frames, voiceover and ostentatious fade-outs to red or blue. Craig Roberts is an ideal bit of casting for Oliver: most of the time he’s utterly convincing as the nerdy and naively calculating loner, but he handles some more challenging material just as well, such as when Oliver acts badly out of self-absorption or when he tries to restore the balance of his parents’ marriage. Yasmin Paige is also excellent as Oliver’s love interest Jordana, a wilful and bluntly mocking girl whose motivation is initially impossible to fathom. Also worth mentioning is Paddy Considine’s ludicrous but constantly hilarious new age psychic, whose ridiculously pompous seminars and videos are worth going to see the film for alone.

Submarine is probably destined for cult status, on the same shelf as Shaun Of The Dead and In Bruges in terms of quotable dialogue and memorable set-pieces. I wouldn’t be too upset to see it there.

Syd Barrett: Art and Letters

Syd Barrett: Art and Letters is a new exhibition running at the Idea Generation Gallery in Shoreditch until April 10th 2011. Barrett died in 2006, 38 years after dropping out of Pink Floyd, a group he founded and was the main songwriter for, and 32 years after giving up on music altogether after two patchy but fascinating solo albums and a handful of half-hearted career relaunches. He spent the second half of his life living reclusively in Cambridge, devoting himself to drawing and painting, disciplines he’d had formal training in before taking up music. An intensely private man, Barrett painted more for the pleasure and insight he derived from the act of creation than for the aim of producing something for posterity, and would indeed often destroy his artworks shortly after completion (although he was in the habit of taking photographs of them as a record). He would surely never have countenanced the possibility of exhibiting his work.

This exhibition offers a rare chance to see Barrett’s art from both his formative pre-Pink Floyd years and his later, post-fame, period. Also on display are many previously unseen photographs of Barrett and Pink Floyd from the late 60s and early 70s, and a collection of the young Barrett’s letters to his friends and girlfriends. The exhibition has been sensitively curated with the aid of Barrett’s family and friends, and you get the sense that it represents a reclaiming of this famously troubled man as a real human being as opposed to a cautionary tale about the potentially devastating effects of sudden fame. Barrett’s early artwork is often quite charming, if sometimes surprisingly conventional, and his imaginative doodling on the early letters betrays an active and inquiring mind, informed by a particularly English strain of whimsy. The letters themselves are touching, funny and honest, and it’s not surprising that both of his steady girlfriends from this time have retained their affection and respect for him (both were present at the private view I attended). The later work is much more experimental and expressive, with bold layers of paint often thickly applied to achieve abstract and impenetrable results, alongside a few simply rendered landscapes. There’s an undeniable frisson from seeing work that was never meant to be exhibited, or even preserved, but it doesn’t feel voyeuristic – the sense you get from reading the various testimonials in the gallery is that once a work was completed Barrett simply stopped being interested in it, in the same way that he was never remotely interested in talking about Pink Floyd once he had left the band.

This exhibition has been put together in support of a new book Barrett: The Definitive Visual Companion edited by Russell Beecher and Will Shutes, which rounds up all of Barrett’s still existing artwork. If you’re interested in Barrett and can’t make the exhibition the book is well worth seeking out.

Blood On Satan’s Claw (cult classics I’m only just now getting round to, an occasional series)

Here’s an creepy and unusual shocker from an interesting period in British cinema. Blood On Satan’s Claw was released in 1971 by Hammer-wannabe studio Tigon, and with a title like that you’d expect something pretty lurid. You’d be right too, but not maybe in the way you’d anticipated. This is an example of what’s sometimes called folk-horror (see The Wicker Man for how unsettling a horror film can be when it draws on elements of folklore and ritual), set in a rural English community in the late seventeenth century. Its obvious antecedent is Michael Reeve’s Witchfinder General from a few years before, but whereas that film concerned itself with the abuse of power of the authorities charged with rooting out witchcraft, Blood On Satan’s Claw presents a scenario in which the villagers are gradually coming under an actual occult influence, and the local judge represents reason and enlightenment.

The various sinister events that occur in the village seem to be initiated by the discovery by a local labourer tilling a field of some sort of skull. You don’t get too long a look at it, but it certainly doesn’t bode well – at least one of the eyeballs is intact, and there are hanks of hair still attached. This pre-credits sequence, like the rest of the film, is shot with a care and craft rare in the horror genre: the camera is often very close to the ground, as if it’s representing the Earth’s point of view rather than the villagers, and the accomplished close-up shots of crows that lead into the titles are there to establish atmosphere rather than provide cheap shocks.

The queasiness and almost clinical detachment from the characters continues through the main body of the film. There are a handful of intersecting story strands involving a number of fairly predictable figures: the judge, a local squire, an honest working man and his family, a naive and ineffectual churchman cast in the role of teacher, and a host of variously inscrutable and anxious children. In each strand we find characters falling prey to a malign influence that manifests itself in different ways, all of them unsettling: one man becomes convinced his hand is becoming a claw, patches of fur start to appear on villagers’ bodies, a sultry teenager sets herself up as a priestess and presides over satanic rituals involving rape and murder. Nowhere is it made explicit what the cause of these aberrations is, or how they’re spreading, and it’s this that lends the film its peculiar power – in some ways, there’s a parallel to be made with Hitchcock’s The Birds, which also withholds an explanation. Director Piers Haggard for the most part manages to have his cake and eat it: his success in building a convincingly eerie milieu means that the occasional shocking set-piece doesn’t feel gratuitous or mood-breaking, and indeed one or two of the pay-off sequences seem uncommonly affecting, to me at least. Only the climax of the film is somewhat disappointing.

Blood On Satan’s Claw came out at about the same time as The Devils, A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs and Frenzy, a relatively short period after censorship rules were relaxed and before screen violence and horror became processed into cynicism and exploitation. If you fancy something a bit weirder than your standard slasher flick you could do a lot worse.

Archipelago: high tension holiday

Joanna Hogg’s new film Archipelago is an excruciatingly brilliant portrait of an unhappy upper-middle-class family attempting a holiday in the Isles of Scilly with the ostensible purpose of providing a send-off to twenty-something Edward, who is about to spend a year in Africa doing volunteer work to try to fight the spread of AIDS. Three family members show up at the rented house – Edward, his mother Patricia, and his sister Cynthia – and they’re three different flavours of emotionally brittle. Edward is uncertain about his decision to go to Africa and over-sensitive about his perceived lack of support from his family, Patricia is bottled-up but clearly very upset that her estranged husband has failed to turn up at the house, and while the cause of Cynthia’s unhappiness is never made explicit, she’s demonstrably very angry about something. Also present are a cook, a young woman called Rose, who is forced to share the house with all this tension, and an artist friend called Christopher, who has a nice line in wistful pretension but is nonetheless a calming influence.

The film is shot in a clear and unfussy style, and is some ways recalls the work of Mike Leigh, with some highly naturalistic and believable acting and dialogue (it sounds improvised to me, though I’m not sure it was) and many passages that seem somewhat meandering and uneventful. There’s plenty of silence here, and plenty of awkward stilted conversations. After a while though the gears start to change up subtly and we get some masterfully orchestrated scenes of social embarrassment – the bit in the restaurant, for example, had me squirming in my seat so much I almost tipped over into the next row of the cinema. For a film in which basically nothing happens at all, the tension in the second half is barely tolerable, but it’s still somehow compelling. It should be mentioned that there’s a lot of lovely scenery of the island of Tresco to admire here – possibly included as some sort of compensation for the sheer stomach-churningness of the fraught relations on display.

Archipelago is definitely a highly accomplished work, and may be the best film I’ve seen so far this year. Just don’t ask me to sit through it again any time soon.

Nicholas Shaxson: Treasure Islands

Offshore banking. Trust funds. Financial services authority. Not exactly the stuff to stir the passions, is it? I’ve always found the main point of interest of the business section of the newspaper was that it served quite well as a base for cat litter, and I can never watch the city reports on the news without recalling the merciless deadpan parodies from The Day Today. So, a book detailing the history and mechanisms of tax havens? Isn’t Snog, Marry, Avoid on yet?

Sometimes however outside events catch the attention of even this hermetically isolated consumer of fictions. Stop me if I’m going too fast, but apparently there was some kind of global economic crisis a year or two ago, and since then we’ve somehow acquired a government who have deemed it appropriate to cut essential public services down to the bone marrow in order to preserve the right of patently incompetent and greedy institutions to award their employees astronomical salaries and bonuses. Anyone wanting a quick but thorough primer on the roots of this malaise should make point of watching the recent documentary Inside Job, to which Nicholas Shaxson’s book Treasure Islands (subtitle: Tax Havens And The Men Who Stole The World) is an excellent complement.

Shaxson knows his stuff. His particular area of experience is the exploitation of developing African countries by Western multi-nationals but he has investigated and reported on tax irregularities throughout the world. Or perhaps regularities is a better word – the main thrust of this impressively researched, tightly argued and in places incandescently angry book is that what passes for the global tax system is now irrevocably corrupt. It’s perfectly legal, and indeed standard practice, for big corporations to arrange their affairs so that they have no obligation to pay any tax in poor countries they are mining for resources, or in rich countries in which they are selling the end products of these resources at vastly inflated prices. National economies are being bent out of shape so that a relatively tiny number of powerful individuals can retain their status and meaninglessly enormous wealth. Shaxson carefully takes you through the steps by which the regulation that had provided stability from the war years to the 1970s was discredited and dismantled, and while some of the jargon and fine detail may be slightly hard-going, the overarching trends are quite clear.

Treasure Islands may make you feel sick, angry and powerless, but I’d urge you to read it nonetheless. There’s some major injustice going on behind those blandly boring terms I picked out at the start, and the more people know about it the better.