Finisterrae (Sergio Caballero)

As one depressed ghost said to the other as they sat by the campfire:

"Are you still going to the psychiatrist?"
"(yes) And I'm still on medication."
"I don't believe in doctors. The most important thing is food ... and sport."

Finisterrae will appear on your screens suddenly in a puff of smoke, next year, some time.

Ode (to Billy Joe)

In the review of Kelly Reichardt’s latest, ‘Meek’s Cutoff‘, I mentioned several of her previous features. I neglected to mention a little film she made back in 1999. As an omission, it’s understandable: running at 48mins, ‘Ode‘ is neither feature nor short and, unsurprisingly, remains without proper distribution. (The copy I saw was a rip from a broadcast on German TV.)

It’s a peculiar little film. Reichardt shot on Super 8 with a friend (Susan Stover) and a handful of actors. The informality of that method seems to suit her work; the interest in small things, subtle transparencies of character. Her next film, ‘Old Joy‘ was a similarly-scaled enterprise: a crew of friends, a few actors, a cabin in the woods. (It also starred Will Oldham, the alt-folk musician who supplies the music for ‘Ode‘.) The do-it-yourself method, though not exactly ‘guerilla’, was empowering. As she commented in an interview in filmmaker magazine:  “Shooting Ode was such an amazing experience for me because I realized that I had the power to make a film and that I didn’t have to be in a holding position waiting on all these outside entities.”

I hadn’t realized ‘Ode‘ was inspired by Bobbie Gentry’s country ballad, ‘Ode to Billy Joe‘ – or rather, according to the end titles, based on the Herman Raucher novel also inspired by the song – but then, at the end of the opening sequence, the mother steps out of the house and delivers lines which paraphrase the famous lyric:

“And then she said I got some news this morning from Choctaw Ridge.  Today Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

A tragic suicide. The film and the Raucher novel provide an answer to the immediate question: why? According to them, Billy Joe had discovered he was gay. He’d got it on with a guy he met at the local fair and couldn’t get his mojo back to consummate his love affair with the conflicted daughter of a Baptist minister. It could happen, I suppose. The boy wasn’t especially religious – which is a pity, as he might have found a chaste marriage and closet homosexuality would have fitted him well for a career in the ministry.

The song focuses on the irony of the parent’s indifferent attitude to the tragedy, unaware of their daughter’s sense of loss, as they serve dinner. The film evokes a degree of irony by leading us through the star-crossed romance in flashback from the news of the boy’s death and back again, but the heart of it is this awkward, urgent, ingenuous adolescent love captured with tremulous, shaky  Super 8 camerawork. What is it about Super 8 that is so apt for summer love? Is it the strong contrast, the saturation of colour? Is it the way it the image shimmers and distorts when blown up to 16mm? Of the curious tension between these artificial qualities and its handheld immediacy, its voyeurism. I don’t know, but it works nicely here.

Reichardt experiments with voice-over too, but this is less successful. It’s implied by the non-synchronous audio recording required by Super 8 – or in other words, by the fact, that it’s all dubbed. The girl’s reflections are welcome, but the ole southern narrator is an unwanted intrusion. It doesn’t sink the film the way the affectless, tranquilized voice of the heroine does in ‘River of Grass‘, Reichardt’s first feature.

“You took all my clothes off. I always figured, when that happened, I’d be a woman ‘fore they went back on again.”

“You are a woman.”

“I’m not. …  I’m just a bruised girl.”


Soulboy, or How to miss an opportunity

A film set in the ecstatic world of Northern Soul. Mmm, sounds good. Recreating Wigan Casino in its early seventies heyday. Keep talking. Great music, great dancing, great sex. Okay, I’m in. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, in the case of the British low-budget feature ‘Soulboy‘, everything, apart from the music and the dancing and Nicola Burley’s radiant smile – which is still imprinted on my retina the morning after.

It’s a missed opportunity.

The film hits on every genre clichè as eagerly as its adolescent hero chases the girl of his dreams, and both end up falling flat on their faces. That sounds a bit harsh, I know, but really, as far as I’m concerned, ‘if you’re gonna sell out, you’d better make it sell.’ (‘Soulboy‘ premiered at Edinburgh last year and crept onto the home entertainment market in January.)

So, what happened? Did the script start out shallow and generic, making all the familiar moves, or was it pushed? Is this really the film the writer wanted? Did it ever know what it wanted to be?

A script is most vulnerable in the early stages, when it’s young and foolish, not strong enough to stand up for itself. It is then that it can be led astray. Or bullied. And if it gets lost or bullied, confidence can drain away.

Soulboy‘ feels like a film whose script was led up an alley and kicked in the balls. And then bought dinner. Or maybe the other way round.

There is too much plot. Too much action. No room for insight. That’s a weakness in a romantic coming-of-age story.

Let’s work backwards. [Spoilers.] The hero finally chooses the sweet, sensitive girl, over the beautiful, mendacious one. Too late. She’s accepted a place at Art School in Nottingham and she’s leaving – right now! So, far so good. Bittersweet. He will propose to come along with her. She will refuse. They will promise to wait for each other. After all, they will always have the Wigan Casino and Northern Soul. But no, this is not what happens. What happens is he says something about needing to get away, she smiles, and they run for the coach. Freeze frame. This is not an optimistic ending, it’s delusional.

Somehow the makers have decided that what this boy needs is not to choose and appreciate real love over lust and pride as represented by the two girls. For them what he needs is ‘to get away’ – as well as choosing the right girl. This betrays a lack of confidence in the material because, for the purposes of the story, only one of these is required. They try to bolster this ‘getting away’ conclusion with a sub-plot which ends with the guy’s boss returning to Ireland with the wife of a brutish customer, but the tenderness of their affair underscores the glibness of the main plot. These two have an urgent reasons to leave: he is abused for being Irish and she is the victim of domestic violence – conveniently the aggressor is the same in both cases. (It would’ve been more effective if the two stories were reversed with the youngsters’ naive departure inspiring the older, illicit couple to action.)

There’s worse. The climax pits our guy against the Wigan Casino’s alpha-male, the dream girl’s boyfriend, in a dance-off. This from a different film. You know, the one in which a kid gets back in the saddle and overcomes their demons/disappointments by excelling some activity or other (dancing, skating, skiing, frying eggs). In these films, you sometimes get a romantic sub-plot. In ‘Soulboy‘, you get two main plots for the price of one. All you have to do, it seems, is retro-fit the story with some mention of our hero having been a prize-winning ice-skater, though never a winner because – and this is important – he couldn’t lock on to his focal point to master the spin. Yes, you guessed it. He wins the dance-off when he masters the spin. Again, lack of confidence in the material.

I could go on, but here’s my theory.

The producer liked the idea of making a film set in the world of Northern Soul, recreating the Wigan Casino, etc. but she knew what the distributors would want and steered the project towards the coming-of-age genre. The writer obliged, but had lost his confidence. He got together with the director, though, and rekindled his enthusiasm by kitting the plot out with as much of the paraphernalia of the genre as they could, all the while tapping their feet to a hard soul soundtrack. This took six years and twelve to fourteen drafts.

Yet they never noticed the irony of contriving such a mainstream story from a music scene which celebrated the rare and obscure and sneered at the popular.

There’s not much sex in it either.

Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)

Kelly Reichardt has been making low-budget features since the mid-nineties, but her international breakthrough came in 2006 with the sly, subtle ‘Old Joy’ (starring musician Will Oldham). Her reputation was further enhanced by ‘Wendy & Lucy,’ a heart-rending sketch of a young woman’s alienation, one of the standout films of 2009.

Her latest, ‘Meek’s Cutoff,’ maintains the minimalist aesthetic, but significantly expands her scope: a period piece – a Western – with a notable ensemble cast, including Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano, and Will Patton.

The Oregon Trail, 1845. Three settler families have struck out from the main route, hoping to lay claim to fertile pastures, but as the promised shortcut (the ‘cutoff’ of the title) leads them deeper into the wilderness, their journey degenerates into an increasingly urgent search for water. Emily (Michele Williams) begins to doubt the decisions of the menfolk and their deference to Meek, their dandyish blowhard of a guide (Bruce Greenwood, enjoying himself). She lets her views become known when the capture of a Native American raises questions that split the camp: how should they treat this savage? should they trust him? will he lead them to water, or to their demise?

Picking up from revisionist westerns of the Seventies, like McCabe & Mrs Miller, Soldier Blue, Bad Company, Reichardt undermines the myth of ‘manifest destiny’ by a simple realist strategy of rooting the action in domestic realities and intimate, personal details drawn from the diaries of the female settlers. It is emphatically a feminist version of the genre – several notable scenes show the womenfolk kicking their heels as their spouses take themselves off to discuss the important decisions – but it cuts deeper than that.

A dense, existential fable about the challenge of faith in the face of the unknown, an unknown which includes the simple intentions of your fellow (hu)man.


Meek’s Cutoff is released in UK cinemeas from Friday (April 14th).

a shorter version of this review was published in the Mexican web-magazine, enfilme

Prima della Rivoluzione, or the Discovery of Cinema

“What is wonderful when you see a film is to discover ‘cinema’ through that film.”

<Bernardo Bertolucci, ‘La Mia Magnifica Ossessione’>

Bernardo Bertolucci was 23-years-old when, in 1963, he made his second feature, ‘Prima della Rivoluzione.’ (His second feature, at the age of twenty-three!) He was young and fearless and fiercely intelligent – he must have been. When I first saw the film thirty years later, Bertolucci’s passion for cinema, its possibilities, its poetry, was still thrillingly evident. It was one of those films in which I discovered ‘cinema.’

And yet, I’m not sure I could call it a great film. It’s a pessimistic story of an idealistic young man’s frustration with his inability to sustain his revolutionary fervour in the face of a world too slow to change. He embarks on a vain (technically incestuous) affair with his highly-strung aunt, whose neurosis seems to make her an outsider like him, but eventually succumbs to his destiny as a bourgeois.

There’s a lot of febrile angst, passages of dense political argument, and Francesco Barilli puts in an unwieldy performance in the lead. What is remarkable about the film, though, is its lightness. The young Bertolucci was brimming with the courage of the French New Wave, liberated by Jean-Luc Godard. The ponderous threat of melodrama evaporated in jump cuts and violent zooms, disorienting lack of establishing shots, and a singular way of constructing a scene by zoning in on the important bits, the emotions.

“Ricordati il film che abbiamo veduto …”

My recollections were primarily of style, not content; but also of romance. The Nouvelle Vague has always done romance well. Bertolucci was assisted here by Ennio Morricone’s lovely, playful score and two of Gino Paoli’s most delicate canzone: Vivere Ancora and Ricordati. In fact, the scenes I recalled most were those featuring the two songs. First, a kind of cinema-verite divertimento, their first date, with the camera picking out the two lovers searching for each other in the crowds of Parma’s Piazza Garibaldi. Second, in the sleepy contentment after the traditional Italian Easter blowout, the camera panning up from the young man’s father to Adrianna Asti’s face as she looks over her shoulder from the gramophone, then reaches to pull her illicit lover into a slow-dance in front of the dozing grandmother, the father taking his leave off-screen. They hold each other, but the clinch is interrupted by his younger brother, to whom the aunt immediately switches her attention.

Many people would say, and I would have to agree, that the political discussion dates the film. Watching again this week I found I appreciate the issues more than I had the first few viewings. The concept of the impossibility of the bourgeois marxist is no longer lost on me. The hero alienated from the workers whose cause he would advocate. And I was struck by a quiet sequence that follows the climax at the opera, in which the young man’s marxist mentor, a schoolteacher, walks to work and opens up the schoolhouse. Is this an exemplary life, I wondered?

 

 

Before The Revolution has been given a limited re-release this week – April 8th – in UK cinemas (the BFI?) and is also available to rent but not to purchase (?!)

The Exception Disrobes The Rule

In no circumstances does an exception prove a rule. None at all. Not one. Never. Ever. Except … … … .* (see footnote)

“Ah, well, you see, that’s the exception that proves the rule.”

I’ve heard these words many times over the years as people try to dodge a contradiction or counter-example. I recall my father serving it up at the dinner table with the roast potatoes. I confess I’ve pulled it out of my pocket on occasion – I didn’t even know it was there! You probably know the phrase too, and because you know it, it has a kind of legitimacy. However, this phrase is – as my father would also say – a nonsense.

Strictly speaking, if they do anything exceptions do exactly the opposite of proving a rule. If your hypothesis fails to account for all relevant phenomena, then that hypothesis is – patently – inadequate. If you encounter an exception, you modify the hypothesis, or you abandon it. That’s the deal.

In the ordinary world, most ‘rules’ are really no more than generalizations posing as something more impressive and though we may urgently wish our deductions could be exerted with the force of truth and knowledge, the truth is they cannot, as a rule.

We have to be flexible, I believe, and humble in the face of counter-evidence. (To those inclined to continue regardless, meet ‘dogma,’ your new friend.)

So, while I wouldn’t go as far as declaring that the exception disproves the rule, I would suggest its existence delimits the rule. An exception reveals a rule’s outline. It removes layers of its clothing, reduces it, strips it of its immediate authority.

The exception disrobes the rule.

And yet, standing there before us, naked and shivering, a rule can still prove to be pretty darned appealing.

 

 

* In a legal context it can be argued that the statement of exception indicates the existence of a rule. The textbook example is the street sign which says “PARKING FREE ON SUNDAYS”. This statement would be either incomplete or redundant if parking were permitted on any or all of the other days of the week. From this ‘exception,’ we may infer the ‘rule’ that parking is not free Monday through Saturday.