Monthly Archives: September 2012

American Werewolf Academy and Wussy, The Green Door Store, Brighton, September 29th 2012

When it comes to gigs, small is often beautiful. If you’re not able to see the whites of the dials on their effects pedals and read the hastily scrawled set list by leaning in a bit from where you’re standing then it’s not a gig, it’s a rock show, which may if you’re lucky turn out to be something quite extraordinary in its own way (witness Patti Smith at Cambridge Corn Exchange a few weeks ago) but is very much not the same thing as being in a small room with no backstage area in close proximity to the musicians. Nowhere to hide, for them, or indeed you. Last night I got to see sets by two excellent American guitar groups in a space about half the size of your average village hall, with no more than thirty people in attendance and no distance at all between the acts and the audience. It was wonderful.

The Green Door Store is located in the archways at the side of Brighton train station and the bar and stage area have a rough unreconstructed feel, the exposed brickwork and uneven cobbled floors suggesting that they haven’t changed much from the days when they were used as stables. The dim lighting and old-school toilet graffiti add to the mood – you can easily picture a classic bar-room brawl breaking out here, although both staff and clientele are perfectly friendly and civilised. On arrival there are only a handful of punters in evidence, along with a few assorted musicians and a couple of promoters. It’s fairly apparent that the risk of there being an unseemly crush down the front when the bands come on is minimal. Eventually, and with a pleasing lack of urgency and ceremony, two of the figures on the musicians’ table put down their beers and wander over to the stage. One quick introduction from the enthusiastic organiser of tonight’s event later, and we’re off.

I’ve bimbled on about my love of Wussy before, so I’ll try not to waste too much time trying to convince you again of their charms, but honestly: how is a group this charming and accessible with such a killer repertoire of great pop songs not massive? I can scarcely believe I’m even standing in the same room as them, let alone standing in a room with, at the start of their set, only about ten other people. Although, to be strictly accurate, this is only two-fifths of the group, albeit the important two-fifths – this mini-tour being something of a UK reconnaissance mission for them they’re minus a bassist, drummer and pedal steel player, and are represented by core duo of singer-guitarists Lisa Walker and Chuck Cleaver. It doesn’t seem to matter. They kick off with a sweet and sensitive take on Little Paper Birds that has everyone’s attention and then roll out one great tune after another in a thoroughly engaging manner, never quite sloppy but  with enough rough edges and imperfections to lend the character needed to distinguish the performance from a sterile, over-drilled runthrough. Walker’s guitar technique is pretty basic, involving mainly standard open chord shapes that are capoed up to the appropriate key, but that’s perfectly fine if it lets her concentrate on her plaintive but always appealing vocals. Cleaver handles most of the fiddly bits, riffs and even one or two sections that you could describe as solos, and gets to sing lead vocals on the numbers he write the lyrics for. Between songs there’s a lot of relaxed banter and a bit of last minute re-ordering of the setlist, and you get the sense the pair quite enjoy the freedom the stripped-down version of the band gives them to change things around. There’s a lot of joking with the audience, usually at their own expense (the heavily bearded Cleaver had been reminding me of someone, so when he revealed that he’d been hailed in the street that afternoon with a “Yo, Hagrid!” I couldn’t help laughing out loud), and even a genuine rock’n’roll anecdote (Cleaver had previously played in a band that had once supported, and been ill-treated by, Oasis. They found a way to get revenge). Towards the end of the set Cleaver starts breaking strings but not before Walker gets to deliver a brilliant one-two of songs from the band’s debut album Funeral Dress: the slowie Human Brained Horse (“and that’s the first time we’ve ever played that in a place a horse might have actually lived in”) and the rousing Motorcycle, which I only heard for the first time a few months ago but sounds like a song I’ve known all my life. They finish with Cleaver minus a D and top E string but they still sound just great.

Wussy stick around and watch headliners American Werewolf Academy along with an audience which has by now grown enough to half fill the room. AWA are a three-piece from Dallas who also know how to put together and present punchy three minute pop songs, but they’re significantly tighter and play in a much more aggressive style than Wussy, with the decibel level cranked up and singer-guitarist Aaron Thedford executing full-blooded rock’n’roll kicks across the stage. It’s a shame that there isn’t a group of boozed-up teenagers on hand to form a decent moshpit, and I never thought I’d wish that on myself. This full-on display of attitude from the band would be just annoying however if they didn’t have the talent and material to justify it, and thankfully they do – the songs are mainly drawn from their album Everything Is Alright So Far and they’re fast, hooky, melodic and varied enough for the overall sound not to just blend into a mush. The band (alongside Thedford there are Jake Barnhart on bass and Tony Harper on drums) crack through a dozen or more songs in what seems like about fifteen minutes, but is actually more like forty, and that’s including quite a lot of between-song chat.

The gig wraps up at not long after ten, giving me time to snag a signed Wussy LP and canvas bag before going back to my hotel for cocoa. Two great bands in one cosy venue, what’s not to like?

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Cambridge Film Festival 2012: Holy Motors

Where to start with Leos Carax’s gleefully challenging Holy Motors, the closing film at this year’s Cambridge Film Festival? Am I really going to be able to write anything at all useful about such a self-consciously subversive cavalcade of weirdness? This is the type of thing that film students could mine for years and end up with a doctorate on, and I suspect that anything I commit to posterity now, after one viewing, is going to look laughably shallow fairly quickly but: I was there, I saw the thing, and I ought to make some kind of record of my reaction to it.

Basic description then: Holy Motors depicts a day in the life of Oscar (played with bewildering brilliance and versatility by Denis Lavant, in the very definition of “not an easy gig”), presumably some kind of performance artist for hire, as he’s ferried in a stretch limo between various locations in Paris to fulfil a number of wildly different appointments. Each appointment involves him putting on an elaborate disguise in the back of the car before being let out to assume a role somewhere by his elegant middle-aged chauffeur Céline. These roles could be pretty much anything: an old woman beggar, an assassin, a dying man, the concerned father of a teenage girl or, in the film’s most arresting sequence, a green-corduroy besuited agent of chaos named in the credits as M. Merde. On completion he returns to the limo and has a smoke or a drink while reading the file on his next assignment. Day turns into evening, then night, but Oscar doesn’t get to rest till he’s kept all nine of his appointments. Along the way we witness some truly strange and unexpected incidents and behaviours, along with some that seem unsettlingly mundane and familiar, and where the film is going to go next and what type of interaction is coming up are utterly unguessable. The prologue and early parts of the film reminded me more of anything of Matthew Barney’s gloriously absurd Cremaster Cycle*, in which prosthetic-adorned but rigorously straight-faced performers run through elaborate and surreal rituals and procedures for no readily apparent reason, and when M. Merde is let loose at an Eva Mendes fashion shoot in what looks like Pere Lachaise cemetery it feels like sanity’s wheels have really come off – it’s as frightening, dreamlike, ominous and inappropriately hilarious as David Lynch at his most potent. But the film can’t be dismissed as just an exercise in shocking an audience, as the mood changes and even mellows as night draws in and a really affecting undercurrent of melancholy is established.

Carax (best known for Les Amants du Pont-Neuf) hasn’t made a film in thirteen years and Holy Motors feels on one level like an attempt to make a kaleidoscopic portmanteau of all the different genres he might have otherwise had a crack at in that time. We get scenes that could be out of thrillers, family dramas, tear-jerking tragedies, even a couple of musical interludes and, in the sequence when Oscar is simulating a love scene while wearing a motion-capture suit, some very well-rendered, if wholly inappropriate for children, CGI. The film seems to be constantly referencing other films (I kept thinking of Eyes Wide Shut and Scorsese’s After Hours, for example, and Edith Scob who plays Céline at one points puts on a mask reminiscent of the one she wore in Eyes Without A Face, fifty-two years ago), though it never lets itself settle into one groove – the very first shot is of a sleeping cinema audience, and maybe Carax wanted to put out something to shake people out of their preconceptions. Holy Motors certainly does that, unless that is you were actually expecting a film where a man’s loving wife and child are played by chimpanzees. There’s also a sense of mourning for the passing of performance as a communal experience: Oscar bemoans the increasing invisibility of cameras, and in the final scene there’s a speculative conversation about the encroaching redundancy of this kind of artist. Whatever, Holy Motors shows that cinema can still throw up something genuinely surprising every now and then. I think it will be a while before people are through talking about this one.

*I saw one of the five Cremaster films at the cinema about ten years ago (Cremaster 3, the long one set in the Chrysler building) and it was total barking genius, but good luck trying to catch any of them now – Barney has decreed that they’ll never be released on DVD, other than the one half-hour segment available as “The Order”.

 

Cambridge Film Festival 2012: Silent Hitchcocks – The Pleasure Garden, The Lodger, Blackmail

Alfred Hitchcock retrospectives are nothing new, but the mini-season being presented by the Cambridge Film Festival this year would seem to be a particularly well-curated one. Alongside a fine selection of some of this most celebrated of directors best and most famous movies (many of them showing in fresh digital prints) there’s a rare chance to catch a few of his early silent British films. I’d never seen any of these, so as I seem to be currently spending all my waking hours at the Arts Picturehouse anyway I thought it would be foolish not to take the opportunity while it was there.

The Pleasure Garden (1925) was Hitchcock’s first completed film as a director (he’d started shooting something called Number 13 a couple of years earlier, but the project was aborted when its budget collapsed) and while it’s mainly of historical interest now it is pleasing to see the great man’s confidence, imagination and black humour in evidence right from the off. The story revolves around the love lives of two chorus girls working in a London theatre, and in a motif that would recur throughout Hitchcock’s career (most notably in Strangers On A Train) they’re set up as deliberately contrasting doubles, physically very similar but with strikingly different sensibilities. The early scenes set at the theatre and the girls’ boarding house are the best, affording lots of opportunities for the director to have fun with the dancers’ pompous and moneyed patrons and admirers, but the film goes off the boil and curdles into overwrought melodrama when the action re-locates to India, where the unreliable husband of one of the girls is descending into alcoholism, infidelity and eventually homicidal madness. This section doesn’t really convince, and it’s a shame the film couldn’t have been wrapped up in a hour rather than an hour and a half, although there are some inventive visual techniques used towards the end that go some way towards selling the husband’s hallucinations. Whatever its merits it’s lovely to be able to watch the film as nature intended, in a darkened cinema with a flawless live musical accompaniment provided by Stephen Horne, who is a most formidable musician – he swaps between accordion, piano and flute seamlessly, and sometimes even manages to play the latter two instruments simultaneously!

A couple of years later saw the release of Hitchcock’s third film The Lodger (no prints survive of his second The Mountain Eagle), a suspenseful thriller set amid the London fog. This was the first film to get him widely noticed, and the first to present the themes and preoccupations that would crop up over and over again in his subsequent body of work (quite some body, by the way: another fifty films released over the next fifty years) – an innocent man on the run, fatally charming blonde women, a sinister and threatening police force and a knack for conveying claustrophobic tension that really puts the audience through the wringer. Everything’s more focussed here than in The Pleasure Garden – after an opening string of scenes establishing the press and police’s frantic reactions to the news of a serial killer on the loose in London’s theatre-land the scope of the action narrows exclusively to events in and around one particular boarding-house, where a mysterious and unnamed man turns up one night to rent a set of rooms. This lodger is played by Ivor Novello in a highly theatrical and expressionist manner, but if his performance raises a few giggles it’s not at the expense of the story or oppressive atmosphere of the film, which keeps you gripped for its full running time as the lodger becomes romantically involved with the daughter of the house, and then raises the suspicions of her jealous police inspector fiancé through his unexplained nocturnal absences. Hitchcock’s economy and style with title cards is worth mentioning too – he doesn’t interrupt the flow of the film with a dialogue inter-title unless it’s really necessary, being otherwise content for the audience to work out the characters’ meaning via context, but when he does he makes effective use of a triangular motif that first appears in the opening credits sequence as the light through a gradually closing door. As a blueprint for a career of making classy and emotion-wringing thrillers The Lodger is pretty flawless. This presentation features a new music soundtrack by Nitin Sawhney, which in general is fine, though more reminiscent of one of Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Hitchcock’s more later films than an authentic 1920s accompaniment. The inclusion of two songs with contemporary sounding vocals and lyrics is however a misjudgement I think – the effect is jarring and jolts you out of the film.

A spurned boyfriend who happens to be working for Scotland Yard also turns up in Blackmail, from 1929, though stylistically there’s not actually that much that this film has in common with The Lodger. This is a film that seems much more located in a real London with what might well be genuine shops, cafes and streets visible, and much of it even takes place in daylight. By now film-making technology has got more sophisticated and Hitchcock has worked out a much more fluid way of highlighting important plot points – on several occasions here the camera moves and zooms in rather than just framing the action. It’s a much talkier film too, with dozens of inter-titles deployed for the many lengthy dialogue exchanges, and it’s no surprise that this was to be Hitchcock’s last silent film (it was indeed re-tooled and released simultaneously in a sound version when it became apparent during post-production that this was the direction cinema was heading). Dramatically it’s slightly mis-shapen with a prologue dealing with the arrest of a felon giving way to a slightly too long section that’s essentially a comedy of manners before the real business of the film becomes clear: unsurprisingly, there’s a killing, followed by a tension-filled cover-up and some beautifully handled domestic scenes in which the lead characters are tortured by the ominous threat of discovery. It’s not a million miles from Psycho, and the working-class London milieu would be revisited much much later in the also not dissimilar Frenzy. A chase through the British museum provides a suitably exciting climax (is the first time an established landmark provided the setting for an action-filled denouement? King Kong didn’t come out until four years later).  Once again, the Arts Picturehouse went to the trouble of engaging a real live musician to provide the soundtrack, this time in the person of John Sweeney on the piano, and very able he was too, fitting the music adeptly to events on screen.

All three of these films were presented in prints that were in remarkably good shape, with the first two being tinted blue and yellow to indicate exterior and interior scenes. Blackmail, in particular, looked well-nigh pristine. A few months ago I posted about my surprise at how enjoyable silent cinema can be if seen under the right conditions, and I’m very pleased to have had the chance to fill some of the gaps on my Hitchcock checklist. Let’s hope the Arts makes a habit of this kind of thing.

Cambridge Film Festival 2012: Chasing Ice

One man’s mission to show the world incontrovertible evidence of climate change forms the basis of the amazing, awe- and dread-inspiring, documentary Chasing Ice, directed by Jeff Orlowski, which may turn out to be the stand-out film of the festival. James Balog is a geologist turned National Geographic photo-journalist who had been sceptical about the possibility of human activity having an effect on the Earth’s temperature and weather right until he was sent on a assignment to get shots of an Arctic glacier. Six months after taking photographs he returned to exactly the same spot to find the ice so diminished as to render the scene unrecognisable, and it was this realisation of how quickly water was being released into the world’s oceans that set him on his major project: an ambitious attempt to achieve time-lapse videos of receding glaciers by setting up cameras at strategic points in Greenland, Iceland and Alaska. This was a fiddly, technically challenging and dangerous operation as the cameras were to be attached to rock faces and left unattended for months at a time, and Balog’s team initially experienced a number of setbacks due to malfunctioning electronics, weather-damaged hardware and power failures, but they persevered and the results are extraordinary – you can actually see the glaciers retreating, sometimes by a matter of miles over only three or four years.

This is one of those films that needs to be seen on as large a screen as possible in order to really appreciate the scale of the physical phenomena being shown. Frankly it’s the worth the price of admission just for the establishing shots of the massive and weirdly architectural icebergs and formations – they often seem to possess a smoothness and perfectly proportioned sculptural quality that’s more beautiful and affecting than any man-made structure. Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just how vast these things are, but the film-makers have the good sense to include the occasional shot showing an ant-like researcher or what looks like a toy helicopter somewhere in the white wilderness. Balog himself comes across as an inspiring figure, both a grounded and knowledgeable scientist and an excellent communicator and group leader, capable of spurring his small team on acts of endurance and stamina that sometimes seem way beyond the call of duty – would you fancy spending three weeks in a small tent on a cliff-side in Greenland with a video camera on the off-chance that the five mile glacier in front of you decides to calve some ice (it was worth it. Eventually a lump half the size of Manhattan broke off, and the footage is extraordinary)? While the documentary is firmly science-based, and even gets away with including a few bar charts and statistics, there is some human interest here too, in the shape of Balog’s dodgy knee, which his surgeons have operated on repeatedly and have advised is in no fit shape to allow him to be yomping up the side of mountains. Balog’s no martyr but you can sense his dilemma between his health and family’s concerns on one side and his duty to humanity on the other.

Chasing Ice is brilliant, clear and pretty devastating in terms of the implications for the planet’s future it exposes. Anyone who says that the case for climate change being a real and pressing concern is yet to be made needs to be strapped in and forced to watch it right now.

Cambridge Film Festival 2012: Totem

Jessica Krummacher’s Totem, showing as part of the Contemporary German Cinema strand at the Cambridge Film Festival, is a muted, oblique headscratcher in which the only certainty apparent is that none of the people on screen are having much of a good time. The lead character is twenty-three year old Fiona, played by Marina Frenk, who takes up a position as live-in maid in an averagely well-off household, possibly as an escape from an unhappy situation at home. Once in situ she becomes the subject of physical and mental abuse from the middle-aged couple who have employed her, both of whom seem in dire need of some psychiatric help (witness the pair of creepy baby dolls the mother insists on treating as her own offspring, the wooden alsatian dog replica in the front room and the fact that they seem not remotely bothered about their fifteen year old daughter associating with a boyfriend who looks twice that age). Fiona for the most part simply absorbs all this ill-treatment, though she does sullenly kick back  against particularly extreme invasions of her personal boundaries.

This is all pretty depressing, though the film isn’t that tough a watch, maybe because Fiona herself is not drawn as a noticeably sympathetic character, and maybe because it is a fairly clipped and disciplined piece of film-making that stays focussed (chiefly on everybody’s misery). I was however left at the end wondering a bit what the point of it all was. But I guess it just wouldn’t be a Film Festival without a dash of cryptic European family dysfunction chucked in there somewhere.

 

Cambridge Film Festival 2012: Bert Stern Original Madman

New York photographer Bert Stern would probably qualify for legendary status if he wasn’t so reluctant to appear on the non-business end of a camera lens – he’s the man who kickstarted the Madison Avenue style of cool and enigmatic advertising with the exotic images he shot to promote Smirnoff vodka and he went on to capture images of every movie star and supermodel going that I’m really struggling not to describe by using the word “iconic”. His most famous works, and certainly the most wrangled over in terms of ownership, are the pictures he took of Marilyn Monroe in a Los Angeles hotel in various states of undress only weeks before she died, which were published much later in the book “The Last Sitting” – these images are all the proof anyone might need as to Stern’s natural affinity with, and singleminded fascination for, beautiful and glamorous women.

Stern might not enjoy being photographed himself but he’s sure not averse to opening up and talking frankly about his life, his work and his obsessions in the new documentary Bert Stern: Original Madman, directed by his current partner Shannah Laumeister. Work and women were everything to Stern during the 50s and 60s, with predictably calamitous effects on his marriages and eventually his health, as he found himself more and more reliant on amphetamines to keep himself awake and alert. After a period of hitting rock bottom and withdrawing he did however make a triumphant comeback, the nature of which is both delightfully unexpected and utterly befitting. There are candid interviews with his former wives and children, and testaments to his creative genius from colleagues and photographic subjects. Stern as an older man comes across as mild-mannered and self-aware, but still sharp enough to appreciate the value of his work and to able to negotiate the right price for it. He also sometimes displays a weary restlessness, as though he’d like to just walk away from the mountains of boxes containing prints that represent his life’s achievement. The documentary is put together with no shortage of style and flash and at times feels a little like an expensive advertisement itself but Stern’s guarded honesty grounds it more than adequately. Recommended, particularly for anyone interested in portrait photography – there are a lot of good technical tips here in amongst the biographical highs and traumas.

Cambridge Film Festival 2012: Bestiaire

After a run of fairly conventional movies (you know, with characters and dialogue and plots and stuff) at this year’s Film Festival it was about time I found myself in front of something defiantly odd, and I’m pleased to report that Denis Côté’s (ahem) photoessay Bestiaire fits the bill handsomely. Except that on a purely surface level it’s not odd at all. In fact it’s possibly the most straightforward thing I’ve ever seen in a cinema, being composed entirely of static and often quite lengthy shots of the animals in a Canadian zoo. There’s no voice-over, no subtitles, no human language of any kind in fact other than one or two indistinct snatches of zoo staff talking to each other in the background and one close-up of someone answering a phone and saying “it’s for you”. And there’s certainly nothing so crass as a music soundtrack.

Now I’m not one to be fazed by this kind of thing (regular readers will be aware of my admiration of the eight opening shot of cows milling around in Béla Tarr’s bum-aching masterpiece Sátántangó), and I actually found the early section of the film showing various horned beasts killing time in their snowy paddocks quite soothing, although part of me was wishing I’d remembered to bring some ironing along to give me something to do. Subtly though the mood changes as the scene shifts indoors to metal enclosures and you start to sense the animals’ unease as ominous sounds filter subtly into the soundtrack. Nothing untoward happens other than some routine examinations and clearing out of pens but the suggestion of encroaching menace reminiscent of a concentration camp or abattoir is remarkably achieved, and with no tricks. It’s all in the mise-en-scene: careful framing, often of only the legs or head of an animal, the length that shots are held, the editing. I guess you could call it an example of pure cinema. You certainly feel like you’re getting uncanny access to the zoo inmate’s inner thoughts.

The rest of the film carries on in this manner which is ostensibly as dry and deadpan as possible, but actually gets you going through a surprising range of emotions. The feeding of the bears and the ungainliness of the ostriches are funny (admittedly, you can’t go wrong with ostriches if you’re looking for an easy laugh), the big cats dozing on glass walkways above gawping tourists are incongruous and threatening and a sequence showing a taxidermist at work preparing and stuffing a bird is fascinating and sinister, not least for the fact that among the various trophy heads adorning his work place there’s also a pin-up of two girls in bikinis. All of this could have easily been sensationalised and thus trivialised by the use of an over-expository commentary – Côté’s happy to let the footage stand unadorned and it’s much more effective as the result. Weirdly what Bestiaire reminds me most of is Hunger, Steve McQueen’s austere and similarly effective depiction of the life of convicted IRA men in the cells of the Maze prison, which also largely played out in a series of silent tableaus. It seems that sometimes words just aren’t what’s needed.